More Movie Reviews

The fun of reading and watching stories for me often is reviewing and analyzing them, it’s not just about the enjoyment of watching and reading. Thus, I am always eager to have a new opportunity to do reviews. Lately, I’ve been writing some reviews of ancient films for my friends at tardy critic.com

If you like my writing and want to read more of my stuff, check out their site. A movie gets reviewed once it’s ten years old, or even twenty or thirty, far away from all of the hype and fanfare of when it first came out in theaters. So far I’ve written reviews of 10 Things I Hate about You, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Sherlock Holmes.

Happy reading! Also, who is totally watching Trains, Planes, and Automobiles and Pieces of April for Thanksgiving this year?

Split: A hit

Ever since M. Night Shyamalan’s surprise success with The Sixth Sense and the twist ending that no one saw coming, his movies have been both highly anticipated and also scorned. For an artist, success on a first project is both a blessing and curse. The blessings are obvious, future projects will be funded and you already have an audience waiting for them. The curse is that whatever you create in the future won’t be same as that initial project, and future projects are more likely to be seen as worse, not better. It’s basically the “one-hit wonder curse,” and many bands, especially, have found it’s probably better to be moderately successful at the start and grow from there.

Much of the hype around Shyamalan has disappeared over the years, which is only good for him, I think. Twist endings work one time, and then the next time everyone’s expecting it and trying to outthink the writer or director, and if they correctly guess the ending, they somehow think they “beat” the artist and sometimes even declare the work as no good, simply because they were able to guess the ending. We’ve all probably been guilty of this mentality at least once in our lives, and it really makes no sense, as the audience isn’t supposed to be competing with the artist. At least most of the time.

That all being said, Shyamalan still loves his twist or surprise endings, but it has definitely garnered mixed reviews, sadly, much of them negative. I thoroughly enjoyed Signs, The Village, Devil, and Unbreakable, but thought The Last Airbender was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen. Other films like The Lady in the Water and The Happening, seemed as if they were meant to be clever, but didn’t deliver on that promised cleverness. Even though there’s been many of his films I don’t enjoy, I do try to give him a chance when I can.

(Spoilers ahead) The other day I borrowed Split from the library. Not only is it a Shyamalan film, it also stars James McAvoy who is a master of the acting craft. I’d previously seen trailers for the movie and knew it involved someone with a split personality, but not much else. It also looked scary, so I wasn’t sure if I was in for a ghost story like The 6th Sense or if it would be more of a general thriller.

Split is about a person with multiple personalities, all stemmed from child abuse, as is often the case. It’s a psychological disorder that some think is really demon possession or hallucinations, and some think just isn’t real. Real or not, this disorder has been used time again onscreen often to great effect, like in Identity starring John Cusack. Knowing Shyamalan’s love of twist endings, I wondering if the movie would end along similar lines.

The story starts right away, with little introduction to the characters. Three teenaged girls are being given a ride home by one of their dads, but someone comes up and knocks him out and gets into the driver’s seat. It is “Barry,” James McAvoy’s character, or as we come to find out his true name: Kevin. The man abducts the girls and locks them up in a basement somewhere. The plot follows a basic thriller of this type, with the girls making plans to escape and Barry threatening to assault them. A twist comes pretty quickly when the girls realize this man appears to have multiple personalities, one of them a woman, one of them a nine-year-old boy. Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, immediately starts trying to outthink their abductor. She seems to know that ordinary ways of escaping aren’t going to work here. It’s mentioned that Casey’s a bit of a loner and through out the movie we see flashbacks of her life, memories with her dad and uncle that slowly bring us to the understanding that she was abused when she was younger.

Kevin’s personalities are at war with each other. One of them repeatedly sends pleas for help over email to his current psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She is a woman who firmly believes that multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder does exist, and most of her patients seem to share this affliction.

While watching, I noticed a lot of unusually angled shots and close shots that seemed vaguely familiar. It also seemed as if Casey had a slightly doe-like appearance, which was interesting considering all of her flashbacks on her abuse were about going hunting. Near the end, her hunting skills come in handy as the story takes a more supernatural turn: Kevin has a 24th personality: An indestructible animal-like person. It turns a bit slasher film once this “animal” show up. Casey is the only one to survive and it’s because the animal sees the marks of abuse on her body. Because of this, he considers her pure, like him, and even under her own trauma-induced supernatural transformation.

With all the animal talk, I did start to think that the girls were being held at a zoo, so was pleasantly surprised to have guessed that correctly. I didn’t guess the twist at the end, though, but found it awesome. We’re shown an average diner with a TV playing the news and talking about how this man killed people, and because of his disorder has been nicknamed The Horde. As a couple people are talking about it, they say it sounds a lot like Mr. Glass, a bad man from a few years ago and also the villain in Unbreakable. And there he is, Bruce Willis’s hero from Unbreakable sitting next to them.

Unbreakable is my favorite Shyamalan movie, though many find it slow. The ending of that film reveals it to be a comic book origin story. I’m not a huge fan of comic books and rarely read them, but I love movies based on the superheros from them, and it was great to see how such a story could play out in a not so cartoony world. Something about Bruce Willis’s quiet strength in the movie is thrilling. Split is now part of this same world and I understood why some of the shots and angles in the film seemed familiar–they were to look like comic book panels.

For me, Split was definitely a hit and I hope that Shyamalan continues to make more films of this nature. James McAvoy did a superb job playing Kevin, and much of the time I forgot it was him, so engrossed in his character was he. Like Mr. Glass, since Kevin believes he has super abilities, he therefore does. Thankfully, this isn’t how the real world operates, but it’s interesting that these two characters who have had such a hard life use that to justify their villainy. Now that does happen often in the real world. I’ve noticed in Korean dramas that there is also this tendency to portray characters who undergo trauma as developing special abilities. It works well for stories, but the message it’s sending is dubious, perhaps glorifying trauma and abuse to a status it doesn’t deserve. Victimhood isn’t something to crow about, it’s something to heal and recover from, a view which I think Shyamalan shares, as so far the victims of circumstance have chosen to become villains rather than heal.

Looking forward to eventually watching Glass, another of Shyamalan’s films in this comic book world. Sadly, looks like it’s promos call it the final chapter in this series.

Everless: Playing with Time

Bending the rules of time is usually something left to the devices of science fiction, but in Everless Sara Holland makes time manipulation a part of the fairy tale world. I really enjoyed this story. The characters are a little blank, and it was hard to remember who some of the background servants were, but that’s a bit expected in fairy tales, anyway, as the story itself is usually the point. Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood–they could be anyone, any girl, even someone listening or reading.

Everless introduces us to a vaguely medieval land called Sempera, in which time has been forged into human blood as something called blood iron. This can be extracted and turned into money that people use to buy things or can dissolve in liquid to drink to add an hour, day, or year to one’s life. I’m not sure how that all works with the normal aging and death process, but it largely doesn’t matter and it was easy to suspend my disbelief.

Jules, struggling along in poverty with most of the population, decides to go work at Everless, a large estate owned by a very rich family called the Gerlings. Her father warns her against it, but she goes anyway, curious to see the estate after so many years when she lived there as a child. She’s especially interested in seeing more of what’s become of the Gerling heirs, Liam and her old friend Roan. As children she and Roan were fast friends, even if they were from different classes. As a teenager, Jules now bears a grudge against the easy way the nobles live, not having to sell their blood for time or food, and spending the long years they’ve given themselves in partying and frivolity. Her time and fate soon become intertwined with both brothers as well as the queen of the land who comes to stay for a while. Jules soon learns that she has a stunning power over time itself.

Again, as in a fairy tales, Jules passes from one scene to the next, because that’s what the plot requires, but this is novel-length story, and events often fold out a bit too easily for our heroine…until the end, of course. The romance angle was overly predictable, as were some of the twists, but I never found that to be a reason to stop reading. Everless is a lot better than some YA fantasy series I’ve tried to read over the years, and I rather like the background mythology of the world so far. Jules has the normal headstrong flaws found in any real life teenager, but she’s not annoying, and her predicament is relatable. Who wouldn’t want to know the truth about their past? Who wouldn’t be dismayed finding out they’d been tricked? By the end of the story, we fear for Jules and whoever she will come to love in the future, as it seems as if the villain holds all of the cards. I am eager to read the next installment.

Dante, Health, Freedom of Political Speech

A lot of thoughts swirling around my head today. Some of you may have heard of the concept of being “red pilled.” Basically that’s just a quick way of saying a person has heard and/or researched and become to believe that the unofficial, other side, of the story is true. Many, many people are having this experience today in all aspects of life, and, honestly, I’m not sure where it’s going to end. It’s an exciting time to be alive. My thoughts today circle around this idea of waking up to the truth. It’s hard to talk to people about these things, and there’s still a lot of resistance to truly examining things in life: It’s tiring, you don’t know who to believe after awhile, and there’s always a little worry that you’re being fooled…again.

The Dante Chamber. I enjoy Matthew Pearl’s writing, though it is often quite gruesome. Due to gruesomeness, it wasn’t so easy to read his popular The Dante Club, but I got through it, as the murder mystery was interesting, the detectives were well known literary figures of the 1800s, and it was information on Dante Aligheri’s works, specifically his Divine Comedy, in which the poet travels through hell, purgatory, and then paradise. I was unaware just how obsessed some artists and writers are with Dante’s works, maybe not so much today, but in years past. The Dante Club dips a bit into that obsession, but The Dante Chamber really gives one the full concept, and…it’s tedious.

Christina Rossetti is one of my favorite poets, so I was excited to learn that she’s one of the lead detectives in The Dante Chamber. Despite liking her works, though, I really don’t know much about her or her life, just that she was a very religious person. I didn’t know that her father was so obsessed with Dante that it drove him crazy, and that her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had a similar obsession. That’s where my interest in the story ends, though, because, on a mystery level, The Dante Chamber fails to deliver. Much time is spent in mulling over Dante, his works, obsessions with Dante, etc., but there’s little progress towards actual detective work, even from the very interesting police detective. Christina escaped from the obsession, that’s the key point, and I am glad for her. And although I’m sorry that both Robert Browning and Dante Rossetti lost the women they loved, I don’t really want to read a whole book about them dealing with their grief. I want to read a riveting and insightful murder mystery.

Read The Dante Chamber only if you’re really interested in Dante’s works and the obsession around it. The Dante Club was a lot better, in my opinion, as were Pearl’s other works, The Poe Shadow (my favorite), and The Last Dickens. Pearl is one of my favorite contemporary writers, but some of his stories are interesting, and some just not.

Health. Talk about an aspect of life in which it’s hard to trust! Health and what makes us healthy, from how much sleep we need, to the food we eat, is a topic that will we debated until the end of time. Every body has a different idea or opinion, and that makes sense, because every body is different. My body is not like your body, your body is not like your neighbor’s body, and so on. Red pills on this topic aren’t so much about learning new information as learning information that’s been purposely hidden over time, for various reasons, but many of them, strangely political.

My own red pill journey on this subject started with looking into vaccines. Much of true information on vaccines has been obscured or lost, or more alarmingly, deliberately pushed out of the proverbial town square by corporations with other interests in mind, namely money. Some would say it is vaccines making us so sick these days, along with other toxins in our foods and environment. After looking into people’s objections to the jabs, it has been difficult for me to say they are good for us, or at least as good for us as they are promoted to be. In trying to talk about vaccines with others, I realized quite quickly that many people don’t want to question them and prefer that what they have been told about them is the truth. It was the anger that surprised me the most, and I still don’t know what to make of it. My conclusion is that, generally, looking at the other side of the vaccine debate is something people must do individually. I can’t convince them one way or another. At most, I can point them to where to start if they do have questions and decide to start a journey that can turn one’s way of thinking upside down.

It was only natural that my next interest was looking into diet, and here, the truth, or at least the other side, has found some headway. Due to gluten and diary intolerance, people have become increasingly skeptical of the nutritional guidelines put upon us by the government, the medical industry, and others. After so long of not feeling well, many are trying out alternative medicine and alternative diets, and many of them are having success. Enter the carnivore diet, basically eating only meat and animal products, probably the opposite of the enshrined food pyramid and guidelines, as well as even the opposite of what people have previously done to say, alternatively beat cancer. It’s like a red pill for a red pill, and oh, so fascinating. I have been trying this diet–not full force–and I have felt better, had more energy, etc., but still there’s doubt with it, and ultimately it’s hard to know who or even what studies to trust.

Maybe vegans are right, for example. Or, maybe it’s better to eat everything in moderation? But, what does that even mean? Having equal parts of water, salt, and apples? It’s kind of a meaningless saying when it comes down to it. Eating animals products only, isn’t easy, either, because the goal is to have the best quality of these things, which aren’t often found at the grocery store, but that I hope someday will be. Anyway, it’s truly a brave new world that people like Frank Tufano on Youtube or Nina Teicholz with her The Big Fat Surprise book are opening up. They are only part of this next step in our nutritional awakening. Now, it’s generally agreed on by most that too much sugar is bad for you! That’s amazing, considering it was once promoted as being so much better than red meat or anything with fat in it. We are increasingly becoming skeptical of manmade, cheap food products that we now realized have little nutritional value and are often making us sick. With carbohydrates and/or grains, I’m seeing the same consensus, people are starting to acknowledge we eat too much of these things, and they are not, in fact, very good for us. A few years ago, the Adkins diet was popular, then shamed seemingly out of existence, and now many people are finding health success on little or no-carb diets like the ketogenic diet and the carnivore diet.

Because of the success of these alternatives, for me and others, it is increasingly difficult to trust that especially the medical establishment has the truth. We are now aware of how much money they stand to lose if their pill-based care should flounder, even if they are not yet aware of it. Here and there, the truth, or an least alternative views on healing and nutrition are being suppressed by what we can call Big Pharma, but I think it’s a losing battle for them. The more one tries to stamp something out, the more curious people are likely to be about it. Better would be to get ahead of the trends and present new research on the topics. Recently, there was an article about meat, vaguely indicating that we don’t really know if it’s good or bad for one to eat on a regular basis. While not exactly a white flag on the issue, it’s a warning cry to everyone that things may soon be changing. I don’t think people will be so upset at being lied to in the past as much as they’ll be eager to have the foods that will give them true health. This is where capitalism can be at its best: If the consumer demands high quality foods, even animals foods, unless we have a complete totalitarian government, things will change. We will find the quality foods coming back to the stores eventually. It may take a lot longer, however, for the idea of a pill fix or even vaccine fix to die out.

Still, I have to wonder what the next fad diet will be. Will that diet upturn everything that came before it? Sometimes it seems like nutritional and health red pills will never end. But every body is different, and I think that’s the trick, finding ways that people can really find out what works best for their own bodies. Should we eat for our blood type, for example? Or should we focus on foods grown where we live? There’s so possibilities that sometimes it makes my head spin. The awesome reality is, though, that largely our bodies do have the capabilities to heal themselves of many things, only they need the proper fuel to do so.

Freedom of Political Speech. This is getting long, but I really must continue, because it’s relevant for today. Even as a kid, I vaguely understood that America’s commitment to free speech wasn’t about allowing rude language or pornography. I knew it had a lot to do with politics and government. After watching the likes of Stephan Molyneux, moving on to reading Vox Day, getting clued in to Qanon, and in short order following and reading Neon Revolt, it has become clear to me that free speech is about politics more than anything else. People aren’t going to die on the field of battle in order to use the F word, but plenty might if it means they can question the rulers and authorities over them without, perhaps ironically, a death sentence.

Is free speech actually a myth? Perhaps. I can think of many things that I wouldn’t support freedom in, and I’m sure you can, too. I now think that freedom to speak one’s mind is tied to authority and how that authority behaves. Our first amendment was always about censoring the government’s behavior towards its citizens, but we often forget that. The difference in my view today, is that if we do indeed have the truth, it’s ok to insist on that and speak freely about it. We have as much right to insist on that as do those who would force, say, diversity upon us. It’s a change in thinking after being told for many, many years that the more conservative side of the spectrum must continually tolerate and give way to all manner of degeneracy. This doesn’t mean that the degenerate can’t speak their minds, but it doesn’t mean that we are allowed to say and stick up for the truth. Speaking the truth is vital, more important that trying to be “nice.” Allowing lies to prosper is not at all nice, nor loving. The truth hurts, but can also be the very best news in the world, as believers in Jesus Christ know.

If this sounds all very muddled, I’m sorry. I’m still thinking these things through, and I am by no means a genius. It has been alarming to see how those who proclaim inclusivity allow for everything except the truth, allow every view except the Christian one, and how especially online censorship against the “right” views, if you will, has skyrocketed. The truth will always be persecuted by a fallen world, but I think young people are confused by how quickly the Church as a whole is caving to worldly views and how much the “go along to get along” attitude is entrenched in, say, the Republican party. It has come to light that many of these seemingly “nice” organizations are merely in it for the money. Red pills, disillusionment. These people may not swear or use porn, but they are selling lies, which might be ultimately worse.

Enter, the chans, the wild west boards of the internet. They are places where people flock to talk about things they can’t talk about anywhere else. But at 4chan, and now 8chan, it’s a strange dichotomy, with free political speech in one part, and freedom of mudslinging, vulgarity, pornography, and the like, in other parts. On these boards is where Qanon, anon meaning anonymous, for everyone’s anonymous on the chans, first appeared, laying out question after question, getting people to research the history they thought they already knew. Q was reaching people already disillusioned by the “official story” of things. They saw that, for example, Donald Trump, was speaking truth during his campaign for 2016 and they saw how those elites in authority did their level best to make sure he wouldn’t win the presidency, even going so far as to promote physical violence against his supporters.

Q, whether real or someone playing a role, has hope as the goal. Is Q merely a rallying point for Trump’s supporters and his 2020 run? I don’t know, and I largely don’t care, because he or they, whoever they may be have incited many in the best way: to seek the truth, not just sometimes, but all the time. It is admirable in an age when we’re encouraged to question nothing and rely only on so-called experts and official stories. Now Q is certainly human and has faults, but if he, she, or they is bent on hoodwinking people, they are going about it in the worst possible way, as they continue to tell people to question and to research everything. Q also says to “trust the plan,” but I think few Q followers are putting absolute faith in Q. Mostly, they just want the criminals to be prosecuted and for all their crimes to see the light of day. They see Trump working on that, and those same criminals feverishly trying to stop him and the Q movement.

Because the mainstream media and powers that be have failed miserably at cutting off either Trump or Q, their fight now is focused on stamping out alternative views on the internet. This shows how weak their position is, and they, too, struggle with the freedom of speech aspect. They must be panicking, knowing their movement is rapidly becoming something Robespierre would approve, with little ability to stop it. And so, we have the very odd circumstance of 8chan possibly being set up with programmed characters posting there about shooting certain groups of people and then going and doing just that, all in order to get 8chan shut down. Odd, because manifestos and proclamations like that can be found all over the internet, but only the sites that speak political truth, or, rather, anti-progressive truth, are targeted to be shut down: 8chan, Gab, and the like.

So, 8chan got shut down for a time, and the owner, Jim Watkins, had to testify in front of Congress, and anons have been waiting and waiting for the site to be back online because that’s the only place that Q posts. Not only that, the original founder of 8chan has been trying to shut the whole thing down, using nefarious tactics. “Hot wheels” as he’s called, proclaims a cross in his twitter, but, like many who do that, is acting not befitting to that cross. In contrast, Watkins, who has been doing everything to his site get up and running again, has been singing Christian songs on his Youtube channel. Neon Revolt has the non-mainstream take on all of this, and you can read his article here. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it.

I don’t what actually to think about all of this, but it’s very entertaining and important today, as 8chan, or now 8kun is supposed to be up and running if not yet, within the hour. Will Q post? All the Q followers are wondering, me included. Not sure where this red pill ride will end, but it’s a lot of fun, even though it’ll make your head spin. For a Christian, all of the questioning and not knowing who to trust, only leads back to one absolute truth: The Almighty God, our Creator, and the good news of His Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior from sin, death, and the devil, is the only thing we can truly trust in this dark, messed up world. It is the truth that matters most, and many people are waking up to this, the biggest red pill of all time. We cannot save ourselves, no matter how much we might want to.

My Cousin Rachel: Rebecca Redoux?

Ever since reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, I’ve been captivated by her writing style, especially her otherworldly descriptions, and plan to read as many of her works as I can. My Cousin Rachel appealed to me as the plot seemed similar to Rebecca in some ways–albeit being in a different era–and also because of the title. It’s always curious to read stories in which there are characters with the same name as one’s self.

My Cousin Rachel is narrated by a young man this time, one Philip Ashley, who has been raised by his older cousin to spurn romance and the world of women in general. Philip is only twenty-four, but is already confident that women can offer nothing in life for him, at least romantically. His estate is all men and they don’t worry so much about the niceties of society and it suits them just fine. Set somewhere in the late 1800s, it is likely that both the older and younger Ashleys can live this way because they are very rich men. As we come to see, woe to the rich men who know the ways of women very little.

Philip’s cousin Ambrose is in his forties and due to ill health, must go abroad to Italy for a time. Through letters and secondhand information, young Philip finds that his cousin has amazingly fallen in love and gotten married. Only a year later, he even more astonishingly finds that his uncle is on his death bed. Philip travels to Italy, but doesn’t make it in time, even missing out on seeing Ambrose’s widow. We get a foreshadowing of things to come as Philip gets hints in pieces of letters from Ambrose that the couple relationship was not happy in its latter days. After some time, Philip receives news that the widow, his “cousin Rachel,” will be coming to the estate to stay for a time. At this point, Philip is against her, thinking she drove Ambrose to an early grave and also that she’s upset Ambrose did not leave anything for her in his will. But as I said before, Philip knows little of the ways of women, especially beautiful women, and Rachel is beautiful and able to use it to her advantage.

To say that Philip is young, naive, and stupid is not exaggerating. He is an even more infuriating narrator than the nameless girl in Rebecca. It takes him far too long to realize he has a thing for Rachel and is amazed that everyone in town thinks of her as extraordinarily good looking. Ambrose did him no favors by leaving him so vulnerable, but it is perhaps only women that are truly skeptical of the beauty of their own sex. We are more aware of how it’s used to manipulate than sometimes men are. Philip does one stupid thing after another, and as readers we are left to wonder if Rachel even has to manipulate him at all. He completely loses his senses and seems to care nothing for the future security of the estate he has inherited, including no thought for all of the workers and servants should all the money be drained.

The signs are all there that Rachel has a spending problem, indeed a problem with constantly living to excess. She would be fast friends with The Talented Mr. Ripley in that regard, though it is left in doubt as to whether she understands this is a fault and that she has it. Du Maurier leaves an open ending: Suspicion is deeply cast upon Rachel, but it is also insinuated that she is merely misunderstood and that she herself really doesn’t understand certain kinds of men. You can’t have a one-night stand with a man who has fallen in love with you and lives in a world where people in love get married and settle down. Rachel fails to understand the sharp anger her actions provoke.

As to the question whether Rachel has good intentions or bad, I found it increasingly impossible to care in the light of young Philip’s stupidity. He seems to throw everything Ambrose taught him out the window, and I was left wondering if he cared about his cousin at all. I suppose some men have no defenses against great beauty, and as a woman, that’s rather unsettling to think about. If we are beautiful, will they really give us everything we ask for, let us do anything to anyone at anytime? When Philip finally comes to understand that he is out of control with Rachel, he makes a devastating choice. That he is sorry later makes no difference to her, and we readers are left wondering if she is a figurative angel or devil. Like Philip, we are given no definite answer or assurance.

Although Rebecca is a masterpiece compared to this, My Cousin Rachel would make for quite a drinking game: Take a drink every time Philip refers to “my cousin Rachel.” It gets so egregious that I almost stopped reading the book a couple of times. The atmosphere of the story isn’t as gothic or spooky as its predecessor, and because of the previous work, we kind of know how it will end. The biggest thing I got out of the story was how absolutely ridiculous young and rich men can be. At the end, my sympathy was far more with Philip’s guardian and his daughter than with either Philip or Ambrose. Pride goeth before a fall, and this is definitely a moral tale on two men being far, far too proud of their bachelor status, too proud to understand how weak and vulnerable they made themselves, and most importantly, too proud to understand that the fault here was perhaps not with Rachel, not with her at all. But I’m a little biased. We Rachels have to stick up for each other, after all.

Recycling Theft: The Moonstone

It was not surprising to find that Wilkie Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens. Both writers have hefty works, probably because they tended to get paid by the word, but in Collins’ case because he…likes…to…drag…things…….o…u……t. (Spoilers)

I wanted to like The Moonstone, I really did. It started well, telling the history of a cursed jewel, and setting up what I hoped would be a locked room mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, but it was not to be. The tale starts with a butler named Betteredge, who uses Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (it rhymes!) as a bible. His retelling of the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond from a birthday party at an English country estate are rather amusing, especially his funny opinions on women. Once we get to the day that the diamond is found missing, it seems we are headed in the direction of the not-yet-created Sherlock Holmes as they eventually bring in a celebrated police detective. Like Holmes, Sergeant Cuff is odd and unfathomable to those around him. He doesn’t get along with his fellow policeman and poo-poos their efforts because he is smarter, he is Sherlock—I mean Cuff. But Cuff is way too obsessed with growing roses and isn’t nearly as forthright as Sherlock, so he ultimately doesn’t solve the mystery, at least at that time.

This is what’s both frustrating and fascinating about the story: The mystery always seems on the edge of being solved, but then we take another turn, and throughout it all we only really have the narratives of persons who are bystanders to the main action. There’s shivering sands, women in obsessive love, mind-boggling religious maniacs, and elaborate painted doors, all of which should form an almost gothic atmosphere, but I didn’t think the atmosphere ever really appeared. It was hard to connect with the main romantic couple as we only get a third person view of them, at least until the last fourth of the tale. One of the big reveals actually got a, “huh?” from me. I am not sure if it would have been a surprise at the time Collins’ wrote it, but I had forgotten that back in the 1800s both sexes often wore nightgowns to bed. Collins did focus on the idea that the nightgown must be a female’s so it must have been intentional misdirection, but I just felt a moment of culture shock as the tale carried on.

One great thing about the story is that Collins is not afraid to write himself into a corner. I knew he was clever after reading The Woman in White, but The Moonstone is pretty much the creation of a new genre, the detective story. Only this one didn’t have as much of an actual detective to follow as I would like. It’s a curious mystery, and I can see why mystery buffs would like it. For me, the story was just too long and severely lacked action considering its length. The narrative of Miss Clack was really funny at first, but I got tired of her really quickly, as I imagine most people who encounter her would, and I longed to go back to Betteredge.

Throughout the story, the Indians, bent on getting their diamond back, popped up from time to time, and as the narratives wore on and on, I found myself rooting for them to get the Moonstone and take it back to India where it belonged. Because then the story would be over and we would know who the thieves were…er, the re-thieves. It was a bit difficult to care about this English family keeping such a diamond when the book opens by telling us how their relative outright stole it from a palace or temple in India. Stole it even knowing the jewel was cursed. I was glad the rock got to its rightful owners in the end, and that the Miss Rachel who inherited it didn’t care two bits, for she got her love at last. Happiness for all, or at least most everyone, is a good ending for any story, but I prefer Collins’ The Woman in White as being more of a spooky story, especially as it has the benefit of a clear villain. I do want to check out the BBC miniseries on The Moonstone, though, as I can imagine the difficulty of adapting this to the screen and want to see what they came up with.

In conclusion, The Moonstone was overly long and really about rightful owners stealing the diamond back–a recycled theft if you will. At times it held my attention well, but mostly it was infuriating, and I don’t think there is any way I could have guessed how the bits of the mystery would play out. Still, the story was the first or one of the first of its kind, and that in itself makes it worth reading.

Country Driving: Book Review

It’s an uncanny experience reading a Peter Hessler book about China, at least of you are a reader who also lived in China during the same period, 1999 to 2009 or so. For myself, I taught English there from 2004-2007 and miss both the country and the people often. There’s something about reading his books that speaks to that time period being a genuine collectively shared experience for whoever was in China then, both the Chinese and the foreigners living there. We were all a small part of the rapid economic and cultural changes that were happening.

For Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, Hessler begins his trip by renting a car in Beijing and planning to drive the entire length of the Great Wall. He gives a lot of good history of the wall and the towns and villages he crosses along the way, but the best parts of that section are definitely his interactions with the car rental manager and his recounting of Chinese driving school. My experiences on the road in China were mostly in buses and often in taxis, sometimes even motorcycle taxis, but I would never try to get a license and try driving myself there. It’s a strange dance to be either a pedestrian or a bicycle rider in China. You make yourself go with the flow–he who hesitates is lost–and somehow manage not to get hit. I did get hit once, choosing to cross a street at the wrong time on my bicycle. A moped hit me and I got a nice concussion out of the incident and didn’t feel so confident on my bicycle after that. I was more successful navigating the crazy traffic and finding my groove there on foot.

Hessler’s tales about the Great Wall are part sadness, so many villages and towns are dying as the younger people move to the big cities, part reflection, the local governments are both corrupt and trying to help the people and the land, and part thrilling, women dressed to the nines appear out of nowhere wanting a ride, and in some areas the police will ask a foreigner to leave. Hessler’s keen insight to everything going on has to do with his great powers of observation as a writer, but even more essential is his fluency in Mandarin. He talks to people along the way and gets to know their stories, and he’s able to translate the messages strewn on walls or buildings in the middle of nowhere, giving helpful cultural context to his experiences.

Part two wasn’t so much a road trip as Hessler detailing his experience renting a house near a part of the Great Wall and a village that at first seems totally forgotten. Again, Hessler’s grasp of the language is key as he forges relationships with the villagers even to the extent that he becomes very involved in saving a child’s life. He describes what it’s like for a couple of people–a child and a mentally challenged adult–to leave the village for the first time, and how they adjust to their changing circumstances in heart-aching ways. Progress comes to the village, an there is more money to be made, but it’s as if the villagers are on constantly shifting sands, from on and off relations with neighbors and politicians, to rapid land deals, and to life changes of either having too little, or too much money. I can relate a little to that last part. In China I didn’t have to pay rent and even had a school cafeteria card, so had lots of extra spending money as we made a lot more than the regular Chinese teachers, yet in American dollars it was only about $500 a month, a sum that would be difficult to make it on in America. Often I spent both too much and too little, finding it strange to at once have so much money in one country, yet little in another. It was heartwarming to see how close Hessler became to his neighbors in the village, even though he often must have felt like the outsider he really was. He was really in a special time and place when he lived there.

The last part is set in Zhejiang province, a little south of where I lived. Hessler follows some men who are starting up a factory that make parts for bras. I wear bras all the time, but often forget that some man invented them, presumably for the comfort of women, though that aspect often seems an elusive one. This factory makes bra underwires and also little multicolored rings for bra straps. The venture seems a bit haphazard and slapdash, with little planning and a rented building, but as they hire workers and get going, it seems like the bra ring factory will succeed. Both the owners and workers in the factories all are characters, most of whom grew up as farmer peasants and now are trying to make their fortunes through capitalism, but capitalism is often a seesaw. One day the factory is doing well, the next it seems it will fold under, and then they get a big client. Hessler describes these workers as taking everything in stride, and with things constantly changing, what else can people do? Giving up isn’t an option.

I highly enjoyed the details of guanxi, the system of doing deals and business in China. This often involves bribes and elaborate dinners with amazing food. As a foreign English teacher there, I was clueless to this system, but soon learned that if a friend of a friend wanted to take me to a nice dinner it was because they wanted private English lessons, which I only would find out at the very end of the meal. We were often “invited” to company parties to introduce a new cell phone, or to visit an up-and-coming school so they could use our faces for advertising at the event. Sometimes people would give us money in red envelopes. These were not gifts, but bribes, hoping we’d leave our schools where we taught to come over to theirs. Our own schools often took us out to fancy dinners, sometimes as school events, sometimes to introduce us to more Chinese food, and sometimes to show us off around town. Guanxi or not, I found the Chinese people to be overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly towards us. It was humbling how much they gave of themselves to help us feel welcome there, and I will always be grateful for their efforts and still miss them all so very much to this day.

For me, Hessler’s books are now a walk down memory lane. I read his River Town while in China and found it an engrossing rendition of an experience so similar to my own. Having been away from China for over ten years, I’m not sure what it’s like now and how different it is. I hope the constant economic change has mellowed, and although I’m glad America is not losing so much money to China anymore, I do hope the average Chinese person isn’t hurting too much due to the tariff battles between China and the US. I hope and pray that both countries can thrive, whether they are competitors or collaborators. I look forward to someday reading Hessler’s other book on China, Oracle Bones.