Social-Issues Allsorts

Oh my lord, Maggie Smith is wonderful. In The Lady in the Van (dir. Nicholas Hytner, 2015), she plays Miss Mary (Margaret? mentally insert winky emoticon here) Shepherd with pathos and wit in this 'mostly true' tale, set in 1970s London. There is lots of subtext about certain classes of people being outside of the law—gays, the homeless—and those ostensibly living within social constraints—nuns, neighbours, classical musicians—but the film turns a lot of these assumptions on their heads. Alex Jennings plays the film-contained writer, Alan Bennett, with restrained wryness, although I found Jim Broadbent uncharacteristically underwhelming.
Lest I provide spoilers, I will speak vaguely. The story contains  theological themes of absolution and ablution, and the van becomes her sepulchre, both as a living coffin for her sins and a literal one later, after she has experienced those sacraments. While the end would probably be difficult to create any less cheesily, there is enough grace after the giggle to wonder if it is about her reward for her decades of penitence and life of self-denial of the comforts of life. Poignant and humorous, this is a winner. 
I had wanted to read The 5th Wave before I knew there was an extant movie and I'm glad I did read it before I go to see it. I wasn't familiar with Rick Yancey but, as dystopian sci-fi goes, I thought this was a good intro to his writing. The protagonist is a Hunger Games kind of big sister with The Road and The Orion Plan type of scenario, messed up with Nice Boy/Bad Boy decisions to make. A good YA book. But it was so chock full of theological references (sans proselytizing) that I wondered if the novelist was related to Christian writer Philip Yancey. There are multiple overt mentions of prayer, vocation, faith/trust in God and allusions to and examples of sacrifice. The Ancient of Days, a name for God in the Biblical book of Daniel, is there, as is the crucifixion of "that first-century Jewish peasant" (p.435). When the antagonist asks, "Would you like to stare all the way down to the bottom of the human cup?", I couldn't help but think of Henri Nouwen's book Can You Drink the Cup? And like The Orion Plan, the issue of stewardship of our planet (and our crappy record so far) is thrown in the characters' and our faces (p.436), as are the techno-moral problems around personal-data collection. Perhaps most disturbing is the theme of the creation of child soldiers: that aspect of the plot is so not fictional. So while it's a great apocalyptic romp with can't-put-it-down-ness, it raises a lot of deep questions and provides not many pat answers. I've since seen good and bad reviews of the movie version, but as the back of the book blurb by Entertainment Weekly says, "Just read it."
Narcopolis (dir. Justin Trefgarne, 2015), too, has some crappy reviews and ratings but after a whim purchase (yay sales!), I thought I'd give it a chance. Here's what's blurb says:
Narcopolis is a futuristic thriller set in the near future where all classes of drugs have been legalized. Frank Grieves is a 'Dreck', a roaming narc responsible for keeping the black market dealers off the streets and the licenced drugs companies rich. When he discovers a rogue substance in an unidentified corpse, evidence suggests that Ambro, the most powerful drug manufacturer of all, are conducting secret tests on an experimental narcotic. Grieves discovers a second victim - this time alive - but she disappears and he is suddenly taken off the case by his superiors. As his options drain away, it's clear that legalization has come at a heavy price. 
It's a sort of dystopian Breaking Bad/CSI story, in which the technology is cooler than now (isn't it always?) but the overall feel of it remains very British-detective-show, à la River. A poignant moment, to those of us who care about reading, is when a child is given an H.G. Wells book to read, not just as a good blast from the past and as a nod to Morlocks, but because the setting of the movie points out the novelty of books themselves, which of course made me think of Fahrenheit 451. The soundtrack, with music composed by Aleah Morrison and Matthew Wilcock, reminded me of Tavener's in Children of Men, and holy moly so did the whole Ambro drug vis à vis the "Quietus" in that film! Very unsettling. There is one silly moment (around 58 minutes), but overall I didn't feel like it was the washout it's been described as. Perhaps it's a bit messy direction-wise, but basically I think it just needs a lot of unpacking and hence multiple views, which I will pursue.
I just finished Priya Parmar's Vanessa and Her Sister, adding to my trove of fictionalized biographies of late. This excellent novel focuses on the members of the Bloomsbury Group from 1905–1912, specifically on the difficulties in love for Vanessa Bell, artist (pictured left), and her sister, Virginia Woolf, before the latter's marriage and far before her famous stone-assisted suicide in 1941. The tales involve struggles with mental illness in more than one person and the death of Vanessa's brother, both grim reminders of the perils of health and illness in Edwardian times. The author deftly winds us round her little finger til we love these characters and often breaks our hearts.
A very interesting device Parmar has used is the inclusion of telegram templates and personal stationery letterheads to indicate different means of communication; the rest of the prose is Vanessa's (not kept in reality) diary. The novel explores complicated and ever-evolving friendships and affairs and is book-ended by the phrase "There is a lovely symmetry in four," although those quartets do not have lovely endings.
It is most annoying that I was staying a block or so away from these people's homes when I was in London a year ago. Would that I had been better educated about this fascinating Group at the time of my trip!
Everybody gets 4 Wine-and-Cheeses this week!


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