Leo Marks’s Between Silk and Cyanide

Between Silk and Cyanide

Since we’re focusing on letting the light shine on long-held secrets this month, I have a soon-to-no-longer-be secret secret confession: I love reading nonfiction about WWII-era espionage and cryptography. I blame this love on J.C. Masterman’s The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945. It’s not in our library system, but it’s well worth requesting through ILL if you also like reading about history and/or espionage. In it, Masterman meticulously and matter-of-factly details the espionage system he ran for British intelligence in turning German agents in Britain into British double agents.

It’s a fascinating book, but it also permanently ruined espionage thrillers for me. I’ve never found a spy novel (or movie, for that matter) that captures the sheer boredom punctuated with sheer terror and the anxiety of the spy life that lurks between the lines of Masterman’s book.

That is, I hadn’t encountered it until I read Leo Marks’s insightful, hilarious memoir Between Silk and Cyanide.

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Oddly Specific Genres: Campus Confidential

Everyone’s going back to school this month, so we figured we would too, with these books set in boarding schools and residential colleges.

I’m not sure what it is about boarding school stories, but they seem to really resonate with American readers, despite most Americans never having attended one. Perhaps that fact is the very thing that makes them so exotic and appealing.

I certainly am not immune! I strongly suspect that I would not have liked boarding school, but that didn’t stop me from working my way through and enjoying many a tale of rich people–or not-so rich people with a scholarship–having awkward adolescent experiences far from home.

“Campus confidential” is the oddly specific genre we are going for so be forewarned!

Thanks to Mary-Esther for helping me research this post!

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Silence (2016)

Silence

A long weekend is coming up for most of us! What better way to spend part of it than indulging in a little big screen time from the comfort of your couch? Here’s one film I would say is a must-see that you might have missed. . . .

In the midst of intense persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century, Portuguese Jesuits Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) insist on traveling to the country to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Reports have surfaced that he has apostatized, and they refuse to believe it. Despite the danger, they enter the country and quickly find themselves in a world of concealed faith, persecution, and difficult moral dilemmas.

I was intrigued by this movie when it was first announced for several reasons. One is that it was a Martin Scorsese film, and as I mentioned earlier this year, I enjoy his work. I was also intrigued that this movie seemed different from many of his recent efforts. Beyond the specific historical time period–not commonly covered in popular culture–it also didn’t feature many of the actors who frequently pop up in his movies. Some of the themes in the movie–guilt, sin, salvation–are recurring in his work, but still, it seemed like a change from business as usual, and I was intrigued.

And I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed! Though the basic premise sounds like a rescue mission, that’s really not what ensues. It’s hard to explain the rest of the movie without providing spoilers, but I appreciated how ultimately complex it was. The movie isn’t very interested in demonizing one side or the other and is instead more focused on probing different characters’ responses to their situation.

I appreciated that, and I thought the actors did a great job of conveying that. In fact, one of the best performances in the film for me was that of Yōsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, the priests’ nervous, potentially shady guide. His character was one that could easily have fallen into well-worn tropes, but the movie avoided that and was all the better for it.

The movie has an offbeat sense of pace, too. It isn’t action-packed, but it also isn’t boring. It’s a long movie–over 2.5 hours–but I found it absorbing throughout. As a given in any film about persecution, there was violence, and it was disturbing, but it wasn’t as graphic as I was expecting. That in no way made it less disturbing, but I did find that surprising, especially given how spectacularly violent so many of Scorsese’s other movies are.

In a way, this movie probably felt the least like a Scorsese film of all the ones I have seen, but I don’t think that’s a problem. There are some really interesting camera angles at times and a dark sense of humor pervading several scenes and some other touches that I think of as being quintessentially Scorsese. The book is based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō, which I would like to read and haven’t had time for, and I suspect the fact that it is an adaptation is one reason for its differences with the rest of his work.

The film is not without its flaws, though I found them pretty minimal. I thought the cast did a great job, but I did find some of their attempts at Portuguese accents uneven. Their efforts ranged from “generically foreign” to “Irish and not even trying,” but I didn’t find it as distracting as I usually do, which I consider a testament to the overall quality of the movie. I also thought that there was a touch too much narration, usually one of my favorite parts of a Scorsese movie, but I assume that was excerpts straight from the book.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent movie. If you like historical drama or thought-provoking drama, this one is well worth watching. As always, follow this link to our online library catalog to place a hold or learn more about the movie.

Recommended if you enjoyed The Mission.

Have you watched this movie? Have you read the book? How do you feel about movie accents? Tell us in the comments!

From Page to Screen: The Lost City of Z

 

It’s one of the great mysteries of 20th century exploration: what happened to Percy Fawcett?

The British military officer, surveyer, and explorer was one of the key figures in mapping and exploring the Amazon. He had become obsessed with the belief that, contrary to what other experts claimed, a large, sophisticated civilization had once existed in the dense jungle. He named that mysterious place “Z,” and he very badly wanted to find it.

In his late 50s, the undaunted Fawcett, his eldest son, and his son’s best friend plunged into Amazonia in 1925, determined to prove the world wrong. They were never seen again.

Much as how centuries before Fawcett conquistadors disappeared looking for the city of El Dorado, dozens of adventurers have also disappeared trying to locate Fawcett and/or “Z.”

After reading and enjoying David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon earlier this month, I decided to give his first book about Fawcett and his disappearance, which was recently adapted into a film, a try.

Beware, there be some mild spoilers ahead.

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Oddly Specific Genres: Worldbuilders

Actions speak louder than dreams . . . at least when you are building better worlds.

So this month we turn from imaginary worlds to the stories of real people who envisioned a better world and made it happen. Read on – worldbuilders just may come in more sizes and shapes than you imagined!

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Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown

Road to Jonestown

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

It’s a phrase that has permanently entered the American consciousness, but it always surprises me when people don’t know that it is a reference to the infamous Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978, especially when it is used flippantly.  (I once had a very awkward conversation with a college classmate about that.) Because even though we may laugh at the phrase now, there’s really nothing funny about mass suicide. (Never mind that at Jonestown they were actually drinking mostly Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, but that’s a different topic for another day.)

I first heard of Jonestown when I was maybe about 10, 11, 12. There was a documentary commemorating the anniversary of it on PBS, and I remember being riveted by it in absolute horror. In the years since then, I’d read some about the story and also watched on several occasions the famous 1980 miniseries Guyana Tragedy, which stars the late Powers Boothe as Jones in what has to be one of the most chilling performances ever recorded on film.

So, just in general, a recently released book promising to be the most authoritative take on the story yet would have grabbed my attention. But I was specifically compelled to read this one, which was released last month to great acclaim, because its author is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.

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From Page to Screen: Casino

Hope you were able to join us at Books in Bloom this weekend! I had a great time–got to hear some wonderful talks from talented authors and even acquired a few signed books. I’m already looking forward to next year!

On that note, last week, when we were chatting about authors we’d like to see at Books in Bloom in the future, I promised to unveil two of my picks over the next couple of weeks.

One author I would love to meet and listen to is Nicholas Pileggi. He was a crime reporter in New York City for 30 years, with a special focus on the Mafia. But most people, myself included, are most familiar with him through his books about the Mafia, Wiseguys and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. He adapted both of them into Martin Scorsese movies in the 1990s, Goodfellas and Casino, respectively.

I’ve been a Scorsese fan since I was a teenager, and though my personal favorites of his movies is probably a tie between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I really do enjoy both Goodfellas and Casino.

And because I’ve also found organized crime interesting since I was a child–it’s a little embarrassing how many books I own about the mob–when I found out those movies were based on nonfiction books, I read Pileggi’s books and quickly became a fan of his work in its own right.

Honestly, I’d like to meet and talk to Pileggi just because I’d like to his pick his brain and hear inside stories from his days as a reporter, his research for his books, and his experiences in Hollywood. I’d love to hear his thoughts on what it is like to be both the writer of the original source and the adaptation.

And to that end, I thought we might as well compare his book and his movie about the mob’s fall from power in Las Vegas.

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