This installment: Kansas circa 1929 (f); surrogacy for the 1% (f); Jarmusch’s latest (DVD); “Kathy” tells all (nf); a subtle Scandinavian psychological mystery (f); and the plight of women trapped in marriages—and expectations (f)
The Practice House by Laura McNeal
The title refers to a cottage where young women can learn domestic arts. Aldine from Scotland answers an ad for a teacher in Kansas in ’29. When she shows up, unprepared but game, it turns out there’s no funding left and drought has created desperate circumstances. Ansel, who hired her and has romantic cultural notions, is entranced; his practical wife less so. Their teenage son is also smitten and their young daughter hangs on Aldine’s every brogue-thickened word. It doesn’t end well—no surprise. An absorbing historical yarn.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Oh brave new world—of surrogacy. A posh facility with very rich, entitled clients. Most of the surrogates have grim backstories. Like Jane from the Philippines, a single mother. Jane’s cousin Ate fixes her up with Golden Oaks but it’s a very controlled setup and she misses her little daughter fiercely. Other surrogates include Reagan, who’s pretty well- fixed (why is she doing it?) and rebellious Lisa who’s highly prized for her successful pregnancies which gives her some leeway until… Lots of suspense and a gimlet-eyed look at the habits of the 1% re: reproduction.
The Dead Don’t Die (DVD)
A comedy about flesh-eating zombies, and who else but Jim Jarmusch could make such a concept work. A star-splattered cast, including clueless good guy police chief played by Bill Murray, his clever but awkward sidekick (Adam Driver), and Tilda Swinton playing a terrifying, sword wielding funeral home director, or so we think until…Well I won’t give the wacky surprise away. Every cliché in the book but with that Jarmusch twist that ups the absurdity. Oh, and Tom Waits playing Bob the Hermit who could have stepped right out of Lord of the Rings. Yes, blood and gore and more staggering zombies than you could shake a stick at—but don’t because you can only get rid of them by “killing the head.” Note: in the special features, which I watch faithfully, there was a short sequence: Zombie Tai Chi and guess what? They were doing the very same “form” I do every morning, albeit a little more wobbly.
Fifty Things that Aren’t My Fault by Cathy Guisewite
Subtitled Essays from the Grownup Years. I remember that cartoon with which I had a love-hate relationship. Cathy was so predictable, so frantic, so “aack!”—her cry of distress. But also spot on with very familiar insecurities and frustrations. Here her creator tackles the dilemmas of ongoing life with a similar combination of enthusiasm and anxiety, often getting straight to the heart of the matter: stuck in the middle between a daughter ready to leave home and aged parents who need help but keep resisting her well-meaning attempts. The Panini generation, sandwich under pressure. Sometimes a little too sentimental for my tastes but so much resonated that I put up with it. And laughed a lot throughout. One detail I loved: it was her mother who saw the potential in her “scribbles” and pushed her to leave advertising and make a career of it.
The Whisperer by Karen Fossum
Catalogued as a mystery but I think it’s more a psychological study. The eponymous protagonist had a botched operation that in effect silenced her. If you want to hear what she has to say, you have to lean in. Which is what Inspector Sejur does over an extended period of time, trying to find out why this mousy woman did what she did. (We don’t find out the actual crime until late into the book, which I found especially fascinating.) There’s an estranged son, a very quiet, orderly life, and now that she’s in custody, it turns out that’s the place that makes her feel safe. Thoughtful, sometimes philosophical, and moving.
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
I’d never read this writer because I assumed she just cranked out popular romances. But the subject (and a review) grabbed me so I picked it up. An implicit pun (misses everything) in the title, as two sisters make their bumpy ways into their destinies. Jo loves women but when her sister Bethie, who was the good girl, gets pregnant, she cuts short her trip with her lover, bails her out, and then settles for marriage. Bethie then goes off the rails, as it were, into feckless bohemia. Jo gets two lovely daughters and a third difficult one but the strictures of middle class Jewish domesticity leave her in muffled misery. An interesting reversal (Jo gets free; Bethie gets successful) and a deathbed reconciliation. From the ‘60s to 2015, an exploration of what women wanted and what they eventually (kind of) got.
Back next week.