The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

When I started seeing movie posters for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I was curious but apprehensive. Watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike the 1993 film featuring ballet student and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, the movie is not merely a recording of a stage performance of the ballet, nor is it a musical, nor does it follow the “story” of the ballet. It’s a through-the-looking glass version, a mirror image, or echo of the story in the ballet. The film includes a bit of ballet and some of the musical themes, but mostly it is a beautiful, original, inspiring fantasy.

The sets, CGI, and costumes are impressive, but the strength of the movie is the theme it expresses: how to deal with the loss of a loved one. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways, both demonstrated dramatically.

Other solid, admirable themes are family togetherness, friendship and loyalty, creativity and curiosity, bravery, compassion and forgiveness, choice, and belief in one’s self.

With so much for the protagonist to learn on her adventure, I don’t see how detractors can call the movie ‘soulless’. Did we even watch the same movie? Whatever their reasons, critics and audiences don’t seem to like this movie nearly as much as I did, saying it’s as clunky as that ambitious 2018 flop, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s not fair at all. Four Realms is miles better than A Wrinkle in Time.

Maybe the detractors don’t award as many points for theme as they do for how subtly those themes are expressed. Some hoped for more ballet, others hoped for more music. Some wanted it to be scarier, others wanted it less scary. Maybe they all simply had higher expectations. Maybe nobody quite knew what to expect at all. I agree the film could have been better, but I think it was actually pretty decent. This review at Empire Online agrees with me.

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

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The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

The Prophet of Yonwood, the third and prequel City of Ember book, is the one in the series that people seem to have a tendency of skipping.  Do not make that mistake!

I admit that I put off reading it because I thought it was going to be a didactic mess. From the word “prophet” in the title and the image of a nuclear bomb on the cover, I assumed it would be a finger-wagging book about the human tendency to commit murder on a shockingly large scale for merely political reasons. That is not what it is about.

The book is also not about Ember until you get to the very, very end, so don’t read it thinking you’ll learn much about Lina and Doon’s world. Read it because it contains a fresh and interesting new story.

The story of Nickie, a newcomer to Yonwood, and Grover, a friend she meets there, has important messages to convey about the fraught relationship between morality and authority.

When and why I read The Prophet of Yonwood

I was reminded of The City of Ember when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  07-Nov-18 to 10-Nov-18
Length: 289
ISBN: 9780440421245
Originally published in: 2006
Amazon link: The Prophet of Yonwood

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

The People of Sparks, the sequel to The City of Ember, is a harsh wake-up call for Doon and Lina’s cave people, and for readers. Secrets, lies, tricks, and brooding resentment explode in a conflict between the people of Ember and the people of Sparks, who have agreed to feed and shelter them.

While the first book in the Ember series was triumphant, and glorified curiosity, tenacity, and problem-solving, this book puts uglier human tendencies in the spotlight. It’s not as much fun to read, but it’s well thought-out, well written, and ultimately still satisfying.

When and why I read The People of Sparks

I was reminded of The City of Ember when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  05-Nov-18 to 06-Nov-18
Length: 338
ISBN: 0375828249
Originally published in: 2004
Amazon link: The People of Sparks

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The more I think about The City of Ember, the more I like it.

Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Does the mayor have a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?

The setting is richly imagined, and the plot and characters live up to a unique and fascinating premise. The real strength of the book is the thematic content, though. Ember (the book) is not a riveting but meaningless retro-futuristic adventure like Ember (the movie); it has a wealth of moral lessons that come across as relevant rather than didactic.

The core message of the book is to uphold dedication to thinking over complacency, to admire planning and forethought rather than taking things as they come, to act rather than wait.

Other themes are that curiosity is good, that we should pay attention and notice things, that we should take our family, friends, and responsibilities seriously, that getting away with something doesn’t make it right.

See below for a chapter-by-chapter plot summary and some key quotes.

You might also want to check out the Shmoop literature guide for City of Ember.

But really, if you haven’t, you should read the book yourself!

Continue reading The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A more accurate title for this novel might be: The Adventures of the Strangely Wise and Poetical Free Spirit Huckleberry Finn, and the Hapless Runaway Slave Jim, Interrupted by the Heartless Cloudcuckoolander Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was required reading in my 10th-grade English class. I didn’t like it. Years later, now that I’ve re-read it, I still don’t like it, but I have more insight into what makes it a good book as well as what annoys me about it.

See below for the strengths of the book and what annoyed me about it, a plot summary (with SPOILERS), and what stood out as well as when and why I read it.

Continue reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah, translated by Susan Massotty

The House of the Mosque is a perfectly good literary novel but not my cup of tea. I tend to feel like family sagas are pointless even when they’re interesting.

This one tells the story of a family that lives in the titular house of the mosque in a town in Iran. Over the course of the book, time passes, and times change. Different characters, confronted with modernity, make different choices, or fall victim to changes outside their control. It’s an informative but melancholy book.

On the subject of modern Iran, I have previously read the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, the non-fictional account Taken Hostage, by David Farber, and the lengthy novel Whirlwind, by James Clavell. The House of the Mosque is less dramatic than Whirlwind and has less true-to-life impact than either of the non-fiction books. (I made essentially the same observation about the American family saga Roots, which I think is flawed both as fiction and as non-fiction.)

When and why I read The House of the Mosque

I am reading this for the Singapore Ladies’ Book Group for November.

Genre: fiction (historical, family saga)
Date started / date finished:  01-Nov-18 to 02-Nov-18
Length: 449
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: The House of the Mosque

The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Surendranath Tagore

Not a lot happens in The Home and the World, but a lot is felt and thought and said. The novel explores male and female gender ideals, the changing role of women in the modern world, and approaches to political change. It showcases contrasting character traits: patience and impulsivity, thoughtfulness and recklessness, candor and cunning, generosity and jealousy, conscientiousness and ambition, practicality and idealism.

The main character, Bimala, is an Indian woman caught in a love triangle with her mild, loving husband Nikhil and the charismatic, impetuous nationalist Sandip. She has always had a place in the home, but what is her place in the world?

See my Backlist books post on Asian Books Blog for more on this Bengali novel. See below for what stood out when I read it.

Continue reading The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Surendranath Tagore

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

In a world ravaged by ecological disaster and ruled by digital tyranny, a father buys and stocks a ship so that his daughter can live in ease and comfort among 500 specially selected people, out of reach of the collapse of civilized society. Are the girl and her mother really on board with this whole plan, though? Read The Ship to find out what’s in store for those on the ark.

Or don’t. Personally, I can’t recommend it. See below for why.

Continue reading The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb

I don’t always read biographies, but I when I do, I read biographies of modern creative geniuses. Wish You Were Here tells the story of Douglas Adams, author of the comedy/sci-fi Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. Biographer Nick Webb gives readers insights into the beloved author’s family background, his personal and professional struggles, and his ultimate phenomenal success.

What I especially appreciated, in addition to peeks into the media industry, was Webb’s characterization of Adams’ unique and thoughtful approach to life, the universe, and everything and the reminder that even those whose works spawn devoted global cults often start out as starving artists perpetually unsure whether the world will ever care what they have to say.

Douglas died suddenly in 2001, but his works continue to inspire.

When and why I read Wish You Were Here

I was prompted to re-read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series when a friend decided to throw a HHGTTG-themed party for her 42nd birthday. Decided to read this biography too. (Bought it in 2009.)

Genre: non-fiction (biography)
Date started / date finished:  16-Oct-18 to 21-Oct-18
Length: 351 pages
ISBN: 0755311566
Originally published in: 2003/2004
Amazon link: Wish You Were Here

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

Like the third installment of The Matrix, this book goes off the rails—which is maybe what you’d expect for the fifth book in a comedy/sci-fi novel series. It’s longer, darker, and more complicated than the others, and has more narration (less dialog) than its predecessors. The ending gives a sense of tying off loose ends, though there’s a sixth book published after the author’s death.

Still, Mostly Harmless has its bright spots: the idea of Arthur becoming a revered sandwich master on a low-tech planet is one I cherish.

My first edition copy is signed by the inimitable Adams (though sadly not to me).

When and why I read Mostly Harmless

I was prompted to re-read the series when a friend decided to throw a HHGTTG-themed party for her 42nd birthday.

Genre: fiction (comedy/science-fiction)
Date started / date finished:  16-Oct-18 to 16-Oct-18
Length: 277 pages
Originally published in: 1992
Amazon link: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy