The Trail to Buddha's Mirror

[Amazon Link] This is the second entry in Don Winslow's Neal Carey series, from back in 1992. According to Amazon (as I type), a used paperback copy will set you back $19.99, a new hardover goes for $300. But the Kindle version is $9.99, and it's worth it.

As the book opens, our hero Neal is recuperating from the events set forth in the first book, reading his beloved Tobias Smollett in a primitive house on some isolated Yorkshire moor. But his "Dad", Joe Graham, pulls him back to America for another unlikely assignment: an agricultural scientist has gone missing in the San Francisco area. His agribusiness company asks for help as one of the "Friends of the Family", the quiet Rhode Island bank accustomed to doing extraordinary favors for its clients.

So Neal heads off to Frisco, where he's just a step behind the scientist and a lovely, mysterious Chinese woman who's made his acquaintance. Neal eventually catches up with them in a sleepy Marin community full of artists and burned-out hippies. And manages to lose them again, while getting shot at for his troubles. Eventually, the trail will lead him to Hong Kong and China, and all sorts of hellish peril. As it turns out, Neal has been kept in the dark about what's really going on.

The plot is complicated, full of double-crosses, twists, dishonesty and betrayal. The narrative bogs down at points. The book is twenty years old, so some of its observations about China and Hong Kong are dated, and the prime motivator of the plot, once it's revealed, is ludicrous. Nevertheless, I had a good time.

Last Modified 2012-09-21 6:32 AM EDT

A Separation

[3.0 stars] A Separation (2011) on IMDb [Amazon]

This Iranian movie from 2011 won the Oscar for "Best Foreign Language Film of the Year". As I type, it's number 108 on IMDB's list of the top 250 movies of all time. And, not for the first time, I find myself on the Philistine side: what am I missing? It's OK, mind you. But if it were filmed in Trenton instead of Tehran, I'm guessing the hoopla and huzzahs would be considerably muted.

It's the story of a disintegrating Iranian marriage; as the movie opens, the lovely Simin is pleading with an offscreen magistrate to grant her a divorce from hubby Nader. The problem is that she wants to leave Iran for some other country; Nader refuses, because his father has Alzheimer's disease, and he needs to stay to care for him.

Simin moves out, so Nader has to hustle to provide care for his father. He hires a devout Muslim lady, Razieh, who totes along her toddler. It soon becomes clear that Razieh is in over her head. Conflict develops with Nader, which leads to tragedy, misunderstanding, deception, additional family strife, and legal proceedings.

Totally watchable, and it's interesting to get a eye into current-day Iranian culture. Just not as insanely great as I hoped it would be.

Although the film is not overtly political, its honesty put it out of the comfort zone of Iranian authorities. At one point they forced a halt to production. A ceremony scheduled to celebrate the Academy award was cancelled. At last report, the director, Asghar Farhadi, was out of Iran and had no plans to return.

Last Modified 2012-09-21 6:35 AM EDT