Friday, January 30, 2009

1000 Novels...1 Lifetime

British newspaper The Guardian recently brought together their review team and a panel of "expert" judges to determine the "1000 Novels Everyone Must Read Before They Die". The list is broken up into 7 different categories (War & Travel, Science Fiction & Fantasy, State of the Nation, Family & Self, Comedy, Crime, and Love) and chooses authors and novels from just about every time period and nation.

At first, this seemed like a rather doable list. Let's say that the average life expectancy is 75 and you begin reading the novels when you are around 15. That's only about 17 novels a year. But then you add in all of the other great novels out there, not to mention all of the non-fiction, the epics, the short stories, the poetry, and the plays! No way on earth I'll ever get to read them all!

I guess that I'll just have to read as many as possible in what little time I have. I am comforted by the fact that I'm only 21 and have already read 38 novels on the list including:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Bleak House by Charles Dickens

So, that's 38 down and only 962 to go! How many have you read?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Masterpiece Theatre: Wuthering Heights

I suppose that I should begin this review with a disclaimer. It has been a LONG time since I read Wuthering Heights, and I didn't particularly care for it when I did. Also, I've never seen any other version of this story, so I was going into this adaptation with only a vague sense of what I was in for. My overall verdict was okay. Admittedly, this has got to be one of the hardest novels to adapt for the screen.

The adaptation begins, not with Mr. Lockwood hearing the story of his new landlord (in fact, Mr. Lockwood isn't in this adaptation at all), but rather with Heathcliff forcing young Catherine Linton to marry his son Linton Heathcliff. This made the beginning rather confusing, especially for my sisters who hadn't read the book. But by the end of the first 1/2 hour, it hit its stride and the story became more familiar.

My main problem with this adaptation as a whole was its lack of character development. Each of the characters seemed to be mere shadows of their novel counterparts; the shape and form was there, but no substance. We find a Heathcliff and Cathy who are too nice, an Edgar and Isabella who are too strong and self-assured, and a Catherine, Linton and Hareton who never really come into their own. Also, the most famous scene from the novel ("I am Heathcliff!") is so calm and nonchalant that I almost missed it.

But there were some good points to this adaptation as well. The overwhelmingly Gothic tone gave it great atmosphere (Heathcliff exhuming Cathy's long-dead corpse was deliciously dark and creepy), and the fact that they downplayed the "romantic" aspects of Heathcliff and Cathy's love was a nice touch as well. I also thought that Tom Hardy did a good job as Heathcliff and Burn Gorman as Hindley. They seemed to be the only ones who could really overcome their character's lack of development. The real star of the show, however, were the wild and bewitching Yorkshire moors. Thank you to the production team for choosing to film this adaptation in its original setting.

Up next: A repeat of last year's Sense and Sensibility starring Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield. Read my review here.

If you missed Wuthering Heights, you can watch it here for a limited time.

Trivia: Bronte Fans might have noticed the continual appearance of Sir Walter Scott's classic Ivanhoe in the film. The writings of the Bronte sisters were heavily influenced by the writings of Scott.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Do you see, Piglet? Look at their tracks! Three, as it were, Woozles, and one, as it was, Wizzle. Another Woozle has joined them!"

And so it seemed to be. There were tracks; crossing over each other here, getting muddled up with each other there; but, quite plainly every now and then, the tracks of four sets of paw marks.

-From Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

Picture is of my brother "J" and my sister "S".

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Off With the Bonnets!

According to British newspapers The Guardian UK and The Telegraph, the BBC (which supplies Masterpiece Theatre with many of its shows) is moving away from the traditional "bonnet" dramas in favor of grittier and more modern tales. Some of the newer dramas include adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and The 39 Steps.

"There is to be an evolution in the presentation of period dramas, moving away from classic 19th century so-called 'bonnet' dramas to looking at other periods of history. This will allow us to look at other times and places in British and world history. The aim is to give drama audiences something new and different to enjoy."

Though I love many of the BBC's traditional dramas, I think this is a good step for them to take. I already tend to get stuck in 19th century Britain with my reading anyway, so maybe this could help jump start me out of Victorian lit, much as I love it. And with great works like My Boy Jack and God on Trial already in their library , the BBC has proven that they are quite capable of handling the grittier stories.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Masterpiece Theatre: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

This year's Masterpiece Classic sure started things off with a bang, and set the tone for what looks to be a darker and more reflective season. There is really only one way to describe this adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel: gut wrenching. Now, I haven't ever read Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but I knew enough about the story to know that I was setting myself up for a rather tormenting evening. But just as you can't stop watching a train-wreck, so my eyes were glued to the set, no matter how awful things got for the heroine. Though all of the actors were good, it is the three main characters that rivet us to the story.

-Gemma Arterton was simply stunning as Tess. No matter what scene she was in, it was impossible to take your eyes off of her. I also liked that she portrayed Tess with an inner strength and dignity that kept her from being too pathetic. She really allowed Tess's true purity to shine through.

-Hans Matherson played Alec d'Urberville with just the right amount of attractiveness and slime. He also allows us to see the rather tormented side of the character. Plus, his scenes with Gemma Arterton were just plain wonderful. They had great chemistry.

-As Angel Clare, Eddie Redmayne was perhaps the weakest of the three principle actors. Nevertheless, he was still able to gain my sympathy for his character. In the scenes following the revelation of Tess' past, he is able to reflect the many emotions that Angel should have been feeling; anger, hurt, resentment and love are written all over his face.

The production quality was nothing less than you would expect from the BBC. Stunning landscapes, great costumes, and wonderful music. From Stonehenge to the last dance between Angel and Tess, every scene was poignant and bittersweet. I thought that the script also did a great job of bringing out the characters. My favorite line was after Tess killed Alec and Angel asked if she had any sense of right and wrong. Tess replies "Of course I do, that's why I killed him!". I also loved the haunting refrain of "The Snow it Melts the Soonest".

Overall, it was a great (if heartbreaking) way to start off this new season. I'm just not sure if Americans really need these rather depressing stories right now! Up next is a new adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

If you missed Tess of the d'Urbervilles, you can watch it here for a limited time.
Trivia: I often see actors that I recognize from other productions, but this is the first time I recognized a set. Some of you might have recognized the train station in Tess as being the one from the final scene of BBC's North and South. They did their best to change it by darkening it up, but the green rails on the side of the camera shot were dead giveaways.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's Time to Stop Lurking

In case you didn't know, this is National Delurking Week. This is the time that bloggers who lurk (read, but don't comment) on other blogs finally let the blog authors know that they are there. Sooo, if you've never commented on my blog (heck, even if you have) please drop me a line to let me know you are there. It's not that hard. Really. Look, I'll even give you something to comment on. Tell me what your favorite book is and why. Go ahead. Delurk!!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Classics Are Back!

A new season of "Masterpiece Classic" was kicked off last Sunday night with a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. If you missed Episode 1, you can see it here. The story concludes this Sunday night. I'll have a full review up for you next week. I will say that, unlike last year's works by Jane Austen, Tess is not exactly for the whole family. Though it's better than almost anything else on television, the subject matter does require some maturity. So put the babies to bed, grab your blanket and a cup of tea, and settle in for another season of Masterpiece. Winter is here and the classics are back!!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Brideshead Revisited

Considered by many to be his magnum opus, Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited has had a profound impact on many of its readers' lives. The book even finds itself on Time Magazine's "All-time 100 Novels" list (novels from 1923-present) along with other great works such as Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings. And yet, many readers find the story, especially the ending, to be unsatisfying. What is it about Waugh's novel that causes so many people to dislike it, and an even greater number to credit it with changing their lives? The answer is the same for both.

The Plot:

The story is a personal recounting of Charles Ryder's relationship with the Marchmain family. He first becomes acquainted with the family when he meets the younger son, Lord Sebastian Flyte, while studying at Oxford and the two immediately become best friends. Sebastian invites Charles to spend the summer with him at the his ancestral home of Brideshead Estate. There, Charles meets the rest of the Marchmain family (Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's elder brother the Earl of Brideshead, Julia Flyte and Cordelia Flyte) and is surprised to discover that they are Catholics.

Therein lies the problem that the family deals with day in and day out. While Lady Marchmain, the Earl and Cordelia are very focused on their faith, the other members of the family seek only to escape it. The head of the house, Lord Marchmain, had converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, but soon escaped to Italy where he then lives with his mistress. Sebastian seeks escape first through a return to his childhood and then through alcohol. And Julia seeks to escape it through society and her relationships with men. As time passes, the family is slowly ripped apart. And even when Charles thinks that he has seen the last of Brideshead Estate, fate throws him there again, this time with even more profound consequences.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

There are many themes running throughout Brideshead Revisited, but I would like to begin my review with what this novel isn't. Like many other works, this novel tends to be painted into a corner when it comes to themes. This particular corner is homosexuality. While this does make appearances in the novel (it is the 1920s for crying out loud), this is not exactly what I would call a "homosexual novel", though many claim that the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is more than platonic. Waugh had this to say on the subject:
"Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years." Ultimately, no matter what the true nature of Charles and Sebastian's relationship is, homosexuality is not something that the novel focuses on, and neither should it's readers.

The main theme running throughout the novel is Divine Grace. At first, the novel seems to be a tirade against religion. Lady Marchmain and the other faithful members of the family a are painted as oppressive religious fanatics. Lord Marchmain leaves his family, Julia marries outside of the faith, Sebastian falls into alcoholism, and Charles blames Lady Marchmain for all of it, believing that she was shoving religion down their throat. Halfway through the book, however, Waugh reveals the truth about what his characters are really running from through this conversation between Cordelia and Charles, right after Lady Marchmain's death:

"You didn't like her. I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated Mummy."

"What do you mean by that, Cordelia?"

"Well, you see, she was saintly but she wasn't a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can't really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it's God and hate that."

They are not running from religion or religious people; they are running from God himself. Waugh also uses a line from the Father Brown story "The Queer Feat" to show how they are drawn back to God. "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
What I found to be so fascinating is how Waugh uses Brideshead Estate to represent God's grace. Many of the characters spend most of the book trying to get away from the estate, but each one finds his way back in one form or another. Sebastian does not return to Brideshead, but he does join a monastery in Tunisia. Lord Marchmain returns there to die and in the process is reconciled with the church. The estate is left to Julia (not the eldest son) who is the only member of the family still in need of grace (which she accepts). Finally, Charles himself receives grace in the quiet chapel of Brideshead. In a letter to Lady Mary Lygon, Waugh summed up his belief in Divine Grace like this: "I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It's there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there's a particular time — sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed — when all resistance is down and Grace can come flooding in."

The other theme running through the novel is a lamentation of the loss of the English nobility. Brideshead Estate also serves as a representation of a time in England that is now lost, while "Hooper", a man from Charles' regiment, represents the up and coming generation that has no respect for history or tradition. Brideshead is being used as a camp for British soldiers during WWII, and the soldiers staying there are slowly defacing the beauty and majesty of the ancient home.

Overall, this was a fascinating, if imperfect, read.
Waugh's writing takes some getting used to, and there are things that happen in the novel which would make me recommend it only for mature readers. I wouldn't say that I found this to be the most captivating novel that I have ever read, but it certainly is one that will make you stop and think. Though non-Christian readers might find the ending to be disappointing, those of us who have tasted Divine Grace will find it to be rather satisfying. I will now leave you with one of my favorite passages from the novel:

"It's frightening," Julia once said, "to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian."

"He was the forerunner."

"That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since: perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke-a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace-perhaps all of our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

The Movie:

There are two adaptations of Waugh's novel. The first is the acclaimed 1981 mini-series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder. Though I have never seen it, this is the version that most fans of the novel enjoy.

The other version is the recent film starring Matthew Goode, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Hayley Atwell and Felicity Jones. I've only seen a few clips of it, but I'm not sure as to whether or not it preserves Waugh's emphasis on grace.