Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Everything That Rises Must Converge

In 1964, Flannery O'Connor succumbed to lupus, the same disease that had killed her father. She was 39 years old. A year later, her final collection of short stories was published, revealing that the promise she had shown in her original collection (A Good Man is Hard to Find) had come to pass, and cementing her place as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

The Plot:

As with A Good Man is Hard to Find, O'Connor's stories center on people living in the rural South. All of them consider themselves to be above others in one way or another (blacks, "white trash", etc). But in each story, the main characters have a powerful, and oftentimes violent, encounter with God and his grace.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Though I would have to say that A Good Man is Hard to Find is the best introduction to the works of Flannery O'Connor, I would also have to say that Everything That Rises Must Converge is the better collection. O'Connor's growth as a writer between the two collections is very evident. Her writing is tighter and her themes more consistent in ETRMC. I'm not sure whether O'Connor's writing was easier to understand in this collection, or whether I was simply more familiar with it (probably a combination of both).

There are many themes that O'Connor tackles in this collection, but the most prevalent is the theme of divine grace. In almost every story, we have a character who seems to be, both to the reader and themselves, better than those around them. They are basically good people who go out of there way to "help" others. But as the story progresses, O'Connor begins to peel away the mask, revealing characters that are deeply flawed and in desperate need of the grace of God. And the reception of that grace is often represented in interesting ways: the goring of a woman by a bull (Greenleaf), the rebukes of a Jesuit priest (The Enduring Chill), the attack of an violent and ugly girl (Revelation). This is where many readers, especially Christian readers, find their problems with O'Connor. It all seems too dark and gruesome. But that is exactly what O'Connor wants to tell us. That divine grace is not sweet and peaceful, but violent and cutting. It actually reminds me of Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace is changed back from a dragon to a boy: "'The first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.'" Yes, grace is painful, but with the pain comes redemption, beauty, and pleasure.

O'Connor gives the South the same treatment that she does her characters. The mask of nostalgia and sentiment is peeled away to reveal the flaws of our culture. The ugliness of such flaws as racism are pulled to the forefront and the South cannot ignore them.

Though all of the stories are well written, there were one or two that really stood out to me. The Enduring Chill was great with it's snobby main character who soon gets brought down a peg. I also liked The Lame Shall Enter First with it's heartbreaking yet beautiful ending.

Though only nine stories in length, Everything That Rises Must Converge is a compelling collection that Christians and non-Christians alike can appreciate. If you read and enjoyed A Good Man is Hard to Find, then this is definitely for you.

For more on the writings of Flannery O'Connor, including essays on many of her works, go to this website.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-27: Best Movie Adaptations

With the release of Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince this past week, I thought it would be good to turn once again to movie adaptations. In March, with the release of Watchmen (using that as a jumping off point for discussion), I brought up the subject of worst movie adaptations. This time, I'd like to bring up best movie adaptations (not saying if the recent Harry Potter movie is or isn't faithful to the book since I'll be honest I haven't read the book, but using the subject as a jumping off point for discussion).

So what are some of your favorite movie adaptations of books? Include trailers or scenes from Youtube if you'd like.

Also along with that question, or instead of that question, what book or series would you like to see be made into a movie or movies? Tell us why you think it or they would work as a movie. If the book already has a book trailer, include that, to help make your point.

Most of my favorite movies are based on books, and there are many factors that I consider when deciding what makes a good adaptation. Here are some of my favorites and I why I think they are so great:

The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, & 2003)

To me, The Lord of the Rings is a great example of a film that allows for necessary plot changes without losing the heart of the author's original work. Yes, there were quite a few changes to plot and characters, but the overall tone and spirit of Tolkein's original is preserved. However, I'm not sure if I'll ever forgive Peter Jackson for what he did to Faramir, but that's a story for another post.

North and South (2004)

North and South is a great example of a film that takes a book and smooths out the wrinkles. The novel is not the most sophisticated of Victorian novels, and this adaptation fixes some of the original story's weaknesses while still preserving it's beauty and heart. Plus, it's worth watching just to see Richard Armitage's performance. *SIGH*

Bleak House (2005)

The wonderful thing about Bleak House is that it takes the sprawling and intricate plot of Dickens' original and streamlines it into a cohesive and quicker paced story. It also does wonders on the character of Esther Summerson, releasing her from the sentimental chains of the Dickens heroine. It is probably my favorite adaptation of all time.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

This isn't exactly a movie (it was a television series), but it is still a wonderful adaptation. To me, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. He captures every aspect of the great detective from his humor and friendship with Watson to his brilliance and addictions. Basically, he takes a beloved character and brings him to life. I LOVE these!

As for books that I would like to see turned into movies, there aren't many. Most of the books I have read have been turned into films (some numerous times). But here are couple that pop into my mind:
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Monday, July 13, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-26: World Travel

This week's Weekly Geeks asks you to tell us about your globe trotting via books. Are you a global reader? How many countries have you "visited" in your reading? What are your favorite places or cultures to read about? Can you recommend particularly good books about certain regions, countries or continents? How do you find out about books from other countries? What countries would you like to read that you haven't yet?

Use your own criteria about what you consider to be "visiting" -- whether a book is written about the country or by a native or resident of the country.

For fun, create one of these maps at this website ticking off the countries you've read books from - you might be surprised how many (or how few!) countries you've read. Include the map in your blog post if you're so inclined.

Feel free to tell us about any actual world traveling you've done in addition to your literary travels.

When you're done with your post, come back here and sign Mr. Linky with the post address. Then be sure to visit your fellow Geeksters to see where in the world they've been. Happy traveling!

Here is my map:

I counted both the setting as well as the author's nationality, because both have a large affect on the story. It is amazing how centralized we as readers can become. Most of my reads are either set in the UK or are by a British author. But I do also enjoy reading stories from around the world.

Here are some samples of my global reading:

  • Canada- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  • The United States- A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
  • The UK- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Algiers- The Plague by Albert Camus
  • Russia- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Israel- Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace
  • Switzerland- Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham
As you can see by my map, I am severely lacking in classics from Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. So if you know of any great literature either set in or by an author of the region, please suggest them.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly."

-from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Monday, July 6, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

There is perhaps no moment in life so bittersweet as the moment that childhood innocence is lost forever, the time when the scales fall from our eyes and we are forced to see the world for what it truly is. Since it was first published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been considered a classic of American fiction and has become a favorite of readers worldwide. In the novel, Harper Lee addresses the issues of racial injustice, class, and compassion as seen through the eyes of a young girl growing up in the Deep South.

The Plot:

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is a six year old girl growing up during the Depression in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama with her older brother Jem and her widower father Atticus, a lawyer. One summer, Scout and Jem befriend Dill, who is staying with his aunt for the summer. The three children become fascinated with the story of the mysterious "Boo" Radley, a recluse neighbor who hasn't been seen outside in years. The children set their sights on making Boo "come out" and spend the next two summers beginning an invisible friendship with him.

Meanwhile, Atticus has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl named Mayella Ewell. Racial tensions begin to run high and Scout and Jem are soon caught in a storm of hatred, violence and lies as their father tries to convince the townspeople to look beyond their prejudices and reward justice to the innocent.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I have had people ask me why I bother to re-read books. I mean, you either like them or you don't and first impressions are impossible to overcome, right? If any book refutes that claim for me, it is To Kill a Mockingbird. Like every other child in the English speaking world, I was forced to read this story in one of my middle school grades. It's not that I hated it, I just didn't particularly care for it. I was left asking "And why is this a classic again?". So, I went into this re-read not expecting much. By the end of the first chapter, I was absolutely hooked.

The first thing that caught my attention was how much Maycomb was like my own Southern small-town. This quote in particular pointed out the similarities: "Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." From picking scuppernongs in September to having to borrow snow from the neighbor's yard just to have enough for a snowman, Lee immerses us in the world of a child growing up in the small-town South. Scout is an amazing narrator. She immediately wraps you up in her point of view and never lets you go. We feel her happiness, her pain, and her anger and realize again just how hard growing up really is.

Lee address many issues in this novel, but the most prominent is, of course, the ideas of racism and class. The character of Atticus is the touchstone of justice, courage, and compassion throughout the story. His words constantly remind Scout (and us) to not judge people based on their skin color or where they come from, but simply as human beings. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." There are really two great scenes that exemplify this message well. The first is when Atticus must fend off a gang of white men from harming Tom Robinson, and Scout unwittingly teaches the men that they are all humans with the same feelings, hopes, and desires. The second is the final scene where Scout realizes that Boo Radley is just as human as she is, and wishes she had thanked him for his friendship. The best thing about all of this is that Lee avoids making this a "Southern" issue. Issues of race and class are not isolated to the South. They are human problems that transcend time and place. Perhaps that is why so many people connect with this story no matter where they are from.

The other theme that Lee pursues is the idea of the death of innocence. Using the mockingbird as a symbol for innocent life, Lee gives us many examples of innocence killed by society, either physically (Tom Robinson's death) or emotionally (Scout and Jem's lost innocence). "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

I am so glad that I chose to re-visit this story. In fact, I now wonder if perhaps children are being forced to read it too early in life. It's hard to see and understand the shattering of innocence when you are still living in yours. The true beauty of this book is found in the reminiscing of sweet days gone by and the encouragement to conquer the problems we now face. So, if you are like me and the To Kill a Mockingbird of your middle school days is gone, I encourage you to pick it up again. It is a truly lovely story.

The Movie:

The 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird is just as popular if not more so than the novel that it is based on. Gregory Peck earned his only Oscar award for playing Atticus Finch. He is superb in the role, as are Mary Badham and Phillip Alford who starred as Scout and Jem respectively. If you haven't seen this classic movie, do so. The opening sequence alone is worth it, and Mary Badham's "Hey, Boo." is simply beautiful.

Trivia: Robert Duvall makes his screen debut as Arthur "Boo" Radley.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-24: And the Answer Is...

Here are the answers to this week's Weekl Geek Trivia game. Thanks to everyone who participated!

  1. Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

  2. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

  3. Puddleglum in The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

  4. Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

  5. Toad in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

  6. Jo March in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

  7. Mrs. Comstock in A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

  8. Anna Karenina in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  9. Irene Adler in A Scandle in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  10. Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte