Friday, December 30, 2011

Masterpiece Classic: 2012

It's that time of year again! Masterpiece Classic is getting ready to get into full swing for the 2012 season. There are a few new adaptations coming our way, so check your local listings and settle in for a good time this winter.

Downton Abbey Series 1 (December 18, 25, and January 1): Many PBS stations are currently broadcasting an encore presentation of this Edwardian period drama. It portrays life for both the family and the servants for the large Downton Abbey estate. Romance, treachery, death, and change all happen both upstairs and downstairs. The best series of the 2011 season and a must watch. If your PBS station is not broadcasting it, you can also find it on Netflix.

Downton Abbey Series 2 (January 8, 15, 22, 29 & February 5, 12, 19): The story continues for the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. World War I has begun, and it changes life for everyone on the estate.

Sherlock Series 1 (January 15, 22, 29): This is an encore presentation of Masterpiece Mystery's smash hit from 2010. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit), this is the classic Sherlock story set in modern day London. Smart, fast, and funny this is a must see. Be sure to catch it if you didn't when it first came out. The 2nd series will follow later this year.

The Old Curiosity Shop (February 26): This is a re-broadcast from the 2009 season. Stars Derek Jacobi and Toby Jones in this classic Dickens story of a girl and her grandfather on the run from a ruthless moneylender.

Great Expectations (April 1, 8): The first of two new adaptations of Dickens novels, this remake stars Gillian Anderson (Bleak House) and David Suchet (Hercule Poirot). Young Pip is an orphan who comes into a large amount of money due to a mysterious benefactor.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (April 15): Dickens' last (and unfinished) work gets its first television adaptation. It is a psychological thriller about a choirmaster's obsession with 17 year old Rosa Bud. Stars Alun Armstrong, Julia McKenzie, and Matthew Rhys.

Birdsong (April 22 & 29): Based on the Sebastian Faulk novel, this is the story of two lovers torn apart by World War I. Stephen Wrayford's pre-war affair with Isabelle Azaire continues to effect him as he fights in the trenches. Stars Eddie Redmayne (Tess of the d'Urbervilles, My Week with Marilyn) and Clemence Posey.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Brilliant Career

Our greatest heart-treasure is a knowledge that there is in creation an individual to whom our existence is necessary - some one who is part of our life as we are part of theirs, some one in whose life we feel assured our death would leave a gap for a day or two.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is not a name most Americans would be familiar with, but it is instantly recognizable to our friends down under. Under the name of Miles Franklin, she became one of the foremost writers of Australian literature, and even bequeathed the Miles Franklin Award which is annually awarded to the best Australian novel or play. Her first (and best known) novel, My Brilliant Career, was written while she was in her teens, and published in 1901 when she was in her early twenties. It became a smash hit, but due to its many recognizable similarities to her own life, Franklin stopped its publication until after her death in 1954.

The Plot:

Sybylla Melvyn is a headstrong, independent young woman growing up in the Australian bush in the 1890s. After much bad luck in business, her family falls on hard times and Sybylla struggles to adapt to the monotonous "drudgery" of their new life. Relief comes in the form an invitation to stay with her somewhat wealthier grandmother and aunt. There, Sybylla finds much of the freedom and culture that she has always craved, though she is often corrected by her relatives for her "unladylike" behavior. She also meets Harry Beecham, a young landowner who finds her interesting and different from most of the other young women that he has met.

It isn't long before they become the best of friends, and it soon becomes obvious that Harry is in love with her. Sybylla feels only friendship for him, swearing that she is not the type of woman a man can really love, and that she never intends to marry. News then comes that her family is in difficult straits and that she must work as a governess for a neighbor to pay off a debt. Sybylla is whisked away to live in absolute squalor with people who can barely read or write. Every day becomes harder and harder for her to live. Will she be stuck here forever, or will a renewal of Harry's proposal be her best chance for escape?

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was my first taste of Australian literature, and it was overall a good read. There were some terms I had to get used to, like "jackaroo", and also the idea that December is a very hot month down there. But all in all it is kind of like English literature with a big twist.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. Sybylla is an endearing (if, at times, infuriating) character. You can't help but root for her as she struggles to balance her own desires with what the society of the time demanded from young women. And yet, the fact that this story is not just about a teenager, but BY a teenager, makes it seem a little immature. Sybylla's obsessions, especially with her looks, makes the novel's worldview rather immature (though not the writing itself). My
other major problem is that I'm a romantic, and I really wanted Sybylla to marry Harry. Heck, I wanted to marry Harry. He's strong, fun loving, intelligent, responsible, caring, patient...what more could you ask for in a guy? Though in the end, I think that Sybylla may have made the right choice for herself, it didn't jive with my own feelings.

But more than a story of a young feminist trying to conquer her own destiny, My Brilliant Career is a love song to the people and literature of Australia. Through the course of the novel, Sybylla develops a sort of love/hate relationship with the drovers, pioneers, and squatters of the outback, at once despising the monotony of their way of life and admiring them for the courage with which they face it. Even when she is living in the comfort of her grandmother's estate, she is never more happy than when she is picking apples in an old dress or helping drovers move their sheep across the land. There are also many times that Franklin expresses the need for true Australian literature, similar to that of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, and C. J. Dennis. Works that would tell Australia's story through the eyes of her children. One has to wonder if Franklin, as she wrote this, ever knew that her own name would one day be as famous as those.

Though there is an unevenness about this novel, it is definitely worth a read. I wasn't overly pleased with the ending personally, but it was an enjoyable story that I had a hard time putting down. If you are looking for a classic taste of the land down under, this is a good place to start.

The Movie:

There is currently one film adaptation of this novel, and that is the 1979 version directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill. This was a great adaptation that really helped smooth out the story's rougher edges. A wonderful companion to the book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Swap 2011

Once again, the Book Blogger's Holiday Swap was a big success for me. I had so much fun giving (and receiving) bookish things and really do encourage other book bloggers to give it a try.

My "Secret Santee" this year was Michelle over at "The True Book Addict". She loves historical fiction, Christmas books, and cats, so I tried to hit all of these notes in the package. Here's what she received:

-Queen Defiant by Anne O'Brien (from her wishlist)
-Amaryllis: A Holiday Anthology by Pomegranate Writers' Group (a group of local writers in my hometown) with a matching bookmark.
-Two cat note cards
-Spanish Castile soap from Twisted Oak Farm

I had a great time putting Michele's package together, and I look forward of perusing more of her lovely blog.

Yesterday, the gift package from my own Secret Santa arrived. Erica works for Harper Perennial (part of Harper Collins Publishers) and she helps manage their blog "The Olive Reader". Here are the goodies that she sent me:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on my blog knows that Jane Eyre is my all-time favorite book. It's so great to have a new edition, especially since the print is bigger than my other edition. Plus the cover is simply stunning!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Though I didn't particularly care for this book when I first read it in middle school, it is now very dear to this Southern girl's heart. Having this lovely 50th Anniversary edition means that I can now give my mom's copy back to her.

Fifth Avenue, 5 A. M. by Sam Wasson

This is a book devoted entirely to the film Breakfast at Tiffany's which I saw for the first time this year. Wasson explores how this movie came into being, and how it (and Audrey Hepburn) help set the tone not only for future films, but for the 60s themselves. Really looking forward to this one.

The Heroine's Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore

This book explores the great heroines of literary history and the amazing women who created them. Blakemore also touches on how we as modern women can learn from these characters and writers of the past. Should be a very fun read.

Thanks again, Erica, for the amazing books. I can't wait to get started on them. It's time to build more bookshelves! If you are a book blogger and you have never participated in the Holiday Swap, I strongly encourage you to do so next year. It is a great opportunity to get connected with other readers around the world. Who just might be my secret santee next year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy Birthday To:

Mark Twain
November 30, 1835

I don't believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic... something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

- "Disappearance of Literature" speech

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Unsung (and Unseen) Characters

Over at Guardian Books, they've got a great discussion going about literature's unseen characters. These are "literary creations who never make an appearance on the main stage, but whose presence nevertheless hovers over the text, influencing thoughts and actions."

Some examples that the article gives are Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, the lieutenant in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Mr. March in Little Women, Mrs. Churchill in Emma, and the eponymous Godot. There are also some fantastic ideas in the comments section.

How about you? Do you know of any literary characters (not dead) who play a significant role in the story and yet are never seen or heard?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holiday Swap

It's that time of year again! All you book bloggers out there head over to the Book Blogger Holiday Swap site and sign up for this year's event. I had so much fun with this last year, and I look forward to shopping for my "Secret Santee". Be sure to sign up by midnight on Novemeber 11 to get in on the action. Let the holidays begin!!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Snow Country

The road was frozen. The village lay quiet under the cold sky. Komako hitched up the skirt of her kimono and tucked it into her obi. The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice.

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Committee cited "...his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind" as the reason for his win, and acknowledged three specific works in awarding the prize: The Old Capital, Thousand Cranes, and Snow Country, which many believe to be his masterpiece, and an enduring classic in Japanese literature.

The Plot:

Shimamura is a wealthy loner from Tokyo. Like many wealthy men of the time, he enjoys taking vacations to the mountain hot springs for rest and relaxation. He frequents one in the Japanese snow country, a region of the island nation that receives quite a bit of snow during the winter months. While there he enjoys the exercise of hiking and skiing, the revitalization of the hot springs, and the companionship of a mountain geisha named Komako.

The novel chronicles three of his trips to the hot springs, and his turbulent relationship with the pretty geisha. Will they be able grow closer together and form a lasting bond, or will their love become as cold and distant as the winter landscape?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was my first taste of Asian literature, so I really wasn't sure what to expect. I've seen some reviewers call Kawabata's writing "haiku in prose", and I think that accurately describes the sparseness and spareness of the novel.

Though the plot itself is very basic, the novel itself is not. It is a very painful story, bleak and bare as a winter scene. Shimamura is someone who cannot connect with anything or anyone on a deeper level. An example of this is how he reads a lot about ballet, considering himself an expert, and yet has never actually seen it in person. Komako is young and fresh, and initially she throws herself into her passion for Shimamura with all of her heart. But she soon realizes that it is futile, "wasted love". These are two people who in many ways are trying desperately to connect with one another, and yet no matter how hard they try, they are never able to fully come together. It reminds of the Melanie Penn song "Glass Pane":

You were lying in my arms
Not so long ago, hello
Never meant each other harm
From coming too close
Head right for the glass and don’t look back
My heart cracks
You can never see the end a comin’

Indeed, Shimamura and Komako are like two birds trying to fly together only to crash into the glass that separates them. Kawabata's story is one of love and human connection thwarted by invisible forces.

But though the story itself is painful, the writing is not. Kawabata is beautifully descriptive of the Japanese countryside, especially of the winter scenes. I was reading this book in late summer, and I still felt an icy grip on my heart as I read the haunting passages. "In this snow country, cold, cloudy days succeed one another as the leaves fall and the winds grow chilly. Snow is in the air. The high mountains near and far become white in what the people of the country call “the round of the peaks.” Along the coast the sea roars, and inland the mountains roar – “the roaring at the center,” like a distant clap of thunder. The round of the peaks and the roaring at the center announce that the snows are not far away." In Kawabata's writing, you can see the barrenness, the coldness, and the futility that is found in the Shimamura and Komako's relationship. It is achingly beautiful and, in my opinion, deserves the high honor that the Nobel Committee bestowed upon it.

Though it was different from pretty much everything else that I have ever read, I really did enjoy Snow Country. It has a unique and tragic beauty to it and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to step into the world of the literature of the far East.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


If you've been on the internet at all lately, you have probably heard the buzz that is going on about the new Shakespeare movie. No, this is not a new adaption of one of his plays; and no, this movie isn't a straight up biopic of Shakespeare's life. It is a film that centers around the idea that Shakespeare never wrote any of the great plays that history has credited to him.

This is not a new idea, by any means. Scholars have been debating his authorship of what is arguably the single most important body of work in the English language. Any number of other Elizabethans have been suggested like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley Earl of Derby, and (as in Anonymous) Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford. But though this idea has been bounced around for centuries, today's audience seems to be taking particular offense to it. In Warwickshire, England (Shakespeare's home turf), they have been temporarily covering Shakespeare's name on area signs to protest the film. Dr. Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust said "This film flies in the face of a mass of historical fact, but there is a risk that people who have never questioned the authorship of Shakespeare's works could be hoodwinked."

Ron Rosenbaum over at wrote an article describing the top 10 things he hated about the film. "The conspiracy theorists who waste time trying to browbeat the credulous into thinking that the works of William Shakespeare were actually ghostwritten by Someone Else (in "Anonymous", it’s the Earl of Oxford) can’t stop. They have invested too much of their lives in the chuckleheaded fantasy to give it up now, despite how ridiculous the film reveals it to be." The actors in the film insist that there should not be this sense of ownership over Shakespeare, but rather an appreciation for the works themselves, regardless of the author was.

So what is my take on all of this? I haven't seen the film (and it's not exactly at the top of my list), but I do have a few thoughts on the subject. First off, if you really think that the average Joe is going to start questioning Shakespeare's authorship based on a movie, you're crazy. The average Joe couldn't care less if these plays and poems were written by Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford, or Dr. Seuss. And as with most conspiracy theories, this one will be accepted by some and ignored by the rest. Secondly, you have to remember this is Hollywood, and historical (or literary) fact is not their number one (two, three, four, etc.) priority. I used to spend a lot of time nitpicking films and getting mad if they didn't hold true to the original, but I've slowly been giving that up and simply taking film for what it is...entertainment. Finally, the actors in this film are right in a way. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who the author of these works was. The important thing is that they were written, and continue to enthrall, surprise, and teach us centuries later. Beowulf is no less important for our not knowing who the author was, and the same can hold true for Hamlet, The Tempest, and Richard III.

What do you think? Are people right to be upset? Is Shakespeare's authorship something that must be protected? Or is this all much ado about nothing?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Enchanted Places

A couple of months ago, I celebrated my birthday by treating myself to an afternoon at my local library. I didn't go in with a list, a plan, or a time limit. I simply took my time wandering amongst the shelves, fingering the titles, picking up whatever struck my fancy. At the end of one of the dimly lit aisles in the non-fiction section, my eyes lit upon an old, discolored book whose dust jacket was protected by the shiny plastic used by libraries the world over. Though the title of the book, The Enchanted Places, didn't immediately strike me as something special, the name of the author did...Christopher Milne. "Milne?" I thought. "I wonder if he's any relation to A. A. Milne?" Sure enough, this was a memoir by someone who is more famous as a book character than as a real person. In fact, many people do not realize that Christopher Robin was a real boy who did live in England and had stuffed animals including Eeyore, Piglet, and of course, Winnie the Pooh.

As a life-long Pooh fan, I knew that this particular library simply had to come home with me. I wasn't quite sure what this story would be about. Would it center on the reality behind the Pooh stories, would it concern Christopher's famous father and how he came to write the stories, or would it focus on how Christopher dealt with being such a famous literary character. It turns out that the book would contain elements of all three.

The first part of the book relates Christopher's early years, first in London, then full time at Cotchford Farm. Though his parents dealt lovingly with him, Christopher (like most well to do British children of the era) found himself cared for mostly by his devoted nanny. His life was in many ways as innocent and idyllic as one could wish, and he relates his childhood interests, adventures, and joys in a rather nostalgic tone. He also gives quite a bit of background on the real places and instances that found there way into his father's stories. But though many things in the stories are based on Christopher's own experiences, he is quick to point out that many have there origin in other places. Quite a few of the stories are memories from A. A. Milne's own boyhood, and even more are from his imagination. Christopher stresses that much of the enchantment and nostalgia of the stories is simply his father's creation and portrayal of childhood as he wished it might be.

Though quite a bit of the book is Christopher looking back fondly on his childhood, there are instances, especially later in the book, when his tone becomes somewhat bitter. He notes the moments of distance and coolness between his parents and himself, and the challenge of being a shy boy growing up as a world famous literary character. There are many times when he lays quite a bit of blame at his father's feet, feeling that he wronged his son by using his life as a launch for his own literary success. Are these feelings justified? Who can say. But life for any person is never wholly good nor wholly bad, and this holds true for Christopher as well.

All in all, this is a must for Pooh fans. Though it is not going to give you a "Hundred Acre Woods" nostalgia fix, nor give you all the rosy details of the stories' creation, it will give you glimpse into the life of the real Christopher Robin. Perhaps the most important thing this book does is to separate the truth from the fiction, and allow us to see both A. A. Milne and his son not just as elements of our own childhood, but as real people with hopes, joys, and fears of their own. This was definitely a nice gift to discover on my birthday!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Literary Moments in London & Paris

Sorry for the long absence. Not only have I been spending the last couple of weeks getting back to my normal life, but I also got to spend the almost two weeks before that living one of my biggest dreams. Yep, I spent 10 days in London and Paris. It was a fantastic trip, soaking up all of the history, culture, and sights that abound in both cities. I also came across quite a few literary moments in each city. Here is a glimpse of just a few of the many literature related places in Paris and London.

Shakespeare and Company

Not only is this a popular English bookstore in Paris today, but it is also a tribute to the original bookstore opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 which was also a favorite haunt of such famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ford Maddox Ford. It has lots of used books for sale, and also a reading room upstairs.

Les Bouquinestes

These booksellers have been selling their wares along the River Seine for hundreds of years. A great place to find old magazines, postcards, French books, and a variety of other items.

Notre Dame de Paris

This gorgeous Gothic cathedral owes a lot to the efforts of French author Victor Hugo. His classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame helped start a preservation movement in France that led to the restoration of the church.

Sherlock Holmes Museum

Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective may exist only in our imaginations, 221B Baker St. is a very real place. Holmes aficionados can take a peek inside the world famous address where the rooms have been kept just as if the detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson were about to walk in any minute. From the chemistry set and violin to "souvenirs" from the various cases, its somewhere that every mystery lover should stop.

National Portrait Gallery

This museum right around the corner from the National Gallery holds portraits and photos of many famous Britons, including classic authors. The Brontes, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Christopher Robin Milne are all represented.

The British Library

Like the Library of Congress, this is the home of many important literary works in Britain. On display, you can see handwritten manuscripts including Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, and an early work by Jane Austen. It almost brought me to tears.

Shakespeare's Globe

This is a replica of the original theater that housed Shakespeare and the King's Men. Today, the famous playwright's creations are still performed in front of enamored audiences.


Jane Austen fans might recognize Cheapside as the home of Lizzy Bennett's uncle and aunt in Pride and Prejudice.

English Heritage "Blue Plaques"

You'll find these little blue plaques all over London, marking specific buildings as having once been the home or office of someone famous from Charles Dickens to Jimi Hendrix. This house where Ian Fleming once lived is in Belgravia.

Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey

For lovers of English literature, perhaps nowhere in London is more important than Poet's Corner in the famous Westminster Abbey. This part of the abbey is not only a memorial to famous British writers, but also the final resting place of many of them. These include Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Edmund Spenser, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is a pilgrimage worth making.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wandering Stars

Like an older brother, he explained how stars wandered. He knew. He had studied about it in cheder. This was his learned explanation: "Every star is a person's soul. Wherever the soul goes, the person goes. That's why we imagine the stars are falling. But stars don't fall - they wander."

When it comes to the tradition of Yiddish literature, few authors have created stories that have captured the public imagination (both Jewish and non-Jewish) like Sholem Aleichem. Born in what is now Ukraine, Aleichem was a prolific writer in the Yiddish language, creating such immortal characters as Tevye the milkman of Fiddler on the Roof fame. In his 1911 novel, Wandering Stars, Aleichem brings the world of the Yiddish theater to life, and gives us a glimpse into a world that is at once glamorous and dark, inspiring and heartbreaking.

The Plot:

Leibel and Reizel are young friends growing up in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. The son of a wealthy landowner and the daughter of the local cantor, both are captivated when a traveling Yiddish theater group arrives. As they sit wide-eyed watching the performances, both feel a yearning to join that world. After disagreements with their parents, they agree to run off together and join the performers. But a mix-up occurs and when the group separates, the young people find themselves completely alone in this strange new world.

As the years pass, both become world renowned performers, Leibel as the brilliant actor Leo Rafalesco and Reizel as the enchanting singer Rosa Spivak. Their journeys lead them to London, Vienna, and America, and through many trials of greed, jealousy, romance, and heartache. Luck never seems to be with them as they always narrowly miss each other in each of the places they travel. Will these wandering stars ever be re-united, and if so, what will they find?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I have to admit that Yiddish literature is not something that I can claim to have had on my reading list forever. Not being Jewish myself, Sholem Aleichem was not a name that I was familiar with. But when I learned that he was the author of the stories that Fiddler on the Roof was based on, I knew that I had to add one of his novels to my list.

If I had to compare this novel to the works of any other author, it would be to those of Charles Dickens. I just see so many similarities between the two. There's the gritty side of life portrayed with humor, satire, and compassion. There's the somewhat bland lead characters surrounded by the numerous supporting characters who are each absurd and pathetic in their own way. And then we have the multiple stories lines that weave in and out, never seeming to have any connection until the last when all of the loose ends are gathered together into a complete (if not always satisfying) ending. I think more than anything it was these similarities that made me feel right at home in a world that has absolutely nothing in common with my own.

But though the plot revolves around Leibel and Reizel, the story does not. Aleichem is not concerned just with these two individual stars, but with the whole universe of the Yiddish theater. The first instances of a theater run by Jews for Jews begin to be seen around the 1870s, and by the turn of the century it was at its height. It was first popular in the shtetls of eastern Europe, and then spread to other European capitals like London, and finally to America. Throughout the novel, Aleichem shows the struggle of the daily life for these managers and performers, and also how even in the midst of the plain, ordinary acting permeating the theater, true art can still shine forth.

If you're looking for something a little different in your literary diet, this is a good place to start. The beauty, the dirt, the humor, the sorrow, and the resilience of Jewish life at the dawn of the 20th century are all found here. And though Alechiem never misses an opportunity to poke fun at his fellow Jews, he leaves us in no doubt of the quality of character that can be found among the people.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Read a Book Day

Americans got not one holiday this week...but two. On the heels of Labor Day, today is National Read a Book Day. So yeah, most of us don't need a calender to remind us to pick up a book, but it's always great to bring some awareness to those who might need a jump start. is celebrating with a list of celebrities and their favorite books. Did you know that Ben Affleck loves the 1982 analysis of the last Shah of Iran called Shah of Shahs? Both Judd Apatow and Anderson Cooper love James Agee's novel A Death in the Family. And Gwyneth Paltrow's favorite novel also happens to be my favorite as well. Check out the entire slideshow here.

Be sure to find your own way to celebrate today! Be frugal and head to your local library to pick up a new read, or splurge and go to your local independent book store. Re-read an old favorite. Read a book (or two, or three) to a child you know. Tell us what you are currently reading and if you like it so far. You don't need an excuse to pick up a book, but this is as good an excuse as any! Happy reading!!!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Pressing On

It's almost Labor Day...and it has become clear that I will not finish my summer reading by then. This is the first of my summer "challenges" that I haven't been able to finish well before my official end date, and I'm a little disappointed in myself. Yes, this summer was crazy at work. Yes, I've spent a lot of my extra time planning my vacation, hanging with friends, and watching movies. And yes, the books I chose ended up taking more time than I had originally planned. But none of this makes me feel much better about being behind.

Still, I have no plans to give up on the ones I have left. So far, I have finished Cry, the Beloved Country, The Blue Castle, and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I plan on finishing Wandering Stars this weekend. I'll then be able to complete my last two books hopefully before we get too far into October. Thanks for bearing with me in this somewhat slack (for me) reading year. As I press on, I hope to get back into a more frequent reading and posting schedule. School may be back in, but summer continues here on Complete and Unabridged.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love in the Time of Cholera

"The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love."

There is no simple way of defining love. It can take many shapes, evoke many feelings, and have many effects. In his 1985 novel, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez portrays love in every state and under every circumstance. From the first blossom of youth to the withering of old age, one couple's love spans 50 years under the Caribbean sun.

The Plot:

The story begins in a Caribbean port city in the late 19th century. Young Florentino Ariza meets the beautiful Fermina Daza who has just arrived with her father and aunt. After initially being rebuffed by the young girl, Florentino begins a secret correspondence with her which eventually leads to a proposal. When Fermina's father finds out, he takes her away to visit family over a two year period. Upon her return, Fermina has matured from girl to woman, and she rejects Florentino's old proposal. Instead, she decides to marry the older and more renowned doctor Juvenal Urbino.

Though Fermina is now married, Florentino vows never to give up on his dream of marrying her. In the years that follow, Florentino keeps that vow. Through the ups and downs of the Urbino's married life and the loves and lusts of his own, Florentino bides his time until the day he can once again openly proclaim his love for the woman that captured his heart as a boy.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Ok, I've read lot's of books in my life. Books that I have loved, books that I have liked, and books that I could take or leave. But I have never disliked a book as much as disliked this one. God knows why I finished it. Maybe it was so I felt that I had a right to complain. Whatever the reason, I trudged along through each page, wishing that it would just end.

What made me dislike this book so much? It all came down to the characters and the story. Juvenal Urbino, though the character that interested me the most, just didn't connect. I have no idea why Fermina was so sought after by these two men, she didn't strike me as anything special. And then there's Florentino...crazy, obsessed, perverted Florentino. Except maybe for a few rare moments at the beginning of the story, Florentino never shows the selflessness that is true love. He's got obsession and lust by the bucketload, but nothing that I would consider love. When he and Fermina finally get together in the end, it doesn't strike me as being a happy ending for two pining lovers, but rather as an ending where the dirty old man finally gets what he wants (even after he selfishly destroys the life of a young girl in his care).

If there is anything good about this book, it is Marquez's writing. The style is really good and I can understand why he won the Nobel. Heck, if we could read the style without having to actually, you know, read the book then we would be set. Unfortunately, the (how can I phrase this?) "smut" served heavily throughout the novel mars the beauty of the writing in my opinion. Though I think that Marquez's intent was to craft a novel that shows "love" in all of its forms, he succeeds only in showing "carnal love" in all of its forms.

If you liked this book, all I can say is congrats. Marquez didn't become this famous without his novels appealing to a large audience. If you're trying to decide whether or not to add this to your reading list, only you can make that decision. My opinion is that there are better things out there, so I wouldn't put this one near the top.

The Movie:

In 2007, Mike Newell directed an adaptation of the novel starring Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and Benjamin Bratt. Most critics claim it is nowhere near as good as the novel. Considering my feelings on that, I have no intention of seeing this.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weekly Geeks: Saying Goodbye

Over the last nearly three years, the team keeping this blog running has ebbed and flowed. Mostly we've tried to be consistent in posting each Saturday and doing a wrap up each Friday. But, over the last several months not only has our focus as a team struggled, but participation in the weekly assignments has slowed to a trickle. There are those bloggers who come back week in and week out, and sometimes we see some new faces in the links, but overall attendance has sharply declined. So after some discussion, the Weekly Geeks team has decided that it is time to end this event.

I woke up today to the saddening news that Weekly Geeks will be coming to an end. Though I completely understand the reasoning behind the decision, it will, nevertheless , leave a gaping hole in my book blogging life. The sense of community that came along with participation is something that I will greatly miss. Our final assignment is to either share memories of Weekly Geeks creator Dewey, or to re-post a favorite assignment. Since I began blogging after Dewey's passing, I thought I would re-post a Weekly Geek's idea I submitted back in 2009 which the team so thoughtfully used.

So, my fellow Weekly Geeks, your challenge this week is to come up with at least one song-book match. It could remind you of a theme from the book, a specific part of the plot, or even one of the characters (a sort of theme song, if you will). Be sure to include samples of the lyrics and the reason why that song reminds you of that book. If you can provide a link to a recording of the song so that other geeks can hear it that would be great as well. (One good place to look for links is, there are others, too).

Poison and Wine by The Civil Wars - The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

You only know what I want you to
I know everything you don't want me to
Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
You think your dreams are the same as mine

Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
I always will

The atmosphere of tortured love found in this song beautifully fits Maugham's classic story of a married couple who put each other through hell. Maugham deals with the complexity and dichotomy of human nature, and The Civil Wars capture that in many of their songs, but especially in this one. See the official music video here.

Falling Slowly by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova - The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel

I don't know you but I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me and always fool me
And I can't react

And games that never amount
To more than they're meant
Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice
You've made it known

Ray Singleton was never in Livvy Dunne's plans, just as she wasn't in his. Yet even as both of them struggled with grief, loneliness, and shame, they each find themselves slowly falling for the other. To me, this song made famous in the indie film Once reflects the love that is possible in the midst of struggle and heartache and is a perfect compliment to Creel's 2005 novel. See the song here.

White Horse by Taylor Swift - Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Say you're sorry
That face of an angel comes out just when you need it to
As I paced back and forth all this time
'Cause I honestly believed in you

Holding on, the days drag on
Stupid girl, I should have known
I should have known

From the very first time I heard this song by Taylor Swift, I've thought of it as Marianne's song. A girl who felt herself in a fairytale wakes up to find that her "prince" has deserted her, and in the end, leaves him behind in favor of a man who genuinely loves and cares for her. If this doesn't sound like Marianne - Willoughby - Col. Brandon, then I don't know what does. Jane Austen's classic story of passion and betrayal is echoed beautifully in this modern song. Listen to it here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Books vs. Facebook

A recent survey in Britain is gaining a lot of attention worldwide. The National Literacy Trust surveyed approximately 18,000 school children and had some findings that are both eye-opening and alarming. According to the survey, one in eight children had never been into a bookstore, one in five had never been given a book as a present, and one in six admitted to "rarely" reading outside of school.

The survey also discovered that the majority of "reading"done by today's children involves Facebook, emails, and text messages.

"Trust director Jonathan Douglas said he was worried the youngsters who did not for pleasure would 'grow up to be the one in six adults who struggle with literacy'.

He added: 'Getting these children reading and helping them to love reading is the way to turn their lives around and give them new opportunities and aspirations.'"

Personally, I can't imagine being someone who doesn't read. Reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I'm curious as to how you "raise a reader". What kinds of things have you done to encourage your kids to read? Did it work? Were you raised to be a reader or was it something you discovered late in life? As we enter a faster paced and highly digitized world, the struggle to keep (real) reading alive is more important than ever. If the post-internet generation is to ever discover the amazing stories of the past, they will need all of the support and encouragement we can give.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Classics of Russian Literature

I've just completed my fourth lecture series from The Teaching Company's "Great Courses" series. Having already listened to "The Life and Works of C. S. Lewis", "Classics of British Literature", and "The English Novel", I decided to go in a slightly different direction with a literary tradition that I am only vaguely familiar with.

Our guide for this journey through Russian literature is Dr. Irwin Weil, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University. Of the four different professors that I have listened to so far, he struck me as having not only the best delivery style but also one of the deepest passions for his topic. His love of Russian tradition, history, and language is evident from the very beginning.

Throughout the 36 lectures in the series, Dr. Weil focuses on 3 different periods in Russian literature: the early literary traditions during the Kiev period, the Golden Age of Russian literature, and the literature of the communist period in the 20th century. Not only did I learn more about the authors I was already familiar with (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov), but also discovered new authors that I am dying to sink my teeth into like Pushkin and Pasternak. One thing I loved about the series was how Dr. Weil highlighted the differences between the literary periods, but also the many similar themes that permeate the tradition as a whole. Themes like the equality found within humanity, the heavy spiritual quality found even in the works created at the height of the Communist era, and the relation of the vastness of the Russian empire to the sweeping and broad feelings found in it's great novels.

But what I loved more than anything was hearing these great works in their original language. I had never thought of Russian as a beautiful language, but hearing Pushkin's "I Remember a Wonderful Moment" rolling off the speaker's tongue in it's original rhythm and sound is a moment that I will never forget. Do yourself a favor and listen to it here.

If I had any complaint, it was that the lectures stopped with Solzhenitsyn and didn't introduce any of Russia's contemporary literature. This did give the feeling that Russian literature is a thing of the past, which of course it cannot be.

All of these lecture courses have been worth it both in time and money. If you would like to learn more about not only the great works and author's of the Russian tradition, but also about the heart, soul, and history of that ancient land, I can't recommend this course more highly. Dr. Weil does a wonderful job in introducing us Westerners to a literary tradition that is both familiar and unknown. Don't be surprised if you begin to see more and more of it popping up here at Complete and Unabridged.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Blue Castle

If it had not rained on a certain May morning, Valancy Stirling's whole life might have been entirely different.

Hear the name Lucy Maud Montgomery and immediately other names like Anne Shirley, Green Gables, Gilbert Blythe, Prince Edward Island, and Emily Starr also spring to mind. But though she is most well-known for these wildly popular young adult novels, she also created a few stories for an older audience. Published in 1926, The Blue Castle tells the story of a young woman whose sudden diagnosis leads her to pursue the freedom that she has never known.

The Plot:

At 29 years old, Valancy Stirling is a confirmed old-maid. Not only is she not conventionally pretty like her cousin Olive, but she has also been dictated to her whole life by her controlling mother and her overbearing relatives. She is told what to do, think, feel, say, and believe. Her only joy in life is in reading the nature books of John Foster and daydreaming of an imaginary Blue Castle where she is free. Then one day, the doctor diagnoses her with a terminal heart condition, giving her only a year to live. Valancy decides to take what is left of her life back, and sets on a journey to claim her freedom.

She starts out by moving in as a housekeeper for an old acquaintance named Cissy Gay (who is dying of consumption) and her drunken father Roaring Abel. Scandalizing her family even more, she becomes friends with Barney Snaith, a solitary young man who is rumored to have committed all sorts of crimes. After Cissy's death, Valancy reveals her condition to Barney and asks him to marry her so that she does not have to go back to her family during her final months. Barney agrees and takes her to his small house on an island in the middle of a lake. Just as Valancy and Barney begin to grow close, a startling revelation comes to light and Valancy fears that her beautiful Blue Castle will come tumbling around her ears.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Like most girls, I have loved the Anne of Green Gables series from a very young age. I also read a few books from the Emily of New Moon series and liked those as well. I was interested to read another Montgomery novel that I had never heard of, and one that was intended for an older audience.

Overall, it runs in the same vein as the other Montgomery stories. Valancy (once freed from her former life) is vivacious and caring. Barney is warm, friendly, and very interested in nature and literature. Roaring Abel is eccentric, yet likable. And though the story is not set on Prince Edward Island, nature in all of it's glories provides a beautiful backdrop. All in all, it is the sweet little romance that we expect from the Canadian author.

All this being said, it didn't quite live up to the magic of the Anne books. I can't really pinpoint anything specific that didn't live up to my expectations. All of the ingredients are there, but it just didn't come out as good. Maybe the dreaminess and romanticism didn't fit the 29 year old woman as well as it did the 11 year old girl. Maybe Barney, no matter how nice, just couldn't live up to Gilbert Blythe. Or maybe I can't relate to this type of story the way I did when I was younger. Had I read this ten years ago, I'm sure I would have fallen head over heels for it, but today it reminds me of a scoop of ice cream; very sweet and light, but not something that will last.

If you are an L. M. Montgomery fan, you should definitely give this a try. Though it didn't live up to my memories of Anne, it was nice to see another work from this famous author. I know many readers who consider it to be their favorite romance, so you may enjoy it better than I did.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Books and Film

If you are like me, the news that a beloved book is to be adapted for the silver screen fills one with both a feeling of overwhelming excitement and overwhelming dread. Excitement because maybe, just maybe, the pictures and characters in your head will come to life before your very eyes. Dread because you also know that there is just as much of a chance (of not a better one) that you will not be able to even recognize the story you so love. In this week's "Dear Book Lover" article over at The Wall Street Journal, Cynthia Crossen discusses that belief that is as old as the film industry itself...can the movies ever really live up to the books?

The thing to understand, Crossen says, is that "[w]ith books, the reader and writer collude in deciding what the characters, rooms, landscape look and feel like; movies make all the decisions." When you watch a film, you are at the mercy of the director's (and writer's and producer's and actors') interpretation of the story. We lose the possessive quality that reading has, for it is no longer "our" story to imagine and create, but someone elses' to serve as they see fit. Sometimes this works out and the characters and setting of your imagine meld beautifully with theirs (Pride and Prejudice 1995, for example). Other times, you wonder if the two of you were even reading the same book (like the newer Chronicles of Narnia series).

All of this being said, though the usual rule is that the book is (almost) always better than the movie, that doesn't mean that the classic stories should not be brought to the screen. I have been introduced to many great stories because I happened to see the film first, and I know that I am not alone. Crossen ends her article by quoting James M. Cain's comment: " People tell me, don't you CARE what they've done to your book? I tell them, they haven't done anything to my book. It's right there on the shelf." That, I think, is the real moral of the book to film argument.

So how about you? Are there any adaptations that you felt were spot on for one of your favorite books? Any where you think the filmmakers should have their heads stuck on a pike? Fell free to sound off in the comments...while I leave you with the trailer's for four upcoming book-film adaptations. Do any of these excite (or horrify) you?

The Three Musketeers October 21

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn December 23

War Horse December 28

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy November 18

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cry, the Beloved Country

Yes, God save Africa, the beloved country. God save us from the depths of our sins. God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men. God save us all.

In 1948, a novel was published that told the world of the struggles, heartaches, and injustices of the people of South Africa. It called upon those in power to face the problems that they had created, and to strive to bring hope and healing back to the land. That same year, the horrible political system of apartheid became the way of life in South Africa, a way of life that would not be destroyed until almost 50 years later. Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country is a call for truth, justice, freedom, and human dignity.

The Plot:

Stephen Kumalo is an Anglican priest living in a small village in South Africa. When news comes regarding his sister, who left for Johannesburg years previous and did not write, he makes his first journey to the big city. He is immediately overwhelmed by the size and pace of city life. He is also shocked and saddened by the poverty and degeneration of the local native population. It is not long before Rev. Kumalo learns that his son, Absalom, who has also been gone for awhile, may have fallen into a life of petty crime.

Tragedy strikes when Absalom is accused of the murder of a local engineer who was heavily involved in seeking justice for the native tribes. Rev. Kumalo realizes that the engineer was also the son of a white farmer who lived near Kumalo's village. Shame, regret, doubt, anger, and grief envelope Rev. Kumalo as he struggles to keep his faith in God, in people, and in the country he loves. He can only wonder if the broken tribes of his people will ever be made whole again.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

In his introduction to the novel, Lewis Gannett writes, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet, and the novelist meet in an unique harmony." That is the perfect description of what this novel is.

First (and in my mind, foremost) this is a beautiful novel. It is lyrical in it's style and from the first line to the last, you will be swept away by the rhythmic, powerful tone that Paton uses. In fact, there are many places where the book reads almost like one long poem. It isn't often that a novel can be enjoyed simply for it's words, regardless of the story.

But, of course, the story itself is powerful too. So powerful, in fact, that it was one of the banned books during South Africa's apartheid. Like Rev. Kumalo, Paton is not blind to the degeneration of the native population like crime, alcohol abuse, and prostitution. But rather than simply view it as an internal problem, Paton lays the blame squarely at the European's door. The breaking up of the tribes, the forced labor in the mines, the ruining of tribal lands, the poverty, the lack of useful education...all of these have contributed to the problems that plague South Africa. The other part of the problem is that South Africa is not a unified country. Rather, it is three separate worlds (English, Afrikaans, and native) fighting for space and power. Paton attacks this also, urging us to not seek power over another, but to realize that true power is found only in love.

With such a heavy message as this, one has to wonder if this book can be at all uplifting. The answer is a resounding "yes". Though Paton deals with many difficult issues, he ends the novel with a glimmer of hope. Rain falls once again on the sunburned valley, local native farmers are given instruction on better methods, and a local white farmer uses his position to better the whole valley. Hope has come to the valley, but only because grief, anger, and prejudice have been laid aside in favor of a country built by and for the English, the Afrikaans, and the natives. I also enjoyed the strong faith portrayed in the novel. It is more than obvious that Paton's own faith had a great role in shaping him and his writing.

This is by far the best book that I have read this year. I can't begin to describe how enthralling, gorgeous, and uplifting I found it. If you have not yet read this gem, I suggest you do so immediately. It is a story that the world must continue to hear.

The Movie:

There are currently two version of this story on film. The first is the 1952 version starring Canada Lee, Charles Carson, and Sidney Poitier. I have not seen this one.

The other is the 1995 version starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. This was a very good version. Of course, some of the beauty and scope of the novel did not translate to the film, but overall it was a very good adaptation. I recommend it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-19: Notable Quotables

We all have our favorite bookish quotes. Some well known, and some not so well known. This week for our geeky assignment I thought it would be fun for us to share some of those favorites. It can be just one favorite that you'd like to highlight, or a whole list. It can be quotes from books, or quotes about books and reading.

I absolutely love bookish quotes. It always makes me feel good to see someone else express the felling for reading that I have. Here are some of my favorite quotes on books and reading. They have made me smile, laugh, and find kindred spirits among the family that spans time and place..the family of readers. Enjoy!

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he 'has read' them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that settles the matter? -C. S. Lewis from On Stories.

The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals. -Samuel Davies

"But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do." -C. S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. -Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore? -Henry Ward Beecher

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. -Jane Austen

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. — Madeleine L'Engle

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. —Italo Calvino

When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it -- or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don't suppose many people try to do it. -Dodie Smith from I Capture the Castle

You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have been alive. -James Baldwin

Try to avoid your house catching fire, as this does no good at all. And while your house is still intact, it is a sound idea to persuade all babies and animals to live in another one - and if you really value your books, only offer hospitality to illiterates who won't persist in bloody touching them all the time. Mind you, you will have to tolerate them telling you you could open a shop with all these books (people have suggested this to me - in the shop) and betting that you haven't read them all. — Joseph Connolly (Modern First Editions: Their Value to Collectors)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jayber Crow

"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."

Community. It is a word that very few of us understand in today's hurried modern life. Though we communicate more and more through television, social media, and the internet, we do not connect on an intimate level. The days of neighbors REALLY knowing their neighbors is a thing of the past, even in some of America's smallest communities. It is those days that American author Wendell Berry hearkens back to in his collection of novels centering around the lives of the members of the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. In his 2000 novel Jayber Crow, Berry gives us a glimpse of this bygone era through the eyes of the community barber, who is at once a part of the community and outside of it.

The Plot:

This is the life story of Jonah "Jayber" Crow. Orphaned at a young age and raised at a river landing in Kentucky by relatives, Jayber is just beginning to learn what it means to belong somewhere when death again forces him to move on. After years spent at a charity institution, a seminary, and doing odd jobs, he finally finds his calling as a barber. That calling is completed when through chance (or providence), he finds his way back to the town not far from where he grew up, Port William.

As he spends his days cutting the hair of the men of Port William, Jayber gains a unique perspective on life in the small farming community. From friendly Burley Coulter and snobby Cecelia Overhold, to traditional farmer Athey Keith and his modern-thinking son-in-law Troy Chatham, the members of the Port William community are as varied and colorful as could be. As the years pass, time and modernity take it's toll on the community, and Jayber Crow must watch the things that have meant the most to him come to an end, one by one.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

There is a notice given by Berry at the beginning of this novel that reads as follows: "Persons attempting to find a 'text' in this book will be prosecuted; perons attempting to find a 'subtext' in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise 'understand' it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers. By order of the author." Thus, it is with some trepidation that I write a review of this book.

I first heard about Wendell Berry through the many recommendations over at The Rabbit Room where he is one of their more revered authors. That makes lots of sense, since Berry, like that website, places a lot of emphasis on community. Not the "we've got 2,000 friends on Facebook" kind, but the intimate, raw, and beautiful kind. Though Port William is far from the perfect place (there's plenty of lawlessness, immorality, and hurt going on), it still has much to recommend it. The closeness of it's people and the idea that what affects one member affects them all create an intimacy that few of us know today. Jayber himself might have the best perspective of the place. Though he is hard-working member of the community, as a bachelor, he is somewhat outside as well. He is well-involved in all of the public dramas, but as far as the personal ones he is left outside looking in.

But the loss of community is not all that Berry deals with throughout the novel. The destruction of war, the end of traditional farming, and the ever-growing dependence on debt are all touched on. But it is in his role as conservationist that Berry truly waxes poetic. Kentucky as it once was is given lots of space, and one cannot help but feel a connection with it, even if you have never been there. Many reviewers have stated that reading Berry's works have made them want to sell everything and find a piece of "heaven on earth" for themselves. Of course, the beauty the Berry describes is no longer there, for the preservation of community and of nature go hand in hand. Once the community of Port William begins to disintegrate, so do the natural wonders that surround it. It is this idea that ultimately gives Jayber Crow its bittersweetness.

So what was my overall impression of this work? It was fairly good, but I'm not enamored with it. I couldn't help but compare it with my impression of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I absolutely loved. While a worthwhile read, it won't be going on my "favorites" list. If this kind of book piques your interest, then you should definitely read it...but I wouldn't throw it out there as a must-read. Satisfying, but not what I would call delicious.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre: South Riding

As the 2011 season of Masterpiece Classic draws to a close, the people at PBS & BBC reach to the back of the shelf to bring us an adaptation of a lesser known British novel. Published in 1936, this novel is by Winifred Holtby, a journalist and close friend of pacifist author Vera Brittain, and is set in her home county of Yorkshire. Andrew Davies, writer of Pride and Prejudice, Wives & Daughters, and Bleak House, brings his creative talents to this new re-telling.

It is 1934, and Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin) is one of "the surplus two million", a term given to the young British women of the time who never married, presumably because of the shortage of young men in the aftermath of WWI. But Sarah is determined to not simply be "surplus". She brings her radical view of education back to her childhood home of South Riding where she becomes headmistress of a local girl's school. Though she soon finds allies in socialist Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall) and progressive Alderwoman Mrs. Beddows (Penelope Wilton), not everyone is thrilled with Sarah's new ideas. Local landowner Richard Carne (David Morrissey), burdened by his own guilt and difficulties, is especially put off by her exuberance. But as Richard sees the changes that Sarah is making in the lives of his troubled daughter, Midge, and the bright but poverty-stricken Lydia Holly, both he and Sarah begin to wonder if they might not find some common ground, despite their philosophical differences.

I was completely ignorant regarding this novel before seeing this series, so I went into the whole thing not really knowing what to expect. My reaction? I didn't really like it. Once again, I can't really fault the production qualities. Each actor was good in their own part. Martin did a wonderful job at portraying an exuberant, if romantically frustrated, young woman and Morrissey captured the earthy English landowner as only he can. And the cinematography of the Yorkshire coast is breathtaking to say the least. It was, in essence, the story that I couldn't connect with. Not having read the book, I'm not sure if the fault lies with Holtby or Davies. It seems like South Riding just can't seem to figure out exactly what story it is trying to tell. Is it a thwarted romance between two very different people? Is it a story of the human affects of war? Is it a story of the necessity of eliminating the chains of poverty? Is it a story of political corruption? In reality, it is all these things, and in trying to tell so many different stories, it doesn't tell any of them particularly well.

Perhaps the biggest story within the story is how much of a drag husbands and families are on women. With Carne's death, Midge is "released" to become a wealthy and happy girl, Sarah is able to move on and achieve true worth in her role as teacher, and Muriel Carne is finally able to come home. And Lydia Holly achieves her happy ending only after she is rid of her responsibility to her father and siblings. Not being much of a feminist myself, this "men are the problem" tone did not settle to well with me, and left me somewhat unsatisfied with the story overall.

Though it was a well done program overall, it just wasn't for me. Not being able to connect with the story really affects my feelings for a film. It might be one that others will enjoy, but for me, this is a story that deserves to be put back on the shelf.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Odds & Ends

There are always lots of interesting things going on in the world of reading. Here are a few odds and ends of articles and news bites that are on the minds of readers everywhere:

  • Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the New York Public Library. With a main reading room stretching for two city blocks and a complete open door policy, the NYPL is truly an icon of the literary world. In all it houses over 50 million items, including such treasures as Christopher Robin Milne's original stuffed animals, a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and a Gutenberg Bibe. This number is surpassed only by the Library of Congress and the British Library. Read more about the centennial celebration here.
  • Guardian UK Books talks with writer Umberto Eco and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere on their new book This is Not the End of the Book. In it they confess that there are great books that even they have decided to lay aside and read in another life: "There are books on our shelves we haven't read and doubtless never will, that each of us has probably put to one side in the belief that we will read them later on, perhaps even in another life. The terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven't read Proust."
  • Over at The Wall Street Journal, Cynthia Crossen is answering a reader's question on a phenomenon that has been around in literature for awhile, but has only recently begun to have a name: the "unreliable narrator".
  • Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are teaming up to bring us a motion capture film version of the wildly popular (in Europe, anyway) Tintin stories. Starring Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig, The Adventures of Tintin will be hitting theaters this December. We'll see if this glossy, 3D adaptation will interest more Americans in these nostalgic stories by Belgian author Herge.
Anyway, there are some tidbits from the literary world today. Is there anything cool going on in your literary life? Finished a good book, read an interesting article, or watched a good adaptation recently? Feel free to share!