Friday, March 25, 2011

The Last Faulkner

This month's edition of Southern Living features an interview with Dean Faulkner Wells. The niece of the famous southern writer, William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) Wells is also his last living relative. Her new memoir, Every Day by the Sun, tells not only her story, but the story of the Faulkner family in Oxford, Mississippi. Having lost her father before she was born, Wells recounts what it was like to be semi-raised by one of the 20th Century's greatest authors, whom she simply knew as "Pappy".

  • Read the Southern Living article here.
  • Listen to the Southern Living interview here.
  • Read an excerpt of Every Day by the Sun here.
  • Read my review of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

"I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

In the tradition of 84, Charing Cross Rd., this is a story of human connections forged by books. The story of neighbors being seen through the darkest times by their discovery of great literature. The story of woman who finds peace, meaning, and love while chasing down the idea for a story. Mary Ann Shaffer's 2008 novel weaves together many different life stories to create one sweet one that many people the world over have enjoyed.

The Plot:

It's 1946 and London is emerging from the destruction of WWII. Writer Juliet Ashton has just released her first book, and is now musing over ideas for her next one. One day, she begins a chance correspondence from a man on the island of Guernsey who has found her name inscribed in a copy of a book by Charles Lamb. Through their letters, Juliet learns of the eccentric and unusual club on the island known as the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As she begins to correspond with many members of the society, Juliet learns more about this accidental group of islanders who began as an excuse for being out past curfew during the German occupation. One by one, each member wriggles their way into Juliet's heart, and she soon finds herself having to choose between her fame and future in London, and a life among friends on Guernsey.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was a novel that I had heard a lot about over the last couple of years. I finally picked it up when the bookseller from whom I was purchasing 84, Charing Cross Rd. from recommended it as an accompanying novel. And in many ways, it is a good companion piece, as both are epistolary novels about people coming together through their love of books.

Let's start out by discussing what this book is not. It's not great literature. Sometimes, it even borders on being not even really good literature. My biggest beef is the characters. Not only do they not seem very British (Juliet especially), but they are also very one-dimensional. You are very pleased with them at first, especially since letters are a great way to give characters depth and intimacy. But after awhile you begin to realize that each individual character ends exactly as they begin. There is little to no development. Isola begins eccentric and ends eccentric. Elizabeth begins heroic and ends heroic. Dawsey begins shy and caring and ends shy and caring. Get the picture? Add to this the fact that the many topics that Shaffer tries to cover in the novel only get surface treatment. Whether it is WWII, homosexuality, feminisim, tolerance, or community, very little is given any kind of depth. There is a line in the novel that says
"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." and unfortunately that kind of holds true for this story.

Now, having said that, I did still enjoy this book quite a bit. Maybe I needed a break from the clunkers. Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I read it. But I think the main thing that hooked me was the pure love of great literature that shines throughout the whole novel. Seeing these ordinary people fall head over heels for the likes of Austen and Lamb was delightful. I love books that simply take the time to celebrate books. The situation of the characters also made me realize just how precious stories are, and how they can help you overcome even some of life's most horrible situations.

So, do I recommend it? It's hard to say, really. Again, you have to go into it knowing that this isn't the next great American novel and that the writing is not exactly up to par (Gilead this ain't). But if you love books about books, and if you are looking for a halfway decent way to spend a rainy afternoon, this might work out for you. Everybody needs a bit of fluff in their reading diet. I'm not completely had over heels for it, but it wasn't all bad, either. Let's just say that I liked it in spite of myself.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-10: Ten Things About Books & Me

The idea is simple. Tell us ten things about you with regard to books and reading. Let your imagination run wild!

1: I love to read classic literature. I'm not opposed to reading more recent books, but the classics are where my heart lies. Consequently, you probably wont see the latest YA novel or the most popular romance novel appear on my reading list. I just feel that life is so short, and I should concentrate on the great stuff.

2: I have a bad habit of letting infatuations with other books lead me astray from the one that I am currently reading. For instance, I've been slowly making my way through Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit for the past two and a half months now (great book...just long). But I've found myself being captivated by little gems like 84, Charing Cross Rd. and The Painted Veil, devoting time to them that should be committed to finishing that clunker. It almost makes me feel like I'm cheating.

3: I have a weakness for Victorian (and Regency) romances. I never met one that I didn't fall for. Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Head over heels. Jane Austen's Persuasion? Wow!! Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South? Methinks I may swoon! If I have any kind of guilty reading pleasure, this is it. Who says great writing and great romance can't come together?

4: I love to collect old books. I especially love books with notes in the margins or names on the flyleaf (which is funny, because I do not usually write in books as a rule). I feel as if I have been entrusted with a precious treasure, and that it's previous owner is asking me to safeguard it and enjoy it as they have done.

5: I am as rabid about adaptations of books as I am about books themselves. I love seeing great novels played out on the screen. I especially love those produced by the BBC. I don't just watch them, I analyze everything from the dialogue, to the actors, to the costumes to the sets, comparing them to my impression of the novel. And for some reason, my family doesn't like to watch them with me.

6: A cup of tea + rain + a good book = a perfect day!

7: The "due by" card in the back of library books makes THE perfect bookmark.

8: I don't just like books for the story, I also like to study them. So far, I've listened to lecture series on The Classics of British Literature, The English Novel, The Writings of C. S. Lewis, and am in the middle of one on The Classics of Russian Literature. I love seeing how both the life of the writer and the culture of the times help create the stories we love.

9: I love to re-read books. If I loved a book the first time, chances are that I will read it again. I can't imagine reading an amazing story only to toss it aside and never pick it up again. If a book is great the first time around, imagine how great it is the second or third as you make new discoveries and read them in a different light.

10: When it comes to reading, I really like having the real deal in my hands. I just can't talk myself into reading books on a digital reader. No pages to flip, no old/new book smell, no feel of crinkled paper in your hand. Where is the pleasure in another gadget in your hand. Audio books are ok once in awhile, but I normally prefer to already be familiar with the story before I listen to one...and they must be unabridged.

Bonus 11: Jane Eyre is my absolute most favorite book EVER!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre: Downton Abbey

Since Masterpiece is currently in its 40th season, it seems only fitting that its first new production hearkens back to the golden era of the program. In many ways, Downton Abbey is a throwback to the large ensemble tradition of I, Claudius and the non-literature-adaptation of Upstairs, Downstairs, and yet it is still very fresh, modern, and unknown.

Set at a beautiful country estate in 1912 (and 13 and 14), Downton Abbey tells the story of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family and household. After the two heirs to Downton die on the Titanic (Lord Grantham has only three daughters), Lord Grantham's wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and mother (Maggie Smith) begin plotting to undo the entail that prevents the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) from inheriting the estate. Either that or get her married as well and as soon as possible. Not long afterward, the newest heir, a middle class lawyer named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), arrives to begin learning the ways of the estate that he will one day inherit. Meanwhile, the arrival of Lord Grantham's new valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle) creates a new dimension in the hierarchy of the downstairs staff which includes the formidable butler, Carson (Jim Carter), the lovely housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the scheming footman, Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and the politically involved chauffeur, Branson (Allen Leech).

Downton Abbey was a huge success both across the pond and here in America, and with good reason. The writing is wonderful, the cast is phenomenal, and the story is interesting. Those who have watched any British drama can figure out the whole "entail" part of it (just watch Pride and Prejudice if you need a refresher), and if you happened to catch PBS's 2003 production of Manor House, then you are more than prepared for the drama of Edwardian estate society. Add to it a dash of women's lib, gay rights, and the foreshadowing of the end of British aristocracy and you have a pretty good idea of what the feel of this production.

Overall, I enjoyed this production a lot. I'm not going to say that I'm head over heels for it, but it was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday evening. Here's a breakdown of some the aspects of the show that I liked:

-Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. All of the actors were great in their roles, but nobody did it like Dame Maggie. Every scene she was in was stupendous. She delivered every single line with utter perfection. And what lines they were too. "What is a weekend?", "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!", and "Why is every day a fight with an American?". If you don't watch this production for any other reason, watch it to see this great lady in action.

-Bates/Anna sidestory. I think the producers originally intended for Matthew and Mary to be the main romantic draw. But if you read the comments from viewers worldwide, it was the romantic tension between Bates and Anna that really hooked the audience. I've loved Brendan Coyle since I first saw him as Nicholas Higgins in North and South, and he gives another great performance here. From the moment he arrives on the scene, we cant help but sympathize with this kind, aloof, and determined man. Watching his relationship with Anna blossom is probably the highlight of the story.

-Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham. It is easy to almost forget the Earl of Grantham in the whirling sub-plots happening around him. But in reality, he is the anchor of the story. He is a man whose love for his family is insurmountable, and his concern for their happiness and well-being is very touching. He also has a large devotion to his estate, feeling that it is his duty to preserve what previous generations had worked so hard to build. This leads him to not only not fight the entail, but to take Matthew Crawley under his wing and show him the ropes of being an estate owner. I love when he shows Matthew how his middle-class beliefs and prejudices are hurtful and insulting to those who feel a life in service to be their calling. In today's world that is founded on equality, liberation, and a freedom from duty, it is nice to watch a series that portrays the beauty found in someone born with authority who uses it to better himself, his dependents, and the generations to come.

All in all, Downton Abbey truly deserves the many accolades it has received. It was a fine way to kick off the 2011 season. If you watched it on television, be aware that you did NOT see the complete UK series, as PBS shortened and rearranged it for American audiences. You can see the complete series on DVD (available through Netflix).

Up Next: Any Human Heart