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!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Summer Challenge: Globetrotting

We're about two weeks away from the unofficial start of summer, so it's time for me to start putting my summer reading challenge together. This will be my fourth year of creating my own personal summer reading challenge. Over the past few years, I have spent the summers in Middle Earth, the American South, and my family's homeland of Germany. This year, I'm expanding my horizons and going globetrotting. That's right, I'll be reading a classic novel from every continent (excluding Antarctica, obviously) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This will not only expose me to literary traditions that I have never experienced before, but will also pay tribute to the globetrotting I plan to do later this year (heading to London and Paris!). After lots of thought and research, I've come up with six books to represent the cultures of the six inhabited continents:

Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa). This is one of the most famous works of South African literature. A world wide bestseller since its publication in 1948, this novel tells the story of Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom as they face the racial and political injustice of apartheid.

North America: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (Canada). Of course I am very familiar with L. M. Montgomery's works through the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series, but this is one that I have never read. Intended for an older audience, this is the story of 29 year old Valancy Sterling who feels stifled and unloved in the confines of her middle-class society. When she is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, Valancy decides to strike out on her own and find freedom, life, and love on her own terms.

Europe: Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem (Ukraine). The world of 19th century Yiddish theater is brought to life by Ukrainian Jewish author Sholem Aleichem (of Fiddler on the Roof fame). Young friends Reizel and Leibel fall under the spell of a traveling acting company and decide to run away together and join them. Unfortunately, they are separated by accident, and they spend many years touring around Europe, wondering if they will ever meet again.

South America: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia). One of Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner Marquez's well known works, this novel explores the complicated love triangle of
Fermina Daza, her husband Juvenal Urbino, and the lover of her youth, Florentino Ariza.

Asia: Snow County by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan). Kawabata's sparse, spare novels helped make him the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In this novel, he tells us of an affair between a wealthy man and a mountain geisha who gives him her heart.

Australia: My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (Australia). One of Australia's most important novels, this story by Miles Franklin tells the story of a young girl growing up in the Australian bush in the early 20th century.

So there you have it, that's were my summer reading travels will take me. If you have read any of these books, please feel free to share your opinion of them. And if you would like to read along, feel free to do that as well. My bags are packed, my passport is in hand, and the world of literature lies before me. Bon Voyage!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre: Upstairs, Downstairs

Within Masterpiece Theatre's 40 year run, there is perhaps no more iconic production than Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1971-1975 series that portrayed the rapidly changing culture of England from the Edwardian period through the first World War and the roaring 20s. Now, original creators Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh have teamed up again to continue (or reincarnate) the original series and bring life back to 165 Eaton Place.

It is 1936, and diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) has just purchased 165 Eaton Place, which has sat vacant for 6 years. His wife, Agnes (Keeley Hawes), is determined to make their home a star in London social scene, but she soon finds her attempts somewhat dampened by the arrival of her mother-in-law (Eileen Atkins) and her younger sister, Persie (Claire Foy).

Meanwhile, former Eaton Place parlor maid, Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), has been engaged to oversee the employment of a household staff. Though she is given a limited budget, she soon finds the people she needs. From the stiff, yet kind butler (Adrian Scarborough) to the handsome and confident chauffeur (Neil Jackson) to the immigrant parlormaid with a secret (Helen Bradbury), the household downstairs is just as complicated as the one upstairs, and history and tragedy will soon shake both tho the core.

Though it has been on my "to watch" list for quite some time, I've never actually seen any of the original Upstairs, Downstairs episodes. I am aware, however, just how important that original series was in the life of Masterpiece Theatre and that it is considered by most to be the best series ever shown on the program. So, I had enough background to know what the basic premise was, but not enough to have huge expectations. In the end, I didn't find it very satisfying, but I can't exactly put my finger on why. The acting was good, the filming top-notch, and the setting wonderful. Even the cultural issues were interesting (though I do feel like I have re-hashed the whole Edward VIII's abdication a billion times this year). But for whatever reason, I just couldn't CONNECT with the story like I have other programs. It was like I almost didn't really care about what happened to the characters. No one really stood out or grabbed my attention, unlike in Downton Abbey. The downstairs household was particularly bland, I felt, with much less drama and backstory.

It wasn't a bad way to spend an evening, but it wasn't something that I could honestly say that I loved. I didn't find myself on the edge of my seat in expectation, I didn't squeal or sob, and I didn't notice anything spectacular in the writing. While I am more determined than ever to see the original series, I'm looking forward much more to the next installment of Downton Abbey than to a continuation of this (should there be one). Just wasn't something that I felt really excited about. If you have seen both the original and the new series, please let me know your thoughts...did it live up to your expectations?