Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Big Sleep

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

 Written in 1939, Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep would introduce detective Philip Marlowe to the world and be the start of a series of hardboiled crime novels that would earn much acclaim.  It would be included on many "best of" lists including "TIME's List of the 100 Best Novels" in 2005.  Complex, dark, and interesting, Chandler's novel drags us into the underbelly of 1930s L.A. where the rich and famous are as prone to crime and backstabbing as anyone.

The Plot:

Philip Marlowe is a private investigator who has been hired by the wealthy Gerneral Sternwood to deal with the blackmailing his wild (and insane) younger daughter, Carmen, by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger.  Sternwood's older daughter Vivian believes that Marlowe has also been hired to discover the whereabouts of her missing husband, Rusty Reagen, but Marlowe won't say.

Not far into the case, Marlowe discovers that Carmen is caught up in a crime ring facilitated by Geiger's "bookstore".  As bodies begin to pile up, Marlowe discovers the motives and truth behind each one and eventually realizes that the crimes committed go way beyond a little blackmail.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This is one of those books that didn't rank high on my list, not because it wasn't good literature, but rather it just didn't suit my own personal tastes.  Philip Marlowe is in many ways a "man's man" type detective and the whole story has a dark and hard outlook that didn't always settle well with me.

In his detective novels, Chandler was always much more concerned with the characters and the setting than he was with the plot itself and this is certainly true in this one.  We have a complex cast of characters, each with their own motives and vices, that dance in and out of the story.  The setting is grim and realistic, and each person is more than happy to back-stab another in order to protect their own interests.  But the plot itself is hard to follow at times and resolution is never wholly found.  For instance, it is never said who killed the Sternwood's chauffeur, and even Chandler himself couldn't provide an answer.

It was this lack of attention to the plot that ultimately dissolved my interest.  While I appreciate great characterization and setting, I'm usually more drawn to the plot, especially in a mystery.  I like to be able to follow along with the detective and see crimes that are intelligently committed and covered up.  Mysteries that are hard to follow and don't tie up loose ends just aren't my cup of tea.  Not a bad novel, just not really for me.

You may or may not enjoy this novel yourself.  While I personally would rather read an Agatha Christie or a Dorothy Sayers mystery, there are plenty who will enjoy this hardboiled tale.

The Movie:

There are two film versions of this novel.  The first is the 1946 version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with a screenplay among whose writers was William Faulkner.  The plot is still somewhat confusing, especially since some details had to be changed or omitted due to the Hays code.  It is, however, a classic film noir and a wonderful way to watch Bogie and Bacall light up the screen together.

The other is the 1978 version starring Robert Mitchum.  Though this version was able to incorporate more details from the story than the original version, it was never as popular.  I have not seen this one.             

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pride and Prejudice Turns 200

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January 28, 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.  That's right, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy has been delighting readers for two centuries.  In many ways, it is as popular today as it has ever been and appears near the top of many people's favorites list.  There are celebrations happening all over the world and there are plenty of ways to join in the fun:

1) Read or re-read the novel.  If you are one of the few people who have not read the actual novel, this is the perfect time to do so.  It is one of the best examples of Austen's brilliant writing style with characters that seem so real and vibrant.  See my review here.

2) Watch an adaptation.  Everyone has their favorite version of this story.  Whether it's Colin Firth jumping in a lake, Matthew McFadyen strolling through a misty field at sunrise, or Firth and Hugh Grant scuffling out in the snow, there's an adaptation out there for everyone.

3) Share the love.  Read the novel as part of your book club, host a party (tea or otherwise) to celebrate, organize or attend a dance...whatever you do, find a way to celebrate this great occasion with friends.

What do you love about Pride an Prejudice?  Have a favorite character, quote, or adaptation?  Share with us in the comments.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why You Should Be Watching "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries"

The world has had it's fair share of "Pride and Prejudice" adaptations.  Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier brought the story to life in 1940, Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle created the definitive adaptation in1995, Renee Zellweger recast the story as Bridget Jones in 2001, and Bollywood even gave the story it's own spin in 2004's Bride and Prejudice.  But now there is an adaptation that is changing the way we enjoy the story, and it is taking the world by storm.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a web series that tells the Pride and Prejudice story as a vlog (that's a blog in video format).  Created last April by Hank Green & Bernie Su, it stars Ashley Clements as a modern day Lizzie Bennet.  Lizzie is a grad student majoring in mass communications, so she enlisted the help of her best friend Charlotte Lu (Julia Cho) to create a vlog series about her life.  Many of the initial episodes are filmed in Lizzie's bedroom and we learn about her life at home with her sisters, fashion guru Jane and immature but fun Lydia, and her parents.  When a rich (and single) medical student moves into the neighborhood, Lizzie's mom begins devising plans to get one of her girls married off, and the Bennet household is never the same again.

There are lots of reasons to enjoy this series.  The first is that the adaptation of the book to modern day California is perfect.  The writers do a great job of staying true to much of the plot, tone, and spirit of Austen's original while being able to make everything fit in with life in modern America.  I am constantly amazed at how they adapt specific plot points whether it's Jane and Lizzie staying at Netherfield or Charlotte connecting with Mr. Collins (Maxwell Glick).  Another reason this series is so great is the casting.  Everybody is spot on and gives a modern flair to each character while still paying homage to the original.  Ashley Clements is spectacular as Lizzie portraying her humor, intelligence, and "prejudice" in a way anyone can relate to.  And Daniel Gordh as William Darcy (introduced in episode 60) plays off of her very well as a professional, socially awkward, and slightly hipster version of the literary character.  There is a really great chemistry with all of these actors and it definitely makes every episode lots of fun.

What really sets this series apart from other adaptations is it's use of social media to connect with it's viewers.  The show makes use of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, and more to make fans accessible to the story.  Viewers can comment, characters will tweet, and the story uses every outlet to move forward.  There are even occasional question and answer sessions with Lizzie where she takes random viewer questions.  This all combines to make it seem like this is actually a real vlog and not just a scripted series (Lizzie would even question viewer's eagerness to see Darcy in the early episodes, insisting that she would never make a video in his presence).  I really think it is the interactiveness that has made this such a popular series.

If you haven't yet jumped on the LBD train, now is the time to do so.  There are 2 episodes every week (Monday and Thursday), plus episodes of The Lydia Bennet (Lydia's sporadic vlog) and Maria of the Lu (Charlotte's sister's blog).  Episode 79 appears tomorrow, but you must start at the beginning.  Head over to YouTube to start catching up.  You can also interact with the story via Twitter, Tumbler, and Facebook.  I am completely addicted to this series, and I'm sure any other P&P fan will be as well.         

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some Buried Caesar

"It's my opinion. I am careful with my opinions, sir; they are my bread and butter and the main source of my self-esteem."

Rex Stout's creation Nero Wolfe is beloved by many mystery readers.  He appears in 33 novels and 39 short stories published between 1934 to 1974.  While his love of food, beer, orchids, and home seem to make him seem the person least likely become involved in complex crimes, that is just where he finds himself.  With his personal assistant (and narrator) Archie Goodwin, Wolfe uses his extensive knowledge and careful planning to catch the perpetrators.

The Plot:

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are on their way to an agricultural fair north of Manhattan for the purpose of exhibiting Wolfe's prize orchids when their car is run into a tree.  They are stranded in the care of Thomas Pratt, the owner of a fast-food chain who is the owner of a prize bull named Caesar.  His plan to barbecue the bull has caused an uproar among the local cattle owners, including Frederick Osgood.

When Osgood's son Clyde is found gored to death in the pasture, it is assumed that he was trying to kidnap Caesar who then turned on him.  Wolfe, however, believes this to be a case of murder.  With Archie's help, he sets out to prove his case and bring closure to the community.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

What amazed me as I worked my way through these detective stories was that no matter how similar they were, there is always something that sets them apart.  Some Buried Caesar is no different.  While it has many of the traditional elements of an Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers novel, it also has that distinct American feeling found in the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  More than anything it seems to be an unlikely marriage of both the old world and the new.

The detective himself seems to represent the old school.  Born in Montenegro, Wolfe embodies all of the eccentricities and interests of an old world detective.  He has a most discerning palate and employes a gourmet chef to satisfy it.  He is also particular about beer and books and he tends his prize orchids with the utmost care.  He is larger than life in every sense of the word and gives the book that distinctly European touch.

But more than our detective, it is our narrator whom the story really seems to revolve around.  Though Archie Goodwin is not the so-called "brains of the outfit", neither is he a moon to simply reflect the brilliance of the detective (a-la-Dr. Watson).  He is the tough, street-smart, and rough around the edges man that we have come to expect the an American detective story.  His fully developed personality really sets him apart from other foils which in turn sets the story apart from other detective novels.

This story is well-told, interesting, and engaging.  If you are into mystery novels, this Nero Wolfe novel is certainly one that I can recommend that you add to your list.          

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Best of the Year

I can't believe that 2012 has already passed us by.  It was an eventful one for me, though it didn't always manifested itself in my reading and blogging.  That is one of the many things I hope to do better in the year to come.  In the meantime, here is a look back at my top 5 books for 2012:

Honorable Mention: The Chosen by Chaim Potok.  Potok's tale of relationships and the struggle between one's passions and one's religion is very moving.  The relationship between Danny Saunders and his father is especially touching and the climatic scene almost brought tears to my eyes.  A wonderful introduction to the works of this author.

#5: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell.  Scandinavian crime literature has become very popular over the years, but this was my first taste of it.  The brutal murder and the issues of race and immigration stand in stark contrast to the quiet and peaceful place that comes to our mind when we think of Sweden.  Not only is this a study of methodical police work, but it is also the study of a man whose life has become as gray and cold as the frozen landscape around him.

#4: My Life in France by Julia Child.  The story of Julia Child's years in France is inspiring, humorous, and insightful.  Whether or not you are a lover of food or France, you will love this tale of how a woman from California came to be known as America's foremost authority of French cuisine.  More than the story of food, it is the story of a true American icon.

#3: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.  The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one that everyone (but especially Christians) should hear.  After living a life of privilege in Germany, theologian Bonhoeffer took a stand against Hitler's regime that cost him his job, his freedom, and ultimately his life.  His journey from studying theology at Berlin's university to learning from African Americans in Harlem to spying against Hitler is one that once heard can never be forgotten. 

#2: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  Solid storytelling, fleshed out characters, and a surprise ending make this novel by the Queen of Crime perfectly brilliant.  No matter how "ordinary" the crime may seem, you are still engrossed in all that is going on.  Though you may find yourself somewhat put out after learning how you have been duped, you will certainly remember how this mystery ended.

#1: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The whole series is good but I was especially blown away by Mockingjay.  Collins' story of war, surviving, love, and rebellion is powerful in many ways and one that this generation is not likely to forget.  In many ways, it is a reflection of our own society and it shows the flaws and failures that plagues us.  If you have not given these books a try, I suggest you make that a priority for the new year.

I'm really looking forward to 2013 and hope that each of you have a wonderful year in books.  Keep an eye out as I catch up on the leftover reviews from 2012.  And as always, thank you for reading Complete & Unabridged.    

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy Birthday To:

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.  "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times.  Bu that is not for them to decide.   All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." -from The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien
January 3, 1892