Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rob Roy

“Honour is a homicide and a bloodspiller, that gangs about making frays in the street; but Credit is a decent honest man, that sits at hame and makes the pat play.” 

There are few writers who have done as much for Scottish literature as Sir. Walter Scott.  He was widely popular in his own time and remains so to this day with such classics as Ivanhoe, Waverly, and the Lady of the Lake.  In 1815, he published a story of one of Scotland's most legendary characters, Rob Roy MacGregor.  As the Scots were trying to adjust to being under English rule, Scott tried to use this person,  at once beloved and hated, as a symbol for everything that was both good and wrong with Scotland.

The Plot:

Frank Osbaldistone is a young Englishman who has chosen not to follow in his father's footsteps in trade.  In retaliation, his father sends Frank to live with his uncle at the family home of Osbaldistone Hall in Northumberland and offers a lucrative position in the firm to Frank's cousin Rashleigh.  Frank is very much out of his element up north among his uncle and cousins.  He is Protestant and they are Catholic.  He loves to read and write poetry while they are all for manly sports.  He is loyal to King George while they are Jacobites.  But not everything about the Hall is so dismal.  He almost instantly falls for the beautiful and intelligent Diana Vernon who is living at the Hall as the ward of his uncle.  As he is one of the few people whom she can have an intelligent conversation with, she takes a liking to him and warns him that Rashleigh is not a person to be trusted in such an important position as the one he has been offered.

Sure enough, her prediction comes true as Rashleigh absconds with important documents whose loss could bring ruin to Frank's father's firm.  Frank must now travel to Scotland, where Rashleigh has fled, and do what he can to restore the papers to his father.  Along the way, he must accept the help of Rob Roy, the notorious highland chief, cattle dealer, and blackmailer.  He soon discovers that these papers will have an effect, not just on his own family, but on the fate of Scotland itself.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I first encountered Sir Walter Scott's work when I read Ivanhoe, which I loved.  Though there were some obvious historical inaccuracies in that novel, it was still a great read with an engaging plot and memorable characters.  I decided to try one of his novels set in his native Scotland.

It is pretty obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of Scottish history that Scott was pro-Union.   He does everything he can to show the economical benefits of Scotland's union with England and to downplay the loss of its self-governance.  The Catholics and Jacobites are often spoken of in rather patronizing ways and portrayed as being decent people DESPITE these circumstances rather than because of them.  No matter what your political persuasion on this issue, it is certain that Scott is only really telling half the story.  At the same time, it can be argued that Scott is trying to clear away the romantic mist that pervades so much of Scotland's history.  Too often such characters as Roby Roy are simply the stuff of legend and their true histories never revealed.  Scott attempts to downplay some of the romantic aspects of Rob Roy and instead portrays him as simply a man who is neither 100% good nor 100% bad. 

If there is one thing that Scott can do, it is create some strong and intelligent female characters.  Diana Vernon is downright amazing.  She is smart, beautiful, loyal, and brave.  When Frank first meets her, she is joining the Osbaldistone boys in a fox hunt.  Her hair is down, she is flushed, and clearly enjoying the thrill of the hunt.  She addresses people in a very frank and earnest manner, and almost holds court wherever she is.  She reminds me of an ancient warrior Queen whose followers behold her in reverential awe.  Even though Frank often bemoans her seeming lack of propriety and understanding of what is socially acceptable for a woman, he can't help but admire her.

Though there are interesting and unique aspects to this book, it isn't a perfect read.  It can seem very slow-going and we are over halfway through the novel before we even get to Scotland.  And Frank is a somewhat bland lead character and narrator.  To me, he often came across as snooty and self-satisfied.  There are also aspects of the novel that would probably make more sense if I was Scottish.  Many of the conversations were written in the Scots dialect which could be very hard to understand.  And it is pretty important to have a basic understanding of Rob Roy's background as Scott spends precious little time actually delving into that. 

This was a decent read, and an important one if you are interested in Scotland, the works of Sir Walter Scott, or Scottish literature in general.  Probably not one that I will come back to, but worth the initial reading. 

The Movie:

There is a 1995 film that is supposedly loosely based on this work.  It is also entitled Rob Roy and stars Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, and Tim Roth.        

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Masterpiece Theatre: Downton Abbey Series 4

When we last saw Downton Abbey, we were left with Matthew Crawley's lifeless body lying in a ditch after crashing his car on the way to deliver the news about his newborn baby boy to the rest of the family.  Viewers the world over were left heartbroken and wondering if the show they loved would be able to sustain the blow.  As a new season dawns, they awaited with baited breath the results the tragedy would bring.

The new series starts 6 months after Matthew's death, but the effects are still being felt.  Mary has become almost ghost like and is apathetic towards everything and everyone, including her son, George.  And while Lord Grantham insists that they should keep her hidden from the world to protect her, others, including Lady Cora and the Dowager Countess, do their best to bring her back to life.  Within a couple of episodes they have succeeded and Mary takes her place in helping to manage the estate and preserve it for George.  It isn't long before she attracts new admirers like landholder and equal Lord Gillingham, Charles Blake whose prejudices against the upper classes make for interesting conversations, and devoted Evelyn Napier who reappears from way back in Series 1.

Everyone else in the family is facing changes too.  Lord Grantham is still struggling with accepting the new methods necessary to keep Downton viable.  Edith finds herself in an extremely difficult situation after her "fiance" Michael Gregson disappears while in Germany.  Isobel slowly comes out of her mourning and finds local causes to champion.  Rose is constantly on the search for ways to have a good time, and soon finds herself in a very unconventional relationship.  And Tom is struggling to find his place in the family after the loss of Sybil.

Below stairs, life is just as complicated.  Kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy are constantly at each other over relations with the footmen.  Ms. O'Brien's sudden departure makes way for new ladies maid Ms. Baxter who is forced to report the goings on upstairs and down to Thomas due to some secret he holds over her.  Mr. Molesley struggles to find a job after losing his position due to Matthew's death.  And one horrible moment threatens to wreck Anna and Bates' marriage and makes us question everything we ever thought we knew about his lordships' valet.

Whew!  Ok, so there was a lot that happened this series, and in many ways I am still trying to process it all.  In the end, it kind of ended up being a Jekyll and Hyde type season.  There were aspects that I loved, and others that I wasn't too crazy about.  Let's start with the good stuff.  As much as I hated seeing Matthew go, I kind of liked seeing Mary get back to her old self and play these men against each other.  One does have to wonder if poor Evelyn Napier will ever learn NOT to bring competition with him if he wants to woo her.  Personally, I'm kind of liking Charles Blake, mostly because he doesn't flatter and moon over Mary the way Gillingham does.  And seeing the wealthy and prim Mary covered in mud and pig sh*t made me smile for some sadistic reason!  I also loved it when Isobel got back on her feet and started taking on the Dowager Countess again.  Those two have always provided the best scenes and their time together really hearkened back to the glory days of Series 1.  Other little things I loved about this series were Paul Giamatti's turn as Cora's brother (I REALLY hope he comes back!), Molesley's knight in shining armor to Ms. Baxter, and the staff's trip to the seaside.

And now for the not so awesome things.  I get that it is hard for Branson to find his place with the family.  But really, the guy needs to either pick his politics back up and give them all hell day in and day out, or he needs to embrace the fact that he is now with the upper crust.  Whatever he chooses, he needs to just stop whining about it.  This series also lacked a real villain as Thomas was just plain boring.  It seems he isn't capable of true villainy without Ms. O'Brien there to join him.  There has to be a very good (and plausible) reason as to why Michael Gregson fell off the face of the earth and didn't once reach out to Edith.  And please, Mr. Fellows, just let Bates and Anna be HAPPY already!!!  Every time we think they might get to settle down and open that pub you throw some new horrible situation at them.  Pick on someone else for a change!

Overall, this series fell in the middle for me.  While there were great moments that reminded me of the good old days of Series 1, there were just as many that fell into the cliches of Series 3.  What I can say is that the it got better as it went along, so if you find yourself bored or disappointed with the first few episodes be sure to stick around and see the whole thing.  I am feeling a bit more optimistic at the end of this series than I did at the end of the last two and am looking forward to what Series 5 brings.  

See my other reviews here: Series 1, Series 2, Series 3

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Joy in the Morning

“It was one of those cases where you approve the broad, general principle of an idea but can't help being in a bit of a twitter at the prospect of putting it into practical effect. I explained this to Jeeves, and he said much the same thing had bothered Hamlet.”

When it comes to writing humor, there are few who do it as well as P. G. Wodehouse.  With a career spanning seven decades, Wodehouse would create a huge body of work containing everything from short stories to plays to novels to song lyrics.  But out of all these he his best remembered for his creations of Bertie Wooster, a foppish and foolish English gentleman, and his reserved and extremely intelligent valet, Jeeves.  Where Bertie Wooster goes, chaos and trouble are sure to follow and it is up to Jeeves to get him and his friends out of many a scrape.

The Plot:

Steeple Bumpleigh may seem a very idyllic and peaceful English village, but Bertie Wooster knows otherwise.  As the home of his overbearing Aunt Agatha, her crabby husband Lord Worplesdon, and his daughter, Florence (whom Bertie narrowly avoided marrying), it is a place that Bertie avoids at all costs.  But when Lord Worplesdon finds himself needing Jeeve's expertise in planning the execution of a delicate business matter, Bertie is forced to make the trip down from London with him.  As he expected, it is non-stop chaos as he tries to avoid becoming engaged to Florence again, being thrown in jail by her on/off fiance Stilton, and being terrorized by her brother Edwin.  As always, Jeeves is forced to take the situation in hand and create a happy ending for everyone.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I have long been a fan of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories.  The stories are so funny, the situations so absurd, and the characters so memorable.  Though I have listened to audiobook versions of many different stories, this is the first Wodehouse novel that I have actually read. 

This is a classic Jeeves novel, pure and simple.  All of the great elements are there.  It does take place about midway through the series, so it is probably not the best one to start with.  But if you are already familiar with these stories you will find this one just as delightful.  I love how we get to see everything through the eyes of Bertie.  This poor guy hardly does anything and yet he always finds himself in the most ridiculous of situations.  And it is always great to see a story involving Aunt Agatha who "crushes broken bottles with her teeth and conducts human sacrifice by the light of the full moon".  Even though she doesn't actually appear in most of the book, her presence still hovers causing terror in the hearts of many characters.

Though I wouldn't say this is THE funniest Jeeves/Wooster story, it certainly is a solid one.  I often found myself laughing out loud at the goings on.  Like when Edwin accidentally blows up the cottage.  Or when Boko "arrests" the American businessman.  Or when Bertie discovers Lord Worplesdon locked up in the garage.  Plus, there are all of the classic slang terms and metaphors.  I love it when great works of literature (like Shakespeare) make sneak appearances, giving this crazy novel a somewhat highbrow air.

If you have never read any of these stories, do yourself a favor and pick one up.  They are all so bubbly, witty, and just pure fun.  I can't recommend them highly enough.

The Movie:

My favorite adaptation of these stories is the 1990-1993 Grenada TV series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Frye.  An adaptation of this particular story can bee seen in Series 4 Episode 2 entitled "The Once and Future Ex". 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” 

-from A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Friday, March 14, 2014


“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” 

There are, perhaps, few events in history that still have the power over us the way the holocaust does.  Nothing else seems so unfathomable, makes us recoil in horror, and draws pity from our hearts like the suffering of the European Jews during WWII.  And yet, the story is now so familiar that we are in danger of being desensitized to it.  In this slim volume, survivor Elie Wiesel recounts not only his own story, but also that of 60 million other people.  Knowing that he cannot remain silent, he begs the world to never forget.

The Plot:

Romanian-born American author Elie Wiesel tells of his fate and that of his family in the period of 1941-1945.  He tells of the early years when his small community felt little affect from the war raging in Europe.  Of the time in the Ghetto when they thought the war would end before any real harm came to them.  Of the nightmarish journey in cattle cars to impending death.  And of the horrific years spent simply trying to stay alive in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. 

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

The Second World War is a period in history that has long held my fascination.  I have pored over books and watched many films and documentaries.  And in all that time, I don't think I have ever come across one that I have found as powerful as this.  Perhaps it is because the story wasn't being told by experts, scholars, and talking heads, but rather by someone who lived and breathed the horror.

There is nothing beautiful about this book.  It is stark.  It is horrific.  It is raw.  Wiesel describes in detail all of the horrible realities of life in a German concentration camp.  It was so honest that it often became difficult to read.  I imagined my own family in those circumstances; watching my own father slowly die before my eyes; seeing my own little sister go to her death in a bright red coat.  Each of us, no matter our circumstances, can easily imagine ourselves in the shoes of the European Jews.

Perhaps what is most disturbing, beyond the never ending slaughter, is the fact that the Nazis believed the Jews to be sub-human and so consquently stripped them of everything that made them human.  Life simply became a matter of surviving the next moment.  Even Elie found himself abandoning his own father in an attempt to simply keep living.  I think what I found most heartbreaking was seeing Elie being stripped of the faith he had once held so dear.  He was a boy who spent much of his life in study and prayer and yet in the end he would feel abandoned and punished by the God he loved.  So much so that his faith became non-existent.

As a Christian, this book is challenging in that it is so difficult to see God in the midst of the horror.  Like Elie, we are left to wonder where God was and how he could abandon his chosen people to such a fate.  How do we talk of the love of God to someone who has been through what Elie and his family went through?  In his foreword to the book, French author Francois Mauriac describes his own difficulty:  

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? Zion, however, has risen up again from the crematories and the charnel houses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is through them that it lives again. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping.

Though it is by no means an easy book to read, it is one that we must.  Read it because they died.  Read it because they were human.  Read it because the survivors cry out.  Read it because so many turned a blind eye.  Read it so that it may not be forgotten.  Read it because you live.         

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sunshine Award

Hannah over at The Life and Random Thoughts of Indigo Montoya nominated me for The Sunshine Award.  I'm very honored...thank you Hannah!  This is a tag type award and here are my answers to her questions.

Is there anything you love that no-one would expect you to?

I think that many people would consider my tastes and interests to be rather highbrow.  I love classic literature, black and white films, good wine, travel, history, etc.  But one of my big loves that isn't so upscale...Disney.  I love anything and everything having to do with Disney.  Perhaps love isn't a strong enough word.  Obsessed is better.  I literally become a puddle of feelings whenever I'm around something Disney related.  I spent my childhood watching such classics as Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, and Sleeping Beauty and I continue to love those films today.  Here is the best scene from my all-time favorite Disney film...Beauty and the Beast

What are three of your favorite TV shows?

I've never been a huge TV watcher, but I do have some real favorites.  My favorite TV show of all time is The West Wing.  Aaron Sorkin's political drama was smart, funny, and often powerful.  No matter what your political leanings, you left each episode feeling an enormous pride in the ideals of America.  My second choice may be kind of cheating, but I'm going to have to choose Masterpiece.  This is how most Americans (who don't have BBC America) get some of the best British dramas like adaptations of great literature, Downton Abbey, and Sherlock.  Sunday nights are Masterpiece nights every winter/spring for my family.  And finally, the show I turn to when I need a good laugh is The Big Bang Theory.  What other show makes us nerds and geeks look so cool?

Narnia, Hogwarts, Middle-Earth, Westeros.  If you could visit only one of these fictional places which would you pick and why?

Well, Hogwarts and Westeros are automatically out because (ducks for cover) I've never read/seen Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  I think I'd have to go with Narnia as it has been a part of my life for such a long time.  I've always loved the stories and would love to spend time sailing on The Dawn Treader, traveling with Puddleglum, taking fencing lessons from Reepicheep, having tea with Mr. Tumnus, and sitting at the feet of Aslan.  Even as an adult, these stories create a deep and mysterious longing deep inside of me. 

If you're into musical theater, name some of your favorite West End/Broadway stars.

Ok, so while I love musicals in and of themselves, I am not very familiar with the stage versions.  I often have only seen the film versions or I come to know stars of the theater only when they show up in a movie or tv show.  Probably the Broadway star who has made the biggest mark on my life through a stage show is Mary Martin.  For years we had a video of the 1960 broadcast version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin, and that is probably my favorite adaptation ever.  I still remember being captivated as she begged us all to clap and save Tinker Bell's life.  Here she is singing Never Neverland:

What is your favorite accent?

Hmm...I'm going to take this to mean which accent I find the most attractive.  I tend to be most attracted to the accents of the British isles or other English speaking countries.  And while the Aussies, Irish, and Scots all have something going for them, nothing can make me swoon quite like a slightly rugged Northern England accent.  Think Sean Bean, Richard Armitage, or the Ninth Doctor.  Pretty sure I'd listen to Richard Armitage read the phone book.

My Nominee

Hopeinbrazil at Worthwhile Books

My Questions

1. If you could have tea with any literary character, who would it be?
2. What book would you like to see made into a film?
3. If you could live somewhere other than you do now, where would it be and why?
4. What would you choose for your last meal?
5. What is your favorite sport/outdoor activity?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Weekly Geeks Revisited: World Travel 2.0

I first began participating in the "Weekly Geeks" meme back in 2009 and continued on until its end in 2011.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, "Weekly Geeks" was a weekly meme for book bloggers to discuss various aspects of reading.  Topics were given, and we would each write a post pertaining to it.  I've decided to re-visit some of my favorite posts and update my thoughts and responses.

Back in July of 2009, we were asked to create a picture map (using this website) showing the "travel" we had done through reading.  We could use our own criteria for choosing where to place each book, and I decided to go with the book's setting only.  Here is what my reading map looked like then.

Looking back on it now, it seems rather pathetic.  It is pretty obvious that the majority of my reading life prior to that time was firmly rooted in American and British literature.  I've since made a somewhat conscious effort to expand my reading horizons.  Here is what my book travel map looks like today.

Much better.  I've added several countries to my map over the last few years including China, South Africa, Australia, and Columbia.  I am, of course, nowhere near done and can see some glaring deficiencies still.  I need to really add some South American, African, and Middle Eastern literature to my diet.  If you have any recommendations on good novels set in any of these places, please share (bonus points for books written by authors from the country the story is set in)!

What does your reading map look like?  What areas are you lacking in?  Share with us in the comments, and let me know if you decide to do a blog post on this topic!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Masterpiece Theatre: Sherlock Series 3

There is perhaps no other fandom that is forced to wait like those of us who love Sherlock.  Two years after we watched Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) supposedly jump to his death only to mysteriously appear alive at the end of the series.  Now, the world's favorite consulting detective is back and ready to pick up where he left off.  But what happens when he discovers that other people's lives don't stop when he is not around?

I absolutely love this series and have spent the last two years dying for more.  Just when you think that the show can't get any better, creators Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat go above and beyond to bring us edge of your seat, mind-blowing television.  The original cast members reprise their roles and are once again stellar.  Plus, we see the addition of Amanda Abbington as Mary Morstan (John Watson's fiance/wife).  In this series, we seem to focus more on the characters and less on the crimes themselves (though they are very good).  I think it was especially interesting to see Sherlock having to face the changes that have happened during his absence and to find himself no longer the very center of his friends' lives.  Watson is also going through some rough changes.  In a way, he is struggling to adjust to married life after the highs of living at Baker Street much as he was to civilian life after the war.  In the end, they once again discover that they still need each other and that they work best as a team.

All three episodes from this series were spectacular, but I especially loved the first one.  In many ways, it seemed to be one long love letter to the fans.  It gave a nod to the thousands of theories on Sherlock's survival.  It touched on the (often absurd) fanfiction you can find online.  And it hearkened back to many jokes and moments from the earliest episodes.  And you simply haven't lived until you have seen Sherlock and John play parlor games after a night of drinking (episode 2).  So many times, I found my jaw dropping in awe of where Gatiss and Moffat have taken both the characters and the story.  And it simply wouldn't be a Sherlock series without some amazing quotes:

-Watson: "I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes."
 Mary: "You should put that on a tshirt."

-David: "...They’re right about you. You’re a bloody psychopath."
 Sherlock: "High-functioning sociopath. With your number."

-Sherlock: "John, there's something I should say, I've meant to say always and I never have. Since it's unlikely we'll ever meet again, I might as well say it now.  Sherlock is actually a girl's name."

I am more in love with series than ever before.  I highly recommend it to anyone.  And now...we wait for Series 4. 

Did you miss me?