Monday, November 17, 2014

The Enchanted April

“Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.” 

It is so easy to get bogged down in our lives.  To wake up one day and realize that we don't like where we are or what we have become because of it.  In her 1922 novel, Elizabeth von Arnim tells the story of four unlikely travel companions who leave their dreary lives behind and find joy, friendship, and love on the shores of Italy.

The Plot:

Lottie Wilkins needs a change.  She isn't sure whether her unhappiness is due to her own timidity, her husband's attitude towards her, or the dreary English weather.  Whatever the reason, once she reads the advertisement for a secluded castle on the Italian coast to let for the month of April, she knows she has to go.  She also notices that a slight acquaintance in her women's club,  Rose Arbuthnot, has seen the advertisement and she impulsively enlists her as a traveling companion.  Before they know it, the two have made the arrangements to rent the castle and have also found two more companions, Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, to help split the costs.

Each woman declares that they simply mean to get away from it all and be alone.  They have little intention of being near each other except at mealtimes, and true friendship certainly seems out of the realm of possibility.  But Italy has other plans.  As the month passes, the atmosphere of San Salvatore works its magic on each woman.  They slowly open up to each other, and in the end find themselves longing for the very things (and people) they were trying so desperately to escape.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This book has been on my "to read" list for awhile now and it was nice to finally get around to it.  Though it was not all together what I was expecting, it was still a nice little read.

Though at first it seems that all four women are nothing but drab and unhappy women with a great need to escape the dreary English weather, it soon becomes apparent that they are actually lively and unique individuals.  Each woman has shut herself off from her world for different reasons.  Lottie feels that she can't please her husband.  Rose is embarrassed by the way her husband makes a living (writing books about royal sex scandals).  Lady Caroline can't stand being constantly followed around by men struck by her beauty.  And Mrs. Fisher simply won't let go of the past.  But as they spend more time in Italy, and each other's company, they begin to break down the walls they had constructed and allow themselves to be open to each other.  I think we've all at one time or another simply been simply shut away inside ourselves.  Sometimes, we don't even realize we are doing it.  We simply know that our relationships with others aren't very strong and we find no joy or satisfaction in what we should love.  We can't all rent a castle in Italy for a month, but we should stop periodically and evaluate what needs to change in our lives (and ourselves) to allow us to be open with the ones we love.

Though the setting of the book is certainly beautiful (lots of flowers, a spacious castle, ocean views), I was slightly disappointed that the book didn't really allow for Italy to be a character.  The only Italians we meet are the servants and none of the visitors ventured outside of the castle grounds.  I was hoping for something along the lines of A Room With A View and an "Italian flavor" to the story. This story, though charming, could have happened in any beautiful place.

This book certainly has it's charming moments and is a great story of the need for openness in any relationship.  Though I wasn't quite satisfied with the lack of, well, Italy in this novel it is still one that I can recommend.  An easy read with lots of lovely little lines and moments.

The Movie:

I will fully review the 1992 film version of this book in a separate post.    

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Weekly Geeks Revisited: Best Movie Adaptations 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.

In July of 2009, Weekly Geeks were challenged to pick some of their favorite movies based on books.  There are a lot of factors that go in to deciding whether or not a movie makes a "good" adaptation and frankly it is all pretty subjective.  With that in mind, here are some more of my favorite book - movie adaptations:


The Fault In Our Stars 2014

There are plenty of adaptations that get the big things right.  They get the main characters, the plot, and the spirit of the book.  But it is rare for an adaptation to get even the small things right.  The Fault In Our Stars does that.  Granted, this is probably due in large part to the fact that the author was heavily involved in the production, but it is still pretty awesome.  I sat there the whole time saying "That room is EXACTLY like I pictured it" or "I knew that is what he would look like in that jersey".  A+ in my book.


Hugo 2011

This was a fairly tricky book to adapt as it is made up mostly of pictures.  But Martin Scorsese did a wonderful job of capturing the book's magical qualities.  It was particularly wonderful to see some of history's earliest films come to life again for a new audience.  Add that to some terrific acting from the young cast of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz and you have a truly stunning homage to both film and literature.


The Painted Veil 2006

This is a good example of a movie that was able to tell a different story from the book without really changing the plot.  While W. Somerset Maugham's novel focuses mainly on the personal growth of Kitty, the movie focuses on the relationship between Walter and Kitty.  It does this, however, without greatly altering the story and provides the audience with a slightly more satisfying ending.  


Captain Blood 1935

Though older movies are notorious for straying a long way from the original source material, there are those that do a solid job.  One of these is Captain Blood starring Errol Fylnn and Olivia de Haviland.  Not only does it maintain the swashbuckling and romantic attitude of the book, but it does so without throwing away a chunk of the plot.  It is also wonderfully cast and a treat to watch.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book adaptations?  What makes an adaptation good in your opinion?  Share with us!    

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eugene Onegin


“My dreams, my dreams! What has become of their sweetness? What indeed has become of my youth?”

When we think of Russian literature, names like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Solzhenitsyn are the most likely to come to our minds.  But the tradition of modern Russian literature began several decades before the works of these great authors.  It began in the early 19th century with the works of Alexander Pushkin whom many believe to be not only the father of modern Russian literature, but also Russia's greatest poet.  His serialized "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin first appeared in 1825 and it's well loved characters and story would gain immortality as an opera by Tchaikovsky.

The Plot:

Eugene Onegin is a young St. Petersburg socialite who has become bored with his life which consists of nothing but balls and parties.  When he inherits a landed estate from his uncle, Onegin seeks a change by moving to the country.  There he meets his neighbor, a dreamy poet named Vladimir Lensky.  Lensky offers to introduce Onegin to the other area families, including that of his fiancee, Olga Larina.  Olga's sister, the quiet and romantic Tatyana, is immediately taken with Onegin and develops an intense (though rather naive) passion for him.  

When she can no longer suffer in silence, Tatyana openly declares her love to Onegin in the form of a letter.  Onegin coldly crushes her dreams and suggests she learn to control her emotions.  Not long after, Onegin's thoughtlessness leads to a misunderstanding with his friend, Lensky, and the ensuing tragedy will change everyone's life forever.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was first introduced to Alexander Pushkin through the Great Courses lecture series on the Classics of Russian Literature that I listened to.  I fell in love with his poetry and the plot of this story intrigued me, so I knew that I would have to read it one day.

This is truly a novel in verse and is about 389 stanzas in length.  It took awhile to get used to the rhythm of the poetry (like a Shakespeare play), but once that is done it flowed very smoothly.  It is also a little slow to start as the narrator spends a lot of time introducing the character of Onegin, discussing Russian society and the differences between country and city life, and reflections on his own muse.  But once the actual story gets going, it is rather enthralling.  In many ways, the poetry allows Pushkin to infuse the story with real emotion.  This is a story whose plot is less driven by action and more driven by the intense emotions of the characters.

The two characters whose emotions chiefly drive the plot are Onegin and Tatyana.  Onegin is consumed with an ennui that affect every aspect of his life.  Though he is included in social gatherings both in St. Petersburg and the countryside, he finds no real pleasure in them.  His pride and selfishness keep him at a distance from people, and make him unable to feel true sympathy with others.  This ultimately leads to the death of his only friend.  To Pushkin, Onegin represents everything that is wrong with Russia's high society.  Tatyana, on the other hand, is everything that Onegin is not.  She possess an inner strength and true compassion for others.  Though quiet, she is consumed with an intense passion.  Her declaration of love to Onegin is powerful, especially for a young woman in the 19th century.  And Pushkin doesn't fault her for this openness, but rather faults Onegin for his cruelty.  Tatyana is the Russia that Pushkin admires.  Unfortunately, society continues its work in the lives of both characters and by the time Onegin expresses his sincere love for Tatyana and remorse for his actions, she has armed herself against feeling and crushes him in return.

The difficulty in effectively translating Pushkin's works into English means that he is not generally well known to Western readers.  This is a real shame because the works I have read have been so full of passion and human emotion.  Though it lacks the epic scope of what we now consider to be real Russian literature, it makes up for that with intense feeling and a fascinating glimpse of early 19th century Russia.  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys romantic poetry, or Russian literature in general.

The Movie:

This story was most famously adapted as an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1879 and continues to be performed around the world.  I hope to find a good recording of it and watch it soon.

There is also a 1999 film version called Onegin starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, and Toby Stephens.  I thought it was a wonderful adaptation that really captured the emotion of the original.  Worth a watch whether or not you have read it.    

Monday, October 20, 2014


"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers."
- Anne of Green Gables

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dragonwyck

He was all sin and mystery, and Miranda feared the pleasures he offered as she feared the fires of hell. Yet when she succumbed at last, it was not because her body was weak but because her mind was curious.

Beginning in the 1940s, American author Anya Seton began writing historical romances.  Her subjects ranged from Katherine, the wife of John of Gaunt to Elizabeth Fones, niece to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Her works would go on to influence many later writers, including Phillipa Gregory.  Her 1944 novel Dragonwyck is set a hundred years earlier when a still young American nation was trying to determine exactly what constituted true freedom.

The Plot:

Miranda Wells is a young woman who has spent her entire life on the family farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  She chafes at her family's humble life and yearns to find adventure outside of the farming community.  She gets her chance when her mother receives a letter from a distant relation, Nicholas Van Ryn, who asks that one of her daughters come and live at the family estate known as Dragonwyck and become a governess for his daughter, Katrine.  Miranda gleefully accepts and is soon taken with the handsome and cultured Mr. Van Ryn, though his wife is anything but welcoming.

Life at Dragonwyck is different from anything Miranda could have expected.  Not only is she out of her depth in this grand society, but there is also a dark and mysterious presence that seems to haunt the house.  When tragedy makes a way for Miranda to attain the life she has always dreamed of, she finds that neither Nicholas nor Dragonwyck are truly what they seem.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This is just one of those books that rings all of my bells.  Historic setting...check.   Mysterious house with a Gothic touch...check.  A magnetic and dangerous love interest...check.  Though it isn't great literature in the way a Bronte novel is, it was still very enjoyable.  It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's works.

The historical setting for this was very fascinating.  I had no idea that there was an almost feudal land system in America until I was introduced to this story.  This system was left over from the Dutch settlers of early New York and forced the tenants to pay the "patroon" in goods and services.  It is against this dying system that Seton sets her story.  Like the plantation owners of the South, Nicholas refuses to believe that his way of life will ever come to an end and he cannot understand why his tenants would want the change.  Seton doesn't just use historical settings in her novels, but also historical figures.  Writers like Edgar Allen Poe and James Fenimore Cooper make appearances in the story without it a jarring effect on the reader.

Though we see everything through Miranda's eyes, it is Nicholas who drives the story.  His personality is forceful and magnetic, and though you are never able to come to love him like you would Mr. Rochester or Maxim de Winter, you can't hep but be interested in him.  It is pretty obvious from the beginning that his relationship with Miranda has all the marks of an abusive one.  Nicholas is the type of person who believes that he can have anything he wants by sheer willpower.  But fate is the ultimate master and Nicholas must watch as the things he values most in his life are taken from him one by one.

As I said, this book had so many of things I love in my reading life.  If you are someone who likes historical romances or Gothic stories, this one is for you.  It has some fascinating aspects that will make it hard to put down.

The Movie:

I was introduced to this story by the 1946 film starring Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, and Anne Revere.  It follows the book pretty well though it does end differently.  Vincent Price is simply masterful as the polished yet ruthless Van Ryn.  Great for classic film fans even if you don't read the book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Janeite Tag


Hannah over at Miss Daydreamer's Place recently tagged me in The Janeite Tag.  The rules are as follows:
  1. Thank and link back to the person who invited you.
  2. Tell us about how you were introduced to Jane Austen, and share one fun fact about your Janeite life.
  3. Answer the tagger's questions.
  4. Write seven questions of your own.
  5. Tag anywhere from 1 to 7 other Janeites to participate.
How were you introduced to Jane Austen?

Funny enough, the same way I was introduced to many works of classic literature.  When I was growing up, PBS had a children's show entitled Wishbone.  It was about a dog who loved to read, and the adventure his human friends were having always coincided with the plot of a work of classic literature.  One of these was entitled Furst Impressions and that introduced me to the story of Pride and Prejudice.  As an adult, I was re-introduced through the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, which remains one of my favorites.

One fun fact about my Janeite life.

I saw Austen's The History of England on display at the British Library...eclipsed only by the handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre right next to it! 

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?

If you had asked me this when I was younger, I would probably have said Pride and Prejudice.  But as I have gotten older, I have really come to love Persuasion.  It is such a wonderful story of people overcoming time and hurt to find love with each other.  I have also come to identify with Anne Elliot in a variety of ways.

Who is your favorite Austen hero an heroine?

Favorite hero is Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Favorite heroine is Anne Elliot.

Who is your favorite secondary character?

Probably Mr. Bennet.  Let's face it, he gets most of the best lines.

Provide up to five of your favorite Austen quotes.

“My idea of good company...is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." - Persuasion

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  - Northanger Abbey

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” - Sense and Sensibility

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” - Pride and Prejudice

Capt. Wentworth's letter...all of it - Persuasion

What is your favorite adaptation of each of the Austen novels?

Pride and Prejudice - 1995 Andrew Davies (Firth, Ehle)
Sense and Sensibility - 1995 Ang Lee (Thompson, Winslet, Rickman, Grant)
Northanger Abbey - 2007 Andrew Davies (Jones, Feild)
Persuasion - 1995 Roger Michell (Root, Hinds)
Emma - 1996 Andrew Davies (Beckinsale, Strong)
Mansfield Park (this one is hard because none of them are particularly good) - 1999 Patricia Rozema (O'Connor, Miller)

Are there any books you would recommend to a Janeite?

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

New Questions:
  1. If you could invite any Austen heroine to tea, who would it be and why?
  2. Would you prefer a quiet dinner party with a few friends or a large community ball?
  3. Which of the Austen "villains" do you feel to be the least "bad"?  Why?
  4. What is your favorite adaptation of a Jane Austen novel with a modern setting?
  5. Which Austen town/city would you like to live in (i.e. Merryton, Highbury, Bath, etc.)?
  6. What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?
  7. What is your LEAST favorite Austen novel?
I tag:

hopeinbrazil at Worthwhile Books

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

I have always been intrigued by Russia.  It is a country and a culture that is at once familiar and yet so very different from our own.  It is a country shaped by the weather, by religion, and by it's size.  It has also been shaped by its many rulers from Tsars to communists.  But perhaps no one other than Peter the Great has left as big a mark on Russian history as Empress Catherine II.  In his 2011 biography of her, historian Robert K. Massie explores the life of one of history's most remarkable women and how she overcame so many obstacles to lead her nation into a new era.

I had been wanting to read this book for awhile and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.  I had only a vague knowledge of Catherine and the role that she played in Russian history.  Massie recounts Catherine's entire history from just before her birth in 1729 to her death in 1796.  Many factors lead Catherine from a small Prussian province to the throne of one of Europe's mightiest empires.  She was cousin to the prospective tsar, Peter of Holstein, and was considered a good match by those who wanted Russia to trade its alliance with Austria for an alliance with Prussia.  But though life in the Russian court was glittering, it was not without its downsides.  She was subject to the whims and ever changing moods of Empress Elizabeth.  Her husband was an overgrown child with no sense of dignity and no love for his wife.  And like all royal courts, this one was full of spies and people seeking to climb the ladder of success.  But Catherine's intelligence, wit, and beauty charmed many people and eventually she found herself on the throne and loved by the people she had adopted as her own.

Catherine's life was simply fascinating.  One of the most interesting aspects was how much she was a product of the times she was living in.  From a young age she was caught up in the ideas of Enlightenment.  Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert became not just her tutors in political thought, but her personal friends as well.  Though she eventually gave up the idea of establishing a true Enlightened monarchy in Russia, it did lead to many changes and helped usher Russia into Western society.  Social changes were begun during Catherine's reign, including changes to Russian law and more freedoms for the serfs.  She also encouraged arts, culture, and education throughout the empire.  This cultivation of the arts lead to the existence of many of the great Russian writers, musicians, and artists that we appreciate today.  From Pushkin to Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky, I think it is safe to say that none of them would have existed as we knew them without Catherine the Great.

For all of the accomplishments of her reign, Massie never loses sight of the fact that she was first and foremost a woman.  He shows us not only the strong and intelligent empress, but also the woman in desperate need of love and affection.  Catherine never received true love in early life.  Her mother and her husband were especially disappointing.  The rest of her life, she constantly sought the comfort of many different lovers.  Several of these men would eventually leave their mark not just on Catherine, but on Russia as a whole.  But no matter how much she loved a man, Catherine never gave up or shared her rights as empress and she always remembered the duty she had to the people of Russia.

This is a well written biography and an easy read for the layman historian.  Massie packs in a lot of information but does so in a way that is not overwhelming or "scholarly" in tone.  He also includes lots of background on Russian history and society that is helpful to those who may not have much of a background in it.  I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Russian history, or in Catherine.  Though Massie shows her flaws, he also portrays the strength she had as a woman and a leader.  A wonderful glimpse into the life of a woman who changed not just her own nation, but the world as well.