Thursday, April 10, 2014

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”

-Oscar Wilde 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fahrenheit 451

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

In 1951, Ray Bradbury sat in the basement of UCLA's Powell Library typing what would become his most famous work on a rented typewriter.  In the age of McCarthyism,  Bradbury set out to warn the world what would happen if society allowed censorship to rule the day and the loneliness that would be found in a world without books.  Over 50 years later, his warnings are just as important as our own world begins to look increasingly like the one of his creation.

The Plot:

Guy Montag is a fireman at an unspecified time in the future.  Unlike the firemen of the past, their job is to set fires, not put them out.  Books have been banned, and anyone who is found to have them has their house and belongings destroyed by the firemen.  Things have been this way for as long as he can remember, so Guy doesn't question them.  That is, until he meets a young woman named Clarisse, whose free thinking ideals and free spirit cause him to see things differently.  And so begins the un-ravelling of his world as he begins to question everything he has ever believed, and wonders what exactly is inside those books that makes them so dangerous to so some, and so important to others.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This is one of the books that I have meant to read for a long time and just never got around to.  It is ranked among the top of dystopian novels along with Brave New World and 1984.  In many ways, I found the book to mean more in today's times than it might have 50 years ago.

Censorship is the main issue that Bradbury tackles in this novella.  We have a society that has banned all books in an effort to "protect" people, but what I find fascinating is that unlike other dystopian novels and examples in history, this change has come from society itself and not from the government in charge of it.  Books were banned little by little because different groups found "offensive" material in them.  In effect, political correctness led to the end of books because people could always find something offensive in them.  Sounds a lot like the times we live in.  Our society's answer to everything we find offensive is not to argue against it with sound logic, or even just ignore it, but rather to ban it all together.

You can also see glimpses of our society in other areas.  Like the citizens of the novel, we have begun to live vicariously through other mediums.  We trade personal interaction for time in front of our TVs.  We have friends over, not to talk to and learn from each other, but to watch other people's lives unfold on the screen.  A great example of this is how Mildred can't remember how she and Guy met, but she refers to the people on her TV as family.  Our real life experiences somehow feel less real than the things that happen in media.

The only real problem I had with this book was that it was so short.  I felt like there were so many themes and issues that could have been fleshed out more than they were.  I guess this is because Bradbury had to rent his typewriter, but still everything seems to happen almost too fast.  Guy goes from having no clue about what is in books to an enraged passion for them in what seems like a couple of days.  

Besides that quibble, this is certainly a book that should continue to be read.  Bradbury's imaginary future is eerily similar to our world, and it is important to head the warnings found here or our fate might be worse than the one at the end.  If you haven't read this one, you really should.

The Movie:

In 1966, a film adaptation was made starring Julie Chritie and Oskar Werner.  I have not seen it, but Bradbury was pleased with it.             

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Weekly Geek Revisited: Literary Soundtracks 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 August of 2009, I was honored to have one of my ideas chosen as the weekly meme.  I challenged other weekly geeks to list songs that reminded them of certain books or literary characters.  I also used this challenge as my farewell post to Weekly Geeks.  I've decided to try this again, but with a twist.  Instead of posting songs that remind me of certain books, I'm going to post some that are actually based on books.  I've scoured the internet and found songs based on some of personal favorite reads (and some yet to be read).

Rebecca by Meg & Dia

Sister band Meg & Dia wrote this song based on Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca.  It is a slow moving song on piano and focuses mainly on the first few chapters of the book.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Sufjan Stevens

This song by singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens retells Flannery O'Connor's short story of the same name.

Havens Grey by Andrew Peterson

This song by Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson is about the Grey Havens found in The Lord of the Rings.  This album The Far Country is a personal favorite of mine.

My Antonia by Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews

Well know singers Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews team up for a song about Willa Cather's classic novel, My Antonia.

How about you?  Do you have any favorite songs that are based on books?  Or are there any songs that remind you of your favorite reads?  Recommend them in the comments!

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