Friday, December 12, 2014

Back to the Classics 2014: Round-Up

2014 is drawing to a close and it is time to start looking back over the books I read this year.  The bulk of my reading consisted of classics chosen specifically for the Back to the Classics 2014 challenge hosted by Karen at Books & Chocolate.  I completed all of the categories!  Here is what I read:

Required Categories

20th Century Classic - Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse
19th Century Classic - Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Classic by a Woman Author - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Classic in Translation - Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Classic About Way - Night by Elie Wiesel
Classic by an Author Who Is New to Me - The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Optional Categories

American Classic - Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Historical Fiction Classic - Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Classic Adapted to a Movie or TV Series - The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Movie Review of Film Based on Book in Category #4 - Enchanted April

This was a fantastic challenge and it certainly helped knock a lot of classics off my TBR list!  I don't know if I will read a book in every category again, but I certainly plan on participating in 2015.  Thanks, Karen for hosting!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mary Barton

“There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.” 

As most people know, the Victorian era was a time of great change in the Western world.  It was a time of invention, of industry, of power, and of great wealth.  It was also a time of social upheaval, of intense poverty, and of class division.  And while our minds might immediately envision the narrow, dirty streets of Dickens' London, another author asked us to turn our eyes to the north and see the squalor, the heartbreak, and the division that was eating away at the heart of England's manufacturing district.

The Plot:

Mary Barton is the only living child of John Barton, a mill worker in Manchester.  Her mother died when Mary was young and her father blames her death on the sudden disappearance of his sister-in-law, Esther.  John is heavily involved in the trades union in Manchester and has become more and more depressed over time as the industry has hit a rough patch and paying jobs are scarce.  Mary takes a job at a dressmakers and to help support herself and her father.  

Mary's long-time friend, Jem Wilson, has loved her for years but is turned down when he proposes.  Mary has her sights set higher and is enjoying the secret admiration of Harry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner.  But when Harry is murdered and Jem is arrested for it, Mary realizes where her affections truly lie and she sets out to do everything in her power to save the man she loves.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South, which I absolutely loved.  I was pretty excited to read this novel, which was her first.  Though this one didn't affect me the way that one did, it is still a solid read.

It's neat to see a female Victorian author take on the issues of social justice and economic inequality as passionately as some of the male authors (like Dickens and Trollope).  Gaskell comes out swinging, showing us the abject squalor that was the reality for so many people of that time.  And while she doesn't blame the mill owners and wealthy for the economic situation that is causing it, she does fault them for refusing to see and help the needy people all around them.  John Barton goes to extremes in his retaliation, but one can imagine the desperation one might be driven to if you watch others live in lavish comfort when your own friends and loved ones are dying.  It was also interesting to see the geographical disconnect between London and Manchester.  Even today, it is easy for those who live in the seat of power to simply turn a blind eye to the needs of those who live further away.

While the social aspect of this story is as solid as that of North and South, the narrative is not.  It is harder to connect to these characters the way we do Margaret Hale and John Thornton.  Mary comes off as rather flighty and seems to have less spirit than Margaret.  And while Jem is a sweet guy, he lacks that quality of strength and passion that John Thornton embodies.  As a whole, the narrative seems less tight and comes off as rather heavy handed at times.

This is certainly a solid read and a must for anyone who loves Gaskell or Victorian lit.  If you are new to Gaskell's works, however, I would suggest you start with North and South.  You'll get the same social message with a better story and stronger characters.      

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

“If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.” 

In 1910, French writer Gaston Leroux published a novel that drew from his time covering the Paris Opera as a reporter.  Based on actual historical events at the opera, his story would go on to be the basis for many adaptations.  The story was finally immortalized by the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which is the longest running musical in Broadway history.

The Plot:

In the light and glitter of 19th century Paris, the Paris Opera has come under new management.  The managers are told of a phantom who haunts the opera and demands payments, a private box, and other things in exchange for keeping the opera safe from himself.  The new managers scoff at such a notion and begin to ignore the Phantom's wishes one by one.  It isn't long before mysterious things begin to happen in the vast opera house.

One of these is the rapid rise to stardom of a chorus girl named Christine Daae.  She is convinced that her dead father has sent the "Angel of Music" to help teach her as he once promised.  She becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend, Raoul, and tells him of her "angel" expressing both intense fear for it as well as passion.  Raoul is convinced that Christine is being held against her will in the power of an all too real man, and he sets out to discover the true identity of his rival.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Like most people, I first became aware of this story through the famous musical.  I like many aspects of the musical, though there is an element to Erik's obsession with Christine that is a little too creepy for me.  Still, I knew that many fans liked the book so I thought I would give it a try.

My overall opinion?  I wasn't too impressed.  This is a tricky story and I only see a couple of ways to really make it work.  The first is to read it as a sensation story.  Leroux's original readers would have been familiar with the historical context of the novel, and it obvious the Leroux was playing this up for sensation.  The whole story is played out like a mystery, as the identity and methods of the Phantom are slowly revealed.  You can certainly see the elements of Leroux's other writings which included detective fiction and "locked room" mysteries.  This is all well and good if you are new to the story.  Unfortunately, most of today's readers are not.  There is very little room for discovery and surprise since we already know the Phantom's identity, past, motivations, and his fate.  This takes a lot of the "sensation" out of the story.

The other way to make this work is to fill the story with something other than sensation...something like pity.  The reason the musical connects to so many people is that it does a good job of making you feel a strong amount of pity for the Phantom.  He is turned into this romantic anti-hero who needs only the love of a woman to make him a good man.  The book fails to do this.  Because Leroux is setting up an atmosphere of horror and suspense, he tends to play up the dark side of the Phantom.  Though there are small shots of sympathy here and there, we are never allowed to see things from the Phantom's point of view so it is difficult to see beyond his actions and his ugliness.  

If you are a huge fan of the musical, then you will probably want to read this for more background and context.  For everyone else who may be a casual fan (or not one at all).  I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It just didn't excite me very much.

The Movie:

I have seen two versions of this story.  One is the 2011 live production of the musical at the Royal Albert Hall starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess.  I liked this production and it was nice to have the opportunity to see the actual musical.

The other is the 2004 film version starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum.  I didn't hate it, but it didn't really become a favorite either.  The one decent aspect was Gerard Butler...didn't mind having him sing to me for a couple of hours! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Page to Screen: Enchanted April

In 1991, director Mike Newell brought Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel The Enchanted April to life.  With a solid cast, slow pace, and stunning scenery, it is an enchanting little film and one that is sure to help put a bit of calm into a stressful life.

The four main female characters are portrayed by Josie Lawrence (Mrs. Wilkins), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Arbuthnot), Polly Walker (Lady Caroline Dester), and Joan Plowright (Mrs. Fisher).  The men of the novel are played by Alfred Molina (Mr. Wilkins), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Arbuthnot), and Michael Kitchen (Mr. Briggs).  I thought the entire cast was simply marvelous.  Of course, the performances themselves were solid but it was also nice to see the characters brought to life just as I imagined them when I was reading the book.

The film also did a fantastic job keeping the plot and pacing of the book intact.  When a book has as slow a pace as this one, it is easy for the film to try and add lots of extra drama, etc. to make up for it.  That doesn't happen here.  Instead, the film embraces the quietness and self-reflection of the novel and allows the story to simply be about the characters themselves.  Couple this with some spectacular scenery and you have a film that feels like a quiet vacation in and of itself.

If you like the book, this is a wonderful adaptation.  True to the story and characters, beautifully shot, and nicely paced, it is a little gem.  I recommend it for anyone who enjoyed (or is even interested in) the book.  

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.