Friday, August 27, 2010

On Tap

Ok, so if everything goes according to plan, I should wrap up my summer reading challenge by the beginning of next week. Here's a look at what I'll be reading this fall and what reviews you can expect here on Complete & Unabridged:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro- Having loved The Remains of the Day, I've had this 2005 novel of Ishiguro's on my reading list for awhile. With the new movie version due out later this year, I figured it was time to actually read it. The story revolves around three friends (Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy) who are growing up in a sheltered boarding school with little to no contact with the outside world. Only after they become adults do they discover the reason for this seclusion and the reality of their own fate.

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon- This is a semi-fictionalized account of Anna Leonowens' time in the court of the King of Siam. It was this version that was used to create the many film versions of the story including The King and I.

My Cousin Rachael by Daphne DuMaurier- I absolutely LOVED Rebecca and I'm really looking forward to this story as well. When Philip Ashley meets his beautiful cousin (by marriage), he falls head over heels for her. But as their relationship develops, things become unsettling for him. Does Rachael really care for him, or is he merely a tool in her much larger scheme?

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte- It should come as no surprise to my readers that a Bronte novel appears on my list. Reading a Bronte novel in the fall has become a bit of a tradition. Having read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Villette the past two years, I'm now moving on to Anne's other novel. This one is similar to Jane Eyre in that it follows the plight of a young governess as she struggles to find love and acceptance in the world.

Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee- I absolutely love the Broadway version of this story, so I'm really excited about reading the original story. Wang Ta is a young Chinese-American living in San Francisco in the 1950s. Throughout the story, he struggles to find his identity, wondering if he should continue in the traditional Chinese ways (like his father), or cast them off and embrace the American way of life.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien- This is a classic children's story that I never actually made it around to as a kid. Mrs. Frisby is a widowed field mouse whose house and family are in mortal danger. In order to save them, she enlists the help of laboratory rats who have created a society beyond anything she has ever known.

So, that is what's on tap for this fall. With any luck I'll finish these pretty quickly and be able to add some more before the end of the year. If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comment section.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front

"We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."

War. It has been a reality for as long as we can remember. Every generation has its conflict, its defining moment. Often times we try to make ourselves feel better by giving war a glorious and patriotic aura, but this does nothing but mask the dirt, the sweat, the tears, and the blood that war is really made of. Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel chooses to portray war (namely WWI) for the horror that it really is, and gives us a picture of a generation whose lives are lost to the war, even if they survive the conflict.

The Plot:

It's 1914 and war has come to Europe. 19 year old Paul Baumer is finishing high school when he and many of his classmates are urged by their teacher to join the army and fight for their country. In a moment of patriotic fervor, they rush out and immediately sign up. They soon discover, however, that war is not what their friends, parents, and teachers had described. They are sent to the western front to face the French and English armies. Life at the front is one filled with bombs, dirt, hunger, vermin, blood, loneliness and death.

Slowly but surely, Paul changes from a lighthearted German schoolboy with his whole life ahead of him, to a hardened German soldier whose all consuming thought is surviving the next moment. As he watches his comrades die one by one, Paul realizes that life for him will never be the same. Even if he survives the war, he can never return to the life he had before.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is not an easy book to read. In fact, in can be graphic and somewhat disturbing on many levels. But that is exactly what Remarque wanted. He wanted a story that would grab your attention, touch you in the depths of your soul, and give you an experience that you would never forget.

In order to really understand this novel, you have to know a little something about the first World War. Patriotic fervor ran very high in Europe at the outbreak of war. Those who did not immediately sign up and fight for their country were branded as cowards. Most expected this to be a brief war with their side winning within a few months. It was anything but brief. After trench warfare set in on the Western Front, it became a virtual stalemate and both sides used every new piece of technology to their advantage. Tanks, gas, barbed wire, machine guns, grenades, and airplanes were all used for the first time and led to the death of thousands of men every day.

Remarque's characters are very real and it is so hard to watch these brash, simple, kind, and sensitive young men to be blown away (literally) by the war. One theme that Remarque hits on again and again is that their generation is the most affected by the war. Even if they survive, Paul believes, they cannot go on. The older men can go back to the lives and families they have left behind. But for Paul and his friends, there is no going back, neither is there going forward. They have been trained for life on the battlefield, and nothing else. This makes Paul's death at the end somewhat easier for us as the reader.

The other aspect of the novel that really hit me was Remarque's portrayal of those outside the war zone. When Paul goes home on leave, he is faced with friends, neighbors, and family who cannot understand what he is going through. But that does not stop them from giving their opinion. The older men bombard him with what the men should be doing, and asking why they can't break through that line. I mean, how hard could that be? It reminded me of the attitude we all fall into in wartime. We've all got our opinions, but we have no clue. We yell and scream that the boys should come home, or they should press on and finish the fight, but we never stop and ask "the boys" what they think. How can we honestly push our agenda when we have not experienced the horrors that our men and women in uniform have?

Though this is not a novel that will bring pleasure in its story, it is still a very important one. War is a very difficult thing to wrap our minds around, but that is what we must strive to do. I believe that Remarque's novel is ultimately a fervent prayer for us to think long and hard about the true horror of war before we send another generation into its flames.

The Movie:

One can imagine that this novel was just made for the screen. And in fact, it has produced many fine versions of this gut-wrenching story. The most famous is the 1930 version starring Lew Ayres as Paul. This version is very well done (if you don't mind classic Hollywood) and is considered by many to be one of the best war movies ever.

There is also the 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version starring Richard Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Kat. I have not yet seen this one, but the clips look pretty good. And finally, 2012 will see the release of a new version reportedly starring Daniel Radcliffe as Paul. After My Boy Jack, Radcliffe should be more than ready for this role.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-28: Deja Vu

Ok, so this week is open season Weekly Geeks and we can pick whatever old Weekly Geek challenge we would like to do. I dug through the archives and found one that I am dying to try:

Many of us have had an opportunity to interview an author, mostly through email, but perhaps even on the phone or in person. In fact, many of you have become experts at author interviews. So this week, let's pretend that we can get in contact with one of our favorite characters and interview them. What would you ask Mr. Darcy if you could send him an email. What would his answers be like? What would you say if you could just call up Liesel or Rudy from The Book Thief and ask them anything? How would they answer your questions? What if you could invite Jo March or Anne Shirley to lunch, what would the conversation be like?

Thanks to B. J. Harrison over at the Classic Tales, I was finally introduced to someone I have been dying to meet for a very long time: The Scarlet Pimpernel (or Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart.). After a bit of begging on my part, Sir Percy has now agreed to do an exclusive interview with Complete & Unabridged.

C&U: First off, I would like to thank you, Sir Percy, for agreeing to this interview. I'm sure my readers, like myself, are simply dying to ask you some questions.
PB: "Odd's life! but you are very welcome m'dear. I'm always happy to oblige a fan, especially over a glass of good wine. Not to mention, it gives me ample opportunity to allow the general public to observe the very latest in good fashion.

C&U: So, what exactly was it about the French Revolution that made you decide to risk your life in saving many members of the aristocracy?
PB: Oh yes, those poor devils. Well, anyone can see that the whole situation was demmed monstrous. I mean, we all know that his Royal Highness the King of France was not exactly the smartest fellow in the class, but was that any reason to chop off the heads of the leading members of society? Just look at our King. He's certifiably off his rocker, but you don't see our tailors and cooks and cabmen running about chopping off everybody's heads because of it. Zounds!

C&U: After so many daring and brave escapades across the channel, does it ever annoy you that everyone back in England still considers you to be hopelessly idiotic?
PB: La, m'dear. Did you really think that would bother me? Not only have I millions of fans around the world and a band of 19 men who would lay their lives down for me instantly, but I have the supreme delight of playing an enormous joke on London society. Also, if all those young bucks want to admit that "the cleverest woman in Europe" was seduced by the charms of a "demmed idiot" and not them, well, that's their privilege.

C&U: And speaking of Marguerite, I know that all of us females are simply dying to know what exactly happened on that trip back across the channel. What was it like allowing yourselves to trust and become reacquainted with one other?
PB: Lud love you females! Do you think that just because every other celebrity out there likes to tweet the details of their love lives on the world wide web means that I'm going to? Suffice it to say, 'twas a dream on the Daydream. And a demmed good one at that!

C&U: Overall, you appear in 11 novels and 2 short story collections, but you were also a part of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tell us about that experience.
PU: Well, I had always planned on living a somewhat private retired life, but when one is asked to work with the likes of Peter Blood, C. Auguste Dupin, Captain Nemo, and Jeeves, one simply does not refuse. Yes, we had some good times, although I must say that Sherlock Holmes and Capt. Nemo were demmed rude to me. Whenever the others asked me to recite my poem, they would suddenly strike up playing that demmed violin and organ of theirs. Something about my poetry not being good enough for their highbrow tastes.

C&U: Well, we certainly like your poetry. Would you be so good as to recite your famous poem now?
PB: Begad! I'm surprised you hadn't asked me before. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" by Sir Percival Blakeney, Bart.

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in Heaven? Or is he in Hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel!

C&U: And what about Chauvelin, your archenemy? Have you heard anything from him recently?
PB: La! No, I have not heard anything recently. In fact, the last thing I heard was that he had caught a demmed nasty cold while waiting to catch me at the wrong creek. Poor chap.

C&U: Well, again I thank you so much for your time, Sir Percy. As a final question, could you tell us what you are doing now in semi-retired life?
PB: Oh, you know, the same sorts of things that I was doing in the novels. Driving the horses by moonlight, attending fancy balls, playing cards with the Prince of Wales, trying on new clothes, drawing scarlet pimpernels on the corners of napkins, etc. Odd's life, but you didn't think I was going to change with time did you? I'm a demmed classic!

If you have a question for Sir Percy, just leave it in the comment section. He'll be available all week to answer.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-27: Judging a Book...

I thought it would be fun to look at book covers. I'll give you several topic ideas--and you can choose which you'd like to do.

Never judge a book by it's cover, as the saying goes. And there is much truth in that saying. Some of the best books that I have read have been enclosed in some of the plainest, shabbiest, and (sometimes) downright ugly covers. But lets face it. There is something wonderful about holding a beautiful book in your hands like a work of art (cough*unlike those digital e-readers*cough). It really does add to the experience. Here are some of the most beautiful covers for my favorite books:


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Cover art by Petra Borner
Part of the White's Books Collection

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Cover art by Reuben Toledo
Created for Penguin Classics

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cover for Vintage Classics

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Cover for Vintage Classics

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Cover art by Coralie Bickford-Smith
Created for Penguin Fine Books

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Created for The Folio Society

Thursday, August 5, 2010

William Tell

Hold fast together, then—forever fast!
Let freedom's haunts be one in heart and mind!
Set watches on your mountain-tops, that league
May answer league, when comes the hour to strike.
Be one—be one—be one——

There is perhaps no other playwright who has captured
the imagination and heart of the German people like Friedrich Schiller. His plays continue to be world famous and many consider him to be Europe's second greatest playwright behind William Shakespeare. His friendship and collaboration with Goethe helped create the Weimar Classicism movement and established the Weimar Theater, which became the leading theater in Germany. William Tell is based on the life of the legendary Swiss hero, is considered by most to be his best play and has been translated into many languages.

The Plot:

It's the early 14th century, and the Swiss cantons are under the cruel oppression of the Hapsburgs of Austria. When Gessler, the new "ambassador" from Austria arrives, life becomes unbearable for the Swiss people. Local leaders begin to secretly form an alliance between 3 of the cantons to overthrow the Austrian rule. Local archer William Tell, however, is more focused on providing for his family than overthrowing the government. But when he accidentally breaks one Gessler's new "laws", Tell is forced to face the ultimate test that may cost him the one thing in the world he values most: the life of his son.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

It has been a long time since I have read a play. In fact, Shakespeare has been about my only exposure to the classics of the stage. So I was going into this kind of blind.

Overall I was fairly pleased with the play. The story is very inspiring, a sort of Robin Hood meets the American Revolution. It is so great to see these downtrodden people band together and overthrow their foreign oppressor. William Tell's defiance led to a rebellion that eventually formed the Swiss Federation, and today he is still regarded as a national hero.

Schiller's writing is at once strong, dark, powerful and beautiful (very German don't you think?). I love how the settings reflect the mood from the turbulent storms to the homey Tell cottage. Schiller makes the legend, though well known, very riveting.

Of course, it is always better to actually see a play versus just reading it
. I would love to be able to see this story acted out on stage and let the full force and beauty of Schiller's work come out.

It can be very difficult to find William Tell in book form, but you can read it here for free. It is a great introduction into the tradition of the German theater. I guarantee that you will be inspired by Tell's love for his family and his country.

The Movie:

Though William Tell has never made it to the silver screen, it has appeared in various forms on television all over the world. Probably the most well known are the 1958 series starring Conrad Phillips, the 1987 series "Crossbow" starring Will Lyman, and the 1998 series "The Legend of William Tell" starring Kieren Hutchinson. Haven't seen any of them, but it's a safe bet that they don't follow Schiller's work too closely.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-26: Remembering TKAM

July 11th marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and arguably one of the most influential cultural books of its kind in the U.S.

Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? When did you first read it? Did it affect the way you think about race and class in the U.S.? Do you agree that it's an influential and/or important book?

If you read the book but don't live in the U.S., how did the novel influence your opinions about race in the U.S.?

Here's a link to one of the many stories about the novel's anniversary. Have you come across any other interesting stories about the book or the author, Harper Lee?

What other novels have you read that have affected the way you view culture, either your own or others?

Like most people throughout the world, I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school and I wasn't all that impressed. It seemed kind of boring at the time. Then last summer, I read it as part of my summer reading challenge focusing on Southern literature (see my review here). And I was completely blown away. I became so wrapped up in Scout's story that at times I almost cried. Part of me really thinks that this story is forced upon kids way too early. Not to say that isn't a great book (it is), but it is so hard to grasp the shattering of childhood innocence when you are still living in yours.

I think that what I liked most about this book is that it transcends the very issue that everyone brings up when this book is discussed. This isn't simply a book about race, but about being human. It is about seeing beyond a person's exterior circumstances and realizing that they are just as human as we are. Whether a country's problems lie in race, religion, class, caste, or wealth, this is a story that speaks to all of it.

May I express my hearty congratulations to Harper Lee and her amazing work on 50 years of changing how we view each other. Check out this article from Southern Living if you would like to visit Harper Lee's hometown that she based the book on. And please find below one of my favorite parts of the film starring Gregory Peck. The opening credits.