Saturday, December 28, 2013

Page to Screen: Recent and Upcoming Attractions

Here at the end of the holiday season, it can often be difficult to find the time (or the energy) to throw yourself into a book.  Sometimes all you really want to do is to sit in front of the TV (or computer, or tablet) and soak up the images on screen.  Luckily, there are ways you can do that without necessarily giving up on literature all together.  Here are some programs that I have recently indulged in that still keep me in tune to the great literary works.

Emma Approved

You may remember a while back that I was raving about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and could not wait for the team's new production, Emma Approved, based on Jane Austen's novel Emma.  It took awhile for this production to hit its stride (the story set-up period kind of strayed from what is in the novel), but things are coming together in a wonderful way.  The modernizing of the story is on track, the actors' portrayals are spot on, and things are getting tense in Emma's office.  Since the show is on hiatus until February (sad), now is the perfect time to start catching up.  Here is Episode 1:


Honestly, there is no fandom that has to wait as long as those of us who love Sherlock.  And it's even worse for those of us in the US as we have to wait even longer for gratification.  But the time is finally drawing nigh.  The long awaited Series 3 premiers on PBS on January 19.  You can read about my obsessive love for this show in my reviews of Series 1 & 2.  If you haven't seen the series, do yourself a favor and watch it now.  If you are like me and awaiting the 19th with bated breath, then check out this recently released mini-epsiode that will further whet your appetite:

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Back in 2010, I read and reviewed Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem as part of my summer reading.  Recently, I discovered a documentary of the author's life.  It is a great look, not just at Sholem Aleichem, but also at the rise of Yiddish literature and the breakdown of traditional shtetl life at the end of the 19th century.  It also talks a lot about Aleichem's best known character, Tevye the milkman, upon whom Fiddler on the Roof is based on.  Here is the trailer for it.  You can see the full documentary on Netflix or rent it from Youtube:

Have you watched anything lately that was based on great literature?  Feel free to share it with us.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Cold Blood

“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.” 

One of Truman Capote's most famous works (right behind Breakfast at Tiffany's) is the story of a true American crime.  Written over a period of seven years, Capote crafted a "true crime novel" that would serve as a blueprint for many similar novels to come.  Though it is not a mystery as the victims, perpetrators, and outcome are already known to the reader, it still has a sense of the unknown as we try to wrap our minds around the circumstances that lead to the brutal murder of an innocent family.

The Plot:

There was nothing special about the Clutters.  In many ways they were a typical Kansas farm family.  A hard working, conservative farmer; his reclusive but well loved wife; his popular and vivacious daughter; and his quiet and curious son.  But their quiet, ordinary life was brought to a violent end in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959.  The killing was brutal and the murderers left few clues and no sense of motive.

Investigators had no idea that they were looking for two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary.  The two men, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, had been told that there was a safe full of money in the Clutter home (a false story) and their intention had been to rob them.  The night ended with bloodshed and no money.  As we follow the story from the night of the murder, through the investigation, and the trial, we can't help but wonder what drove these men to take the lives of four strangers and shatter the peace of a community.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

It is amazing how much people can't help but be fascinated by crime.  Though we feel horror, repulsion, fear, and sadness about it, we still cannot look away.  Perhaps it is because we can see ourselves in the victims and, sometimes, in the criminals themselves.

I think what makes this particular crime so haunting even today is that the Clutter family was so ordinary.  Like many rural Americans (especially in 1959) they were quiet, well-liked, church-going folk who were respected members of their community.  There wasn't anyone who wished them harm.  But then they were murdered.  The crime shattered the small town of Holcomb, Kansas whose residents wondered if they would ever be safe.  If it could happen to the Clutters, it could happen to anyone.  That is one aspect of life that Capote captures here.  We always feel that horrific crimes happen in foreign countries, in big cities, and on the other side of the tracks.  We never stop to think that it could happen in our own towns and our own homes.

The other side of this story is the criminals themselves.  It is clear from the beginning that Capote has no use for the smug Dick Hickock.  He is written off pretty early as the all-American boy gone bad, despite his wholesome upbringing.  Capote is much more fascinated by Perry Smith, the stunted boy/man whose childhood and youth are the stuff of nightmares.  Though Hickock conceived the plan, it was Smith who admitted to pulling the trigger.  He was notably unstable and prone to fits of rage.  Capote's musings on the psychological aspects of the crime are very interesting.  In the end, he concludes that the murders were the result of the pent up hurt and anger that Smith felt for all those who had ever done him wrong and that the Clutters were the unfortunate (and innocent) recipients of his brutality. 

This is not a fun, happy read but it is an important one.  First, it was a pioneer of the genre and the last great work that Capote ever produced.  His later years would be defined by drug use and alcoholism that would ultimately lead to his death.  It is also a hard look at the nature of American crime and violence.  In a time when it seems like every day brings a new story of horrific brutality, you can't help but wonder what leads people to perpetrate such an act.  And, more importantly, what can be done to stop it.

The Movies:

It didn't take long for this popular novel to hit the big screen.  In 1967, only a year after publication, a film version starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, and John Forsythe.  It was filmed in many of the actual locations, and was nominated for 4 Oscars.

The story of Capote's research and writing of the novel is equally fascinating.  The 2005 film Capote stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins, Jr.  It was well received and even won Hoffman the Oscar for best actor.  Personally, I found it to be very interesting and finally convinced me to read the novel.

There is a similar film released in 2006 entitled Infamous starring Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, and Sandra Bullock.  It also garnered favorable reviews.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Famous Authors State by State

Business Insider recently published a list of the Most Famous Authors from Every State.  Here is the criteria they used to pick each one:

To qualify for this list, the esteemed wordsmiths had to be born in their respective states, but not necessarily live out their years there.  We considered the authors' fame in terms of ubiquity, literal acclaim, and financial success — and awarded bonus points if the author showed state pride by setting their works there.

Some of the picks are not too surprising.  Mark Twain was listed for Missouri, William Faulkner for Mississippi,  and John Steinbeck for California.  But some of the choices didn't seem to fit as well as others.  For example, they listed the most famous author for my home state of North Carolina as Thomas Wolfe.  Though he is fairly well known within the state (especially in his native Asheville), he isn't a name you hear thrown around very often in the literary world.  My own choice for us would have been the famous short story author O. Henry.  Though many of his stories are set out west or in New York, he is still a native son of NC and is even buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville (the same cemetery as Thomas Wolfe).

Another choice that confused me was the selection of Flannery O'Connor for Georgia.  Though anyone who has read my blog knows that I am a huge fan of her work, she didn't seem like she would be the "most famous" author from the state.  I'd say that distinction would have to go to Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind.  This is arguably one of the America's best known and most read works of all time.  It won the Pulitzer Prize, and even today it sells thousands of copies each year.  I can't help but feel that not choosing Mitchell was an act of political correctness on the part of Business Insider.

How about your home state?  Did they get it right in your opinion?  If you live outside of the US, who would you say is the most famous author from your city/county/province?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Professor

“In sunshine, in prosperity, the flowers are very well; but how many wet days are there in life—November seasons of disaster, when a man's hearth and home would be cold indeed, without the clear, cheering gleam of intellect.” 

Charlotte, the last of the Bronte children, died in 1855 at the age of 38.  In 1857, her husband took on the task of editing her first novel which had been rejected over and over by publishers.  In many ways, it embodies much of Charlotte's life experiences and serves as a synopsis of the major themes found in her other works.

The Plot:
 The novel is a letter written by William Crimsworth to an old schoolfellow detailing life after his education.  Though his wealthy relatives want him to become a clergyman, William decides to pursue his own course.  His half-brother, Edward, offers him a position as clerk in his mill.  But Edward is extremely jealous of William's eduction and treats him with contempt and and meanness.  It isn't long before their relationship comes to blows and William strikes out on his own.

He decides to travel to Belgium and accepts a position as an English professor at an all-boys boarding school run by M. Pelet.  His abilities soon catch the attention of Mlle. Reuter who runs the all-girls boarding school next door.  While working double duty at both schools, William becomes involved on a personal level, both with Mlle. Reuter and Frances, one of the teachers to whom he is teaching English.  As his situation becomes more complicated, it begins to look like his career itself may be jeopardized.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

 Reading The Professor was pretty bittersweet for me.  I am a huge fan of the Brontes and this was my last novel to read.  I know, of course, that I can re-read them all over again, but this was my last chance to experience one of their novels for the first time. 

Though it was the last novel to be published, it was the first one that Charlotte wrote.  I think what I loved about it the most was that you could see the early workings of her later novels.  The portrayal of modern mill towns and mill owners is given a broader telling in Shirley.  Her experiences as a governess in Belgium gain more detail in Villette.  And in William and Frances' relationship, we see the early workings of what would become Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre.  In many ways, reading The Professor was like visiting old friends.  It was fascinating to see the early details that would later become the foundation for some of my favorite stories.

Now this is not to say that this is a perfect novel.  It lacks the polish of her later works.  It also has a bit of a self-satisfied and preachy tone that is kind of off putting (similar to the tone her sister Anne used in Agnes Grey).  I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the works of the Brontes, it is mainly for die-hard fans.

Though it certainly wasn't the best Bronte novel I've read, I still enjoyed it.  It is a relatively short read, and it serves as a bit of a crash course in the many themes and ideas that Charlotte wrote about.  I recommend this to any fan, and do suggest that you make it one of your later Bronte reads.  It was a great way to cap off my reading of the works of these great literary siblings.  Time to start all over!