Monday, June 27, 2011

Lilies in Moonlight by Allison Pittman

Let’s just get the fact that the cover art is terrible out of the way. It’s terrible. Just find a piece of paper and hide it and fall in love. Because you will. Lily Margolis is a true-blue flapper. Having escaped from the clutches of her legalistic mother, she is barely surviving as a door-to-door cosmetics girl. One night, after crashing a Gatsby-esque party, she stumbles into the yard of the wealthy Burnside estate. There, she is informally adopted by the delusional ( and charming ) Betty Ruth and scrutinized by the enigmatic Cullen, whose past in baseball is as tragic as the mustard gas accident that has left him disfigured. A bright spark in the Christian market and one of my favourite reads this year, Lilies in Moonlight will charm the socks off of you.

First off, I have loved Pittman’s baseball-themed trilogy. Stealing Home is a revelation ( especially because her Crossroads of Grace series was so frustrating for me) and Lilies in Moonlight even surpasses it. A well-loved secondary character makes a beguiling cameo for those who are versed in this Americana by a talented pen . For those uninitiated, this is the perfect place to start with Allison Pittman. This is competent writing with themes far deeper than their surface initially tells. I loved it. It’s wrapped up in grace and redemption; but coated with strong verisimilitude, peppered with authentic dialogue and brimming with a wonderful feel for the era. You will be transported back to an easier time and the language, costumes and colour of the numerous sets back-dropping Lily’s adventures are warm and light-filled.

An unexpected road trip bonds Lily and the fabulous Cullen in a sweet and remarkable way. Both are able to admit their faults, exhume their pasts and respect each other at far more than a surface level. The motif of appearance ( Lily’s kohl liner and ruby lips and Cullen’s horrific war scars ) runs rampant---it even peeks into the delusion that pervades Cullen’s warm-hearted and sweet-tempered mother, Betty Ruth. Not everything in the story wraps up perfectly and we learn that God’s idea of miraculous undertakings can sometimes look slightly different than our own. I loved this book! This book that will always bring me to a bright and happy place. Kudos to Pittman for continually becoming stronger and stronger and establishing herself as one of the most competent writers in the historical genre.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff ( with a bit of a film review thrown in)

In the Spring, on my online friend Ruth recommended that I read The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. A bit of a modern YA classic, I was surprised it had not yet made its way onto my list.

I loved it. I thought the writing was beautiful and atmospheric and I reveled in the themes of honour, valour, courage and loyalty. It was a great read with some fabulous dialogue, a perfect feel for the historical period and peppered with slow, easy suspense that acted as a bit of a backdrop to the relationships and character development forged in the book.

The central relationship of the story arises between Marcus, a Roman legionnaire desperate to reclaim the lost standard of his father’s vanished and near-fabled legion. Marcus is a great and starkly human commander whose testament to character is illuminated in his persistence in battle and his leadership with his men.

Upon gruesome injury, he is sent to convalesce at his uncle’s and sets to learning more about his father while regaining his failing strength. In one of the best literary scenes I encountered this year, Marcus saves a brave slave boy from the hands of a brutish gladiator in a grueling ring fight staged for public entertainment. It’s a brilliantly rendered scene; Marcus sees the young Briton boy and is taken by his will and determination and yells, screams and pleads for his life. He makes the Briton, Esca, his personal body slave and the two polar opposites establish an unbreakable friendship and bond.

This is unabashed bromance at its best, fair readers. Time passes and it falls upon the steadfast Marcus and (now freed; but still desperate to serve) Esca to reclaim the lost standard. Their journey to reclaim the Eagle and excavate the mystery behind the lost legion is gripping fiction at best.

Having read the book, I was excited when the 2011 film adaptation starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell was finally released on dvd--- because I had missed in the theatres and refused to go before I had finished the book.

The film was beautifully shot and the scenery and cinematography are splendid. I usually don’t pay that much attention to the most minute technical tenets of film; but the sound editing in this production was especially effective. I had trouble “buying” Tatum as the strong Marcus because he was very different than my imaginative conceptualization of the character. Jamie Bell fared better as Esca: the strong, silent type whose heart is broken on behalf of his friend and goes to great lengths to save their ripening bond.

Donald Sutherland has a wonderful character bit and Mark Strong shows up with a wavering accent ( he’s in everything now).

While the movie was entertaining, I felt it failed to capture the spirit of the book and the liberties it took with the chronology of Esca and Marcus’ friendship were distracting.

I would certainly have enjoyed the film more if I had not read the novel first. As such, I highly, highly, highly recommend the novel and encourage you to compare it to the recent adaptation: but only after living in Sutcliff’s fabulous adventure yarn a little first.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Film Review: Midnight in Paris

Friday night I indulged in this splendidly imagined movie with a movie-going friend who has the world's most detailed eye for sets and costume. We both were spirited into a magical world that fulfilled the title character's dream life and I, so obsessed with Paris' once literary elite, was re-invigorated in remembering the authors and their lives as they stole through my consciousness in University.

I cannot talk of the Golden Age of Artistic Paris: the effervescent 1920s without casting a thought for Morley Callaghan whose own A Moveable Feast, That Summer in Paris so held my imagination in my early, creative 20s.

A snippet of what I wrote on the anniversary of Morley Callaghan's Birthday:

"Morley Callaghan would have been 100 years old today. And what a jam-packed century he would have had. He already filled more than a lifetime usually allots in the first fifty years. His best writing was done when he was young, his greatest adventures played out mighty early, and all of his literary flings and acclaims came at a young age. Yes, I have romanticized Morley's early years, what with their splash of Parisian panache ( and what with his clobbering of Ernest Hemingway---- don't make me get into the climax of That Summer in Paris as a Canadian literary metaphor again ), but he defines a golden age of sorts for me. I envision him wandering aimlessly around 1920's Toronto---every snippet of his life reading out of the pages of his novel, A Varsity Story. I imagine him, as I often was, curled up in one of the red leather chairs of the Hart House Library at U of T and looking over the courtyards and spires, slightly interrupted by the pealing of the tower bell.And then, there is Paris and Morley's dappling into the lives of the Literary Elite. He defines Paris for me. Whenever I think of it with its dazzling life, parties and pizazz, I rarely think of anything I did not read of in the pages of Callaghan's autobiography. Forget We Were all so Young or A Moveable Feast. Canadians had their own agent in the flapper years!

When I discovered that Allen's latest was an homage to arguably one of the most artistically important decades of the 20th Century, I was eager to see how his vision matched my imaginative strolls by L' Arc de Triomphe and along the Seine.

How impressed I was at the marriage of modern with fabled past. Certainly Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Salvidor Dali, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald et. al are characterizations against a backdrop of glittering, gilded golden age; but it is the treatise on the power of imagination and creative sundry that most beguiled me.

Modern writer Gil is disenchanted with the city he yearns to roam in the rain. He is constricted to Hollywood scripts and his naggy fiance seems to strip the romance out of a city he has long harboured a passion for. At midnight, every night, he is catapulted back to his Golden Age: there, he meets the literary and artistic greats fully realizing the wealth of the decade that has spirited into his nostalgic writing.

Of course, come sun-up, the world is gone and nought but the strains of a Cole Porter tune follow him from the starry beyond. What the experience offers him in terms of creative development and how he learns that each artist pines for an era that, when recreated, can only be drained of its spark and pizzazz, is magic....

Woody Allen understands me. He understood me in Purple Rose of Cairo when he allowed a fictional world to seep into the "real" one and he understands how, like the beautiful Adriana, I have long desired to spirit back to the 19th Century: the canvas of gaslit lamps and the clomp of hansom cab hooves. But, he also explains what is lost when we attempt to catch a fleeting moment. As enchanted as Gil's moonlight walks are, he is well aware that living in the past would only strip it of its incessant charm. That, like those who yearned to live in pasts before him, no one can completely capture the Golden Age. Like clouds or stars, it would evaporate quickly upon our fleeting touch.

‎Midnight in Paris was divine. Like Purple Rose of Cairo, it makes me feel like Woody Allen holds a slice of my psyche. It's a treatise on nostalgia: the Golden Age, La Belle Epoque. It tampers with we imaginative sorts and expels the subtle threads of revelry that steal into commonplace thought. It's magical, deliciously Romantic, delightful.

I referred to it as 20th Century Literary porn: if you have ever cackled at Hemingway's hyper-masculinity or snickered at Dali's obsession with animal abstracts then this is the film for you.

Allen is just as enchanted and obsessed as we are; but his eye and savvy camera glance re-affirm us that what is best dreamt stays just where it is--- in dreams.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Which Jane Eyre Continues to Turn Me Into A Christian (though, I suppose, I always kinda was one anyways)

It’s a pretty much well- known fact that I love Jane Eyre. Love it to distraction. Partly because I identify with the heroine ( I think a lot of female readers do, hence her ongoing popularity) and partly because it is just such a captivating and modern tale: far beyond the reaches of its rigid 19th Century publication.

I think about the book often ( as I do stories that transcend time and place and stamp themselves indelibly on my psyche). What the most recent film adaptation of this oft-filmed tale directed me to was a part in the novel that I think previous adaptations have not dealt with in such heart-breaking sternness: Jane’s unwillingness to sacrifice her sense of self. This was explored so potently in the version that I have not stopped thinking of it since. Some mental imp nudges it to the front of my brain when I feel like I need it most.

Jane sets her teeth and foregos what she most wants in the world in order to do right by Heaven and Higher Power. She will not submit to any Law but the Almighty’s and her self-respect far outweighs a chance at remarkable happiness: at a future secure and not awaiting her on the callous moors she will eventually turn to. Jane has a choice: love, wealth, family over uncertainty, poverty and homelessness.

Forced to confront a heart-breaking and certain dissolution in hope, in which her beloved, Edward Rochester, offers a tenuous solution, Jane regales against the warmth of an inviting future of romance and happiness to, instead, stay true to her laws and beliefs.

Says she: “—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

“Laws and Principles, ‘Jane says above, ‘are not for the times when there is no temptation….’

Not to get all Christian on you ( though I suppose that’s what I’m doing), but it’s amazing how poignantly this part of a book I have read to shreds still resonates with me: on a higher level.
Housing a belief of any kind can suck, to put it crassly: really, really suck. There are times when the most rigid of promises I have laid out for myself and the metrics I have set in place by which to measure the strength of my personal convictions seem to pale in light of seemingly better, easier conclusions.

There are times when the sane solution would be to just jiggle the bar somewhat and re-assess a value system to seemingly reasonable extent. As the reader/viewer of Jane’s story inwardly (and outwardly if you are an effusive viewer/reader such as I )proclaims: it’s NOT such a bad thing, Jane. Not such a bad thing at all. You wouldn’t have to reproach yourself; just re-evaluate.

For me, exposure is sometimes found in the beguiling nudge of a literary remembrance. Jane’s steadfast planting of foot, heart and conscience is the jolt that surges me to reclaim my personal belief.

Sometimes I need something concrete to embody that which seems to mentally evade me. I need to settle the “what ifs…. “ or “ I could just …. Maybe….. “ with a twig-like snap to catapult me back to myself.
The standards to which we set ourselves, inspired by God, by Law, by Reason, by Family, by Conscience, are by far the most pre-possessing and stern reminders we have that our worth is so much more than the limitations we conceive as barriers around us. …
If you DO see the film ( and I highly encourage it; even without initiation to the novel ), make sure you focus on the part where heart-broken and torn, Jane sacrifices happiness for self-worth. She knows that if she were to budge and face what she views as her one true prize would mean the sacrifice of everything she is rooted to believe in.
It is that point that makes her the most super-hero of all Victorian literary heroines. For inasmuch as the literary world unravels her myriad of virtues: as a feminist, as a modern heroine, as a contemporary voice that extols the virtue of women’s education, creativity and imagination, it is her steadfast Faith that most speaks to me—exemplified in her shirking that which she wants most to secure a clear conscience and an eternity wiped clear of regret.

(She’ll get her happy ending, fear not, but it comes at a great cost and doesn’t necessarily materialize in the pitch-perfect, water-coloured rendition a fairytale would suppose).

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

In Which I Go Comic Book (It's like that Brian McKnight song---but worse)

Yesterday, I had a chat with a comic book aficionado friend who was able to shed some light into what DC's setting back to #1 this Fall actually means to the Comic Book World. In his opinion, this impending re-boot will simplify characters and storylines and move everything in each individual comic book universe back to a clean slate.

Character development, thus, completely washed away. Years of meticulous and thought out narrative trajectory? ..Wiped clean to ensure a new and engaging drawing board from which to re-boot characters and plots and storylines.

When I first read about the upcoming move for DC to move back to #1 I must confess that I gave it a quick glance. I didn’t know if it meant any real change to the content of the stories, or was just a Y2k digitized effort to re-boot a franchise ---- I mean, ignoramus that I am, I thought perhaps the numbers were running out ( As said, I didn’t give this much thought: I have dappled in comics ---more so as a child and teen--- have read my share of the popular graphic novels--- and keep a close eye on the film versions; but I am certainly not as well-versed as the friend who directed me to this article. I am also blonde). According to the above article: “DC is launching 52 titles at No. 1 in September featuring scores of its characters ranging from Wonder Woman to Green Lantern to the Justice League”

What is so poignant, potent and outraging about this particular article (sent as an example by my friend) is that it speaks to the loss of character development. Here, years of storyline devoted to the rather amazing Oracle (formerly Batgirl Barbara Gordon), will be completely obliterated.

This example was made more poignant, potent and outraging when I transplanted the idea into some of my favourite literary serializations.

People feel quite strongly about the fictional worlds they imaginatively inhabit. For comic book readers who invest hours of thought and mind-painting into the universe of their choice, they become as attached to character development and progression and relationship as the 19th Century Dickens reader on tenterhook for the next installment of, say, Great Expectations ( the most comic-booky of the Dickens’ novels, perhaps).

In contemporary times (and by contemporary, I point out the dime serializations of the early 1900s through Louis L’Amour, James Bond--- anything with a recurring character and “’verse”, especially in mystery, thriller and fantasy genres) we love the created sphere of character. We step in and let the world overtake us, the characters materialize in depth before our eyes, the nuances of the fictional world seep into our psyche.

So what would happen if George R R Martin (whose eagerly anticipated book awaits fans this summer), were to say “Scrap that! I’m going back to #1” --- all character development and emotional and imaginative investment wiped clean?

For examples closer to my literary taste and heart ( though I love me some fantasy sagas, don’t get me wrong--- hello Locke Lamora!) , what if on book 15 of the Aubrey/Maturin canon, Patrick O’Brian decided that he had had enough with the world he created for Jack and Stephen and decided that their relationship and all meticulous development thus far needed to be scrapped so, like painter with fresh easel and palette, he could start again?

Sherlock and Watson, to name another passionate following of mine….. or any mystery series that we read 10+ ( or even 20+ ) books of because we enjoy the characters and the world far more than we care whodunit.

I stretch a bit when I wade into comic territory because, as mentioned, it is neither my forte nor my expertise. But, literary passion, fictional obsession and careful eye to well-crafted character and world development is a niche of mine.

I stepped into the shoes of a comic book lover for a moment and realized that, to many, this is an issue that will spark fury and outrage.

Have you all heard about this? What think you? Is there ever a reason to scrap a well-developed and rounded world for the sake of starting fresh? What about the many different variations on several of the same universes ( there are different artists and writers for Archie, Batman, etc., )

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Railway Children: Theatre Review

I went to see the exceptional Mirvish production of the Railway Children at Toronto’s new Roundhouse Theatre on Bremner Blvd.

A note on the venue: couched between the numerous historical train cars decorating the lot near Steamwhistle Brewery and offering a fantastic view of the Toronto skyline: just below the CN tower. The tent constructed for this production of the London smash hit is rather unremarkable from the outside; but you enter through your platform and upon seeing the auditorium you are transplanted into a magical, mystical Edwardian world.
The staging for this production is exceptional. The lighting and costumes, the music and sound are all on par with some of the best theatrical experiences I have encountered.

The audience is seated on either side of the makeshift “tracks” and the staging utilizes this set-up to its full-potential: the climax at the end of the first act resulting in the entrance of a gorgeous reproduction of an early 19th Century train.

Because of the odd nature of the seating, I wondered about visual limitation; but there is no such thing. The actors ( who are superb, by the way, especially the three playing the children: Roberta, Phyllis and Peter) , bound about always in your sightline. The director has carefully planted the action at angles that engage the audience at all times and children, especially, immediately connected with the action they witnessed.

Yes, the entrance of the famous train was indeed the highlight of the spectacle; but I was as smitten with the lighting and sound which recreated the “feeling” of a locomotive as the eponymous Railway Children bound about the tracks. At one point, as the three sneak into a terrifying railway tunnel to rescue a young boy, the tunnel closing in ( with nothing more than a skirmish of black curtain was one of the most brilliantly rendered theatrical scenes I had seen.

The Railway Children is based on the 1906 serialized novel by E. Nesbit. It follows the adventures of the precocious Waterbury Children, exiled to a modest house known as the Three Chimneys with their mother when their well-to-do Londoner father is accused of selling secrets from the government. Told episodically (as most morality tales for young people of its age), the three meet a myriad of interesting characters: including the kind-hearted railway porter Mr. Perks, a charitable doctor, an enigmatic old gentleman they spirit down to the tracks to wave to every morning at 9:15 a.m. and a recently imprisoned Russian novelist desperate to be reunited with his wife and daughter.

I really enjoyed this production, its ambience, its setting and its narrative. The dialogue was wonderful, with the actors breaking the wall to speak directly to the audience. They almost trip over each other to break into a new narrative strain and it is absorbing, high-energy and meets the rhythm of a young child bubbling with enthusiasm at all of their minute adventures.

There is an incredible amount of heart and talent here –meted out amidst one of the cleverest set designs I have ever seen.

I highly recommend this faithful adaptation ( it is VERY like the novel; down to the dialogue) to those looking for something to do in Toronto this summer. Make sure to have a pint at Steamwhistle after--- because it is SO close!