Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Adaptations Vol 1: BBC Miniseries (1981)

The 1981 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations looks exactly like you would expect a 1981 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations to look like: (meaning, we are completely devoid of production values, I think we forgot to remove that mic. from in front of the camera lens and I don’t think it looks very period appropriate dangling there; but, we cannot afford to fix it because we spent ALL of our money on sideburns with double-sided tape on the back so that our actors who, still surprisingly look like they live in 1981, have an aura of authenticity). The sets are bad; the lighting is bad; it looks far more like someone held up a camcorder ( a 1980s one, at that ) to a staged version of GE and went to town.

But I harbour some affection for it because a.) it doesn’t have a malicious bone in its body--- it is trying so earnestly hard and b.) uber-fidelity: if you want scene-by-scene, line-by-line to be funneled straight from the book to the small screen then, dudes, this is where it’s AT.

A few years back, the BBC released boxed sets of all sub-production-par  albeit faithful literary installments of the day and if you have seen the grainily lit, meandering Pride and Prejudice or even Silas Marner (oh Ben Kingsley) or even ADAM BEDE with chick that played Jane in the BBC Pride and Prej (1995) then you know what you are in for.

I have often noted that while adaptations of GE I have seen hit on one or two notes really well, no adaptation thus far (I am holding out hope, 2012! Don’t let me down!) captures the entire spirit or essence of the book. We don’t have a pitch-perfect medium-switch here.
Instead, This one touches a few points well:
Herbert Pocket and Pip’s relationship---this is often sacrificed a lot in in the interest of screen time; but this series goes on for friggin’ ever and so it has hours to draw this out--- and it does. Up to Pip going to Wemmick to try and sneak some of his Magwitch-fortune to his roommate/bestie.
[There are some awkward hugs when Pip and Herbert tentatively part --- and some weird crying--- and then Herbert awkwardly hugs Clara and weirdly cries some more--- ]
Bromance for the WIN

Joe Gargery’s Wisdom--- Joe is the salt of the earth and he is packed full of some of the sagest Dickensian lines in the world. Like, stuff about not lying because you’ll be crooked and some of us are blacksmiths and some of us goldsmiths and never the twain shall meet and what is betwixt friends, old chap, what larks ! ( heftily paraphrased: see source material )--- all these little nuggets are here and uttered with integrity-on-speed. This Joe is just a little too happy to be doing everything and is almost too good to be true ( you don’t see the dark, pained edges) but hell, he means well and he does actually say all of these lines….and he doesn’t know what to do with his hat when he goes to London and it is as FRIGGIN awkward as in the book ---made more awkward still by the bad production values and everyone’s sideburns…larks, kids, larks indeed!

The Estella Ending: Readers, remember the end of Villette and how frustratingly ambiguous it is and how half the team are (with Charlotte’s father) on the “NO! that cannot be right! What the heck you stupid shipwreck!” ship and the other half of the team is like, “Dude, he’s so friggin’ dead—but that’s okay because Lucy has independence and a cot of her own”? Well, Dickens did the same thing with the interchangeable, dvd -special- feature- alternate- ending to Pip and Estella’s “love” story. The series does this well.

This edition is so, so very cheesy; but it is trying so, so hard--- for hours—and hours---it might take less time to read the book.But, jiminy crickets! I am a-fond of it, y’all. It tries so hard to be nice and good ...
And WORD BY WORD it recounts every stupid, friggin’ line.

Ten points for the actress playing Mrs. Joe (Pip’s sister) post-forge attack. She just sits there as Biddy spoons broth at her gaping mouth---for HOURS

I am willing to bet you can find some of this on youtube, if you are so inclined

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Arthur Slade and the E-Book Industry on LE RADIO

Fair readers, you all know that we subscribe to the school of All Things Arthur Slade. He is, as you know, Canada's best YA novelist ( at least in my awesome opinion) and a personal favourite of mine. As someone who works in the publishing industry (albeit on the educational side), I find Slade's consistent fascination and experimentation with the tenets of Canadian publishing appealing. That, and he does Skype visits to lucky classroom children across the globe.

Without further ado, I give you Arthur Slade on the Radio (once again proving he has the EXACT same speaking voice as my high school drama teacher--whom I liked, so that's a good thing):

->Go to CBC Sunday Edition Website here
->Search under the Hour One paragraph and click midway through the black box there ( past all that asbestos exports stuff--- though that is interesting, too, if you are so inclined).

Slade speaks to his infatuation with Star Wars and how it triggered his imagination so acutely he began writing screenplays, teleplays and short, self-proclaimed "gory" stories.

As per always, most resonant of the Slade written agenda are the glorious glades of the Cypress Hills in rural Saskwatchewan.  This landscape informs so much of his fictional backdrop (he speaks to pouring poison down gopher hills in his youth---this guilt perhaps exorcised in Jolted) from Dust to Megiddo's Shadow.

He speaks to his respect for W.O. Mitchell, his over-active imagination and how his favourite librarian was a bit of a Google search engine for him ( especially when it came to hunting down books on medieval torture devices...)

He even speaks of Iron Maiden, his favourite "literary" band...

It's a veritable smorgasbord of fun.

Yes, he talks to the e-book thing.


  1. Listen to Arthur Slade ( as mentioned)
  2. Go to his website
  3. Read this amazing blog entry (funniest author blogpost ever)
  4. and buy ALL of his books (e-book or otherwise)


[Funny story: I once had a blog reader comment and ask me what my commission was and if he could hire me to promote his new book the way I promoted Arthur Slade around the web.
Sooo funny...
I just like promoting Canadian writers (especially the good-natured and talented ones)

Great Adaptations: Prelude

I love Great Expectations. It is my favourite Dickens novel and one of my favourite books ---ever since I read it at the tender age of 14 (the first chapters devoured while babysitting for kids from our church congregation. They had played with Legos. They went to bed. I read about Pip and his first, dreary encounter with Magwitch...)

If you read this blog, you will notice that Great Expectations occasionally comes up in conversation. I defended it for the Classics Circuit: Dickens vs. Austen Challenge, featured it in a Dickens Meme, and re-visited it through a religious lens.
Next year, to celebrate Dickens’ Bi-Centenary, we will be treated to not one; but TWO adaptations (one Hollywood; one BBC miniseries) of this classic novel. I am very closely following casting and production news on Dickensblog (where Gina extols every tidbit she picks up on in her close following of any and all things Dickens).

I thought that this transitory period between end of Summer and beginning of Fall was the perfect space to cuddle into this coziest of yarns. I re-visit parts of the novel often ( confession: I even have it bookmarked in Project Gutenburg edition at work); but wanted to re-visit some of the adaptations I have seen//own, as well as speak to those adaptations I have not been fortunate enough to see yet.

Adaptations I have seen previously and will be re-visiting for this series:

 1946 adaptation, dir. David Lean: featuring John Mills, Jean Simmons, Alec Guinness

1981 BBC miniseries adaptation: featuring Gerry Sundquist, Jason Smart

1998 adaptation, dir. Alfonso Cuaron (modernized): featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Robert DeNiro

1999 BBC miniseries adaptation: featuring Ioan Gruffudd, Charlotte Rampling, Justine Waddell


1981: Great Adaptations Vol 1 read review here
1998: Great Adaptations Vol III: read review here
1999: Great Adaptations Vol II read review here 
2011:Great Adaptations Vol IV: read review here 

There are adaptations I have not had the privilege of viewing, including the 1989 Disney Channel adaptation which many cite as being a great and accessible adaptation.[ See Dickensblog review ]
The above is not available on DVD and no amazon sellers will ship to Toronto due to its VHS format (sadness)

Another familiar adaptation from 1974 features Michael York and Sarah Miles -- supposedly written as a musical, this lesser production (according to reviewers) is the result of a musical movie stripped of its musical numbers and the blanks in between apparently cannot hold weight)

Upcoming 2012 editions:

BBC miniseries starring Mark Addy, Gillian Anderson, Shaun Dooley, etc. (REVIEW)

2012 adaptation dir. Mike Newell featuring Helena Bonham-Carter, Jason Flemyng, Ralph Fiennes

I look forward to reviewing and blogging about the aforementioned movies: focusing on proximity to text, sensibility and malleability of medium.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mentally Casting Barney Snaith for "The Blue Castle " Movie of the Mind...

The most amazing, grail-like fictional casting discovery ever has been made.  All passionate readers have at one time or another attempted to find a real-life parallel to the characters they so love to read about.  Casting a favourite book in one's imagination is a wonderful pastime.  Some BBC miniseries and Hollywood adaptations do a great job of matching, some actors seem destined to bring classic characters to life (I mentally cast Jack Davenport as several Georgette Heyer heroes); but finding an actor to play Barney Snaith of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, possibly my favourite fictional leading man, eluded me for years.

I felt that some actors captured  the essence of Barney and Eric Stoltz was a possible contender for years ( the right smile, the right hair):

British actors Damien Lewis  and Steven Mackintosh were lesser possibilities:

....Kevin McKidd had the right colouring, too:

....and I sort of want to give a shout-out to Benedict Cumberbatch who probably would be up to snuff as well...

But fair, ginger-haired Barney seemed doomed to evade imaginary casting forever.  I just couldn't pinpoint him and no one seemed right.

Casting Barney Snaith of The Blue Castle is something, in my world, that is well over a decade in the making.  He is the absolute GRAIL of fictional casting and if you find the perfect Barney, well, the imaginative world is your proverbial oyster. 

Shall we spend a few moments recalling Barney?  It’s such an agreeable pastime:

The narrator describes him in wily fashion in the very opening paragraphs of the book….even without our knowing that the description meted out matches Valancy’s soon-to-be leading man. As the dawn arises on Valancy’s 29th birthday, we learn who has pre-occupied her mind. Conveniently replacing the physical characteristics of her imaginative Prince as she grows older, the narrator informs: "recently--very recently--her hero had had reddish, tawny hair, a twisted smile and a mysterious past."

Soon after this dream-like incarnation Barney is viewed through Valancy's furtive glances in downtown Deerwood as she runs errands:

"This was only the second time she had ever seen the notorious Barney Snaith[...] He had been crawling out from under his car then, too, and he had given her a cheerful grin as she went by--a little, whimsical grin that gave him the look of an amused gnome.He didn't look bad--she didn't believe he was bad, in spite of the wild yarns that were always being told of him[...]  But still Valancy didn't believe he was bad.  Nobody with a smile like that could be bad, no matter what he had done."

Barney's smile and his look of an amused gnome are a consistent part of his allure and charm for Valancy and he soon manifests himself in her ever important dream world:
“It was that night the Prince of the Blue Castle changed from a
being of grim jaw and hair with a dash of premature grey to a
rakish individual with overlong, tawny hair, dashed with red, dark-
brown eyes, and ears that stuck out just enough to give him an
alert look but not enough to be called flying jibs.  But he still
retained something a little grim about the jaw.”

 She envies him his freedom and his beguiling manner and she admits at a rigid family dinner that she has studied him closely: both upfront and, as we know from her recalling of her Blue Castle dream sprees, in her imaginative consciousness: "I've seen him twice and I looked at him closely," said Valancy composedly.  "I thought his face the most interesting one I ever

Barney’s physical presence is intrinsically linked to his enigma. Not only is he (with the exceptions of Dean Priest and, to lesser extent, Andrew Stuart) Montgomery’s most dimensional hero, his mysterious past recalls the Byronic and Brontean mystique so prevalent in her novels. Though Valancy’s initial encounters with Barney allow her slight, old-maidenly, shy glances, when she leaves Deerwood for Roaring Abel’s and meets him more consistently as he visits Cissy Gay and even begins an odd friendship with her, she is given further opportunity to notice him:

“His eyes, which she had always thought brown, now seen close, were
deep violet--translucent and intense.  Neither of his eyebrows
looked like the other.  He was thin--too thin--she wished she could
feed him up a bit--she wished she could sew the buttons on his
coat--and make him cut his hair--and shave every day.  There was
SOMETHING in his face--one hardly knew what it was.  Tiredness?
Sadness?  Disillusionment?  He had dimples in his thin cheeks when
he smiled.  All these thoughts flashed through Valancy's mind in
that one moment while his eyes looked into hers.”

That’s right, he had dimples…. A favourite physical mark of Montgomery’s.

So, we’ve covered Barney physically.  Interestingly, other Montgomery heroes (such as Gilbert Blythe and Teddy Kent of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon respectively) are given far less physical description. Instead, Montgomery sketches them in outline—relying on her readers to colour in their own attributes and physical characteristics.  You can make Gil whatever hero you want him to be, you can colour Teddy with the paintbrush that so tickles your imaginative fancy. Barney, on the other hand (as well as Dean Priest, as a relative if somewhat more cynical comparison), is clearly outlined for you.  While she gives you a snapshot of his physical presence from the very beginning, it is alternatively his past that she expects you to play with until the “reveal” at the end which brushstrokes all of his “missing” information.

So, when mentally casting Barney Snaith, the physical composite is, of course,  a great place to start.  But, as Barney is a dimensional and complicated character, his strong, enticing personality, lackadaisical air, sense of nature and aesthetic pleasure, knack for speaking in all of the languages of the world, and dark past feeding his prototype as Harlequin Hero Extraordinaire is also uber-important.

That’s why  blogger Joni’s mental inspiration for Barney is quite pitch-perfect.
In the comments section of a blog post focusing on (the obviously similar) Edward Rochester, she scribbled:
BUT since you mentioned LMM, I just thought I'd throw this out there: Doesn't Toby Stephens look an awful lot like Barney Snaith from 'The Blue Castle'?” ….”My sister and I have been fantasy-casting 'TBC' for YEARS now. We haven't found a suitable Valancy and maybe never will (everyone in Hollywood is too pretty). But TS circa 'Tenant of Wildfell Hall' is DEAD ON.”

 Say wha.....? But, I know Toby Stephens. How could I have not seen Barney in him?
Toby Stephens is familiar to many like me who hanker after all things British. Think Cambridge Spies, the A&E Great Gatsby (he was a fab Jay Gatsby) Tenant of Wildfell Hall and even an episode of Sharpe and that sad, sad third season of Robin Hood.  But, the image of Toby that most often springs to mind is as his turn as Rochester: a hulking, brooding, dark-haired gentleman whose virility and mischievous, miscreant smile overtakes many of his scenes opposite Ruth Wilson’s Jane Eyre. As I took the time to go back, to recognize  (as I often forget with that pre-possessing Rochester image in mind) that Stephens’ natural colouring is akin to Barney’s and that he indeed has a whimsical smile, a fresh, athletic frame and a mischievous glint in his light eyes, I saw more and more what Joni and her sister did.

Revisiting the 2006 miniseries of Jane Eyre, I read moments of John Foster (John Foster, to those uninitiated with The Blue Castle, is an author who serves a very large role in Valancy and Barney’s romantic development): Rochester and Jane chase dragonflies; they look into nature books in Rochester’s glorious library.  The easy rapport that Rochester shares with Jane, like the preternatural kinship and automatic friendship between Barney and Valancy also offered a serene comparative light.

This seems like a loquacious article when extolling the possible screen-like compatibility of an actor who will probably never grace the screen in our imagined role; but darnit! I have looked for Barney for an age and Joni (whomever she is) is currently my hero for finding him.

Here's some Barney in our friend Toby Stephens. Montgomery writes that Barney had "over-long, tawny hair" in an age when men were known to wear their hair closely cut (here is a photo of a typical 1920s male hairstyle).  Barney's tawny, reddish hair is interesting because he is the only masculine character of her novels to sport a similar shade gifted to her first and  most memorable female heroine, Anne Shirley. [I am not including the next generation of Shirley-Blythes like Walter and Jem: because they are peripheral and not leading men, per se. I like Walter as much as you do.)

Montgomery mentions that Barney often fails to shave (preluding his marriage to Valancy where immediately thereafter he is shown to shave every day).  This BBC interview with Toby Stephens recalls this look.

Finally, Barney is a bit of a rakish fellow and, as such, featuring in an early example of Canadian romance, would sport a roguish grin.  Observe this picture:

I throw this to you:
-What fictional character seems elusive to you when it comes to casting?
-Are you an L.M. Montgomery fan? Who would you cast as Barney? Dean Priest? (we're forgetting that gawdawful Emily of New Moon series from the CBC) Andrew Stuart? 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Books I Wouldn't Usually Read VOL I: From This Moment On by Shania Twain

In this, the first edition of Books I Wouldn't Usually Read, I speak to From This Moment On, Shania Twain's autobiography which I (score!) borrowed from the Toronto Public Library

Oh Shania Twain: you're like Canada's Cinderella!

I must confess to having never been a fan of her music; but having been appreciative of her background and the fact that she seemingly remembers her roots.
Truth be told, you aren't going to pick up this autobiography for earth-shattering statements on the state of the world; nor sparkling of literary merit. However, if you, like I, are beguiled by human interest pieces that frame a rags-to-riches journey, then this book is worth a go.

Shania blatantly speaks to the severe poverty her family endured during her formative years. Indeed, this experience fills half of the book ( which is largely devoted to her family, her upbringing and her memories of coldness and malnutrition). The other half is devoted to her role in the music industry and her climb to incredible success. I was more attuned to the steps that led her to the top.

Shania is at her strongest when writing about childhood memories like playing with blades of grass, walking home from school with her siblings in the harsh Canadian winter, or singing for relatives at holidays. Her shards of memory paint a sharp contrast between the life she led as a youngster (descriptions include a maggot-invested basement carpet and her father making mustard sandwiches on account of their being nothing else for the packed school lunches) and the life she leads as one of the most successful recording artists in the world. The sublimely humane recollections of the past help ground her successful future. Though at the opposite end of the social spectrum, her upbringing and the tragic early death of her parents informs even the latter part of her story.

For those hoping that her autobiography will colour in the blanks of her well-publicized divorce and personal love life, I found that Twain wisely stayed minimal when speaking to the circumstances surrounding the break-up of her marriage. We all know that I am not a celebrity gossip girl and one of the greatest attributes of Twain's tale is that it speaks largely to human experience and emotion and doesn't prey as heftily on celebrity.

The book did not contribute to my opinion of Shania Twain as an artist and I must say I am as disinterested in her creative output musically as before. However, like all Canadians, I recognize her contribution to our presence on a national front and as such respect her as an individual--- more so now that I have heard first-hand some of the travails she overcome to fulfill her lifelong passion.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Moment of Zen

Subway Reads with Romantic Plots and Sprinklings of Magic...

The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate

I must confess that I hunted this book down because Sarah Addison Allen's books have helped me develop at a taste for foodie literature enhanced with magic. Unfortunately, what Allen excels at, Senate never finds a niche for. I didn't quite "buy" the central relationship of the story and the aforementioned magic seemed forced. I credit Senate on her well-researched and developed world of Blue Crab Island and on the meticulous research that must have aided the depth of the Italian American experience Holly's grandmother writes of in her journal. The several recipes scattered throughout the book add a flavour of authenticity.

Yes, lacking the spark of Allen's books and of Joanne Harris's; but a good go-between and a pleasant way to steal away for a few hours.

The Book of Tomorrows by Cecilia Ahern

My brother's gorgeous Irish fiancee is from Cork and so I have a bit of a soft spot for literature set there, including this tale from the popular author of P.S., I Love You ( a far inferior book).

Tamara is a whip-smart, ultra-observent 16 year old narrator and a pleasure to follow: a sassy beguiler who snaps with frank disdain the travails peppering her life. When her father commits suicide as a result of mounting debt, Tamara waves goodbye to the glorious world she knew of posh school friends, limitless iced frapps at Starbucks and a bottomless well of money and travel. Her semi-catatonic mother accompanies her to Aunt Rosaleen and Uncle Arthur's: a small, shifty and smothering cottage out in the middle of rural-nowhere.

Here, Tamara tries to exist as her favourite expensive shampoo dwindles down to its last bottle and her friends are miles away. A stroke of fate brings Marcus, the local mobile librarian, across her path and with him a blank book whose pages fill revealing the events of the next day before Tamara has opportunity to live them...

I enjoyed the magic-carpet ride herein and pleasantly had no idea where the journey would take me.

Tamara's silent frustration as the world was whipped from under her feet was tragic to behold and Ahern paints a moving, starkly realistic portrayal of teen grief underneath a canopy of tinted magic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sourcebooks Blog Tour: Bath Tangle (and Happy Birthday to Georgette Heyer)

Georgette Heyer was designed for you if….

…it’s raining and you have the “mean reds”

…you want to steal into a land of gossamer and lace where men wear top hats and breeches

…you can taste the salt smell of the Bath waters while dreaming of a high tea at a nearby shop (perhaps stealing in for a dry spell after a stint in the rain)

…you miss the days when men were men and kissed ladies’ hands and knew the rigmarole of whist games and quadrilles

…you know the difference between a morning dress and a day dress

…you want to breakfast late and call the house staff by their surnames

…you think that “felicity” and “thither” really are the greatest words in the dictionary

…if, like me, you have read your Jane Austen canon to shreds since you began at the tender age of 14.

Georgette Heyer is pure, sparkly, cupcake-iced joy. Her heroines are winsome and beguiling, her heroes have just enough rogue to be tamed by the careful attention and craftily-won heart of a fair maiden. The “drawing room” manners and social graces of the “ton” whirl in a maze of winding, twining roads making the obstacles securing an inevitable happy ending worth the trip to the altar. Celebrating Georgette Heyer’s Birthday ( today) is a good excuse to spend the day perusing through Sourcebooks’ exceptional catalogue (they have done an incredible job at making her beloved titles easily accessible for the hungry masses)

Take Bath Tangle….

{italicized from the publisher}:

A Delightful Tangle of Affairs…The Earl of Spenborough had always been noted for his eccentricity. Leaving a widow younger than his own daughter Serena was one thing, but leaving his fortune to the trusteeship of the Marquis of Rotherham – the one man the same daughter had jilted – was quite another.When Serena and her lovely young stepmother Fanny decide to move to Bath, Serena makes an odd new friend and discovers an old love. Before long, they’re all entangled in a clutter of marriage and manners the likes of which even Regency Bath has rarely seen.

Serena is a lovely heroine: spirited and sly and smart and, like the best Heyer heroines, unwilling to be rescued by a dashing gent; rather willing to be accepting of his offer on her own terms and in her own way. A feisty red head with a temper to boot, she is near bested by a reduced family circumstance that throws her in the path of a suitor she jilted years before. Will he enjoy sweet revenge on her behalf …and to her utter ruin? Or does the spark of a first love still linger like an ember beneath flashes of anger, duels of wit and conversation that will keep readers giggling?

If you liked Persuasion, then Bath Tangle will delight you.

Heyer is indubitably the best Regency writer since Austen and in sea of Austen-inspired prequels, updates, sequels, epistolary fiction, diaries, graphic novels, parodies, pastiches and horror stories, she will rescue you. She is in a class of her own. What differentiates her from the usual Austenitis continually sweeping the publishing world and fulfilling our insatiable craving for more, is her verisimilitude, understanding of Regency culture, feels for dialogue and character and fresh plots and romances. She doesn’t hype on the laurels of Jane Austen; nor does she create new stories for characters already developed. Rather, she springboards from a popular motif and makes it her own. She is renowned as one of the most timeless Historical novelists of any age and you must, must read her. You must. It’s the law.

+To celebrate Georgette Heyer's birthday, make sure you visit Austenprose --where they are celebrating with a giveaway!

+Jane Austen's World featured a scintillating look at the Many Faces of Georgette Heyer

+Sourcebooks is celebrating Heyer's 109th by offering e-books at as little as 1.99. Honestly, they are so worth it. Buy all your Heyer here. Consider my two favourites, Venetia and Black Sheep alongside a purchase of Bath Tangle

My thanks to Sourcebooks for making her titles widely available and for sending me the copy of Bath Tangle to add to my happily growing Heyer collection.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Eve's Daughters by Lynn Austin

To say that I loved Eve's Daughters would be an understatement. I drank in Eve's Daughters, turned each page with a contented sigh and was absolutely depressed when the final chapter rounded the bend.

Again, Lynn Austin is at top form crafting a multi-generational story involving four generations of women and their trials and triumphs: the men they loved, the mistakes they made, the eponymous “curse” that leads them to believe that one darkly hidden past mistake has ripples and ramifications brimming into the past and present.

The novel begins in 1980 with 80 year old Emma packing her belongings to move to a nursing home. Her daughter Grace and her grand-daughter Suzanne are nearby to help excavate the past. Suzanne is currently going through the first inklings of a divorce and Grace is still trying to reconcile with her childhood and discover why her father never wanted her and disappeared when she was quite young.

As is prevalent thematically in all of Austin's novels, the conceptualization of a woman's role is explored here: as Emma's mother is recalled and her migration from Germany to Pennsylvania shapes Emma's early life. Emma's formative years are traced against the backdrop of the years preluding the First War. As always, Austin perfectly captures the historical period and paints such a life-like canvas you get swept into the past and into the lives of her characters. This is not to mention the absolute perfection in which she rounds out a multi-dimensional cast of supporting characters: each springing life-like from the page and embodying the elements of grace, redemption, mistakes and forgiveness that form the whole of the tale.

The story is told in fractured narrative, often captapulting the reader back to the present and then stirring the past again: through Emma's great secret, Grace's lifelong search for a father and Suzanne's inability to reconcile her spirited nature with the confines of her mother's domestic example.

Christianity plays a role; but one sewn in the fabric of the tale and not blatantly at the front. It is implied and characterized and emblemized without ever being "preachy" Like most of Austin's novels, one need not be Christian to appreciate the wiles of her craft and the way she plays with you: at one point unravelling just enough of a mystery; while holding back and toying with unobstructed narration. The fill-in-the-blanks portion of each ( sometimes unreliable) narrator keeps the reader attempting to sew together the design of the finished product and to, once and for all, marry the past with the present-- uncovering the one devastating secret that has shaken the family to the core.

As While We're Far Apart features a Jewish protagonist and pairs Judaism with Protestant Christianity ( the wealth of Austin's market); Eve's Daughters does well in respectfully painting the life of the Irish Catholic experience at the beginning to mid 20th Century. The ultimate hero of the tale ( and a wonderfully realized character ) is Father O'Duggan: a flawed priest whose mistakes never fail to tarnish his witness as a man of Christ in a tortured world.

This is just exceptional writing: Christian or not, and reaffirms why Austin remains one of my favourite living writers: She catches you in all of the right places, makes every sentence seem relevant and current to each and every situation and validates your existence as a woman.

She's a strong, strong writer and those who have not dipped into her incredibly strong backlist ( I have yet to read a mediocre Austin novel ) are really, really, missing out.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Julia's Chocolates by Cathy Lamb

Julia's Chocolates is major estrogen-lit. In the tradition of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the works of Sarah Addison Allen (without the touch of magic), and hinting at Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, Julia's Chocolates asserts feminine power to the max.

Every woman who attends the delightfully quirky Aunt Lydia's Psychic Nights (Which are usually coupled with an outpouring of love to a part of female anatomy), celebrates the lusty, wonderful and magical connection they have with each other, their domestic spheres and their winsome natures.

From abuse victims to minister's wives cajoled by the restrictive boundaries of the church, this novel revolves around women: finding themselves, tweaking their relationships, grabbing their reigns and forging their paths.

There is a lot of abuse here: from physical to violent and the over-powering nature of it on each woman's life seems to border on the melodramatic. Nonetheless, Lamb presents her material in a visceral, stark and eye-opening manner that only makes the triumphs of her women over the travails rendered by their situations more potent.

I really enjoyed how Julia developed. Her first-person narrative was welcome and her slow and sure trust of her new community unravelled comfortably like a slight, unfurling ball of yarn.

This is heavy on the tragedy; but also heavy on the light.

It is certainly a page-turner and those with a hankering for a happy ending will find plenty abound in this sweet and unique tale. One might argue that in a novel that presents abuse so bluntly and so realistically, the endless happy endings clash in unrealism. However, as readers, we want our novels to be neatly sewn and Lamb caters to this request.

A healthy dose of Chicklit for those who prefer the power of community and realistic romance; rather than heels, Prada, cosmos and cityscapes.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ruth and Rachel's Epic TCM programming line-up

Ruth (a long-time online correspondent of mine and excellent blogger!) and I have spent a great deal of time this summer talking classic movies. This week, we decided to play "guest-programmer" and pick the five films we would feature (pre-1965) if Robert Osborne ever gave us the chance to introduce and feature them on Turner Classic Movies

The results of this discussion are these STELLAR film line-ups (TCM, we're waiting by the phone). First up, Ruth's picks ( I haven't seen them all yet and want to go watch them all, in a row, right now!)

Her Cardboard Lover (1942) – In her final film appearance, Norma Shearer shines opposite a young, energetic, and boyishly charming Robert Taylor. Taylor is the broke songwriter intent on winning socialite Shearer’s affections, while she’s determined to keep him at arm’s length, using him as a "human shield" against the attentions of a debonair George Sanders. Taylor is at his maddening, dashing, adorable best in this film, and reveals a surprising affinity for screwball comedy.

Foreign Affair (1948) – Classic Billy Wilder comedy featuring a standout performance by Jean Arthur as a prim and proper Congresswoman tasked with assessing the morale of American troops stationed in occupied Berlin. A love triangle develops between Arthur, a handsome army captain played by John Lund, and Marlene Dietrich as a sensuous German singer with a dangerous past. Hilarious misunderstandings ensure, and watching Arthur gradually unravel as she falls for Lund is a delight.

My Cousin Rachel (1953) – Richard Burton is at his handsome and youthful best in this absorbing story of obsession and what happens when the line between perception and reality becomes irrevocably blurred. Olivia de Havilland is gorgeous and enigmatic as the woman who comes to captivate Burton’s soul. Moody, suspenseful, and atmospheric, with gorgeous mid-19th century costumes, My Cousin Rachel is not to be missed for fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

A Hole in the Head (1959) – Charming Frank Capra vehicle features Frank Sinatra as a well-intentioned single father who struggles to balance his high-flying schemes of striking it rich with the responsibilities that come with raising a young son. Eleanor Parker is lovely as the lonely widow Sinatra's son Ally hopes will make his father happy, and Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter are terrific as the straight-laced relatives determined to separate father & son. Sinatra and Eddie Hodges will melt your heart as father and son, especially during their performance of the Oscar-winning song from which the film takes its name and the moving final scenes.

Midnight Lace (1960) – Doris Day does suspense! Day plays Kit, an heiress and the new bride of Rex Harrison, who can’t get anyone to believe she’s being stalked. Moody and intense, the scenes in the London fog are deliciously atmospheric, and John Gavin is positively swoon-worthy as the one man who wants to help Kit, but as she's driven to the brink of madness, she isn’t sure she can trust.

And now for MY PICKS! (you'll notice that Ruth's picks intelligently featured vintage posters advertising each film; whereas I was all over the LET'S SEE THE ACTORS IN SCREENSHOT" mode! )

Gone with the Wind - brings the Southern Antebellum Era to wonderfully techni-coloured life. The loves and losses of spicy heroine Scarlett O'Hara threaten to eclipse the background canvas of the war between the States while still drawing enough attention and melodrama to evoke comparison to another looming War imminent at the time of the film's inital release. This movie is the epitome of sprawling epic and it releases just enough of the book's enduring magic and touches on just the right notes of Scarlett's on-going ballad to make it one of the greatest examples of novel-to-screen in film history. The film is so well cast that each individual character will forever be associated with its competent onscreen portrayal and thoughts of revision seem incomprehensible.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: Surfacely, a charming romantic comedy about a poetic soul misplaced in the big city upon his inheritance of a grand estate. "Pixilated" since birth, Longfellow Deeds' big heart and eccentric demeanour fall prey to the wiles of a newspaper's hunger for exposition while thawing the heart of a journalist whose initial skepticism is replaced by pure inspiration. A gem from Frank Capra: a director who devoted his film career to piecing hope and inspiration out of the crumbled loss of a nation disillusioned by war.

Roman Holiday: from the first moment when Princess Anne ( glitteringly portrayed by endearingly vulnerable Audrey Hepburn in her first major American film role) accidentally slips out of her shoe you know that this Cinderella-story-in-reverse will be luminously executed by Hepburn's incomparable beauty and charm. As Jean Arthur's sceptical journalist in Mr.Deeds Goes to Town hides her identity to weasel a story; so Gregory Peck's Joe Bradley sets out to glean the exposee of the century while class-clashingly falling in love with a princess disuillusioned by her royal obligations. Rome plays as much of a character as the two leads and the cinematography leading both tourists through the maze of the definitive continental city adds to the burgeoning romantic plot.

Pygmalion transplants George Bernard Shaw's comedy of class and manners onto the silver screen. So lasting was the interpretation of the play by Leslie Howard and Dame Wendy Hiller that the controversial ending tweaked to suit a romance-hungry movie-going population would endure until the release of My Fair Lady several years later. British acting is at its finest as a classic piece of theatre is made accessible to audiences everywhere. While it takes the aforementioned liberty with the ending of the tale, the screen adaptations stays true to the tone and subtle humour of the story and Howard is at his best when playing to Henry Higgins' greatest weakness: his inability to recognize that in as much as he has changed flower girl-turned -English gentlewoman Eliza, Eliza has changed him.

Cluny Brown, Ernst Lubitsch's penultimate film, is a equal parts satire and comedy of manners set at an English manor house in the year preluding the Second World War. Charles Boyer is the epitome of rapscallion charm as Adam Belinski: a wily Czech professor in exile for his anti-Hitler sentiments willing to capitalize on the well-meaning (if daft) British anti-war enthusiasts who idolize him. This leads to his stay at Friar's Carmel with a wealthy family who know little about world events other than writing letters to the Times and hearing of Hitler's popular book ( something or other outdoorsy about a camp, or so thinks the Lord of the Manor). While there, he falls head-over-heels in love with another outcast: the adorably zesty domestic maid Cluny Brown. With an imagination worthy of Anne of Green Gables and a penchant to follow her dour Uncle's trade as a plumber, Cluny mirrors Belinski in her seeming inability to meld into the society she is so desperate to find her place in. With a scathing, sweet, whipsmart script and enough double-entendre to send a modern viewer's head spinning, Cluny is only recently being revisited as a classic of the Lubitsh canon.


So there you have it - I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these films, or which five would make up your own "dream" TCM schedule!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

TLC Book Tour: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is a gripping tale of women affected by the travesties--- on the home front and beyond--- during the years of and the years following the American involvement in the Second World War.

Babe, Grace and Millie are three very different childhood friends whose bond is sewn even tighter due to their collective experience: learning of loss, hardship and heartache when the men they love are expected to do their duty overseas. The novel weaves mainly between the three perspectives of these women; but sometimes offers a glimpse into the point of view of their husbands, boyfriends, and (very occasionally) their children.

Interspersed with letters from the front line and a pitch-perfect historical sense, readers will be easily engrossed in the wonderfully realized world of these very different women.

I was immediately captivated by the narrative structure of the book and found myself turning pages rather quickly. The details about Babe, Grace and Millie’s everyday work and home lives are told with such historical conviction you feel you are peeking through a window to observe their every- day experience.

I was most captivated by the love story between Claude and Babe. Sensitive Claude never recovers from his time in combat and Feldman’s stark portrayal of a man who has undergone the shock and treachery of the battlefield is heartbreaking. This is made even more so when coupled with a traumatic experience which befalls his wife Babe while she is still at home. The novel takes us beyond WWII and into the 1950s and 60s--- decades where America’s promise was emblemized in new housing, urban planning and differing ways of extending credit. The prosperity of these years clashes with the opening chapters of loss. One of the most effective moments of the book occurs with Grace: who refuses to watch the hands of the clock on the last day before her husband Charlie’s leave ends. The utter disparity of usual house chores cutting into the last fleeting moments they spend together will rip at the reader.

I also really enjoyed the timbre and tone of the aforementioned letters included in the novel. While some of Babe, Grace and Millie’s correspondence is featured, it is the letters of Charlie, Pete and Claude that most held my attention. The vernacular very much reflected the breezy nuances and idioms of the time period and the experience of the front is muted behind overt declarations of undying love and hope for the tenuous future.

My one complaint about the novel is its preoccupation with sex (ironic because it is a major theme and counterpart to war and the undercurrent of many actions--- Feldman explains its significance as a type of underlying civil construction and deconstruction …. ) awkwardly infusing paragraphs and sometimes jarring the flow of narrative as she outlines every single movement. At these moments, I felt like I was reading a flat out romance and not a serious literary endeavor focusing on the hardships of Americans at War. To say its gratuitous is not a stretch: its implication rather than stark descriptive realism would have been more effective and played into the other more subdued thematic strains of the novel.

Secondly, I found the multiple narratives to be slightly confusing---- but you will hit a page, mid-way through where something clicks and you can weave seamlessly from one tale into the next.

Altogether a splendid snapshot of an integral part of history. As a non-American reader, I was able to transplant the uncertainty, fear and despair into a national consciousness---where I could better understand what my grandfather ( a stretcher bearer) and my grandmother ( a war bride from Canadian-liberated Holland) underwent.

Read more about this exciting book at the TLC site as well as link to other blogs featuring the title.