Friday, May 30, 2008

Ashenden: or the British Agent

"But there will always be espionage and there will always be counter espionage. Though condition may have altered, though difficulties may be greater, when war is raging, there will always be secrets which one side jealously guards and which the other will use every means to discover; there will always be men who from malice or for money will betray their kith and kin and there will always be men, who, from love of adventure or a sense of duty, will risk a shameful death to secure information valuable to their country." Spy fiction has long been a popular genre, with some of the earlier works including Rudyard Kipling's Kim, Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, and even, to a degree, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. But in 1928, a spy novel was published by a real spy that would change the genre forever and heavily influence some of the most famous spy novels of all time.

The Plot:

John Ashenden
is a successful writer who, after the outbreak of World War I, is engaged as a spy for the British Intelligence. He is sent first to Geneva and later to Russia. Most of the chapters are their own separate story, and like Ashenden, we never really see the "big picture". Instead, we are carried through different vignettes involving many different characters. From the fantastic Hairless Mexican who murders with great ease, to Chandra Lal who spies and kills tirelessly for India's independence, each character has his or her own reason for being involved in espionage, and each is more complicated than they initially appear.

My Reviews (Caution-Spoilers):

W. Somerset Maugham's novel is really more of a series of character sketches than a cohesive novel. Unlike earlier spy novels, the spy is not a hero who is fighting for his country or his own glory, but rather is someone caught by circumstances. In fact, there is not a whole lot of actual "spy work" going on. There are codes, suicides and murders, but it all seems to serve merely as a vehicle for Maugham's reflections on human character. Maugham justifies this in his introduction to Ashenden, saying "
The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable." Rather than using double agents, cat and mouse games and shoot-outs, Maugham instead uses the reality of human nature to dramatize his stories.

Another characteristic of the novel is the humanness of its main character. Ashenden, who is based on Maugham himself, is not some dashing hero, but rather a keen observer of human nature who is able to see past his initial impressions of people. He recognizes that just as his boss (R.) is not wholly good, neither are his enemies wholly villainous. He soon sees that the only difference between himself and those he pursues is the side that they are on. Of course, these characters are devoid of God, and therefore devoid of hope. They paint a grim picture of what raw human nature is without the washing of the blood of Christ. Many of the characters are caught by circumstances and by bad choices, yet none of them recognize that there is hope to rise above them, because they never look for God.

These are some of the characteristics that would later influence writers like Ian Fleming, John leCarre and other famous spy novelists. It is an interesting read, not only for those who like the genre, but for anyone interested in human nature. It is a book that reflects on espionage and recognizes some of the dehumanizing effects it can have on those involved in it.

P. S. If you are like me and you can't stand scrambled eggs, be sure to read the story "Love and Russian Literature"; you'll identify with Ashenden.

The Movie:

It was actually the Alfred Hitchcock film entitled The Secret Agent that got me interested in this book. It is based on two of the stories in the novel: The Hairless Mexican and The Traitor as well as a romance that is not in the book. It keeps some of the plot twists from the original (like the crying dog) but other than that it goes its own way. But hey, its Hitchcock, so its great no matter what changes are made!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Great Post

As a book lover, one of the hardest things that I face is the adaptation of a beloved book for the screen. I can sometimes find it difficult to appreciate a film solely for its cinematic value and not let my feelings for a book cloud my thinking. Ron Block over in The Rabbit Room posted a great article along these lines in his review of Prince Caspian. It really challenged me to "receive" the movie for what it is, and to appreciate any changes that make a good difference in the overall story. Though there will be obvious things that can seem off or just plain wrong, we must realize that just as there are no perfect books, there are no perfect movies. Ultimately, the best literary based films are those that complement the original, improve its weaker points, and drive us to read it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Happy Birthday To:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
May 22, 1859

"You will, I am sure, agree with me that... if page 534 only finds us in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Masterpiece Theatre: Cranford

This season of Masterpiece Classic has come to an end, and what an ending it was. After a season of the good, the bad and the ugly, Masterpiece has finally given us the great in Cranford. With a wonderful story, a stellar cast and gorgeous production, Cranford has quickly become a favorite, ranking only behind Bleak House as my favorite Masterpiece adaptation.

Cranford is based on three of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell's novellas (Cranford, Dr. Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow) and centers around the village of Cranford for a year in the early 1840s. Cranford is a town mostly inhabited by single women,whose social order and lifestyle has stayed the same for many years. The women are satisfied with their lives and would not have them any other way. But change is coming to Cranford and begins to disrupt things in the sleepy town. The first is the arrival of the young and single Dr. Harrison (Simon Woods) from London who quickly brings in new and different forms of medical treatment, and sets many hearts aflutter in the process. The other major change is the arrival of the railroad in Cranford, which threatens the only way of life that its residents have ever known.

There is also a sub-plot being played out at nearby Hanbury Court, the estate of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis). Lady Ludlow is facing change, not just in the coming of the railroad, but also in society itself. She holds onto the old belief that members of the lowest class should not learn to read and write, so as to always be aware of their station in life. But her estate manager, Mr. Carter (Philip Glenister), sees things differently and against her orders, takes the son of a local poacher (Alex Etel) under his wing and seeks to free him from a life of poverty through education.

Though the story itself is good, what really makes this a must see is the cast. It's really a "who's who" of British acting. Eileen Atkins is brilliant as the dour and authoritative Deborah Jenkyns who prefers Dr. Johnson to that young upstart Charles Dickens, and would never be caught dead sucking an orange. Judi Dench, who is one of my favorite actresses, plays her sister Matty, who at first is afraid to move without Deborah's approval, but by the end of the film has become more independent. And Imelda Staunton is hilarious as Miss Pole, the town busybody and gossip. Other familiar faces include Greg Wise, Julia Swalha, Alistair Petrie, Michael Gambon, Jim Carter, Claudie Blakley, and Andy Buchan. This cast is faultless and each one makes Cranford seem a little more real.

Another thing that makes Cranford seem real is the many moods that the story has. There are moments that will make you laugh (2 words: Bessie Dearest.). There are moments of joy and romance. There are also moments of great sadness and loss. All of these elements work together to give the story a sense of balance and reality.

Ultimately, Cranford reminds us that change is not always dangerous, and that tradition is not always stifling. It also makes us wish for the camaraderie of days gone by, when neighbors knew each other, argued with each other and would lay down their lives for each other. The only problem with this film is that it wasn't nearly long enough. Thank you to the BBC and Masterpiece for ending this season on a high note.

Note: For a limited time you can watch Cranford online. The majority of the cast has also signed on to produce a Cranford Christmas special, due to air in the UK in December 2009.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ishmael: or In the Depths


–verb (used without object)
to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; continue steadfastly.

Perseverance is probably one of the hardest qualities for a person to develop, and it yet it is also one of the most rewarding. With enough perseverance, greatness can be achieved, no matter what circumstances, obstacles or hardships stand in in the way. It is this quality that stands at the center of E. D. E. N. Southworth's 1876 novel Ishmael: or In the Depths.


It is into the humblest of circumstances in pre-Civil War Maryland that our hero, Ishmael Worth, is born. Raised in poverty by his maiden aunt, Ishmael must take on many odd jobs to keep them from starving. But it isn't just food that Ishmael hungers for, but knowledge as well. Through his integrity, honesty and thirst for knowledge, Ishmael soon finds himself in one of Maryland's most exclusive private schools. He also finds himself in the company of some of the nation's most prominent families; the Middleton family, whose father runs the school, as well as Judge Merlin and his daughter Claudia. Ishmael soon begins to worship Claudia when she defends him against the school bullies, and while she returns his affection, it is more like the affection that one would have for a dog or a small child.

As the years pass, Ishmael grows into a fine and intelligent young man. His goal is to pass the bar exam without going to law school. Though Judge Merlin sees this as impossible, Ishmael does not and sets to work on his dream. But the cloud surrounding the circumstances of his birth begin to overshadow his successes, and the one thing that Ishmael so deeply desires, Claudia's hand in marriage, begins to slip further and further from his grasp.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

First off, I must tell you that I read the Lamplighter edition of this story, not the original. According to Lamplighter, there have been a few modifications to the story, such as the removal of unnecessary consumption of alcohol as well as unnecessary passion (hehe).

The other thing that you should probably know is that this is not, I repeat, NOT great literature. Most of the characters are pretty flat (Claudia is probably the only one with any variation) and the writing is not the best in the world. Also, virtue is always rewarded and vice never goes unpunished; circumstances which we know don't often happen here on the earth.

Having said that, I do think that this book is worth your time. The plot itself is riveting. Every time that I read it, I have a hard time putting it down, even though I know how it ends. There are also many lessons that can be learned from this story.
  1. The importance of integrity. Many of Ishmael's opportunities come to him because of his honesty and integrity, and it shows that men will respect you if you have these qualities, no matter how humble your circumstances.

  2. The importance of perseverance. There were many times when Ishmael's circumstances seemed overwhelming, and yet he never gave up. He fought on, not for his own glory and achievement, but for God's. "...but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:13b-14.

  3. God's providence. Considering the tragic circumstances surrounding his birth and early life, Ishmael Worth would seem to be the last person on earth who would rise to greatness. But God had different plans. When Ishmael was born, his Aunt Hannah secretly wished that the tiny, unwanted child would just die and put himself and her out of their misery. But even as a baby, Ishmael fought on and exceeded the expectations of all of those around him. Hannah would one day recognize that it was God who had kept that little child alive when she in her human mind had wished him dead. "But as it is written: ' Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.'” 1 Corinthians 2:9
Despite its literary flaws, Ishmael is endearing for its engaging plot and its encouraging lessons. As you can see, it has even made my Top 10 list. I encourage you to give it a try and introduce yourself to a character that you will not soon forget.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Summer Reading

Summer is almost here, the time for long days, BBQs, pool parties, walks on the beach, family vacations and, of course, the all-important Summer Reading List. When I was young, my sisters and I would participate in our local library's summer reading challenge. We would set weekly goals as to how many books we would read, and as we met the different goals, we would get different rewards (usually coupons to local restaurants and attractions). While I will by no means be reading the amount of books that I did back then (I usually hit 100 every summer), I have decided to read a set of books this summer that will challenge me in many ways; J. R. R. Tolkein's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are three main reasons why I find these books so challenging:
  1. I have never read them OR seen the recent films, so the plots are almost completely new to me. Yes, I'm probably crazy to have walked this earth for almost 21 years and to never have even peeked between the covers, but that's the way it is.
  2. They are extremely long. I have read many long books and most of them were great, but challenging nonetheless.
  3. I have a lingering childhood fear of these stories, especially The Hobbit. This is probably the main reason for my having put these books off for so long.

So, this is my reading challenge for Summer 2008. My goal is to finish by Labor Day. I'm not sure what kind of reward I'll give myself if I meet it, so feel free to offer suggestions. Do you have a reading list for this summer? If so, what's on it? If you need some ideas, allow me to suggest a few works that I have enjoyed.

  • The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins tends to be somewhat overshadowed by his famous mentor, Charles Dickens. But Collins had a few successes of his own, and The Moonstone is considered to be one of his best works. It is also the first true detective novel in the English language, and is said to have inspired most of the later detective novels including Sherlock Holmes.
  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches. A collection of Mark Twain's early sketches, many of which will leave you in stitches. My personal favorite is the one where the narrator is trying to get rid of his cold by any means possible. Hilarious.
  • Redwall. The Wind in the Willows meets The Lord of the Rings in this wonderful series by English author Brian Jacques. Though written for older children, these stories are great for adults too. My sisters and I love these books, and we especially like the audio books read by Brian Jacques himself. While not necessarily what some would consider great literature, they are real page turners that will keep you enthralled for many summer days.
  • Anna Karenina. I was introduced to Russian literature by this classic Tolstoy novel. Though not a short read (832 pages), Tolstoy's many characters, themes and plots are beautifully woven together in this literary masterpiece. This story continues to be one of my favorites.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Happy Birthday To:

James M. Barrie
May 9, 1860

"Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else."