Friday, December 31, 2010

The Flower Drum Song

To the casual tourists, Grant Avenue is Chinatown, just another colorful street in San Francisco; to the overseas Chinese, Grant Avenue is their showcase, their livelihood; to the refugees from the mainland, Grant Avenue is Canton.

The blending of cultures is hard as it is, but when it has to be done within a family unit it borders on the impossible. In his 1957 novel, Chinese-American author C. Y. Lee addresses this issue, as well as many other issues faced by young Asian-American men growing up during that time period.

The Plot:

Wang Ta is just like any other young American guy, wanting nothing more out of life than a great career and a gorgeous girl to marry. But Wang Ta is a Chinese-American living with his father in San Francisco's Chinatown, and that complicates things quite a bit. Old Master Wang is still clinging to the old ways of mainland China and cannot understand how his two sons could desire to be a part of the "foreign" culture.

As Wang Ta goes to medical school (to put off having to pursue a career), he becomes involved with a number of young women. There's Linda Tung, the flashy showgirl; Helen Chao, the homely seamstress; and May Li, the sweet beauty just arrived from China. Will Wang Ta ever be able to satisfy his father and yet stay true to his own desires and dreams?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I wanted to read this book because I am a huge fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I knew very little about Chinese-American life or what it was like to live in Chinatown, and I found this book to be both eye-opening and interesting.

One thing you should know about before reading the novel is that immigration quotas and
anti-miscegenation laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wreaked havoc on immigrant populations (especially Asian). These laws lead to a disproportionate number of Asian males living in and around various Chinatowns. Because there were so few Chinese women and because most Chinese men were not allowed (either by the government or their families) to marry a non-Asian woman, young Chinese women literally had their pick when it came to marriage. Thus, Linda Tung's playing her lovers against each other for presents was a harsh reality. This also makes Helen Chao's story all the more sad, as she is unable to find love though as a Chinese-American woman she is a rarity.

One of the biggest themes found in Lee's story is that of old vs. new, East vs. West. Old Master Wang absolutely refuses to adapt to his new surroundings. He speaks only his native dialect, eats only his native dishes, wears traditional clothes, and refuses to keep his money in a bank. He refuses to let his sons adapt as well, drilling his younger son in Confucius rather than allowing him to play ball with the other kids. His sister-in-law (probably the best coolest character in the story), tries to persuade him to try new things, but he declares that he will always keep the old ways. Though Wang Ta wants to honor his father, he also wants to make a life for himself. In the end, Old Master Wang's refusal to even consider new ways of life leads to the breakdown of his family.

I really enjoyed this story. It has a great blend of humor, history, and modernness, and is a great intro to Chinese-American literature. I especially liked that Lee tells the story without falling into traditional stereotypes. These are real people facing real problems. A very interesting read that I am happy to recommend.

The Movie:

Rodgers and Hammerstein created a Broadway musical out of this story, then in 1961 a film version was made which starred an (almost) all-Asian cast including Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Jack Soo, and Miyoshi Umeki. Though the novel takes a few liberties with the story and falls back on some stereotypes, it is still a fun musical (probably the most upbeat of any R&H productions).

Picture Credit: Chinatown San Francisco ca. 1950 by Horace Page

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

"They sat down outside the entrance to the house and beginning at the beginning, with her first visit to the rats, she told them all that she had seen and done, and all that Nicodemus had told her."

Knowledge is a useful and powerful thing. The pursuit of knowledge has driven mankind forward for thousands of years, each generation producing ways of life that are faster and more technological. But does this pursuit come at a price? Does gaining knowledge require us to be more responsible? This is a question wrapped up inside Robert C. O'Brien's Newbery Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Though it was written for children, this story has many hidden themes that will resonate with old and young alike.

The Plot:

Mrs. Frisby has a problem. Recently widowed and left to care for her four children, she must prepare them for their annual move from the garden in order to avoid Mr. Fitzgibbon's plows. But her younger son, Timothy, is sick with pneumonia and cannot be moved for many weeks. Whether she stays or goes, Timothy is put in very grave danger. Mrs. Frisby has no choice but to ask for help from the most capable (and the most mysterious) animals on the farm: the rats. Before she knows it, Mrs. Frisby finds herself in a world that she's never known before, and discovers the truth behind her husband's past.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was definitely one of the more interesting children's books I've read in a long time. It is a fairly complex story and the characters are well-drawn and engaging. You almost have to read this book from two points of view: that of a child and that of an adult.

If you are reading this as a child, I would imagine that the atmosphere and characters of the book would be what would grip you. O'Brien takes an ordinary farmyard and turns it into a place that is both dangerous and beautiful. Life and death occur daily here, and Mrs. Frisby's courage, and willingness to lay her life on the line for her family make her a truly endearing character. What is so great about this novel, is that O'Brien doesn't sugar-coat anything. Young readers are forced to face the world as it really is, a place where joy and grief, triumph and tragedy intermingle. Because of this, I would definitely recommend this book only for upper elementary and above.

Reading this as an adult, it was the rats that really interested me. Not just their civilization and the amazing story behind their intelligence, but also the point of "The Plan" itself. Nicodemus and the other rats want to move to Thorn Valley in order to live without stealing. Before they gained so much intelligence, the rats stole because that was the only way of life they knew. But as they learned more and more, something inside them changed and made them realize that stealing is wrong. O'Brien really seems to put forth the point that the more you know, the more you are responsible for your actions. In other words, knowledge awakens morality. The Bible often speaks about accountability, and being held responsible once you know right from wrong, and seeing these themes played out so deftly (almost imperceptibly) in a children's book was great. It really leaves you with some interesting ideas to reflect on.

All in all, it is a fun read. I definitely recommend reading this one to your kids if for no other reason than it will allow some great conversations to take place. It is someone dark and scary at times, and the ending is somewhat sad (if ambiguous), but I think that both you and your kids will enjoy it.

The Movie:

In 1982 animator Don Bluth released an animated version of the book called The Secret of NIMH. The film follows the basic plot pretty well, but they choose to add a mystical plot device versus dwelling on the rats' story, which weakens the overall effect in my opinion. The film is also much more dark and scary than even the book, so probably isn't a great bet for very small children.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Literary Moments: Asheville, NC

Earlier this month, I spent about a week in the beautiful mountain city of Asheville, NC. It is such a lovely place devoted to art, history, food, and...literature! Every time I turned around I ran into a different place that was wrapped up in literary history and tradition. Here's a glimpse of some of the adventures I had:

  • Burial Place of O. Henry: American short story writer O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) was buried at Riverside Cemetery after dying in New York City. After some hunting and directions from a kind gentleman, my sister and I were able to locate the grave and leave a token of our respect (a penny) for this amazing author.
  • Area Bookstores: Asheville's downtown area has a number of bookstores, but two stand out in particular. The first is Malaprop's, Asheville's most famous bookstore. It is locally owned and operated and has a wide selection of books from classics, to poetry, to local authors. A must visit for all readers. The other is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar which sells hundreds of used books and also has a wine/champagne bar for those who enjoy a glass with their novel. It is also a nice place to just crash and lose yourself in a book.
  • Grove Park Inn and Resort: This beautiful resort has been a part of Asheville's landscape since 1913, and has hosted many distinguished guests including famed American author F. Scott Fitzgerald who stayed at the inn while visiting his wife in a local mental hospital. Even if you can't afford to stay there (I sure couldn't), it's a neat place to visit.
  • Biltmore Estate: Though this place alone is worth a trip to Asheville, there is one part in particular that will thrill book lovers. The library holds about 10,000 volumes of Geroge Vanderbilt's 23,000 collection and Napoleon's chess set. George even had a secret door that led directly from his room to the library. I really like that guy!
  • Thomas Wolfe Memorial: Of course, no trip to Asheville is complete without a visit to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home. This Asheville native is considered by many to be on par with such great writers as F. Scott Sitzgerald and William Faulkner. Today, you can visit the Old Kentucky Home Inn that plays a large role in his semi-autobiographical novel "Look Homeward Angel". After the tour, I picked up my own copy of this American classic and have added it to my "to read" list. You can also visit his grave at Riverside Cemetery.
So, if you are looking for a unique place to visit, I can't recommend Asheville highly enough. With it's beautiful landscape, delicious restaurants, stunning art galleries, and literary touches, there is truly something for everyone here.

Monday, December 27, 2010


In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Beauty and pain, life and death, duty and treachery, piety and sin, joy and heartache, love and hate. All of it is found in Marilynne Robinson's acclaimed 2004 novel Gilead. This deeply intimate novel has won praise from many literary places. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is even listed by President Barack Obama as one of his favorite books. And yet, this story is not what you would expect from such a critically acclaimed novel. In fact, it is full of delightful surprises.

The Plot:

It's 1956 and Rev. John Ames is dying. Though he accepts death and looks forward to Heaven, he doesn't really want to go now. He wants more time. More time to spend with his (much younger) wife, Lila, and their seven year old son. But death cannot be put off, and so Rev. Ames decides to sit down and write a journal for his son, who will have very few memories of him. His journal sets out to tell the story of his family. Of his radical abolitionist grandfather who served as a chaplain in the Civil War. Of his father who recoiled from his father's faith only to watch his older son turn from his. Of himself, who spent many years as a lonely man of God only to find love and fatherhood in the autumn of his life. The journal also serves as a place for his theological musings and personal struggles.

The journal also touches on the story of his namesake, John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the wayward son of Ames' childhood friend. Rev. Ames just can't bring himself to forgive Boughton, not only for past wrongs, but also for his current treatment of those who love him most. As the journal ( and Ames' life) draws to a close, he is able to find peace and reconciliation in the life and home that he loves.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I can't remember how I heard about this novel. I'm sure it was on some random blog somewhere, whose name has faded from my memory. No matter how it came to my attention, I am so glad it did. This is by far the most beautiful book that I have read this year (maybe ever). Nothing I've read can compare to it.

First, I have to commend Robinson's writing. It is so poetic, so forcefully calm. At first, the shortness of the novel along with the early paragraphs will trick you into believing that this is a story that you can fly through. Nothing could be further from the truth. Robinson's words must be savored, thought over, and read again and again. It took me much longer to read than I had anticipated because I took my own sweet time over every sentence. It was all so beautiful that I almost didn't want it to end.

And it is Robinson's writing that makes Rev. John Ames such a remarkable narrator. He recognizes his own failings, and so never leaves us doubting his word. He is not a caricature of the clergy as is so often found in literature, but rather a man who finds beauty, joy, and mercy in his life's calling. I especially loved the parts where he discusses his love for Lila and their son. In many ways, it is an ordinary marriage, and yet at the same time it is stunningly beautiful. His thankfulness at finding love after years of loneliness is enough to bring tears to anyone's eyes. I especially loved the part where Lila asks John to dance in the kitchen. It's moments like that that make this novel touch you so deeply.

Though Robinson touches on many relationships throughout the book, it is the relationship between a father and son that she focuses' on the most. The image of the prodigal son pops up again and again. So many times, a character breaks with his father (for one reason or another) only to return years later in search of reconciliation. John's father breaks with his grandfather over his role in the Civil War only to go on a journey years later in search of the old man's grave. John's brother Edward turns from the faith, yet manages to regain his relationship with their father. And Jack Boughton returns home many years after his mistakes forced him to leave. Throughout the book, John has a hard time wrapping his mind around it all. He is the good son who stayed and followed his calling, and cannot understand the joy that Old Boughton feels at the return of a son who caused (and will cause) so much pain. After many musings, many revelations, and much reflection, John begins to realize that the grace and mercy given by Old Boughton is just a drop in the bucket compared to the grace and mercy shown us by our heavenly Father. That it is those who have sinned the greatest who will feel the greatest joy in heaven.
"Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true: 'He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Robinson's deeply devotional novel is poignant, heartbreaking, touching, and beautiful. No matter what your religious persuasion, I am sure that you will find pleasure in reading this book. Just soaking yourself in Robinson's prose makes the time spent reading this story is time well spent. An absolute must read.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Agnes Grey

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

A Bronte novel for fall has become a bit of a tradition for me over the past few years. There is nothing like curling up on a crisp autumn day with a delicious Bronte story. This year, I read the first novel of the lesser known sister, Anne. Though there are many similarities with the works of Charlotte, Anne's writing has a unique strength that gives her an equal voice in what might be literature's greatest sisterhood.

The Plot:

Agnes Grey is the young daughter of a country parson. After her family falls into financial hardship, Agnes is determined to earn her own keep. She decides to join the only respectable profession there is for a young woman in her time: being a governess. She sets off with stars in her eyes and dreams of the precious children who's minds she will help shape and grow.

Reality sets in quickly when she arrives at her first position. The children are wild, the parents are uncooperative, and Agnes finds herself in a terrible limbo, neither a member of the family nor a servant. As Agnes becomes more involved with the children of the upper class, she catches a glimpse of a world that both fascinates and repels her, and meets a man whose simplicity and earnestness captures her heart.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I love the Brontes, but that is old news. Though Charlotte is my favorite, I can't help but like Anne's works as well. I really enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Agnes Grey is an equally inviting read.

If you are familiar with Charlotte's works, you will notice many recurring themes between them and Agnes Grey. There is, of course, the plight of governesses that permeates most Bronte works. This novel is a pretty accurate description of what life was like for Victorian governesses. They were considered beneath their employers and were often subjected to cruel and embarrassing treatment. Agnes experiences many painful moments in both homes she works in, and is often forced to stand up against the cruel treatment dished out by the upper-class. The other similarity is found in the relationship between Agnes and Ms. Murray, which mirrors that of Lucy Snowe and Ms. Fanshawe in Charlotte's Villette. like Lucy Snowe, Agnes becomes a bit of a confidant (if not a true friend) of the flighty and coquettish young charge who is determined to secure the heart of the local landowner, and break a few hearts in the process.

But though there are many similarities between Agnes Grey and other Bronte works, it is still a gem of a story in it's own right. Anne's writing has a certain strength of character that shines through in both of her novels. Her stories are written to teach lessons, and unlike her sisters, she puts hers out there in plain sight. Anne is determined to teach people how to empathize with others, how to show kindness, and not cruelty, to those beneath them, and how to appreciate intellectual and moral beauty over physical attractions. This tone is evident in both this novel and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Though she can sound somewhat preachy at times (she is a preacher's daughter after all), her lessons are admirable and necessary.

So, how does this novel stack up to the other Brontes? Well, it has its good points and not so good points. It is shorter than any other Bronte novel I've read, and the prose is strong, yet flowing. Plus, it has the most unambiguous happy ending of any other Bronte novel I've read. That being said, Anne's lessons tend to trip up her characters and her story. Since Agnes is the moral compass of the story, she is never really allowed to grow and mature. She starts out good and she ends up good, end of story. Plus, Mr. Weston (her love interest) is probably one of the most boring Bronte guys out there. No passion like Mr. Rochester, no evil like Heathcliffe, heck even Gilbert Markham is more interesting. Sweet guy? Yes, but very plain.

Though it lacks the maturity of her second novel and the subtlety of her sister's, there is no doubt that Anne deserves to be recognized as a wonderful Victorian writer. In many ways, this novel reminds me quite a bit of Jane Austen (esp. Mansfield Park). A must read, and a great intro to the Bronte novels.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.

-from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

May you and yours be richly blessed this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Cousin Rachel

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.

In 1951, thirteen years after the publication of her smash hit Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier began another novel also set on the coast of Cornwall. A story with an air of romance and mystery, a young and unreliable narrator, and a glittering and unknown woman named Rachel.

The Plot:

The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, an young man growing up in the care of his cousin, Ambrose, on a large Cornish estate. Philip worships Ambrose, and their life is happy, if isolated. Being two bachelors, they rarely entertain females and even the house staff is all male. After Philip finishes school, Ambrose becomes ill and is sent to Italy to recover his health. While there, Ambrose suddenly marries the young and vivacious Rachel, a distant cousin and penniless widow of an Italian count. Philip is shocked by this news, but even more shocked when he receives another letter from Ambrose indicating that Rachel might be trying to harm him. Philip sets off for Italy, only to learn upon arrival of Ambrose's death and Rachel's sudden departure.

Philip returns to England convinced that Rachel has murdered his beloved cousin. When she arrives in England, he invites her to the estate with the intent of charging her with murder. Instead, he is instantly smitten with the older and more cultured woman. His infatuation leads him to reckless behavior, even as the suspicions surrounding Ambrose's death continue to mount. Philip is torn: is Rachel innocent and worthy of his home and love, or is she really a murderess only interested in him for his wealth?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I fell head over heels for Daphne du Maurier's work after reading what is perhaps her most famous novel, Rebecca. The story gripped me from the beginning and found it's way into my top books of 2009. I knew that I had to read more of her books, so when I read the basic plot of My Cousin Rachel, I knew that it would be my next one.

There are a lot of similarities between this novel and Rebecca. Both are narrated by naive young people who suddenly find themselves in incredible situations. Both take place at a grand estate on the Cornish coast. And both hinge on a mysterious woman who's name begins with "R".

Perhaps the biggest similarity is in it's portrayal of that basic human emotion: jealousy. Just as the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's whole world is wrapped up in Maxim, so is Philip Ashley's world made up of nothing beyond his cousin Ambrose. In fact, Philip has an almost a dog-like loyalty and love for Ambrose. When his beloved cousin suddenly marries, it is obvious that Philip is overcome with jealousy. The rest of the novel is a picture of how that jealousy consumes him and affects his relationships with his neighbors, his workers, and Rachel herself.

But though the novel centers on the jealousy that love brings, nothing consumes it like Rachel herself. She is charming, witty, and full of contradictions. Because we see everything through Philip's eyes, we never get a full grasp of who she really is. Is she a compassionate woman who's life has been one hardship after another? Or is she a gold-digger who will stop at nothing (not even murder) to achieve her aim? We'll never know. Philip is an unreliable narrator, so we can't really trust his judgment. And Rachel's death at the end of the novel prevents him (and us) from discovering the truth. Even du Maurier was never sure exactly what kind of woman Rachel was. It is this question that has kept readers guessing for many years.

All in all, I found My Cousin Rachel to be an interesting read. It didn't grip me like Rebecca did (no Maxim, maybe?), but it is still an intriguing story with characters that keep you guessing, and an ending that will linger with you long after the book is closed. If you like Gothic style mystery/romances, or just plain good story-telling, I can't recommend Daphne du Maurier too highly.

The Movie:

There are two versions of this novel that have hit both the silver and the small screen. In 1983, a mini-series of the novel was made starring Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard. I have not seen this version.

The more popular version is the 1952 film version starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. This is a decent adaptation, and Richard Burton was great as Philip. I wasn't as excited about Olivia de Havilland's portrayal of Rachel, but it wasn't horrible. Again, not as great as Hitchcock's Rebecca, but an enjoyable film nevertheless.

Trivia: Franz Waxman, who composed the original score for the 1952 version, also composed the original score for Hitchcock's Rebecca. If you pay attention, you can kind of hear similar musical themes in both films.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday To:

Jane Austen

December 16, 1775

"'My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

-from Persuasion

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Swap Results

This year's Book Blogger Holiday Swap was a great success for me! My Secret Santee was Beverly Archer of Booklady's Booknotes. It was so much fun assembling her package and she left a sweet thank you post on her blog. So glad you enjoyed it Beverly!

My package was waiting for me when I returned home from my vacation in Asheville, NC. It was from Janicu of Janicu's Book Blog. She included four books in the package: The Bronze Horesman by Paullina Simons, One Day by David Nicholls, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. There was also a $20 Amazon gift card and book light. I'm looking forward to discovering new favorites. Thank you so much Janicu!

If you are a book blogger and did not sign up this year, be sure to do so next year. It is sooo much fun!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Masterpiece Classic: 2011 Schedule

Masterpiece Theatre just released its schedule for the 2011 Classic season. Here's a look at what is coming up next year:

My Boy Jack (January 2): A re-showing of a 2008 episode, this is the story of Rudyard Kipling and his son, who is called to fight in WWI. It is moving, heartbreaking, and eye-opening. Definitely one worth seeing again. Stars David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Catrall and Carey Mulligan.

Downton Abbey (January 9, 16, 23 & 30): Set at a beautiful country estate in the Edwardian period, Downton Abbey tells the story of a noble family facing a crisis of succession due to the sinking of the Titanic. Stars Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, and Dan Stevens.

The Unseen Alistair Cooke (February 6): This documentary chronicles the early life and work of famed Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke.

Any Human Heart (February 13, 20 & 27): Based on William Boyd's 2002 novel, this film shows us the 20th century through the eyes of a man who witnesses much of it. Stars Matthew MacFadyen, Gillian Anderson, Kim Catrall, and Hayley Atwell.

The 39 Steps (March 27): A re-showing of this year's adaptation of John Buchan's classic. A bored young man suddenly finds himself caught up in a the intrigues of an international spy ring in the days leading up to WWI. Not that great of an adaptation if you ask me, and I'll probably skip it. Stars Rupert Penry-Jones, David Haig, Eddie Marsan, and Alex Jennings.

Upstairs, Downstairs (April 10, 17 & 24): This is a remake of one of Masterpiece Theatre's most popular series ever. The story picks up in 1936, many years after the original story ended. The house remains the same but the families and servants are different. This will follow the lives of both portions of the household in the years leading up to WWII. Stars Eileen Atkins, and Keeley Hawes.

All in all, I'm not sure exactly what to think about this season. If you thought that the BBC was lying when they said they were cutting back on Victorian dramas, here is the proof that they were not. And I feel it is a bit ridiculous to show 2 masters/servants films in one season, and only 3 new adaptations over all. I guess Masterpiece is feeling the pinch of the economy as well. I must admit, however, that there are some really great actors here who should make things worth seeing. Here's to another season of great television. In the meantime, it looks like I'm going to have to Netflix the original Upstairs, Downstairs. Better get busy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Holiday Swap Package

My "Book Blogger Holiday Swap" package is ready to go. My secret blogger (I'll reveal later) is receiving a package full of NC treats for the holiday season. Inside there's:

  • Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden (my blogger loves mysteries)
  • "Pride of Scotland" chardonnay from The Country Squire Winery (Warsaw, NC)
  • Wilmington NC, postcard and magnet
  • "Winter's Snow" goat milk soap from Twisted Oak Farm (Burgaw, NC)
  • Homemade blueberry basil vinegar (Burgaw, NC)

If you were unable to join this year, be sure to do so next year. It's so much fun perusing another blog and figuring out what to send them. I hope my "Santee" likes it!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, For love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends.

"Thanksgiving" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wishing you and yours a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anna and the King of Siam

If she had done nothing more than teach this one woman, she knew now that her five hard years had been amply repaid by what she had seen this night.

Many people around the world are familiar with the story of Anna Leonowens and Mongkut, the king of Siam. Images of hoop skirts, beautiful women, and Yul Brynner doing the polka instantly come to mind. But the true story of Anna and Mongkut is deeper than that, grittier, more volatile. In this semi-fictionalized novel, Margaret Landon streamlines the accounts written down by Anna herself into a story cultures colliding.

The Plot:

Anna Leonowens is a young English widow in Singapore with two children to support. After her reputation as an educator becomes known throughout Southeast Asia, she is invited to tutor the wives, concubines, and children of Mongkut, King of Siam, who wishes them to be taught a modern Western curriculum. With grand ideas and expectations, she accepts the position and is soon on her way.

It is not long after she arrives that she realizes that her idea of Siam is only a dream. Here, she is faced with a world that is completely foreign to her. A world where women have absolutely no power, where every whim of the king is law, and where justice is a hit and miss affair. It is to this world that Anna struggles to bring modern Western thought, and to influence the future king so that he may one day lead his nation into the modern world.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

The first question most people have when they read this story is "How much of this is real?" Margaret Landon herself described the story as "75% fact and 25% based on fact", so the majority of the book stays true to Leonowens' original memoirs (though many now believe those to be somewhat romanticized and fabricated).

The book itself focuses on three relationships primarily. The first is between and Anna and Mongkut. Though the film versions give the most emphasis to this, it is not the most significant part of the story. There are very few actual scenes directly between the king and Anna, and those that are shown generally end in an argument. Their relationship is volatile from beginning to end, and there is no real romance like the movies give hints to (except for a small bit on the king's side). The king himself is driven by his emotions and is subject to violent fits of temper. In the end, Anna does leave Siam and never really gains any real respect for the king.

The second relationship is between Anna and the women of the Harem. At first, Anna is not sure what to make of this city within a city. She must deal with the hierarchy, jealousy, and racism that pervade the life of the harem, and at the same time introduce brand new ideas to this secluded group of women. But though the challenges are great, it is probably here that Anna sees the most success from her five year tenure. There are many individual lives she touches from the lonely and misguided Tuptim to the the imprisoned and suffering L'Ore. It is here that her lessons of the rights of women and anti-slavery really take hold.

The final relationship is between Anna and Siam itself. Though Anna had lived in the east most of her life, it had always been in British colonies. Siam is her first step into a world without much Western influence. Much of the book is dedicated to the traditions, superstitions, religion, and festivals of the Siamese people, and watching Anna's English ways collide with this theirs provides the majority of the humorous moments of the book. But Anna herself does not take these differences very well. In fact, they are the greatest burden on her life in Siam, and there are as many tragic moments caused by misunderstandings as there are funny. The political side of Siam is given a lot of coverage to, and it is very poignant to watch as the king struggles to keep his nation out of the grip of European nations.

My biggest gripe with this book comes down to Anna herself. She is seeking to change Siam (and often in a good way), but she never allows Siam to change her. She never sees the king as anything beyond a despot, she never sees the women of the harem as anything beyond simple-minded creatures who can't grasp their demeaning situation, and she never sees Siam as anything but a brutal country with a culture that is far beneath those of Europe. Every time her way of life clashes with theirs, it is because they are the ones who have no culture. I would have loved to see Anna be more accepting and appreciative of the beautiful and exotic parts of Siam. But instead, she is like every other European in Asia at the time.

This is a very interesting read and one that I would highly recommend, especially to historical fiction lovers and those who love the film versions. The story of Anna and Siam is one that teaches many lessons, and lets us discover a world that no longer exists.

The Movie:

There have been many adaptations of this story and everyone has a favorite. The first is the 1946 version starring Irene Dunne as Anna and (wait for it...) Rex Harrison as Mongkut. Seriously. I haven't seen this one, but it was very popular when it first came out and is considered one of the top three adaptations of the book.

Then we have the wildly popular 1956 version starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. This one is the best adaptation in my opinion. Though it does soften the portrayal of the king, most of the original plot is left and the music is downright gorgeous. If you don't see any other version- see this one. Yul Brynner rocks!

If you have young kids, they may enjoy the 1999 animated version. Though the plot is twisted a bit, it includes many of the original songs from the R&H version as well as songs from the Broadway version.

Also in 1999 came "Anna and the King" starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. Now, I liked this version not only for the characterization, but also for the lovely on-location cinematography. It doesn't quite follow the original story, adding lots more drama and romance, but it still a fun movie. Recommended for all hopeless romantics (and those who don't like musicals).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: Sherlock

If you have read this blog for awhile, then you know that I am a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. I've read all of the stories (most more than once) and include them in my "Top 10 Books" list. So when I heard that BBC (and Masterpiece Mystery) were going to be creating a new version of the classic detective stories, I became very excited. Then, I heard that they were going to "modernize" the series. Uh oh. This can't be good. To me, the Granada series is the epitome of Sherlock adaptations and there is no way a 21st century edition is going to work. Not to mention, we've got "Dr. Who" writers creating the script and the interesting (though slightly odd) Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. I could just see Doyle and Jeremy Brett rolling in their graves. Needless to say, my initial enthusiasm was slightly dampened and I went into this with a somewhat less than open mind.

Oh my God. I was so wrong. I was completely sucked in by this series. Though it is set in modern London, the spirit of Doyle's original characters and stories are kept firmly intact. This first series is comprised of 3 episodes. In "A Study in Pink" (a nod to the original story "A Study in Scarlet"), Dr. John Watson has just come home after being wounded in Afghanistan (just like the original), and is introduced to the somewhat eccentric Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective with whom he agrees to share a flat. Watson is then sucked into the brilliant, yet aloof mind of the famous detective.

There are enough nods and winks to the original stories to keep any Holmes enthusiast happy. Not only do we see references to "A Study in Scarlet", but also to "The Dancing Man", "The Greek Interpreter", and "The Final Problem". Plus, we also have many other original characters that show up, like Mrs. Hudson, Sarah (John's love interest), Mycroft Holmes, Lestrade, and Moriarty. Writers Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat also include names, places, and plot devices from the original.

None of this is to say that the stories are pulled word for word from the originals. They're not. Each one has a modern setting, a modern crime, and a modern way of solving things. Holmes communicates mostly be texting (versus the telegram), John keeps a blog of his adventures with Holmes (versus a diary/book), and there are lots of bombs and snipers. Not to mention the all too modern humor of two single men living together (lot's of jokes gotten out of that one). This keeps the stories fresh and unpredictable, and will likely draw in new fans who couldn't stomach too much Victorian England.

But though the cases themselves are fascinating, the true heart of this series (as with the books), is the friendship between Holmes and Watson. No two men could be more different, yet by the end they are are the best of friends. Holmes pulls Watson out of his depression and boredom, and Watson gives Holmes something to care about beyond facts and puzzles. Each episode peels back layers of the characters while leaving them an air of mystery.

If this is not enough to convince you that this series is worth watching, just wait. The humor in this thing is amazing. There are so many memorable lines and moments that will leave you rolling on the floor. Here are some of my favorites:

1) -Sherlock to Lestrade: "Shut up!"
-Lestrade: "I didn't say anything!"
-Sherlock: "You're thinking and it's annoying."

2) -Sherlock: "I'm in shock! Look-I've got a blanket!"

3) -Sherlock to Watson: "Because you're an idiot." pause "Oh, don't look at me like that, practically everyone is."

4) -Sherlock "I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!"

Again, though I went into this with dampened spirits, I found it to be a wonderful and captivating series. Whether you are a devotee to Sherlock Holmes stories, or have never even picked up a Doyle novel, this is a must watch. It is, in my opinion, the best thing that Masterpiece has brought us this year. Can't wait for next season!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Holiday Swap

I just signed up for my first year of the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. I've heard about this for a few years, but decided to take the plunge this year. The basic premise is that a book blogger sign up and are paired with another book blogger as their "Secret Santa". After you find out who your "santee" is, you get to peruse their blog and decide on a small gift to send them for the holidays. If you're interested, be sure to sign up by November 14. Sounds like it will be a lot of fun!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Never Let Me Go

"All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma."

When TIME Magazine was writing its blurb on Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel for inclusion in its "All TIME 100 Novels" list, they said "The human drama of Never Let Me Go, its themes of atrocity and acceptance, are timeless and, sadly, permanent." Timeless, poignant, heartbreaking, troubling, and final. All of these words aptly describe Never Let Me Go. Once again, British writer Kazuo Ishiguro takes us to a place that is at once terrifying and familiar, forcing us to face ourselves and our fate.

The Plot:

I can only give the most basic plot description without giving away major spoilers, so this will be short. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are three children growing up in England. They know nothing of the outside world, and their entire life is defined by what goes on within the four walls of their boarding school, Hailsham. Though their life is essentially happy and innocent, something dark lingers on their horizon. Their teachers treat them with a mixture of pity and fear and their unspoken tales weigh upon the children. It is only after many years that they are told the horrid truth and awaken to the fate that lays before them.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

The truth that Kathy and her friends discover is that they are not like everyone else. They, and all their friends at Hailsham, are clones. Scientific progress has led to the creation of cloned humans who are used solely for the purpose of organ donation. Each clone is raised up to the age of about 30, and then their organs are harvested, one by one. After about 2-4 donations, the patient "completes" (dies). Before this, each clone spends a few years as a "carer", an emotional support for those going through the donation process. This is where Kathy is as she tells us about her life at Hailsham and beyond.

Many people try to squeeze this novel into the "science-fiction" category, and on the surface that is somewhat true. The novel is set in a parallel world and has clones as main characters. But ultimately, that is not the purpose of the novel.
"I don't want people to come away from the film thinking, I wonder if we should continue experimenting with stem cells. That's not the intent." Ishiguro says. Rather, he focuses on the human aspects of the novel.

Ultimately, this is a story of love and fate. The main characters' destiny hangs over their heads like a sword. And the way they each face it gives us a glimpse into their characters. Kathy is introspective about it, and she enjoys her work while it is available to her. Ruth, who is rather selfish both as an adolescent and an adult, seeks any and every way to pretend that her fate will be different. Tommy lashes out both at others and at himself.

I've read many reviews that question why the clones accept their fate so passively. Why don't they rebel against it? Regarding this, Ishiguro says "It's antithetical to the American creed of how you should face setbacks — that if you fight back, love conquers all." But when it comes to death, nothing can stop it. No amount of love, fight, or obliviousness will make it go away. We are all destined to this fate. Ishiguro's point is that, though our ultimate fate is sealed, what matters is the life we live before that fate. He also points to the Japanese idea that acceptance of one's fate is a high form of heroism.

Though I enjoyed this novel, it will not be for everyone. Not only are the themes somewhat dark, but there is some graphic content (sex is talked about quite frankly). I would definitely recommend this novel only for mature readers.

I picked up this novel mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed another Ishiguro novel, The Remains of the Day. Like that novel, Ishiguro's latest offering is a calm, almost mundane story, but the truths about life and humanity found in it are startling and profound. In the end, Never Let Me Go is an ode to life well lived. It is about accepting that we will not live forever, and so living life to its fullest, with as few regrets as possible.

The Movie:

The film version of this novel was released a few months ago. It stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield. I haven't seen it yet, but hope to eventually.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous . . . "

from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-35: Where Have You Been All My Life?

Once in a while I read a book I have had for years and I think “How the hell did I miss this one? Why did I not read this one before?

Is there a book that has hang around your reading pile for far too long before you got to it, A book that probably got packed away until you accidentally got to it or a book that you read a few pages in and never got back to.

If so share or ask your readers about that book that really made an impression on them (good or bad) after having it or hearing about it for far too long?

There aren't too many books that sit in my "TBR" pile for very long. Usually, I read books pretty soon after I hear/think about them. But there are some that lingered. Books that got pushed to the side because I had something else I was dying to read or because I wasn't so sure that I wanted to read them at all. And yet, many of these books have become instant favorites:

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. I had many friends recommend this one to me and I STILL never took the time to actually sit down and read it. In fact, it was only because it was included in The Classic Tales Podcast that I even took the time to listen to it. I kinda knew what the plot was about and since the French Revolution had never been exactly my favorite era, I pushed it to the side in favor of other things. I wish I hadn't. I absolutely loved everything about this story. The characters, the adventure, the was all so good. Should have read this a long time ago.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein. I had my own personal reasons for putting off this story. I'm still not sure exactly what made me decide to actually read it. Maybe it was because I wanted to see the movies and I try to read the books before I watch the adaptations. Anyway, I was hooked. Tolkein's rich and complex story is really as good as everyone says it is. If you haven't read this one, don't make the same mistake I did. Read it NOW!

Daphne du Maurier Novels. Ok, so this one isn't entirely my fault. I had never heard of Daphne du Maurier until I began watching a lot of Hitchcock films. This is somewhat surprising since I love Gothic type novels like the Brontes. Anyway, I've read both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel and thoroughly enjoyed them. If you are a lover of Gothic lit, do yourself a favor and grab anything by Daphne du Maurier. You won't be disappointed.

How about you? Is there something you put off reading only to discover a new love when you finally did?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Complete Brother's Grimm

Long ago, when wishes often came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.

Many of us are very familiar with the fairy tales compiled (and often tweaked) by the Grimm brothers. They have been a part of the childhoods of generations of people around the world. They are so much a part of our culture, that they bleed into other mediums like movies and television. One has to wonder if the Grimms realized that when they were compiling these stories they were creating what W. H. Auden would call one of the founding works of western culture.

The Plot:

Though each story is unique, most of them follow pretty similar plots. There is a princess who must be rescued, younger sons who must prove their worth, witches to be outsmarted, and giants to kill. Some are long and some are short, but each has little magic and wisdom of its own.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

to self: never ever ever read 700 pages of Fairy Tales in one go. Ever. By the end, I had started rooting for the witches. Death to the beautiful princesses and the smart aleck princes! But I digress.

Seriously, these are great tales to read, but you should never try to read them without a break. My biggest problem was that, except for the well-known tales, most of the plots were recycled over and over throughout the collection. You would read four or five stories in a row that were almost exactly the same. This made parts of it extremely tedious.

Of course, the characters are all one-dimensional, but there were a few surprises in there. You wouldn't believe how many princesses outsmarted the gazillions of guys seeking their hands. Of course, one really smart guy outwitted them in the end, but these aren't exactly your typical damsels in distress. There are some tough woman in this book. You also wouldn't believe how many guys would fall for a girl only to forget about her the minute she was out of sight and try to marry someone else. Typical.

One thing you should be prepared for before reading these to your kids is the violence. These are not the cute Disney versions. Some of these are seriously disturbing and frightening. They are really a great glimpse into German and East Europe culture and what they considered frightening. Woods filled with witches, devils, wolves, and giants. Heads chopped off, eyes poked out, and children sold. Probably the most disturbing story was "The Juniper Tree". Wow.

None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy any of the stories. I found many of them to be fun reads. Of course, the famous one are the best, like "The Frog Prince", "The Sleeping Beauty", "Rumpelstiltskin", and "Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs". But my most favorite was "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces". Twelve princesses who disappear every night to dance with the twelve cutest guys in the kingdom. Nice.

So, my advice to you is, purchase a "Selected Works" edition of the stories. That should give you all of the popular ones without having to wade through the not so fun one. But definitely read them. They are a fascinating glimpse not only German culture, but Western culture as a whole.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Literary Prizes: Helpful or Detrimental?

It's "Oscar" season in the literary world. With the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Prize both being given out within the past week, many readers are being introduced to the works of authors who were previously a bit of an unknown outside their respective spheres. This means that many of them will be rushing out to read/buy one of these author's works to keep up with the literary times. This is a great thing, right? Maybe not.

In his article for Newsweek entitled "The Trouble with the Nobel", Malcolm Jones discusses how the Nobel and other major literary prizes might just have too much control over what the world reads.

Prizes do sell books. They can make reputations. At the same time, the Nobel and all the other literary prizes encourage a kind of laziness among readers. They create a false sense of what’s great, and that’s a decision that individual readers ought to be making on their own.

So what do you think? Do prizes help more than they hurt? Or do we as readers rely too much on the recommendations of remote committees that we know little to nothing about?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The English Novel

Last week I wrapped up my third audio lecture series from The Teaching Company. This one was entitled "The English Novel", and it traced the history, not just of the great works themselves, but also of the novel form itself as found in English literature. It is a great back-up to the "Classics of British Literature" series that I finished back in April.

Our professor for this course is Dr. Timothy Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and Associate Professor of English at Lawrence University. Though perhaps not quite as witty and conversational as Professor Sutherland from "COBL", his lecturing style is easy to listen to, follow, and comprehend.

This series comprises of 24 lectures tracing the evolution of the English novel from its earliest beginnings of Fielding and Richardson to its culmination in Joyce and Woolf. Each lecture is a fantastic blend of biographical info on the author, plots and themes from the story, and the theory of the novel form. Though I was familiar with most of the authors and stories, I learned a lot through this course. It helped me recognize patterns throughout the English novel tradition ( it's obsession with courtship and marriage, and it's penchant for "comedic" endings), and learn to draw parallels between what we are reading in the novel and what was happening in the world at the time. I also really loved the part where Dr. Spurgin discusses how the rise in translations of foreign literature forever changed the English novel tradition.

If you love English novels, or like learning the history and theory of literature, I would definitely recommend this course. It is enjoyable and informative. I must warn you, however, your "to read" list will grow by leaps and bounds!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


She had, unconsciously, the feeling that any trait of hers, no matter of what kind, was a family tradition and therefore worthy of respect.

In 1929, German writer Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly for his two epic novels The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks. Based on his own family history, Mann's first novel explores the battle that goes on between art and business, duty and desire. One family at the pinnacle of success in 19th century Germany finds itself in a downward spiral that circumstance and their own shortcomings make impossible to stop.

The Plot:

When it comes to success, the Buddenbrook family has it in spades. They are the center of the bourgeois business and social life in their town. Their family firm is thriving and opportunities abound for the four young Buddenbrook children: Thomas, Antonie, Christian, and Clara. Unfortunately, life does not quite turn out the way the way any of them had planned.

After the hard work and prudence of the older generations, the younger ones now live in an age of decadence and extremes. They have known no other life but that at the top of society and it seems incredible to them that that kind of life might come to an end. As the story progresses, we watch each member of the family slowly decline due to pride, ignorance, and intemperance.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

As I set out to read my first Thomas Mann novel, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It is a long book and I was afraid that I might find myself mired down in 700-800 pages of romanticized language and uninteresting characters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The first thing that I loved about this novel was how accessible it was. I was immediately sucked in to the world of the Buddenbrook family and had a hard time tearing myself away. Not only is Mann's writing style easy to read, but his characters are engaging and interesting. Each one has it's own distinctive personality and complexity and you won't find a single cliche among them. You may hate them, you may love them, but you definitely care about them.

It is also a fascinating glimpse into a time period that I know very little about. Though most of the outside events are given only a mention here and there, there are some major historical events going on. The Revolution of 1848 and it's demands for the freedom of the press are seen through Morten Schwarzkopf, and the Austro-Prussian War and German unification are also touched on. So often when I hear people talk about Germany, it is in the negative light of the world wars. If anything, Buddenbrooks is a glimpse into the true richness and complexity that is German culture.

I read somewhere that in Buddenbrooks, Mann was creating a bridge between 19th century realism and 20th century symbolism. I find this to be a very accurate description. On the one hand, this story is written with all of the frankness of, say, Madame Bovary. Nothing is romanticized and nothing is pathetic. However, it is chock full of symbolism as well. Mann is attempting to portray the ultimate demise of that decadent and glittering society that his parents grew up in. As the story progresses, we see the result that this decadent lifestyle has lead to which is sickness, madness, and death. And it is not just the richness of the lifestyle itself that Mann mocks, but the very basis of it. Throughout the novel, the family and the firm are treated as one and the same. Each personal decision comes down to how that choice will affect the firm. Tony's marriages are all products of trying to help the firm, and Thomas' outward vanity is all a show of the power of the firm. But no matter how hard these characters try to mold their lives around the success of the firm, it all comes to nothing. The firm is dissolved and they meet ends as terrible and lonely as those characters who tried to ignore it. Mann seems to hammer home the idea that some things in this life are inevitable.

Of all of the German literature I read this summer, this one was my absolute favorite. If you're looking for a place to begin in either German lit or Thomas Mann, I would definitely give this one a try. It is a wonderful story that after 100 years is still so relevant to our own times.

The Movie:

As fascinating as this story is, you'll never many (if any) adaptations of it outside of Germany. There are two main versions that I will mention here. The first is the 1979 miniseries that was screened here in the US as part of Great Performances. I was able to see about 4 episodes of it (youtube took it off while I was in the middle of watching it) and I really enjoyed it. The acting and screenplay were spot on with the novel and was really like watching these characters walk right off the page. It is in German, so you will need subtitles, but it is still great watching. I will probably have to break down and get the DVD so that I can finish it.

The other one is the 2008 film version. I haven't seen any of this version, but the trailers make it seem like a glossier version of the story. If you have seen it, please let me know your opinion.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Happy Birthday To:

Elizabeth Gaskell
September 29, 1810

"I say Gibson, we're old friends, and you're a fool if you take anything I say as an offense. Madam your wife and I didn't hit it off the only time I ever saw her. I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it wasn't me!"

-from Wives and Daughters

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010

September 25-October 2 are the dates of this year's Banned Books Week sponsored by the American Library Association. This week is meant to bring awareness to the many books that are challenged throughout the world. Most of the time, these challenges involve parents wanting certain books removed from school libraries. In 2009 there were 460 attempts to have a book withdrawn from a US classroom or library. While our neighbors across the pond don't seem to have this problem, it has become very common here in the US. Most of the time, the reasons given for the desire to ban a book are centered around a child's well-being. The parent wishes to shield their child from sexually explicit, racially charged, or extremely violent content. This is understandable and in many ways commendable, but it is not exactly possible. Here are some of my thoughts on banned books:

  • Ultimately, it all comes down to free speech. We, as Americans and humans, have the right to read (or write) whatever we wish, and we have the right to NOT read whatever we wish. If you don't agree with the content found in the book, put it down. I have stopped reading numerous books because I found the content distasteful.
  • Your idea offensive and my idea of offensive are not always the same. While I'm not surprised to see certain books on the list of often banned books (The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, or anything by D. H. Lawrence), there were others that caught me off guard and left me scratching my head in wonder (To Kill a Mockingbird? Gone With the Wind? The Lord of the Rings?). I would hate for someone to come up to me and tell me that I can't read a certain book because they find it offensive.
  • You are the parent. If you are concerned about what your children are reading, monitor it, talk to them about it, or discuss it with their teachers. There may be a way to work out your differences of opinion on what should and should not be read in the classroom...
  • ...or maybe not. If you can't work any of that out with the school, you can always do what my parents decided to do. Homeschool. By sending your kids to public school, you are giving up some of your basic parental rights (schools can't cater to each parent's beliefs and standards), so if you want all of those rights back, you may have no other choice but to take your child's education into your own hands.
Ultimately, banning books does nothing to solve a problem. If anything it makes the problem worse. If people cannot read, learn, and decide for themselves, then a nation is sure to fall under tyranny (Nazis or Communism, anyone?). How about you? What are your thoughts on banned books? Is there ever a circumstnace when a book should be banned?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

First Love

Over in the book section of Guardian's website, they have a short video of writers for Guardian and Observer reminiscing about the book that first sparked the passion for literature:

This got me to thinking about the book that started my love affair with great literature. I had been reading all of my life, but one of my earliest steps into the world of "literature" happened when I was about 12 or 13. I was spending a week at my grandparent's house, and I rented the 1949 version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I was immediately captivated by the story, so my grandmother went out and bought me all three of the books involving the March girls.

I'm still not exactly sure what it was about this story that grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was because I saw so many parallels between the story of the March family and my own life. Like the Marchs my family at the time consisted of my parents and four girls, and I often compared each of my sisters and myself to the girls in the story (except we had two Jos and no Beths). I always saw myself as Meg, the oldest child with a sense of responsibility and a desire for the good things in life. My sisters K. and M. were each Jo, wild and untamed yet tender-hearted as well. And my other sister T. was Amy, the artist. There were so many portions of this story that I loved dearly. I smiled when Jo and Laurie had their arguments. I laughed when poor Meg tried to make jam and John brought home a visitor. And I cried as Jo experienced the loneliness of being the last of the sisters at home. The simplicity, the warmth, and the love found inside this book opened my eyes to the way literature can impact your life.

Today, ten years after first reading it, Little Women continues to be one of my favorite books. The poor paperback copy my grandmother bought for me is worn, dog-eared, and slightly torn, but I don't think I would trade it for any other copy. Jut seeing it on the shelf brings back so many delightful memories of the time I spent growing up with the March girls.

If you have a memory of a book that got you started in literature, please feel free to share it in the comments.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Trial

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

You and I were never meant to read The Trial. Franz Kafka died with the intention of having it and many other works destroyed. But his friend and executor, Max Brod, disregarded his wishes and published them. Now, Kafka's world is a source of debate, wonder, horror, and the unfathomable. Once you step in, there is no getting out...until the story ends.

The Plot:

Life is going pretty well for Joseph K. He is rising in his job at the bank, he has a nice room with a nice landlady, and he is never in want of female companionship. But his life is suddenly turned upside down. He is woken up one morning by two men who are there to arrest him. What they are arresting him for they do not say, but arrest him they must. K. must appear before the court to plea his case. Slowly, this trial begins to consume K.'s life, ruining relationships and slowing his promotion chances. How can he defend himself if he has no idea what he has done?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I could give a really cheap review and simply define The Trial as "Kafkaesque" and be done with it, but that is hardly a worthy review for this piece of fiction. One of the reasons this novel is so hard to review is that it is unfinished and lacks the coherence and polish of a traditional novel. But this also adds to the charm and the feel of the novel and does not hinder us from enjoying the story.

In actuality, it is not so much the story that sucks us in but the world that Kafka creates. It looks like our world and for the most part operates like our world, but at the same time it is off balance, twisted, and distorted. To me, this is what makes this work so haunting. It is a place that we recognize and yet we do not understand.

Readers and scholars have been debating the point of The Trial ever since its publication, but the one thing they agree on is its view of the bureaucratic side of the law. Think Dickens having a nightmare. Like Bleak House (and to a lesser extent Little Dorrit), the courts are depicted as unfathomable and unending processes that care not for those who are caught in their wheels. The part where K. is wandering through the winding and suffocating halls of the court offices is perhaps the best picture of Kafka's version of the law.

I wish I could go into a lot more detail about this novel, but Kafka is someone that you really have to read for yourself. I don't think there is really any way to effectively sum up his creation. I can only say that it is haunting, mesmerizing, horrifying, thought-provoking....and I want more!

The Movie:

Perhaps the most famous version of this story is the 1962 version directed by Orson Welles and starring Anthony Perkins. You know that any film combining the director who freaked America out by reading War of the Worlds and the actor who freaked America out by killing Janet Leigh in Psycho has to be pretty unnerving.

There is also a more recent 1993 version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Caution: Spoilers Ahead!

50 famous novels summed up in only 4 minutes. Very funny, especially if you have read the books!

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Look at that sea, girls--all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn't enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds."

-from Anne of Green Gables
by L. M. Montgomery

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Tap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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