Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Inklings

For those of you who don't know, I am a big fan of C. S. Lewis. He is my absolute most favorite Christian author and many of his writings from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Four Loves to 'Til We Have Faces continue to haunt me and provoke my thinking. For Christmas this year, I received Humphrey Carpenter's 1978 biography entitled The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. This is the first biography that I have read in a while, and it is really a fascinating glimpse into the lives if some of the 20th century's most amazing authors.

Carpenter's biography is about the group itself, though it does lean particularly heavily on Lewis and Williams. I was somewhat disappointed that there was not a whole lot of personal information regarding Tolkein, but Carpenter is also the author of a biography strictly on Tolkein, so he leaves it to the reader to search there for more info. But as I said, this novel is not solely about any one writer, but about everyone in that group, and (more importantly) how they influenced each other.

The Inklings were basically a very informal group of writers/professors who met at Oxford from about 1930 to about 1949. Groups and clubs were not a new thing to the University, in fact, they were a very integral part of Oxford society and the Inklings were a very relaxed group compared to most. We probably would not really know anything about them if they hadn't been a weekly gathering of some of literature's most famous works hadn't come out of it.

Throughout the book, Carpenter weaves a tale of a group of men whose friendships would challenge them, provoke them, bind them, and (in the case of Lewis) save them. There are so many wonderful aspects of this book that really caught my eye and my imagination. Like how one of the earliest clubs the Lewis and Tolkein joined (known as the "Coal Biters") gathered weekly to translate Icelandic sagas into English. Or how Warnie Lewis (C. S.'s brother) was an admired writer in his own right. Or how the various infighting in the English department of Oxford constantly changed what the students were learning. Or how the Inklings would frequently change meeting places during the war due to beer shortage. And one can just imagine the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth coming to life in Lewis' rooms in Magdalen College.

There is a quote of Lewis' found in this book that sums everything up perfectly. "Oh for the people who speak one's own language". Ultimately, the story of the Inklings is the story of a group of people who found lasting friendship in their common love for literature, for myths, and for history. If you have ever wanted to learn more about the creators of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, then Carpenter's biography is for you. From the casual reader to the Inklings enthusiast, it has something to offer everyone.
Picture Credit: Magdalen Tower from the Botanical Gardens by Francis Hamel

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Passing of an Author

J. D. Salinger
January 1, 1919-January 27, 2010

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.

With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “god***”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.

Read the rest of the NYT Obit here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Knightley in Shining Armor

Austen fever is hitting America (again) with tomorrow's premier of the new version of Emma. It's the only thing that the Austen blogging world has been talking about for the last year (along with zombies, sea monsters, and vampires). If you're like the majority of American women and you just can't get enough of Jane Austen, Masterpiece Classic has plenty of extra goodies on their website. There is an audio slideshow with Romola Garai (Emma), behind-the-scenes video, an Emma Twitter party, and even a "Bachelors of Highbury" quiz. You know that I couldn't pass up finding out which Highbury bachelor was my most compatible match, and I think I scored the JACKPOT!

You're looking for the complete package: a man with brains, good looks, a great job, perfect manners and a sizeable fortune to boot. Well, today's your lucky day.

That's right, my most compatible match is none other than the man who is perhaps Austen's most perfect hero: Mr. George Knightley. While Darcy and Wentworth are probably my most favorite (Austen) heros, there aren't many men who can top Mr. Knightley when it comes to male perfection. Gentlemen, if you would win the heart of a fair lady, try taking some pointers from this guy.

Johnny Lee Miller (Emma 2009)

Jeremy Northam (Emma 1996)

Mark Strong (Emma 1996)

Mr. Knightley. No matter who your favorite is, he's a character that proves that nice guys can come out on top (and get the girl). Enjoy this next dose of Austen!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: Return to Cranford

This year's season of Masterpiece Classic begins by taking us back. Back to a charming town in Cheshire. Back to a world where rules of decorum have been in place for centuries. Back to a place where love, pain, and happiness blend together. Back to friends that are both well-loved and well-known. Back to Cranford.

This sequel to the BBC's original production begins one year after the end of the first series. Cranford continues to face the major change that is barreling towards it in the form of the railway. Most of the town's residents continue to feel that the railway will only bring destruction. But others recognize that Cranford's very survival might depend on allowing this great change into their midst.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this sequel, and my feelings are still rather mixed on it. On the one hand, the production qualities are just as good as the first one. The scenery is just as stunning, the writing just as lovely, the acting just as luminous. But at times, it was also somewhat dissappointing. Many faces that we loved are no longer in Cranford (Dr. Harrison, Sophy, Caroline Tomkinson, Jessie Brown, Maj. Gordon etc.) and many of the original story lines are hinted at but never resoled (Did Mrs. Rose marry the older doctor? Why did Ms. Matty close her tea shop? What happened between Mary and the Irish doctor?).

It was actually as if you had left your hometown for a whole year. You come back and neither you nor it is the same as when you had left. As I watched, I thought of a line uttered by Margaret Hale in the 2004 adaptation of Gaskell's North and South: "...happy as we were, we can never go back." For all the love we have for the place, it will never remain the same.

And yet, isn't that exactly what the citizens of Cranford are experiencing? Their way of life is changing daily, and they can either sit at home alone and hide from it, or they can march out together and face it head on. It is the latter that the ladies of Cranford choose to do. For all the hurt and heartache that this change brings, it also brings new opportunities.

Yes, there were points to this sequel that I didn't like. It wasn't quite as funny as the first (there was no lace at stake). Some loose ends were never tied up (was Harry able to get the money owed him by Lord Septimus?). And I didn't like the fact that Mary is allowed to become a writer only by choosing to remain single, especially when she is modled after Gaskell who wrote in the evenings after her children were in bed. But there were also many lovely moments that warmed my heart and made me smile. It's not as good as the original, and it's a little uneven in places, but it is still worth seeing. By the end, I was glad that I chose to return to Cranford.

Up Next: The American premier of a brand new adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-2: Awards Season

With the awards season for Hollywood in full swing (Golden Globes and Oscars are on their way), the awards handed out in the literature department can be easily overlooked. But today's award winners will be tomorrow's required reading, so Weekly Geeks is reminding us to not ignore those literary honors:

Are you among those anxiously waiting for Monday's announcements?! Which announcements, you say, well ALA's BIG announcements, of course! On Monday, January 18th, we'll learn who has won the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, and the Coretta Scott King awards. Of course, those are just a few of those that will be announced. Do you follow any of these awards? Do you seek these winners out to read?

I decided to go with activity #3:

Choose an award (like the Printz and Newbery) and look at the list of previous winners/honors. Which books have you read and enjoyed? Are there any that you hated? Share a few 'favorites' with your readers.

I've chosen to spotlight the Newbery Award. The John Newbery Medal was created in 1922 and was the first children's literary award in the world. It is given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Here is a list of the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honors winners that I have read.

*The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo- 2004 Medal Winner
*Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff- 1998 Honors
*Number the Stars by Lois Lowry- 1990 Medal Winner
*Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia McLachlan- 1986 Medal Winner
*Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson- 1981 Medal Winner
*From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg- 1968 Medal Winner
*Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt- 1965 Honors
*The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden- 1961 Honors
*The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare- 1959 Medal Winner
*Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham- 1956 Medal Winner
*Charlotte's Web by E. B. White- 1953 Honors
*These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder- 1944 Honors
*Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder- 1942 Honors
*Indian Captive: the Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski- 1942 Honors
*The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder- 1941 Honors
*By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder- 1940 Honors
*On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder- 1938 Honors

Of all the winners that I have read, there are three in particular that stick out in my mind as some of the best children's literature that I have ever read.

The first is Number the Stars. Lois Lowry's tale of a gentile family in Denmark that risks it all to help a Jewish family escape the Nazis is one of the best stories of the Holocaust that I have read. I credit it along with movies like The Sound of Music and A Friendship in Vienna with piquing my interest in both WWII and the Holocaust.

Next is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I first read this book in middle school where you were supposed to read one chapter a day. Yeah, right. I simply flew through that book. I loved the story of headstrong and independent Katherine Tyler trying to find a home and love in Puritan New England. This is one that I'll pick up even today and devour with relish.

Finally, there is Jean Lee Latham's classic Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. I remember falling for this book the first time that my mom read it aloud to us. The story of Nathaniel Bowditch's rise from indentured servant to a captain, mathematician, and author of one of America's most important navigational books is one of the most inspirational books that I have ever read. Whenever I'm in a difficult situation, I always think of the advice a sailor give to Nat: "sail by ash breeze."

So what Newbery classics have you read. Which were your favorite? Feel free to share!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tweeting the Classics

Okay, so I'm not quite sure what to think of this. Here is a portion of an article reporting about the latest phenomenon in the "reading meets technology" circles:

In today's fast-paced society, it can be difficult to find the time to enjoy such long, wordy classics like Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. Between Twitter, Facebook, TiVo, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and iPhone/Droid apps, there's simply no room in our schedules to read a book.

Unless of course it's a junior-high reading level novel about teenage vampires committing suicide. Then we're all over that.

But the classics are too poetic and long-winded. "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" What does that even mean? Why didn't Juliet just look up Romeo's Loopt profile?

Fortunately, two University of Chicago students have put together a new book to help the attention-deficient among us.

Turns out that Emmett Rensin and Alexander Aciman have written a book that takes major works of literature from Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers to Paradise Lost and The Hobbit and puts them into a series of no more than 20 "tweets" of 140 characters. Now, I understand that neither of the authors intends this to be a replacement for the real stories, but rather a humorous take on them. But the description from the book's website kind of irks me:

Twitterature provides everything you need to master the literature of the civilised world, while relieving you of the burdensome task of reading it.

Burdensome task? How is The Hobbit burdensome? Or Beowulf? Or Pride and Prejudice? Or Jane Eyre? Honestly, some people have no clue of the wondrous delight that awaits them between those covers. Is it hard work to read these works? Yeah, it often takes determination and practice to get through some of these clunkers. But at the same time, the benefits of having actually read the story are worth it.

The other thing that struck me were some of the so -called "classics" found on the list. Harry Potter? Twilight!!? How in the heck are these considered classics? Popular, yes, but classics? Classics are stories that remain relevant to us even after many years. I can't imagine Twilight being relevant today, let alone a century from now.

Anyway, just a personal rant. If you want to know more about the project, you can always follow them on Twitter.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Wow. It's 2010!! I can't believe how fast time flies. 2009 was a bit of a roller coaster year for me, and I never could have imagined last January all of the things that would happen this year. My reading has been somewhat wild and crazy too. I've discovered lots of new authors, met lots of interesting characters, and read stories I never would have thought that I would ever read. This year, I decided to rank the top 5 reads of the past year. Here they are:

Honorable Mention- Dracula: I have to give some notice to Bram Stoker's classic simply because it exceeded my expectations. If you had told me two years ago that I would one day read Dracula and LIKE it, I would have died laughing at you. But it happened! That just goes to show you that you should never judge a book before you read it (except Twilight...I'm not reading that!).

Fifth Place- Peace Like a River: I was having a tough time deciding between this and To Kill a Mockingbird, mainly because their writing is so similar. I decided to go with Leif Enger's 2001 novel for one reason: the next to last chapter. It was like a blow to the gut and it took my breath away. Plus, when a writer's picture of heaven can rival C. S. Lewis', their novel deserves to be on the list. Here is hope for modern literature.

Fourth Place- Villette: Oh, Charlotte Bronte, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways! I've always loved her for writing my absolute most favorite novel of all time, and now I respect her for the great novelist that she was. Her tale of passion, horror, despair, overcoming, and madness cement her as one of THE premier Victorian novelists. This is a story that deserves to be read, debated, and cherished for years to come.

Third Place- Rebecca: It was love at first read between me and Daphne Du Maurier's classic novel. The shy narrator, the threataning housekeeper, the dashing Maxim, the ghostly first wife, the haunted estate...what's not to love? I've actually read this story a number of times this year, plus watching Hitchcock's masterful adaptation of it. One of this year's best discoveries.

Second Place- Captain Blood: A big thank you to B. J. Harrison at The Classic Tales Podcast for introducing me to this one. Of all of the books that I read this year this one was the most fun. Peter Blood is now one of my all-time favorite characters, ranking right up there with Alan Breck Stewart. There were so many wonderful moments that made this story so exciting. I have recommended this book to just about everyone I know.

First Place- I, Claudius: L-O-V-E-D it!! The spying, the murders, the political wrangling...never a dull moment in Imperial Rome. I was captivated by this story, pretty much from the beginning. Grave's questioning of how to balance the freedom of the Republic with the stability of the Empire is wonderful, and Claudius is the underdog of the century. Not a book for everyone perhaps, but still a wonderful read in my opinion.

Yes, 2009 was a great year in reading, and I'm looking forward to a 2010 that is just as enriching, exciting, and thrilling. Here is a glimpse of the books that I'll be reading as the new year opens:

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I had planned to read this before the end of 2009, but it didn't happen. So it will be opening 2010 instead. This is they story of Antoinette Cosway, soon to be Bertha Mason who marries Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre fame. Though she does use Charlotte Bronte's classic as a starting point, Rhys' story of colonialism and life in the Caribbean is said to have made it a classic in its own right.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan. Richard Hannay has just returned to London after years in South Africa. He is thoroughly bored and planning on returning to South Africa when a murder is committed in his flat. It isn't long before Richard finds himself caught up in a whirlwind that could have international consequences. I already really like the famous Hitchcock adaptation, and with the new adaptation getting ready to premier on Masterpiece, I felt that now would be a great time to read it.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Dicken's often referred to this autobiographical novel as his "favourite child". It is the story of young David Copperfield and it follows him from his early life with his young mother, to his school days, to the days when he is employed in London. This is the next book in my quest to read all of Dickens' works.

The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel. Olivia Dunne is a studious minister's daughter with big dreams for herself. Her goal is to graduate from college and travel the world as an archeologist. But when an indescretion leads to an arranged marriage with a farmer in rural Colorado, Livy feels that her dreams and her life have turned to dust. The Hallmark Channel adaptation of this novel is a big favorite with me and my sisters, and I'm looking forward to a light read.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit. After their father's business fails, the Bastable children set out on a quest to restore the fortunes of their house. Unfortunately, their schemes, though well meant, often land them in a bit of trouble. Edith Nesbit's classic children's story is one that I've wanted to read for awhile, and I'm looking forward to hooking up with this mischevious family.

I hope that 2010 is a wonderful year in your reading life. With great books to read and exciting Classics to watch, I know that this new year will be off to an amazing start. Happy New Year!