Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Filling in the Gaps

Okay, I've basically got a month and a half gap between now and Memorial Day when I plan on starting this year's summer reading challenge (more on that in May). So I've got some time to fill since I'm almost finished with the books I picked out for the beginning of this year. Here's a look at how I'll be wrapping up this part of the year:

The Story of the Treasure Seekers
By E. Nesbit

This is actually the last book in my original picks. I'm waiting for it to come in on an inter-library loan, so I've had to put it off just a bit. Here we have the story of the Bastable children seeking to save their family fortune from ruin. Too bad their plans don't always work out the way they originally intended. Nesbit's works were admired by many other writers, including C. S. Lewis, so I'm really looking forward to this one.

Beat to Quarters
by C. S. Forester

C. S. Forester's classic series tells the story of Horatio Hornblower, whose career we follow throughout the Napoleonic wars. Beat to Quarters is the first of these works that have been lauded by such notable figures as Winston Churchill. I remember seeing bits of the BBC films starring Ioan Gruffudd when I was younger and being completely mesmerized. Should be a great read.

I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith

I've been hearing a lot about this book lately and it has all made me very curious about it. I'm only familiar with Dodie Smith through The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, so it should be interesting to read another of her works. This is the story of the Mortmain family as told by the younger daughter, Cassandra. Though they live in a castle, it is a ramshackle one for they are on the verge of complete poverty. When the Cottons (a wealthy American family) become the new Mortmain's new landlord, things get pretty complicated, especially when the two unmarried brothers come calling at the castle.

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Here we go again, stuck in another rut of British literature." But hey, can I help it if they write the best books. Besides, this summer we'll be leaving England and taking a little journey to the Continent. The Fatherland awaits us (hint, hint).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mission Impossible: The Great American Novel

The other day I came across a very interesting article on The author, Malcolm Jones, wonders whether the "Great American Novel" is something that can really be achieved, and whether American authors do not find themselves under a burden that is too great for them to bear.

Thinking big is not unique to American letters. Tolstoy, Mann, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, Tanizaki—the examples of great writers working on a grand scale are easy to spot. Still, compared with their American counterparts, they had it easy. Even Russia—or at least the Russia that Tolstoy wrote about—was a monoculture. The United States has always been a much messier place, its social hierarchies more fluid, its systems of belief more debated, negated, and always up for grabs. Of all the American writers who have tried to wrestle this into focus, perhaps the one who came closest was the poet Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself"). But our fiction writers have been trying to squeeze the American experience into one great novel at least since Herman Melville dreamed up his white whale.

Jones brings up a good point. Is America too multi-dimensional to be summed up between two covers. Sure, certain regions, groups, and ideas can get great treatment in a single story, but can you really wrap up the whole mind-boggling idea of what American society really is. Tolstoy did it for Russia, Thackery did it for England, Mann did it for Germany. But can we name one writer who has summed up America in a single work? Granted, many writers have been able to give us America in a body of works (Jones gives Twain, Wharton, and Faulkner as examples of this), but never really in a single book. This is not to say that we are without great writers. Far from it. But I do tend to agree with Jones in that we as a nation are too "messy" to ever get a full grasp of.

So what do you think? Is the "Great American Novel" simply a myth, or is it really attainable? Perhaps it is best that our literature represent us as we are: small individual stories that come together to make our literary identity a beautiful mosaic.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

David Copperfield

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Charles Dickens often referred to David Copperfield as his "favorite child". Though all of his stories contain glimpses of his own life, it is this particular one that gives us the fullest picture in his own words. Many readers of Dickens also consider this to be the finest in the long line of novels written by him. So, I went into David Copperfield wondering how it would stack up in comparison to the other novels of his that I have read. Would it become a favorite of mine as it has for so many people around the world? The answer was more complicated than I had ever imagined.

The Plot:

From the moment he is born, David Copperfield is fatherless and a disappointment (to some). His happy childhood is cut short when his young mother marries Mr. Murdstone, who (along with his sister, Jane) becomes a source of constant terror and heartache to both David and his mother. But David is not friendless. He finds solace in the friendship of the Peggotty family, and of two of his schoolfellows, Thomas Traddles and James Steerforth (whom he idolizes).

After tragedy strikes his world, David finds himself virtually alone on the streets of London. It isn't long before he sets out in search of an aunt, Betsey Trotwood, whom he has never seen, yet whom he hopes will take him in. She does, and his life heads in a new direction. The rest of the story follows him through his triumphs and his failures, his dreams and his nightmares, his happiness and his despair. David Copperfield's life unfolds before our eyes and we see reflected in it not only the life of his creator, but our own lives as well.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I came away from this sixth story in my attempt to read all of Dickens' novels with sort of mixed feelings. It was an amazing novel and definitely one of the best of Dickens' that I have read, and yet I couldn't help but feel a slight disappointment. As if something beautiful had suddenly withered on the vine. Turns out, I'm not the only one.

In his introduction to the novel, G. K. Chesterton writes "David Copperfield begins as if it were going to be a new kind of Dickens's novel; then it gradually turns into an old kind of Dickens's novel." And he is right. The early chapters of the book are amazing, fresh, and different from any other Dickens novel you will ever read. David himself is so real. He is one of the few Dickens heroes/heroines who actually lives and breathes on the page. We feel a connection to him immediately. We cry for him, we cheer for him, we feel for him. We hate the Murdstones not for what they do to David's mother, but for how that affects him. We love the Peggoty home, not for what it is in and of itself, but because of the peace and happiness it brings to David. We love Betsey Trotwood for loving David. And then something happens right about the time that David goes to school in Canterbury. He lives on in the story, but he dies on the page. He slowly, almost imperceptibly turns into every other Dickens hero: bland, undistinguished, and boring. Our attention is then drawn (as they are in every other Dickens story) to the eccentric characters that surround him. It is a disappointment that cannot be soon forgotten.

And yet, the novel is not a total loss. It is a very rewarding read and still one of the best Dickens novels that I have read. As always, Dickens manages to create characters that will haunt you for the rest of your days. The evil Murdstones whom you can't help but wish a slow and painful death upon. Betsey Trotwood whose hatred of donkeys and men begins to actually make sense. Sweet and silly Dora who is probably the most exciting and lovable of all Dickens' leading ladies. Mr. Micawber whom we love even with his debts and Mrs. Micawber who will never desert him. Uriah Heep whose very name sends chills of disgust running up and down your spine. And Mr. Dick who often seems the wisest of all the characters, even with Charles I haunting him. These characters along with Dickens' power of description help to make this another must read from the prolific pen of one of Victorian lit's best authors.

So how does it stack up? I would say that so far, only Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities are able to top it. Though the idea of what it might have been leaves me disappointed, it is only slightly and I find that I have enjoyed myself anyway. Go ahead and add this to your reading list. It might just become one of your favorites as well.

The Movie:

Like almost every other Dickens story, David Copperfield has about a gazillion adaptations. I have only seen one, which is the 1999 BBC version starring Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Alun Armstrong, and Imelda Staunton. See my review of it here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: The 39 Steps

After two of the last bonnet dramas that we will see for awhile, Masterpiece Classic serves us the newest remake of the classic Buchan spy novel: The Thirty-Nine Steps. The film stars Rupert Penry-Jones (of Persuasion and Spooks) as Richard Hannay, a bored young man who suddenly finds himself caught up in the tumult of pre-WWI England. This film has a lot to live up to, for not only must it be compared to the original novel, but also to Hitchcock's early masterpiece. So, did it stack up in the end? Well.....

....not exactly. I mean, it was a half decent way to spend an evening, but nothing special. This version follows the book more closely than most, and normally that would be enough to raise it in my opinion. But here, it just doesn't seem to work right. What should have been a quick-paced plot often drags into something a bit more boring. The romance was just plain unnecessary to the story, and wasn't half as funny as Hitchcock's romantic addition. It kind of slowed everything down if you ask me. Penry-Jones, though a good actor, just seemed constantly bored and never quite got us whole-heartedly rooting for his character (plus, he was kind of unconvincing as a man who had just returned from years in the African bush). And then there were the historical inaccuracies. The obvious use of 1920s style cars for a film set in 1914 detracted from the atmosphere. And can someone please explain to me how in the heck a German U-boat ended up in a fresh water loch? I mean, Nessie would have seemed more "in place" than that! And then there was that ending. That horrible, horrible ending. When will directors learn that if they are going to kill someone they need to leave them that way? Just plain ridiculous!

Now, for some of the good stuff. The production qualities themselves were pretty good. The actors all did their best with what was given, the scenery was phenomanal, and the bi-plane (ala North by Northwest) was a nice little touch. It's really not a bad production, just not good. In the end, I think I'll be sticking to Hitchcock and the original novel, both masterpieces and pioneers in their fields.

Up Next: Sharpe's Challange