Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: Small Island

This year's Masterpiece Classic season wraps up with a story of love, racism, and dreams in post-war England. Starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Oyelowo, and Ashley Walters, this adaptation of Andrea Levy's 2004 novel tells the story of the intertwined lives of newly immigrated Jamaicans to the "mother country", England.

All of her life, Hortense (Harris) has dreamed of marrying her childhood sweetheart (Walters) and becoming a teacher in England. She can just vision her proper English house with a doorbell and a garden. Unfortunately, life doesn't go the way she expects and WWII puts a halt to her plans. After the war's end, she agrees to pay for a Jamaican RAF veteran's (Oyelowo) way to England if he will agree to marry her and send for her when he is established. He agrees and it finally seems as if Hortense will realize her dreams. But when she arrives, it is not the England of her imagination. Gilbert (her husband) is renting rather run-down rooms from Queenie Bligh (Wilson), whose husband (Cumberbatch) has yet to return from the war. Now, Hortense and Gilbert must battle racism, poverty, and despair to achieve their dreams of a beautiful life in their new home.

Overall, I found this to be an interesting story. The production qualities are on par with most BBC standards and the acting qualities are nothing less than what you would expect from this ensemble cast. Racism is not an issue that us Americans are unfamiliar with, but the affects of colonialism are. It's been over 200 years since we cut our ties with the "mother country", but for many nations this is a fairly recent issue. All of the Jamaican characters were taught from birth that England was basically a home away from home and would offer opportunities to any of her "children" who chose to come. This is, of course, a bit of a pipe dream as most of the English citizens would never consider the colonists to be one of them.

My favorite aspect of the story was the importance of dreams. Hortense expected to step into her dreams when she stepped into England. It didn't happen, of course, but she did what she had done all of her life: she gathered herself together and pressed on towards her goal. I think the house that she and Gilbert get at the end is a perfect example of their story. It is run-down and needs a complete renovation, but it becomes the home of their dreams when they are willing to put the work into it.

I guess that my biggest gripe (aside from the few, um, mature scenes) was the fact that the story seemed to follow Queenie's life more than it did Hortense's. To be a film about the plight of immigrants in a new land, the story seemed to focus more on the problems that the white sympathizers had than on those whom the racism was actually directed towards. I really liked Hortense and Gilbert's relationship and wish that they had gotten a bit more of the screen time that was given to Queenie and her troubles (not that I don't like Ruth Wilson, because I do).

Overall, I guess that Small Island, though certainly not the worst adaptation of the season, was just a bit too modern for me. Interesting ideas and solid acting, just not 100% my cup of tea.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Happy Birthday To:

Ralph Waldo Emerson
May 25, 1803

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

UPDATE: OMG, I'm a total blond! I just realized that Emerson was born on MAY 25, and I posted on April 25. OOPS. So happy early B-day Mr. Emerson, it's a great quote anyway.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea

"Yes", she said, "I am sorry for you. But I find it in my heart to be sorry for her too."

In her 1966 novel, Dominican-born writer Jean Rhys explores many different relationships. The relationship between a colony and its motherland. The relationship between blacks and whites. The relationship between a husband and a wife. Each one is complicated, unpredictable, and, in many ways, destructive.

The Plot:

Young Antoinette Cosway is growing up in the lush and beautiful Caribbean islands. The daughter of a Creole, she belongs neither to the ruling white Europeans, nor to the native black Jamaicans. Her life is one of trial and heartache. We follow her story from childhood up to her marriage to a man who, though unnamed, is obviously Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre fame. The story is narrated by Antoinette and her husband, allowing us to see both sides of a relationship that ultimately descends into madness.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I suppose that it was inevitable that I get around to this story, being the huge Jane Eyre fan that I am. Honestly, I wasn't too sure what to expect from this novel, and I'm still not 100% sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, it is impossible to separate this story from the original Bronte novel. Ultimately, it is the story of the "mad-woman in the attic", but here she is more than just a specter. She is a flesh-and-blood woman with thoughts, feelings, dreams, and desires. In many ways, she is very similar to Jane herself. She is vivacious and independent, had a troubled childhood, and is looked down by the upper classes of society. But she is also very different from Jane. She wears her passions openly and is mentally unstable. I love how the setting reflects Bertha's personality, for the Caribbean is at once beautiful, vibrant, and terrifying.

On the other hand, impossible as it seems, Wide Sargasso Sea must be viewed apart from Jane Eyre. Even if it had no connection to Bronte's masterpiece, it would still be a classic in it's own right. Antoinette and Rochester's relationship is not only an example of feminist thinking, but also of post-colonial. Antoinette seems to represent colonies who struggled under the love/hate relationship with it's mother-country (Rochester). Rochester expects something different from Antoinette, and does not seem to be able to accept that she is neither native nor English. He just can't wrap his mind around her. Rather than loving her for who she is, he seeks to change into what he was used to in England (this is best seen in his changing her name to Bertha). When she refuses, he simply writes her off as mad and not normal. In the final section, it is the climate of his beloved England that solidifies her descent into insanity, and she escapes the only way she can...through death.

In the end, we cannot help but feel sorry for the characters, both Antoinette and her husband. In fact, sorrow was the overwhelming feeling I had after finishing this story. It is a different kind of novel and not one that will appeal to everyone's taste. But like it or hate it, one thing is certain- you will never read Jane Eyre the same way again.

The Movie:

There are two film versions of this novel. The first is the 1993 feature film starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker. The other is the 2006 BBC version starring Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall. I haven't seen either version, so I have no real opinion to give.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-13: National Poetry Month

For this week's theme, I encourage participants to to help celebrate National Poetry Month by:
  • Posting a favorite poem, or
  • Reviewing a poem or book of poems, or
  • Discussing a favorite poet, or
  • Posting a vlog of yourself reading a poem or find a video of someone else reading one, or
  • Writing a poem yourself- any form
Though I don't read and study it with the same devotion I do its cousin the novel, I actually do like poetry. I have this little sketchbook that I use to write my favorites in. As with my regular reading, my favorite poems tend be classic and British, from Tennyson's The Splendor Falls and Kipling's If- to Burns' My Heart's in the Highlands and Queen Elizabeth's On Monsieur's Departure. It was REALLY hard for me to narrow it down to just one poem to share with you, but I finally decided to go with an old favorite: Shakespeare. I LOVE his sonnets and this one is (IMO) one of the best. I love how it changes how we think about success. Here is Sonnet 29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

And here is British actor Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice, Little Dorrit, A Pocketfull of Rye) giving his interpretation of it. I love how he brings a 400 year old poem to life and makes it just as fresh and modern as the day it was written.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: The Diary of Anne Frank

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. The part that had the most impact on me was the room full of nothing but shoes. Hundreds of them. Silent witnesses of the atrocious deeds done by Hitler's regime. My mind instantly wondered over the dozens of Holocaust stories that I had read, each one so different, yet still the same. 6 million victims...6 million stories. But there is one story that everyone who knows, even if they haven't spent much time studying that enormous tragedy. The story of a young girl on the brink of womanhood, who spent two years cramped in a small annex hiding from the Nazis. The story of Anne Frank.

The 2009 BBC adaptation stars Ellie Kendrick in the role of Anne, the young Dutch girl whose famous diary records her two years in hiding. Other stars include Iain Glenn (Kidnapped), Tamsin Greig (Emma), Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey), and Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire). The film focuses only on the years recounted in the diary, from when she first receives it until she and the others are discovered and hauled off to the concentration camps. It is a gritty, yet moving and artistic re-telling that brings this story to life in a way many other adaptations never have.

The greatest thing about this particular adaptation is that it allows Anne to be Anne. She is no longer a symbol of millions or the face of the Holocaust. She is simply a girl who is trying to grow up under the most extreme circumstances. She's on the brink of womanhood, and she is trying to figure out life. She struggles in her relationship with her parents, she wonders about the changes going on inside her, and she dreams and hopes for the future. She is what all of us grown up women remember being. Ellie Kendrick does an amazing job with this complicated character. On the one hand, she is spoiled and somewhat insensitive, and yet on the other hand she has a spirit and understanding that cause us to love her in spite of it all. This version really made the story about Anne, and not just about her unfortunate ending.

I also liked how this version opened up the other characters to you in a way the diary didn't. You didn't always agree with the characters, but you at least understood them. You understood the pressure that Margot felt being the elder sister. You understood the toll that the ordeal took on a dependent person like Mrs. Frank. And you understood Mr. Dussle's longing and frustration that often caused him to fight with Anne. It really opens up your eyes to the flaws in each of us, and to not only how much we must put up with in others, but also what they must put up with in us. On top of this, the sets, the music, and the script (which included direct quotes from the diary) were all of the superb quality we expect from the BBC.

My tears flowed freely as the film ended with the Franks and everyone else walking down the stairs to their doom. Though I have read the stories and seen the pictures of the tragedy that was the Holocaust, something about this film really brought it all to life and touched me in a different way. Anyone who has read the diary or who has any interest in the Holocaust should see this adaptation. I think that it really does justice, not only to the millions who died, but to Anne herself. The girl, the writer, the artist.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Classics of British Literature

It took over a year, but I finally finished the Classics of British Literature lecture series from "The Great Courses" of The Teaching Company. This 48 lecture course explores not only the great works themselves, but also how the societies of the times influenced the works, and how the works, in turn, influenced society.

Professor John Sutherland, who is affiliated with University College London, California Institute of Technology, and Edinburgh University, gives the lectures with a wonderful blend of wit, charm, and professionalism. My sisters said the he sounded like Kamen-rah off of Night at the Museum 2, but I actually liked his approach and style.

What was so great about this series is that it didn't just focus on novels (partial as I am to them). Poets like Byron, Wordsworth, and Yeats are in the mix as are playwrights like Shakespeare and Shaw and non-fiction writers like Gibbon and Equiano. It really showed how broad the scope of British literature really is. I also enjoyed the insight into British history that each of the works provided. It really showed how Britain's unique history inspired it's colorful literary past.

I had a few problems with some of the lectures, the biggest one being with the one on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In that particular lecture, Professor Sutherland says that Christian loses his burden after crossing the River Jordan. Those who have read the book know that his burden of sin actually comes off at the foot of the cross. To say otherwise not only is incorrect according to the story, but is also wrong in the theological department. I also differed on a few of the conclusions that he offered for some of the other works (like Jane Eyre).

But overall, I found this to be an interesting, fun, and stimulating series. Those of you who are interested in learning more about you favorite authors, their works, and the times they lived in should really check these out. These lectures take you beyond the page and into the midst of what might just be the greatest literary tradition in history.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Magic of Ordinary Days

"'Sometimes you do find what you're looking for, closer than you think.'"

Plans. We've all got them. Plans for what we will do tomorrow, next week, a year from now, five years from now. Trouble is that life never seems to go like we plan. The unexpected always happens, leaving our perfectly ordered plans in complete disarray. In her 2001 novel, Ann Howard Creel describes a life ripped completely off course by the unexpected, and the beauty and happiness that is so often found in ordinary places among ordinary people.

The Plot:

Olivia (Livvy) Dunne has her life all mapped out. She is only a few semesters away from completing her degree in archeology, and after that she plans to join digs in far away places like Egypt. But then her mother becomes very sick and Livvy is left to care for her. After her mother's death, Livvy gets caught up in a whirlwind romance that leaves her pregnant and alone. Her minister father hastily arranges a marriage for her to save the family from disgrace, and Livvy soon finds herself on a train to the Colorado countryside to marry a man she has never met.

That man is Ray Singleton, a farmer living alone on his family's century old farm. Though he is kind and gentle to Livvy, she cannot accept him as someone whom she would ever be able to love. The long country days creep slowly by until Livvy meets Rose and Lorelei, two Japanese-American sisters from the nearby internment camp who are working the Singleton farm. Like Livvy, their hopes and dreams have been shattered by circumstances, and all three girls become fast friends. As the year drags on, Livvy seeks a way to return to her old plans, but after one final betrayal, she begins to see that the love, acceptance, and forgiveness she had been seeking might just be sitting across the kitchen table.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

On the surface, The Magic of Ordinary Days is simply a love story. A man and woman who have never met finding themselves alone on the Colorado flatlands, depending on each other to keep away the loneliness that threatens to kill them. But the book has many more dimensions than that. It touches on human thoughts and feelings that all of us have experienced at one time or another.

The theme that stood out to me the most was the idea of human fragility. In the beginning of the story, Livvy seems to have it all. She's smart, from a good background, and has a flourishing future ahead of her. Then she makes a mistake. Whether circumstances lead her to it, or whether it would have happened anyway, she is not sure. But no matter the influences, she must still face the consequences. Throughout the whole story, she tries to hide her frailty. She never openly admits her weakness to herself and concentrates on returning to the life she had dreamed of. What she doesn't understand is that, like a beautiful vase that has been smashed, her life can never be whole again. She will always bear scars. But what is so wonderful is that, by the end of the story, she has opened herself up to the love and forgiveness that Ray wants give her and realizes that her life is no less beautiful for the heartaches.

Then there was the idea of beauty and magic being found in the most ordinary things in life. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this idea better than Ray. He's not perfect by any means. He's not exactly good looking, he shares almost none of Livvy's interests, and he has some resentment against Japanese-Americans for his brother's death at Pearl Harbor. But for all his imperfections, he is also a loving and caring man. He goes out of his way to make life for Livvy more pleasant and he views his marriage to her as something that is for forever. He instantly accepts her with all of her flaws and mistakes and it is such a joy to watch the shy and awkward man fall head over heels for her. Creel also shows the beauty of the ordinary through her emphasis on history. Through most of the story, Livvy thinks that the only interesting and important things in history are found among ancient and distant civilizations. But she eventually realizes that there is a history that is more intimate and just as important found in the attics of ordinary people.

The final theme seems to focus mostly on our relationships with other people. Livvy's friendship with Rose and Lorelei comes to heartbreaking end because she made the same mistake that most of her family had made in regards to her. She saw them as strong, self-assured, and unable to fall. What she didn't see was that they, like her, were starved for deep connections and desperately desired to return to their past life. How often do we assume that someone is okay because they seem so strong? We don't realize that even the strongest among us need to feel loved, accepted, and appreciated. It is this assumption that helps contribute to Rose and Lorelei's final betrayal.

The Magic of Ordinary Days is a nice little read. It's not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a thought-provoking and beautiful story. It's not jam packed with action, but it has a charm and beauty in it's quietness. Give it a try.

The Movie:

I first heard of this story by watching the 2005 Hallmark Channel adaptation starring Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich. Like the book, the film is quiet and beautiful. All of the themes found in the story are played out on the screen to perfection. I especially enjoyed Skeet Ulrich's portrayal of Ray. A great film in the same vein as Love Comes Softly. If you haven't seen this one, do so ASAP.

Picture Credit:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Weekly Geek 2010-12: Having Fun Isn't Hard...

National Library Week is coming up in the U.S. April 11-17, and April is School Libraries Month (2010 is the 25th anniversary). This got me wondering about the state of libraries around the globe.

What's your earliest memory of a library? What was it like for you? Were you more likely to hang out in the gym or the library when you were in school?

How's the health of the library system in your community? How do you support your local library? How often do you check out books from the library vs. buying books? Tell us what your favorite library is like and include some photos if you can.

Because my mom has always liked to read (and because I was homeschooled), libraries have always played a major part in my life. I remember going to the big downtown library as a young child and losing myself in the books. Cam Jansen, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, The Babysitters' Club, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the many stories that held me spellbound for years. When I was about 15, I discovered Jane Eyre (my favorite book ever), but I didn't own a copy, so every time we went to the library, I would head straight for the shelf where it was kept and spend the majority of the trip re-reading my favorite parts. Then one day I went in and some horrible person had checked it out! Needless to say I got my own copy soon after.

Today, my local library is smaller than the one from my early childhood, but it is still a pleasant place to go. I know most of the librarians on a first name basis and all of them are so helpful. They can get just about any book I want an inter-library loan (a great tool for those of you who haven't ever used it), they will sometimes order books that they can't get (they recently bought Wide Sargasso Sea because I requested it and they couldn't get it anywhere else), and sometimes they have even dropped books off by my house if one of them happened to be passing by.

I know that many people say that libraries, like the book, are going out of style. I however, believe that they will stay relevant for years to come. They will continue to adapt to meet the needs of society. My library has doubled its computers, added free wi-fi, and begun offering e-books all within the past few years. Honestly, where else in the world can the average person get all of history's information and ideas at their fingertips for free?

In celebration of our nation's libraries, here is an episode of the PBS show Arthur. Arthur and his friends have gotten together to make three music videos, two of which are library/book related (the other one is food related, but it is fun too!). I hope that you enjoy them, and remember "Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!"