Monday, May 24, 2010

"When I speak of home, I speak of the place where -- in default of a better -- those I love are gathered together; and if that place were a gypsy's tent, or a barn, I should call it by the same good name notwithstanding."

-from Nicholas Nickleby
by Charles Dickens

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sommer Bücher

Well, it's that time of year again. With the unofficial start of summer (Memorial Day) just a little over a week away, it is almost time for me to begin my summer reading challenge. My first year, I spent the summer reading Tolkein's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Last year, I explored the literary side of part of my family's heritage by reading classics of Southern literature like To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, and As I Lay Dying. This year, I'll be focusing on the other part of my heritage: Germany. My great-great-grandfather came to America from Ensingen, Germany in the late 19th century and this part of my family history has always fascinated me. So this summer I'll begin exploring the literature of this beautiful and complicated culture. I've never read any German literature before, so I know this will be an eye-opening experience. Here is a look at the books that will make up this year's summer challenge:

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is impossible to do a survey of German literature without including one of Goethe's works. Considered by many to be the most important German writer, his effect on Western culture and philosophy is incalculable. Though Faust is considered Goethe's masterpiece, The Sorrows of Young Werther was one of Goethe's earliest successes and became a cult classic among young European men.

Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich von Schiller. Along with Goethe, Schiller was one of the spearheads of the Weimar Classicism movement. He founded the leading theater in Germany and helped to create a dramatic renaissance in the country. His plays are very important in the history of German drama. Wilhelm Tell tells the story of a legendary Swiss marksman and the Swiss struggle for independence from the Hapsburg empire.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. As a German veteran of WWI, Remarque seeks to tell the story of how much of a toll war takes on a soldier both mentally and physically. The anti-war tone of the novel led to it's being banned by the Nazis.

The Trial by Franz Kafka. Unlike other literary traditions, German literature encompasses the works of authors of many different nationalities. Swiss, Austrian, and other nations have their literature included in the larger German tradition. So ,although he was born in Prague, Kafka is counted as one of the greats of German literature. The Trial is one of his most famous works.

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. One of the 20th century's most prominent German writers, Thomas Mann was also a Nobel prize winner. His novel Buddenbrooks helped him to win that prize. It tells the story of a wealthy merchant family that slowly declines as the 19th century gives way to the 20th.

Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm. This collection of ancient fairy tales has kept many stories alive for generations. Though most of the stories are of German origin, there are a few French and Italian as well. Includes such classics as Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. One can just imagine little German children sitting by the fire at night listening to an old grandmother tell these tales.

If you have read any of these works, please let me know what your impression of them was. And if you would like to join me in reading some of these books that would be lovely. So, grab your lederhosen, your schnitzel, and your beer. We'll be spending this summer in the Fatherland.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Beat to Quarters

"'Bless the man!' she said to herself, softly. 'He was almost human for a while.'"

The Napoleonic wars provide some of the most exciting and intriguing stories in European history. Perhaps the most exciting ones are found on the high seas as the naval powers of Britain, France, and Spain spread the war across the face of the globe, affecting even the most distant of colonies. In 1937, British writer C. S. Forester put a face on these stories with the first book in a series devoted to telling the career of his creation, Capt. Horatio Hornblower. These books were not only loved by such great historical figures such as Churchill and Hemingway, but also inspired many other works like the New York Times best-selling Aubrey-Maturin series.

The Plot:

Europe is at war and Horatio Hornblower is captaining the HMS Lydia in the treacherous waters of the Pacific. He has received orders to help start an uprising in the Spanish controlled Nicaragua by aiding the rebellious Don Julian Alvarado and destroying the famous Spanish ship, Natividad. Everything seems to be going to plan, until Hornblower discovers that Don Julian is actually a ruthless lunatic who believes himself to be God incarnate. Then after capturing the Natividad for the rebels, he finds out that Spain is now an ally, not an enemy. Oh, and did I mention that his orders now include giving the intelligent and beautiful Lady Barbara Wellesley passage back to England? Yes, life at sea is very complicated.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I've been wanting to read these books for a while, especially after I picked up 1939 editions of the first three books. My biggest obstacle was in deciding which order to read them in. As with Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a debate as to whether the books should be read in order of publication, or in chronological order of the story. After some thought and research, I decided to read them in the order of publication. I figured that it would be less confusing to follow Forester's writing as it matured.

Now, to the book itself. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and didn't know if it would fall more into the category of Captain Blood
or of Master and Commander. In the end, it kind of falls in between. It isn't nearly as thrilling as Captain Blood and not quite as complicated as Master and Commander. I wasn't overly enamored with it, but all in all I found it to be an interesting read.

The story focuses mainly on Hornblower himself. It is not necessarily the actual battles and problems he faces that we are concerned with, but rather his inner turmoil and his reaction to them. He is not what you would initially imagine in a sea captain. He is not very confidant in himself even though he is a first-rate leader and seaman. He draws away from his officers in order to create the appearance of a reserved and self-reliable captain. He hates giving any type of punishment and is very interested in literature. Though definitely a likable leading man, he's just not someone you can fully understand.

The other prominent figure in this story in his passenger Lady Barbara Wellesley. She is unlike any woman that Hornblower has ever met. She is rich, witty, intelligent, beautiful, and perfectly at home at sea. All of this disconcerts Hornblower at first, especially her knowledge of life at sea. One of the funniest moments is when Lady Barbara refers to the "floor" of her cabin rather than the "deck". This comforts Hornblower at first because "[I]t showed that she was only a feeble woman after all". Yeah, sure. Their budding relationship is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the story.

The politics of the story are interesting as well. In today's ultra-connected world, it seems pretty incredible that there was a time when two enemies could come to terms on one side of the world, but their armies continue to fight for weeks on the other side, simply because they didn't know that the war had stopped. And yet some things never change, like the fine line that military officers must walk to balance the strictness of their orders with the chaotic reality of battle.

So, if you like books about the Napoleonic wars, naval battles, and star-crossed lovers, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's a fine addition to the long tradition of historical fiction.

The Movie:

There are two versions of this story found in the world of film. The first is the 1951 version Captain Horatio Hornblower. This film encompasses the first three Hornblower books (Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors) and stars Gregory Peck as Hornblower and Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. Haven't seen this one yet, but it is on my "to watch" list.

Then there is the much acclaimed A & E series that ran from 1998-2003. It encompassed Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, and Hornblower and the Hotspur and starred Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower. Other notable British actors include Philip Glenister, Julia Sawalha, Samuel West, and Greg Wise. I haven't seen any of these in ages, but I remember them being very good. They are on my "to watch again" list.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Masterpiece Theate: 2010 Roundup

So, the 2010 season of Masterpiece Classic has come to an end. We were promised something different and we certainly got it. All in all, I didn't find this season to be particularly bad, it just wasn't all that wonderful either. There just didn't seem to be a real standout performance this year (compared to Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Cranford, and Jane Eyre in seasons past). This year, I really could just take or leave most of the performances. Anyway, here is a rundown for this season and my rankings for each show from least to most favorite.

#7 & #6: Sharpe's Challenge & Sharpe's Peril. I actually didn't watch either of these. For those of you who don't know, this is a series of about 14 different films that have been made since the early '90s. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars and stars Sean Bean as a rifleman who rises to officer from the ranks. Normally, this would be my family's cup of tea, but after watching the first three episodes, we just ran into some things that we didn't really care for. So we passed on these two episodes.

#5: The 39 Steps. One of these days, I'm actually going to get to see Rupert Penry-Jones in something that I can admire him for besides his looks. Between the historical inaccuracies, the lack of personality in the main character, and that God-awful ending, this just wasn't worth staying up late for. Give me Hitchcock any day!

#4: Small Island. I did actually enjoy this film more than I thought I would, especially Hortense and Gilbert's side of it. It was interesting to see the them of racism from the other side of the pond. Overall it was interesting, different, and thought-provoking, but still a little too modern for my tastes. Not bad, just not for me.

#3: Emma. Again, I enjoyed this more than originally thought that I would. It could honestly have been much worse. Points for scenery, length, and Blake Ritson. Ultimately, it ranks in the middle because it was not the best adaptation of the story, plus I'm getting rather Austened out. It's time to move on.

#2: Return to Cranford. Gosh, it was so great to see most of our favorite characters again. I had some mixed feelings on it as a whole, but there were still so many touching and beautiful moments to be found. Definitely a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the original!

#1: The Diary of Anne Frank. This was one of the most powerful films that Masterpiece has brought to us in a while. Even though I was familiar with the story, I was moved to tears. It was such a touching tribute, not only to the thousands who perished, but to the spunky little girl who didn't get the chance to fully grow up. If you didn't see this one, do so ASAP.

As I said, I wasn't overly impressed with this season overall. I did continue to enjoy Laura Linney's introductions and hope that she will return for next season. Anyway, we'll just have to sit back and watch our DVDs until the powers that be decide what to serve us next year. Until then....

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jane Eyre vs. Jane Austen

For the past decade or so, Jane Austen has reigned supreme as the queen of the so-called "bonnet drama". Each of her stories has been adapted at least once (sometimes twice or more) within that time period, plus two biopics, scores of "sequels", and even monster mash-up rewrites. But some in the world of book-film are seeing the writing on the wall for one of England's greatest authors.

"In the past two decades film and television audiences could not get enough of 19th-century dramas. Jane Austen, in particular, thrived, from the 1995 TV Pride and Prejudice, with a wet-shirted Colin Firth, to the Oscar-winning film of the same novel ten years later, starring Keira Knightley. Lately, audiences have dwindled, as shown by lacklustre viewing figures for the BBC’s latest Emma last year."

It would seem that the general reading and watching public have had their fill of Austen. Not that die-hard Janites will be giving her up anytime soon, but the focus seems to be shifting to the greatest sisterhood in literature: namely, the Brontes. Yes, it seems that Bronte fever might be the next pandemic to sweep the literary adaptation world. There is a brand new adaptation of Jane Eyre set to be released next year (even though we just had a brilliant adaptation barely four years ago) and a new version of Wuthering Heights as well (which we also had a recent sampling of). So what is driving us back to these stories as they are just as well known and adapted as the Austen classics?

“There is something about the current situation that the world finds itself in where the Brontës more suit the mood of the moment [than Austen]. Jane Austen is a lighter cut than the Brontës, who are much more brooding and bleak.”

Is Austen another victim of the sagging global economy? Have we lost our optimism and now seek consolation in the dark and gloomy stories of the Yorkshire moors? I think that is some of it, though I also believe that a certain teen series with a bent towards the darker side of romance has a bit to do with it as well. It is certainly interesting to sit back and watch how the times that we live in affect what we read.

So, as a lover of both Austen and Bronte, what exactly do I think of all this? First off, I'm kind of glad that we are backing off of Austen, much as I admire her works. There is almost nothing new that we can do with her at this point, and her sheer popularity has IMO weakened her position as one of England's greatest novelist. She is now too often regulated to the "chick lit" shelf. As a HUGE fan of the Brontes (they are my faves), I'm a little nervous about what all this new attention may bring. God forbid these amazing stories be degraded to the realm of "chick lit". But I am slightly excited about possibilities that might be explored. Film makers will have to be very careful if they don't want to bore the audiences. I mean, you can only make Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights so many times. Maybe we will get adaptations of the lesser read Bronte works like Agnes Grey and Villette, and maybe even a biopic of the sisters themselves. All in all, I'm kind of excited about this shift in focus and hopefully this will introduce new readers to these classic stories.