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