Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Prayer In Spring

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orcahrd white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
To which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends he will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

A Prayer In Spring by Robert Frost

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Oliver Twist

Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.

It is 1837 and Charles Dickens has catapulted to stardom in his native Britain. The public has fallen head over heels for his collection of adventures known as the Pickwick Papers. They love the humorous stories and can't wait to get more laughter out of Mr. Dickens' newest creation. But they are shocked to find that this new story is not a comedy. It is rather a story of crime, poverty, scandal, treachery, heartache, and blame. Instead of telling stories that will make the British reading public smile, Dickens instead holds a mirror to their face and shows them the blemishes that lurk on the countenance of the nation. In doing so, he sets the tone for the rest of his life's work and creates a legacy that remains with us today.

The Plot:

On a cold and stormy night, a baby boy is born in the Mudfog workhouse without a father, without a name, and very soon without a mother. The parish beadle gives him the name of Oliver Twist and his early years are spent in the squalor of the local "baby farm". Nine years later, he dares to ask for more food from the workhouse and is immediately sent out to live with the undertaker as an apprentice. Life is not much better for Oliver here and it isn't long before he decides to run away and seek his fortune in the grand city of London.

On the road, he meets young Jack "Artful Dodger" Dawkins, a street-smart lad who takes Oliver under his wing. He takes young Oliver to Fagin, leader of a criminal gang of pickpockets, prostitutes, and housebreakers. Fagin gives the boy dinner and a bed for the night and promises to train him to "work" with the gang. On his first "job", Oliver is horrified to discover what the Artful Dodger's true profession is and in trying to stop a robbery finds himself arrested. He is later released into the company of kind Mr. Brownlow who takes him home and cares for him. Unfortunately, Oliver's happiness is short lived when members of the gang find him and kidnap him. Will poor Oliver ever be able to truly escape the clutches of Fagin and his band of thieves?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is my ninth Dickens novel and it never ceases to amaze me just how wonderful a writer he was. Though I was pretty familiar with the story and the characters, Dickens' writing made it all seem fresh and new.

This is an early example of a social novel, not just from Dickens, but in English literature itself. It is clear from the get-go that Dickens has something to say to his audience. More than anything, it is a cry against the Poor Law of 1834 which led to horrible conditions in "workhouses" across the country. The conditions created by the laws led young people like Oliver to be trapped in a world which led to either crime, prison, or death. The middle and upper classes of English society were almost blind to the abject poverty that many of their fellow citizens lived in, and Dickens was determined to change this. He shows life in the slums as it really was: filthy, dark, decrepit, and dangerous. Back alleys filled with thieves and murderers, entire streets where the houses are in a state of ruin, and people who meet death in the filthiest conditions imaginable. Through the characters like Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, Dickens encourages his readers to look beyond themselves and extend a kindness, even a small one, to those who are forced to live in the worst of circumstances.

There is an inconsistency in this work that probably says more about Dickens' times than anything else. Through all of the hell that Oliver is forced to live through, he never succumbs to the darkness and evil that surrounds him. His kind, gentle nature leads him to do the right thing in every situation he finds himself in. But Oliver's past reveals that he is of a higher birth than many, and thus is incapable of falling into crime. This does not do a lot for Dickens' message and in a way seems to make the case that one's birth is the sole determent of one's character. And yet, in the same story we have Nancy. Born into the same poverty and led into the same life of sin, Nancy still has a kindness and strength that sets her apart from the other thieves. She pleads her case to Rose and tells her that it is only circumstances and kindness that have set their lives on the completely different paths. In Nancy, we have an example of a strong character that shines forth despite its dark surroundings.

Oliver Twist cemented Dickens' fame as a writer and even today it is probably his best known work (with the possible exception of A Christmas Carol). It is much shorter and less intricate than his later novels which makes it great for those just starting out with his stories. If you are wanting to try your hand at this master of English literature but aren't sure where to start, I highly recommend that you give this one a try.

The Movie:

There are many versions of this story that have made it to the screen. From the 1948 version starring Alec Guinness to the 2005 version directed by Roman Polanski, Oliver's story has been made famous many times over. I have seen two versions.

The first is the 1968 Academy Award winner starring Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, and Ron Moody. This is the musical version and is very good in many ways. My only complaints is that some of the song sequences are WAY too long and it also lacks much of the dark and filthy atmosphere of Dickens' original. Lot's of fun moments though, so check it out if you get the chance.

The other is the 2007 Masterpiece version starring Timothy Spall and Tom Hardy. I really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it. See my full review here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I had just taken to reading. I had just discovered the art of leaving my body to sit impassive in a crumpled up attitude in a chair or sofa, while I wandered over the hills and far away in novel company and new scenes… My world began to expand very rapidly,… the reading habit had got me securely.

-H. G. Wells

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Charlemagne: Father of a Continent

Of the thousands of ancient rulers throughout history, only a few continue to be remembered even a millennium later. Ramses, Solomon, Alexander, and Augustus. After the fall of the Roman empire, western Europe was left in a power vacuum with thousands of small kingdoms being ruled over by various warlords. In the 8th century, one man would rise and unite the majority of western and central Europe for the first time since Rome's fall. He would also foster a revival of art, culture, and religion in a time when these things had fallen by the wayside. That man was Charles the Great...Charlemagne.

Italian historian Alessandro Barbero has written an extensive biography, not only of Charlemagne's life, but of the world he created. In Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, we follow Charlemagne on his attempts not only to conquer the Saxons, the Avars, the Lombards, and the Slavs, but also to integrate them into Frankish culture mainly by the forcible conversion to Christianity. We see the political side of his life as he deals with various Popes and is eventually crowned Holy Roman Emperor. And we also take a deep look at the administration of the Frankish kingdom and how it affected the lives of its citizens from the highest nobles and churchmen to the lowest peasants.

Overall, this was a very interesting read. I only knew a few basic things about Charlemagne from my high school history books, and this helped me gain an appreciation for his accomplishments and his place in history. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book was Barbero's assertion that Charlemagne really was the "Father of Europe". According to Barbero, the modern European identity and in some ways the European Union traces its roots back to the Carolingian period. I also found it fascinating just how much of the credit of Christianity's survival in Europe belongs to Charlemagne. He was the "Christian King" and in his mind was charged by God to be the protector of the new "chosen people" which led to many laws and reforms that helped foster Christianity among the various "pagans" of Europe. Though I appreciated the depth that Barbero gives of the Frankish kingdom, it wasn't exactly easy reading. There is a very "scholarly" tone to the work that can make it kind of difficult to really get into the book. Not to mention there is so much information to absorb that it can be kind of overwhelming at times.

I do recommend this book if you are looking for a deeper understanding of Charlemagne's Europe and how it translates to modern Europe. Barbero really gives us quite a bit of meat to sink our teeth into. However, this may not be for you if just want a basic idea of Charlemagne's life and accomplishments. It ultimately depends on what you are personally looking for.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Very Scary Fairy Tales

Many of the world's most beloved fairy tales have been around for centuries. Millions of children were raised on stories filled with wolves, witches, giants, and death. But according to a new study completed by a British television channel, more and more parents are choosing to skip these stories at bedtime.

The Daily Mail reports that some of the books most commonly left on the shelves include Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel because kidnapping is the centerpiece of their storylines. And, Little Red Riding Hood -- that Big Bad Wolf is too gruesome when he gobbles up Red's grandma. A staggering one-third of parents reported that their children were actually brought to tears by the scene.

Having personally read the Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, I can attest to the fact that the true versions of these stories are hardly the innocent, safe bedtime tales that Disney makes them out to be. However, I can't help but wonder if taking fairy tales completely out of our children's lives is the best answer. First off, the stories found in the Brother's Grimm really are a part of the foundation of Western literature and culture. The stories are so ingrained in us and our literature that I can't imagine removing them. Also, should it really be our goal to completely remove violence from our children's lives? Maybe it would be better to take the time to explain these stories to them rather than removing them completely.

What do you think? Will you read these stories to your children? Or is it time for us to put Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumplestiltskin on the adult shelf?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Masterpiece Theatre: Downton Abbey Series 2

Last year, Masterpiece Classic took us inside life at an English country estate in 1912. We watched as two completely different worlds faced scandal, heartache, grief, romance, joy, backstabbing, and struggle under one grand roof...Downton Abbey. Who could have guessed that this show would be popular, not just with the regular Masterpiece and PBS crowd, but also with millions of ordinary Americans who had never before experienced the greatness of a British period drama. With the beginning of the 2nd series, Downton fever took America by storm. We were tweeting it, blogging it, spoofing it, and tuning in like never before. It truly became a piece of popular culture.

Series 2 picks up two years after the end of Series 1. World War I is raging in Europe and life at Downton Abbey has been completely turned upside down. Matthew Crawley, and footmen Thomas and William all end up on the front lines. Back home, everyone is doing there part for the war effort. Lady Sibyl is training to be a nurse, Anna and the other maids are filling in for the missing footmen, and Cousin Isobel is helping run the hospital. It isn't long before the Crawley family is talked into converting Downton into a convalescent home for wounded officers.

But the storms are not only happening outside of Downton's walls. Just as Anna and Mr. Bates are beginning to feel that marriage might be a possibility, his vindictive wife threatens to wreck their dreams and bring scandal upon the Crawley family. Star crossed lovers Matthew and Lady Mary have seemingly moved on, Matthew with a sweet London girl named Lavinia and Lady Mary with a shrewd newspaper owner name Richard Carlyle. Lady Sybil is forced to choose between her family's expectations and her blossoming love for Socialist chauffeur Branson. Lord Grantham is feeling useless in this time of war. Lady Edith is trying to find her own place both in her family and in society. New housemaid Ethel in trying to step up in the world ends up in a difficult position. And Lady Mary's secret from Series 1 is constantly threatening to unearth itself. Will the occupants of Downton Abbey be able to survive the internal and external struggles of this turbulent period in history?

I greatly enjoyed Series 1, so how did Series 2 stack up? It had its good points and it's bad points. At times, it did seem that the story line descended into the melodramatic. Typical soap opera plots would pop up here and there from amnesia, to miraculous recoveries, to adulterous trysts. All of this lent Series 2 an air of predictability and modernity that slightly tarnished it in my opinion. Also, there were story lines that seemed to drag on FOREVER without little to no resolution. I wish I had a nickle for every "You know you love me" conversation Branson had with Lady Sybil in the garage. The actor who played Mr. Pamuk in Series 1 deserved to have his name in the credits for the number of times his character's name came up. I was about ready to wring little Daisy's neck listening to her go on and on about how bad she felt about marrying William when he was dying. And Mr. Bates and Anna's relationship was one long martyrdom with none of the sparks of Series 1. Plus, I ended up being very disappointed in Lord Grantham.

Having said all of that, this is a definite must watch. No matter how many irritating plot lines and disappointing character developments happened, I never stopped caring about the story. My heart broke for Anna as she watched the man she loved be condemned for murder. I cried as sweet William breathed his last. I laughed as conniving Thomas wandered through the woods and mud looking for Lord Grantham's dog. And I cheered as the path for Matthew and Lady Mary to get together finally opened up. This is all in addition to wonderful acting, great costumes and sets, and a fascinating glimpse at life in 1916. It is certainly one of the best things on television today and I am very much looking forward to Series 3!

If I had to pick the best highlights of Series 2, I would have to say that the first was the Christmas special. That particular episode was probably the best in terms of plot, tone, and heart. I was especially happy to see Nigel Havers on screen again (even if he did play a gold-digging cad)! And the second highlight of the series was, of course, Maggie Smith. Once again she played her character to perfection and delivered some of the series' best moments. Whether she was struggling to use the telephone ("Hello? Shrimpy?"), convincing Cousin Isobel to help refugees, or giving her granddaughters good advice ("Don't be defeatist, dear. It's so middle class."), Dame Maggie steals every scene she is in. She is one of the top reasons that Downton Abbey is worth watching.

If, by some chance, you are one of the few Americans who have not been sucked into this world, I suggest you do so at once. Both Series 1 and Series 2 are available on DVD. Masterpiece Classic has begun the 2012 season beautifully, and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for us.

Up Next: A new version of Dickens' Great Expectations starring Gillian Anderson and David Suchet.