Wednesday, June 20, 2012

War Horse

"Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” 

In WWI, the British Empire mobilized 8.9 million men to send over to France.  Over 900,000 would never return.  What a lot of people do not know, is that Britain also mobilized a million horses for the front, and only 62,000 would live to see the end of the war.  Many died from exhaustion and overwork, but some fell on the battlefield, taken down by machine guns and barbed wire.  In his 1982 novel, Michael Morpurgo shows us the horrors of the first world war through the eyes of one of these magnificent creatures who gave their all in a fight that was not theirs.

The Plot:

This story is told through the eyes of Joey, a young thoroughbred in Devon, England.  He is separated from his mother at a young age and sold to an alcoholic farmer.  The farmer's young son, Albert, takes a shine to the colt and soon they are the best of friends.  Albert rides Joey daily and trains him up not just as a good mount, but also for farm work as his father wishes.  At the outbreak of World War I, the British cavalry is in need horses and Albert's father decides to sell Joey to help pay off some debts.  Though Albert is unable to stop the sale, he promises Joey that they will be together again one day.

Joey is then taken over to France as the mount for Capt. Nicholls, a kind young cavalryman who has promised to care for him.  When Capt. Nicholls is killed in battle, Joey is soon caught up in the war, seeing it from all sides as he continuously changes hands.  As Joey faces horror after horror both on and off the battlefield, he wonders if he will ever be safe again.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Like most people, I became aware of this story after having seen the fantastic play version.  It is a short novel that is meant for children, so it is not overly complicated.  It is however, a touching story and an eye opener into the true cost of war.

What is great about this novel is that everything is seen through Joey's eyes.  In many ways, I feel that our society has become desensitized to the human toll of war.  We've read the novels, seen the movies, and watched the news reports and in some ways none of it seems to truly move us anymore.  Most of us are still suckers for animals though, and seeing the horror that these animals went through certainly touches our hearts.  Those of us who can sit dry-eyed through one war movie may find ourselves crying over the death of Topthorn.  The use of horses as the main characters ironically brings the human element back to the story and opens up our feelings for all of those who suffer during war.

The other great thing about seeing the war through Joey's eyes is that there are no good sides and bad sides.  Joey changes hands constantly during the war and he experiences kindness and hatred on both sides.  Morpugo never uses a person's uniform to define their character.  Instead, we judge them only by their treatment of the horses and in this we see that it is not one's nationality or political stance that makes one good or bad, but rather it is how well we live with those around us.  One of my favorite parts of the stories was when Joey was living with the young French girl Emilie and her grandfather.  Her sweetness and kindness in the face of all of her struggles was inspiring in and of itself.

If you are looking for a novel to help introduce your children to the realities of war, this is a good one.  It is a touching look at human interaction and a fitting tribute to the animals whose lives were lost in serving mankind.  

The Movie:

There are two ways to see Joey and Albert's story brought to life.  The first is the award winning stage adaptation.  I was lucky enough to see this in London and it is a great production.  The hand puppets used to create the horses were phenomenal and by the end of the show you have forgotten that they are not real.  The story is wonderfully acted and the music is hauntingly beautiful.  The play is now being performed in many cities around the world, so be sure to see it if you get the chance.

The second is the 2011 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Though to me it wasn't as good as the stage play, it is still a decent adaptation, beautifully shot in Dartmoor, Devon.  Definitely worth seeing.      

Friday, June 15, 2012

Notes from the Literary World

I hope that all of you are having a fantastic week and are enjoying your current read.  Here is a round-up of some of the things from the literary world that have caught my eye over the past few days:

- Got some extra pocket money?  Here's a website that specializes in collectible books as well as 1st and signed editions.  A second printing of Cry, the Beloved Country, a first edition of Marilynne Robinson's award winning novel Housekeeping, a signed copy of Fahrenheit 451...any of these can be yours.  Just be prepared to spend a nice amount.

- The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the rise of fan fiction in the mainstream.  Though there is a long history of fan fiction, it is only now becoming accepted as a real publishing option both by the reading public as well as the authors whose works form the basis of the stories.  It will be interesting to see where this genre goes in the next few years. 

-2012 has been an incredible year for the city of London.  Between Dickens' 200th birthday, Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, and the summer Olympics, London is one happening place.  Whether you are planning a trip there or simply have a hankering to add some of it to your literary diet, Cynthia Crossen has some recommendations for novels set in that great city.

-Ever wondered exactly what kind of place your favorite author grew up in?  Here is a slideshow of the childhood homes of 20 famous authors.

-Summer is here which means it's time for family vacations.  Which means it's time for horrendously long car rides where the most frequent words spoken are, "Are we there yet?".  Adam Boertz at NPR has compiled a list of audiobooks that will help the time spent in the car fly by.

-The teaser trailer is out for the film version of Les Miserables which is coming out this December.  Looks like it could be good.

-If your dad likes to read, and if you are just now remembering that Father's Day is this Sunday, then head over to the Daily Beast for a list of the 13 best books for dad for 2012.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.

In 2004, author Marilynne Robinson published the story of an elderly pastor in small town Iowa who is using the precious time left to him to record his memories and thoughts of his life.  Gilead would go on to become a a Pulitzer Prize winner and touch the hearts of the thousands of people who read it.  Four years later, Robinson took us back to Gilead, allowing us to see the story from a new point of view and to gain a new understanding of what it means to be home.

The Plot:

Home is companion novel to Gilead, and the events of both novels happen concurrently.  After a failed relationship, Glory Boughton has returned home to Gilead to care for her elderly father.  Not long after her arrival, they receive news that her brother Jack will be returning home for the first time in 20 years.  Her father is overjoyed, yet Glory feels apprehension since Jack has been the wayward son all of his life.  

Through the ensuing weeks, Jack and Glory both try to reconcile themselves to once again being in the home of their childhood.  Glory feels a bitterness at finding herself back at her starting point with seemingly nothing to show for it.  And Jack, who has never felt comfortable in his father's house, struggles with the consequences of his life's actions and the self-loathing he feels in his heart.  As their father's life draws to a close, the Boughtons desperately strive to make some kind of connection with each other, and to accept the love and grace that is only found at home.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Of the hundreds of books that I have read throughout my life, Robinson's Gilead stands out as one of the most beautiful and the most poignant.  I was very excited to learn about this companion novel and was very interested to see how the story would look from a new perspective.

If Gilead is the story of the son who stayed and kept the faith, then this is the Prodigal's story.  Though he grew up with loving parents and 7 siblings, Jack Boughton never feels like he is at home.  From his childhood on, he upsets the peace and order of the Boughton home causing his parents no end of pain and sorrow.  Jack is by no means proud of his past, and his return to the family home only increases his sorrow and self-deprecation.  It is clear that he is searching for a way to connect with his family, but he is held back by himself.  Like the rich young ruler of the New Testament, he refuses to relinquish the life he has to gain the life he desires.  His family continuously extends love, grace, and friendship to him but his attachment to his lifestyle will not allow him to accept it.  He is a prodigal who refuses to leave the mud he so desperately wants to forget.

More than just a portrait of a prodigal son, this novel is also a depiction of home itself.  It is perhaps the one place in life that we dream of escaping while we are there and then dream of returning to when we are not.  Robinson portrays home as that place that is at once deeply familiar and unchanging, and yet in many ways it is unfathomable.  Here, home becomes aligned with the Christian faith, which is also unchanging yet unfathomable.  It is a place where love and grace are always extended to the most undeserving.  One need only accept it to receive it.  In many ways, I feel that Rev. Ames' wife Lila is a portrait of this.  Though we know very little of her back story, it is made clear that her own life was in many ways similar to Jack's.  The difference being that she accepted the grace offered to her and allowed herself to truly be at home.  It is she who best understand where Jack is coming from and encourages him to make the same choice she did.

While I appreciated many of the themes found in Home, I did not love it quite as much as I did Gilead.  The mood in this one is much more sober and in some ways gloomy.  While Gilead looks back on a life well-lived, Home looks back only at what might have been.  And though Robinson's writing is as strong and powerful as before, it is missing the lyrical quality of Gilead that caused me to read passages over and over again.  I also feel that I couldn't connect to this novel as much as to Gilead because in my own life I identify more with Rev. Ames' story than I do with Jack Boughton's, or even Glory's.  My nature leads me to be the "son who stays" and thus that is where I find my connection.

Though both Home and Gilead operate as stand-alone novels, they really do complete each other and so I would recommend reading each.  As with Gilead, this is not a novel for those who need lots of page-turning action.  The whole story operates mostly within the confines of the Boughton home and there are very few actual events.  If, however, you enjoy a quiet, thought-provoking, and well written novel, this is a good one.  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In Memorium

Ray Bradbury
August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012

Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I'm one of them.  - from Dandelion Wine

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Masterpiece Theatre: Sherlock Series 2

It's been almost two years since the Masterpiece Mystery crowd was swept off our feet by a modern adaptation of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories.  I fell head over heels for these stories and have been eagerly awaiting the 2nd series since the credits began to roll on the last episode of Series 1.  And I have to say that creators Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat completely outdid themselves in this new series.  If anything it is even more brilliant, funny, and refreshing than the first. 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson respectively, and they are INCREDIBLE!  Freeman especially seems to bring Watson into his own and their friendship continues to evolve in a very realistic way.  We also see the return of Andrew Scott who takes Jim Moriarty from kooky villain in Series 1 to evil genius in Series 2.  This series takes three of the most famous Sherlock stories and brings them into the 21st century.  Sherlock meets his match in the form of Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia.  Sherlock and Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate strange happenings at  a military base in The Hounds of Baskerville.  And the fight between Sherlock and Moriarty comes to a head as Moriarty sets out to show Sherlock as a fake in The Reichenbach Fall

I enjoyed all three episodes immensely.  It was incredible to see how they were able to take these well known stories and update them for today's audience, and yet stay true to the spirit of the originals.  The final episode was especially brilliant and had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.  Gatiss and Moffat have done a superb job of not only moving the story line forward, but also moving the characters forward.  Each one, no matter how minor, has been given an added depth from the previous series.  And the relationships between each one becomes more and more complex.  And even with the heavy drama of the cases, their is still plenty of humor to liven things up.  Here are some of the best quotes from Series 2:

-Mycroft Holmes: Just once can you two behave like grown-ups?   
 Watson: We solve crimes, I blog about it and he forgets his pants. I wouldn't hold out too much hope.

-Mycroft Holmes: We are in Buckingham Palace, the very heart of the British nation.  Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on!

- Watson to Sherlock:  I always hear "punch me in the face" when you're speaking, but it's usually subtext.

-Sherlock: Think!  It's the new sexy!

-Watson: Did we just break in to a military base to investigate a rabbit?

This is definitely one of the freshest, smartest series on Masterpiece (or any other program/network) right now.  If you haven't seen any of this series yet, listen to Moriarty and "Get Sherlock"!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My Life in France

The sweetness and generosity and politeness and gentleness and humanity of the French had shown me how lovely life can be if one takes time to be friendly.

Perhaps no one has done as much for cooking, and French cooking in particular, in America as Julia Child.  This is obvious, not only in the fact that her iconic cook book (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) remains very popular fifty years later, but also that her very kitchen has found a home in America's treasure house, the Smithsonian.  But there is more to Julia's story than her television shows, her recipes, and her instantly recognizable voice.  Eight months before her death at the age of ninety-one, Julia sat down with her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme and compiled the story of her years spent in France which ultimately became the most transformative years of her life.  It is an intimate look into her introduction to French cuisine, her relationships with family and friends, and the creative process that led to her fame in the US.

As a lover of good food and French culture, this is a book that I have been wanting to sink my teeth into for a long time.  But though the information on the food and the culture was interesting, the best part of the book is actually found in two different areas.  The first is Julia herself.  A self-described late bloomer, Julia does not really find her niche in life until she marries Paul Child after serving with him in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII.  She then accompanies him on his US Embassy assignment to France where her purpose in life suddenly becomes very clear to her.  I loved how she threw herself into French cuisine with such passion and determination.  She wasn't content to play at cooking, but rather she wanted to really master it.  Through the ups and downs, she never let her mistakes get to her, but rather she uses them to better herself.  I also loved her passion for sharing everything that she was learning with others and her intense desire to bring the beauties of French culture to her home country.  She really is an inspiration, and a reminder that it does not matter when your life purpose comes along.  The only thing that matters is that you seize it when it does.

The other aspect of the book that I loved was Julia's relationship with her husband, Paul.  Though he remained in the background during her celebrity years, Paul was an integral part of Julia's life.  As unlikely as it seems, this match of the tall, inexperienced girl from conservative California with the worldly, artistic man from liberal New England was truly made in heaven.  They complement each other so well and act as each others' support in the ups and downs of their careers.  While it was Julia's initiative that started her on the path to success, it was Paul's love and support that ensured it.  In many ways, he is as interesting as Julia herself.  He was an extremely intelligent man with a passion for art, France, good food, and wine.  In many ways he was Julia's inspiration, and I think that it is fairly safe to say that without Paul, we would have never had Julia.

This was a delightful read and I can't recommend it enough.  Whether you are looking for a book on France, a book on good food, or even a book with a great love story, you could do worse than to try this one.  I am certain that this is something that I will go back to again and again when I find myself in need of inspiration.

The Movie:

You can see a partial adaptation of this book in the 2009 film Julie & Julia.  Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci turn in great performances as Julia and Paul.  Though I didn't particularly care for the parallel plot set in modern times, I did enjoy the scenes from this book.