Thursday, December 22, 2011

Excerpt from the one-man play "A Slight Limp -- The Later Life and Adventures of Tiny Tim" by Steven Korbar

This an excerpt from a short, hilarious one-man play that features Tiny Tim as a grown man who has not fared well with his famous childhood.

"Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if people could at least get the saying right, but I'm constantly getting requests for things like "God bless everybody all the time."  But wait, it gets even balmier, sometimes they ask me for, "Please sir, can I have some more." "It is a far, far better thing I do."  "Out damn spot!"  "Oh Heathcliff!  I'll meet you in the Heather" and occasionally even, "Looky there, Gretel!  I think I sees me a gingerbread house!"  Bloody uneducated dolts.  And you know, if you really want to get the quote correct, what I actually said was, "God bless us, everyone."  No "all."  I was referring only to members of me immediate family, and if I recall properly, at the time I was excluding my older brother Peter, as he was a bit of a git and had the habit of repeatedly tying me in a flour sack and trying to throw me into the Thames . . ."

From page 67 of the collection titled "Stage This! Volume 3: Monologues, Short Solo Plays and 10-Minute Plays" published by E-Merging and Fn Productions, 2009.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Postcards from another world

What if someone in the future found my personal correspondence worthy of purchase?  Some people -- like Jane Austen -- give deathbed directives to destroy certain correpondence and I've actually never thought anyone but my kids might someday check out my old letters and cards that have somehow managed to survive repeated winnowings. But after two recent trips to an antique store in west suburban Chicago, I've changed my mind: if cards are pretty enough, they have the power to move someone to part with a few dollars and send said purchaser on a momentarily trip back in time.

Here's the first one:
No apparent reason for this card being sent, just some wishes that are the best.  But wait, there is a message on the back:

Uh-oh, Lena Falk's friend missed church on Friday and wanted to let her know!  Obviously, there wasn't emailing or texting back in 1910 and possibly not a plethora of telephones either.  After all, Minonk, IL, was a central Illinois farming community founded only six decades before this card was sent so perhaps these people didn't own personal telephones yet. So "Anna" (I think that was her name), who was probably separated from her friend by vast stretches of farmland, let Lena know about her non-attendence via a pretty little card.  Very charming.
I bought this one for four dollars because it was so beautiful that I thought I could start posting it on FB friend's pages for their B-days.  People in the 21st century still do send B-day cards but crickey, it's SO much easier to send and receive these greetings via FB, a phenomenon that nearly makes the entire crazy, weird, addicting, marvelous, maddening application worthwhile for that aspect alone.  The one drawback is that one cannot save and store FB greetings in the same way that Lena Falk was able to save this one.  Here's what it says on the back:

Speaking of celebrations worthy of involving the post office, the rest of these cards, with various addressees, are Christmas/New Years themed:

This one was sent at 5PM, December 24 (can't make out the year), and addressed to Mrs. Eva Jennings, Streator, Illinois, Box 25.  As far as I can tell, most of it says the following: "Mrs. Jennings: Will send you a card.  Received the present you sent and was so glad to get these pictures was just fine.  I hung it on the tree this morning.  How are every body up there?  We are all well.  We were in Varma last night and about 8 oclock Mr. Johny Murphy was killed with the train.  It was a terrible sight to see.  He was all cut to pieces.  Yours as ever, "

The top, upside down, reads "Wish you all a merry Xmas, answer soon." 

It seems to me that the violent death of Johnny Murphy might possibly have deserved a separate missive.  This card doesn't have a legible date but it seems odd in any time period -- aside from wartime when death unfortunately becomes commonplace -- that the violent death of a human be announced as a footnote in a holiday card doublling as a thank-you note.  But perhaps this is where the card-substituting-as-a-phone-call idea comes in: yes, it's odd to place all three of these items in on one card but it wouldn't be strange at all if they came up in a single phone conversation.

Next, a Christmas/New Years card addressed to Miss Lena Falk and postmarked December 22, 1909:
The back is difficult to read but here's what I can decipher:

"Dear Lena, Received your kind letter and was glad to hear from you [then something about a "building" and a "barn"].  We are all well and I hope the same of your Folks. With a merry Christmas and a happy new year, Mrs. Falk Falk"  I had to look up Minonk on the web to discover that it was a farming community but if I hadn't, the occasional RR number in the address portion and this mention of a barn would have been dead giveaways.

The next one was also addressed to Miss Lena Falk, was postmarked December 31, 1910, and contained a lengthy, mostly-illegible, pencil-written note on the back.  The addressor obviously wasn't trying to create something for posterity:
The next one, addressed to Miss Lena Falk, postmarked December 23, 1909, 230P, with nothing but "From Ella Ahlers" written on the back:
The next one was addressed to “Miss Lydia Metras, 37 Mt. Pleasant, Lynn, Mass” and postmarked December 31, 1906, 10 AM.  A fairly normal address that takes up the entire back of the card: there's no missive.  Perhaps people in New England of 1906 had more frequent access to phones -- unlike those in central Illinois -- and they didn't have to cram all their non-facetime communications onto the back of a card.  Or perhaps this person just wanted to send a New Years Day card to Miss Lydia.

Spoken words evaporate on the spot or are kept in the memory of the speaker and hearer.  Written words last much longer than mere mortals which is why some writers do what they do: to leave behind something significant, words that will continue to speak long after those who placed them in a particular order have passed on.  These missives to Miss Lena Falk and others may not be worthy of inclusion in a literary collection but there is something infinitely charming about these little cards that were written, addressed, and mailed over one hundred years ago in a world that no longer exists.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mr. Collins is asked to read aloud to the ladies. From chapter 14 of "Pride and Prejudice"

Mr. Collins readily assented and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.

Jane Austen defends the Novel (from Chapter Five of "Northanger Abbey")

... and if a rainy morning deprived (Catherine and Isabella) of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; --for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding--joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel is not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. 'I am no novel reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel.' -- Such is the common cant. -- 'And what are you reading, Miss ---?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. -- 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'' or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation, which no longer concern any one living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ode to a Dead Bookstore

The proud name that once blazed in bold white lettering is now just a shade blacker -- with speckles of white -- than its slightly lighter black background. The street-level windows that once shouted the titles of mega sellers –- in row after seemingly endless row -- to anyone encountering the busy intersection of Lake and Harlem are now silent and draped in black. The entire street corner seems to be in mourning and with good reason: Borders, the mega chain that devoured indie bookstores for breakfast, has died.

I joined the hordes of book-loving scavengers during the Oak Park store’s final days and have retained a permanent mental impression of at least four visits: the everything-is-10%-off sale that seemed to draw in every book lover within a 10-mile radius all the way down to the last visit when the stairway to the basement was roped off and the only items remaining were a few scattered books, Christmas CDs, odd little gift packets, and mangled Father’s Day cards. On my way out the door with two CDs and a few history books, I whispered goodbye and nearly shed a tear. Because this particular store holds some personal memories for me.

In the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks film, “You’ve Got Mail,” the Ryan character, Kathleen Kelly, owns an indie bookstore inherited from her late mother but is eventually forced out of business by Fox Books – a mega chain not unlike Borders. In one particularly touching scene, when Kelly is locking up her empty store for the last time, she has a memory, provided cinematically for the audience, of herself as a child and her mother dancing together in their book store. Kelly is heartbroken, not only because her business has failed but because for her the store is inexorably linked with memories of her beloved mother.

Although the book stores are reversed in my personal tale – it’s as if I’m mourning the loss of Fox Books – the Oak Park Borders was located only two miles from my house and had become an integral part of my family’s life. It became a frequent stop on day-long or after school outings with my kids. I’d grab a book then head down to the children’s section where my kids would poke around, read, point out to me a literary character puppet or two and have an all-around good time, all the while surrounded by vast stretches of books.

And that was the thrill of walking into the store, especially if I had a gift card in my hand, which I often did around the holidays (what will my students give me now, I wonder?). There were books absolutely everywhere, row upon row on every subject, pleading for my attention, begging me to take them home like so many adorable dogs or cats at an animal shelter. “Pick me! Pick me” their titles would scream as I’d walk by. I would soon narrow my search to one or two areas, knowing that the process was going to take a while. It always seemed impossible to squeeze all my bookish desires into a $20.00 limit but by the time I had finished sifting through the most promising candidates, I was usually very happy with my new books. What a phrase: a new book. The smell, the feel, the look of the pages all semi-stuck together and waiting for me to make it real by holding it in my hand and reading every page. I’d then proceed with the next task -- a difficult one -- of locating a vacant spot on one of my home shelves which usually meant relegating an older book into a carefully labeled box to be opened only in the unlikely event that I would ever get additional book shelf space.

As time went on my daughter, a chronic devourer of YA lit, became the only child who continued to accompany me to the store with any regularity. When Borders first showed signs of illness and the finance doctors prescribed emailed coupons for anyone who’d sign up, my daughter and I purchased a complete hardcover Harry Potter set, one book at a time, each one at least 30 percent off the discounted price. My eldest son, once an avid reader and now a thoughtful film critic in the making, used his coupons to build his video collection and also to buy gifts for the rest of the family. Firstborns have a tendency to do things like that.

Speaking of generosity, Oak Park’s main indie store, The Book Table, only a 90-second walk from Borders -- I think of it as The Book Store That Lived -- managed to do more that survive despite its unfortunate location: it flourished and I think I’m beginning to understand why. While Borders chose not to stock my recently published YA book on WWII heroines (except online), Jason, co-owner of The Book Table, not only stocked it but also volunteered to sell it at two local readings, a gesture that has made me ashamed that I cannot count myself as one of the reasons his store survived. In the wake of Borders’ demise, it’s obviously time for me to rethink my perception of what a book store is or what it ought to be. It should be something very similar to The Book Table, a store that makes its own decisions and that supports and is in turn supported by its local population. And although I am forced to admit feeling a pang every time I walk past the ghostly remains of the mega-store I once loved, I just keep walking until I find myself through the doors of The Book Table where the floor plan may be smaller but where the stock -- piled much higher -- is vastly more varied and its personal connection to the community unequaled.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Vet, be not Proud" by John Donne's Cat (from Henry Beard's Poetry for Cats)

Vet, be not proud, though thou canst make cats die
Thou livest but one life, while we live nine,
And if our lives were half as bleak as thine,
We would not seek from thy cold grasp to fly.
We do not slave our daily bread to buy;
Our eyes are blind to gold and silver's shine;
We owe no debt, we pay no tax or fine;
We tremble not when creditors draw nigh.
The sickest animal that thou dost treat
Is weller than a man; in peace we dwell
And know not guilt or sin, and fear not hell:
Poor vet, we live in heaven at thy feet.
But do not think that any cat will weep
When thee a higher vet doth put to sleep.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Emily Dickinson CXII

I like to see it lap the miles
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop -- docile and omnipotent --
At its own stable door.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Scout Views the World from Boo's Porch

"I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. There were Miss Maudie's, Miss Stephanie's -- there was our house, I could see the porch swing -- Miss Rachel's house was beyond us, plainly visible. . .

"It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

"Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

"Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him.

"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

Foreshadowing in To Kill a Mockingbird

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."

I remember very clearly one of my high school teachers pointing out this very early presaging of the unwinnable trial at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Blanche Gets Some Unwelcome News

"Miss Ingram took a book, leant back in her chair, and so declined further conversation. I watched her for nearly half an hour; during all that time she never turned a page, and her face grew momently darker, more dissatisfied, and more sourly expressive of disappointment. She had obviously not heard anything to her advantage; and it seemed ot me, from her prolonged fit of gloom and taciturnity, that she herself, notwithstanding her professed indifference, attached undue importance to whatever revelations had been made her."

One of my favorite passages from "Jane Eyre" (chapter 18) don't ask me why. Perhaps because it pronounces the beginning of the end of the Rochester/Ingram charade. :)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review of "Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels"

Although the themes in the novels of Jane Austen are absolutely ageless, her novels were set in a distinct time and place and it is the details of these settings – though not absolutely integral to her themes of true love and integrity – that can be occasionally confusing for modern readers. What was a barouche box? A phaeton & ponies? Austen’s contemporaries knew immediately which "peace" Mr. Shepherd of "Persuasion" spoke of when he told the Elliotts that their house will be easily rented because "this peace will be turning all our naval officers ashore" but 21st century readers might not.

Which is why a book such as "Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels" is so delightfully enlightening. The first section of part one, "Jane Austen and Her Family," sheds interesting biographical light on the famed novelist within her family realm while the second and third sections entitled, "England and the World" and "A Sense of Place" shows how certain aspects of Georgian and Regency society affected Austen, her family and her fictional characters.

Part two contains very thorough synopses of Austen’s novels, which include more information than one might expect. For instance, the synopsis of "Persuasion," in addition to summarizing in detail the love story of Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott, also includes a lengthy quote from a 19th century Lyme guidebook as well as an entire paragraph describing contemporary Lyme in light of approximating the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell. The synopsis of "Emma" contains detailed description of 18th century Bristol, which sheds some very interesting light on Mrs. Elton, as she originated from that city.

Le Faye’s writing is both exquisitely crafted and straightforward. The copious accompanying illustrations – maps, sketches, portraits (included as they resemble the physical descriptions of Austen’s characters) and some photos – are simply breathtaking and add layers of depth to Le Faye’s insightful prose.

This book is a very enlightening trip into Jane Austen’s world that her fans will truly appreciate.

Review of the Annotated "Pride and Prejudice"

“Pride and Prejudice” is such a delightful romantic comedy that Jane Austen afficionados never tire of savoring its literary delights. The character-transforming romance between the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet and the aloof but ultimately heroic Fitzwilliam Darcy and the book’s intriguing and often hilarious cast of secondary players have made “Pride and Prejudice” one of the most beloved classics of English literature.

Although the novel’s basic truths and characterizations are absolutely timeless – as evidenced by the many contemporary versions of the story, including films such as “Bride and Prejudice” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” -- the first draft of the book was actually written towards the end of the 18th century and finally published in 1813. As such, the text contains occasional language and references which may not be readily understood by 21st century readers.

Enter David M. Shapard’s new annotated version of the novel. Opposite each page of Austen’s text is a corresponding page of notes which not only offers elucidation on antiquated expressions but also presents in-depth expositions of character and plot developments as they unfold.

Of particular fascination are Shapard’s social history clarifications included in the notes. For instance, anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the book knows that Caroline Bingley is determined to captivate and extract a marriage proposal from Darcy and that she sees Elizabeth as a possible rival in that pursuit. So when she invites Elizabeth to “take a turn about the room” in the presence of Mr. Darcy, she does so because she is certain that she can successfully compete with Elizabeth for Darcy’s attention in the arena of graceful walking Shapard’s note gives further insight into this passage by revealing that ladies’ schools during Austen’s time placed an excessive emphasis on elegant movement, some going so far as to utilize a stationary carriage inside the school in order to practice graceful entering and exiting.

The obsequious gratitude that the hilarious Mr. Collins feels towards his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, is partly due to her having bestowed on him the position of local clergyman so quickly after his ordination. According to Shapard’s informative note, Mr. Collins’ excessive gratitude is not wholly without foundation: only 20 % of clergymen during Austen’s time received a position within five years of their ordination.

From the lovely painting on the front cover (which is actually annotated) to the maps at the book’s end, David Shapard’s beautifully elucidative edition of “Pride and Prejudice” sets the novel perfectly within its historical framework and presents a delightfully valid excuse to plunge into its pages once again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Summer with Ernest Hemingway

Yes, we were on the same planet for a couple of years, but I was toddling around the sidewalks of Berwyn, Illinois in diapers when Ernest Hemingway shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho. My summer with him was this past one, the summer that just recently breezed – or rather, whipped – through our muggy streets.

It’s not that I was completely unaware of Hemingway before last summer. For the past three years The Hemingway Foundation has hired me and my husband to sing at their Boxing Day event. Before that, I had a few brief high-school brushes with Hemingway’s writing which left me with the clear, haunting details of a story called A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the vague recollection of having read The Old Man and the Sea and the distinct memory of some clipped prose describing a hunter named Nick Adams who went camping to soothe an unspoken grief.

These encounters, though somewhat entertaining, were hardly the stuff of solid friendship and so our flimsy acquaintance could hardly have been expected to withstand what came next: my post-college delight in the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the concomitant knowledge that Hemingway had figuratively kicked his alcoholic friend when he was down. My negative opinion was sealed forever: I root for underdogs, not bullies. Besides, I prefer elegant prose about flappers and rich boys over short sentences describing the detailed actions of misogynistic hunters.

Singing Dickensian Christmas Carols at the Hemingway Birthplace Home for the past three years softened my opinion of Ernest just a bit. Surely, a man born and raised in these lovely rooms must have retained something of their Victorian charm even if he had evolved into someone who placed an equal value on drinking, shooting lions and trading up wives. Should I give him another chance? Alas, nothing in the elegant Boxing Day event – the gracious volunteers, the delicious treats, the fascinating readings, the informative tours, or even the check from the Foundation — brought me one step closer to reading Hemingway. I was still rooting for Fitzgerald and would not crack one book of his foe.

But last summer, I was thrown together with Ernest in earnest and it was time to give the man and the writer a fair appraisal. Two of my children were in need of volunteer hours and the Hemingway Foundation – always looking for volunteers – came to the rescue. I decided to go along for the ride. What did I discover?

That people come from all over the world to visit the Hemingway Museum on any given day but that very occasional groups of American women – who react with marked suspicion to explanations of ticket pricing – come only to use the bathroom. That the Hemingway Archives holds some very interesting materials which present even more interesting volunteer opportunities. That Hemingway loved cats. That Hemingway’s mother, Grace, was a founding member of the Oak Park Art League (another lovely, volunteer-friendly locale we discovered this summer). That someone should write a biography of Grace Hall Hemingway. That anyone who loves cats can’t be all bad. That watching Jack and Patrick Hemingway cut up while answering audience questions (“Roundtable Discussion,” July 21, 1999) causes the viewer to nearly sense the gregarious presence of their father. That the MIT students who sit under the lectures of author Joe Haldeman – the designated speaker at last summer’s Hemingway birthday party – are very fortunate. That Howard Hawks obviously didn’t have Hemingway’s novel To Have and To Have Not in mind when he created the film of the same title. That although Catherine Barkley, the female protagonist of A Farewell to Arms, was based on Hemingway’s first love, Agnes von Kurowsky, she also bears a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. That Hemingway was apparently regretting Hadley decades later when he wrote the beautiful memoir A Moveable Feast. That I’m not certain of the exact grammatical implications in beginning umpteen consecutive sentences with the same word.

So I’ll stop and say that I finally discovered what all the fuss was about. Hemingway had a passion for writing that was matched only by his passion for living, an author whose enormous characters often blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. So what if I still prefer Fitzgerald? Hemingway’s writing, although in a completely different style, is at least as good, and his output ten times that of his doomed friend. If Hemingway’s flawed personality often caused pain to others, he was equally adept at making them laugh. And read.

The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, keeper of the Oak Park branch of the flame, is just down the street. Check them out.

(This article was originally published in Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal, fall of 2007.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Plug for the William Hurt "Jane Eyre" in Which I (Briefly) Compare and Contrast Four Rochesters

(This was my very first Amazon review, written in 2003).

I have been a Jane Eyre fan since high school and have seen most of the adaptations. This one is my favorite. Why? Most importantly, this is the only one with a "plain" Jane, something that is absolutely fundamental. Joan Fontaine and Suzanna York are both gorgeous, Samantha Morton is very pretty and Zelah Clark is cute. When the book was published in 1847, creating a plain heroine was unheard of, but Charlotte Bronte felt strongly about her heroine's looks and the book became a phenomenal best-seller. Despite plain-Jane's best-seller status, most 20th/21st-century film adaptations still can't handle the idea of an unattractive heroine. This film was an exception.

Secondly, the age gap between Rochester and Jane in this film is just as it should be: 20 years. Most of the other Jane/Rochester's (excepting Morton/Hinds) look approximately the same age, while William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg don't even look like they belong together -- exactly the point of the story.

Thirdly, this film features a few scenes and lines taken directly from the novel that I haven't seen in any other adaptations. For instance, Jane realizes Rochester is in the garden (just before he declares his love) because she smells cigar smoke. To have William Hurt puffing on a cigar at this point in the film is an authentic touch. There are many other such tidbits in this film that I haven't had the pleasure of encountering since I read the book.

Of course, given the time limit of this movie, there is some unavoidable tinkering with the plot line. If you want more of the actual text and plot, watch the Timothy Dalton version, but try to keep William Hurt in mind while you watch it. His good looks are toned down and he manages to be the most compelling Rochester I have yet to see on film. Timothy Dalton is tolerable in his portrayal but too thin, handsome, and too high strung; his acting is sometimes difficult to watch. Hurt's portrayal is also far superior to the one actor with the closest physical resemblance to Rochester: Orson Welles, whose performance is a string of absurd screaming fits. Watching Cirian Hinds' portrayal is like getting too near a snake pit or a steaming pot of boiling oil; he's way too tortured and it's not a pleasant sight. Yes, Rochester was a tortured man, but he usually kept it in check and below the surface. The nuances of this complicated character are lost on most of the actors who have attempted to play him, except, in my opinion, William Hurt, who brings to his performance all the irony and subtlety the others are sorely lacking.

Although the superiority of this film can be measured by the plainness of its leading characters, I must conclude by saying that it is cinematically lush and includes a gorgeous soundtrack.

Short Review of the Timothy Dalton "Jane Eyre"

(This was an early Amazon review, written in 2004).

If you are looking the most accurate adaptation of "Jane Eyre," this is it. It's got everything from the book that the screenwriters could pack into four hours. However, like all of the BBC productions that I've seen, this looks like it was filmed with a video camera. I absolutely love the book, but part of me also loves film and this is so low budget that there's not really much action or even movement during certain scenes. People stand or sit in one spot for long periods of time spouting words -- beautifully exact words, mind you -- making certain aspects of the film a visual bore.

Speaking of visuals: Timothy Dalton is skinnier and taller than Rochester is supposed to be. Zelah Clarke is short, but way too filled out and her character is too perky; she is supposed to be outwardly suppressed, though inwardly intense. And these leads are supposed to be 20 years apart -- Dalton and Clark look to be about the same age. That being said, there is some great chemistry between them; the passion between Jane and Rochester -- the focal point of the story -- is absolutely palbable in this adaptation.

No other "Jane Eyre" film will give you so much accurate dialogue, straight out of the book and no other adaptation (that I've seen) has the Rochester-as-gypsy scene or an accurate portrayal of the River's family and Jane's relationships with them. It's definitely worth adding to your adaptation collection.

A Short Review of the Cirian Hinds "Jane Eyre"

(This was an early Amazon review, written in 2003).

Cirian Hinds and Samantha Morton are wonderful actors, but why didn't the screenwriters even glance at Charlotte Bronte's book while they wrote this screenplay? It was a very strange experience to see some of my favorite characters of literature saying and doing things that weren't even remotely connected to the story. Rochester screaming at Jane to leave Thornfield? Jane and Rochester shopping downtown for wedding clothes and "bumping into" Blanche Ingram? I don't think so! Not only did the screenwriters make up entirely new scenes, the dialogue in familiar scenes was often totally unrecognizable. I watch film adaptations to see my favorite characters and scenes fleshed out, not given a major overhaul.

Two things they got right -- the age difference and chemistry between Rochester and Jane (although Samantha Morton is too pretty. Come on! She can't be pretty Harriet Smith in the A&E version of "Emma" and plain-Jane Eyre in this movie!) If you just like to watch good acting, you might like this. But if you, like me, are a fan of the book, this is a very jolting and unpleasant ride.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"The End of the Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe's Cat (from "Poetry for Cats" by Henry Beard)

This particular cat-related spoof of Poe's "The Raven" is my favorite, I think. Might have been Henry Beard's too, as he placed the illustration on the cover of his hilarious book!

On a night quite unenchanting, when the rain was downward slanting,
I awakened to the ranting of the man I catch mice for.
Tipsy and a bit unshaven, in a tone I found quite craven,
Poe was talking to a Raven perched above the chamber door.
"Raven's very tasty," thought I, as I tiptoed o'er the floor,
"There is nothing I like more."

Soft upon the rug I treaded, calm and careful as I headed
Towards his roost atop that dreaded bust of Pallas I deplore.
While the bard and birdie chattered, I made sure that nothing clattered,
Creaked, or snapped, or fell, or shattered, as I crossed the corridor;
For his house is crammed with trinkets, curios and weird decor -
Bric-a-brac and junk galore.

Still the Raven never fluttered, standing stock-still as he uttered,
In a voice that shrieked and sputtered, his two cents worth -
While this dirge the birdbrain kept up, oh, so silently I crept up,
Then I crouched and quickly leapt up, pouncing on the feather bore.
Soon he was a heap of plumage, and a little blood and gore -
Only this and not much more.

"Oooo!" my pickled poet cried out, "Pussycat, it's time I dried out!"
Never sat I in my hideout talking to a bird before;
How I've wallowed in self-pity, while my gallant, valiant kitty.
Put an end to that damned ditty - then I heard him start to snore.
Back atop the door I clambered, eyed that statue I abhor,
Jumped - and smashed it on the floor.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Humorous Narration from "Emma"

We all love the cinematic adaptations, certainly, but one particular joy of reading Jane Austen's original material is the sharp wit often found in her narration, something that is often lost in the transformation of novel to screen. Here are some gems I rediscovered during a recent re-read of "Emma."

In chapter three, Austen describes Mrs. Goddard's school (where Harriet Smith received her education) as "a real, honest, old-fashioned boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies."

In chapter 10, Emma and Harriet meet Mr. Elton on the road and Emma contrives to allow them some time alone, hoping that Mr. Elton will say something that will reveal his romantic intentions towards Harriet. But alas, "Emma experienced some disappointment when she found that he was only giving his fair companion an account of the yesterday's party at his friend Cole's, and that she was come in herself for the Stilton cheese, the North Wiltshire, the butter, and celery, the beetroot, and all the desert."

The opening sentence of chapter 22: "Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of."

Opening sentence of chapter 29: "It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind . . ."

Last sentence of chapter 36: "Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him."

In chapter 39, after the incident with Harriet and the gypsies, when Harriet is safetly at Hartfield, Austen records Mr. Woodhouse's reaction thus: "Poor Mr. Woodhouse trembled as he sat, and, as Emma had forseen, would scarecely be satisfied without their promising never to go beyond the shrubbery again. It was some comfort to him that many inquiries after himself and Miss Woodhouse (for his neighbours knew that he loved to be inquired after), as well as Miss Smith, were coming in during the rest of the day; and he had the pleasure of returning for answer, that they were all very indifferent; which, though not exactly true, for she was perfectly well, and Harriet not much otherwise, Emma wouild not interfere with. She had an unhappy state of health in general for the child of such a man, for she hardly knew what indisposition was; and if he did not invent illnesses for her, she would make no figure in a message."

In chapter 42, during the strawberry outing at Donwell Abbey, Mrs. Elton leads the way and dominates the conversation thus:

" . . . Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking. Strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. 'The best fruit in England--everybody's favorite--always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for oneself--the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time--never tired--every sort good--hautboy infinitely superior--no comparision--the others hardly eatable--hautboys very scarce--Chili preferred--white wood finest flavour of all--price of strawberries in London--abundance about Briston--Maple Grove--cultivation--beds when to be renewed--gardeners thinking exactly different--no general rule--gardeners never to be put out of their way--delicious fruit--only too rich to be eaten much of--inferior to cherries--currants more refreshing--only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping--glaring sun--tired to death--could bear it no longer--must go and sit in the shade.'

Such, for half an hour, was the conversation . . ."


After Emma receives a welcome proposal in chapter 49 . . .

"What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does."

And Mr. Knightley's opinion of Frank Churchill, though never actually positive, undergoes the following transformation after Knightley's proposal to Emma is accepted:

"He had found her agitated and low. Frank Churchill was a villain. He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill's character was not desperate. She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow."


As Emma and Mr. Knightley, now an engaged couple, enter Hartfield to greet Mr. Woodhouse . . .

"Poor Mr. Woodhouse little suspected what was plotting against him in the breast of the man whom he was so cordially welcoming, and so anxiously hoping might not have taken cold from his ride. Could he have seen the heart, he would have cared very little for the lungs . . ."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The "Reel" Mr. Darcy

Fitzwilliam Darcy is supposed to be a bore. Actually, most of the good guys in Jane Austen's novels of love and marriage, which she set in Regency England, have a dull veneer, especially when contrasted with their flashy but morally flawed foils. Who wouldn't sense a fatal attraction to such dashing rogues as Willoughby ("Sense & Sensibility"), Frank Churchill ("Emma"), and Wickham ("Pride and Prejudice") instead of the shy Edward Ferrars, the middle-aged, sensible Mr. Knightly and the uncommunicative, snobbish Mr. Darcy? Austen lets her heroines, those models of courageous self-realization, uncover the paucity of character beneath dashing, rouguish veneers while simultaneously giving them the ability to see the gold mine of quality beneath the drab surface of her heroes.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is perhaps the most notable of these heroes-disguised-as-bores, and that is because "Pride and Prejudice" is generally considered to be the most popular Austen novel. It is a Cinderella story that has the poor girl telling the proposing prince to get lost because she thinks he's a jerk. Well, Darcy is a jerk, but he's a really, really rich jerk. What spirit! Elizabeth Bennet, however, is not so mired in her beloved prejudices as to be obtuse to the growing realization that this boring stiff might possess some attractive virtues that are as solid as his material wealth, and this awakening self-knowledge makes her one of the most interesting characters in classic literature.

The novel has been transformed to celluloid many times, but I would like to explore here only those adaptations which keep Darcy and Elizabeth in Regency England, where Austen placed them. The story has timeless truths which can be transferred to any setting, I suppose, but I most savor watching adaptations that place literary characters in their original settings. In other words, much as I enjoyed watching Mr. Darcy time-travel to Victorian England (the 1939 version was at least 50 years off in setting not to mention 1,000 miles from the original plot points) or fly to 21st century India for "Bride and Prejudice," I would like to concern myself here with the films that place Darcy where Austen did.

Released in 1980, the BBC version of P&P includes more of the actual novel than any other adaptation and stars the ebullient Elizabeth Garvey as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Darcy. Rintoul pours all his dramatic energy into the snobbish side of Darcy, creating a two-dimensional, cartoonish performance. His stiff gait and jutting chin serve as constant reminders (like we needed them) of Darcy's prideful character. Austen's Mr. Darcy is indeed a cold snob whose initial marriage proposal is vastly easy to resist, but refusing the proposal of Rintoul's Darcy must have been a breeze for Garvey's Elizabeth. His facial contours soften so drastically during the story's second marriage proposal that he almost looks like a different person. He was, of course, but Rintoul's performance in the main is so two-dimensional that his is the least appealing of that given by any actor in this well-intentioned and largely successful literal adaptation.

The 1995 A&E version, although a visual stunner which remains outwardly faithful to most of the book, does some major overhauling to Austen's characterizations. Mr. Collins is not merely a pompous doofus; he's a creepy pompous doofus. Jane Bennet is a good girl only because her IQ doesn't seem to be all that high. Colin Firth's Darcy — whose smolderingly passionate performance earned him cult status among an adoring female fan base — resembles a Byronic hero, the stuff of 19th century Romanticism: his performance makes one think that he may have gotten lost on his way to a Wuthering Heights adaptation. His Darcy certainly won our hearts, but I'm not sure he would have won Austen's; she was writing during the Regency period and wanted her heroes to keep their emotions under wraps.

Matthew MacFadyen stars as Darcy in the most recent adaptation, which, despite some serious character mangling (Lizzie a brat? Bingley a doofus? Mr. Bennet Donald Sutherland?) manages to sprint through the novel's major plot points in just over two hours, occasionally catching its breath during some artistic liberties of such sheer cinematic beauty and raw emotional truth that even an Austen purist (if she is also a fan of cinematic beauty and raw emotional truth) can easily forgive them. Does MacFadyen accomplish what Rintoul and Firth could not? A resounding yes! MacFadyen's Darcy is a solemn snob, unwilling to communicate except through his expressive eyes, and who "will not take the trouble of practicing" his underused conversational skills. His attraction to Keira Knightly's Elizabeth is quite palpable, yet he somehow manages to remain an 18th century stiff throughout the entire film. He is Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy through and through while giving an attractive performance that appeals to 21st century sensibilities.

I couldn't fall for Rintoul's Darcy and fell way too hard for Firth's; MacFadyen expertly combines the different angles of Darcy's difficult character to create a winning portrayal. I believe Austen herself would have fallen hard.

(This essay was published in Volume V, Issue 3 ("Phoenix Rising," Fall 2006) of Wild Violet, an online literary magazine.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Very First Austen Sequel: "Old Friends and New Fancies"

It seems that there is a new Jane Austen sequel being published every week and for Jane Austen fans, this is a wonderful opportunity to once again inhabit in the elegant but hilarious world of Austen’s Regency period romantic comedies. “Old Friends and New Fancies,” written in 1913 by Sybil G. Brinton stands out from the sequel crowd for a couple of reasons. Number one, it was the first Austen-inspired sequel ever written and two, it has a rather ambitious objective: to combine the principal characters from all of Austen’s novels into a single sequel.

“Old Friends and New Fancies” opens with Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, now a married couple of three and one-half years, wringing their hands over the apparently unhappy betrothal of Georgiana Darcy to Colonel Fitzwilliam. The engagement broken, the Darcys travel to Bath, connect with Lady Catherine, meet and are immediately attracted to the mysteriously wounded Mary Crawford who soon falls out of favor with Lady Catherine due to a rumor that reaches the imperious lady’s ears from her current hangers-on, Lucy Steele Ferrars and her sister Anne Steele. This is unfortunate because the now-free Colonel Fitzwilliam has developed a decided interest in the beautiful Mary who is completely offended and hurt by Lady Catherine’s censoring of her.

Soon, Emma Woodhouse Knightley – bored with country life and living in town – comes on the scene, befriending Kitty Bennet who has a developed a school girl crush on William Price while James Morland is making plans to move into the parish at Kympton.

It’s great fun to meet beloved Jane Austen characters again and to watch them interact predictably but within an entirely new social framework. How would Mary Crawford react to the interest of Colonel Fitzwilliam after being spurned by Edmund Bertram at the end of “Mansfield Park”? Would Kitty Bennet make a good wife for William Price? How long would Lady Catherine be duped by the Steele sisters? For better or for worse, these questions – and their answers – cause “Old Friends” to stand out significantly from the crowd.

One problem with the “Old Friends,” however, is that none of the characters have changed, even those who were supposed to. Yes, Lady Catherine will always remain imperious and Lucy Steele Ferrars will be an eternal toady, but wasn’t Kitty Bennet supposed to have de-Lydia-ed herself at the end of Pride and Prejudice? Wasn’t Darcy supposed to have lightened up a bit after three years of marriage to the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet? Didn’t Emma Woodhouse divest herself of her matchmaking schemes when she took on the name of Knightley? Briton doesn’t see fit to show us the results of the transformations Austen exhibited (or mentioned) but generally leaves us with the characters as they were in mid-novel.

The other problem is that, although Brinton’s sentence structure is remarkably and enjoyably similar to Austen’s – long, beautifully crafted sentences – Austen’s inimitable sparkle is completely missing. Because the writing is so similar to Austen’s, the reader keeps watching and waiting for that hilarious interchange, that sharp witticism, but to no avail. Brinton is definitely not Austen in that respect.

But to combine all of Austen’s characters into a believable and enjoyable story is quite a clever idea (not to mention a massive undertaking) and one that Briton, for the most part, pulls off. Readers who love the original Austen characters – especially those who can overlook the lack of sparkle in the general tone of the book – will no doubt find much to enjoy in “Old Friends and New Fancies.”

Book Review: "Major Voices: 19th Century American Women's Poetry"

“Major Voices: 19th Century American Women’s Poetry” showcases the work of 10 female American poets – most of them quite notable in their own time but rarely considered or anthologized since. Observing 19th century America through the lense of its female poets is an intriguing experience: many of the poems included here delineate the social issues of the time in a powerfully immediate – and of course, poetic – way.

For instance, Francis Watkins Harper’s account of a slave auction in “The Slave Mother” contains more stark emotive power than many other contemporary narratives:

His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart
Their lives a streamlet blent in one–
Oh, Father! Must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms
Her last and fond embrace . . .

Lydia Huntley Sigourney – the first professional female poet in America – takes respectful notice of the diminishing Native American in her poems “Indian Names,” “Our Aborigines,” “Indian Girl’s Burial, ”and “Funeral of Mazeen.” “Funeral of Mazeen,” portrays the end of a royal lineage (that of the Mohegan Nation) and invites the reader to observe the profound sadness of a great nation in decline:

With the dust of kings in this noteless shade,
The last of a royal line is laid.
In whose stormy veins that current roll’d
Which curb’d the chief and the warrior bold;
Yet pride still burns in their humid clay,
Though the pomp of the sceptre hath pass’d away.

Most 19th century American female writers could not comfortably balance marriage and the writing life so some chose to simply avoid matrimony. Phoebe Cary, whose poems delineate matrimonial difficulties in a humorous and pointed way, was one of these single writers. In her poem, “Kate Ketchem” (get it?), she notes the foolishness of marrying for monetary reasons:

He married her for her father’s cash
She married him to cut a dash
But as for paying his debts, do you know
The father couldn’t see it so.

She wedded him to be rich and gay
But husband and children didn’t pay
He wasn’t the prize she hoped to draw
And wouldn’t live with his mother-in-law.

Cary, like many others presented in this collection, adds a powerful voice to the growing rumblings of the women’s movement. In her bitingly satirical dialogue poem “Was He Henpecked?” a husband responds to his wife’s desire for equality thus:

‘Now why,’ he said, ‘can’t such as you
Accept what we assign them?
You have your rights, ‘tis very true
But then, we should define them!’

‘I’d keep you in the chicken yard,
Safe, honored and respected;
From all that makes us rough and hard,
Your sex should be protected.’

“Major Voices” also gives a fresh perspective on the most currently celebrated 19th century American female poet: Emily Dickinson. Her poems are presented here in their raw, unpublished form; there are no titles and her original plethora of dashes are included, granting her poems a striking immediacy.

Providing an extensive and literary-slanted introduction to each writer and including a substantial selection of each one’s work, “Major Voices” presents a fascinating glimpse of 19th Century America through the eyes of its female poets.

Book Review: "The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte"

I find it unfortunate that certain fictional memoirs choose to call themselves diaries. Just as one can’t quite visualize Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy scribbling his growing attraction to Elizabeth Bennet into the pages of a diary like a twelve year-old girl (“Mr. Darcy’s Diary”), neither can one imagine Charlotte Bronte doing the same for her entire life’s story – including a few PG-13 rated details of her wedding night.

But faulty title issues aside, “The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brönte” is a well-crafted book and an absolute delight for those Charlotte Bronte fans who can never get enough biographical facts of Jane Eyre’s alter ego. James’ novel centers on Bronte’s relationship with Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate and the man who she eventually married. At the novel’s outset, Nichols appears on the scene and makes a derogatory comment about Charlotte which she overhears. James’ Charlotte uses this as an excuse to harbor intensely negative feelings for Nichols until his good character – and love for her -- finally wins her over. Their relationship is presented in an almost standard romantic comedy formula; only in this case, it is based on fact and generally works.

The earlier years of Charlotte’s life are presented via well-placed flashbacks: her time at the Clergy Daughters School where her sisters Maria and Elizabeth became fatally ill, the years she spent at Roe Head where she met Ellen Nussey, her life-long friend, and the time she spent in Brussels where she fell in love with Constantin Heger who later formed the basis of several of her romantic protagonists.

It is a well-known fact that Bronte used biographical material for her novels. Knowing that, however, does not prepare one to encounter scenes and conversations taken directly from the novels and placed verbatim into James’ fictional memoir, such as this conversation she portrays between Bronte and Heger:

“Here, I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, and with what I delight in – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have come to know you, Monsieur; and it fills me with sadness to contemplate that one day I must leave you . . . “

It is very possible that a scene such as this occurred between Bronte and Heger and that these exact words were spoken and later placed in “Jane Eyre.” But James could have been a little more indirect in implying the connection between fact and fiction with better and more believable results.

However, James is a Bronte enthusiast and as such, she can be forgiven for becoming too susceptible to these fascinating connections; the good far outweighs the questionable in this fictional memoir. The central love story is an appealing one and James has done a splendid job in capturing Bronte’s voice exactly and precisely (one might say, she’s hit the nail straight on the head) and has, in the process, managed to bring Charlotte Bronte’s biographical facts to life in a very engaging manner.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Jane Eyre and Alice

Cover of Jane Eyre that belonged to my grandmother. Copyright date, 1890, by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge.

Inscription reads: "To Alice Spritsma from Halsted St. M.E. Church Junior League, Christmas, 1898."

Wedding portrait of John and Alice Helmus, circa 1909.

When my mom died, one of the things that nobody else wanted was a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, that had been given to my grandmother when she was twelve. I had always been fascinated by my maternal grandmother, Alice, because my mom didn’t remember her much, and because she looked so pretty in her wedding picture. My mom looked more like her father, who had huge laughing eyes and a long face. What prettiness my mom did possess was inherited from that lovely, innocent bride who looked at us so sweetly from the sepia-toned wedding portrait.

Although her beauty was visible in the faces of her second-generation descendants, Alice never knew any of them. She had died when my mom, the youngest, was four. My grandfather married the sturdy housekeeper, Jenny, who became the only mother my own mother remembered — and resented. Her father, who she worshiped, died when she was 14, and she was left with step-mother Jenny, who dominated my mother -- her last "baby" -- in ways that my mother could never forget.

It was something of a relief to me that this stocky old woman, whose house smelled like moth balls and whose opinionated ways seemed unkind to a shy, sensitive child, was not my real grandmother. When Mom told us the truth and showed us the wedding portrait, I began to fantasize about Alice. What was she like? Was she as sweet as she was pretty? What would have happened if she had lived? What would my mother have been like if pretty Alice, not sturdy Jenny, had raised her?

Then, I got the copy of Jane Eyre that had been inscribed and given to Alice as a Christmas present from a West Side Chicago church at the end of the 19th century. Alice had once held this book in her hands. Had she read it? What did she think of it? Had she loved this story as passionately as I did?

I remember doing a high-school book report on Jane Eyre but can’t recall if I was truly smitten with the story at that time. A college friend had given me a paperback version that had Charlotte Bronte’s portrait on the cover, and it was this copy I found myself re-reading over and over; certain scenes, that is. My all-time favorite was the garden scene where the seemingly unattainable Rochester comes to declare his love for Jane (after mercilessly wrenching a declaration of love out of her). For me, it was the ultimate romantic moment: impossible, unrequited love becomes attainable, and a hopeless dream becomes tangible.

But the main point of the book is not the realization of a passionate love that seems hopelessly unrequited. It is that Jane is able to maintain her personal integrity throughout the story: while being mistreated as a child (I never re-read that part), while being overlooked by Rochester’s rich visitors because of her lowly societal position, and while being tempted to deny her own basic morals in spite of her passionate love for Rochester. She even refuses a huge sum of inherited money when it would have made her a society woman, choosing rather to share her new wealth with the cousins she has come to love. Finally, she doesn’t deny her heart when tempted to sacrifice it to a cold, lifeless marriage. And she does all of this without anything or anyone to guide her except her own moral compass.

So, when I realized that Alice had held this very book in her hand (and had evidently kept it for years), I knew immediately that I had to have a daughter. Maybe it was because the possibility of Alice having been a kindred spirit suddenly left a gaping hole in my life; perhaps, unlike Jenny, I might have actually had something in common with my real grandmother. Maybe having my own daughter would somehow bridge this gap in my maternal ancestry. But perhaps the urge for a daughter came more from the sudden necessity to pass on a love for Jane Eyre. I felt as if Alice had left me something precious that I now needed to pass on down the female line. What can mothers bequeath to daughters? Beauty? China? Men can transmit the family name, but in four generations, we women have had four different surnames and my daughter’s will some day, most likely, be different than mine. What, besides dishes and genetic material, can we hand down? Stories. Our own stories, good and strong, and others like Jane Eyre, a plain heroine (the first of her kind) who overcame impossible odds, not because she was well-connected, rich or beautiful, but because she remained true to who she was.

When Abigail was born, we gave her the middle name of her great-great-grandmother Sophia, Alice’s mother, so that she could be reminded of her female lineage and, in a small way, bridge the gap that was left there by Alice’s premature death.  And I’ve tried hard to expose her to the best stories, the ones that will help her develop into the woman she was meant to be. At 15 years old, I’m very proud to say, she exhibits an amazingly voracious appetite for books. She didn’t particularly like the BBC version of Jane Eyre when she first saw it, but the compelling Toby Stephens version is what finally drove her to crack the book. She wasn’t disappointed.

Jane Eyre has, in a way, bridged a gap in our female line. And I’m very glad that it’s become a part of Abby’s life. Who knows what difficulties life will present to her? Perhaps having the character of Jane Eyre in her mind and soul will help her to make those choices that will enable her to be her best and truest self.

(Published at in April, 2010).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: "Poetry Speaks"

Mention the word “poetry” and you are likely to get a number of responses ranging from adoration to hatred, with plenty of misconceptions in between. Although poetry was once read, understood, memorized and recited on a regular basis by entire families from the middle class upwards, poetry in the 20th century fell out of general favor largely because of the elements that made it “modern.” It was sequestered into anthologies and studied by unwilling high school students, enjoyed in the realms of academia, but it was definitely no longer a fixture in the family parlor.

Which is a pity. Although it is true that poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” cannot truly be appreciated without extensive footnotes, the 20th century produced a myriad of poets who wrote verse which is both beautiful and, within certain frames of reference, perfectly understandable.

Seeking to communicate this poetry to those who may have not given it a second look after high school, Sourcebooks has published Poetry Speaks Expanded. Featuring 47 of the most famous 20th-century poets (and including – remarkably – a handful from the 19th), it features, for each poet, a photo, a biography, an in-depth but immensely readable critique of the poet’s work, a selection of poems and even, in some cases, a facsimile of verse written in the poet’s own hand.

But the obvious highlight of this anthology presents itself in the form of three CDs which feature recordings of the poets reading their own verse. Poetry was (and is) meant to be a living thing – some have said that the page is a temporary stop but not an end for a poem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the CDs included in Poetry Speaks Expanded. The poets reading here often change their poems, seemingly on the spot; this is especially apparent when the reader follows along in the book (and every recorded poem can be found in the book, which also contains additional poems not included on the CDs).

Whether or not any poet is ever absolutely finished with a poem, the point remains that poetry is meant to be heard. Just as one cannot conceive of fully enjoying a Cole Porter, John Lennon or Oscar Hammerstein lyric merely by looking at them, so, in a very real sense, one should not imagine that a silent reading of W.B. Yeats, Dorothy Parker or Walt Whitman can produce pleasure equal to hearing their poems read aloud.

And listening to these poems read by their authors is a truly remarkable experience because the verse comes alive in a way that their creators originally intended. Who knew, for example, that Tennyson meant to place such great emphasis on the word “rode” (as in: “into the valley of death RODE the six hundred”) in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” or that Gwendolyn Brook’s “we” of “We Real Cool” was meant to be so understated so has to be a quietly syncopated extra beat in her short, rhythmic poem.

The recordings also illuminate the poets themselves in ways that those already familiar with them might find surprising. Although one may understand that Carl Sandburg was a Midwestern poet seeking to reach the common man, one might not realize that his mother-tongue was Swedish until hearing him speak. While one may associate James Joyce with the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, hearing his rapid-fire delivery of a portion of “Finnegan’s Wake” gives this connection a startling new twist. And while one may realize that Dylan Thomas was Welsh, nothing can prepare the listener for the powerful lyric beauty of his voice. The bitterness in Sylvia Plath’s voice, the drama in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, the weariness in Robert Frost’s – all these add a rich depth towards a comprehension of these poets.

Enlightening from beginning to end, Poetry Speaks Expanded is a remarkable experience, a wonderful and living addition to any poetry library and a tremendous introduction to the beauties of 20th-century verse.

Book Review: "Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen's Life"

The life of Jane Austen reads like one of her novels – in most ways. There are balls, flirtations, close friends, tiresome family members, adverse financial situations which make marriage an apparent necessity and choices which hold out for love despite adverse financial situations. In one major aspect, however, the biography and the novels of Austen diverge: a happy romantic ending. Austen died at the age of 41, having never married.

Nancy Moser, author of "Just Jane," a fictionalized account of Austen’s life, postulates – quite correctly – that when Austen was “unable to find her own Mr. Darcy, she created him.” Poser’s book swells the basic facts of Austen’s life into a first-person, 350-page narrative which dwells on Austen’s evolution as a writer and points out the many obvious connections between the biographical facts of Austen’s life and her fiction.

In utilizing first-person narration, Moser allows the reader into Jane’s head, which is both illuminating and, in this particular case, often very disappointing. While the reader does get a cinematic view of the events of Austen’s life as they unfold, the avid Jane Austen fan would expect something more – Jane Austen’s sparkling voice which, sadly, is not apparent in Moser’s book. Moser herself admits at the book’s end that she “did not attempt to match the unique ‘voice’ of Jane Austen, only to hint at it.” This makes Moser’s choice of first-person narrative quite puzzling; if she wasn’t going to try and approximate Austen’s voice, why in the name of the Regency period did she have Austen narrate the entire book?

As much as a true Jane Austen fan cannot conceive of being bored while reading one of her novels, so one cannot possibly imagine being bored while residing inside of Austen’s head. Unfortunately, while inhabiting the one Moser’s book creates, I often was. There isn’t much here that even remotely sounds like the wonderfully witty writer who was frequently observed to laugh out loud, set aside her needlework and rush across the room for a sheet of paper with which to immortalize whatever clever line had just popped into her head. It strains literary credulity to believe that the same person who was able to write lines such as: “From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do” would, in her private moments, be thinking such dull stuff as “I am free to . . . to be Jane. Day to day, day after day, just Jane.”

Moser has spent considerable time researching her biographical facts, however, and anyone wanting to read a play-by-play account of the plot points of Austen’s life will find plenty of illumination on that score (especially the riveting chapter where she considers the marriage proposal of Harris Biggs-Wither). But in order to hear that inimitable voice, you’ll have to go back to those inimitable novels. Which is always a good idea.

Book Review: "Leaves of Grass, 1860: The 150th Anniversary Facsimilie Edition"

In 1860, when the United States was on the brink of civil war, Walt Whitman produced a book of poems that he hoped would provide a roadmap for preserving the Union. It was “Leaves of Grass,” the third edition.

Reading Whitman is always an exhilarating experience but when reading from this facsimile edition put out by the University of Iowa Press, there’s a touch of something else – a sense of history. The introduction by antebellum historian and Whitman scholar Jason Stacy does an excellent job of situating the collection within its historical framework, showing clearly the issues that Whitman was trying to address and how he proposed to do so.

One of Whitman’s central ideas for preserving the Union was fervent brotherhood as portrayed in “Calamus,” a poem regarding love between men but which gains a deeper political meaning in the 1860 edition:

Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms? . . .

There shall from me be a new friendship – It shall
be called after my name,
It shall circulate through the States, indifferent of
place . . .
Affection shall solve every one of the problems of
Those who love each other shall be invincible,
They shall finally make America completely
victorious, in my name.
One from Massachusettes shall be comrade to a Missourian,
One from Main or Vermont, and a Carolinian and
an Orgonese, shall be friends triune, more precious
to each other than all the riches of the earth.”

Stacy also points out that Whitman – who numbered the stanzas in the 1860 edition as if they were Bible verses – believed that a new humanistic religion would save the Union and he was establishing himself as its prophet: “I too, following many, and followed by many, inaugurate a Religion.” In the same poem – “Proto-Leaf” – in which this poet-prophet sets the tone and purpose of the entire collection, he (nearly) sings:

“I will make a song for These States, that no one
State may under any circumstances be subjected
to another State.
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by
day and by night between all The States, and
between any two of them.
And I will make a song of the organic bargains of
These States – And a shrill song of curses on
him who would dissever the Union . . .”

The entire collection isn’t all so explicitly focused on its times as are the quotes mentioned above but its poems – some reworked from the previous two editions and 146 new to the third (and unfortunately this is not itemized clearly in the introduction) -- were geared towards saving the Union, whether in a subtle or a direct way. And apart from the collection’s mission (and it’s occasionally strident poetry), some Whitman scholars believe that the third edition is the best: a general improvement over what came before and superior to those editions that followed.

Although the third “Leaves” was a critical success, 19th century America obviously didn’t have the patience to listen to Whitman’s song long enough to find its national salvation. But with the new facsimile edition, it is possible to hold in one’s hands a collection of poems, exactly it appeared 150 years ago, written by a patriotic poet who believed in his ideas so fervently that he thought they could prevent a war.

Book Review: "The Works of Anne Bradstreet"

Anne Bradstreet is generally considered to be the first serious poet of the American colonies and one of its first female writers. Born in England in 1612, Bradstreet was raised and educated in a comfortable English home before traveling to the New World when she was 16 to seek religious freedom: she and her family were Puritans. Her poems, written in New England and distributed among family members, were taken to England in 1650 for publication without Bradstreet’s knowledge. A second edition, with additional poems (and Bradstreet’s blessing) was published during her lifetime and then a third, with still additional poems, was published posthumously.

Finally, a fourth edition was published in 1867 which included previously unpublished Bradstreet writings known as the Andover Collection. The current John Harvard Library edition, a reprint of its definitive 1967 collection, includes all previously published material as well as an updated bibliography and a Bradstreet chronology.

Understanding the initial poems in this collection is greatly enhanced by the foreword and introduction (by Adrienne Rich and Jeanine Hensley, respectively) which explain that Bradstreet was trying to keep her English education alive in the colonial wilderness by writing extremely long, erudite poems having little to do with her surroundings: “The Four Elements,” “Of the Four Humours,” “Of the Four Ages,” “Of the Four Seasons,” and “The Four Monarchies.”

The first edition also included a fairly lengthy poem praising, in great detail, the reign of Queen Elizabeth while it simultaneously questions the unfairness of gender issues:

. . . Now say, have women worth? Or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is gone?
Nay masculines, you have thus taxed us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex if void of reason,
Know ‘tis a slander now but once was treason.

Apart from several fascinating poems such as this one, many of Bradstreet’s early works, appreciated at the time of their publication, suffer a bit of a disconnect from 21st century readers, especially the lengthy ones previously mentioned. But these writings were apparently essential preparations for the more strikingly personal poems that followed, those that are most often anthologized and known in this century by students of early American literature, such as “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” a poem originally published in the third collection:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold . . .

Another poem from this collection called “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” reveals Bradstreet’s fear of death only because it means parting from her loved ones:

. . . If any worth of virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in they memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from step-dame’s injury . . .

“In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet” shows the tension Bradstreet often felt between her love for life and her Christian beliefs:

. . . More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbling heart’s cheered up with this:
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

Bradstreet’s theological beliefs are further documented in the Andover Collection (the last section of the current edition) and contains various poems and prose, the first of which, “To My Dear Children,” documents Bradstreet’s spiritual odyssey meant to be read after she had died: “The method I will observe shall be this: I will begin with God’s dealing with me from my childhood to this day.”

“The Words of Anne Bradstreet” places all of Bradstreet’s writings clearly within her biographical framework and as such is the definitive tool for understanding this important colonial poet.

Book Review: "Mr. Darcy's Diary" by Amanda Grange

Mr. Darcy is almost a secondary character in the story that made him one of the most beloved heroes in all of Jane Austen’s novels. Although "Pride and Prejudice" utilizes the device of omniscient narrator, the reader spends most of the book inside the sparkling head of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy’s ultimate destiny; it rarely gets inside of Darcy’s.

Novelist Amanda Grange has sought to remedy this situation by giving voice to the inner thoughts of this stiff but ultimately attractive character in her new book, Mr. Darcy’s Diary. Like Janet Aylmer’s Mr. Darcy’s Story, Mr. Darcy’s Diary stays very close to Austen’s source material and makes sense only as a companion to Pride and Prejudice (unlike Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman books, which are filled with so many new scenarios that the books are quite able to stand on their own).

While Grange’s book is absolutely delightful on many levels, there is one slight problem and that is Grange’s choice of utilizing a diary as the book’s format. It is often easy to forget that the book is supposed to be a diary, especially when it records long conversations and scenes in toto. But one is quite jarringly reminded of the book’s diary structure in the instances where it records Darcy’s inner feelings. The diary of a wealthy Regency gentlemen – especially one so properly inhibited as Darcy – would have possibly contained laconic entries regarding tenants, horses and social engagements. Even though Darcy was undergoing an emotional roller coaster ride in efforts to stifle his growing attraction to Elizabeth, it strains the limits of literary credulity to imagine him gushing his private feelings into a diary like a 12 year-old girl as he often does in Grange’s book:

"I thought I saw an expression of admiration on Elizabeth’s face as she looked at Wickham. Surely she cannot prefer him to me! What am I saying? . . . I cannot believe I am comparing myself to George Wickham! I must be mad."

Darcy was scarcely allowing these thoughts to pass through his brain; one cannot imagine him giving them permanent voice on the pages of a diary.

But structural problems aside, Grange’s book contains some absolute gems, mostly in regards to dialogue and scenes only implied by Austen but given full voice here. Many of these interchanges also reveal Grange’s acute sense of comic timing, especially during a conversation she creates between Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine (which reveals the foundation of their relationship to perfection) and one between an air-headed heiress and Darcy, who, on the rebound from Elizabeth’s initial refusal, is seeking new social opportunities.

Although Janet Aylmer’s book and Grange’s both follow a similar line, Grange’s book is by far the superior novel. Because Janet Aylmer sticks so closely to the original story, her readers reap slimmer rewards than do those of the more adventurous Grange. For instance, Aylmer describes Darcy’s meeting with the fallen couple, Lydia and Wickham, thus:

"Their conversation informed Darcy that marriage had never been his design. Wickhamn told him that he was obliged to leave the regiment, on account of pressing debts of honour but, despite Miss Bennet’s youth, he had no scruples about laying all the ill-consequences of her flight on her own folly."

There is nothing in the above two sentences which is not fully explained at the end of Austen’s novel. Aylmer has just repositioned the scene – as narrative -- to make it coincide with the sequence of events.

Grange, on the other hand, takes the same interchange and makes it, well, an interchange, breathing life into it thus:

‘My dear Darcy,’ [Wickham] said, looking up at my entrance. ‘How good of you to find time to visit me . . . what brings you here?’

‘You know what brings me.’

‘I confess I am at a loss. You have decided to give me a living, perhaps, and have come to tell me the good news?’

His insolence angered me, but I kept my temper.

‘I have come to tell you what your own conscience should have told you, that you should never have abducted Miss Bennet.’

‘Miss Bennet?’ he asked, feigning astonishment. ‘But I have not seen Miss Bennet. I have been at Brighton, and she remained at Longbourn.’

‘Miss Lydia Bennet.’

‘Ah, Lydia. I did not abduct Lydia. She came with me of her own free will. I was leaving Brighton as my creditors were becoming rather vocal, and Lydia suggested she came with me. I tried to put her off. To be truthful, Darcy, she bores me. . .’

Mr. Darcy may have never kept a diary but the one Amanda Grange has imagined for him is wonderful fun and brings Elizabeth Bennet’s ultimate hero to life in new and entertaining ways.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Emily Dickinson

She has such startling imagery -- duh -- but what I am stunned by are how I can feel her meaning rather than explain it. For instance, the last two stanzas of XLVII that my helpful edition has entitled "The Snake" states this:

"Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tigher breathing,
And zero at the bone."

Zero at the bone? What does that mean exactly? I can't say but I understand. She bypasses the brain and goes straight to the viscera. Or something like that.

Reading her is like being splashed with aftershave (not that I do but maybe I should), like those 1960's aftershave commercials: Slap!! "Thanks, I needed that."