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.