Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Most Unsuitable Match by Stephanie Grace Whitson

I must confess that when I first started this novel, I hadn't a lot of high hopes.  The plot involving a newly orphaned heiress boarding a steamship to Montana where she hopes to embark on a search for a long lost aunt seemed tantamount to usual Christian romance fare.  I knew that, while onboard, she would meet up with a dashing gent completely out of her class and that this, alone, would most likely propel the story to a typical romantic climax.

I was completely wrong. Every twist and turn in this surprisingly mysterious and enigmatic tale of life in a small Montana town bereft of the gold-mining fortune once predicted was compellingly readable. From the moment the first steamship catches fire and our heroine, Fannie Rousseau, is forced to alter her course, I knew that I had stumbled upon a deceptively simple book with a wealth of goodness inside.  Not just goodness in the traditional Biblical message it inferences ( especially through the boat hand, Lamar Davis and Samuel Beck, a would-be parson en route to find his sister); but goodness in its unraveling of a thoroughly unexpected yarn.  Indeed, the action really picks up when the story takes a complete curve: leaving all anticipation of a regular, hum-drum, steamboat adventure novel in the dust.

I was most captivated by Miss Rousseau's time and developing friendships in the crudely primitive rivertown, Fort Benton. The narrative involving Fannie's steamship carriage is well-knit: especially when Whitson threads it with the obvious research she did before setting to write of life on the river. The motif of Great Expectations, a book mentioned numerous times on the novel seems an apt reflection of Fannie's change of circumstance: from upward nobility to orphan on the brink of familiar ruin.  Fannie's desperation to understand her deceased mother and to hopefully forge a new relationship with her lost aunt is touching. It parallels Samuel Beck's own search for his sister: abused and injured at the hands of their abusive father.

The themes of makeshift family and of circumstances changed to humble Fannie's upbringing are endearing to read. Solid characterization helps paint Whitson's novel in three-dimensional light.  While Whitson does hold back on the italicized prayers (thank heavens), she does infuse her story with a solid Gospel offering in the old fashion "sinners repent"/come ye hither way. It is a delight not to find the Biblical themes convoluted or deeply and subtly ingrained: rather blatantly flashed as they propel the story forward.  When Fannie finally learns how her prejudice has led to misgivings on true character, she is able to view her new life in Fort Benton in a new light.  Moreover, as Samuel Beck leans more on the simplest of Biblical messages with a jubilance that loans itself to his boy-like wonder ( learning Jesus is coming back, setting up a makeshift service in a brothel wherein the sweetest of scripture and a few well-known hymns move his unlikely congregation, the aid of a freighter willing to help on a journey due to Samuel's being able to recite the Shepherd's Psalm he used to know) and packs a punch as it unfurls the deeper spiritual context of the story.

I was really impressed with this book; mostly because it's cover and backplot are as ironically deceptive as some of the outward appearances of Fannie's numerous and colourful encounters.

As for the romance plot, it is not as easily threaded as expected as not one, but two worthy suitors flood the pages and the reader is unsure which would be best suited to our newly intrepid heroine.

I highly recommend this book and I thank Whitson for unintentionally calling me out by the strong words within her covers.  I honestly thought I was settling in to a  by-the-numbers Christian romance wherein I solidly believed I could unravel the outcome. I was thoroughly wrong as her novel aptly took some surprising turns, is influenced with a well-plotted Gospel theme or two and is old-fashioned in its testimonial spunk. For those who love Love, there is a sweet theme wherein Fannie and her friend Minette describe finding love as an answering echo.

My thanks to Bethany House for the review copy.
Visit Stephanie Grace Whitson on the web
Buy A Most Unsuitable Match on amazon

Friday, December 30, 2011

Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin

I was quite excited to see Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg's imagining of the famous Herge stories. I always enjoyed the ginger-haired Tintin: an optimistic and intrepid journalist in 1930s-era Belgium (his home) and the European continent beyond where, with his faithful and intelligent dog, Snowy, he excavates all sorts of adventure.

The titular sequence of the film will honour the Tintin many of us recognize from Herge's straight-lined and minimalist illustrations. From there, however, the story is sprouted into animated wonderment adding a life-like feel to Tintin's (voice of Jamie Bell) search for the  Unicorn: a long-sunk ship from the 17th Century, resurrected in three individual models which bear the riddle leading to its lost hidden treasure. Indeed, the film takes most of its action from the popular graphic novel of the same name.

Alongside the briny Scotsman, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), Tintin and Snowy race against time and from the oceany waves, a shipwreck, a capsized sea-airplane and to the hot wilds of the Moroccan desert to reclaim the missing links which will restore the Haddock family fortune to the disgraced and often inebriated Captain Haddock.

This is a really charming story and a wonderful dish of entertainment to replace the garbage we often offer our teens and young adults in modern fare.  No ridiculous Twilight nonsense here: rather, another Indiana Jones'-esque adventure spiralling a good-hearted, mischievous and resourceful lad and his two funny sidekicks into a world of history and danger. Apparently Spielberg received Herge's blessing to film the animated Tintin before his passing in 1983. Some devout fans will be thrown off by the shift of a two dimensional Tintin into a full, human 3D form: but it does keep the same spirit of the stories: the quick, comedic dialogue, the flashes of adventure, the wily villains and Tintin & Co. spirited devotion to good.

The story was adapted by Steven Moffatt (of Dr. Who and Sherlock fame) and was tight, taut and a wonderful homage to the spirit of the source material.

I am not always fond of 3D films (Hugo was an exception); but Tintin worked quite well in visionary 3D: although, I imagine, the wonderfully colourful landscape of Tintin's adventures would also play well in 2D.

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen

Like The Silent Governess and The Girl in the Gatehouse, I found little believability in the plot of The Maid of Fairbourne Hall: so quickly is it doled out and with so many happenstances and ironic circumstances. I was quite impressed with Klassen's The Apothecary's Daughter and The Lady of Milkweed Manor as she ushered out information little known of the Regency period, esoteric as it was in her weaving of it into the Austen-esque storylines.

While the setting and historical canvas of Klassen's work involves similarities to Austen, her modern writing and dialogue fail to emulate the great writer she is so trying to mirror. Nonetheless, I found this to be the strongest work of her past three and I read it in nearly one sitting so cozy was the story and so light and airy as to meet my requirements for perfect holiday reading.

Margaret Macy stands to inherit a large fortune come her twenty-fifth birthday.  Her lecherous step-father and his ill-reputed nephew plot that they should place her in a compromising position; thus securing her need to marry into the family so they can whittle at her fortune as they may.  Comparing her plight to that of the Biblical Joseph and Potiphar's wife, Margaret flees with her lady's maid and finds herself employed in Maidstone, Kent at Fairbourne Hall.  Ironically, this is the country estate belonging to the brothers Upchurch: both previous suitors when Margaret was a belle of the ton. Nathaniel Upchurch had even proposed marriage;but the young and impressionable Margaret failed to realize the potential of the grown man who had developed so positively while under the employ of his father in Barbados. The other Upchurch brother, Lewis, is a dashing rake whose flirtations with various "chits" is as upending as his disregard for his family's hard-earned fortune.

Nathaniel has returned to oversee that the investments and income made by the family are done so in an appropriate and prudent manor: especially as he has begun disdaining his father's continued use of slaves in the Colonial world.  Nathaniel's sister, Helen, is also in residence at Fairbourne, mourning the loss of her fiance to the sea and relegated to a life of spinsterhood. Margaret, now an undermaid called Nora Garrret, is able to witness first hand the glimpses of family life afforded those below stairs.  As she struggles to keep her identity hidden and to waylay her growing attraction to Nathaniel, the man she had scorned earlier, she learns valuable lessons about the true virtue of character, of hard work and of the selflessness reliance on and working for others affords.

This was a big year for upstairs/downstairs stories: the wildly popular ITV production of Downton Abbey and the revamp of Upstairs Downstairs delighted the hearts of many period-loving viewers. Klassen has done well at recreating this world in the Regency period. Her historical knowledge is not limited and she does well at providing a realistic glimpse into servant life. Indeed, this is when her writing is strongest: as Margaret/Nora learns about the hard work involved in the running of the household and the hierarchy and politics at play in the downstairs world.  As mentioned, it is not her historical knowledge that falters; rather her writing style, her penchant for superfluous chapter endings and portentous foreshadowing detracts from the Austen-like feel of her world. Moreover, she fails to create believable dialect for an Irish maid and for Margaret/Nora's assumed accent (more blatant having read plausible dialect of the same sort in The Colonel's Lady early this week).

Having recently finished two outstanding Christian novels (Wonderland Creek and The Colonel's Lady) and applauding the spark of originality in each: the individual author's propensity to leak their passion and personality into well-written prose, I was slightly deflated upon finishing this story. It is a competent story and certainly readable enough to keep you turning; but, like Klassen's recent work, lacks a definitive spark.

I kept thinking while ploughing through, that while I would gladly revisit the two aforementioned novels, this will be donated to a church library in the near future. I think Klassen does have a passion for the period: it is evident in her painstaking research; unfortunately, she is still unable to capture the easy wonder of her debut novel.  She is remarkably gifted and with careful honing and some more good editing from our friends at Bethany House, she may just bring something as exceptional as my two previous reads in the future.

Sidenote: this book has one of the worst Bethany covers I have seen in an age.

You can buy the book at amazon
Visit Julie Klassen's website

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Colonel's Lady by Laura Frantz

Okay, guys,  The Colonel's Lady  was one of my favourite reads of the year. It was excellent!: well-written, acute and natural flow of its historical setting, excellent, believable characterization and a bit of a mystery that had me  guessing 'til the very end.  The Irish dialect given to the dashing Col. Cassius Clayton McLinn was pitch-on (my brother's gorgeous Irish fiancee was in the room as I read it by the tree over Christmas and hearing her immediately set Cass's accent in the realm of believability for me) and the themes of yearning, truth and re-discovering faith were well met in a crude Fort defended by Cass and his band of intrepid blue-coats.

Frantz does well at painting the canvas of a time period she knows well. As in Courting Morrow Little and The Frontiersman's Daughter (both excellent books), Frantz paints a portrait of Kentucke in the 18th Century: a crude beginning of the now-United States and home to the Shawnee tribes she describes and writes so well. As in the aforementioned book, the Shawnee-White relations are explored here and well. I loved learning a little more of the history as outlined in the capture of Five Feathers and his ilk.  Frantz paints the warriors as brave, true and insightful: lending charisma to their characterization while respecting their love of land and peace.

Indeed, the real calamity of the story is ushered in by Col. McLinn's twin brother, Liam: nicknamed Lucifer by Gen. George Washington and most of the other officers on the frontier and beyond for his primitive and brutish tactics.  I was very much put in mind of the film The Patriot and the rather garish tactics of Col. Tavington: a redcoat set on destroying the Americans with his flashily jingoist Loyalist pride.

Roxana Rowan is determined to make it to Fort Endeavour: despite the war-like climate of the journey in order to reunite with her father: scrivener to the reputed Col. McLinn.  When Roxana arrives at the fort she sets to finding home as she waits for her father's unit to return.  Under the friendship and supervision of Bella, the African American servant to the fort, she learns her way around the kitchen, settles into her father's empty cabin and provides the remaining men at the fort with delicious meals.  When Col. McLinn returns, he informs her that her father was killed in action and Roxana, knowing she has no other family, no prospective fiance and no solid future, takes her father's position as McLinn's scrivener.  Fort life is painted in harsh and enduring tones as Roxana and her new community attempt to survive the wild conditions of the Kentucke frontier.

My favourite scenes included the slow-developing romance between Roxana and the fiery McLinn.  His familial background and his inhabitance at the glorious Stone House above the fort were beautifully painted. I also quite enjoyed any scenes wherein communication with the Shawnee provided pages of negotiation.   McLinn's honour dictated he try to understand his Shawnee prisoners and reach agreement to ensure the safety of both parties.

The scenes leading up to the major battles in the novel were also exceptionally written. I was captivated by the story from its very beginning and refreshed by a setting so unfamiliar to Christian historical fiction.  While there is a strong element of faith in the novel, it is subtly threaded rather than preached. I felt quite heartened spiritually by the plight of this strong and charismatic heroine as she navigated a world so new to her.  Also heartening was how her steadfast and strong faith encouraged and challenged the Colonel so conflicted by his past and the looming war.

This was an exceptionally well-written novel with an acute historical sense and characters you will be sad to leave after the turn of the last page.  I quite understood Roxie's yearning for hearth and family and was touched by her imaginative painting of the Stone house and the books and furniture inside. Indeed, when she first is able to cross its threshold, I felt quite as excited as she at the prospect of exploration.  This is not the only aura of suspense and the slow exposition of a spy-enemy within the Fort complex is well-written and kept hidden until a startling revelation at the end. Moreover, pieces of McLinn's past (the story takes Roxie's perspective in the forefront) is slowly meted out to us so that we are in turn surprised and delighted by the revelations of his history.

I really enjoyed this novel and encourage you to seek it out: as you seek out the first two historicals of this talented author. I cannot wait for Frantz's next novel!

Visit Laura Frantz's blog (I subscribe to it and there are lots of goodies: as well as entries on her historical research and love of period costume)
Purchase The Colonel's Lady on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin

I think we all know what I think about Lynn Austin ( she has a tag tab on the side of this blog and you can read me go on and on and on about how she is just the best).  You could argue that there are writers who have a more poetic style of prose, or a more literary style, or deeper thematic resonance; but you can't argue against her completely unique and special touch. She has a natural gift of narrative storytelling that is unparalleled in the Christian historical market. She has the "Lynn Austin" touch: an a-ha moment readers experience when they stumble upon the moment that makes a Lynn Austin just that!: a Lynn Austin novel. I revel in reading her books because I know I will come across that enlightening feeling.

As previously mentioned, Austin's ongoing thesis represents women of faith in time periods which test their personal and spiritual independence. Austin validates all women's roles: from battlefield to domestic; relying on the Providential to steer our strong young women into the part of the world that will best assert their natural gifting and enlighten them with the knowledge of faith she extends softly to her readership.

Her female characters are often cut out of the mould and so human that their plights become immediately relatable no matter the time period they are placed in.  Austin's grasp of verisimilitude and her knack of historical resonance; as well as her dialect, dialogue and characterization are one-of-a-kind. Never one to pass on an original idea, Wonderland Creek uses the compelling backdrop of Acorn: a small coal-mining town in the primitive mountain wilds of Kentucky. Here, Alice Ripley, our intrepidly imaginative heroine, is lost in her own Wonderland as she discovers a civilization to whom the Great Depression has seemingly untouched: so poor and removed are its inhabitants from the news and modern life.  Alice first visits Acorn when cutbacks at her beloved job are rendered inevitable due to the Depression. Having recently been dumped by her boyfriend ( tired of her bookwormish ways and high imagination: she is even caught reading at a funeral), Alice is left with too much time and listless frustration. She leaves her minister father's house and traipses across state lines to donate books collected by her small Illinois town.  Here, she comes face to face with Leslie MacDougal: the librarian she had corresponded with via letter.

Knowing nothing about the town and failing to realize that Leslie MacDougal is actually Mack: the tall and overbearing man in charge of Acorn's small ramshackle library and its roaming librarians, Alice is unintentionally stuck in a world without telephone, transportation or radio.  Settling in under the strangest of circumstances with Mack and the enigmatic  and aged healing-woman, Lillie, Alice takes a job as one of a pack of mobile librarians: who ride horses and satchels up the eastern mountains to deliver the books and magazines which provide the only education and entertainment to the impoverished, wide-spread residents.  The librarians are funded as part of F. D. Roosevelt's 1933 "New Deal" program: established to try and alleviate some of the harsher ramifications of the Depression.  Mack institutes the program as a means of providing a handful of women with employment in an attempt to support the most destitute of families in the area.

Alice fails to anticipate the on-going feud between two families and the violent overtures it will take on her time in Kentucky.  Suddenly a heroine in a real-life murder mystery, Alice discovers that the greatest adventures lie far from the pages of her favourite stories.

Alice is an immediately recognizable figure to all of us bookish types.  She is a true bibliophile: most enraptured by her eventual hero when she finds he lovingly caresses and smells the pages and leather of a book much in the same way she treasures her own.  The mystery and espionage as well as the greater statement against corrupt mine officials and the forming of unions make this a heart-palpitating story that will be difficult to put down. I read it in two sittings and was riveted the entire time.  This is not uncommon for me as I dive head-first into one of Austin's captivating yarns.

As well as writing jump-off-the-page heroines and wonderfully-written tales, Austin reigns supreme when it comes to painting delicious heroes. She is a master of slow-churning, hard-won romance and some of her heroes (all decidedly different; yet made of the same, stern, strong and moral stuff that pulses through each of her books) are my favourite in all of Christian fiction (I think of Doctor James McGrath in Fire By Night and Silas McClure in A Proper Pursuit, to name just two) and Leslie MacDougal is no exception. In fact, Mack reminded me a lot of Barney in The Blue Castle: just as Valancy has a winsome guide to steer her through the mystical woods; so Mack can lead the equally dream-like Alice through the woods like a book.  His faraway wood cabin and his dapples as an author help paint the Barney motif.  Moreover, a dimple  when he smiles and overlong hair which surprises Alice when it first receives a long overdue cut.  He's really quite dishy!

If you haven't read Lynn Austin yet; well, you are missing a treat.  Every single one of her novels is a decidedly different delight and she remains the strongest writer in the Christian market. She has an interesting way of painting faith in a subtle and moving way that will challenge you: sometimes without your wholly being aware of it until days after.  I will read this, as I do other Austin novels, to shreds.

Visit Lynn Austin on the web and peruse ( and then buy) all of her books. She has won more Christy awards in fiction than any other author and they are always well-deserved.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Film Review: A Shine of Rainbows

So, I haven't been reading a lot lately; but I hope to get back (slowly) into the swing when I go home for Christmas.  Part of this is due to the fact that my focus and short-term memory (due to a new bout of meds) has been somewhat on the fritz.  It is getting better though, as I become used to the medicine, and I can see myself performing my favourite activity in the world: reading on the couch near our Christmas tree when I visit my parents' house for holidays, in the very near future.

I packed some Elizabeth Peters and some Georgette Heyer and some Christian historicals and A Clockwork Prince and I am sure I will be fine.

So, I've watched some films. The other day I was looking through the TMN on Demand catalogue and stumbled upon Aidan Quinn's name. I will pretty much watch anything with Aidan Quinn because I love his voice and his eyes and this one was SET in the HEBRIDES on an ISLAND so, obviously, his nice voice with an  accent.  ( REMEMBER WHEN HE WAS ON WHITE COLLAR???) Also, while every girl is in love with Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon, I only have eyes for Aidan. True story.

proof: from episode Copycat Caffrey
 Aidan also made a fabulous Miles Hendon in the Hallmark Prince and the Pauper and he is the first actor I used as a template (thanks to Kaye Dacus  who uses templates for her characters) when I penned a manuscript for a Christian romance this year.

So, I watched A Shine of Rainbows which is based on the book by Lillian Beckwith (first chapter here) about a shy young boy named Tomas who is adopted from the city orphanage by a colourful woman named Mairi and her gruff husband, Alec (the novel cites his name is Sandy).  Corrie Island, off the coast of Ireland is an enchanted setting: gorgeously coastal and reminiscent of the Eastern Coast of Canada I so love.  The cove is filled with magical seals and the odd, potent statues at one end of the island are famous for their magical wish-granting lore.

(disclaimer: I am going to Ireland and Scotland next Summer--- Ireland for my brother's wedding and Scotland because I am tacking it on!  I am delighted at this point with anything that will whet my imagination before that trip)

Mairi ( played by Connie Neilsen) is a colourful woman in emotional and literal ways and splashes through the film like a rainbow.  Tomas, debilitatingly shy due to the bullying of the orphanage kids and his nervousness of his new surrounding takes awhile to warm to her; but when they finally reach an understanding and Mairi establishes herself as a kindred spirit, their bond is unbreakable.

Tomas loves his new home as Mairi weaves him tales of magical creatures and adages which allow seals to carry messages to those departed and rainbows to leak streams of sparkle to usher those seeking a place inside their colourful light.   Mairi will tuck a smile within a bright red handkerchief before she goes away and promotes an understanding with animals and humans alike.  Tomas has adventures and makes new friends and overcomes the stammer that so silenced his young voice.

Tomas also befriends a young and abandoned seal named Smudge whom he feels an immediate connection with.  While Smudge's family has left him for the coast, Smudge remains in the cove: sure to starve without Tomas' intervention. Smudge and Tomas are parallels: Alec has not embraced Tomas in the same way as his wife because he is certain that Tomas is not strong enough to endure the gritty and harsh realization of their island surrounding. Likewise, Mairi informs us that the seals have left Smudge on this own to test his own ability for survival.

When unexpected (seriously. I didn't see this coming and it was a kid's movie) tragedy strikes,  Tomas and Alec are forced into new understanding, love prevails and a touch of imagination colours even the bleakest of circumstance.

This is the most heart-warming thing in the world. It's just ridiculously, saccharinely heart-warming.  Tomas, be-dimpled and wide-eyed will steal your heart with his sensitive nature and his pre-natural kinship with his new world.  Aidan Quinn is heartbreaking as the gruff Alec and Connie Nielsen is delightful as she paints the world with her spunky wonderment.

It's basically the film equivalent of this adorable bear video that I cannot stop watching:

I needed this amount of sentimentality and I was glad that I so easily found it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Tenth Avenue Angel (1948) dir., Roy Rowland

Last night on TCM on Demand I watched Tenth Avenue Angel to get into the holiday spirit. I had been watching hallmark and Lifetime Christmas films on the W network: but I couldn't take any more bad acting or horrific production values.  I had never seen it before and Margaret O'Brien is the cutest thing in the world, so I thought I would watch it.

I read somewhere that it was MGM's answer to the popular A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: the adaptation of that story which speaks to child disillusionment and the pain of growing up in depression-era Brooklyn.  Here, the tenements and the block community of those down-on-their-luck is the setting of altruistic Flavia's (Margaret O'Brien) childhood. She's a favourite among the locals as she swings through the neighbourhood on one roller skate (she would love to own a pair) stopping to chat to her friend, Mac, the blind newspaperman and running errands for her mom and mostly-absentee father (a musician always trying to find work and who misses all of the important drama of the story).

Her mother and their neighbour Susan are massive influences on Flavia's life. Her mother has a way of slightly twisting the truth and inserting a white lie to protect Flavia from the grittiness of their circumstance. Flavia, wide-eyed and imaginative, takes everything her mother says literally.  She has always been told that the truth is the most important thing and, thus, her mother just couldn't fabricate a falsehood.

One of these lies regards Steve, a charming man Flavia yearns to see married to her Aunt Susan. Flavia has been told that he has been gone for 18 months traveling around the world.  When she rushes to the train to greet him home, she has no inclination that his gang-activity has landed him in Sing Sing and that he needs to be resourceful enough with his next moves in order to turn his life around for good.

The friendship between Flavia and Steve was what made this film worth watching.  Flavia just worships him and he treats her, not in a humorous, deprecating way, but as a child worth listening to: an equal.  He wants to be the one to ensure she gets the skates she always wanted for Christmas and he is always willing to listen to her: even when things seem to be tipping against him.

Midway through the film, Flavia learns that her mother's proverbs, adages and imaginative re-tellings of circumstances are not true.  This forces Flavia to confront the fact that she has been colouring the world with a rosed-tint it doesn't possess.  The disillusionment and bleakness that follow are rather depressing to behold in one so young.   Flavia had always had such hope and imaginative belief and this is stripped, unintentionally, from her.  The part of her mind that loves geographical and historical facts prepossesses any of the inclinations she had to daydream. In essence, she is growing up; but at painful cost.

A tragedy forces her to rely on a sign her mother once told her: about a cow kneeling on Christmas Eve to bring the Holy Child near to human circumstance.   In this moment , the line between child-like faith in the supernatural and mere superstition is happily blurred in a touching Christmas miracle.  It changes Flavia's life as well as that of her family and it ensures that Steve turns away from one last con.

I quite enjoyed this story. It was remarkably cheesy and Margaret O'Brien is the type of doe-eyed actress who might grate on some adult's nerves; but I think she's precious. I love her speaking voice and the earnest way she approaches every situation.  Plus, she was Beth in my favourite Little Women.

George Murphy is also adorable (see: For Me and My Gal

Merry Christmas one and all!

TCM is showing this film twice in the next while.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Theatre Review: Parfumerie

I am fortunate enough to have very artistic friends who are employed by very artistic endeavour. My friend Mike works at Soulpepper Theatre here in Toronto and, as such, I often have the privilege of attending their opening night events (a lot of the time because he's married to Kat, one of my bestest friends). There, I see, well, possibly every Canadian ever and witness some spectacular Torontonian theatre.

Parfumerie was no exception. Based on the play by Miklos Laszlo, Parfumerie is set entirely at a cosmetics store in Budapest in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  There is a familial attachment between all of the workers at the store: borne of their long-standing familiarity with each other and the long hours they spend in the retail atmosphere.  As family, their patriarch is the good-hearted Mr. Hammerschmidt: the owner of the store and the parfumerie's namesake. At the beginning of the play, he is showing signs of wear and stress: culminating in his untimely dismissal of the bright George Asztalos: a clerk Hammerschmidt admits he had once viewed as a son.

While the workers assemble to decorate for Christmas and George prepares to leave a job he has held in senior position for 9 years, we are introduced to the problematic relationship between George and the beautiful; but seemingly prickly  Rosanna (Rosie) Balaz.  George and Rosanna are sworn enemies. They do not see eye-to-eye on even the most minute detail and they fling insults at each other in rapid, machine-gun fashion.  Neither realizes that they have been writing anonymous and passionate love-letters (recalling the intensity of Eloise and Abelard, to note George's repetition of this famous story: in his letters and in conversation) to each other for the past year.  Two people who cannot abide each other's company; are dead certain that they are made for each other on paper.

The action that follows includes the revealing of Hammerschmidt's strained relationship with his wife, his reconciliation with George following a severe misunderstanding, and the effort that George and Rosanna make to better understand each other at work as Christmas approaches.

If this epistolary romantic comedy seems familiar: it is.  Parfumerie has been made into three film adaptations: the closest being The Shop Around the Corner (1940) featuring Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart as Rosie and George, respectively.  A musical version of the story was filmed in 1949 entitled In the Good Old Summertime. Here, Judy Garland and Van Johnston star as rivals at a musical instrument shop who clash in person; but mesh on paper. More recently, the story was re-imagined with a Pride and Prejudice undercurrent in You've Got Mail: updating the premise from the years of letter writing to the new wave of email communication.  In the film, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play a bookstore tycoon and a children's bookstore owner (of a store called Shop Around the Corner) at constant battle emblemizing the chafing relationship of box bookstore and small "brick and mortar" retailer.

Parfumerie was delightful to watch: an absolute Christmas confection.  As a whole, the Young Centre is an intimate setting: whittled away in Toronto's breathtaking Distillery District which, at this time of year, is home to our European Christmas market.  The spirit of the season is first acknowledged by the sights and sounds and smells of the market and then purveyed on stage through the imagined sights and sounds of a busy and bustling retailer.  The set was gorgeous: playing on chocolate browns and mellow pinks to recall a type of candy-coloured world of rose-petals and beautifully ornamented scents and soaps.  The highlight was the revolving door featured at the front of the shop.  It, and the two large windows of the set, provided windows to well-staged lighting and action: as cyclists and passers-by rustled by and the dim light reflected both snow, sleet and the tinted hues of evening.

On the inside, the store provided the perfect scene for the warm and compelling action unravelled.  While all of the characters were perfectly drawn and wonderfully dressed in period costume (the shoes were to die for), it was the romance between Rosie and George that kept my eyes pealed to the stage.
Stage veteran Oliver Dennis: a sprightly red-head with the same lackadaisical charm of Jimmy Stewart and the breathtakingly pretty Patricia Fagan (whose clipped and period-perfect bob framed her pixie face and bright eyes) had wonderful chemistry.  They came alive when opposite each other and I thoroughly bought into their developing relationship, their softening to each other in person as they reflected on their passionate and abiding devotion on paper.

I am lucky to live in a city with a thriving artistic community and a sprawling theatrical community, at that. To excavate a long-lost play and resurrect it every other year during the holidays ( in intervals between A Christmas Carol) provides audiences with a chance at seeing a sentimental (yet not saccharine) romantic comedy with all of its gusto and charm.   To add to the sights and imagined smells of the Hungarian Parfumerie, we were treated to nationally-appropriate music: a violin and an accordion which ushered the set and lighting changes and subtly changed the scenes.

This was probably my favourite Soulpepper Production to date and I highly encourage Torontonians to seek it out.  I absolutely LOVED it!  Parfumerie  was a critical success in its first run in 2009 and it continues to wow the critics. Read the Globe and Mail review!

Toronto's gorgeous annual European Christmas market in the heart of the historical Distillery district

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Study in Sherlock: A Game of Shadows

I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows today with two very good friends.  I was highly anticipating this film as, despite the franchise's inauthenticity, I quite enjoyed the first instalment: mostly Guy Ritchie's gritty depiction of an always-under-construction- London in all of its tinker-toy, industrialized sepia light and for the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes and Jude Law's exceptional Watson.  

Jude Law's Watson was introduced to me after a long Sherlock draught and before I saw the (definitive?) modern adaptations starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  I am a big Watson fan and I always hated his portrayal in the Rathbone films and, well, any subsequent film which featured him as a pudgily rotund foil and not the man-of-action and intellect he is.  Law's Watson was a breath of fresh air. He was resourceful, quick-witted, smart and ready to spring to action... much like the Watson of the books. He was the perfect antidote to Holmes' manic excitement and depraved actions.  Thus, I was excited to see Law revisit the character alongside the perfectly cast Kelly Reilly as the beautiful Mary Morstan.

Also, I felt that while the original strayed from the conceptualization so many of us have in our purist imaginings of the Canon, it did incorporate small, slight instances to peak a Sherlockian's interest. Here, this homage was more realized.  The film's core is bookended by Watson's episodes at his trusty type-writer tapping the story of The Final Problem. While this "final problem" strays significantly from the short story, the main player, Moriarty is drawn in cold, calculating light by the gravely eerie Jared Harris: perfectly cast in the role.  While the BBC Sherlock painted Moriarty in a manic, psychopathic way: this Moriarty is very much the intellectual match of Holmes: their wits at battle perfectly culminating in a tense chess game high atop the Swiss Alps with the ripples of crashing fall cascading from the ridge to the vapid cavern below.  Think Reichenbach? Think right.   The story also plays with A Scandal in Bohemia: well, at least nods to it as a principle crime takes us to the opera, to the Continent and to an intricate web that could unravel the whole of Europe, see the ultimate downfall of a Crown Prince and climax in a World War.   This is 1891 London; but Moriarty hints that Europe is on the hedge of great disaster --- and much like Sherlock ruminates on the changing climate and tides in His Last Bow, so the audience is given a tell-tale maze that will force us to consider the approaching Great War, the burgeoning practice of machinery in combat and how Sherlock and Watson might play into this changing tide. 

As with the first instalment, the film is at its weakest when it attempts to incorporate female characters into the plot. With the notable exception of Mary Morstan (who is credible and has every canonical right to be in the script ), Irene Adler is still problematic (largely due to the liberties they take in her sexual relationship with Holmes) and a new companion piece, a gypsy named Sim, is proof of screenwriters grasping at ways to bring females into the masculine world of Holmes. They needn't have bothered.  Females have loved Sherlock for years and I, for one, am contented without the unnecessary female inclusion.  

While Jude Law looks surprisingly like the Paget illustrations of Watson and keeps mostly to character, Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes remains problematic.  He fails to achieve the meticulous hygiene and detached calculation and assumptive distance of Sherlock Holmes while playing into humorous elements.  Holmes is not without humour; his sense of irony and sarcasm is very acute; but Downey Jr. errs in mistaking this humour with his need to cut through the more automaton-tendencies of the great detective, slice pre-possession and attempt to endear the audience. Again, this is a mistake. Readers love Sherlock Holmes. 21st Century viewers love Cumberbatch's realistic portrayal and seem to find that Watson steps in as everyman mediator allowing a more purist portrayal of the detective to be easily accessible, fascinating and mind-bending.   Downey Jr. is best when in the wily game of wits at the end.  
Ritchie could have played more at outlining for the viewer what Sherlock was seeing: what his eyes were drawn to and what scrapes and screeches his attuned ears gleaned from a melange of noise.   This particular manic deductive-skill was presented more than once in the first film; but not as much here.

As in the first, however, and the main reason I forgive Downey Jr. is his inescapable chemistry with Jude Law's Watson. Their love and camaraderie cannot be forged. It prevails here again in all of its frustration, bickering and succinct synchronicity.  There are some wonderful moments attesting to the unbreakable and almost impenetrable bond between the two and that makes me shrug Downey Jr.'s other liberties of character off.  Further, Ritchie makes very sure to present enough to whet a purist's appetite while re-imagining the iconic characters in an almost alternate-universe. If you keep this in mind and you allow yourself to relax and acknowledge that Downey Jr. is quite the opposite of the painted Sherlock Holmes, the Holmes of Doyle's imagination and Brett and Cumberbatch's excellent portrayals, then you will have a lot more fun.

This world is peppered with Steampunk, of automobiles driven by be-goggled drivers, of machines and harsh noises and gritty discordant music slackening popping streetlights and glistening cobblestones. 
Familiar faces like Lestrade ( a brief; but important cameo) and Mycroft Holmes (cast physically perfect in Stephen Fry) and Mrs. Hudson, not to mention the little dog Gladstone, return to delight.

The setting is a character, the dialogue can be clever and pay secret homage and even a name-drop or two (Col. Sebastian Moran, for one) can keep a Sherlockian carefully watching despite the errors and inaccuracies.

I realize that this is not everyone's cup  of tea and there are several Sherlockians who cannot bring themselves to partake in these adaptations. I do understand where they're coming from. I guess I have been successful in watching and enjoying them because I take them with a grain of salt. On the one hand, they are introducing an entirely new generation to Sherlock and they are weighted enough in the source material to add surprising credibility.  If not credibility to text, then definitely credibility to implication and spirit.  As mentioned, the chemistry and friendship between Watson and Holmes is played with unabashed affection. It is rather touching. Their glances and quick quips are so matured! For authenticity and to delight my purist's heart I must, ironically, seek out the Steven Moffatt adaptations with the near-perfect Benedict Cumberbatch: the actor who, next to Jeremy Brett, does best at recreating mentally the Holmes of my childhood.  Watson is played well here and is near spot-on physically; so I have little-to-know complaints in the Jude Law department.   Moriarty is a nice nod to his literary counterpart.   It's not perfect and there will be several, several friends of mine who will not budge on it; but I liked it. It's cracking good fun and I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Remember when I was at the Reichenbach Falls?  They do that part very well indeed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

INSPY winners 2011

I am delighted that the 2011 INSPY Winners have been announced on the INSPYs website

I was excited to judge again this year in the Romance category: where the judges and I underwent some strong discussion before reaching the final selection, Yesterday's Tomorrow by Catherine West: a gritty and moving portrait of the Vietnam War.  The Vietnam War is a very new subject to Christian romance and West, a first time author,  deserves credit and recognition for her moving romance, her realistic research and her innovation in a time and setting not pursued in this genre.

I hope you check out West's book as well as the other books on the shortlist. I would like to highlight A Heart Most Worthy  (review here) and The Preacher's Bride (review to follow) 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

CD Review: Bring Me Giants

Notice how the best shows are literary adaptations? James Barbour is the musical equivalent to Colin Firth or Matthew MacFadyen or Daniel Day Lewis: any strong actor with compelling presence who does period well on-screen.   Barbour, however, has performed some of the world's greatest literary heroes on stage and with his tantalizingly rich, get-a-high-buzz-lindor-chocolate-tasting voice.

I first heard of Barbour when he was playing Beast on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast; but I didn't REALLY know him until he showed up as Rochester in Jane Eyre. I never saw the Broadway production and, let's face it, the lyrics to that musical were horrible; but his voice transfixed me.

In New York a few years back, I had the greatly wondrous pleasure of attending Tale of Two Cities in previews starring Barbour as Sydney Carton.  His performance was mind-boggling.  The musical does a lot wrong and hits many an odd chord; but one thing it did perfectly (largely thanks to Barbour's tour-de-force performance ) was Sydney. It got Sydney right --- and that's a mighty fine thing to have in your court.

[this video is just a slideshow of ToTC pics; but worth it alone for the audio if you have never heard Barbour before and the orchestration is MUCH better on CD]

It was partly Barbour's physicality ( not unlike Colm Wilkinson's: though Wilkinson is short, he is quite broad-shouldered and his stance on stage casts the illusion that he is larger than life) and his captivating presence that left me slack-jawed and near falling off my red velvet seat every time he finished a song.  The show didn't find an audience and didn't last long; however, Barbour deserved a Tony nomination for his performance-- one he never got.

His voice is pretty mesmerizing and I can say easily that, with the exception of Colm Wilkinson, he has the best male Broadway voice I have heard live (Brian Stokes Mitchell is waaay up there).  It's a powerful instrument and I am dazzled that he keeps loaning it to some of the greatest literary heroes of our time.  Soon, Rebecca DuMaurier's Rebecca will see the stage and Barbour will be Max DeWinter(as one example of his range).

The first non-cast recording CD I obtained of Barbour's was exceptional; but only when it showcased Barbour in full-on ballad form.  It was a live CD and featured numerous interruptions that kept me from sliding into the sheer hypnosis of hearing him fluidly craft and caress the lyrics to each song with that incessant musicality he has.  Fortunately, in Bring Me Giants ( the eponymous taken from the concept recording of the musical Cyrano), he showcases his malleability at performing some of literature's most fabulous leading men.

He does a magnificently powerful Bring Him Home from 'Les Miserables' which showcases a range and resonance not all performers with his natural register would be able to do with such ease.  It makes me think that the new 'Les Miserables' movie should have sought him out for Valjean and not, as is, tried to stuff Hugh Jackman in as the star-card. Barbour has a much more proficient stature, stamina and look of Valjean. Moreover, he can sing the part of Valjean in the way that gives pause when considering the more Vaudevillean Jackman.

Barbour, left, toasts Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities.( Don't think I didn't buy a t-shirt after the performance, 'cause I did ( I just don't wear it in public)

His This is the Moment from 'Jekyll and Hyde' is an exercise in restraint and slow-building exhileration.  This song has been recorded countless times by everyone from Rob Evans (in full rock-opera form) to Colm Wilkinson (on the little-known concept album I own) and is always a show-stopper.  Here, Barbour plants a unique thumbprint on what is probably now reduced to a figure skating track (I don't watch figure skating; it just seems like people would skate to this).  He slowly and electrically infuses each well-known lyric with the kind of magnetic pulse you want from the soon-to-be-murderous Jekyll: tantalizing you with soft and slow and controlled voice until he reaches the perfect, multi-triplet-ed climax and key change at the end.  [Note: This is Frank Wildhorn. You cannot have a Frank Wildhorn number without triplets, power-bridges and key changes.  It is a must. ]

Barbour as Sidney Carton (sense a photographic theme here?)

Speaking of Wildhorn, we also have the darkly sensual I'll Be There, from the concept album of Count of Monte Cristo. It's a moving and passionate duet by Mercedes and Edmond.  Here, Mercedes is sung by Morgan James.  [Note: Frank Wildhorn prefers women who sing like his first wive and muse, Linda Eder.  James definitely has a feel of Eder about her.  Gal has pipes]. Sometimes Wildhorn errs in his pairings with lyricists; but the poetic imagery in this number is melancholy and stirring enough when heard in the context of the Monte Cristo story.

He throws on Music of the Night from 'Phantom of the Opera' to show off his range again. I really didn't need another version of this; but he certainly surpasses poor awkward Michael Crawford, even he cannot beat Colm Wilkinson.

Don Quixote is obviously another literary powerhouse so, of course, Barbour proves he can eat The Impossible Dream for Breakfast.  In the aura of Classically Classic a la Classic, he also throws on his own If Ever I Would Leave You which leaves you ridiculously happy that you have cleaned your brain  of the Robert Goulet version. Go 'Camelot'!

Stolen Lucy Manette kiss: theme, theme, theme of this post photographically!

Apparently there is a concept cast album for Dracula: a musical I will hopefully never have to see live; however, Loving You Keeps Me Alive  (yes. the song is called that. muah-ha!) sits well in Barbour's voice (then again, the PHONE BOOK would sit well in Barbour's voice and I would GLADLY buy the "James Barbour Sings the Toronto Phone Book" CD.  Done.)

Finally, the last number is the one that kept running through my head as I stared at the ceiling in New York at 3 a.m. euphorically after seeing him live as Sydney Carton.   I Can't Recall is a power ballad, if ever there was one and Barbour just is  Sydney. I listened to it on my ipod today, like, 80 times.  You should listen to it on your ipod, too! .... GO BUY THIS CD

Anyways, if a novel is over one hundred years old and over 600 pages, Barbour will somehow perform its relatable, melancholy, heroic, complex, Romantic in the Romantically Romantic sense lead hero... and he will perform it with gusto, dammit.

Aside: my last interaction with Cyrano de Bergerac is when Colm Feore broke my heart performing in his perfect bilingual French and English at the Stratford Festival a few years back--- I could totally see Cyrano as a musical.  Barbour, you should be in it all over.

LOOK! LOOK! Look at how AWESOME my boots are.

James Barbour has a blog. ... and a website

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Movie Review: "the Muppets"

When I was in grade two my teacher, Mrs. Hallman, taught us all of the lyrics to "The Rainbow Connection." We sang a lot in that class.   I remember arriving early at the school one morning and singing it to myself as I swung high, high on a swing that was located just parallel this amazing old, sprawling tree.  It seemed fitting to be singing about something that reaches for the sky, while just seeing the toe of your pink keds magically (optical-illusion here )brush the tips of the tree...
Now, it's my karaoke song. On the rare occasion I am caught at karaoke, I always sing the song: usually half-joshing, often having had a few beers--- but everybody loves it.... it emblemizes the world of MUPPETS!

As a kid I loved all of the Muppet movies, the Muppet Family Christmas ( which we near wore out on taped vhs before it was finally released on dvd) and the Muppet Babies television show.
It was the 1980s and there were happy meal toys and stuffed Christmas-themed muppets everywhere. We had Muppet puppets, too!, in our toy chest, Animal, Kermit and Miss Piggy.

I always sort of loved Rolf and was fascinated (in my childhood oversight) when I first noted that the Swedish Chef had human hands as he meandered about the kitchen speaking in the worst Swedish ever.

Then, there's The Muppet Christmas Carol: which this Dickensian cites as her all-time favourite version of the popular story and which I watch EVERY SINGLE CHRISTMAS EVER.

So, I was delighted when I learned that a new Muppet movie was being made. More delighted still upon learning that Jason Segel was making and writing it because he shared a similar passion and wanted to introduce this ingenious, pure and marvellous world to a new generation of children.  Citing in interviews (read here, for example) that part of the Muppet charm is that not only do they suspend belief with real-live actors; but they also never use humour at the expense of others in their harmless, un-cynical jokes, I related to his zesty passion for their warm-hearted world.

You don't think of Kermit as a puppet once he has been on screen for a few moments: he's a frog.  It's not unusual that he and Miss Piggy have one of the most complicated sub-species romances to ever hit the screen. It's just epic and it's natural and when they have kids (in the Christmas Carol ) and half are frogs and half are pigs; well, that's just the way it goes.

The movie I saw today re-visits this wonder and EVERYONE in the theatre alongside my friend Stephan and I was laughing and grinning and giggling NON-STOP. Most delightedly, there was the chimed laughter of children who were being introduced to this wonderful, magical, humorous world for the very first time.

There are wonderful song and dance numbers, fabulous cameos (my favourites included Ken Jeong and Jim Parsons) and Muppets. Lots and lots of Muppets. All of your favourite Muppets....with special celebrity host, Jack Black.

Jason Segel, Amy Adams and Jack Black, along with a devious Chris Cooper and several other human actors in the show seem to be as genuinely elated with the experience as the audience is.

Segel has this broad, goofy grin stretched on his elastic face throughout the whole of the movie: bespeaking his childhood passion.

What he has written and has helped create is 2 hours of wonderment: never mean, always musical and sweet.

There are singing chickens, there's a Telethon, there are moments where you will be so delighted you won't be sure whether you should laugh or cry or do both at the same time. Your cheeks will hurt afterward from incessant grinning.  When Kermit sits on stage and sings " The Rainbow Connection", later joined by his entire Muppet family, you will taste a bit of your childhood again.

This is the second FANTASTIC film I have seen this week... and I thought good movies were few and far between this year. I guess they're all just coming out at Christmas.

Friday, December 02, 2011

how's THIS for Friday Frivolity?

First off, my darling friend Martha posted this website on facebook. It randomly generates Mennonite names.

If you're writing a Mennonite novel, your characters can easily be christened ;)

If you ARE Mennonite, then shout your name proudly!   I keep hitting 'refresh' because I know her very Mennonite sounding surname will turn up eventually....

In the spirit of JINGLE, my favourite Canadian vocalist, the ultra-impressive-Canuck-answer-to-Adele, Serena Ryder has a bouncy and fun Christmas song for you to enjoy.

 Got halls? Deck 'em.

Tomorrow, I doth Muppet it.  Will keep you posted.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

How Gus and Shawn saved Christmas (so far): This Post includes an odd 'To Kill a Mockingbird" reference.

Jem and Scout hate their nearby neighbour, Mrs. Dubose, in To Kill A Mockingbird. She's crotchety and rocks on her porch flinging mean-spirited insults to the children. It takes their father, Atticus, and his southern gentlemanly ways to restrain their contempt. At one particularly sensitive moment in the novel, Jem has it at her award-winning hydrangeas.  As punishment, he is forced to return to her house every day after school and read to her as she sits in bed, white-haired and scowling as a mysterious time piece ticks every painful moment he and his sister impatiently sit near.

It is soon revealed that Mrs. Dubose is dying and in a lot of pain. Proud, she is, though, and through her pain she struggles to remove herself of her morphine addiction before her final breath.  Every time Jem reads to her, she focuses on the clock and not on his voice, slowly weaning herself off of her doses of medication.  Every second combatted is a small obstacle overcome.

I cannot say that I have the same experience with excruciating pain (thank heavens); but slowly, the zombie medication that had provided a tricky yet safe cloud of numbness and blurred security has been pulled from me.   My  "bridging" medications: those with the highest doses and numbing-action--the ones that allow me to nap and stop the tremor and the stutter and the panic were only meant to see me through the most intense ramifications of my heightened anxiety and bridge me, as it were, to a more stable medication that I will continue to use and become accustomed to. A medication that will stable my moods and anxiety in the long-term and become a regular part of my make-up.

The transition has been stupid and hard and weird and emotional.  I can no longer rely on the heavy doses that I initially felt.  The drowsiness and comfort of having a little bottle that you could count on should you need an extra dose or to see you through long nights.  So much of the treatment for anxiety and depression relies on you working hard: personally, mentally, physically.  It is the marriage of cognitive therapy and medication which will have the most positive effects in the long-term.  Unfortunately, the cognitive therapy is the hardest.  The self-talk and homework and exposures which, beyond medication, help you plant your feet on solid and untrembling ground are the ideal solutions....

But the changing and lessening of medication, to me, has been keenly felt.

I remember the first time I took one of the bridging meds. I slept through the night. Peacefully. Not waking once. It was magic.  I couldn't believe that the person who had woken up every-hour-on-the-hour in the throes of irrational fears and mental trajectories winding down a dark path (made darker by the hour) could actually rest peacefully. I was used to waking and silently, catatonically watching (watching is a strong word for staring while your mind races afraid of everything from tornadoes to homework you may not have submitted in high school ) late night movies before I would thankfully wake up. 

Medication was a sure-fire remedy.

Now, I am heaps better than when I started this journey two months ago and I trust my doctor and my path so deeply that I am slowly starting the rocky road to settling into my reformed self.

Unfortunately, with the Christmas crying ( see previous post this week) and the adjustment in medication, my sleep-patterns have been off.  Not to mention ( as also referenced) I returned to my hometown which is steeped full of nostalgia and heart-breakingly wonderful moments and memories that flood on overload.  The past two weeks have been difficult and I feel them most acutely when alone. Not to mention, waking up again automatically makes me sad: I think back to worse times.  Of course, the racing thoughts no longer steer to irrational fears and yet to Christmas and family and work ---- and how I am away from all of those things: mentally and physically.   Disembodied, as it were. 

Luckily, I have had a reprieve.   On my parent's couch last weekend, laptop on coffee table, earphones in,tea-in-hand, and through those awful wakeful moments, I have watched a heap-load of Psych. Often, I'll watch the same episode more than once if my mind is not completely with the plot.  And it makes me giggle. Really giggle. Jubilantly giggle. Because it is ridiculous.  But, on  another note, it is slowly re-instilling my creative recesses of energy and thought and imaginative-illumination.  For the past few months concentrating on anything of artistic depth was difficult.  I mentioned a fair number of sitcoms I watched. Reading has been especially hard ----partly because reading makes me want to write and edit and work on my own projects---something in (not-so-distant) periphery.  But Psych bounces vocabulary and alliteration and slight character deepening and twists in a fun and colourful way.... in a safe and pronounced way that doesn't require my full mental faculties: yet exercises and awakens some kernel of my literately fun self.

[Shawn and Gus really DO save Christmas]

In a way, and as cheesy as this sounds, Gus and Shawn have taken the place of medication.  I rely on them as stimulant. I know that I can re-visit them and count on a daily dosage.  I know that I can repeat-as-needed and maybe even take less in a day than needed if I am having a particularly strong day.  If I need to let me mind drift and just spend 43 minutes watching for the appearance of a pineapple (as hyper-intensively ridiculous as this sounds), it is enough to keep me going.   I have no previous connection with them and they don't remind me of anything.  There is no link in the show that will start a stream of consciousness to the past.  It is a strange and magnetic world that, blessedly, doesn't remind me of ...anything. I am not lost in the past and the maze of unknitted thought when visiting. Foreign to most; but very important to me.  Disassociation. 

Part of my homework is to be as open as possible and to expose as much as I possibly can in hopes of explaining some odd behaviours; but also, possibly, silently throwing a rope.   I don't enjoy talking in long epistles about how television (for a bookworm! SHOCKS! EGADS! ) has proven helpful; but it can be wonderful escapism and temporary medication.

Bridges are strange and scary--- medicinally and otherwise--- for those (like me) terrified of heights, they pose a strange and sudden sensation of impending doom --- or they can be calm and beautiful as you lean over them and stare into the water below--- or they can be long and seemingly endless (I'm thinking of you, Confederation Bridge to PEI) where just a small strip of land becomes larger and larger as you make out its red rim while driving from New Brunswick...

Sometimes bridges undergo construction. 

Sometimes they act as a metaphor as you band one part of your life to another.  I am bridge in this imagery and, luckily, things step in to help shove me over...

So, Shawn and Gus save Christmas.  I look forward to their Christmas episodes, I look forward to dissecting what nonsense and rhetorical goodness will seep from its insanity and pin-prick the goofy and vulnerable and giggly side of me that was temporarily on mute.

Jude Law--- the Sidney Paget Moments

Jude Law: loaning authenticity to the rather inauthentic Downey Jr's Holmes since 2009.

I've said it before, dude looks like the Watson I knew growing up: because he resembles the Paget illustration.

I am an AWESOME Watson and will keep you fair viewers going until the BBC Sherlock resumes next year!
Random Sherlock moment!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Triggers that You Don't Think Are Triggers...

...Christmas is proving very problematic in my anxiety-induced world. It is not unusual to find me downtown Toronto holding onto the side of a building, shaking and crying, because the decorations and the music have hit me in a nostalgic place that I cannot crawl out of ...

A popular term in the treatment that I am undergoing and that will be familiar with many of you who have undergone cognitive therapy treatment for either anxiety or depression is "trigger": like your index finger itching on a gun---the seemingly pointless, harmless, ridiculous can explode ...


a message from a co-worker
the sound of Hark!, the Herald Angels Sing wafting from the ornately decorated window frames of Holt's at Bloor and Yonge
the guy flirting with me as I upgraded to a blackberry (the blackberry has been fun)
finding that dial 'm' for murder was TCM's feature this evening ----notably Grace Kelly's red dress....

All of these things trigger a reaction and all at once I am jittery or nostalgic or numb or catatonic and I fade into myself like the world is buzzing into framed blur

Clarity is as fleeting as a sip of tea or the whirr of a new message on my new phone...

....then I retreat.

Christmas is a beautiful, magical, wonderful, amazing time of kaleidoscope wonderment: but it is a trickster, too. It is a veritable bottomless tickle trunk of loss, of preservation, of winking lights that spotlight melancholy.

It does a lot to those prey to instances of emotion and panic.

The crowds were enough before to start my shudders of hand tremor; to glare my eyes and wobble my voice...

Christmas brings them in droves.

I want to visit my book people.  My book friends. A gent on the subway today was reading Martha Grimes and a part of my heart cried to curl back into a well-remembered book.   But, it just starts the tear ducts flowing.   Three times this evening I have made my way to the well-visited shelf wherein perches my collection of Horatio Lyle: but he evades me, too.

I guess one of the hardest things is recognizing that all seemingly familiar is now strange and uneven.

Last week's trip home, usually a time of solace and exploration of my favourite local, small-town haunts in the place I grew up in, had me fleeing to find a new place, to remain completely invincible.

Here, in Toronto, I revel in anonymity while recognizing myself a stranger.

Reinvention was never easy for anything or anyone.

So my Cylon selves are out in the world: sometimes bearing traces of what I was before; sometimes signalling that which is to come; sometimes staring weirdly at an angle in the mirror and studying without profundity.

It's all a profuse trigger, an explosion of colour that renders itself, somehow and most ironically, in splashes of grey---not even the concrete safety of black and white.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Film Review: 'Hugo' dir., Martin Scorsese

The movies that most resonate with me are the ones where I leave having felt an experience akin to watching a magnificent piece of theatre or closing the last page of a magnificent book.
Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a wonderment and it will tug at your heartstrings: especially if, like me, you are extremely sensitive to anything relating to imaginative experience and artistic sensibility.

Around four years ago, I was delighted to purchase and leaf through the film's source material: "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick and was immediately impressed with its innovative story/picture hybrid, its inclusion of photography and its structure as a love letter to films of old.  The film also marries a passion for literary narrative with a golden nod to the formation of film.   But, on a stronger, deeper and more heart-wringing level, it speaks to the heart of creative beguile.  Not unlike Polanski's The Pianist, it explores the loss and re-discovery of the artist in a world new and unknown.

One of the most potent aspects of this remarkable film lay in its multi-faceted enigma: which winds and turns all of our seemingly disconnected characters like the intertwining togs and mechanisms of the clocks of the Parisienne Train Station: the workings and cogs and sprints and springs which make the pulsating maze of our hero, Hugo Cabret's, world.

Indeed, clocks, time and the passing of hundreds of passengers clacking over the well-trod floor of the Station are a major motif and clever canvas.   Here is where most of the action takes place.  Orphaned since the death of his father: a clockmaker/inventor/ machine enthusiast, Hugo usurps the task of winding and charging the clocks at the crowded train station from the trembling hands of his intoxicated uncle.

Several characters including an uptight security guard, a flower girl, a coffee mistress woo'd by a man disdained by her wiener dog and a surly toy and candy salesman paint the kiosks and act as the stars in Hugo's complicated world.    Yet, the heart of the story lies beyond the adventures of Hugo and his new friend Isabelle: even if the mechanized world of nooks and towers would be more than enough to fulfill the children's imaginative whims.

This film is a love story to cinema, to history, to stories and to the working mind of the artist.   The exposition of a consummate artist starved of the mind he cannot turn off is the main triumph and tragedy of this heart-warming tale. Old books, broad libraries, odd automatons and the preservation of film, not to mention instances invaded by the First World War,add complex layers to a film definitely not made just for the entertainment of children.  I began crying mid-way through when the right book found its purpose and made it to the right owner and my 3D glasses remained fogged for the remainder of the film.

In my opinion, this is the type of magic the Academy should recognize.  It is quite clear that director Scorsese ripped out a piece of his heart and threw it up on the screen for all to see.   To mention the mere craft of this story would take a real film-maker. Thus, I speak to its narrative force, its wildly imaginative imagery and the thematic interposition which will render those who feel the blessed (cursed?) ripples of imagination often ringing through their ears and surging through their veins.

I would encourage you to see this film immediately.  I usually avoid 3D films; but this film is carefully constructed to make the most of dimensional marvel.    Children will learn a lot about the history and incarnation of film while learning new vocabulary (the bookwormish Isabelle is adorably precocious when it comes to throwing around the names Sidney Carton and Jean Valjean. Moreover, words like "panache" and "steadfast" creep into the children's vocabulary).

The relatively unknown film-maker George Melies plays a major part in the film and you will enjoy learning about his contribution to the technical developments of film. He is often credited as one of the first cinemagicians.

Snippets of old film are inserted and I was delighted, as one example, to see a famous train scene featuring a squirming Buster Keaton.  This film will act as a wonderful introduction to the black and white films which so long ago ushered in the magic that children now take for granted each time they see a new 3D film or play a new video game.

Also be sure to check out the novel by Brian Selznick: which marries imagery and narrative to beguile young adult readers.

....just when you think you know what this film is about, it will whirr and whistle and steer you in another steam-powered moment of trickery.   Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Christopher Lee and Richard Griffiths ( not to mention a beautiful Emily Mortimer) help round out the cast.

This is the best movie I have seen this year.

Paris is not my city (Vienna is, as we all know); but it is painted in glorious light and if you have a hankering for 1930s France you will be in heaven!

For my friends: Jude Law's character and presence made me think of Melrose Plant, Horatio Lyle and Dr. Watson all at once. Not bad.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theatre Review: Mary Poppins

Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Mary Poppins at the Princess of Wales here in Toronto.

Before I go further, may I just blatantly pronounce that I adore that we are getting Les Miz back in 2012? I have seen it 8 times in Toronto (four of those times WITH Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean), once on Broadway and once in London's West End.   Apparently, this new production has re-imagined staging.  Bring it home to Toronto, people, we LOVE this show.

But, I digress. 

Mary Poppins is produced by Cameron Mackintosh with a new Book by Julian Fellowes. While it maintains many of the standards penned by the Sherman Brothers (composers-in-residence for many of the best-loved Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s ---- they wrote It's a Small World, y'all), there are new numbers added to the show at an unfortunate disconnect. Any musical number not penned by the Brothers Sherman, and added to the re-vamped stage production, though perfunctorily performed by tonight's awe-inspiring cast, seemed jolted and intrusive. 

While this adaptation's story varies from the 1964 Julie Andrews movie and borrows heftily from the P.L. Travers' source material, the jumbling of the musical numbers in different chronology than the film and the insertion of some of the anecdotal instances indigenous to the book make for an odd theatrical experience.  

That being said, this production has some of the greatest moments of staging I have ever seen in my 20+ years as an avid theatre goer.  This production's choreography of "Step in Time" was nothing short of slack-jawed brilliance. At one point, amidst a bevy of chimney sweeps scaling and tapping the staged London rooftops, our Bert escalates aside the stage and upside down: with the careful engineering of the suspensions fans of Wicked are now used to as a mainstay in modern musical theatre.   It was one of many enchanting moments.  The choreography in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS (sorry, it must be capitalized) was equally remarkable.

The story plays out much as it does in the film: with the motifs of childhood imagination, lessons being learned with a "Spoonful of Sugar" and a hint of charity for man and child and with adults realizing that flying a kite with their family trumps any invasive moments of financial precision at one's obsessive job.   Much like Peter Pan's Mr. Darling, so investor Mr. Banks must slowly learn that his family and his childhood are worth re-possessing and the sense of awe and wonderment found in gingerbread stars is as close a link to his growing son as it is to his own careful upbringing.

As in the film we are so familiar with, the hand-shake of a chimney sweep is good luck, the tattered wares of a woman on the steps of St. Paul's heed all to sacrifice tuppence in motions of charity, and made-up words and colourful antics are the stuff that teach children exactly what they need to move from precocious to darling...

The cast was fabulous having just toured the US from Broadway and I was happy to see some familiar Canadian faces grace the stage.  As one example, Laird Mackintosh played Mr. Banks: anyone who saw The Phantom of the Opera here in T.O. during the 90s as many times as I did ( also with Colm Wilkinson. Torontonians, we are LUCKY that he calls Toronto home!!!!), would recognize him as a popular Raoul.   Rachel Wallace sang with the clear Julie Andrews' crystal soprano befitting the nanny "practically perfect in every way" and it was a delight to see the hints of romantic chemistry flowering between Mary and Nicolas Dromard's adorable Bert. [check out the full touring cast here]. Dromard is from Ottawa!  So glad he's a national treasure!

Bert was a wonderful narrator/jack-of-all-trades much like he is in the film (as we excuse poor Dick Van Dyke's mournful Cockney accent).  This Bert was pitch-perfect and both he and Mary seemed to be having genuine fun with the material they presented in high-pitched, gleeful intensity.  If they needed to kick their knees up to "step in time" with the band of guardian angel chimney sweeps, they did so with jubilant conviction.

Two minor points: the first time I had heard and internalized the meaning of the word "Suffragette" was due to Glynis John's recognizably husky number in the film version.  I wished that Mrs. Banks' character on stage were given the same political convictions to levy her stance as female equal to her workaholic husband. Instead, we are given glimpses into a theatrical history which she trades happily to be full-time nanny to her children when all is happily resolved. Secondly, I thought that the production threw away, as it were, the number Feed the Birds.  Specifically requested at Walt Disney's funeral (being his favourite number) and providing a symbol of charity and good-will, the ethereal chords of this hymn-like number were heard clearly (with strong organ, thank goodness) during its performance; but I wish they had returned to its theme as they did other songs.

[Though Mary Poppins is set in the Edwardian era, I must say that this hardcore Horatio Lyle fan kept thinking of Lyle: partly through Bert's accent, perhaps with the backdrop of St. Paul's.... he is never far from imaginatively away.]

A final moment for the set: like a story book illustration: the set is sketched and blasted with broad strokes of colour and charcoal, not unlike Bert's drawings in the park.  The house on Cherry Tree Lane unfolds quite wonderfully like a doll's house, with Mary Poppins able to snap the gas lamps on and off at her every whim.

There are hints of magic everywhere in this production and the children in the audience, of a generation who probably wouldn't be able to sit through the 1960s movie, were dazzled. As was I.