Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dickens on Screen: A Retrospective

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a series of screenings and lectures on Dickens on Screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

I have summarized it and this is posted over at Dickensblog.  Take a look.

Thanks, Gina... for letting me ramble :D

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rachel's Favourite Books of the Year

Here we go! My favourite reads of the year. It was a good reading year for me. Well over 100 novels read (I lost count and don't keep track and don't review them all here, as you are aware )

Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)

William Henry is a Fine Name (Cathy Gohlke)

Attachments (Rainbow Rowell

The Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion, 1917 (Laura M. MacDonald) I read this book specifically for research I am doing on a book I am writing of my own; but it was just so compelling and riddled with first hand accounts that it was enjoyable and disturbing and gripping in its own right.

At Drake's Command
David Wesley Hill) Review forthcoming shortly. This book came out of nowhere when the author contacted me about possibly reviewing. It is, without a doubt, the best piece of nautical fiction I have read since the Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. Honestly, I have waited for years for a great new nautical series...and this is it! More later....

It's been a great year! Full of Charles Dickens and my own personal explorations of Ireland and Scotland during a lovely UK trip!

Outside the Conan Doyle Pub 

The Writer's Museum in Edinburgh
It's been a great year! Full of Charles Dickens and my own personal explorations of Ireland and Scotland during a lovely UK trip!

Also, it saw the release of my favourite novel in exceptional film form......

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Film Review: "Les Miserables"

Here's what you need to realize: if you love this story, then the film version of Les Miserables will prove to be the closest adaptation of the novel you will ever see.  If you are a fan of the sweeping broadway musical, hang your expectations about vocal power and sweeping melodies on a rack at home.  This is not the place for them.    In order for the characters to supremely and wonderfully expose the emotions they are feeling, and the emotions laying not-so-dormant in the lyrics by the inimitable  Alain Boubil, they do so by exchanging vocal prowess for gritty realism.  The music is the medium through which they tell the story. It is not, as is the case in musical theatre, the centre of a lavish production.

The language of cinema, the scope of cinema is a dream for all of us who have been dying for a close adaptation of Hugo's outstanding work to hit the screen. I first read the Norman Denny translation at 12 years old and have read it somewhat 18 to 20 times since. Les Miserables is my favourite novel, the reason I am a bookworm and the reason I pursued literature at university and subsequently publishing. I think I would be hard pressed to find someone as passionate about this novel as I.  The novel is my first love.  Due to the love of the novel, I sought out every available film adaptation of the book (I have seen a few from all decades: some in French, some silent, some "classics" )and have visited the musical on stage at least 8 times: having seen Colm Wilkinson's Valjean thrice, and having seen the Broadway and West End productions.  The story ....the heart of the tale.... the Gospel mirrored in the transformation Valjean undergoes through one redemptive act of grace and, subsequently the grace that shatters the character who acts as his parallel: garnered by Law and having not yet experienced the righteousness not of the sword but of the cross, in my estimation, the most powerful ever told in literary form. 

It is quite believable that the tales claiming prisoners and sinners have come to Christ within its pages and its narrative be so.  It is that powerful.  It is the reason, even though you may not know it, that you are so deeply moved by the spectrum of this story. You may not realize it, but I believe the entire opus is divinely inspired. I believe, as I did the other day, in an almost ghastly quiet theatre without the usual cell phone screeches or popcorn chomping, that people are surreptitiously moved in a way they may not fully understand. Such is the power of this story.  Such is the power of the emblem of redemption when one man is convinced to turn his life around for God: and the ripples of grace he is able to impart upon his conversion. 

The film is keenly aware of its reverent impact and thus explores it in a broad and compelling way that closely mirrors the novel.  There are several “insider” moments for those who love the book as I do. Here is a list that my friend Gina and I were able to compile (Gina, I am totally bringing you into this): the cross in its emblem follows Valjean everywhere.  If he is in a scene, a crucifix: whether crudely atop a hill or on his desk or in his hand at his factory as he shows the work of those grisettes stringing rosaries to Javert is ever close by.  The stark and lovely contrast in the Rue Plumet house which exposes Valjean’s plain and cold bedchamber against Cosette’s lovely and floral canopy is a sheer match for the several, several chapters which flourish their sweet relationship.  Marius’ grandfather, M. Gillenormand is shown and Marius’ status as the son of a Baronet and a wealthy successor in his own right is shown. Further, Marius’ flat within the same sector as the Thenardiers’ ---as a neighbor to Eponine--- is also established.
Readers of the novel are familiar with the gruesome upturn in Fantine’s life, including the selling of her two front teeth after the sells her hair and enters prostitution. Here, it is her two back teeth.

I love the scenes when Valjean (then referred to as the Man in the Yellow Coat) visits Montfermeil to fulfill his promise and claim Cosette. Readers are aware that it is Christmas Eve and the movie paints it as so: the “Master of the House” number includes a few festive parlays as well as the rather crude (but authentic ) inclusion of a St. Nicholas character.  Moreover, while sisters Eponine and Azelma are spoiled with toys and presents, Cosette is deprived of girlish flounces until Valjean buys her a doll from a beautifully adorned window. Readers, THAT is here too (it is so exciting)

For further authenticity, look no further than the rebel meetings at the Café Musain and the July uprising. The positioning of the students: from Grantaire to Courfeyrac, the over-taking of the Lamarque funeral, the furniture being tossed from windows into the streets to form the barricades: it is all here. In glorious truth.  I was so moved seeing how my imagination wrought those long-ago events to real life. More still, in a scope the stage could never hope to provide, we are given the real terror of the students as they are cornered and overtaken by the Guard….right until the untimely death of Enjolras and Grantaire, staying strong together as their world ---ideally and literally---falls beneath them.

Well done casting department for making these students so young and vulnerable and pained and scared.  I have seen numerous stage adaptations (including the rather awkward casting of the 10th Anniversary Concert ) where 30 and 40 year olds are trying to convey the youth and innocence of the ABC Society. These boys are just that ---boys! Hugo would be proud.

The stage production, as mentioned several times, cannot hope to convey the beauty and spanse of Hugo’s 19th Century world.  Readers know that he spends several pages in deep digression on the squelching terror of the Paris Sewers. Here, in the muck and mire, the potency of Valjean’s sacrifice: first for adorning his old service uniform and acting as a volunteer at the barricades and then saving Marius by dragging him through the muck of the sewers is seen here in full force.  Though they eliminate the “Dog Eats Dog” number sung by the sneaky Thenardier, his presence is welcome and accurate.

I could seriously go on and on and on about the little ways in which the film touches on aspects of the novel we have not seen in previous cinematic adaptations or on stage; but I want to get to the meat of the film itself.  It blew me away.

Indeed, I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I was so moved by a film.  I was sobbing to the point of convulsion at the end of our Christmas Day screening ( I went with my family after turkey dinner) and had to compose myself over credits to finally leave the theatre.  The story, its inspiration, its realization of God’s grace to the unfortunate, to the everyman, to the deserving and the non-deserving is enough to pummel you over.  Hugh Jackman was largely responsible for my emotional response.  He was breathtaking and he blew me away.  He has a power instinctive in his physicality and his haggard appearance and world-weary eyes that strip away any familiarity you have with him as an actor.  Indeed, my sister didn’t recognize him in the film at all.  From the glorious opening scenes as he works the galleys of a ship through his eventual conversion at the benediction of a kindly bishop (shout out to COLM WILKINSON), Jackman is a man lost---little more than a dog of the street--- cajoled and beaten and downtrodden.   

In his eventual reformation and his breaking of his parole, he becomes a distinguished yet tortured figure: prominent in his position as M. Madeleine and the Mayor of Montreuil- Sur –Mer yet still haunted by his past and still so convinced he is an underserving specimen in need of continual reformation.  His disbelief at his blind eye toward Fantine is especially heart-breaking.

Speaking of Fantine: I was skeptical of Anne Hathaway mainly because of her physicality: Fantine is clearly a blue-eyed and blonde haired beauty and Hathaway is so dark featured; but she wrings out all of the pathos of the character from the moment she completely loses her dignity to her tortured performance of I Dreamed a Dream.  Here, the octave change on the word ‘shame’ is more than just a set-up for vocal prowess: it becomes a heart-shrieking wail as she realizes that her life is over. That all she hoped for and wished for and that all her poet-lover Tholomyes inspired in her is completely lost. 

I was shaken.

I could speak of Valjean forever ( Jackman carries the movie and then some); but I should touch on other characters.
Note: I could speak on this subject… the subject of Les Miserables forever---
Javert is my favourite character in the musical: largely because I feel he is given the best musical numbers. Russell Crowe is by far the weakest musical link and yet he is has the physical presence and physiognomy of the tortured inspector.  The Confrontation scene is powerful: more still because Valjean and Javert (often parallels or duals when explored in literary resonance) are physically well-matched.  The scales will always tip in Valjean’s favour; but not without a fight.

The Thenardiers are just as bawdy and under-handed as is to be expected. The greatest sin the musical commits is de-villainizing them into comic characters; but there, they are at least true to their stage incarnations.

Marius Pontmercy is played by Eddie Remayne.  Immediately, when I first saw the trailer and it showed a clip of Marius standing tall aside Enjolras at the barricade, I breathed a mea culpa for my universal skepticism in exchange for my wonderment at Eddie Remayne. He looked like the Marius of my mind.   He did not let me down. His Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is a brilliant, brilliant attempt at reconciling a happy life with the lost lives of his friends.His shaking off the bonds of his privileged background, his immediate infatuation with Cosette and his impulsive need to support the members of the ABC Society at the barricades are all marvelous. Dude can act.

Eponine was also lovely.  She has a far grittier role in the novel and I sometimes cringe when she is romanticized beyond the crass and discordant street figure she is. Nonetheless, she was extremely touching: never more still than when she saves Marius’ life at the barricade.

Gavroche is a sweet thing: from ducking behind that gargantuan Elephant to hopping in and around the carriages trundling through St. Michel.

Cosette ---as played by Amanda Seyfried--- is given a weak and airy soprano; but again, is pitch perfect in the looks department.  Marius and Cosette have such a spark, a chemistry, a lasting love.  I was especially moved by her presence at Valjean’s deathbed. There’s one lovely little gesture where he taps her nose with fatherly love: This, thought I, this in a simple movement encapsulates the relationship so strongly explored in the book.

When Valjean first tips his hat at the young Cosette, frigid and afraid in the wood, your heart melts.  Boubil and Schonberg scored a new song for Jackman to sing as he muses on his new charge while they rumble away from the Thenardiers in a carriage, and while not musically strong, his sense of wonderment at the duty before him is well-felt.

I could seriously go on about this forever.  I was completely unfounded in my skepticism for the following reason: I sacrificed momentarily my love for the power of the story in exchange for being preliminarily off-put by the soundtrack.  You will not listen to this soundtrack on repeat for long car rides or at work as you will, well, any cast recording with Colm Wilkinson.  The theatre is a different medium that expects its vocal power to act in a different way.  Here, we have the magic of film: the close-ups, the sets. The music is not the center of the story (as is the case with the stage musical), it is the filter in which they tell the story.  The story is at the centre. The characters are at the center in a more imminent way than could ever be experienced at a seated distance in the live theatre. You can see their tears and experience their grief in close-ups. The camera, here, is your ally. It exposes the Hugo-world in a sweeping and majestic way, it upturns the lives of the poor with their open scabs and blistering closeness, it paints the revelatory sojourn of a convict who inches toward redemption.  I bless the camera for bringing to my mind the scenes and landscapes I could only but picture in my mind’s eye from the novel;Those which previous film adaptations have never rightly wrought.

Contemporary society can speak onward and upward about the lack of Faith in film and yet, and yet this exists.  The clearest and most powerful emblem of Christ’s love you are likely to see in the popular sphere.  If you are sitting through Les Miserables you cannot separate its religious influence from your passion for the story; because they are one and the same.  You will be moved in ways that steal through your spirit and surge something in you that perhaps you are not able to name. That sense of strong conviction is one often perused in Christian circles but largely evaded in a secular society so used to the more negative influx of current evangelism.  Let me then state that as a person of Faith, Les Miserables  makes me proud.  The story: its slight and beautiful treatise on God’s love mirrors the Christianity I am so familiar with and imbibed with and try so hard to emulate. Jean Valjean is one of our greatest apostles.  Hugo penned a work so utterly wretched and yet so saturated with Christ’s hope that the two cannot help but intersect and climax with a telling moment of righteousness and life beyond the weary world.  This film is a wonderment. In my opinion, as a self-proclaimed Les Miserables expert, it is the closest thing we have to Hugo’s tale. Go, go and be moved. 

Monday, December 17, 2012


I have had the most amazing and informative weekend of Dickensian bliss.

Right now, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, they are screening a multitude of Dickens films  in honour of the Bicentenary.

Since Thursday, Toronto has had the privilege of having Adrian Wootton ( late of the BFI and the curator of the Dickens and Film project) on hand to lecture and to introduce some of the fabulous and rare footage and films offered to avid Dickensians.

Thursday night, it started with the beautiful 1946 David Lean adaptation of Great Expectations; then continued Friday and Saturday with an array of lectures and screenings and.... oh my!

It  has been one of the highlights of my year. I enjoyed settling into Cinema 4 of the TIFF Bell Lightbox and immersing myself in all things Dickens.

As a precursor, I attended the Soulpepper Production of A Christmas Carol on Wednesday evening couched in the beautiful Victorian Christmas market.  At the same time, in the same place, the Word Festival 2012 celebrated Dickens with ongoing, voluntary reading of A Tale of Two Cities streamed everywhere in the world.

I will be writing about these lovely things in more detail; but wanted to check in on my blog readers and let them know that, yes, I DO live in the most magnificent city in the world.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

[Not-So]Bad Christmas TV movies VOL the 6th: Christmas with Holly

I wish I could make fun of this Christmas movie. I really want to. I love mocking bad Christmas movies.  But this one stole my heart.

Apparently it is based on a novel by Lisa Kleypas.  Almost IMMEDIATELY you recognize the beautiful harbour town as Nova Scotia and the plot and the characters stole my heart.

Seriously. I was sitting by my tree last night sniffling my way through this thing.   Mark has guardianship of his little niece Holly since his sister died unexpectedly in a car crash.  Mark has no experience with children; but loves Holly so much he devotes his time and welfare to her well-being.  He reads her bedtime stories and EVEN DOES ALL THE VOICES ( this guy will steal your heart).

Holly is not doing well at school still obviously traumatized by the passing of her mother. To add to this, she has ceased any form of verbal communication.  Mark does his best to coax a voice out of her; to no avail.

Deciding it would be better for them both to start fresh, they return to the Island of Mark’s childhood and Friday Harbour: a gorgeous seaport filled with boats and quaint little shops where Mark works at a coffee emporium.  There, they meet a charming entrepreneur, Maggie, who is opening her own children’s shop. They also move in with Mark’s two brother who are renovating a beautiful water-side property.  Nova Scotia Tourism, as always , should be at an all-time high.

Holly is still uncommunicative (especially around Mark’s useless girlfriend Sybil or is it Shelby? can't remember! but,  Seriously, have you ever ‘met’ a NICE woman named Sybil in a television production---other than Lady S. of Downton?) but warms to Maggie and her sweet basset hound, Olive.

Mark, so tethered to his project of raising Holly as per his sister’s wish and so determined that she have the type of life that rekindles his childhood memories, force him to work hard with his brothers to paint her room a glowing pink, fill her space with toys and even attempt a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.   Succeed or fail, with Mark, it is always the genuine effort that he exerts that will win your heart---as it begins to win Maggie’s.

There are the usual clichéd constructs of romantic fiction here: the wrong-for-him girlfriend comes back and fails to comprehend his bond with his niece, there is a misunderstanding between Mark and Maggie when they finally go out together, etc.,; but it is SUCH a sweet movie because it is so finely tuned into the magic of family.

There are a few particular scenes that had me bawling with cuteness and I dare you to sit through them without a resounding “awwwwwww!”: they start, as mentioned, when Mark reads Holly a bedtime story, continue when, during her first night in her new bedroom at the Harbour, she sneaks out so that Mark awakes to find her  nestled at the edge of his sleeping bag; at one point (marking her first actual communication with her uncles) she scripts a grocery list with charmingly misspelled words which she plants on the fridge door; when she finally decides to speak--- naming an imaginative fairy at the children’s store after her deceased Mother---one of the first things she does is to tell her Uncle Mark that she loves him.  I wanted to DIE OF CUTENESS.

This is so sweet. So terribly predictable and yet so sweet.  The acting was great for a film of its caliber, the chemistry between the two leads and between Mark and his brothers and all three boys and Holly were fun to watch.

I actually thought this was just the sweetest thing in the world.

Last year, I watched a film around the same time of yearthat prompted me to employ the use of this Youtube video to quantify the cuteness factor.  Here, I elicit it again:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Litfuse Blog Tour: Every Perfect Gift by Dorothy Love

From the Publisher
Ethan and Sophie long to share a future together. But the secrets they’re not sharing could tear them apart.
Sophie Caldwell has returned to Hickory Ridge, Tennessee, after years away. Despite the heartaches of her childhood, Sophie is determined to make a home, and a name, for herself in the growing town. A gifted writer, she plans to resurrect the local newspaper that so enchanted her as a girl.  Ethan Heyward’s idyllic childhood was shattered by a tragedy he has spent years trying to forget. An accomplished businessman and architect, he has built a majestic resort in the mountains above Hickory Ridge, drawing wealthy tourists from all over the country. When Sophie interviews Ethan for the paper, he is impressed with her intelligence and astounded by her beauty. She’s equally intrigued; but fears he will reject her if he learns about her shadowed past. Just as she summons the courage to tell him, Ethan’s own past unexpectedly and violently catches up with him, threatening not only his life but their budding romance. 

 They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover; but, readers, the moment I saw this delicious winter-scape, I wanted to step inside its world.

Unfortunately, for a book that begins with a lot of action: including an orphan finding a home, newspaper interviews between a hard-won hero and an exotic beauty and a riot in the streets, the pace following the first few chapters drops and one is left with a lot of ponderous scenes riddled with forced dialogue and a very slow-booming romance which must eke its way out of initial attraction.

I previously read Beyond All Measure and have found that it doesn’t take long to get into this book and into the stride of the characters, regardless of whether you are initiated to the world of Hickory Ridge.

The sparks immediately fly on Ethan Heyward’s behalf; but they take a little longer to blossom on Sophie’s, only because she has been hurt and neglected in the past. Her safe-guarding of her heart pairs well with her strong and independent spirit as a woman ahead of her time. She is also a woman with a rather exotic and interesting heritage, which immediately put me in mind of a heroine (also named Sophie) from Through Rushing Water by Catherine Richmond. Sophie is a real go-getter, willing to work against the odds to turn the Gazette into a worthy news source. Immediately, with her spunk, cleverness and spirited aplomb, I was put in mind of Olivia King in Road to Avonlea* whose early work the chronicle led her to excavate some of the darker and deeper secrets of a squeaky clean town. 

I expected a lot more from the story; but am settled by the fact that it features my type of spirited woman, an obligatory ball scene to throw its two protagonists into the whirl of a waltz, and a finely-wrapped up ending ---perfectly tied with the singing of a few carols and a reminder of the title's inspirational source.

While the novel ends with Christmas, it is not shrouded in the festive spirit as the title suggests; nonetheless, the action is packaged with a lovely red bow. This book greatly put me in mind of some of the more recent politically-charged historicals of similar time period solidifying my belief that readers who enjoy Elizabeth Camden, Tamara Alexander and Ann Gabhart will find a home in this novel.

*I will do anything to toss in a Road to Avonlea reference. 

My thanks to Litfuse Publicity for receiving this book care of Thomas Nelson.

Please visit the Litfuse landing page for other reviews of this title 

Friday, December 07, 2012

TLC Book Tours: A Desire Path by Jan Shapin

"It's called a desire path," she said, indicating a trace of beaten earth that disappeared into the woods. "A landscaping term my mother used. Not 'shortcut'—that implies convenience. Desire is rarely a convenience."

Set in the Depression and WW II's aftermath, A Desire Path links a love affair between a married woman and a union organizer with the crisis a famous female journalist faces trying to decide whether to join the Communist Party. Two stories of conflicted loyalties, each a journey along a desire path.

"This is a remarkable piece of work--one you'll want to share with friends and reading groups. Shapin’s novel captures the messy politics and passions of three exceptional people at a time when deep emotions were often stultified and repressed as worker rights and Communist orthodoxy took center stage in the lives of many thoughtful Americans. "
-- Paula Duffy, former publisher, The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

visit Jan Shapin online

Stop by the Other Tour Stops:

Tuesday, November 6th: The Book Garden
Thursday, November 8th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Thursday, November 15th: StephTheBookworm
Monday, November 19th: Mom in Love with Fiction
Monday, November 26th: Dwell in Possibility
Tuesday, November 27th: World’s Strongest Librarian
Wednesday, November 28th: Lavish Bookshelf
Tuesday, December 4th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, December 5th: From L.A. to LA
Thursday, December 6th: A Fair Substitute for Heaven
Monday, December 10th: Paperback Princess
Tuesday, December 11th: The Book Bag
(all links found here at the TLC mainpage )

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Film Review: Anna Karenina, Joe Wright 2012

Joe Wright is nothing if not an extremely visionary director of magnificent literary adaptations (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), Tom Stoppard is a brilliant wordsmith who understands the complexities of the theatrical involvement of the audience in mediums live and recorded; pulling them slowly into the characters, the action and in the words that spring them to life.

This duo has created something wholly unique, sumptuous, sensual and riveting in their new interpretation of Anna Karenina.  Like most, I read the epic novel and waded through the map of intertwining story lines; remembering vividly some scenes while completing losing others ---the resonance and the spirit of morality, of double-standards, of the inception of honour and the inkling of redemption, staying tautly with me.

Anna is married to the stoic and upstanding government minister Karenin.  Her circle includes the young and vibrant Princess Kitty, her brother Stiva and his put-upon wife and a mélange of frothily-dressed gossips and society climbers who seem to look far beyond their own shortcomings to openly mark the errs of others.
At the beginning, the good wife Anna is seen retreating to her brother’s house in Moscow to convince his wife to forgive his recent infidelity. Little does Anna know, that this is a foreshadow of the most dramatically ironic kind.

At a train station, Anna encounters Vronsky and it is lust and passion at first sight.  I will never look at their affair with the term love on my lips. What they share and experience and what develops against the sensuous spectacle of the societal stage in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with watchful eyes ever pealed to its ultimate impropriety and unveiling, is nothing more than selfish passion borne of the idea that “it is only when things are forbidden that they become truly fascinating” (L M Montgomery, “The Blue Castle”).

At first, Anna’s husband warns of the appearance of her indiscretion believing that she is above reproach; but is nonetheless careless.  Appearance and spectacle is a major motif in this multi-layered cake of frills and garlands and staged sparkles.  At a steeplechase event, Karenin learns the truth when Vronsky is thrown from his horse and Anna yells an anguished cry over his accident.   Anna, then, confesses everything to her husband: including the fact that she is pregnant with her lover’s child.

At this, we experience a turning point within Karenin: at first we find him understandably cold, deep-seated hate saturating his core despite his protest that he has never been a cruel man.  Then, upon a sojourn in Moscow with Stiva and Anna’s relations, he learns of Anna’s post-partum illness and rushes back. It is here that the cold and put-upon man is transformed into an emblem of reconciliation and grace.  Over the fevered form of Anna, Karenin shakes hands with Vronsky, consoles him and even admits that if Anna ever asks for Vronsky in her illness, he will send for him straightaway.

Karenin also offers Anna’s illigetimate child the protection of his name and Anna a continued place in Russian society; for if she were to be divorced by him, as the guilty party, her entire ruination would come clearly to pass.

I will break, here, from the story of Anna and Karenin and Vronsky to touch briefly upon the parallel relationship of Konstantin Levin,  who harbours a passionate love for Anna’s sister-in-law’s younger sister, Princess Kitty: one almost as deep as his political believes in the obliteration of serfdom and his abiding love for the countrylife and his land.  Levin is the thinker and dreamer of the tale, as well as its moral compass. Many believe that Levin is the character deeply infused with Tolstoy’s own convictions and it is Levin who brings a dram of goodness to a drought of moral depravity.   Refused initially by Kitty who is deeply in love with Vronsky, the melancholy and philosophical Levin roams back to his country home and to the harsh work of the land, determined to marry a peasant woman and forsake the life, dust and iniquity of the city.  A chance viewing of Kitty----her carriage window open---her hair ribbons flowing on the wind, halts him and he once more takes up his suit.

It is a very interesting and pure take on love to contrast the conflicting and empty passion experienced by Anna and Vronsky.  At a dinner party at Stiva’s while the guests talk of infidelity, Levin, knowing only part of the entire puzzle invading the lives of the people around him, speaks out against infidelity and stays true to his belief in the power of pure love. It is here that we see Kitty’s face transformed and, later, in a deeply-stylized scene with an array of children’s toy blocks, they are able to silently forge their commitment to each other. 

Levin’s story brings grace and humility to the opulent world destroyed by the likes of misguided and selfish Anna and her lover.  Levin brings his new bride Kitty home, perturbed that his alcoholic brother and his mistress will upset her delicate sensibilities and offend her careful breeding. Kitty transforms into a beacon of grace as she washes the withered form of her new brother in law and helps his fallen wife bring him comfort as he lay ill. 

There’s a lot of God in Tolstoy, I told my friends last night, and it is in small, fleeting scenes like these that the dark clouds pervading the story are momentarily sliced with redemptive light.

Viewers of the film should know that Wright imagines the world of the novel as splayed out on a theatrical stage.  This might take a while to sink into: as he makes use of the wings and rafters, of floors devoid of red-velvet chairs and we are invited intimately into a world with a staged flair.  You will get used to it and the world outside will disappear.

This is a BEAUTIFUL movie. Its setting and design and costume and screenplay are all sumptuous.  Its ravaged characters with their deep sin and slipping honour are pitiable; but with Karenin and Levin we are given the true core of Tolstoy’s philosophy: the pursuit of goodness and redemption is a journey worth taking. Love is pure, too, and worth fighting for.  The “love story” of this piece does not exist between the extramarital passion of two physically attracted specimens. Instead it is displayed in the supporting characters and how they add slivers of hope to a depraved society. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Christmas Novellas: Christmas Roses and The Christmas Pony

Christmas Roses by Amanda Cabot

Celia Anderson doesn’t need anything for Christmas except a few more boarders, which are hard to come by in this small mining town. She certainly doesn’t have a husband on her Christmas wish list. But when a wandering carpenter finds lodging at her boarding house, she admits that she might remarry if she found the right man---the kind of man who would bring her roses for Christmas. It would take a miracle to get roses during a harsh Wyoming winter. But, Christmas, after all is the time for miracles….

Readers, this is a sweet confection of a tale and it did something very difficult to do: it made me care about their characters and their development within the span of a novella.  Further, it is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving for those women, like me, who just love a sprinkling of romance. This is a quiet romance developed between two extremely likeable characters. Indeed, Mark the carpenter is one of the most dashing heroes I have encountered in Christian fiction of late.  He is a woman’s dream man.  He anticipates Celia’s needs before she even voices them. Moreover, he is incredibly gentle with her daughter from her previous marriage.

A wild Wyoming romance starring a widow and a travelling mystery-man is a tale as old as the hills; but this one was remarkably sweet despite its clichéd construct. I  was invested in the romance that I knew would come to pass and in the reconciliation between Mark and his long-absentee father was also welcome fare.    This is the type of story that Hallmark Channel should be all over.  I mean I’ve watched my share of bad Christmas tv movies this season and in seasons past ( please see my series on Bad Christmas TV Movies).

Cabot imparts a keen interest  in the period as well as an intelligent recollection of daily life on its frontier.   I really enjoyed this tale and think it is perfect for the quiet romance lover in your life.

The Christmas Pony by Melody Carlson

Eight-year-old Lucy Turnbull knew better than to wish for a pony that Christmas in 1937. Her mother had assured her in no uncertain terms that asking for a pony  was the same as  asking for the moon. Besides, the only extra mouths they needed at their boarding house were the paying kind. But when an interesting pair of strangers come to town, Lucy starts to believe her Christmas wishes might just come true after all.

I have a warning for you readers when you approach Carlson, the described “Queen of the Christmas novella” , she will lure you with a warm and telling story and insightful characters only to drop you off when she realizes she has a dozen other deadlines to reach.  For previous example, I was really enjoying “Christmas at Harringtons” until the moment when she had to rapidly-quick wrap it up and tie it with a bow so she could move on to whatever other series the author of 200+ books was currently under contract for.    I also found that the Christmas Pony was just loose ends waiting to happen, It’s a sweet premise and delightful construct: depression-era farm girl wants a pony. I am behind this! But, Carlson needs a better editor. Carlson needs to invest in the story she is currently working on.  Carlson needs to care enough to keep the same precision and pace that gallops through the first half of the novel in the latter. 

I received both books from Graf-Martin Communications on behalf of Revell Publishing 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

BAD Christmas TV Movies Volume II: The March Sisters at Christmas

(note: I am so miffed at this I refuse to link to it. If you want to learn more you can google.  I also have no desire whatsoever to re-envision this or see any image. So, instead, you get a picture of a better adaptation of Little Women : one that won't make you want to staple things to Prof. Bhaer's head)

Yes, this Lifetime modernization of Little Women exists.  And yes, it features the four sisters you know and love and the supporting cast of male characters you know and love and....yet... well.... actually, it doesn't because it is the WORST PIECE OF CRAP ADAPTATION IN THE HISTORY OF TIME!

Why bring Little Women into this, Lifetime?  Why?  Why did you have to go and do that.  Fine, make a cheesy movie about four sisters trying to renovate a New England House before the holidays while showing snapshots of their befuddlingly stupid relationships; but don't name them Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy.

Egads, people. Like, I can't even.  Like, where to begin.... oh dear Lord in Heaven and all the Christmas Angels.

Well, let's start with what people do in Little Women adaptations that goes splendidly awry:
-mistaking Jo the tomboy for Jo the annoying bitch.  This adaptation does that in spades.
-completely misrepresenting Prof. Bhaer as the Paul Emmanuel or Rochester.  Guys, we're not in Bronte; it's not all flint and flittering sparks of anger and confrontation here.  They don't yell at each other.  He's Prof. Bhaer.  Sometimes, as is the case with Kitty and Tina, he's actually, literally a bear.  Like, dressed as one.  Like, fine, make him quirky and literary and cultured (hi! Gabriel Byrne) and make him far hotter than his source material (hi Rossano Brazzi ). You can do ALL these things; but MAKE HIM LIKEABLE. There HAS to be a reason why Jo chooses Bhaer over Laurie.
-Amy and Laurie.  We all think it's wrong to begin with; but here it is
-Beth.  Well, whatdya do with Beth?  Do you do anything? anyways.....

THIS IS WHAT this adaptation does in FRAKKIN SPADES

and oh GOD IN HEAVEN  where to start.....

okay, so Marmie is in Afghanistan with Mr. March who is over there doing correspondence work because, in case you haven't noticed, America's not having a Civil War ( though Donald Trump would start one if you asked nicely). Marmie wants to sell Orchard House because, you know, she's not actually the MARMIE OF THE NOVEL WHO WOULD NEVER SELL ORCHARD HOUSE.

Next door lives Teddy the rich boy with his Uncle Mr. Laurence ( who is the bad-ass uncle who drinks beer with Teddy and his friend John Brooke and crashes party and gives romantic advice on how the boys need to have "balls enough" to "Make it with the March sisters."  ) Oh Lord in HEAVEN

Jo and Teddy are best friends in that sexual-chemistry kinda way where they run around and wrestle and you just KNOW they would be doing it in a hayloft if a hayloft were to be had.
Meg and John Brooke dated in college and he still pines for her but she's dating some guy named Douchebag Dan and is a lawyer. For no real reason.

Amy is a ridiculously stupid girl with bad hair who happens to be in theatrics. Fine, I'll give you the theatrics thing, Lifetime.

Jo is a ghost-tweeter.  Meaning, that she supplements the family income and makes up for the fact ( the oft-joked fact ) that she can't get a real job by tweeting on behalf of celebrities. Really, however, she wants to be a novelist and she has written this epic magnum opus about four generations of March women and, like all writers do, has ACCIDENTALLY sent the entire novel as well as a query letter to the editor at a publishing house which has just hired her to ghost-write an autobiography of a teen pop star.  Weekly Volcano?  Yah, well, whatever.  The editor is Markus Bhaer who gets 8 minutes of screen time; but apparently that's enough to supplant Teddy's intentions and steal Jo's heart and make her randomly cry.

At the same time as the romantic entanglements ( Laurie and Amy go and get drunk on Amy's 21st birthday, fyi, and she confesses she's always had a crush on him ), they are renovating the Orchard House that Marmie wants to sell so she won't sell it. Problem is, they are the worst renovators in the history of time because they don't ACTUALLY do any renovating. Instead, they prance around in slippers drinking wine and putting up Christmas decorations.  Teddy send Jo wine bottles in a basket he propels up to her attic hideaway when he's not creating useless santa apps in a subplot that goes nowhere.

And Teddy pines for Jo and Jo says no and EVERYONE (including Uncle Laurence who has some sort of odd chemistry with Beth ----so palpable I thought they might actually get it on by the end of the film) goes to a performance of Twelfth Night and Teddy is a whiny schoolboy and ruins Jo's date with Bhaer.  Then, Bhaer decides he doesn't want to spend any more time with her and Jo is heartbroken and Teddy, ironically, decides that is the point to start pursuing Amy.  Because, seriously, any  March sister will do ( sung to the tune of Donny Osmond singing the popular ditty from Joseph).

You see, readers, Teddy doesn't BURN for JO.  He doesn't BURN WITH SIGHS OF LOVE FOR JO*

*paraphrase from an actual line in the film

As fast as you can say "Rodrigo Save Me" the problem of having to sell Orchard House is well, diminished into nothing, the parents return home from Afghanistan and Meg decides she has loved Brooke all along.  We get hints that she's "not the same girl she was in college"  (okay, hints is a kind of subtle word when, in fact, she just tells us over and over again while stationary and stagnantly NOT DEVELOPING AT ALL).

THIS ADAPTATION IS SO BAD! Lifetime, WHAT were you thinking?  Why did you have to make it Little Women.... but I digress....


So, even though Bhaer has given Jo the heave-ho (because, of COURSE, that's EXACTLY what the Bhaer of the book would do ); but as fast as you can say THE EIGHT MINUTES IN 'SEPARATE TABLES' that WON DAVID NIVEN THE OSCAR---- you have the EIGHT MINUTES IN THIS CRAPTASTICALLY BAD PRODUCTION wherein BHAER gets the girl simply by being the bookish chap and not boyishly insecure Teddy ( also, because even though they strayed so far from the plot; they decided they have to keep somewhat in line with Alcott or someone from above would smite them ).   How does Bhaer get the girl?  Jo, in all of her articulately sage wisdom ---as bespeaks a blonde celebrity ghost-tweeter, profoundly proclaims: "LOVE IS STUPID; BUT I THINK I'M IN IT"

At which point Rachel gagged. Much in the same way she gagged the last time she heard a line this bad ( which, incidentally, was in a film called When in Rome when that hot guy from Tad Hamilton tells Veronica Mars that "the only spell I'm under .....*insert dramatic pause here...... is yours.")

shoot me.

Anyways, Jo and Prof Bhaer draw on a chalkboard and then they kiss and everyone has a MERRY FRIGGIN CHRISTMAS because WHY OH WHY would they want to include the Under the Umbrella scene that is one of the most romantic in all of literature....

"I haf nothing to give you, my hands they are empty"*
"Not empty now"

*paraphrase from the real book.

No. don't do that. JUST DRAW ON A CHALKBOARD, you morons.

So, like the rest of you good-hearted people, I am turning to catch the end of the 1949 June Allyson edition which, thank the little Lord Jesus, is on TCM right now.

I would like to apologize on behalf of literature for the atrocity that was this 1 hour and 25 minutes plus commercials. Also, on behalf of my bad run-on sentences which I have NO INTENTION of changing (nor will I CHANGE MY CAPS TO ITALICS FOR EMPHATIC PURPOSES) because I AM friggin' MAD!


Virtual Advent Tour: George Bailey Lassos the Moon

Greetings! Welcome to my blog for the Virtual Advent Tour.

There's an episode of M*A*S*H called Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde. In it, after shift upon exhausting sleepless shift in the O.R., Hawkeye has a bad case of insomnia.  Not only is he grumpy and irritable, he is also exceedingly sentimental.  He remembers the beautiful origins of Bing Crosby's 1943 hit, "I'll Be Home for Christmas."  In the preceding war before the American involvement in Korea, the song was a beautiful reminder to the troops overseas of the holiday they were missing back home. Indeed, to this day, it is embraced by military operatives around the world. To Hawkeye, who knew little of peace before the war that he is currently serving in came to pass, it is a melancholy shift to nostalgia and a heartbreaking moment wherein he breaks down in front of Radar, remembering its potent emotional impact:

........Hawkeye: (To Radar) World War II--a lot of nice songs came out of that war. (Singing) I'll be home for Christmas...You can plan on me...(speaking again...I remember lying on the rug listening to them sing that on the radio. I can still smell the rug. (singing)Please have snow...and mistletoe..and presents on the tree...(speaking) A lot of very touching songs came out of that war............

In 1946, the war was a very recent and imminent memory. Those who had served so dedicatedly were now back on home soil and many had difficulty seeing toward an optimistic future when the pain and trauma of their experience were always freshly exhumed in their mind.  To this, Frank Capra added his own brand of redemptive optimism with his telling of It's a Wonderful Life : arguably the greatest Christmas film of all time. 

It's a Wonderful Life, upon its inception, was not necessarily pegged as a Holiday film; but one can see why it was easily appropriated as one. For one, it was easily available in the public domain when television stations began showing movies and it was one film that even the most basic cable stations could afford to screen.  Thus, it was an easy and beautiful way to get the family around the television set as the radio-listening/carol-singing days of old gave way to the new medium of entertainment.  Also, it has so many of the themes and archetypes we enjoy in our Christmas fare: from the Grinch/Scrooge character of Mr. Potter, to the kindly angel Clarence to the residents of a small, snow-filled town singing carols around a piano on Christmas Eve.

While most of the story does not take place at Christmas time, as is traditional with, say, the Hallmark fare of its ilk, its themes are incredibly resonant: especially for a world reconciling with the devastation of a recent war.  

There was a new wave of optimism and a new brand of Americana ushered in by the relentless hope of a story-teller such as Capra.  Who wouldn't want to trade the travesties of war for the triumph of goodness and the human spirit? George Bailey, the dreamer at the centre of the story and, likewise, the embodiment of the American ideal of hope, peace, love and the familial way, learns he is richer than he could ever have imagined possible.  The American dream is changing and the idyllic world of a small town with a beautiful, crumbly old home and a wife happy in the kitchen with an apron and a few  ankle-biters to tug on its strings, was just the type of revery forged in the minds of the young men recently released from service.

George Bailey is a hometown hero, yes; but he is also a home-front hero: a glimmer of the life that can be during what is hoped to be a permanent ceasefire.  

The movie does well at contrasting the recent War with the optimism of a nation.  George Bailey suffers from partial hearing and cannot enlist with his countrymen. His brother, Harry, however goes on to become a war hero.  While the celebration of Harry's homecoming is laureled around the streets of Bedford Falls, it is ultimately the triumph of the man who had to stay behind who is celebrated and revered at the end.   Capra does well at balancing the fresh tribute to the men who served with those who stayed at home.  George Bailey is not white-feathered for his inability to serve; rather he is seen as the understated hero he is. It is revealed, during the iconic flashback where George learns of his impact on so many lives, that had George not saved Harry from the icy water during a tobogganing accident in childhood, Harry would never have had the opportunity to save so many lives during the War.  It is an interesting and compelling parallel, yes; but also a lifeline for those who had experienced the War on either side of the Atlantic. 

There is no stigma in this wholesome story, there is only hope for the dawning of an era where the American man can pick up the pieces of his life; where redemption of past wrongs can be erased with the recognition that all you can take with you is that which you leave behind.  I like to imagine young men who had committed atrocious acts in the name of War watching this film upon its opening and feeling cleansed in the knowledge that this is a life they paved the way for.  This is what they fought for: this relentless and spirited optimism so fully cumulated in an uplifting Christmas scene.

Readers of this blog know my passion for Christmas carols and religious music and, for me, the pinnacle of this redemptive tale occurs in the gorgeous musical setting wherein the patrons of the Building and Loan shower grace upon their downtrodden hero and purchase his redemption with their goodwill and monetary gifts.  As Hark! The Herald Angels Sing proclaims the joy and abundant life purchased by God's gift of his Son to a broken world, so do the residents of a small community recognize the selfless life-long acts of their saviour. 

George Bailey once thought of lassoing the moon; of traveling the world and making his name afar; but the greatest gift he receives is the knowledge that the kindness and smallest action can ripple through generations and that one life well-lived saturates the lives of others in a way that human understanding will never grasp. What better Christmas theme than this?... no matter how you celebrate the Holidays.

By the time that Hawkeye fictitiously recalls the music of the previous War during his service in Korea, the small splice of peace shown in Bedford Falls has slivered and decayed and his country is once again in the midst of War. George Bailey and Bedford Falls and the Capra-brand of optimism seems far, far away; but the passionate recollection of a life well-lived, and for service men and women, a life well served, chimes on with the bells and the carols and the acts of cheer.  

The other stops today: 

kelley @ the road goes ever ever on
Tasha @ Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books as