meh · stuff I read

The Sherlockian

I’m definitely a Sherlock Holmes fan and I’ve read nearly every Holmes story written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  However, I am in no way remotely on the level of a Baker Street Irregular, that’s another kettle of literary fan/scholar entirely, but I was pleased to find an ARC of Graham Moore’s debut The Sherlockian in one of our store mailers back in November.  (And then I promptly packed it in a box by accident because I was moving.)

I started reading this to help jump-start a reading slump caused by said move (I’m behind on my Goodreads challenge to read 100 books this year, mostly caused by all my books being in boxes for half of January).  I’ve read good reviews for The Sherlockian so I was looking forward to reading the book….but I’m disappointed.

The first disappointment was the constant alternating chapters between the modern storyline – Harold and Sarah trying to track down a murderer and a lost Conan Doyle diary – and the Victorian storyline – Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker trying to track down a murderer and/or a bomber.  Every time a story had rising action we cut to the other storyline…annoying.  So the book was relegated to the bathroom counter, reading a chapter at a time during “visits” (you really wanted to know that, didn’t you?).  This worked out quite well because I had a designated reason to set the book down after a chapter and it lessened the irritation about having to start reading the other storyline every 10 pages or so.

The second disappointment came from the twin climaxes.  All I can say is: boring.  I didn’t feel any sense of excitement or “Ah-ha!” with either set of characters.  For a novel that derives from the excitement of a Holmes story I just didn’t feel it.

I may have been expecting too much from The Sherlockian but I can say that designating a book to read on the pot is very helpful as far as reading challenges go.

*Dear FTC, I snagged the advance copy of this book from my employer.

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reflection · stuff I read

Mockingbird

Imagine you are ten years old and your older brother has been killed in a school shooting.  How would you understand?  How would you learn to cope or deal with your grief?

Now imagine that you also have Asperger’s syndrome.  It is already hard enough for you to understand how to interact emotionally with your peers; they don’t understand you and you don’t understand them.  How would you understand grief and loss?

In Mockingbird, this is Caitlin’s predicament.  She’s is very intelligent, reads very well and draws far better than most adults, but she has Asperger’s and her routine has been interrupted.  The most patient and understanding part of her world – her older brother, Devon – is gone.  Her school counselor tries to help her with both her regular therapy and with understanding grief.  For Caitlin, she has to understand both her own and others’ grief – a tall order for a ten-year-old who has trouble understanding empathy.  In a chance meeting on the playground, she meets a younger student who lost his mother in the shooting and she decides that she will be his friend.  When he mentions that his father needs “closure,” Caitlin becomes obsessed with the word and its meaning.

Mockingbird is narrated by Caitlin so we see the world through her eyes and her thoughts.  She likes absolutes, black-and-white drawings, so the unpredictable world of grief and loss – in many different shades – makes her anxious.  Caitlin loves language, the interplay of words (she also capitalizes certain words and phrases like one would proper nouns – Look At A Person, Heart – because these words are important to her).  She presses her father to finish Devon’s Eagle Scout project, a wooden chest (“chest” as an object and “chest” as in the human thorax become linked in her mind), which is linked to her favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Devon’s nickname for her, Scout. 

Mockingbird is a wonderful novel both for the story told within the pages and the character who does the narrating.  Caitlin has a great voice and Kathryn Erskine drew on her own experience with her daughter to flesh out Caitlin’s behaviors.  In an afterword, Erskine noted that she wanted to write a book about recovery, kindness, and understanding.  Erskine lives in Virginia and experienced the aftermath of the 2007 VTech campus shooting.  She has steeped Mockingbird in kindness and understanding; it is Caitlin’s unique version of kindness, but it comes from the heart.

stuff I read

The Wednesday Wars

If I were the only kid in my class who had to stay at school on Wednesday afternoons while half my class when to Catechism and the other half to Hebrew school, I might think my teacher was out to get me, too.  Especially if she started assigning me extra work…boo.  This, precisely, is seventh grader Holling Hoodhood’s predicament in 1967 Long Island.  He’s Presbyterian, so no religious school on Wednesdays, and, after an ill-timed incident with baked goods, open windows, and chalkboard erasers (not to mention the incident with the escapee classroom rats), Holling’s teacher Mrs. Baker assigns him The Merchant of Venice.  See, Mrs. Baker is totally out to get him because extra-homework, and Shakespeare no less, means your teacher hates your guts – it’s The Wednesday Wars.

Except, Holling takes a shine to Merchant.  He gets hooked on the villainous aspects of Shylocks character until a discussion with Mrs. Baker makes him realise that Shylock may be the victim instead.  Mrs. Baker next assigns The Tempsest.  He finds that there are many, many colorful curses in the play – curses no one seems to know, like “pied ninny” – and Holling gets a kick out of muttering them to himself.  He even teaches them to one of the ornerier kids in his class.  So Mrs. Baker makes him read the play again and discuss it with her.  And then, one thing leading to another, Holling winds up cast as Ariel in a local production of The Tempest when the baker finds out Holling can recite Shakespeare.  Mrs. Baker keeps assigning Holling a new play every few months throughout the year and Holling finds that Shakespeare (and Mrs. Baker) can surprise you.

The Wednesday Wars is an excellent work of historical fiction for kids.  The Vietnam War and many historical events during the 1967-68 school year create an excellent framework for the novel.  Mrs. Baker’s husband is MIA in Vietnam; a classmate, Mai Thi, is a Vietnamese orphan raised by a Catholic organization; Holling’s sister openly opposes the war and the establishment; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy impact several characters; Yankees baseball is a cherished topic of conversation (particularly the stats from that year).  Holling starts the journey toward adulthood this year and, in a way, Shakespeare helps him understand the adult world. 

Schmidt does well to balance the sobering reality of his time period with humor that would appeal to an elementary school or middle-grade reader.  Slapstick and a little gross-out humor (the classroom rats Sycorax and Caliban falling through the ceiling or eating the cream puffs, the list of ways to annoy teachers, the fermented holiday cider, etc) make Holling relatable; he is just a seventh grader after all, not an adult.  Those who don’t laugh over Holling’s alarm at having to wear a yellow unitard with white feathers on the derriere lack a sense of humor.  Schmidt warms the heart, too, when you least expect it.  Those who don’t shed a tear when Holling comforts his sister when Bobby Kennedy is assassinated or when Mai Thi is adopted by the character least expected…well, those readers lack any sort of heart.

*Schmidt’s new book, OK for Now, releases April 05, 2011, and follows class-prankster Doug Swieteck (Audubon and Jane Eyre are involved, so I’ve heard); there is a third book planned for the series that follows Meryl Lee from The Wednesday Wars.

stuff I read

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet

After reading The Weird Sisters I decided that I needed to visit a few other books where Shakespeare plays a role in the story – but not an adaptation.  I decided to start with a YA/MG book or two, hence The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet.

Hamlet Kennedy is having major family embarassment issues.  Her parents dress like sixteenth-century denziens – they are reknowned Shakespearean scholars after all – and her super-genius baby sister Desdemonda (aka Dezzie) has enrolled in public school, for the first time ever, in Hamlet’s grade, even though Dezzie is only seven, because Dezzie needs the art and music exposure she hasn’t quite gotten from her tutors at home.  And Hamlet has to make sure Dezzie makes it through the morning…read: babysitter.  Hamlet’s trying to fly under the radar – she’s having a hard enough time just blending in and avoiding attention – but it looks like Hamlet has a hidden talent of her own: acting.

If I were eleven or twelve reading this book, I wouldn’t bat an eye at the oddness of the parents’ clothing or the very strange gamut of childrens’ names in the book (I’m not talking about Hamlet or Dezzie, but there is a dearth of Jennifers, Emmas, Jasons, etc).  It is what it is.  But as an adult…I know a goodly number of Shakespearean scholars, some quite famous, and none of them wear Elizabethan or Jacobean costume as everyday clothing every single day.  Most of them wouldn’t wear it even to a Shakespeare festival.  So to me, it comes off as far-fetched but it does help heighten Hamlet’s anxiety that people will tease her about her parents.

I chuckled quite a lot (mostly to myself) while reading this one.  We all remember junior high – awkwardness, confidence issues, booby-traps everywhere (laid by the “mean girls”; why were the “popular girls” always the mean ones?) – so any adult can relate to Hamlet’s continued consternation that her parents and her sister are out to ruin her life simply by being themselves (like showing up to school to pick up Dezzie in an Elizabethan neck ruff and cape with bells).  Which makes it harder for Hamlet to attempt to avoid attention/teasing.  She hears a lot of “oink”-ing because of her name and finds origami pigs (which are quite well-executed) in her locker.  Dezzie ends up making “friends” with Hamlet’s worst enemies – the “mean girls” – leading to a pretty wicked family feud but a pretty awesome comeuppance in the end.

I quite liked how A Midsummer Night’s Dream was integrated into the book.  It is presented as a combined English and history block project for Hamlet’s class.  This is how Hamlet’s hidden talent comes to life: she is asked to recite in class (*shame* who remembers having to read aloud in class? *shame*) and it turns out she is good at it.  Very good.  So good, in fact, that she is cast as Puck in the class production of the play.  The lines from the play are included in the book as Hamlet or other classmates read them so the reader has to read them, too.  A great way for kids to add to their vocabulary and get a little Shakespeare.

BNBC · stuff I read

Jamaica Inn

Although Daphne du Maurier was a prolific writer – books, plays, memoirs – I never got around to reading anything but her Rebecca.  Creeped me out, too, considering I read it for the first time when I was twelve and never managed to shake the Mrs.-Danvers-is-watching feeling.  I read my second du Maurier with Literature by Women this month – Jamaica Inn.

Jamaica Inn has the best elements of gothic fiction – mysterious comings and goings, albino vicars, villains of all stripes, isolated locations – without the over-stuffed, circuitous narration of actual eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic fiction (The Mysteries of Uldolpho, anyone?).  Long story short, country girl (but not-so-terribly-naive, she is a farmer’s daughter) Mary has to come stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at Jamaica Inn after her mother’s death.  However, Jamaica Inn hasn’t functioned as an inn in quite some time, Uncle Joss is a mean drunk (and up to all sorts of illegal types of activity) and Aunt Patience is a cowering mess.  Mary is stuck in an impossible situation – immediately rat out her uncle to the magistrate, and risk her aunt’s life, or risk turning into a battered, abused woman like Aunt Patience?

Jamaica Inn was quite a fun book to read, thrilling and well-written.  Du Maurier tells great stories and I find I like her heroine Mary better than the unnamed Mrs. de Winter who narrates Rebecca (although Mrs. Danvers beats out just about everyone in Jamaica Inn for creepiest character, except the vicar).  Mary is spunky and tough while Mrs. de Winter is just….there.  I was hoping for a slightly different ending to the novel (after the climax, which was pretty crazy for a novel set on the moors of Cornwall) but you don’t always get what you want.  I think I should read My Cousin Rachel as my next du Maurier (whenever I manage to get around to it which may not be soon).

*PS: The movie adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock has a very divergent storyline and cast of characters caused by the Hays Code and one obnoxious movie star.  Although it does have Maureen O’Hara as Mary…you win some, you lose some.

new books (yay) · stuff I read

One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Thursday Next is one of my most favorite literary characters, making Jasper Fforde a favored author.  Very favored.  There was a great deal of gleeful hopping up and down when I bought my copy.  One of Our Thursdays is Missing is the sixth book in the Thursday Next series and I was a bit apprehensive when starting – it’s not narrated by Thursday.

Not the real Thursday, anyway, but Thursday5 who has taken over narration of the revamped TN series since the erasure of Thursday1-4 (and The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco) at the end of First Amongst Sequels.  All the other books in the series are narrated in the first person by Thursday, only switching narrators briefly when necessary (like when Thursday was in a coma in Something Rotten and Landen received a visit from Commander Bradshaw, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Emperor Zhark – Landen narrated that chapter) so an entire book from a slightly different viewpoint….  I was a bit guarded for the first chapter but then I got lost in the plot and rich stock of book jokes and puns.  I love it.  Written Thursday is just as wonderful a narrator as real Thursday – it gives a slightly different perspective on the BookWorld and what a BookWorld it is.  The BookWorld is a major part of what makes the TN series so terribly much fun and it undergoes a major reorganization at the beginning of OoOTiM – from an amorphous Nothing to a Fiction Island in a sphere.  The World consists of text description, therefore it can be rewritten and rearranged. 

The rearrangement suits the plot of OoOTiM far better because Thursday5 (who really isn’t called that anymore, she’s simply called Thursday so I probably better get used to it) now helps out with the Jurisfiction version of the NTSB when she’s not busy with her series.  Thursday is ordered to whip up a report (read: overlook the real cause) about an odd chunk of book that has crash landed in the middle of the island.  On her way to the accident site, she is accosted by an odd red-haired book character who intimates that all is not right in the BookWorld: the real Thursday Next has gone missing!  In the company of a clockwork robot named Sprockett and a malfunctioning Mrs. Malaprop, Thursday begins her own covert investigation into the real cause of the accident and the real Thursday’s disappearance.  Written Thursday must confront the dangers of the Outland (the Real World) and Vanity publishing to save real Thursday and Fiction Island.

Fforde introduces new bits and bobs to the BookWorld with characters old and new.  Written Thursday visits the Lady of Shallott, the possessor of a very special mirror.  The Thursday character understudy has a prediliction for goblins, something of which the written Pickwick has an outspoken dislike.  The Council of Genres is worried that the rising level of e-books will drain the Text Sea.  Fforde even thinks up a “feedback loop” where readers inprint their own thoughts and impressions back onto the fictional character, not without issue: Harry Potter was seriously pissed off that he’d have to spend the rest of his life looking like Daniel Radcliffe. (p 69)

I can’t recommend the Thursday Next series enough.  They are silly, absurd, thrilling, hilarious, literary, and unputdownable.  If you’ve never read any Thursday books, start with The Eyre Affair; if you’ve kept up with Thursday, what are you waiting for??  Read this book!  (I’m waiting very impatiently for the OoOTiM release on audiobook so Thursday can keep me company in the car, just like the previous volumes).

movie star drool

Movies with mice and men on St. Pat’s

I had The Tale of Despereaux adaptation from Netflix for several months before I started watching it…and then I stopped.  It didn’t seem like the book.  Particularly when Chef Andre opens a secret cookbook and conjures up a man made of vegetables to help him…what???  I don’t remember that in the book.  I finished the movie on St. Patrick’s Day, just to get it out of my way, and it’s really not a great adaptation.  A great deal of the magic from the book is lost.  The voice casting is quite good (except whenever I hear Kevin Kline with a French accent all I can think of is his charming French jewel thief from French Kiss) but I wish the direction would have decided English or American on the majority of accents because there’s too much variation.  Although animated Despereaux looked quite sweet, I felt the rest of the movie was neither here nor there with the animation.  So I wasn’t impressed and I’m a bit disappointed – it was such a fun book to read.

Then I decided to celebrate St. Paddy’s with a bottle of Harp and little movie Michael Fassbender (yes, him again).  Only the movie wasn’t a celebration.  Steve McQueen’s Hunger depicts the condition of IRA prisoners at the British Maze Prison in 1981 during the “blanket” and “no wash” protests and then the last six weeks of Bobby Sands’s life during the hunger strike.  McQueen attempts even-handedness in his film – a prison guard Lohan is seen at home and visiting his mother in contrast to the hell of the prison (it’s really hard not to sympathize with the prisoners) – and I feel that the camera makes no judgement.  The watcher is the one responsible for drawing a conclusion. 

While the first and third portions of the film use little dialogue, the middle third of the film contains two of the best single-takes I have seen in a long time.  Sands (Fassbender) receives a visit (or has requested a visit, I’m not sure which) from a priest (Liam Cunningham) prior to the start of the hunger strike on March 1.  The two men size one another up with some witty, cutting banter before getting down to brass tacks: the morality of a hunger strike, of a suicidal course.  This is one sixteen-minute take, the camera never moves, never zooms in or out.  It’s like amazing, sweaty, live theatre.  The next take is another long one, maybe seven or eight minutes, where the camera focuses on Sands as he relates a story from his childhood; it shows he is the one ready and willing to take the physical pain, that he can take the pain and reality of a hunger strike for the greater good.  Fassbender gives an amazing performance, you can’t look away and he isn’t even doing anything but speaking and smoking. 

There is great beauty in Hunger, whether it is a long take of a man trying to get a bee to crawl on his hand, a design created from human feces on a prison wall, or the frailty of the human body as depicted by Fassbender who underwent a medically-monitored crash diet to portray Sands at the end of his life (if anyone though Christian Bale was creepy-skinny in The Machinist this is far, far more disturbing).  This movie should have received more recognition – it is well-made, well-acted, and well-shot – but I don’t recall any buzz for this movie Stateside, not even for the Oscars.  Fassbender should have at least received Best Actor buzz because his performance is gut-wrenching.  This is a movie not for the faint-hearted – it is bloody and brutal – but worth the effort of watching.

movie star drool

Jane Eyre, costume dramas and Romans

While I wait impatiently for the new Jane Eyre adaptation to make an appearance in Iowa (I’ve been stalking the Focus Features website for updated listings – as it currently stands I’ll have to drive 100+ miles on April 8 to get to the nearest screen), the Blu-ray player and Netflix Instant are getting a workout (costume dramas are my favorite).  In-between re-watching the 2006 Jane Eyre and You’ve Got Mail I recently saw:

Jane Eyre: The 1943 adaptation with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles.  I haven’t seen this in years so I was pleased to see it pop up on the Instant offerings considering I was salivating over a new adaptation.  I’d forgotten Elizabeth Taylor makes an appearance as Helen Burns and Agnes Moorhead (aahhh! Endora!) is Mrs. Reed.  Novel-butchering aside, Joan Fontaine is quite good as Jane Eyre but Orson Welles as always bothered me as Rochester.  It’s like he’s not “English” enough, if you get what I mean.  There’s a bit too much swagger and not enough “toff” in his accent.

The Crown Prince: 2006 Austrian mini-series about Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and the utter mess his life turned into.  Surprisingly, this is shot in English, not German and dubbed in English as I had expected, with a European cast (Klaus Maria Brandauer is Emperor Franz-Joseph and it suits him well).  I have a thing for the history of European royal families and the Hapsburgs are a particularly interesting set.  This was a very good mini-series, well worth watching, with great location shots (I’ve been to Schonbrunn), fantastic costumes, and good acting.  Rather than rely on the possibility of mental instability being inherent to Rudolf’s character, the film builds on Rudolph’s frustration as being balked at every opportunity and his subsequent descent into drug use and illness.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy:  Woody Allen and Shakespeare.  Good combo or bad combo?  I’m leaning toward “meh” combo.  It’s got funny lines and neurotic characters but I just wasn’t that interested in the movie.  Woody Allen might have made the fantastic Annie Hall but all his movies seem to have similar scripts and jokes.

The Young Victoria: I had wanted to watch this in the theatre last year but it only made an appearance the weekend I was out of town (you got it, one weekend).  So I had to wait until the DVD came out and then it was so far down the Netflix queue that I was able to watch it on Instant (Starz play, or something like that).  I really like this movie – good cinematography, good casting, great costumes (although I do think I saw at least one zipper on the back of a dress).  Emily Blunt is wonderful and Rupert Friend (who I didn’t like much as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice) does a very good job bringing Victoria’s “plus one” to life.  Loved Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter as King William IV and Queen Adelaide.  I would have given this five stars in my Netflix review except for the very glaring historical error about Albert getting shot while protecting Victoria from an assassin; he was never shot and if you’re going for serious historical accuracy it’s hard to ignore.  So it got a four.  But I think I might buy this one anyway, I liked the rest of it that much.

Bright Star: I was pretty irritated that this never came near Iowa last year.  I love Keats’s poetry and I really wanted to see what Jane Campion would do with the love story between Keats and Fanny Brawne (cut short by Keats dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25; he thought he was a failure as a poet…little did he know).  This is a pretty movie, very vivid with all the colors of Fanny’s dresses and bonnets and the outdoor shots of what is supposed to be the Hampstead Heath in London.  I found it interesting that there wasn’t much of an orchestral score – something I expect in a “romantic” movie – and what music there is are pieces from the time period.  I thought Ben Wishaw was good as Keats but I wasn’t entirely sold on Abbie Cornish as Fanny; she didn’t do a bad job but I wasn’t all that impressed either.  The movie did drag somewhat in the middle but I didn’t lose interest. 

Centurion:  Let me introduce you to my favorite new hottie-pants, Michael Fassbender.  He has gorgeous eyes (Irish and German ancestry *melts*).  He can kick some serious butt, as evidenced by this movie and his role as Stelios in 300 (which I found to be a distracting movie because of Gerard Butler and not in a good way).  He is the new Magneto in the X-Men reboot and Carl Jung to Viggo Mortensen’s Freud in A Dangerous Method, the Excalibur remake, and in the adaptation of At Swim-Two-Birds, a Flann O’Brien novel I’ve had in the TBR for a long while).  I have Hunger at home in the Blu-ray…where was I?  Oh, yeah, Centurion.  It’s pretty good, particularly if you like bloody hand-to-hand combat and Olga Kurylenko as a blood-lust crazed Pict.  Not too much in the way of plot, but good for an evening’s entertainment of drooling over watching Fassbender while I wait to see his Rochester.