BNBC · stuff I read

Cranford

Cranford is a little town, a quiet village (I’ve been re-watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast lately) filled with quiet middle-aged ladies.

Although the ladies only appear quiet.  They are in fact very busy, visiting one another, writing letters, worrying over the proper way to address a visiting, recently-widowed Scottish baronet’s wife and whether it would be proper for more middle-class ladies to visit her.

Cranford is a series of reminisces from a young lady’s visits to Cranford thinly disguised as a novel.  Gaskell gives us a very good picture of the lives of upper-middle class/slightly shabby due to lack of money women in an era when gentlewomen frowned on work of any kind.  It’s a household novel, full of domestic details you won’t find in an Austen, although still a novel of manners in many ways.  Very sweet and a great introduction to Victorian literature.

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Congrats, Will and Kate!

No, I did not get up at some obscene hour of the morning to watch the wedding in full.  Are you nuts?

That’s what the Internet is for, picture and video recap.  The only thing I was really curious about was Kate’s dress because she has a good eye for design and a very clean, simple style in her everyday wear; I was a little worried that people would get carried away and froth her up so I was pleased to see the Alexander McQueen gown…beautiful.  The Fug Girls (http://www.gofugyourself.com/) have live-blogs and re-caps for all the wedding finery, particularly the hats, and they do a much better job than I.

So congrats, Will and Kate, may you be very, very happy, although I think we’re supposed to call you HRH the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge now.  But I’m older than you, so you’re still Will and Kate.  Ha!

(Also, to that daft idiot who is already wondering what Kate will be called when she’s queen…that’s nasty, dude, Prince Charles is in excellent health and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t succeed his mother and then William succeed him; Kate’s title and style as Queen Consort is a very, very long way down the road)

movie star drool

Topsy-Turvy/The King’s Speech

An extreme amount of hopping up-and-down occured last Saturday – the mailman brought me a package with movie goodness inside!!!

Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy was released on Blu-ray last month and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it.  I love Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, particularly The Mikado so I loved the movie when it originally released (although, once again, being in Iowa, I had to wait until it was released on cable to see it).  It’s a fun biopic, in a way, since every character in the film was a real person, right down to the chorus of the D’Oyly Carte.  The costumes and sets are amazing, well-worth the Oscars earned, and very detailed.  All the actors do their own singing, something I really like and you can really hear the women pushing against their corsets to breathe.  Bonus points: Kevin McKidd, who many people know as Lucius Vorenus on Rome, plays Mr. Lely who has a great scene where he whines about needing his corset to sing.

And then I glued myself to the TV screen to watch the always-brilliant-and-handsome Colin Firth in his Oscar-winning role as King George VI and The King’s Speech.  Love, love, love, love, love.  Everything about this movie is well-done.  The casting, even of parts with minimal screen time like the Archbishop of Canterbury (Sir Derek Jacobi), was thoughtful and note-perfect.  The accents were spot-on (the King’s and Winston Churchill’s (Timothy Spall) especially).  Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush were great.  I also loved very small details like Firth choosing to be noticeably pigeon-toed (watch when he sits in chairs) because the King had knock-knees as a child.  To wrap up my drool-fest, I do have to say I loved the use of music during the film especially the Beethoven Symphony no. 7 in A major, it conveyed both the gravity and the drama of the first wartime speech perfectly (although, an odd choice for a British King at the start of World War II since Beethoven was a German, maybe I’ll just ignore that).  What really makes the movie compelling is the insistence of Logue that Bertie’s stutter wasn’t solely a mechanical problem, but also a problem of the mind; getting Bertie to admit that he was terribly abused by one of his nannies and that his own family teased him for his stutter did seem to be half the battle.  The funniest scene, though, was the let’s-surprise-Mrs. Logue-by-having-HRH the King and Queen-for-tea-and-not-tell-her-ahead-of-time.

stuff I read

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

Shakespeare is commonplace these days.  Any number of common phrases – “to be or not to be”, “a rose by any other name”, “now is the winter of our discontent” – are quoted and misquoted frequently.  Modern adaptations of the plays are performed or the plots used as the basis of a movie.  Regardless of whether you think Shakespeare was a real person who wrote the plays himself or you believe he was the front man for any of a number of Elizabethan men, English language and literature changed after Shakespeare’s plays hit the boards.

Stephen Marche’s new book, How Shakespeare Changed Everything, provides a short history of the Bard’s influence on language, thought, sex, politics, and racism, to name only a few realms of influence.  Nazi Germany tried to claim Shakespeare as a Germanic writer (except for the whole Merchant of Venice “Hath not a Jew eyes?” thing), John Wilkes Booth was part of a trio of accomplished Shakespearean actor-brothers known for a famous one-off performance of Julius Ceasar, and Othello broke color lines in the twentieth-century when a director cast the reknown Paul Robeson as the Moor, just to name a few.  Shakespeare was a bawdy, raunchy dude – euphemisms for sex abound.  Book titles overtly (Brave New World) or obliquely (Infinite Jest) reference the plays.

This was a fun and quick read.  The chapters are organized by topic – sex, politics, race, etc – rather than by play so I wouldn’t recommend this for those who haven’t read or seen the more popular plays (Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream); most of the quotes are presented without context so some familiarity with Shakespeare is needed to enjoy this book.  I’ve read all the plays, seen most of them, so I got oddball references to Titus Andronicus and Measure for Measure.  Those looking for a Shakespeare study aid would do better to look at something like Shakespeare Alive!; Marche’s book is for pleasure reading.  I really liked this book – I like the Trivial Pursuit nature of the short chapters, random facts are things I love.  I never knew that about starlings (if you have to ask, then you need to read the book).

How Shakespeare Changed Everything drops on May 10!

*Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

stuff I read

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower speaks to the murky underbelly of the college system, those students who will mostly likely not go on to be doctors, CEOs, or professors and the adjuncts who teach them.  Professor X is an adjunct professor, teaching evening courses in college English and writing at a small college and local community college.  His students are taking his class because it’s required for their course of study; some of them are non-traditional students, some (according to Professor X) are woefully underprepared for college work.  Professor X wonders, are we selling these students a lemon, an expensive college education that they are neither prepared for, can afford, nor need?

This book is hazy with anonymity; we can’t compare Professor X’s students with other schools’ students because he won’t tell us for fear of recrimination. I wish that Professor X could have written this book without the anonymity, although I do agree, based on the criticism he received from the initial magazine article, that it is necessary. There seems to be a lot of heads-in-sand about his stance: commenters imply that he is maligning his students by failing them, that he’s not actually teaching or helping them adequately, that he doesn’t care.  However, if Professor X didn’t care about his students, he wouldn’t have bothered to write In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. If anyone is in doubt as to the poor learning skills of Professor X’s students and his almost paralyzing decision to pass or fail them, just look at any Internet forum and you can see a basic lack of reading and writing skills. In my persona as a moderator of an online bookclub I am swimming in poorly written prose – both original compositions posted in the writing room and posts as part of book discussions. God forbid I should actually tell someone that his or her post is unintelligible and makes no sense (an issue completely divorced from the issue of atrocious grammar and spelling); it is apparently “mean” to criticize. There are some who probably view Professor X as “mean” because he does attempt to hew to the standards of college-level work; he doesn’t just pass them because he wants to be “nice”.

Standards are at the core of the book, that students who barely function at a level appropriate to high school, or lower, grade-levels are pushed to attend college with no thought as to the actual preparation of the students. These students need remedial course work, but receive no credit for it in their degree paths so, therefore, don’t bother nor does the college enforce this, and the connection between their career path and the college writing/literature work is tenuous at best. Adjuncts are not paid for office hours, have no place to meet with students, and often don’t have time allotted by the school to give the level of personal instruction that academically disadvantaged students need. Professor X worries, how are students with rudimentary communication skills being served by this drive to send everyone and their neighbors’ dog to college? It’s a valid worry.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower raises many issues and we, as a country, should seriously take a look at student debt and college requirements for job placement, at the educational system as a whole from preschool through college. Where I think this book falls down is in a lack of proposed solutions, beyond revamping the American notion of success-through-college-is-the-only-way-to-go, and in the tone of the author. What is Professor X’s solution for underprepared students, beyond not forcing them to take college English? He doesn’t tell us.  I really was not interested in Professor X’s anxiety about his house or his fights with his wife; those chapters detracted from his arguments about the college system. I also felt that the quibbling over grading – do students get the “F” that is deserved under the college standards or do they get bumped up to a “D” or “C” because of improvement/situation – could have done without the tone of smarmy self-assurance implied in the many chapters. There are issues barely touched on – such as the rise of blantant plagiarism and students’ seeming indifference to getting caught or the out-of-touch anthologies he is required to use as textbooks – that need more expansion. Faults aside, this book is a “whistleblower”; we need more whistleblowers and fewer heads-in-the-sand.

stuff I read

The Anti-Romantic Child

Two brilliant scholars (one Wordsworthian, one American literature) have a child – he is precocious, reads and speaks early, shows remarkable musical ability.  But the mother has some doubts, the child is not as affectionate as she would expect, he is remarkably set in his routines….a specialist diagnoses a range of sensory-processing delays and hyperlexia…and so shatters the Romantic idyll of the perfect childhood.  This is Priscilla Gilman’s story, sprinkled with Wordsworth’s poems about childhood and life.

This is surprisingly engrossing – I wanted to read The Anti-Romantic Child because of the author’s background in Wordsworthian poetry but never thought I would get so emotionally invested in Gilman’s story (note: I don’t have children). When she gets hotly irritated by the psychologist at the special needs elementary school (where her elder son is enrolled) because the psychologist complains that the child is “difficult”, I got irritated, too; I couldn’t help it, by that point in the book I was invested in the little boy’s outcome and the psychologist was attempting to write-off a brilliant but differently-wired child when she ought to be his champion. I teared up in places because the joy Gilman expresses at the small milestones her son makes is palpable.

Gilman is an excellent writer, opening her childhood history to the reader, disclosing how much joy she has found reading Wordsworth, how his notions of Romantic children informed her view of children and child-rearing. This is not a book about why early-intervention therapy is necessary for a special-needs child or why it was impossible for Gilman to send her special-needs child to NY Public School (between the lines, you can tell that there is lingering disappointment that the mother and father had to fight so hard for the child with little or no initial help from the system). This is book written by a mother who has protected the parts of her child that give her joy – his musicality, precocity with reading and math, his thirst for knowledge – and used them to understand him and help him understand the world he lives in.

*Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

stuff I read

The Postmistress

I received an ARC of The Postmistress by Sarah Blake a few years back as part of the First Look group at BNBC.  I couldn’t get into it – I kept reading the first chapter because I couldn’t figure out how all the characters fit together.  I recently decided to read/finish that sucker, by hook or by crook, because I made a little pile of all the books that I needed to read-and-get-rid-of because they were cluttering up my office (and I felt bad that I had an ARC that I never finished).

I think what I must say about The Postmistress is that the book and I are not friends.  I didn’t find any of the central female characters – Iris, Emma, and Frankie – compelling, like I did Juliet and Elizabeth of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and the male characters were lacking in direction.  The timeline seemed very disjointed.  I didn’t like the ending; it was unsatisfying and made me grumpy. 

What I did like about the book came from the long, central section about Frankie’s trip through Europe as Germany sent the last of the refueee trains out of its possessions.  The heartbreaking stories she recorded, people who most probably didn’t survive the war, children separated from their parents.  Blake highlighted the extreme difficulty Jewish refugees had in escaping Nazi persecution due to immigration laws of other countries, particularly that of the US.  That central section of the book came alive for me unlike the beginning and ending.