Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ahhhhh BACH

Umm... I sort of love me some Bach. I do! I am a huge fan of the Baroque period, attend most every concert performed by Toronto's World Class Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik and spend most of my working hours with Baroque music on itunes.  I love it. It's measured and therapeutic.

There is nothing in the world better than Bach. Seriously.  So, I was, of course, delighted when the Hairpin featured this article.

Read it and love: complete with youtube video of Cachonne BWV 1004.

For you Bach-loving Torontonians, the Anglican Church of the Redeemer (across from the ROM) features amazing Bach Vespers now and then. I often go and lose myself in the wonderment of this sacred religious practice. It's heavenly: especially when couched in the magnificent old church Redeemer worships in.

I guess I should throw something bookish into this post, n'est pas?  So read The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin: a highly-acclaimed and riveting treasure-hunt into some of the most beautiful music ever written.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sushi for One by Camy Tang

Lex Sakai is a young, Japansese-American woman doomed to become the oldest single cousin in a few short month’s time. Her over-bearing grandmother threatens to withdrawal financial support from Lex’s beloved girls’ volleyball league if Lex can’t find a man…. and soon.

But, Lex is not your typical gal. Unlike the majority of her family, she and her three closest cousins ( and best friends) are Christians and Lex is a sports-loving, volley-ball playing male-repellant. She doesn’t know how to interact with guys and when forced to confront her singles’ group and volleyball friends for a prospective date, to appease granny and save the funding, her blurted-out lines are hilarious.

Sushi for One is unlike any other Christian chicklit you’ve read: at least it was when it first published in 2007 ( it has been followed by four other books by Tang in the same ilk: each focusing on one of Lex’s cousins and their journey toward romance ). Tang’s heartfelt infusion of multi-culturalism and the culture of her spunky, sprightly heroine is welcome throughout as she paints Lex’s relationships with her colleagues and her tightly-knit traditional family. Sushi is possibly my favourite food in the world and I was craving it throughout as Tang elicits some of her favourite Asian dishes in the novel. From sashimi to hot pot, you’ll be left salivating: in a good way.

As well as featuring a wonderfully unique and spicy heroine, Tang does well at painting a world relatively unknown in Christian fiction: the world of athleticism and sports. Lex’s job, her chance to play for an elite volleyball league, her endeavours as coach, her sports injuries and her passion for all things Athlete are a fresh twist of air to a genre where women are usually employed in more typified female gender roles. It takes the dashing (Tang says he smiles like Orlando Bloom) physiotherapist Aiden to turn Lex’s head.

Tang’s series boasts “romance with a kick of wasabi” and I can certainly appraise her narrative of having just that. This is edgy Christian chicklit, folks! It involves dancing, mentions of wine and hangovers, women who are too closely attracted and sexually assertive, flirting and spice. In fact, I loved that there were no self-reverential passages or italicized prayers. Rather, Lex and her cousins are strong, independently liberal Christians who put faith first; but also live beyond the bubble in the real world. This was a nice change to some of the overtly-evangelical fare I often read.

I found myself laughing throughout the novel: more at Lex’s subconscious train of thought and the snippy narrative than the many ( and I say WAAAY too many) accidents involving Lex and some sort of liquid. This is a little over-hyped: taking clumsy to a new level ---especially because Lex is described as possessing an athletic grace. Furthermore, a competent athlete would have the balance needed to withstand the multiple incidents which plague her. This goes from amusing to tiring infinitesimally. Otherwise, I found this a fresh and original chicklit and I look forward to reading some of Camy Tang’s other books!

You can buy Sushi for One at amazon
Visit Camy Tang on the web

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Love Remains by Kaye Dacus

Love Remains  is my second read of a Dacus novel, the first being The Art of Romance which I enjoyed very much.  The story arc connecting this book, Art of Romance and Turnabout's Fair Play (which is on my shelf for reading soon!) is the meddling of a group of faith-based grandmothers who want to see their single grandchildren paired off...but with standards.  If the grandchildren of each of the unofficial group's members can pair up amongst themselves, then everyone is certain of quality matches.

Three unsuspecting grandchildren are Caylor (the heroine of The Art of Romance, Flannery ( whom I will meet in Turnabout) and Zarah, the heroine of Love Remains. Like Caylor, Zarah has a wonderfully unique academic profession at the Middle Tennessee Historic Preservation Commission, is built like a woman (and not like a stick insect), flashes her normal insecurities, has problems with eating a little too much ( and the guilt that follows) and with a bit of a backward fashion sense; but whose heart for serving in the church and whose genuine interest to please everyone trumps her desperation of finding a man and settling down: even while the infrastructure of her church wants to place more effort into providing good marriage and family examples for its singles.

Much like Jane Austen's Persuasion, Zarah's world takes a turn when former beau Bobby Patterson arrives at the scene. Convinced by her father that Bobby was an unsuitable match for the young Zarah, she remained single and heart-broken as he served time in the military. Now, he is back and the sparks that flew between them persist still. Will Zarah's pride and the curly head on her shoulders be able to withstand meddling from her friends, her grandmother and even from Bobby Patterson himself?

What Kaye Dacus does extremely well is explore the plight of singles in the church universe. For those who are unfamiliar with organized religion, Christian Singles ministry and the pressure (sometimes unspoken) of those who have chosen careers over love to mesh into a mould which appreciates the traditional family unit, this will be a strange land. For those of us who grew up in the church and have felt first hand how singular life can be when you attempt to find a dating field within the confines of Christianity, we completely recognize the insecurities and doubts which plague Zarah and her band of single Christian friends.  When Zarah's single leader Patrick becomes engaged, the feelings of abandonment and surprise that follow will be instantly recognizable to those who have been closely involved in a Church family.  The feelings of doubt, loneliness and insecurity ----as well as the little nagging thoughts of jealousy which seem to be so foreign to a world built on the tenets of theology will be all-too-familiar.

The book excels at presenting the life of a single woman with a successful career who is forced to contemplate her past and future relationship while reconciling her individuality with an unspoken mantra of a church duty-bound to present worthy examples of couples, marriage and family.  Indeed, it was the separation and titles of the numerous Bible Study and Sunday School groups which rapt my attention: classes for singles, for nearly marrieds, for already marrieds, for those who have been divorced (Divorce Care).... Churches have the propensity to label within their greater structure.  I will be the first to condemn this practice (having often felt that I didn't fit into any of the columns provided and having seen how it can unintentionally ostracize seekers) and I applaud Dacus for blatantly exploring the ramifications of this seemingly harmless practice on her heroine.

I did find this book a little slow at times--- as it explored Bobby's prediction of finding an apartment and working in Nashville and Zarah's workaholic nature lent itself to a few paragraphs of information dumping; but, on the whole, when it stuck to the budding re-kindling of Zarah and Bobby's relationship, the book was competently penned.  I do find that Dacus has the propensity to describe non-essential details ( such as meals ordered and at what restaurants and what the characters are thinking about their relationship with food as well as fashion and clothing choices) which can detract from the movement of the plot.  One particular instance sees Bobby deciding what he can eat at a pasta restaurant due to his failure to go to the Y and sign up for a membership.  I find details like this superfluous; but, on the whole, the character portraits and the canvas spread out to present the vital details in the growth and maturation of Bobby and Zarah --- in and out of church--- was compelling.

Dacus' ongoing thesis provides older, single women a field and redefines the usual archetypes of Christian romance and Chicklit. I really appreciate how she battles the "tough" subjects, so to speak, infuses the pages with her own convictions and offers us characters we can relate to: in all of their insecurities, differences, failures, flaws and triumphs.

visit Kaye Dacus on the web!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Merlin: A Retrospective

So, I have watched all four televised series of the BBC Merlin and often I wondered "WHY DO I KEEP WATCHING THIS?"

The rinse and repeat formulas, the stock episodes, the fact that I could figure out everything as it was happening, the cheesy lines, the bad dragon CGI, the Guinevere/ Arthur fiasco, Morgana turning into a boringly predictable baddie..... but I just COULD NOT QUIT IT ....

And I know why....

Because Colin Morgan's Merlin is the most likeable hero I have seen in an age.  He is self-depricating, humble, gold-hearted, sweet, loyal, willing to give up everything for an idea, willing to hide his own talents and gifts to ensure his friend Prince (then King) Arthur has faith in himself, knows that he is sacrificing everything for a future he may not even see....

Merlin gives you faith in the goodness of people to be absolutely, wholesomely, sterling silver to the core.  Merlin has numerous chances to leave his life as a servant to find riches or fame or notoriety or further adventure; yet, instead, he is so kind-hearted and lovely he remains Gaius' ward and assistant while putting up with Arthur's prat-ish ways and saving the world TIME AND TIME again without credit. Ever. WHATSOEVER.

How difficult his life must be ---to know that you are saving the world and not to have anyone acknowledge it....yet good-natured, sweet-smiled Merlin persists because he knows what he is doing is right.

A hero on television with a stalwart conscience.... how pleasant.  Merlin never wants a reward. At one point, and I paraphrase, Sir Gwain mentions that the reason he loves Merlin is that Merlin does wonderful things without ever knowing, or getting credit for them.  He just does it. Because he's whole-heartedly, "awww shucks" good.

Slight things make him happy, the whimsical banter with Arthur keeps him propelled forward and the dream of an idea keeps him chugging. He never takes advantage of his position, he would die willingly for his friends and he always does what is right.

With great power ( which Merlin has in spades) comes great responsibility.  It is impressive on a kid so young with such a weight on his shoulders that he doesn't abuse it.  While he keeps hidden the most integral part of himself: loaning himself to ridicule and humiliation, he is, in all other areas, a terrible liar. He only loses his temper once, he never complains, he is faithful and sunny and loving.

So, four seasons of the BBC Merlin  later having withstood and endured some of the most WTF television in the history of time ... I can solidly, solidly say that I recommend this series for its incredible hero. You will not find a better or more noble hero on television or in film.  He's not strong to look at, his ears stick out, he's dweeby and clumsy and yet he is GOLDEN...

So just watch it for him. You'll be taken in, I guarantee you, and you'll keep watching it for his insane ultimate goodness.

So, Colin Morgan, I'm on the side of your Merlin, buddy.  I think you are just the gee-whillicker, aww shucks, adorkable hero this world of stupidity and darkness and judgment, hate and manipulation needs.

Long live you.

[the cutest scene you'll see today]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Film Review: the Artist

I really think that the Artist needs to be experienced freshly: meaning the less I say about it the better. I knew little about the film and I loved it so much that my friend and I left gushing that we would let the film take us for dancing and champagne so did it captivate our hearts.

This is divinely delicious, de-LOVELY cinema, everyone and it MUST be experienced.  It will leave you floating on air, clutching your hands to your chest, your heart thumping its own time, your senses ruptured by the absence of a kiss, by the fleeting and intrusive moments of sound, by the silence that speaks louder than any scripted words possibly could.

This is a phenomenal cinematic achievement and it MUST be WATCHED!


George Valentin ( a perfect homage to Rudolph Valentino with rapier moustache and dazzling smile ) and his lovely leading lady, the perfectly peppy and charming Peppy Miller will sweep you off your feet as the silent era ends and talkies begin.


Remember your first time watching Chaplin's City Lights and that giddily light feeling you had as if you had tasted a bit too much wine....your head spinning, your fingers tingling?  This. THIS will leave you with the same imminent sensation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

BBC Merlin: Servant of Two Masters

By the time we get to the fourth series of the BBC Merlin things have gone to HADES! I am not giving you a spoiler alert because, seriously people, do you really think this show holds anything surprising? No. You have a brain (I think), you could probably figure this out. It's not the easily-deduced destination, my lovelies, 'tis the JOURNEY.....

  • Uther Pendragon (Looks like Rupert Giles) is no more! 
  • Morgana is an uber-baddie ( as we knew she was destined to be)
  • Merlin has a purple shirt to add to his alternating blue and red ones
  • Guinevere's dress line has sunken way too low (and her clothes no longer fit her busty proportions)
  • Arthur is as opposed to sorcery as his father was....

It's a MESS....

And so, our regular rinse and repeat formula adds a few necessary changes.  Sure, there are still the CGI beasties and bad knights and armies and threats to Camelot and Arthur and Guinevere and Guinevere and Arthur and people getting kidnapped and royalty showing up wanting to marry someone... so on and so forth....


but there are additional plot lines to rotate like :

  • NATHANIEL PARKER being a traitor but, like Morgana before him, no one can SEE THAT HE IS A TRAITOR
  • Gwaine being a close and awesome ally of Merlin ( really, next to ye olde Merlin, I think Gwaine is my favourite of the series! )
  • Lancelot may or may not be dead
  • there be DRAGON magic 
  • As quickly as you can say "Robert Goulet", Merlin can transform himself into a wizard a la 80 years old "Sword in the Stone" esque ---his TH White-ness guise.

Also, by the fourth season, someone is going to be abducted by Morgana and her henchmen at least once an episode.  Sometimes it will be Guinevere, sometimes Arthur, sometimes Gaius, sometimes Merlin, sometimes Gaius and Guinevere AT THE SAME time... and so on and so forth....

So, as per usual, Merlin has to HIDE his magic! SAVE ARTHUR'S LIFE, put up with ARTHUR being a PRAT, put up with Arthur's sexually frustrated encounters with low-dressed Guinevere, Arthur's being an orphan, the fact that Morgana has added green eye-shadow and tangled hair to her appearance and that NATHANIEL PARKER has GOTTEN PUDGY since his Lynley days.

With all of this in mind,  I give you:

Servant of Two Masters

ARTHUR and MERLIN are running away from baddies in the FOREST

MERLIN is wounded

ARTHUR drags him under a tree trunk

Merlin: Just let me die. I am not worth it.  I am a useless servant and you are destined to be the GREATEST KING OF ALL THE KINGS

Arthur: *back-handed compliments*

Merlin: oh noes! I hear baddies approaching!

Arthur: stay here, wounded Merlin, I shall fight off this dozen or so men with my AWESOME SWORD



Merlin: something something MAGICALLY spell SOMETHING magically spelling...

Arthur and the baddies are separated; but MERLIN is KIDNAPPED by .... WAIT FOR IT... MORGANA

I am going to put this snakey in your NECK, Merlin!

Morgana: I have evil green eye shadow and I never brush my hair. Who is Emrys?
Merlin: I won't tell you anything!
Morgana: I am going to get this snake to eat your insides much in the same way that Bruce Greenwood had that torturous bug in his ear in the 2009 Star Trek.  This snakey will make you turn into an ARTHUR-killing machine....

*snake slithers inside Merlin's neck so that he becomes EVIL!*

Gaius: MERLIN is gone (heartbreak)
Arthur: I will find him
George: I will be YOUR NEW SERVANT
Sir Leon: we should go find Merlin
George: Look! Breakfast! My efficiency!
Arthur (shirtless): I miss Merlin. I know you are a better cook and my stuff is better polished; but I JUST CAN'T QUIT HIM
Nathaniel Parker: You must abandon thoughts of finding Merlin. He is gone forever! *sinisterly looks and plots as he is in LEAGUE with MORGANA*


EVIL Merlin: look! I was in a bog!
Arthur: MERLIN I MISSED YOU! *hugs*
EVIL Merlin: *evil look* I still look like Merlin! Look, my ears!  But, I am actually possessed by evil snakey and am EVIL

Gaius: I missed you Merlin. You near broke my heart
EVIL Merlin: I am now snippy and sarcastic because I AM NOT MYSELF!...despite my ears and my general Merlin-ness.  I am going to steal this deadly poison and go for Arthur's lunch!

*does so*

Guinevere: Arthur! Here is your lunch!
Arthur: YUMMO!
EVIL Merlin *carrying poisoned lunch*: Eat THIS lunch
Arthur: Nah! Guinevere already gave me lunch!
EVIL Merlin: DAMN!

*Merlin feeds poisioned lunch to the pigs.  Guinevere sees dead pigs*

Gaius: Why would Merlin try to kill Arthur?
Guinevere: He must not be HIMSELF
Gaius: I can read about it in an old book! Ahh ...yes..... it looks as if he must be inhabited by an EVIL snakey!

EVIL Merlin: this crossbow attached in this wardrobe will ensure ARTHUR'S demise!
*it doesn't*
EVIL Merlin: the crossbow didn't work; but look! Poisoned BATHWATER!
Arthur *has no clothes on*: I am ready for my bath
EVIL Merlin: he he he he he he
Guinevere: STOP!
Guinevere: You must not get into the bath today.

....and at GAIUS' HOUSE
*Gaius gives EVIL Merlin a potion to make the snakey inside his neck dormant*
TEMPORARILY UN-EVIL Merlin: so if I don't find the source of the snakey sorcery then I will be EVIL Merlin forever...doomed to kill Arthur and stuff and be all snippety and be meaner than my ears and general physiognomy would seemingly permit me to be?
Gaius: Yes. All of that.  Go forth and destroy the Snakey!

*TEMPORARY UN-EVIL Merlin dresses up as OLD MERLIN and goes to find Morgana.... DEFEATS THE SNAKEY so that TEMPORARILY UN-EVIL Merlin becomes AWESOME Merlin of old once more*

Arthur: I think you spend all the time at the tavern
Merlin: I can't tell you otherwise; lest I BETRAY the fact that I am always off DEFEATING BAD MAGIC and saving your life. So yes, treat me like the dolt I am...
George: I am here to teach you how to polish armour
Arthur: Let me laugh like the PRAT I am!  But my Pratish heart still beats for you, Merlin. I am fond of you.
Merlin: awww. shucks.  Some things NEVER change

THIS be AWESOME Merlin! Look! how cute! EARS!

BOOKS in the NEWS!

the BBC Sherlock boosts Arthur Conan Doyle book sales
Vintage Toronto Ad for the Toronto Telegram
Fans await no-show "Poe Toaster" ---nevermore....
The Telegraph does a "My Week" segment with our beloved Anthony Horowitz

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Girl Who Loved Sherlock Holmes: A near lifetime love affair with my fictional opposite

The other night I re-read The Final Problem while waiting to watch the last episode of the second series of the BBC Sherlock.  I remembered the first time I read the story. It was from my school library and I stayed up until 2:30 on a Wednesday night to finish it. For me, at that moment, there was no looming alarm clock in the morning or a sleepy day of classes ahead, there was just me and Sherlock and Watson who, at the time (and maybe still ) were my best friends.

We fictionally creative people spend life as outsiders: flooding moments which lead us to figure that no one on earth understands us and that, in turn, we fail to understand them has us fleeing to literary counterparts whose world we feel neatly fit into.

Throughout my latter elementary school years and well into high school, I felt safest between the shelves in the library, on one of those little rotating stools, revisiting my Sherlock stories. When I first read A Study in Scarlet my fingers trembled as I turned the pages excitedly. When my grade 10 english teacher assigned The Speckled Band and Silver Blaze as actual REQUIRED reading, I did a happy dance.  I could hang out with Sherlock and Watson for SCHOOL and not just for fun.

As I grow older and as the Canon has become as much a part of my psyche as the other books which guided me through my formative, book wormy years, I have attempted to deconstruct what it is about Holmes and Watson that fits into my flighty little brain. I am eccentric, overly emotional, wracked with an anxiety disorder, prone to guilt and panic, intuitively religious, exceedingly, romantically imaginative--- everything that the asexual and rigid Holmes disdains...

So why, then, why him... with his cold, automaton-like machine-like calculations and odd, irrepressible habits and imminent genius and arrogant demeanour and coke-addiction and three pipe problems and ethereal grey eyes and aquiline profile and penchant to squeak obnoxiously discordant strands of music from a violin....why him?

When the 1881 Beeton's Christmas Annual first threw itself upon the greater reading populous, readers ached for a new edition of the Strand and for the notes from John H. Watson's famous military box thrown into the world in full-fledged splendour, exposing a mind of such great importance and significance he would become not only immortal; but universally mourned when thought to be dead at the hand's of his (insignificant?) creator.  These characters were so much larger than life that many thought they were real, actual, earthly-habitants.  A great mind with great deductive prowess and his awed flatmate and friend.

When I first visited Baker Street, I didn't allow myself to contemplate the fact that the home I was touring was fictional that the persons to whom the museum was dedicated never actually lived. I was, instead, enamoured by the authenticity of the room's layout and by the thousands of letters people still addressed to Mr. Holmes of 221B Baker Street.  The literary pilgrimage was one of immense emotionally charged self-satisfaction. I was paying homage to a collective part of my psyche, my emotional upbringing, to two of my closest friends.

The pages of the 56 short stories and 4 novels have been read to shreds by me. I own dozens upon dozens of tomes, encyclopedias, pastiches, annotated and unannotated editions, biographies, works of religion and philosophy all indebted to the Great Detective.  No one can convince the part of me that construes such fascination with his world is an imaginative one.

On my dream trip to Austria I went out of my way to get to Meiringen, just to see where Holmes had "perished" (and wonderfully escaped) at the hands of the dastardly Moriarty.  The plaques therein and the museum devoted to Holmes' Swiss connection didn't seem to be relics of a fictional universe; rather part of a wonderful history--- a history I had faith in; bought into, loved and respected.

The plaque in London outside of St. Bart's which commemorates Holmes first introduction to Watson, the room at the Toronto Reference Library dedicated to one of the largest collections of Conan Doyle memorabilia in the world.... the mythos, the legend, the time-stopping, heart-grasping wonderment of it all continues to beguile me. As I learn more about myself and excavate the pieces and fragments which make up the individual I have become, this world is an indelible part of it.  I owe my fascination with Victorian London and, subsequently, my passion for its literature to the smoky lanterns, rattle of hansom cabs and murderous fogs pervading Baker Street.   Holmes and Watson's famous quotes, their moments of sarcasm, their colourful humanity pepper so many of my constant thoughts and speech.

And yet.... despite my ongoing passion and my determination to stalk the deceased Doyle's roots in Edinburgh this summer--- in an act of yet ANOTHER literary pilgrimage dedication to this fascination-- I am constantly questioned as to why.... why a bookish, romantic, imaginative and anxious girl metes out such literary investment to a calculating machine...

Everyone else as thrilled as I was when Benedict finally put that hat on?

It's because he's my opposite. Panic attacks in high school and university and nights spent sleeplessly, endlessly worrying found me seeking Baker Street for comfort.  Why? because it's a measured world. Baker Street and Baroque music, together: you know his methods, you know his calculations, his moods, his rigidity, his asexuality.  He never wavers in self-confidence the way I always second-guessed myself, he is never prone to doubt- the way I always thought I was doing wrong. He is assured, predictable, intelligently logical---everything I am not.

Sherlock Holmes is not swayed by bouts of imaginative fervour: he knows that there is a measured reason for everything and there is comfort in his ability to know all.  Where people, futures, puzzles, problems, conflicting and abnormal doubts plague human minds like mine, his brain was beyond that.  There is solace in his ability to unravel what we cannot.

For a girl raised in the spirit of evangelical religiousity: where rules regaled and faith took place of sight and touch and sound, so materializing Holmes' world offered a needed counter.  He is so forthright, he is so steady.... there is nothing that will surprise or haunt or trouble you about him.   He is everything that I am not.

Watson's adoration of Holmes and his continued awe-stricken fanaticism and enchantment mirrors my own. My love for Watson is just as potent as my love for Sherlock because we are both emotional, romantic and intelligent people--- unashamed to be baffled by a mind that, like clockwork, omits anything supernatural, unexplainable, borne of fraught imagination.

Thus, my overly emotional response to the predictable end of The Reichenbach Fall was precipitated by my engaging in the collective troubles and sorrows of two very close friends.  True, the television medium portrays Holmes and Watson in a myriad of ways: some more similar to my earliest mental images as others (thus my deriving what I find authentic to the source material and what I think strays); but the new contemporary vision just secures my own faith in Holmes and Watson. They are century agnostic.  They are not confined to the Victorian world of fog and smoke, they are as integral to our collective conscious as readers and seekers as they were when Doyle first created them.

I do love my deerstalker--straight from Baker St.

There is comfort in knowing that their fictional world exists and that the same imaginative plight that awaited me in surreptitious splendour the first moment I stole into their world and the hundreds of times I revisited will always be there: like magic, metric, measured enforcement.

They say that opposites attract and Sherlock Holmes, being in every way, shape and form my opposite, continues to be the great literary love of my life.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thoughts on "The Reichenbach Fall"

I know.... I know.... I am keeping to my promise of no full reviews of the second series of Sherlock until they air in North America.

However, the Fall at Reichenbach in and of itself is common knowledge so I can say this much about the episode.....


I guess that's what happens when you see trouble happen to friends.  For the record, Sherlock and Watson feel like my friends. I have known them of intimate bookish acquaintance for over 20 years and I feel strongly about both of them.

That's what we bookworms do.

So, if I can ever dry my tears from this stupid episode, I can stiff-upper-lip it and keep going until I am able to gush with all of you about the second round of this incredible series.

Also, Benedict Cumberbatch, if you asked me out to dinner... I would totally say yes.

Read about my trip to the REAL Reichenbach Falls in Meiringen, Switzerland here

Saturday, January 14, 2012

BBC Merlin: The Lady of the Lake

LOOK, how CUTE. Someone ruffle his hair and give him a COOKIE!

This is just classic television, everyone.  You'll laugh, you'll cry; you'll laugh 'cause you're crying...
It's like Robin Hood  on Speed--- with BEASTIES

Merlin: Why is that pretty girl in a cage?
Gaius: Because she is  a magician caught by a bounty hunter. Uther Pendragon doles out big rewards for sorcerers caught and brought to him. BECAUSE HE HATES withcraft.
Merlin: *puppy dog eyes* Can we save her?
Merlin: screw that!

-Merlin loses Gaius
-Merlin magically unlocks girl from cage and hides her in a cave and brings her food.  They both have MOON EYES.

The Next Morning .... at the CASTLE:
Arthur: Go clean my boots
Merlin: *steals Arthur's food for new girlfriend*

MEANWHILE... back at the CAVE
Cave-Girl: I am Freya! I am a druid girl.  You are nice. Look, your ears! No one has ever been as kind to me.
Merlin: I am the most genuinely sweet and sincere person in the world. Sometimes my eyes tear, see?  That's because I am the most genuinely sweet and sincere person in the world.  Look! I can elevate candles with my wicked-ass magic! * is cute*

Gaius: Sire, I think that there are killings from this big beastie thing that must be conjured by sorcery.
Uther Pendragon (looks like Rupert Giles): Let us kill ALL THE WITCHES and WARLOCKS AND SORCERERS TO DEATH! Find the escaped girl from the cage and kill her!
Bounty Hunters: DONE!

MEANWHILE..... back at Merlin and Gaius' house:
Gaius: Merlin, did you release that girl ?
Merlin: *is a terrible liar*
Gaius: I think she might be a cursed beastie. Look, I have this picture in this ancient tome to prove it...

MEANWHILE ....back at the Cave
Merlin: So you see, Freya, we should run away together where we can have a little wood house and eat cheese and bread and see a cow and a lake and stuff. Together. And conjure things with our magic. Being magic does not mean you're cursed; just happily different.  Here, I stole this dress from Lady Morgana who is not in this episode because she is resting up for when she has to become that majorly disastrously bad-ass villain she has been foreshadowed to become. So, she won't miss it.
Freya: I want to go with you, Merlin. Because you are like a bunny rabbit, how sweet you are and how misty your eyes and how be-dimpled your smile. Go pack provisions for our journey.
Merlin: *cluelessly besotted* Sure! I'll just leave you here.

MEANWHILE... the Clock strikes Midnight. Freya TURNS INTO A PANTHER WITH BAT WINGS....
--lunges to kill the knights of Camelot and that Prat Arthur ....then sees Merlin....which MELTS her panther's heart.

Freya: *no longer a panther w. bat wings* So you see, Merlin, I am dying from my curse.
Merlin: *CRIES* I shall take you to a lake and Lady of Shallott you in a boat for down-stream *takes her to a lake and does just so, cutely*
Freya: okay!
Merlin: *sends her in a boat and causes the boat to catch fire then CRIES*

MEANWHILE ....back at Merlin and Gaius' house
Gaius: I am sorry your girlfriend is dead. I will now hug you.
Merlin: I am sorry that I lied because I am the nicest guy in the world. Ever.

MEANWHILE....back at the PALACE:
Arthur: Merlin, you seem sad.  This makes me conflicted; because we're not really friends and I treat you like rubbish; but I also like you and am not sure how I understand this.  So, instead of talking it out I will give you a noogie  *gives Merlin a noogie*


Friday, January 13, 2012

Blogher Book Buzz: Wonderland Creek

I was so excited to hear from BlogHer last week informing me that my blog had been chosen as the book spotlight today. Even more exciting, they are featuring my review of Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin.

You ALL know how much I love Lynn Austin and I hope the love translates as more people pick up her amazing books!

Check out BlogHer: a repository for a blog under every subject you could ever dream of and experience their "life well said"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

in which rachel has watched a few too many episodes of Merlin on Netflix...

Basically, Merlin  in a nutshell----

Teaser: something bad-ass wants to magically infiltrate Camelot and result in ARTHUR dying!


Merlin: I am Arthur's servant and he treats me like dirt; but I still love him and I am cuter than Harry Potter even though we both battle with not liking our destinies because I am humble and have a good attitude; even though everyone thinks I'm a bit of a dolt.

Look at how DAMNED CUTE this kid is! Seriously. Adorkable.

Arthur: Merlin---go polish something so I can JOUST

Guinevere: I don't look like anyone's conception of Guinevere ever and that is why I am awesome. And steadfast of heart. And sorta badass. Throw me a sword.

Gaius: I am wise beyond my years and one of my eyes is funky; I will counsel the king that there is magic in our midst while simultaneously hiding the fact that my much-adored ward Merlin is a SORCERER

Uther Pendragon (looks like Rupert Giles): SORCERY? It is all bad! Let's get some magic-genocide going here. KILL EVERYONE!

Morgana: I have bad dreams wherein I predict bad things: like Arthur dying and bad CGI beasties. I am so totally on my way to becoming Morgan Le Fey


Merlin: OH NO! BAD CGI BEASTIES! ARTHUR DOOMED TO DEATH! I must sacrifice my worthless life for him; but first.... to the dragon!

Dragon: they spent all the CGI budget on me.  I am cool. I prophesy things. I am voiced by John Hurt.  Young Warlock, you must cryptically save Arthur while cryptically accepting this other challenge which will remain cryptic for years to come.

Merlin: I willingly accept this cryptic riddle because I am waaaaaay too nice. Look, my ears! I am cute! someone ruffle my hair and give me ice cream

Knights of Camelot: Arthur, you're a prat! we shall fight said beastie/army/sorcerer to the DEATH

*Arthur assumes it is most likely a fallen branch or a bit of good-luck*
*Merlin smiles happy that Arthur is alive; is momentarily conflicted because NO ONE EVER acknowledges it; but gets over it*


( this show is interchangeable with the BBC Robin Hood ---)

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Necessary Deception by Laurie Alice Eakes

From the publisher: When young widow Lydia Gale helps a French prisoner obtain parole, she never dreams she will see him again. But just as the London Season gets under way, the man presents himself in her parlor. While she should be focused on getting her headstrong younger sister prepared for her entree into Society, Lady Gale finds herself preoccupied with the mysterious Frenchman. Is he a spy or a suitor? Can she trust him? Or is she putting herself and her family in danger?

A Necessary Deception brought to mind the following: Little Dorrit, The Scarlet Pimpernel  and the Regency fare of Georgette Heyer.

However, what promised to be a light, engaging and romantic Continental read dragged by lack of literary confidence, strained dialogue and historical facts that bludgeoned each page.  I really wanted to like this book.  I applaud Eakes for her taking the usual Regency mould of high society and the ton and stretching it to the European continent. Moreover, for inserting a dangerous world of French prison and the blinking nearness of espionage.  In an age that loans itself to adventure, to danger and to the looming war, Eakes had a canvas set out for her. However, a lack of literary confidence ( as mentioned) failed to bring this romance to its peak point.

The French dialect was passable and the characterization typical of this sect of Christian romance and yet the spark that I look for when choosing my Christian historicals completed evaded this novel.
This is not for lack of literary competence; rather inexperience.  I had the darndest time trying to weave my way into Lydia and Christien's world, into buying their chemistry and seeing through to their happy ending.

The story is infused with some awkward descriptions and moments which should have had more careful editing. For example: "a muscle bunched in her jaw" -- the blunt and harsh and crass delineation of lines like this immediately releases the reader from the intended spell of gentility and forces them to wonder how a muscle bunches at all... let alone in one's jaw....

This sounds nit picky, I know; but readers of this blog will remember that I have traversed through some exceptional Christian fare in the past while and it only makes books which aren't quite on the same level pale in comparison.

A Necessary Deception is the first in a series and I do hope that Eakes will utilize her obvious passion for the era and her knack for historical research to write a crisper and more taut novel.  With the help of some editing and her continual strive to find a unique and fresh perspective for a unique and fresh idea, we might have a promising author on our hands.

I have heard that Eakes' Lady in the Mist is a compelling read and I am not averse to trying it to see if I fare better in another world :)

My thanks to Revell for providing me with a review copy of this book.

TLC BLOG TOUR: Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson

Well over a year ago, I participated in the TLC tour for Not That Kind of Girl: a humorous and spicy memoir which took me back to my formative years raised as a Pentecostal minister's daughter in a strict home and community where I had to ultimately decipher what was my faith and if it aligned with the tradition and saturation of my youth.

In a much similar way, Holy Ghost Girl spawned an experience of reflection. A harsh one, at that, due to some extenuating circumstances I choose to keep private from this blog.  Needless to say, and without further explanation, this book hit very close to home... as all books about fervent evangelical Christianity do.   As is the case with the aforementioned Not That Kind of Girl, Johnson does well at refusing to pass judgment and keeps an open-mind and a sense of tender humour as she navigates the world of the past.  Her world involved non-stop travel with the tent revivalist David Terrell, to whom her mother was organist.

The music, the smell, the swell of fervent and loud prayer; the ritual of dance and speaking in tongues, the homage to one sect of the Pentecostal movement spun in 1906 are all clearly portrayed.  Anecdotal, compassionate and filled with an incendiary power and wit, Johnson unravels a world of destruction, secrets and greed while still maintaining a healthy respect for the followers who practiced what they preached and lived as they should live.

Johnson, like I, seems to assert the belief that Faith is an extension of church and the rituals of organized religion and, thus, any fallacy found within its practice is borne of human frailty and limitation.  With this in mind, I could read about the terrors and secrets of Terrell without feeling that the Faith I still maintain was attacked.

My father was a Pentecostal minister ( he is now a chaplain ) and he is the opposite of the minister portrayed in the book: he follows the Bible literally; but treats everyone equally and offers love before judgment; grace before condemnation.  Because of this example, my experience with Pentecostalism is not as destructive as Johnson's. Nonetheless, outside of my father's church, at healing revival services, youth conventions, worship services and as the Vineyard movement swept Ontario in the early 90s, I was able to witness things that I still maintain a healthy scepticism about.  The betrayal of congregation members; the inevitability of duality; the deception of what is actually a supernatural, metaphysical charge and what is borne of human excitement and euphoria all struck very close to home.

It is hard for me to write about this book because it speaks close to home: not the circumstances in the plot; but the elements of faith, of music, of prayer.  Organized religion can effect children in numerous ways. For Johnson, like myself, church was merely a part of childhood.  I cannot imagine my upbringing without it and stripping myself of it would mean ripping out an integral, ingrained part of my life for 30 years.

As much as Johnson's experiences were tumultuous, there is a kind of vapid loss as the tent revival craze (revivals had been a major part of Evangelical services for centuries in their own incarnations) slowed down and megachurches and television evangelism sprung up.

Johnson speaks candidly about witnessing miracles, about the historical relevance of tent revival services and about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Terrell and the troubled Sister Coleman.  Terrell, a con-man, adulterer and fraud, is not painted surreptitiously as an everyman of the evangelical sect; rather someone Johnson separates from the world of true faith.  She does not paint Christianity as negative; rather humans who have fallen prey to the ease of popularity, the almost mystical night-time world of spirit-filled change and the belief that they are at one with God.

I appreciate her speaking to this in a delicate manner allowing those who practice Evangelical Christianity to read her story with compassion, to click their tongues at moments where humans use God's divinity for personal goal, and yet to be able to hold her head high and respect the followers who live in a way they feel they must, are destined to, which best glorifies God in the way they know how.

I knew that this book was going to strike a chord because the Pentecostal movement is so inbred in my consciousness and a wealth of memories: both good and bad flood me whenever I read about it: read lyrics to the chorus of a familiar song, read about the fervour behind healing services, read of the mystery of speaking in tongues, of dancing in the spirit, of being filled with the Holy Spirit: all things which are a mainstay of the Pentecostal movement.... which still exists today.

What I most enjoyed about the book was how it touched on humanity and grace in what was apt to become a whirlwind circus of betrayal, ambiguity and despair.  In fact, I enjoyed how under the tent, even those who leaned toward bigotry in every-day life practiced equality.  The Civil Rights movement was alive and well in tent revival services: all were equal when approaching the spirit-filled mania of a service. There were violent repercussions and not all believed in the freedom of worship stayed by Terrell and his ilk; but many fought for freedom and risked their lives to support that ideal.  THAT is one of the moments of true Christianity I found in the pages of this novel.

It's hard for me to write about this because it is hard to speak about something that has posed a series of conflicting emotions, of loss, of gain, of tears and safe haven; of a walk-down-memory-lane; of revisiting a hyper-intensive world that I carry; but do not completely subscribe to.

Donna Johnson recognizes something that all who are minister's kids (like myself) or missionary's kids or organist's kids (like Johnson) must learn: that there is a crucial moment in young adulthood where the ultimate decision must be made: are you going to continue to follow in your parent's faith ---with all of its glories and moments of euphoria and moments of despair and doubt--- or are you going to assess Faith on your own terms and decide what it means to you.

For people so immersed in religion at a young age; it is hard to speak to it without feeling drowned by its significance in your upbringing.  To speak ill of it seems to betray my foundation; yet to colour-coat it seems to contrast the Faith I uphold now.

I guess it comes down to people.  Humans are frail, humans misinterpret, humans betray....

Faith is perfection; humans are wont to fail... we cannot expect the human experience in the pursuit of God to be unfailing and unflappable because then we would be speaking to perfection ---something to which God holds alone.   Johnson, like myself, still professes to be a Christian: still spends time in contemplative prayer; still strives to find Truth and God outside of the constraints of human frailty.  She loves the ritual of church; but is off-put by the new "Self-Help" trend of mega-churches.

In an interview included in my review copy of the book, she notes the followers she most respects: those who store no earthly possessions, who rely on God, who help  each other.  It is this moment and other grace notes that keep her opinion of Faith staid from the easy temptation to wallow on its inconsistencies.

Johnson and her family had to travel day and night, restless, roaming, homeless as they ministered from State to State.   I had a loving and secure home, a wonderful school life, parents who, though strict, believed in what they preached and treated others as they wanted to be treated.  Infidelity and abuse were a far-cry from the fortunate childhood I had.  Yet, I did identify very deeply with Johnson's story... especially when it spoke to the rituals of organized religion, of the fervour of the Pentecostal movement, at the fallacy of Christians who speak as of God; yet live in a way that completely revokes what they are preaching.

What hit VERY close to home was the tenets of Evangelism: the vernacular, the singing, the speaking in Tongues.  It took me back to my childhood in a powerful way ---- it took me through my teenage years where I spent weekends in auditoriums filled with teenagers worshipping God, being slain in the Spirit, speaking in tongues--- it took me through the guilt I felt when I finally decided to leave some of my parents' Christianity behind as I tried to map through the inconsistencies and insecurities I felt to carve a Christianity of my own: borne of the love and compassion I saw ministered through preachers like my dad: while sloughing off the human frailty I witnessed in others subscribing to the same truth. The judgment, the hate, the ambiguity, the Sunday Christians, the lack of grace...

Christianity today is a multi-layered puzzlement.  At its core, the Faith itself is one of charity, benevolence, Grace.... the epitome of Christ's teaching here on earth.  At its worst, it sees the condemnation of the homosexual community, of women's choice: of judgment before peace and love, of instilling the fear of the Rapture with an odd calendar.  This is, of course, not a white-wash of the entire community of believers; yet a nod to those who make the news.  A nod to those like David Terrell whose time at the pulpit was a betrayal when you learned of the way he lived outside of the tent.  Unfortunately, he is one of many who conned his way into the hearts of millions.

Not all tent revivalists are bad, not all Christian leaders are cons, not all who follow do so while betraying the very belief they so strongly pronounce.... Donna Johnson recognizes this and paints a tasteful and moving memoir about her experience.  She does well not to preach, to point fingers, to universalize; rather she honours the moments of Grace she sees in her childhood despite the abuse and despair and secrets and betrayal. She recognizes that the faces she writes of are the minority, while allowing herself to revel in the blessing of Love, forgiveness and the rapture of realizing there are those who DO epitomize the workings of that which they subscribe to... unfailingly.

The most touching moment in the memoir occurs at the end: as Johnson attends a funeral--- her emotions are an onslaught of contradiction ... yet she is able to separate herself from the sins of the man now passed to watch, in jubilance, as she watches incarnations of Grace and love.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Evangelical Christianity, this is but one voice that speaks to its highs and lows: the same you would find in any religion or any gathering of humans anywhere.  On a deeper note, it is a compelling memoir of involvement: of the inability to extract yourself from where you came from, how you were raised, what you learned.  To defy your upbringing, is to extract a kernel of yourself ....

Johnson eloquently writes of "two worlds-- one under the tent and one outside. Each time I turned toward one, I turned away from some part of myself".

I have often felt divided as I constructed my adult faith while tweaking the experiences of my youth and forging a Christianity on my own terms due to my own appreciation, consecration, experience, reading, Biblical-immersion and yet I can no more separate myself from the experiences and religion of my youth and my parent's upbringing than I can forget who to set the table, or put my napkin in my lap, or say "please and thankyou" ---- or live without my right arm.

That's what struck me about this book.  That's what was difficult to read.  No matter how we feel unfulfilled by remembrances of childhood, no matter how memory preys to spring us back to the negative moments, the tears, the retribution... the more we must allow ourself to become accustomed to its formation.   Johnson would never be the woman, writer, introspective surveyor she is now ---blending compassion with skepticism: rationalization with awe if she had not been a child of the tent, baptized in the rituals of Pentecostal charisma. I would not be the woman that I am had I not been taught under the billows of church: of services, conventions, learning, leading, following, singing, praying, doubting, believing, feeling, crying, feeling anger, feeling commitment, feeling betrayal and love and grace and being blessed...

Religion is a big scary world and Johnson's life in it was a big, scary one;  but she is brave enough to know that that which sweeps our collective consciousness maintains two levels: the good and pure motivation borne of its purist form ( that which follows the Bible and the teachings of Christ ) and the fallacy of humankind --- to twist and serve faith as it serves them.

This duality will always exist and we need writers like Johnson to portray it while still maintaining a healthy dose of humour, of grace, of the prospect of redemption.  I wish her luck as she writes more and uses her voice to expel the cult-like craze of her past while marrying her belief in the good in the world--- even the tent world.

This was a heart-wrenching book for me to read as it forced a lot of contemplation and a revisit to my past.  I thank God I was separated from the sadness that framed Johnson's childhood; but nonetheless her scenes of Evangelical worship forced me to confront my own.  I sometimes think that my life as a believer is made up of my finding God outside of human expectations (they are wrought with inconsistencies and the Pentecostal world is filled with regulations and standards that even the purist would be hard to attain), Johnson's book meted the write amount of reflection, bypassing judgment, offering un-deserved compassion and grace.

My thanks to TLC for the opportunity to feature this book.

Please purchase at amazon.com (one reviewer notes its similarity to The Glass Castle, if that peaks your interest)

Friday, January 06, 2012

a Study in Sherlock: I am SHERlocked

hey all,

I am not going to be giving full reviews of the latest BBC series of Sherlock until they are available here in North America on dvd and Masterpiece (because, *ahem*, I probably shouldn't have seen it anyways and there are plenty of fans on this side of the pond who are waiting more patiently than I). Needless to say, I was flabberghasted by how AMAZING the first episode of the new series was. A Scandal in Belgravia cast a perfectly strong Irene Adler ( Lara Pulver) to mentally match wits with the always- delightful Benedict Cumberbatch.
Some viewers found this risque and I do agree with those who thought that the BBC should've shelved this episode until after 9 pm; but it is discreet in its way and I had fun with the innuendo, sexual politics
 ( challenging our much-asexual hero) and spice and sass peppering the eccentric world of Baker Street. If anything, Scandal in Bohemia, perfectly loans itself to this sensual interplay.  It is very much about gender-struggle and who has power; Moffatt just ushered it into the 21st Century where things are much spoken of and less conservatively implied.

There are plenty of insider jokes in the first episode for we Sherlockians and enough of an homage to stay true to the spirit of Scandal in Bohemia-- one of my all-time favourite short stories of the Canon.

If you manage to see it before-hand, you are in for a treat. Moffatt and Gatiss are even stronger in the writing department this year ( if that is at all possible) and I am itching for Hounds of Baskerville on Sunday.

A trailer featuring the gorgeous Lara Pulver as Irene Adler ... a perfect match for our great detective.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Film Review: War Horse

Steven Spielberg is admittedly passionate about the work and scope of director David Lean. Lean, my favourite film director, had a way of poetically surging his cinematic canvas with epic light, moving pictorial narration and the perfect marriage of music to sequence and silence to render thought.
Spielberg's latest, War Horse, is like Lean's masterpieces in its epic artistic scope. It is an overtly sentimental movie and self-conscious of this fact. From the swelling music playing over the riveting farm landscape of Edwardian England and a cozy, cobblestoned village seen from high overhead to the closing scenes where a blood red sky shadows a lone rider and a tearful reunion, this is a movie best watched by those who love epics that play in traditional form.  There is nothing new or modern or bold about this film; outside of the resources to perfectly capture the Great War with cinematic precision and a heart-stopping look. That, friends, is the base of its charm.

Spielberg's latest endeavour in War Horse marries a perfectly realized episodic script (based on the best-selling and well-loved novel by Michael Morpurgo) with cinematography that will take your breath away. His earlier war effort in Saving Private Ryan did little for me. While I appreciated the first moments and the brutal horror of his realistic battle sequence, I found the story to feel rather like American propaganda; rather than a perfect picture of life for the Allies on the frontline. Here, in the Great War, he does better at adding a universal feel (well generated in his gripping series, Band of Brothers). While War Horse certainly services the British experience on the home and front lines, it does well to incorporate moments of humanity behind enemy lines.

From the time the horse of the title is born, young Albert Narracott is beguiled by him. When his father, a Devon farmer, purchases him to spite his haughty landlord, Albert agrees to train him and turn him into a plough-horse whose efforts will save his family's endangered farm.  The horse, which Albert calls Joey, is a wonderful and miraculous creature who quickly learns at the patient and loving hand of his new boy master.  When destitute to pay the rent, Albert's father sells him to the British cavalry. Heart-broken and too young to join at the start of the 1914 conflict, Albert watches as the kind-hearted Capt. Nicholls leads Joey into action on the warfront. 

Through his time in conflict, Joey sees the devastation of war around him, influences two young German brothers who are brought to quick trial on treason, is housed by a kindly French farmer and his spirited grand-daughter, is used to pull heavy artillery for the Germans and finally makes it between the lines: to No Man's Land where a heart-stopping moment between both forces results in Joey being rescued from barbed-wire which entraps him.

Benedict Cumberbatch, that kid from "Bleak House" and Tom Hiddleston riding Joey

The spellbinding and emotional fervour which drives the insistent Albert to his horse's side once more is nothing short of heart-breaking.  

War Horse is a tale as old as time: that of a bond between a boy and his animal. This bond is unbreakable and it will take more than a World War to sever it. 

As mentioned, the script does well at playing both sides of the conflict with tender appreciation. Even while the German side is negated for harsh treatment of horses, there is a willing private who yearns to secure the safety of the beautiful animals.  The scene aforementioned which sees a young soldier from the British side, Colin, meet Pieter, a German soldier in the middle of No Man's Land to rescue Joey from his barbed-wire bondage is the most powerful in the film.  Horses don't take sides.  In fact, at one point, mention is made of the French carrier pigeons who are highly skilled at flying above the disaster to take messages to the other side. In the same way, the horses help by carrying wounded from the field and providing the officers with a well-needed bond as they make their way into the fray.  Horses were trained to run away from conflict and here they are positioned to propel it  with devastating results.

There is some emotional manipulation at the hands of composer John Williams: whose melodramatic score swells at scenes you are aware you should be moved by. However, most of the emotional resonance of the story comes from the friendship between Joey and Albert and how both need each other on the farm and on the warfront.

This is a remarkably moving story based on a remarkably moving book. I look forward to seeing the stage production when it starts in Toronto very soon. 

Note: prospective readers should know that the main perspective of the novel is seen from Joey's viewpoint. While the film does well at showing Joey as he moves from episode to conflicting episode, it does do well at adding a human element not just seen from the limited perspective of the horse.... worth a read. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Great Adaptations in Context: The Lasting Appeal of "Great Expectations"

[images displayed in this post are from the 2011 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations]

2012 will offer viewers two new adaptations of Great Expectations:  the 2011 BBC miniseries starring Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson (to premiere on Masterpiece Theatre in April) and the big-screen adaptation by Director Mike Newell.

The long-standing appeal of this particular Dickens novel allows it to sit well in a year where the Dickens Bi-Centenary will seep into the literary stratosphere.  Great Expectations , and the many characters which dwell between its covers, remains a household experience for students and lovers of English Literature.  It's interesting to note how this has become one of Dickens' best-loved novels: considering his prolific offering and the numerous books which could easily have taken up the Recommended Reading Lists of high schools and universities across the Globe.  Yet, there is something about Great Expectations that loans itself to timelessness.

Dickens' usual themes of orphan children caught in a climate of social injustice ( you need turn no further than Uncle Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe's Christmas dinner sermonizing to realize how little children were thought of ) is resonant here. The kuntsleroman bridge that sees the flourishing of David Copperfield and, to some extent, Oliver Twist, features the (mis)adventures of Pip: a Cinderella-boy who climbs the social ladder under the most unlikely of circumstances.

From the Toronto Public Library ( where all good things are housed), I signed out a documentary: part of the Discovery Channel's Great Books series and narrated by Donald Sutherland. This was a great piece to help me reflect on my recent re-visitation of one of my favourite tales.

John Irving, Alfonso Cuaron (director of the modernized 1998 film adaptation), Ethan Hawke and a myriad of Dickensian scholars are on hand to talk to the lasting work.  Cuaron references Great Expectations as "essential to the human spirit."  Obviously meant to appeal to the high school literature student, the documentary relies heavily on interspersing its narration with clips from adaptations of the tale on screen: from a silent film version, through the 1946 David Lean version, pulling on a couple of BBC television serials and even showing parts of the modernized take.

John Irving speaks to how it inspired him to become a writer and the narrator speaks to the intensely theatrical presence of Dickens as a melange of popstar, politician and icon.  The most important English writer since Shakespeare, that which is Dickensian is a universe unto itself: from the festive spirit of his trademark Christmas Carol to the downtrodden orphans which pulled on his acute sense of social justice.

Dickens believed ( and knew from firsthand experience), that children have a special capacity for perceiving the world; thus every orphan, such as Pip, is an emblem of himself. Pip moreso because he shared a similar physical upbringing to Dickens: that of the Kent marshes.   For a child who was crassly pulled from a comfortable upbringing to work in a blacking shop to support his father's time in Marshalsea debtor's prison ( think Little Dorrit and also think of the harrowing prospect awaiting Pip before the intervention of Joe Gargery in GE), Dickens very much understood the power of social prospect.  The fortune that befalls Pip looms like the Cinderella story we all yearn for: reward for seeming nothing.

Dickens was able to speak to this and to recall his own vapid childhood years while in the height of his creative powers.  The public was putty in his hands and the medium through which he spun his yarns (that of serialization) allowed him to improvise: should the public outcry of critique resound upon the end of a weekly serial, then he could do what was needed to later change the outcome for more promising applause.  Great Expectations, ambiguous ending and all, was a similar product to this method: published in 36 instalments in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round.

As New Yorkers eagerly awaited the ship bearing a manuscript which would seal Little Nell's fate ( in the infamously sentimentalized Old Curiousity Shop), so were readers left deliberately hanging for the next view of Magwitch, the secret wrapped up in the relationship between Compeyson and Havisham, the twist (a majorly lovely plot twist at that) surrounding Estella's estranged parentage.  When Pip discovers he's a pawn used by Miss Havisham, Jaggers and, to some extent, Magwitch, the audience feels greatly with him.  They are caught in his soap opera.  His story becomes, like Dickens' own experience, very much their own.

Especially for Londoners.  Dickens was known to refer to London as his "magic lantern"  and a thriving, bristling, bubbling character it becomes in all of his great sequences of action.  In Great Expectations, Dickens allows the reader to glimpse a bit of his personal childhood experience; but leads him still greater into the abyss of Newgate, high fortune, punting on the thames, excess and delusion.

Pip's illusion becomes our own as the orb of Great Expectations speaks to George Orwell's belief that Dickens' works were "not a series of books; but a world).

A lot of what was explored in his short documentary is familiar to those who have a past with Dickens (I studied him extensively as part of my Victorian specialist degree: even took a seminar devoted to him); but what it speaks to is the lasting presence of Dickens on society.... and to the lasting impression Great Expectations makes on social construction as a whole.  The most gentlemanly acts, according to the documentary, and viscerally viewed in the novel, are those which act out of grace and redemption. What is a gentleman?, is a question that can well be asked of Pip as he mires through the mazes of self-discovery. What the documentary speaks to and what you will soon learn as you visit this tale, is that the most gentlemanly moments Pip has have little to do with his mysterious patronage or sudden fortune.  Rather, the gentle way he speaks to a prisoner on the marshes; the way Joe gently guides Pip through childhood, Pip's loyalty and devotion to Magwitch as he nears the end of his life in blackened disgrace.

The measure of Dickens' humanity, in circumspect, is threaded in the tales that best reflect a mirror to our own shortcomings : a reflection like Great Expectations.

John Irving, interviewed, mentioned that he was saving one unread Dickens ( in his case Our Mutual Friend), for a rainy day.  I think it's lovely that he has one unturned to look forward to, especially having heard him speak to the great influence that Great Expectations particularly had on his creative disposition.  Irving mentions that he was disappointed in advance at the looming end of the novel; that it was one of the glorious books that made you want to slow down as you paced forward, for fear that you would run out of sentences too soon.

I sometimes wish I could rewind my reading history and meet the multitude of eccentrics I first encountered in the pages of a Dickens' novel in my latter childhood and teen years; but, alas, I am bereft of a rainy-day Dickens and must console myself with the prospect of revisitation: sometimes in the fortunate medium of film and television adaptations.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Log Cabin Christmas: 9 Historical Romances during American Pioneer Christmases

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories, published by  Barbour features numerous writers piecing a patchwork quilt of scenes set in Pioneer America. Wanda E. Brunstetter, Jane Kirkpatrick, Margaret Brownley and Kelly Eileen Hake are just a few of the more recognizable names. Fortunately, readers are introduced to relatively new contributors who offer interesting portraits.

I will let you discover the magic and sentiment of each short story on your own; but I wanted to highlight my two favourite stories!:

I confess to purchasing the book to read Liz Johnson's A Star in the Night: a romantic glimpse into Confederate Territory during the War Between the States. Here, a wounded Union officer is caught behind enemy lines, fearful for his life while silently and subtly falling for his unlikely nurse, Cora Sinclair. Jedediah Harrington proves a brave and gentlemanly match for the spirited Cora and the picturesque unfurling of their budding romance in a small wintry cabin is a cozy treat.  I was impressed with Johnson's historical knowledge and the way she effortless painted the Tennessee terrain of the latter 19th Century. Her passion for this sect of history is apparent and this short story is quite a unique offering when countered with the Love Inspired Suspense novels she has published and their modern, action-filled drama and intrigue.

I found myself caught in the clutches of suspense more than once as Jed decides to endanger himself by setting out into the cold, leaving his vulnerable helpers, Cora and her grandfather. Indeed, I was kept waiting an entire year before a Christmas as special as the first they spent together in the confines of their cozy cabin brings these two love birds together again.  For a strong heroine, exceptional knowledge of US Civil War history and of the realistic portrayal of Jed's injury and subsequent healing, I rate this the highest of the stories I read. I was really impressed: especially as this story ventured from what I have read by Johnson previously.

I also quite enjoyed Snow Angel by Margaret Brownley.  I have been working through her Rocky Creek Romance series and loving the spark and bite of each.  Here, the refined schoolteacher, Maddie Parker is trapped by a snowstorm in her one room schoolhouse with her rowdy, hungry and cold students. Brusque Sheriff Brad Donovan, still aching from the death of his wife and child, is resolved to abstain from the growing attraction he feels to Miss Parker when he becomes trapped alongside her and the children on his rescue mission.  The closed and confined space their relationship grows in, and the desperate circumstances ( not unlike the setting for Star in the Night) allows for a taut and suspenseful romance where you feel heartily for each of the well-developed characters; while knowing, with succinct dramatic irony, what they feel like sharing--even when they won't say it themselves.

A cute and funny addition to each chapter features revelations about the Christmas story adorably penned by the students in Miss Parker's 1885 class.

I marvelled at how closely I grew to the characters and how quickly I was able to empathize with their circumstance and champion their budding affection for each other.  This is quite remarkable given the limited canvas Brownley had --considering the short story format.

I highly recommend this collection to any lovers of historical Christian romance.  The Christmas setting just made for some wonderful wintry reading by the tree.  It's a little too late this year; but consider adding it to your list for next December!

Monday, January 02, 2012

A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander

Claire Laurent's greatest desire is to create a unique and lasting masterpiece; not continually copy and forge the masterpieces of the famous artists her father will in turn peddle at their New Orleans gallery. When her father dies, and Claire is left without provision and highly suspicious that her past will follow her, she craves the anonymity she finds at the historic Belmont Mansion in Nashville. Here, under the employment of the regal and eccentric Adelicia Acklen, Claire is able to break free from her past and start establishing a life of her own.  When Sutton Munroe, an attractive attorney, crosses her path, Claire is certain that he knows more than he lets on and that their growing attraction may indeed lead her straight into the excavation of her scandalous past.

The War Between the States lingers as an inflicting and haunting memory as the stage is set for intrigue, romance, forgery, theft and redemption.

I must admit that I was growing tired of Alexander's usual canvas of frontier America and small Colorado towns.  Luckily, Alexander has steered in a completely different direction in A Lasting Impression and inserts her not inconsiderable knowledge of Belmont, Adelicia Acklen and the world of 19th Cenury art into a charming story of life in the new Antebellum. I enjoyed the unique setting and Alexander's attention to historic detail.  Moreover, I enjoyed how colourfully the world was painted: from Claire's early days in New Orleans ( a city whose geography I know quite well due to a stay in the Summer) through to her numerous encounters with the charming Sutton Munroe. Described as akin to The David in the text, I immediately painted him as actor Matt Bomer (see if you don't enjoy this mental caption, ladies, as you wander through this novel!)

As per a previous novel, I was disappointed that Alexander again attempted to infuse a French culture, dialect and a few threaded exclamations to match her heroine's background.  Alexander failed notably with this before and having not yet conquered this flow, her dialect and dialogue were distracting.

I also found the book to be rather lengthy for the time it would have needed to cover the romance and the plot.  Not many Christian romance novels sit at the length of Alexander's latest book and this is one case where a bit of editing would have made for a much tighter and more enjoyable read.

Nonetheless, I think this is a strong novel from an author whose previous books have always shown potential. It is quite obvious that Tamera Alexander's inspiring visits to Belmont wrought great creative insight and she excels at taking a historical character and flashing her in dimensional life as a support to the main action of the novel.

My sincere thanks to Bethany House for the review copy!

Please visit Tamera Alexander's website and blog

Learn more about Belmont and Adelicia Acklen

Purchase A Lasting Impression at amazon