Monday, November 17, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

I loved the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, so when I heard that it was based on a book by Richard C. Morais I thought it would be a great audio treat.  While the book was okay--three stars on GoodReads--here is a case where the movie is definitely better than the book.

The first half of Morais's The Hundred-Foot Journey provides the story for the movie, but with some significant changes.  I have to say that I like the story arc in the movie so much more than in the book.

Spoilers for book and movie below...

In the movie, Hassan returns to Lumiere, the village in France where his displaced family finally settles down, and becomes the chef who wins the third Michelin star for Madame Mallory's restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur.  He returns to his girlfriend, Margaret, the sou chef, and together they soar to culinary heights surrounded by friends and family.  It is a warm, lovely story about loyalty, roots, home, community, and joie de vivre.

The book takes a different tack.  Hassan never returns to Lumiere.  Both Papa and Madame Mallory die.  Hassan's restaurant finally does earn three Michelin stars, but most of the Paris part of the book is gastronomic showboating.  While it was fun to read about Paris and the world of haute cuisine, Hassan becomes an insufferable bore.  When Margaret finally tracks him down in the city, she is begging for a job, having left an abusive husband, and with two children in tow.  It's all rather pathetic.

Whereas the movie is life-affirming and satisfying, the book is ultimately a bit on the depressing side.

Back to the movie, Helen Mirren is perfectly cast as Madame Mallory, the uptight French chef and restaurateur who becomes Hassan's mentor, and Hassan, Papa, and Marguerite (Margaret in the book) are all equally perfect.  But the real star of the movie is Lumiere, the village in France, where Hassan's family stumbles upon and stays.  Like its name, it's full of light, and exquisite.  Lush, verdant, bucolic, self-contained.

I found an article about the town where the movie was filmed.  It is Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the Midi-Pyrénées in southern France.  I think a pilgrimage is in order!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow was the talk of the 70's.  Published in 1975, it was a best seller and, I didn't know it at the time, considered innovative, even revolutionary.  

I didn't read it when it first came out--then, as now, I eschew best-sellers, with the still misguided notion that what the masses like can't be good.  However, I have heard for years that it's a wonderful novel, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list and finally read it.

I liked it--found it interesting, taking place in very early 20th century New York City, a time and place I particularly like reading about.  Doctorow has a fine vocabulary and I found myself reaching for my smart phone many times to look up a word, or a place, or a person.

After I finished it, I did a bit of reading about the book--while good, I was curious as to why critics back in the 1970's found it innovative.  I found it fairly routine in technique.  What I learned is that Doctorow was one of the first, if not the first, novelist to blur the lines between fiction and real-history, including in his cast of characters real people, such as Henry Ford, J Pierpont Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini, among others.  His fictional characters, many of whom are unnamed but labeled (i.e., Father, Mother, Younger Brother), interact freely with historical characters.  Doctorow creates scenes and circumstances that might have been but that history didn't record.

I was surprised to learn that this was innovative in the 1970's.  It is such a mainstay of historical fiction these days--but weren't Gore Vidal and James Michener doing this already?  Maybe somebody can enlighten me as to the difference between Burr and Centennial and Ragtime, with regards to blurring the lines between fiction and history.

Doctorow did such a good job with his character and story line around Coalhouse Walker, the black jazz pianist who ends up holding Morgan's library hostage, that I had to search the internet to determine whether he was a real historical person or not.  It turns out not--but Coalhouse and his story were lifted by Doctorow from a German novella entitled Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Von Kleist and published in 1808--the Kleist work was itself a reworking of a 16th century story about Hans Kohlhase.  

I liked the theme Doctorow presented that the 20th century was one centered around creating and exploiting reproducible experiences (e.g., Ford's innovation in the automobile industry was all around creating clones of the Model T cheaply and quickly).  I liked extending this to character and thought it interesting that Doctorow wrote Ragtime during the part of the 20th century during which young people sought to find themselves, express their uniqueness and individuality, and not be part of the cookie cutter suburbia that their parents embraced so warmly.

Here are a couple of articles I found particularly interesting and informative.

Based on a True Story, On Critics and Criticism
'Ragtime' Evokes Real and Fictional Pasts, New York Times (about the 1981 movie, but still relevant to the book)

Hey! Grandpa Was Right-Doctorow Stole Ragtime, New York Observer

Now I'm eager to see the movie as well as the stage musical.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Nonfiction November

Sophisticated Dorkiness I'm Lost in BooksRegular Rumination, and Doing Dewey are hosting Nonfiction November.  

During November,  the co-hosts will be reading and writing about nonfiction, and encouraging other readers to join in through a series of post topics and a couple of readalongs.

The task for this first week is to consider Your Year in NonfictionTake a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on some questions:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? 
Twelve of my 58 books so far in 2014 (that's 21%) were non-fiction. I was actually surprised to see so many as I don't feel I read enough nonfiction, but I guess it's relative as I love fiction too!

So, my favorite?  I guess I would have to go with One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson.  I enjoy Bryson's style, I love reading about history, and this time period is absolutely fascinating with lots of larger than life people doing interesting things and the society struggling to catch up with technology, which is changing age-old conventions at breakneck speed.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? 

It has to be Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman.  I've recommended this to fellow bloggers, family and friends.  So many people have been watching the TV series, and I found it really interesting to compare the book with the series.  Not only in terms of what works best in each media, but how a memoir can become fictionalized.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

I set out in 2014 intending to finally read up on WWI, since we're marking the 100-year anniversary of the start of the war.  I have a number of books on my shelf in this area, but haven't read any yet!  Must do in 2015.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I see this as a great opportunity to find new nonfiction books for my groaning shelves and meet some new book bloggers.   It's also a good way to start thinking about my reading plans for 2015--what I want to accomplish as a reader, and what areas/topics I want to learn more about.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Reread

This week's Top Ten list (host by The Broke and the Bookish) is all about what to reread. Stop by to see what is on everyone else's reread list.

I love to reread favorite books, just as I like to have a few cups of tea a day, eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, dine on tomato sandwiches during the summer when the garden is bursting with goodies, and make ham and bean soup when it snows.

Apart from rereading an Austen every year, here's my list of the books that are at the top of my reread list:

Middlemarch by George Eliot - I love this book and it's so rich and layered and wise and wonderful that I find it rewarding to reread at least every five or so years.  I was due last year and it fell off my list, but I'm definitely rereading it soon.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens - One of the first classics I ever read, I read it 2-3 times as a teenager, but not since.  Definitely overdue for a reread.  Last year I reread Pickwick Papers, with whom I have a similar history, and loved it.

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer - The whole time I was reading it for plot, I was promising myself I would reread it for savoring.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series - I'm into book 2 on my third trip through this series, which I love so much.  Sometimes I think that Outlander is to me as an adult what the Anne books and the Little House series were to me when I was a child.

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher - A college friend gave me this novel when I was taking a long break from fiction as a young adult, and it resparked my love of a good story.  It's been over twenty-five years since I read it and I want to see whether the magic is still there.

The Forest by Edward Rutherford - I love these massive historical fiction books, and I've reread London and loved it even more the second time.  I remember finding The Forest absolutely enthralling.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell - One my top 5 favorite books of all time.  Much as I love Wives and Daughters, North and South really speaks directly to me.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier - I really enjoy du Maurier's stories, but this one is so compelling and masterful that it's just a sheer pleasure to read.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann - I studied Mann in college, but even before that I had read Death in Venice and found it completely absorbing, like listening to Mozart's Requiem in D Minor.  It's exquisitely written and affects me deeply.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray - The first time I read it I didn't like it; the second time I really liked; I'm curious how I will feel about the third time.

I'm toying with the idea of hosting a reading challenge on my blog in 2015 that would be all about rereading.  Anybody interested?  I haven't thought it through but as a rereader the idea obviously appeals to me.  Any hints or tips about hosting a challenge?

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club

I read about The End of Your Life Book Club shortly after I finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and got on the list for the audio version at the library, since I was in the mood for another book about books.  Having read it and enjoyed it, I'm still in the mood for books about I'm on the prowl for another likely candidate.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a memoir by Will Schwable, who recounts the time he spent with his mother Mary Anne Schwable during the last two years of her life, while she was dying from pancreatic cancer.  He spends a lot of time with her during her chemo treatments and they decide to have their own book club--sharing books, discussing them, and using these discussions as a springboard for discussions about how to live, how to die, how to raise a family, find love and meaning in your life, and give of yourself to your friends, family, and the world.

I found his disclaimer at the beginning of the book critical to remember whilst reading it--this book is about his experience of being with his mother while she was dying.  He acknowledges that it wouldn't and couldn't match the experience that his father or sister or brother had with his mother at the same time.  This was important to me because like all memoirs this one is about Will, with his mother as the context in which he recounts his story.

I loved reading about the books that Will and Mary Anne read and discussed.  Some were books I've read recently and loved (Olive Kitteridge, People of the Book, Brooklyn, and Crossing to Safety),  some are books that have figured deeply in my own life (The Hobbit, Gone With the Wind, The Story of Ferdinand,  and The Diary of Anne Frank), some that I've read and remembered and thought about (The Year of Magical Thinking, The Lord of the Flies, and Traveling Mercies).  There were quite a few that I had never heard of (Will and Mary Anne read many more books by authors who are neither American nor British), and quite a few on my to read list.  I ended up have to skip sections where I feared spoilers might spoil a book for me.  Surprisingly, Will and Mary Anne loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo--a book I've dismissed as pop-culture but am now considering reading.  The first book I'll be reading that Will and Mary Anne loved is The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Also surprising to me was that Mary Anne was a read-the-end-first type of reader.  This helped Will and Mary Anne in discussing a book she might not have finished because she already knew the ending.  While I as a reader acknowledge that the journey of reading a book is what I relish, I cannot imagine reading an ending before I get to it by reading the entire book or story that precedes it.

I did read a pretty long thread on GoodReads about how some readers ended up not liking Mary Anne at all. They saw her as controlling, domineering, and rigid, despite her philanthropic work that she continued almost to the very end of her life.  I have to give Will the benefit of the doubt her--he clearly loved and admired his mother and his book about the time he spent with her at the end of her life is one of the most beautiful tributes I can imagine a son paying to a mother.

For me, however, much as I found Will and Mary Anne's journey towards her death compelling to read about, I liked the book talk in the book most of all.  I write a blog and I read blogs because I love to talk books.  If you're in the same camp, then The End of Your Life Book Club is definitely a treat.

My one quibble with it is that the title makes me uncomfortable.  I thought about giving this book to my own 91-year old mother, but I don't want to imply to her that I think the end is near, which I actually don't think!

If you're interested in taking a look at the list of books that Will and Mary Anne read and/or discuss in the memoir, there is a list on GoodReads.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books & Movies for the Halloween Spirit

Happy Halloweek!  One of my favorite holidays.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday theme is all about getting in the spirit of Halloween.  Sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish: stop by and see what everyone else reads and watches to get in the proper scary, shivery, spooky mood.

Here's my list:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving - the definitive Halloween book.  I read it as a kid and have a beautiful copy that I put out every year to enjoy.

What Was I Scared Of?, by Dr. Suess - I'm pretty much a wimp when it comes to scary so this is totally my speed.

Harry Potter - the early books/movies, before things got really dark, were filled with fun Halloween scenes...drinking pumpkin juice, singing "Double Trouble."

Don't Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier - for me the definitive scary short story and movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier - this has it all, psycho thriller, beautiful costumes that have a hidden meaning, murder, and scary Mrs. Danvers.  I still like the Laurence Olivier movie, although the ending is changed from the book.

Joyland, by Stephen King - I haven't read many King books, but I really liked this one, mainly for the nostalgic mood of the 1970s.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown - love, love, love this video.  Have I mentioned I'm not that into scary?

E.T. - nothing gets me into Halloween like seeing E.T. dressed up for trick-or-treating!

The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe - in popular culture, my two favorites are the Poe festival in Gilmore Girls with the rival Poes both reciting The Raven and Homer Simpson's incredible rendition.

Beetlejuice - great movie where macabre takes center stage; the dinner part scene is one of my all-time favorite scenes in movie history!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Highland River

I can't remember where I heard about Neil M. Gunn's novel Highland River, but I think it was probably a Scottish author reading challenge that provided a list of appropriate books.  Going into it, I categorized it as a Scottish equivalent of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It.  Having read it, I think that categorization was right, with a bit of Proust and Rembrance of Things Past.

Calling Highland River a novel is a bit misleading, although I haven't found any evidence that suggest it is even semi-autobiographical.  To say it is about a boy growing up in the Scottish Highlands, in a fishing village on the eve of the Great War is accurate, but the book is mostly Gunn musing about fishing, religion, family, class system, and war.

I found the chapters in which Kenn actually does something--catch a fish, catch a fish with his brother, catch a fish with a friend, evade the game keepers, go fishing with his father--to be the most enjoyable parts of the book.  I longed for more story, but the writing is beautiful and the musings profound, albeit a bit hard to follow at times.

I must've liked the book because I earmarked dozens of pages and Tweeted a fair number of quotes.

Here are my favorites to give you a feel for the book:

"Rock and bird and plant, grasses and mosses and trees, hollows and ridges, were the world through which their river ran."
"He took to his mothers people. He was a movement of memories for her. She glimpse dead persons in him.""...youth's memories have always this happy trick of living in the future."
The book is well-crafted and literary--Kenn, the main character, explores the course of the river in the course of his life, ultimately ending up at the source of the river, high above the village where it empties into the sea, and he uses it to connect Kenn to his Scottish ancestors and the ancient Picts.  When Kenn is on his river, time as a concept becomes irrelevant.  The timelessness of nature and cycle of nature make Kenn one with his forbears.

This is definitely a book you don't fully get one reading, at least for me.  I think I'll try to remember to reread it a few years.

I read Highland River as part of my TBR Pile Challenge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

I've been hearing about Miss Marjoribanks off and on for awhile now on other classics-loving book blogs, and when the GoodReads Victorians group announced that it would be a group read this fall, I jumped at the chance to read along.

Miss Marjoribanks is by the prolific Margaret Oliphant.  Published in 1865, it is in her Carlingford series, which she modeled after Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series.  Carlingford is a mythical town in England, and the series chronicles the lives and fortunes of various inhabitants--sometimes focusing on one neighborhood and the mores of it, and sometimes on another.  Carlingford is, according to Oliphant, "essentially a quiet place" with "no trade, no manufactures, no anything in particular."

Miss Marjoribanks tells the story of Lucilla Marjoribanks, only daughter of the town's doctor.  Her mother dies early in the book, and as soon as Lucilla finishes with her schooling she returns to Carlingford to care for her father and manage the town's society.

Lucilla is a completely unique heroine--I've never encountered anyone quite like Lucilla, either in the flesh or in print or on the stage.  She's a cross between Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Stella Poste (from Cold Comfort Farm), and Elle Woods (from Legally Blonde).  She has a super-abundance of self-confidence, self-consciously runs shallow (yes, there is nothing more important than getting the exact shade of green wallpaper for her drawing room so as to complement her complexion), loves to be in charge and should be (no one else comes close to her management abilities), has blinders on when it comes to her own heart, but is supremely big-hearted.

The narration is charming--ironic, indulgent, and self-conscious--very similar to Trollope in this, but thankfully without Trollope's tendency to insert lectures on ecclesiastical law and form.  Easy to read, but long-winded at times--after all Oliphant wrote for the money (she was a widow and had children and extended family to support) and spun out the story in serialization for much longer than she needed to.  That said, it was fun to read and I only found it tiresome occasionally.  The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition that I read described the tone of Oliphant and Miss Marjoribanks in particular as sardonic--perhaps I took it too much at face value, but I felt it more ironic than cynical.

There are some wonderful other characters in Miss Marjoribanks as well.  Tom, Lucilla's cousin, could've been a model for Georgette Heyer's scattered-but-enthusiastic young lover hero type.  There is a brother-sister combo (Mr. Cavendish and his sister Mrs. Woodburn) who are not fair from Henry and Mary Crawford, although Mrs. Woodburn's thing is to mimic people, which makes her an interesting cross between contemptible and pitiful.  There are a pair of sisters, Rose and Barbara Lake, many rungs down on the social scale from the divine Miss M, who are utterly fascinating to me--the first is a fiery, tiny Pre-Rafaelite artist and the second is a talented singer who just wants a nice wedding.

The novel surprised me many times with its modern feel.  Many of the characters felt much more Edwardian than Victorian, and Lucilla herself freely acknowledged how much better at politics she was than the men she championed.  The men acknowledge this too!

Oliphant's Lucilla is a portrait of a strong, capable female who makes all her own decisions as well as those of the men in her life but is not a shrew (not a trace of Becky Sharp here), or a doormat (nothing of Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield), or pious (much as I love Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, she can be holier than thou).

Much like Oliphant herself, Lucilla is resourceful, practical, and far-seeing.  I loved spending time with her, which is good because my version clocked in at just under 500 pages.

Miss Marjoribanks is one of the books I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and fulfills the category of author new to me.  But not for long, I plan to read more of Oliphant's Carlingford series in 2015!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

I'm about half way through PBS's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which is a 7-part, 14-hour Ken Burns film about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  I recorded the lot when it was broadcast last month and am watching roughly a part a week, in two settings per week, travel schedule permitting.   It's fascinating and wonderfully done, as expected.

I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II awhile ago, and Peter Collier's The Roosevelts: An American Saga, both of which I enjoyed a lot.  Plus, last year I visited Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill property (the house is being renovated so was closed to the public) and FDR's Hyde Park home.  I'm no where near an expert, but I find the Roosevelt family to be compelling and a portal to a better understanding of the early 20th century.

I like the Ken Burns style of documentary--the stills with voice-over narration of quotes and as we move into the age of film/video actual clips.  Paul Giamatti does a reasonably good job as Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Hermann does FDR really well, having played him for TV movies in the 1970s. Meryl Streep, however, is so Eleanor that it is almost spooky.

I also really like the experts who weigh in with perspective and analysis--Doris Kearns Goodwin is my favorite (so articulate and insightful), Geoffrey Ward is good (although he seems to be caught up emotionally in the story--he seemed on the verge of tears talking about FDR's pain post-polio), George Will is uniformly irritating and I tend to take his analysis with a grain of salt (looking for the hidden agenda, I confess), and Clay Jenkinson, David McCullough, and Jon Meacham are all good and credible.

I have to say, though, one of the main things that strikes me about the Roosevelts this time around is that despite their incredible fortitude, brilliant instincts, courage, and charisma, the three individuals profiled were remarkably bad and selfish parents.  FDR, while he was battling back after polio, was absent from home for months at a time, seeing his children infrequently; Eleanor moved into her own stone cottage and talked a lot about the need for a "life of her own" and stopped trying to connect with her children, conceding the fight to FDR's mother, Sarah; and Theodore insisted that his sons live their lives modeled on his own.  I find this maddening.  I think the children of these giants paid the price of their parents' greatness.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce, American author and journalist, 1842-1914

I've known for years about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a short story by Ambrose Bierce.  It's included in a collection I have entitled Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce.  I'm interested in the Civil War and heard that this was a chilling story.  Since I'm in the chilly story mode these days, I thought I'd give it a go.

It is remarkable.  Just twelve pages long, it is a perfect story.  The writing is crisp, almost clinical, as the narrator describes the execution of a Southern plantation owner during the latter days of the war when defeat was inevitable but loyalty to the cause still ran high.

As with any great short story writer, Bierce manages to convey a strong sense of the personality and drivers of the main character, the man being executed, in but a few phrases.  And as with any great short story, there are one or two moments at which the reader does a double-take.  The end of the story, of course, takes your breath away.

I love stories like this one and writers like Bierce.  At least I think I like him--I should probably read more than one story by him before making such a blanket statement.

Read it here and tell me what you think!

And in case you don't read it, I assure you, it qualifies as an R.I.P. challenge work!