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Friday, 31 August 2012

Surprising Discoveries in the Early Hours

This story needs a little scene setting. I'm going away for a few days to visit a friend and, naturally, the most important choice I'll make is what books to take with me. I'd already settled on Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens but I wanted a novel to go along with it. I seem to be drowning in everything but novels at the moment but I was determined nonetheless.

I switched off my computer just before two o'clock in the morning and sat looking at my oldest bookshelf (mostly dusty university books I rarely look at) then I shuffled closer. I wondered if my copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy was behind that scary looking letter from HMRC. It was. Now, although the novel is on my list for the Classic Challenge I'm participating in this year I haven't quite got round to it (probably because it was hidden behind that scary letter). Decision suddenly made, I plucked The Mayor of Casterbridge from the shelf. All clean and unruffled except... Hmm. There was something squeezed in between the last page and the back cover. Very odd for a book I've never read since I bought it five years ago.

A little examination revealed three worn pages of an exercise book with barely legible handwriting on them. My grandfather's handwriting. The odd thing is that he never touched this book and that the notes relate not to The Mayor of Casterbridge but The Return of the Native, which we don't have a copy of. The only logical answer is that I found the notes in another book when I was sorting through his collection and deciding which books I wanted to keep and the only Thomas Hardy novel I had in reach was The Mayor of Casterbridge. I'm just surprised I forgot doing it.

It's strange. In more dismal moments I forget that I have actually got a tradition of academia in my family. While my grandfather didn't climb as far up the ladder as I'm attempting to, he maintained a genuine interest in literature up until the end of his life. That's something that's vital, I think. If you don't have a real passion for your subject then you have no place working for your doctorate in it. Actually, I'd go further than that - if you're not passionate about your subject you have little hope of gaining your doctorate. You need a certain level of enthusiasm to get you over the speed bumps that research constantly throws up.

I've never read The Return of the Native but having taken a look at these notes then I want to. There's a particular paragraph that strikes me which is either borrowed from a critic or is his own:

"Though the descriptions are uncommonly good, the movement is uncommonly slow, the personages are uncommonly uninteresting, the action is uncommonly poor, the conclusion is uncommonly flat."

Is that an accurate description of the novel?! I'll definitely have to read it and find out. Oh, and on the back of one of the pages was this sketch, something that surprised me:

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Classic Film Review: The African Queen (1951)

Starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen tells the story of a bereaved missionary and a riverboat captain who plan to use their small boat to sink a German warship during WWI. Rose Sayer (Hepburn) is out for a little revenge after her brother was all but murdered by German soldiers as they passed through their village. Although rather prim and proper, she is very determined and concocts a plan that leaves her new companion Charlie Allnut (Bogart) completely astounded. They aim to get to the distant lake where the boat patrols - only white water rapids, a German fort overlooking the river, bugs, crocodiles and thick reeds stand in their way.

I'm not sure I can explain how much I enjoyed this film. Although the opening section with Rosie's brother (Robert Morley) preaching and singing with a group of natives didn't much appeal to me, as soon as Allnut mentioned the war in passing things sped up. After the brother's death, Allnut returns and agrees to take Rosie with him on his boat, despite their differing personalities. This personality clash leads to some amusing moments - particularly when Rosie pours every single bottle of Allnut's gin supply into the river - but they eventually realise they've come to like each other during their adversity. This ramps up the tension as love complicates their plan.

The narrow focus of this film could potentially make it boring. After all, the majority of the action takes place on a very small boat. However, Hepburn and Bogart's combined abilities, along with some wonderfully directed action moments make it as tense as any film I've seen from this era. Rosie's tenacity is unflagging and very believable while Allnut's change of heart is well constructed too. It's a classic tale of opposites attracting while their world collapses around them. It builds to a stunning conclusion which I won't spoil but felt fitted the characters and the film perfectly.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Classic Film Review: The History of Mr Polly (1949)

Starring John Mills as the title character, The History of Mr Polly is an adaptation of a story by HG Wells. Alfred Polly is a somewhat directionless dreamer who we first encounter being sacked from his job for being late (he was busy reading elsewhere). When his father dies he comes into a little money and finds himself marrying a woman he barely knows and starting a shop. Fifteen years later, their marriage is stale and painful so Alfred decides to kill himself. When he can't do that right, he just leaves but as he walks away from one problem he walks straight into another.

This is a very episodic film which flits around a fair bit with various jumps in time. As such, it can be difficult to know anyone but Alfred Polly himself. The supporting cast is huge but each have their own little moments to shine. My personal favourite was Uncle Pentstemon played by Moore Marriott, an Albert Steptoe figure who seems to appear just at funerals and weddings. Sally Ann Howes also marks her mark as Christabel, a schoolgirl who climbs over a wall and makes Alfred fall head over heels in love with her. Unfortunately, she isn't quite as serious as he is.

There are some wonderful little moments in this film and Mills is perfect as Alfred. Nevertheless, the time shifts do make it tricky to warm to, although the scenes where he tries to kill himself are nothing less than hilarious. I enjoyed this one for the comedy and Mills combined together. Watch out for the 'bit of arson', the barge crossing and the nightgown chase.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Book Review: The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of The Afterparty via a giveaway on David Hebblethwaite's book blog. I'd urge you to have a look at his blog and if you're a short story lover you may want to join in with his 'Sunday Story Society' where you read and discuss short stories from various authors - I'm currently trying to find the time to participate! Now on to the review.

A literary agent receives the first few chapters of an intriguing new novel written by William Mendez. It tells the story of a journalist attending the birthday party of a film star. During the evening he also encounters the film star's drug-addicted supermodel wife and an X Factor contender from Leeds who has found himself moving in unbelievable circles. By the end of the night tragedy has occurred and the literary agent is hooked by the manuscript. But the case bears a startling resemblance to a real-life case and Mendez refuses to even meet prospective publishers.

The story is told through the emails between the agent and Mendez and the chapters he sends her. The blur between reality and fiction makes it arguably a post-modern masterpiece, you've got Elton John and Gordon Ramsey at the party for instance. I think my reasons for struggling with it are mostly personal. While the world is described with a satirical bite to it, I am one of the (perhaps few) who doesn't give a damn about celebrity culture. Although the book is intended to be a mockery of the culture, I found that even the satire didn't hold my interest at first. This altered around half way through when the 'crisis' occurred and I read the second half of the book much more quickly than the first.

This is certainly a different kind of novel than I've read before and I'd recommend it on that count alone. However, beware of the decadence and debauchery. Inevitably, the book drowns in them at times.

Monday, 27 August 2012

First Draft Hiatus

I'm a big fan of pushing on with first drafts and I've made that known in the past. However, in March I discussed a problem I was having with my first draft. I needed to change something fundamental but was a little anxious about stopping and rewriting because I thought I'd lose momentum. Well, I did. In May I stopped writing that story and other things took their rightful place at the head of the queue. Little things - PhD work, rewriting another novel following advice from my agent, blogging for 2020UK. I wondered then if forcing myself to stop and go over 'old' ground with the first draft had led to me losing interest in it. In fairness, I'm not sure that was it.

You see, two weeks ago I opened up the document and started writing again. I was on a bit of an unauthorised break (I'd kidded myself I was waiting for feedback to give myself some downtime) and wanted to have a crack at one of the four first drafts I've started and abandoned in the last few years. I chose this one because it's still the one that's closest to my heart, it's still the one I've thought about most in the last few months despite the pressing obligations of others things. And you know what? I got straight back into it. I've written ten chapters, effectively doubling the length of the draft. It's now up to 36,000 words. And now I've stopped again.

There's one main reason why with several parts. I've just gone back into 'extremely busy' mode. I've got feedback from my agent so need to crack on with rewriting the other twenty three chapters of that novel. I've also got a lot of secondary reading for my PhD to get on with along the theme of disability within Victorian fiction. Then, when that reading is out of the way, I have to finish writing the disability chapter with a long and complicated analysis of at least three Victorian novels. All in all, my plate's looking a little full.

My ideas for this first draft haven't dried up as such. But they're not clear cut. I couldn't give you a breakdown of what's going to happen in the next few chapters and, unfortunately, I haven't got the time to spend working it out. I'll just have to do what I did before: get on with everything else and wait for the characters to talk to me. They get bored of waiting for me to come back to them eventually and make themselves known.

I suppose the moral of this post is that you should always try to finish a first draft in one painful gulp. But if you're a bit busy that might not be possible so don't be afraid to let it go. If it's a good story you'll want to come back to it.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Book Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

I came to this book after watching the recent adaptation starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton (beat that for a cast!). Although the film took a little creative licence with some of the events and characters, the essence of the book was kept and that's the most important bit. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (originally titled These Foolish Things) tells the story of an eclectic group of pensioners who travel to India to live out their retirement. The idea comes about after Dr Ravi Kapoor searches for a way to get his father-in-law, Norman, out of his way after he's been kicked out of numerous residential homes. Norman's joined by Evelyn (financially in peril due to her son), Douglas and Jean Ainslee (seemingly happily married but there are cracks under the surface), former civil servant Graham, former BBC worker Dorothy, man-hunter Madge and unfortunate Muriel (in search of her son). In addition, we come to know some of their children.

This diverse collection of characters was perhaps the only difficulty I had with the novel. It flits around a lot and I found myself thinking that I didn't much care what was happening to Christopher (Evelyn's son). However, the whole is important because there are two sides to every story. The younger perspectives helped accentuate the generation gap, even bridging it at times.

This book is essentially about how we view and treat our elderly, something perhaps more important today than ever before. Whilst Indians take on familial responsibility, we Britons are happy to be rid of our elderly family members and, more generally, people cease to be useful when they pass a certain age. This novel struck a chord with me because it deals with those issues head on. I think it's best explained in this paragraph from Dorothy's point of view:

"In recent years chronic pain had made her short-tempered. What was happening to the world? Had she missed something? People seemed to have pulled up the drawbridge and retreated into their own solipsistic little lives. Half of them didn't even bother to vote. In a way, Dorothy couldn't blame them. The rot had started with Thatcher; there's no such thing as society, but a worse betrayal was committed by her own party which had mutated into something so repellent that she was tempted to up-sticks altogether and leave the country. Even the BBC, once so familiar, was now unrecognisable. The phrase 'market forces' had, like a cancer, eaten into the organisation she had most loved. That it was elderly to think this way only made her more irritable. Newspapers were full of interviews with people she had never heard of, famous for being celebs; what had they done, what was the point of it all? No doubt Tussaud's was full of them now. At some defining moment a sea-change had occurred - around the time when train passengers were renamed customers, when ordinary dogs disappeared overnight, to be replaced by pit bull terriers. It was as if she were performing in a play and realised, quite suddenly, that the cast had been replaced by actors she had never seen before." (p49)

I don't know if this is a book of our times, whose references and insight may be lost on future generations, but, if it is, then it's one that merits a read by anyone who wishes, like Dorothy, that things hadn't changed for the worst.   

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Television Review: Best of Men

Best of Men, based on real life events, tells the story of a German refugee at the end of WWII who starts work with partially paralysed patients who have basically been left to rot. Dr Ludwig Guttman (Eddie Marsan) gathers enemies around the hospital (and makes himself unpopular with the men) as he begins a new regime to make the men fit for living again in their new circumstances. He realises that there is something missing from their new lives and begins wheelchair sport contests which will eventually lead to the establishing of the Paralympic Games. Amongst the accomplished cast are Rob Brydon as Corporal Wynne Bowen, Niamh Cusack as Sister Edwards and Nigel Lindsay as Mr Heath.

This was supposed to be an inspirational and heart-warming piece of drama and it succeeded. That's not to say that it doesn't examine the vicious after-effects of war because it does. The first few minutes particularly, where paralysed Private William Heath (George MacKay) dreams of how life used to be and then comes back to reality, are especially hard-hitting but there are moments like this throughout. Bowen's character is an interesting one - someone who's very sarcastic but hides behind it to mask how uncertain he is of his future with his wife and children. He's adamant he wants a divorce because he can't live with his family in his disabled body but Guttman won't let him off so easily. Equally, Heath is being swept along by the plans of his father to put him in a residential home but Guttman warns him of what life will be if he agrees to that.

There are comic touches in what could've been a very heavy drama. Guttman becomes embroiled in a war of his own with fellow doctor Dr Cowan (Richard McCabe) who, it transpires, is happy for the injured men to be hidden away and forgotten. Although his relations with his own staff are strained at first, Guttman wins them round and eventually they are as convinced of his methods as he himself is.

I enjoyed this, even if I had difficulty with Marsan's heavy German accent at times.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Classic Film Review: The Big Trees (1952)

Despite reading some fairly negative reviews, I rather enjoyed The Big Trees. It doesn't pretend to be anything it's not and is enjoyable as a lesser Kirk Douglas film. Douglas plays timber baron Jim Fallon (yes, I know that rhymes but that's the way IMDB describe him) who aims to take advantage of a new law and make a fortune by chopping down some valuable Californian redwoods. Unfortunately, a group of Quakers live on the land he intends to desecrate so he plots to manipulate them and get the wood any way he can. Two things stand in his way - Quaker Alicia Chadwick (Eve Miller) and the friends he's managed to alienate during his rise to fortune. The most significant of these is Walter 'Yukon' Burns (Edgar Buchanan), the kind-hearted man Fallon sent on ahead of him to California.

Some of the Quaker scenes are admittedly a little cliché and I don't see the attraction between Fallon and Alicia. What does shine through, though, is the relationship between Fallon and Yukon - while I could never accept Alicia as a legitimate reason for Fallon to change, I could accept it in combination with what happens to Yukon. There are numerous forgettable characters surrounding these main three and, in all honestly, when it came to the big moments they were involved in I almost forgot who they were. The film fails a little in keeping all threads going but the main few are consistent.

There are a couple of memorable moments worthy of mention. When Alicia and Yukon are trying to think of a legal (and morally righteous) way of derailing Fallon's plans they settle on a 'cataclysm' - that is, complete chaos caused by a cat. Secondly, the runaway train with Alicia trapped in it is quite effective, although Fallon's rescue attempt is a little lengthy. It felt like the film had a double climax though, with the train crash rather diluting the effect of the explosive finale.

This isn't a ground-breaking film but it's an enjoyable one. Kirk Douglas is ideal as unscrupulous Fallon and although some of the dialogue and plot are a little clunky it works overall.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Classic Film Review: His Kind of Woman (1951)

Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Vincent Price, His Kind of Woman attempts to be a spoof of several genres but, for me, it didn't exactly succeed. Drifter and professional gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) has been earmarked as a way of getting a deported crime boss back into the country. He is bribed to go to a holiday resort and await instructions. En-route, he meets Lenore Brent (Russell), a former singer going around telling people she is a millionaire as she tries to hook in her actor boyfriend Mark Cardigan (Price). She believed he was getting a divorce but that illusion soon vanishes when his wife turns up. Of course, by this time she's become more than interested in Dan.

Perhaps my main issue with this film was how much the first two thirds dragged. I struggle with Mitchum as an actor anyway but being expected to care about his for well over an hour when very little was actually happening to him was difficult. Jane Russell, of course, made up for this in part. She's a joy to watch and listen to as she sings 'Five Little Miles From San Berdoo' (see below). Both she and Price seem to know exactly what they're starring in while Mitchum's impassiveness is unhelpful. You shouldn't care more about the secondary hero than the main one but I found myself frequently rooting for Mark Cardigan over Dan Milner.

The film really comes alive in the final third when Mark decides to stage a rescue to get Dan Milner off the ship where the crime boss plans to - quite literally - steal his face. Quoting Shakespeare, dressing himself in a cape, leading hapless police into battle, Price is absolutely hilarious. There's a moment where he overloads a boat to the extent that it sinks which is possibly the best moment in the film. The comedy of the hammy actor adds speed to a film that sadly lacked it until this point. I suppose it's tolerable if you're a Robert Mitchum fan but there's too much going on - in a rather boring way - to interest me. I'd watch this again for Russell and Price but I'd probably fast-forward through the first half at least.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Book Review: Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

This book is something between a long short story and a novella at just over a hundred pages. First published in 1949 (but written years earlier), it's a semi-autobiographical piece based on the author's time at a school in France in the late nineteenth century. It depicts adolescent over-emotion as new student, Olivia, finds herself becoming infatuated with Mlle Julie. She is the latest in a sequence of cracks in the relationship between Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, a relationship destined for tragedy.

Submerged in the viewpoint of the title character, we're given only her standpoint on events coupled with things she learns from conversation. However, that allows the reader to infer a lot about the relationships depicted, examining them from a more adult point of view. While it may feel that nothing actually happens between Olivia and Mlle Julie, the undercurrent of emotion on Olivia's side is certainly strong and, again, it's important to pay attention to what isn't said as much as what is. The tone of the book is naturally quite stifled by the nineteenth-century setting (and the time it was actually published) and my Vintage edition includes quite a bit of untranslated French which can prove frustrating.

It's difficult to say much about this without ruining the small book. It's worth a read and won't take you very long but be prepared to dig inside the words for the truth.

"Mlle Julie, then, and Mlle Cara (so Signorina told me) had lived together for about fifteen years. They were both young, beautiful and gifted when they first met and decided to become partners in starting a girls' school. It was Julie who had the capital, the influential friends, the energy, the intellect, the commanding personality. It was Cara who had the charm that gained fond mothers' hearts and the qualifications that made the enterprise possible. She had passed all the necessary examinations, and Julie none. They had begun in a small way, but had soon become surprisingly successful, increased their numbers, widened their circle, moved into a larger house, built a library and a music-room. They were something of an institution among a certain set of Parisian intellectuals. Julie was the daughter of a well-known man of letters; her father's friends had been distinguished and at his death had continued their friendship for his brilliant daughter. Julie was eminently sociable and Cara's caressing, cooing manners softened her abruptness and sweetened her epigrams; together they made their drawing-room an attractive place with the added charm of the jeunes filles who flitted in and out of it, ministering cakes and coffee to the guests. They were a model couple, deeply attached, tenderly devoted, the gifts of each supplementing the deficiencies of the other. They were admired and loved. They were happy." (p52)

Friday, 17 August 2012

Classic Film Review: Desk Set (1957)

Desk Set was the eighth of the nine films Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together and my first introduction to them as a pair. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, an engineer who begins hanging around the research department of a television network upsetting the staff as he hides his computerisation agenda from them. Chief of these is department head, Bunny Watson (Hepburn) who is very good at her job - quick-witted and intelligent - and isn't keen on the idea of losing it to a computer. She and the three girls in her department sit back and wait for the report but Bunny's also got a long-term boyfriend, Mike (Gig Young), who may finally have some news of his own...

This film is hilarious. Not because of physical comedy (though there are a few moments courtesy of Tracy when Richard puts his shoes in the oven to get dry) but because of exceptionally witty dialogue that allows Tracy and Hepburn to spark off each other. There are a couple of memorable scenes, the first being the picnic on the roof of the building - in November. Richard is giving Bunny a test to check her intelligence against the computer he hopes to install but her answers consistently blind-side him. Another of my favourite scenes came at the Christmas party where Bunny and Peg (Joan Blondell) are getting steadily drunk while Richard watches on. A perfectly choreographed chair-shuffling moment by Hepburn and Blondell cracked me up. Every scene, however, is memorable in its own right as the large cast play their parts perfectly. How do you fit Bunny, Richard, Mr and Mrs Smithers, several children and a mother-in-law into one small car? Hilariously. Also look out for a non-speaking woman played by Ida Moore who wanders around silently.

I can't think of a bad thing to say about this one. Hepburn is magnificent throughout and her scenes with Blondell are as amusing as her scenes with Tracy. An excellent film and one I'd be happy to watch over and over again.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Classic Film Review: Brief Encounter (1945)

This British classic stars Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a happily married woman who finds her life changing dramatically after a chance meeting with Dr Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) at a railway station cafe. They meet accidentally again the next week and spend the afternoon together. After that, their meetings are planned as they tread dangerously close to a full-blown affair.

The body of the film is actually a flashback. We initially meet Laura and Alec at their last meeting, rudely interrupted by a friend of Laura's. We follow her home to husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) and she imagines telling him the story of the last few weeks - what follows is ostensibly directed at him. This style left me a little impatient to get into the meat of the story but it works. What also works is the subplot between station guard Albert (Stanley Holloway) and cafe manager Mrytle (Joyce Carey). It adds a little light relief to what is essentially a very painful film and Holloway fills the role with typical aplomb.

Brief Encounter certainly deserves the label of 'classic'. Although the dialogue ventures towards ridiculous at times, the two leads put in very solid performances. Naturally, we know more of Laura than of Alec, and at times I struggled with the belief that he felt as strongly as Laura did about their new relationship. However, Johnson and Howard worked well together and I particularly liked the boat scene where Alec takes an unfortunate dip. The film is coloured with the audience's knowledge of the finale, inserting sadness into almost every scene between Laura and Alec. It's a beautiful snapshot of the lives of two people but it is a very sad one.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Classics Challenge: August Prompt

For the first time this year I've stepped away from Charles Dickens in this challenge. You can read my review of Jane Austen's Emma here but the prompt this month is to share a few memorable quotes from the book of the month. I'm going to share some of the best pieces of dialogue from some of the most memorable characters in the novel. I haven't included Miss Bates because I'd be unable to type for the rest of the week if I copied out one of her speeches!

Emma to Mr Knightley - "Thank you. I should be mortified, indeed, if I did not believe I had been of some use; but it is not everybody who will bestow praise where they may. You do not often overpower me with it." (p45)

Mr Knightley to Emma - "Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense than misapply it as you do." (p49)

Mr Elton to Emma - "Miss Smith! I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence; never paid her any attentions, but as your friend; never cared whether she were dead or alive, but as your friend. If she has fancied otherwise, her own wishes have misled her, and I am very sorry, extremely sorry. But, Miss Smith, indeed! Oh, Miss Woodhouse, who can think of Miss Smith when Miss Woodhouse is near? No, upon my honour, there is no unsteadiness of character. I have thought only of you. I protest against having paid the smallest attention to any one else. Everything I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot seriously doubt it." (p105)

Mr Woodhouse to Emma - "You will make my excuses, my dear, as civilly as possible. You will say that I am quite an invalid, and go nowhere, and therefore must decline their obliging invitation; beginning with my compliments, of course. But you will do everything right. I need not tell you what is to be done." (p167)

Mrs Elton to Emma - "So extremely like Maple Grove! And it is not merely the house; the grounds, I assure you, as far as I could observe, are strikingly like. The laurels at Maple Grove are in the same profusion as here, and stand very much in the same way - just across the lawn; and I had a glimpse of a fine large tree, with a bench round it, which put me so exactly in mind! My brother and sister will be enchanted with this place. People who have extensive grounds themselves are always pleased with anything in the same style." (p218)

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I admit that I cheated a little with Emma, having watched the 1996 adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Northam before reading the book. However, if I liked the film, I fell in love with the book. Emma Woodhouse considers herself something of a matchmaker. She credits herself with the happy marriage of her former governess and sets out to accomplish the same for a girl of unknown parentage, Harriet Smith. Unfortunately, Emma is not as astute as she likes to believe and crossed wires and heartbreaks soon ensue from which she herself isn't immune. Her friendship with her brother-in-law Mr Knightley is finally put to the greatest test.

Perhaps the main strength of this novel is the dialogue between Emma and Mr Knightley. It absolutely crackles and their arguments are both amusing and intelligent. At times, however, I found myself wishing Jane Austen had deigned to use more dialogue tags - debates that go on for a while can get confusing! My favourite character in this one is probably Miss Bates, a relatively poor woman who makes up what she lacks in wealth with a voice that could - and does - go on for hours. Although I felt like I needed a sit-down after every one of her speeches, she was easily the most amusing character in the book.

Austen has created characters as relevant to us today as they were in her lifetime. Miss Bates is the chatterbox who means no harm, Mr Woodhouse is the kind old gentleman who doesn't like change and tends to worry about everything. You've got Emma herself, the confident young woman who thinks she knows best, alongside Mrs Elton, the most unpleasant, self-centred woman imaginable. Every character is recognisable and probably will be for all time. Emma is both enjoyable and amusing. I'm sorry to have finished it but there are many scenes that linger in my head and will for some time. Not least, Emma's realisation scene...

"Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn and she sat silently mediating in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!" (p328)

Monday, 13 August 2012

Classic Film Review: Victim (1961)

This is truly a ground-breaking film for the simple fact that it is reportedly the first English language film to use the word 'homosexual'. It stars Dirk Bogarde as married barrister Meville Farr who becomes embroiled in a blackmail case after a young man Barrett (Peter McEnery) commits suicide when he believes pictures of him and Farr together are going to be exposed. The beginning of the film concentrates on Barrett's escape from the police and Farr's wilful ignorance of his attempts to contact him, believing that Barrett is trying to blackmail him. This mistake compounds the guilt Farr feels on hearing of Barrett's suicide and he is determined to unmask the blackmailer and seek out other victims.

It feels as though the preamble (Barrett's escape) goes on a little longer than necessary but it does introduce the main characters and suspects. After that, it settles down nicely to become a very tense film, full of hidden meanings and lives. First amongst these is Farr himself and relationship with his wife Laura (Sylvia Syms). Perhaps my main criticism of this film is Syms's performance. A combination of poor dialogue (the dialogue suited the male characters but not her) and a restrained acting style which felt wrong in the situation, served to make her distinctly unmemorable in this film. I can only assume the role didn't suit her because I was more than impressed by her performance in Conspiracy of Hearts (1960).

Dirk Bogarde outshines himself as Melville Farr. He is a successful man with a happy home life who has tried to reject the desires which have plagued him. He has been completely honest with his wife but is prepared to sacrifice both her and his career to do the right thing. There are also some stellar performances from the rest of the cast, particularly John Barrie as the detective dealing with the blackmail case and Norman Bird as Harold. Special mention has to go to Mavis Villiers who plays Madge, an easy-going model who seems to be friends with half of the gay crowd in London and is perfectly comfortable with it. It's a shame to discover she starred in comparatively few films.

This is a dark film with some excellent performances throughout. While I think the scenes between Farr and his wife could've been better, I have few gripes with the rest of this film.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Channelling Opinions

I once read that Frank Sinatra didn't rate Dinah Shore. You know what happened? A little voice inside me said I didn't rate her either and, despite having one of her albums, I rarely listened to her. A similar thing happened with Gordon MacRae. I read somewhere that he over-eggs every song he sings. I started skipping songs from him too, except the Oklahoma and Carousel numbers which nobody can change my mind about. I'm naturally very susceptible to the opinions of others. Actually, I should rephrase that - I take on board the negative opinions of others, the positive ones rarely penetrate my orbit. I'm very good at deciding when I like something but I'm apparently perfectly happy for other people to tell me what I should and shouldn't like. Especially if those opinions come courtesy of Mr Sinatra.

It occurred to me that I do this with books too. The opinions of my thesis subject, Edmund Yates, are slowing taking hold of my life. I find myself unconsciously sneering at Trollope because of a spat they had. Thackeray's another casualty. And Margaret Oliphant's derogatory remarks about the sensation novel may have put paid to any chance of me reading her in the future! Now, as much as I like Yates as a journalist and author, I don't think I have to channel his opinions in order to write a thesis about him.

At least this is a problem I've recognised. When I get some time I may finally venture further into Thackeray's fiction than simply Vanity Fair and perhaps actually read some Trollope. Mrs Oliphant may be out of luck though - the samples I have read don't exactly grip me.

And what about Dinah and Gordon? Well, I've done a little re-evaluating. I'm actually not keen on Dinah for reasons I can pinpoint - her voice is too soft and homely, when singing a song she can be lost in it. Whatever Sinatra thought, those are my honest and own opinions. Gordon, however, has benefited. Yes, he can over-egg numbers (see 'I Don't Want To Walk Without You', incidentally another song Dinah doesn't grab my attention with) but his treatment varies. I love his version of 'Strangers in the Night', it's almost on a par with the definitive version recorded by Matt Monro. If we're talking about over-egging songs then, for me, you shouldn't look further than Michael Buble. But I've spoken of that before...

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Classic Film Review: Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday stars Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in one of her first major roles. Princess Ann (Hepburn) is tired of her monotonous existence touring counties, repeating the same speeches and generally being sheltered by her guardians on the way. One night she slips out of their grasp into the city of Rome. However, the sedative she's been prescribed to help her sleep kicks in belatedly and she's found by journalist Joe Bradley (Peck) slumbering on a bench. Unable to get any sense out of her, he is forced to take her back to his apartment. The next morning he realises just who she is and sets out to get an exclusive, with help from his photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert).

Hepburn is wonderful in this film. Her natural elegance shines through in the role and she and Peck have an excellent rapport. Peck himself is just perfect in an understated performance that does everything right. From the amusing scenes as he tries to get Ann home to the painful final scene, Peck is downright brilliant. So, for that matter, is Eddie Albert as his friend. I had difficulty placing Albert at first (I knew him from Oklahoma) but as the fiery, and sometimes clueless, Irving he's excellent. Even the supporting roles are superb - Margaret Rawlings performs wonders with her eyes in her scenes as Countess Vereberg while Alfredo Rizzo is hilarious as the taxi driver almost given responsibility of the drugged Princess Ann. I can't think of an actor who let the film down in all honesty.

Apparently Roman Holiday was filmed in black and while so that the wonderful scenery wouldn't overshadow the stars. If this is true then I'd point out that Paris didn't overshadow Hepburn a few years later in Funny Face (1957). However, the lack of colour doesn't hinder the beauty of the film and perhaps it was the right decision. There are also a couple of excellent touches throughout which attest to the care this film was created with, my favourite being the use of mirrors towards the beginning. All in all, this is a beautiful comic romance although, it has to be said, the ending is tinged with sadness.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera is a translation from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman. The premise is simple: Florentino Ariza has been waiting for over fifty one years for the love of his life, Fermina Daza, to lose her husband so he could finally declare his love for the second time. He was a passionate youth when he fell for her originally but a courtship of letters came to an abrupt end when she rejected him and married distinguished doctor, Juvenal Urbino, instead. When the end finally comes for her husband will Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza have a future together?

It's not easy to articulate how beautiful this book is. We start off by living through the eyes of Dr Juvenal Urbino, which certainly dispels any thought of disliking him for the sake of it. He is attending the suicide of a friend and is shocked to discover a secret past that colours his view of him. His death, however, doesn't spell the end for his involvement in the novel. We see his relationship with Fermina Daza as the narrative flits around but we also get her insight and Florentino Ariza's. We learn everything about their lives as we go through what is an intimate portrayal of several people. We also get flashes of intimacy with other characters - Florentino Ariza's many sexual encounters, for instance - and what comes out of that is an exceptionally realistic world of human beings and their interactions.

I bought this book because I've been dithering over it for years. I've picked it up numerous times and been fascinated by the blurb but for whatever reason it always went back onto the shelf. I'm happy I finally bought it. It's so much more than the blurb suggests because it doesn't just concentrate on the prior relationship and the potential future relationship but on everything in between. The good, the bad, the amusing - it's all here. What I got from this novel was a sense of completeness, of having viewed lives from beginning to end. What more can you ask for from fiction?

"He was what he seemed: a useful and serious old man. His body was bony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind round spectacles in silver frames, and he wore a romantic, old-fashioned mustache with waxed tips, He combed the last tufts of hair at his temples upward and plastered them with brilliance to the middle of his shining skull as a solution to baldness. His natural gallantry and languid manner were immediately charming, but they were also considered suspect virtue in a confirmed bachelor. He had spent a great deal of money, ingenuity, and willpower to disguise the seventy-six years he had completed in March, and he was convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had." (p57)