Friday, October 30, 2009

Welcome to Dystopia


If a utopia is a perfect and ideal world, then a dystopia is well, the opposite.  What’s the world coming to?  If a dystopia is set in the not-too-distant future, the population is often under the control of a big powerful Somebody who seems to have the best interests of humanity at heart, but who really just wants to keep everybody under thumb.  If the dystopia is of the post-apocalyptic kind, there’s usually the chaos of fleeing refugees or a desolate landscape populated by a few struggling survivors.  There’s oppression and fear, often some sort of mind-control device, biohazards and disasters natural or man-made galore, but always—lucky for us—one or two rebels who are determined to uncover the truth.  Dystopian fiction has deep roots—Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932; Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953; George Orwell’s classic 1984 dates from 1949; even Lois Lowry’s dystopia for young readers, The Giver, has been around since 1993.  Every work of dystopian fiction is unique.  There are a myriad number of ways to image the future, but one thing’s for sure:  Thinking up the worst is a lot more interesting than thinking up the best.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1998, Random House Books, originally published 1985 (Literary Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The United States government has fallen and the righteous Republic of Gilead has taken its place.  In Gilead, women need to be protected.  They cannot be trusted with money or employment.  They must dress modestly and avoid the company of unknown men.  They cannot be allowed to read or write; information is too dangerous for the female sex.  Women must stay at home, minding the house, reading the Bible, caring for the children.  There’s a problem with that last womanly duty though--due to too many chemicals in the body and too much pollution in the air, the birthrate has fallen dramatically.  Second marriages and unmarried unions are declared immoral and illegal, and the women involved in any such relationships are rounded up, separated from their families, and—if they’ve given birth before—parceled out to Gilead’s high-ranking Commanders and their childless Wives.  These women are only valued for their wombs and if they fail to reproduce, they’re as good as dead.  They are the Handmaids of Gilead, and Offred is one of them.  The Handmaid’s Tale is her story, her memories of a former life with a husband and daughter, her hints about the events that led to the rise of the Republic, her understanding of Gilead’s rules and crimes, her decisions to trust or fear the Commander, his Wife, the chauffeur, the cook, and the other Handmaids.  With The Handmaid’s Tale, author Margaret Atwood spins a tale about the displays of power that can be made with sex, religion, fear, and obedience.  Offred’s choices are made painfully clear to the reader; the consequences of her oppressive existence linger long after the last page has been turned. 

The Children of Men by P.D. James, 1993, Knopf (Science Fiction)


In The Children of Men, author P.D. James images another future in which birthrates have plummeted.  In fact, there hasn’t been a single baby born for nearly twenty years.  Children are not the future, and civilization has ground to a halt.  War rages, borders are closed, refugees are persecuted, mass suicides are encouraged, desperation is the order of the day.  Theo Faron is one man in this barren future, a depressed, ineffectual history professor who happens to be the cousin of the dictator-like Ward of England.  Due to his connections, Theo is approached by an underground rebellion called the Fishes, a group that still hopes for a promising future because one of its members—a woman named Julian—is miraculously pregnant.  Soon Theo finds himself thrown in with the Fishes as Julian fights to keep her pregnancy secret from the ruthless government.  P.D. James is best known for her series of mysteries starring Detective Adam Dalgliesh; The Children of Men and its science fiction tones are a distinct departure for the bestselling writer.  But even fans who long for Adam’s return should stick with Theo and Julian—after a slow, deliberate start that chronicles the harsh realities of this futureless future, the drama and the pace pick up and new issues are brought to light.  Fans of books-turned-movies should watch 2006’s Children of Men, starring Clive Owen as Theo, Julianne Moore as Julian, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.  The film takes some fascinating liberties with the plot and breaks new cinematic ground; it is a fine companion piece to the novel. 

Catching Fire:  Book 2 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2009, Scholastic Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)


Against all odds, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen won the Hunger Games, the forced battle-to-the-death between twenty-four children from the twelve districts of Panem (the nation formerly known as the United States of America). The Capital holds the Hunger Games every year to remind its citizens of a long-ago failed rebellion, and to make sure the people know exactly who is in charge of not only their lives, but their children's lives as well. Now that she's won, Katniss wants nothing more than to get back to ordinary life, living with her mother and sister and hunting with her stoic friend Gale.  But Katniss' win was too unconventional to go unnoticed. To save herself and Peeta, the boy from her district who was also chosen to compete, Katniss pretended to fall in love with Peeta, and that lie broke all the rules. Now Katniss has the attention of the Capital officials and the long-suffering people, and both sides are waiting to see what Katniss will do next. Will she toe the Capital line to ensure the safety of her friends and family, or will she use her rebellion in the Games to spark something bigger? Katniss herself has no idea, but a heart-wrenching tour of the outlying districts and a horrific surprise from the Capital will make up her mind if nothing else does. Catching Fire is the second book in author Suzanne Collin's new trilogy. The first book, 2008's The Hunger Games, focused on Katniss' desperate and action-packed fight for survival. Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off and opens the story up from the stadium of the Games to the ins and outs of the larger world outside, with a detailed and suspenseful focus on the politics of this under-the-thumb dystopian world. Catching Fire is just as thrilling and gripping as The Hunger Games and with even more to think about. We can only wait with breaths held for the third book to find out how Katniss' superbly told fight turns out.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, 2003, Doubleday Books (Literary Fiction/ Science Fiction)


Almost twenty years after The Handmaid’s Tale, critically-acclaimed author Margaret Atwood revisits dystopian fiction with Oryx and Crake.  This time, a lone man survives in a post-apocalyptic world along with a tribe of human-like super-beings.  A former resident of the high-tech corporate gated communities, Jimmy (now calling himself the Snowman after that other lonely, isolated, abominable creature of the past) spends his days avoiding bio-hazards and genetically engineered predators, scavenging for supplies from the RejoovenEsence compound, and watching over the peaceful Children of Crake.  Slowly, as he struggles to survive in this not-so brave new world, Jimmy reveals the story of his childhood friend Crake, a genius of genetics even at the age of eight; Oryx, the sexually-exploited girl Jimmy and Crake both obsessed over; and how the three of them brought about the creation of a new species and end of the mankind.  It’s a compelling mystery, supported by horrific details of the biotechnology-obsessed world that flourished before Crake’s work brought about its collapse.  Bleak though this world is, we’re in excellent hands with Margaret Atwood’s superb sense of satire, dark humor, and eerie realism.  Atwood seems to be dreaming of dystopia again in her latest book, 2009’s The Year of the Flood, and by all reports it too is a finely wrought, provocative work of “what if?”    

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, 2002, Simon and Schuster (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The House of the Scorpion is a hard world of drug lords, lost boys, computer implants, and clones.  Between the U.S. and the nation formerly known as Mexico lies Opium, a country covered in poppy fields and ruled by the ruthless drug lord Matteo Alacrán, better known, because of his great age and power, as El Patrón.  El Patrón keeps his country, his “eejits” (servants who have microchips in their brains to keep them slaving away without question), and his extensive family well under his thumb.  El Patrón also has clones.  Most clones get the numbing-and-dumbing brain chip, but not El Patrón’s.  The newest Matteo Alacrán—young Matt—gets to grow up with a normal intelligence, though not, he soon learns, with a normal anything else.  Clones are unnatural, lower than animals, inhuman monsters.  But there are people who love Matt—Celia, the maid who raises him; Tam Lin, the bodyguard appointed by El Patrón; and María, a little girl who’s too young, innocent, and stubborn to let the usual prejudices guide her.  Matt is occasionally called to the side of El Patrón and showered with gifts from the old man, but he’s mostly left to face the cruelty of the Alacrán family.  Even when Matt discovers the truth about the real reason for his existence, escape is no guarantee of freedom.  There are more trials to face, prejudices to overcome, a past to atone for, and a future that is uncertain to say the least.  A Newbery Honor book, a National Book Award winner, and a recipient of the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature, this is work of fiction that borders uneasily on fact.  There’s no guarantee that author Nancy Farmer has imagined a future that couldn’t really happen, which makes The House of the Scorpion a disturbingly addictive read.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, 1993, Warner Books (Science Fiction)


    The year is 2025, and it’s hard to believe that life anywhere on earth could get worse. Massive environmental disasters and unchecked socioeconomic decline have turned the once-prosperous United States into a third world country complete with every imaginable aspect of suffering that entails—government as good as nonexistent, jaded law enforcement, unemployment, poverty, starvation, gang violence. The only relatively safe havens are small communities that build barricades around their streets to protect themselves from the rampant crimes of theft, rape, and murder that lie outside their locked and barred gates. Lauren Olamina, teenage daughter of a Baptist minister, lives with her family in one such walled community in southern California. It’s a close-knit place for its day; the people don’t have much but they can afford to band together, trade supplies, and watch each other’s backs. Lauren, however, is convinced the relative comfort that the neighborhood walls provide won’t last. Things on the outside are getting worse and people are becoming more desperate with every passing year--constant violence, extreme poverty, no water, not a job for miles. There’s even a new high-tech drug nicknamed “pyro” for the arsonist urge it compels in those who abuse it. Lauren is determined that when the time comes and the walls fail, she will be one to survive at any cost. It’s extraordinarily rare in Lauren’s world to meet an individual whose life has not been marred by suffering and loss, but Lauren has a personal philosophy that she calls Earthseed to get her through the pain-filled days. Instead of putting her trust in her father’s religion, Lauren’s God is the only constant in life: Change. Lauren records the discovery of her new faith along with the events of her life in a journal that provides the narrative format for Parable of the Sower. Reading the contents of Lauren’s diary is not always easy. The events of author Octavia E. Butler’s twenty-first century are more tragic than triumphant, but the reader has a reliable and capable narrator in young Lauren who, despite the horrors she endures, is always secure in her belief of a better future. Butler is a highly lauded author (the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and one of the few African American sci-fi writers) who pens her tales with a direct simplicity and grace that is appealing and inviting to readers of all genres. This finely wrought warning of a very possible future continues in a compelling sequel, Parable of the Talents.
    Feed by M.T. Anderson, 2002, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


Titus and his friends go to the moon for spring break.  They drive futuristic “upcars.”  And they’re connected twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to their feeds, computer implants that work like a high-tech hybrid of television, ipod, and Internet, directly networked to their brains.  The feeds tell them what products to buy.  The feeds play music and games.  World news is vastly outnumbered by commercials.  Titus rarely speaks—he can “chat” with others through his feed—but when he does, it’s with a raw, hesitant, barely legible slang.  Even the few news reports about war and toxic waste are instantly forgotten in a blare of consumerism and consumption.  Then Titus and his friends go to a club (on the moon, of course) where a hacker damages the party-goers’ feeds.  Recovering in the hospital--and temporarily unplugged--Titus meets Violet, a strange girl even for this bizarre world.  Violet has been brought up to pay attention to the events around her.  She notices cause and effect, listens to more news reports than commercials, and even turns her feed off once in awhile.  Titus is attracted to Violet, and even begins to question, in his own tentative and uncertain way, the issues and problems that Violet points out.  But when Violet’s feed proves irreparable (or is it just too risky to save the rebellious Violet?), Titus is not exactly equipped to handle his emotions well.  Author M.T. Anderson’s satire of the future is distinctly damaged and hopelessly empty.  There’s a pretty clear cautionary tale here, but it’s the story of an acquisition-obsessed society that rings all too true.  The audiobook version of Feed is a compelling way to experience the novel, with the voiced narration mimicking the commercial interruptions of the all-too invasive feed. 

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, 2005, Simon Pulse Books (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The world of Uglies seems pretty ideal.  The future is a place without war, racism, or environmental destruction.  Even better, everyone is physically beautiful and their only job is to have fun.  Ready for the catch?  Up to the age of sixteen, people are ugly.  At least, they’re taught to believe that the faces they’re born with are ugly.  On their sixteenth birthday, everyone undergo a mandatory cosmetic surgery that reshapes their bones, widens their eyes, perfects their physiques, and makes them all conform to an ideal standard of beauty.  Then they’re sent to New Pretty Town to party all day and all night, with nary a care for the rest of their lives.  Tally Youngblood is an almost-sixteen-year-old ugly who can’t wait to be remade as a partying pretty.  But then she meets Shay, who criticizes the concept of beauty and questions the need for a surgery that, no matter how attractive it makes you, also removes any trace of the individuality that we’re all born with.  Tally’s unconvinced, but then Shay runs off to a mysterious place called the Smoke where a band of non-prettied people live in harmony with nature and their natural-born looks.  The very pretty, very scary officials from Special Circumstances come swooping down on Tally and offer her a terrible choice:  If Tally doesn’t follow Shay to the Smoke and betray her to the authorities, they’ll never let her turn pretty at all.  There are tough choices ahead for young Tally, but there’s a lot of fun for the reader—action scenes with hoverboards and bungee jackets, traces of our own modern-day society left in rusty ruins, and suspicions that there’s something much more sinister to being pretty than meets the eye.  Uglies is a gripping page-turner, a cutting-edge social commentary with a killer cliffhanger ending to boot.  Luckily, Uglies is the first of a seriesPretties, Specials, and Extras follow and pack quite the dystopian punch of their own.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I'd Rather Be Reading

Sometimes you’ll see athletes wearing t-shirts that say something like, “Eat, Sleep, Run.”  If you’re a bibliophile, your shirt (or more likely your book bag) says “Eat, Sleep, READ.”  You have stacks of books in your home.  You never go anywhere without a book.  Eating and sleeping are indeed biological requirements that you fulfill solely so that you can read more books.  In other words, you love books and you love to read.  And you’re not alone.  There are millions of bookworms out there, some more obsessed than others, but all with an irresistible urge to buy books, collect books, and/or read books.  And bibliomaniacs will be pleased to know that there is any number of writers who delight in similar book obsessions and write intelligently and lovingly about them.  Fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, essays, scholarly tomes—no genre is untouched by lovers of books.   You’ll come away from this list of books about books knowing full well that these rules of reading are true-blue:  Everyone reads in different ways for different reasons.  Every book has its reader; that reader may or may not be you.  You don’t have to finish every book you read.  You don’t have to read every book you buy.  And never, ever be embarrassed by what you read.  If you love it, read it.  End of story.

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, 1997, Penguin Books (Nonfiction/ Literary History)

     Noted Argentine writer Alberto Manguel takes us on a journey through time and geography to explore a single topic:  reading.  Whether ancient tribesmen are reading the pictures they’ve drawn on cave walls or you are reading this paragraph, reading—which Manguel defines as interpreting the meanings of signs or symbols—is something every human can do.  And the history of reading is fascinating.  Manguel does not tell this history from start to end; he jumps around in time and leaps across continents, telling an anecdote here or a explaining a myth there.  From Princess Enheduanna, one of the very few women to read in 2300 B.C. Mesopotamia, to acclaimed author Jorge Luis Borges, who Manguel himself read to when the writer went blind, Manguel shares the lives of the world’s readers.  He explores the role of libraries throughout the ages.  He profiles great authors and writers.  Most of all, Manguel celebrates how every individual reader recreates the written word with his or her own unique experiences and imagination.  Filled with photographs and illustrations that highlight ancient and modern readers alike, A History of Reading is an illuminating look at the deceptively simple act of reading.          

    Ex Libris:  Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, 2000, Firrar, Straus and Giroux (Nonfiction/ Essays)


Anne Fadiman is a column writer, a journal editor, and an award-winning author.  She’s also a life-long reader, and that means more than all her other scholarly accomplishments in this collection of her eighteen essays that pay tribute to the love of books and reading.  Fadiman writes about how you’re not really married to someone until you combine book collections.  She muses on how reading the same book at different points in your life can change what the book means to you.  She goes into raptures over secondhand bookstores and lovingly critiques the best (and worst) inscriptions people write when they’re giving books to others.  She chronicles the difficulties of being both a lover of sesquipedalians (long words) and an obsessive-compulsive proofreader.  Fadiman is intelligent and passionate about books and her essays are written with a graceful elegance of style that will charm every kind of reader under the sun.  In Fadiman’s hands, reading becomes an art that is to be honed and nurtured over a lifetime.  Fadiman’s life is healthier, richer, funnier, and more rewarding because of her love of books, and that about sums it up for all us bookworms out there.  

     The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, 2004, Believer Books/ McSweeney’s Press (Nonfiction/ Essays)




     Nick Hornby tapped into the minds of the rock-n-roll obsessed in his novel High Fidelity.  He wrote about the all-consuming passion for soccer in his memoir Fever Pitch.  Hornby also writes about another obsession in the British magazine Believer—his own obsession with reading.  As long as you’re a reader of books you’ll find something to love in this collection of Hornby’s columns from September 2003 to November 2004.  Each month, Hornby begins by listing books bought and books read.  Then he writes (chats, really) about what he bought and what he read and what he thought about the lot.  Hornby doesn’t read every book he buys.  He doesn’t finish every book he begins.  He wishes biographers didn’t feel the need to detail every moment of their subject’s lives—it would spare the reader a couple hundred pages.  He’s also routinely distracted from his reading by his children, his soccer team, the pub, and a generous supply of amusing anecdotes.  In other words, he’s a reader just like the rest of us—he loves to read but he’s got a life that sometimes gets in the way.  Warm, witty, informative and irresistible, Hornby’s essays are for the bibliophile in all of us.  There are two more collections of Hornby’s Believer columns, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt published in 2006 and 2009’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money.           

Reading in Bed:  Personal Essays on the Glories of Reading edited by Steven Gilbar, 1995, David R. Godine Books (Nonfiction/ Anthologies/ Essays

In this anthology, avid reader Steven Gilbar collects essays from other avid readers.  These other readers are also writers--some of the best writers in history--which makes Reading in Bed some of the most elegant and delightful writing about reading there is.  The essays are presented chronologically; Reading in Bed can be read from start to end or dipped into from time to time.    Thomas Wentworth Higginson assures us that the books on our shelves that we haven’t read are just as important as the books we have.  Clifton Fadiman discusses the best kind of book to read in bed before falling asleep.  Graham Greene loves best the books he read in his childhood; Robertson Davies cherishes the books from adulthood.  Harold Brodkey compares reading a good book to having a love affair.  You may not be very familiar with these authors or even know who they are (though Gilbar thoughtfully includes brief notes about his contributors so you can get to know them), but you will know exactly what they’re talking about.  Because even though these writers are great and esteemed, they’re also everyday readers and lovers of books, just like the rest of us.  
The Uncommon Reader:  A Novella by Alan Bennett, 2007, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Fiction)

One day at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II finds her runaway royal doggies gathered around a bookmobile that has come to deliver books to the kitchen staff.  The Queen reads books, of course, but not actively or with any real sense of purpose—she does, after all, have Other Things To Do.  But when she feels obligated to make a selection from the bookmobile, she’s quite surprised to find that reading is enjoyable.  The Queen finds herself interested, roused, even impassioned.  This is a woman who does nothing by halves; with the assistance of her kitchen-boy-turned-page Norman, the Queen becomes an avid devotee of literature.  And the English people find themselves with a royal bookworm on their hands.  The consequences are intriguing, to say the least.  Author Alan Bennett is a gifted comic writer who pokes gentle fun at the rigidly ruled world of the British monarchy and all its antiquated mannerisms.  But he writes Queen Elizabeth as a compelling character—an aging woman of great social and political power who still possesses the surprising ability to change and the desire to improve.  For all the fun The Uncommon Reader has with its royal premise, the story is less about the power of the throne than it is about the power of the written word.  This is a sly little what-if tale, a fairy tale about a real person that all book lovers--royal or commoner--will relish. 

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, 2008, BiblioLife Press, originally published 1917 (Fiction)

Roger Mifflin is a travelling book salesman who, while small and a bit funny-looking, is confident that “When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life.”  This is news to spinster Helen McGill, who has little to do with books on her brother’s farm.  But cooking and cleaning for her brother is distinctly lacking in delights, and on a whim that surprises herself most of all, Helen jumps onboard Mifflin’s traveling wagon full of books and finds herself smitten with the man’s philosophy of bookselling as a duty and an art—and just maybe smitten with the man as well.  Mifflin uses his characters to expound his own theories about the tremendous joys of book reading, and as readers, we’re simply delighted to let him do so.  There’s a sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, that not only furthers the lives of the Roger Mifflin and Helen McGill, but also offers more opportunities to demonstrate how influential and powerful books can be.  Parnassus on Wheels was written nearly one hundred years ago and the sweet little tale of book love has well withstood the test of time.  It is, after all, a romance between people and books as well as a romance between people.

Biblioholism:  The Literary Addiction (Revised Edition) by Tom Raabe, 2001, Folcrum Press (Nonfiction/ Humor/ Self-Help)

If the above list of books has not yet convinced you of your own bibliomania (and why else would you pour over such a list if you did not share the same love of books as these authors?), then Biblioholism is the book for you.  Diagnosing biblioholism as “the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess,” the book presents itself as a self-help guide for the book addict.  It has a wicked sense of humor about this approach, meaning you’ll chuckle over the biblioholic’s far-flung obsessions and quirks (which range from being finicky about what you read to being picky about where you read to being ferociously particular about the single acid-free slip of paper that must be used as a bookmark) even while admitting their truth.  With comical quizzes to determine your level of addiction and a section on cures (any takers for “total abstinence” from all things book?), this is a gleeful look at the lives and loves of the book addict.  First published in 1991, the 2001 Revised Edition includes extended information on the cures that the Internet can offer in the form of ebooks, book downloads, and online booksellers—if, that is, you want to be cured.  Otherwise go back to the beginning of this list and indulge in book love all over again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Page to Screen: Charming Books and Delightful Movies

Film versions of favorite books don’t always live up to our expectations or our imaginations. The casting doesn’t match the character we see in our mind’s eye; the plot is abridged and our favorite scenes are left out or condensed; the author’s subtle sense of humor or mystery is lost. But there are exceptions to this rule. Quaint, old-fashioned, little-known books very often more than make the grade. The characters and stories in these novels are too charming; their essence cannot be distilled. Cinematic attention only brings out the best in the book, and the resulting union of screen and page results in a delightful film. The book and the movie become enchanting and enjoyable companions for movie-goers and book-lovers alike.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, 2008, Penguin Classics, originally published 1932 (Fiction Classics)

Cold Comfort Farm directed by John Schlesinger, 1995, Universal Studios, starring Kate Beckinsdale, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

Flora Poste is an elegant, sophisticated young lady living in glamorous London in the 1930s. She’s also an orphan, and her determined sense of order demands that she put her good taste to work and find a new branch of the family to fix. She settles on the oddest bunch she can find—an aunt, uncle, and cousins who live deep in the country on Cold Comfort Farm. Armed with her journal, several issues of Vogue magazine, and a tall pair of rubber boots, Flora sets out to drag Cold Comfort Farm into the modern fashionable age. This act of generosity proves a bit more challenging when Flora finds herself confronted with an over-sexed, moving-picture-obsessed cousin; an uncle who preaches until his congregation literally quivers in Fear of the Lord; a poetry-writing, free-spirited young sprite who’s in love with the dashing lord next door; and a great aunt who’s “seen something nasty in the woodshed.” A parody of the earthy, melodramatic novels of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, Cold Comfort Farm is, quite simply, hilarious. The 1995 film version (starring Kate Beckinsdale as the no-nonsense, never-give-up Flora) wonderfully captures Gibbons’ sense of the odd, the eccentric, and the absurd, and genuinely brings the page to life.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, 2000, Penguin Classics, originally published 1908 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

A Room with a View directed by James Ivory, 1986, Merchant & Ivory Pictures, starring Helana Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliot (Period Piece/ Romance)

Edwardian England was a prim and proper era with little time for the real passions of real people. But when young Lucy Honeychurch has a romantic encounter with George Emerson (the son of a free-speaking Socialist—shocking!) in a flower-filled field in Italy, she faces precisely that dilemma—follow convention or follow her heart. Back home in England, surrounded by her charming and well-meaning family and neighbors, Lucy attempts the proper path and engages herself to the very prim Cecil. Less-than-satisfied but encouraged by her spinster aunt, Lucy’s orderly world is thrown into disarray when George reappears in her life. A Room with a View features some of the most delightful characters in literature—the outlandish lady writer Eleanor Lavish, the ultimate snob’s snob Cecil, the truth-speaking clergyman Mr. Beebe, and the primmest and proper-est spinster Aunt Charlotte. These characters are cast to a tee in the 1986 film adaptation which stars some of the day’s great actors, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Daniel Day-Lewis. The scene where George Emerson meets Lucy’s brother Freddy is priceless—few films these days feature grown men skinny-dipping in a very small pond…

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, 2008, Persephone Books, originally published 1938 (Fiction Classics, Romance)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day directed by Bharat Nalluri, 2008, Universal Studios, starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Ciaran Hinds, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, Tim Potter (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

When the film version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was released in 2008 and a new edition of the book was printed, one critic wrote, “Why has it taken more than half a century for this wonderful flight of humor to be rediscovered?” That critic had a point—Winifred Watson’s captivating tale of how the middle-aged, out-of-touch, ex-governess Miss Pettigrew spends a glamour-filled day with the fetching but flighty nightclub singer Delysia La Fosse is a story most of us have never heard. Pre-World War II London is full of flash and glitter, Delysia’s many entanglements with men are dizzying, and we enjoy the surprises, triumphs, and revelations of the day right along with the wonder-filled Miss Pettigrew. The movie that put this little book back on the map is a fine adaptation starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as Delysia. Some of the action in the book is toned down for the film (references to drug use, such as they are, are deleted) and the romance is played up, but both the film and book are sure to brighten up any day.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The “Good Parts” Version, Abridged by William Goldman, 2003, Harcourt Books, originally published 1973 (Fiction/ Teen Fiction/ Adventure/ Romance)

The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, 1987, MGM Studios, starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Peter Falk, Fred Savage (Action/ Adventure/ Romantic Comedy) 

Most of us know The Princess Bride best as swashbuckling action-adventure romantic comedy movie from the 1980s. But first The Princess Bride was a book, and that book is just as swashbuckling and even—if you can believe it—funnier than its big screen counterpart. This is in part because the book’s author, William Goldman, also wrote the screenplay. Goldman frames the book as an abridged version of an old classic by a certain long-winded S. Morgenstern. So Goldman presents the “Good Parts” version, skimming over the supposedly boring (but actually very funny) historical bits and getting right to the good stuff—the adventure of Buttercup and her farm boy Westley. The road to true love is never smooth, and Buttercup and Westley are up against a prince, a pirate, a genius, and a giant—not to mention a drunken swordsman, a six-fingered man, and a species of rodent of unusual size. The Princess Bride is Goldman’s baby from start to finish, and his unique brand of witty humor translates equally well to page and to screen. The film has a narrative frame of a grandfather reading the story to his grandson, home sick in bed. The book goes a step farther—Goldman writes himself into his own book through the notes to the abridgment and becomes as active a character as Westley or Buttercup. Fact and fiction mix for a unique tongue-in-cheek reading experience. And still, of course, there’s the classic Princess Bride story, the real stuff of fantasy, adventure, and legend: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles…”

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, 2008, Vintage Classics, originally published 1817 (Fiction Classics, Romance)

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey directed by Jon Jones, 2007, WGBH Boston Studios/Masterpiece Theater Presents, starring Felicity Jones, J.J. Field, Carey Mulligan, Catherine Walker, Liam Cunningham, Sylvestra Le Touzel, William Beck (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

 Northanger Abbey is probably Jane Austen’s least-known novel. It was published after Austen’s death in 1817, but it was written in 1799 and was in fact her first complete novel. The story of Catherine Morland’s introduction to society, her many blunders, and her overactive imagination is usually noted for its parody of the Gothic literature that Catherine obsessively reads. But Northanger Abbey is also a very sweet little romance. Jane Austen is at her most clever and wry in this slim novel and she writes one of her most charming and funny heroes in Henry Tilney, who teases and laughs where Mr. Darcy, Edward Ferrars, or Mr. Knightley would only glower, sulk, or lecture. Northanger Abbey is the only Austen novel that Hollywood has overlooked, but there have been film versions made for television. The most recent—and far and away the most pleasing—is the production that aired as a Masterpiece Theater presentation on Public Television in 2007. Masterpiece Theater is notoriously professional and accurate in their book adaptations so every nuance of Austen’s little masterpiece is distinguished. J.J. Field and Felicity Jones play the witty Tilney and the charmingly naïve Catherine to perfection, and the ending is exceptionally sweet. If you’re an Austen lover, don’t forget about Northanger Abbey in either of its engaging forms.

The African Queen by C.S. Forester, 2000, Little, Brown & Co., originally published 1935, (Fiction Classics, Adventure/ Romance)


The African Queen directed by John Huston, 1951, Warner Bros./MGM Studios, starring Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Richard Marner (Black and White Classics/ Adventure/ Romance)

You might know The African Queen as an excellent old movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. This is the book that film is based on, and it’s every bit as good--even without Bogie and Kate. They play the characters of Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a burned-out trader with a beat-up old steamboat and a stern, no-nonsense missionary’s sister. Rose is indignant with anger at the World War I German threat to the British way of life (even in the heart of the African jungle), and Mr. Allnutt is the hapless fellow who gets roped into her outrageous plan. But first, they have to get their boat, the African Queen, down the river past rapids, waterfalls, malaria-ridden swamps, and German outposts. They also have to get to know each other—alone, in the jungle, on a rickety old boat. C.S. Forester knows boats and adventure, and what’s more, he knows character, dialogue, and human nature. The 1951 film is best-known for the performances of Hepburn and Bogart (who won the Oscar for best actor) and they are excellent as Rose and Allnutt, whether wading through swamps or nursing each other’s wounds. The film was shot on location in Africa, and remains as good as an adventure and romance as the book it was based on. Another link between the page and the screen is Katherine Hepburn's funny little 1987 memoir, The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost my Mind.

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker, 1997, Harper Perennial, originally published 1969, (Fiction/ Humor)

M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman, 1970, Twentieth Century Fox Studios, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall (Comedy)

Hawkeye, Duke, Trapper John, Hot Lips Houlihan, Frank Burns, Radar O’Reilly—we know them best from the long-running, much-loved M*A*S*H television show. But these characters first appeared in the pages of a 1969 novel by Richard Hooker (pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger, a real life army doctor turned writer). Pranks, jokes, minor rebellions, and martinis abound as the doctors of this Korean War Mobile Army Surgical Hospital cope with meatball surgeries on young soldiers who arrive via helicopter fresh from the front lines. The book features a few of the more risqué escapades that didn’t make it to film or TV, the least of which features Trapper John signing autographs as Jesus. Robert Altman’s 1970 film is a masterpiece of comic dialogue and situation comedy that paved the way for the M*A*S*H television series (the actor who played Radar in the movie reprised the same role for TV). Whether fixing football games, mixing martinis, or generally raising hell, the surgeons of the 4077th M*A*S*H are irreverent, disarming, and heartwarming on page and on screen. M*A*S*H takes places decades later than the other books on this list, but it’s got the same mix of charming characters and delightful humor that make these books and films classic companion pieces for the movie theaters and the library.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sensational Sensation Novels

“This Journal will be devoted chiefly to the following objects; namely, Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End, Giving Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroying Conventional Moralities, and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.” (mock advertisement in the magazine Punch, 1863)

Queen Victoria may have been a stuffy, conservative, stay-at-home old mum, but her royal subjects were as eager for scandal and sensation as any grocery store shopper who scans the tabloids in the checkout line today. Yes, the Victorian era (generally dated as 1837-1901) had a rigid class system and a major double-standard when it came to the rights of women. But its people also made a huge fuss when anyone dared to defy the rules that dictated their society. The Victorians fed their lust for drama with Sensation Novels, the soap operas and Wednesday night TV dramas of the Victorian age. Sensation Novels were, by name and definition, as sensational, scandalous, and melodramatic as their authors could make them. Most featured stories of genteel families plagued by such annoyances as passion, adultery, bigamy, blackmail, murder, mistaken identity, madness, miscommunication, and coincidence. Beautiful women commit serious indiscretions. Distinguished men harbor deep secrets. Lovers are separated. Friends become enemies. The good are rewarded. The bad are punished. The books sold like hot cakes.

Today, Sensation Novels still make for absorbing reading. They are the rare real guilty pleasure indulgence that also makes you smarter, because even though you’re reading about the sort of astonishing coincidences and plot twists that are the stuff of soap operas, you’re holding a big thick classic that was written over a hundred years ago. With ruined heiresses, damning letters, and skeletons in the closet galore, the Sensation Novel is every bit as exciting and addictive to us savvy modern readers of the twenty-first century as it was to the stodgy but scandal-craved Victorians in the nineteenth.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1860 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery)

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is the undisputed “King of Sensation.” The Woman in White is widely considered the first Sensation Novel—and no wonder. It’s the tale of a poor drawing-master who meets a strange woman, clad in white, on the moonlit streets outside of London. He is soon plunged into the mystery surrounding this woman, especially when that same mystery touches the family of the young lady he loves. Along the way, there’s a glorious mess of exotic villains, mistaken identities, wrongful imprisonments, and young ladies in distress. These sensational ingredients, combined with the remarkably written characters of the diabolical Count Fosco and the fiercely independent Marian Halcombe, as well as a very compelling mystery, mean that The Woman in White has never been out of print. This is a rare feat for a Sensation Novel, given that the sensational trend really only lasted a couple decades at best. The Woman in White set the tone for every Sensation Novel that would follow and sparked the public’s mania for the genre.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1868 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery)

Wilkie Collins achieved mainstream success, but he lived a life as sensational as his novels—he had two families with two women, neither of whom he married. The Moonstone, Collins’s second great work, is also unconventional in its own way. The book tells the mystery of a rare and precious diamond stolen after the birthday celebration of a beautiful young heiress. So far, so sensational. But the structure of the story was unique and new for its time—each character adds his or her version of events in his or her own voice, and the book is credited as being the first true detective story in Western literature. The Moonstone is a masterpiece of suspense as Collins sustains the reader’s unending interest in the unfolding of this single mysterious event. What’s more, the solution to the mystery is about as sensational and fantastic as you can get, involving everything from sinking quicksand and exotic poisons to gossiping servants and Hindu spies. If you find yourself enthralled with Wilkie Collins, remember that he was a very prolific writer—you can indulge yourself in sensation after sensation. Some of Collins’s other novels include No Name, Man and Wife, Armadale, The Law and the Lady, and Hide and Seek.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1998, Oxford World Classics, originally published 1861 (Fiction Classics)

If Wilkie Collins is the King of Sensation, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is the Queen. The “Queen of the Circulating Libraries,” to be more specific, which means, in Victorian lingo, that she was a bestselling author whose books flew off the shelves. Like Collins, her private life was distinctly unconventional—for thirty years she was the partner of a man who already had a wife, albeit one who was confined to a madhouse. So perhaps it is no wonder that her stories challenge the rigid roles that restricted the Victorian woman. Lady Audley, the star of Braddon’s most famed book, seems the epitome of the Victorian lady: charming, lovely, devoted, proper, and sweetly naïve--a real “angel of the house.” But she has a very great, very deep secret that threatens her every attempt at happiness. Whether she’ll be found out or not, and whether she deserves the reader’s sympathy or not, are issues at the core of Braddon’s mystery. Featuring an amateur detective who slowly and with great suspense unravels Lady Audley’s mysterious past, Lady Audley’s Secret became a phenomenon of its day—several on-stage adaptations became best-selling shows and some of the earliest moving pictures used the book’s plot as well. Critics were shocked at Lady Audley’s social transgressions, but the reading public ate the story up.

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1996, Oxford World Classics, originally published 1862 (Fiction Classics)

With Aurora Floyd, Mary Elizabeth Braddon gave her readers another unconventional heroine who pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior even further. Miss Aurora Floyd is an unusual character for the time—instead of being a passive, submissive Victorian lady of house and home, Aurora is a spirited, stubborn, beautiful, wealthy young woman who is determined to get exactly what she wants. What she wants, of course, is romance, passion, and to keep her dark secret hidden away from the prying eyes of those she loves. Reviewers were shocked by young Aurora’s outrageous behavior, but Braddon wasn’t able to completely throw off the conventions of her time—modern readers may chafe at the fact that Aurora requires male help despite her character strengths. Still, Aurora Floyd, chock full of every dramatic intrigue from seduction to murder, is a rousing, suspenseful, and ultimately pleasing entry in the history of the Sensation Novel. Braddon wrote Sensation Novels by the dozen. If you long for more of her transgressive women and domestic scandals, check out Thou Art the Man, The Doctor’s Wife (Braddon’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary), and Wyllard’s Weird.

East Lynne by Ellen Wood, 2008 Oxford World Classics, originally published 1861 (Fiction Classics)

Ellen Wood (1814-1887) wrote as “Mrs. Henry Wood,” giving the impression of a proper and genteel lady of the times. But her life was one of poverty and stress—a lifelong invalid, Ellen Wood married a man who went broke. Mrs. Wood took to writing to support her family, often completing two novels at a time at breakneck speed. Fortunately her first novel, East Lynne, was a runaway hit that assured her a constant place in the bestseller lists. East Lynne is the name of a distinguished manor house owned by Mr. Carlyle, an equally distinguished, kind, and steady (but rather unobservant) young country lawyer. But his life is not free of turmoil—there’s a woman dear to him who falls victim to jealousy, rumor, and miscommunication and a scandalous unsolved murder lurking in the neighborhood that affects another lovely young lady. The story and characters are infinitely more complicated—a fugitive son, a harping spinster, a devoted servant, a mysterious villain—and no one is entirely without guilt or innocence. Ellen Wood’s career was made with East Lynne and it was read by everyone from prince to pauper (quite literally; the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was a confessed fan of the book). Neglected for most of the last century, it’s back in print by Broadview Press. With its themes of guilt, repentance, and its suspenseful atmosphere of foreshadowed disaster, East Lynne is an archetypal Sensation Novel.

Moths by Ouida, 2005, Broadview Press, originally published 1880 (Fiction Classics)

Moths was a later entry in the Sensation genre, which peaked in the 1860s. But its author (who, like a modern-day Madonna, Cher, or Prince, went by a single name only) was one of the most dramatic Sensationalist writers—vivid, flamboyant, glamorous, and immensely popular. Ouida Ramé was born in the humble English countryside in 1839 to a British mother and a usually-absent French father (“Ouida” is her childhood pronunciation of her given name, Louisa). Unconventional from the get-go, Ouida never wanted to be anything other than a writer. She played up her foreign background, demanded to be addressed as “Madame Ouida de la Ramé, and flaunted society’s rules. She smoked cigars with men, spoke “unladylike” language, and lavishly pampered her pets. She quickly achieved celebrity status, which only made her books sell better. Moths is the story of Vere Herbert, pure and beautiful and not at all made for the frivolous world that her heartless mother Lady Dolly (and their own author Ouida) lives in. Vere is more or less sold in marriage to a cruel Russian prince, and she can’t help but remember a summer morning spent with a kind, wise opera tenor named Correze… Moths’s treatment of marriage was controversial, but the melodramatic plot made it an immediate bestseller. Ouida died in 1908, penniless and surrounded only by her beloved pet dogs, and her novels have been almost completely lost to modern readers. Once you dive into the exotic locales and scandal-making characters of Moths, however, you won’t soon forget it--or its glamorous authoress--again.

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu, 2006, Nonsuch Classics, originally published 1864 (Fiction Classics)

Young, naïve, and eager to please, Maud Ruthyn lives a sheltered life--but she’s no stranger to horror, mystery, and suspense. She’s in awe of her aristocratic father, her manor home is secluded deep in the English countryside, and her lonely lifestyle has made her sensitive and superstitious. But it’s her new governess, Madame de la Rougierre, who really makes Maud nervous. Madame is a strange, freakish woman with a secretive past who delights in terrifying, bullying, and spying on Maud. Thanks in part to her one true ally, her cousin Lady Knollys, Maud is eventually freed from Madame’s tyranny—only to be plunged into an even darker and more disturbing life with her mysterious (and maybe murderous) Uncle Silas. The suspense builds as mysteries pile up and sinister forces surround Maud until she is little more than utterly helpless. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) grew up in Ireland listening to folktales, myths, and dark Gothic tales. His early writings were ghost stories; he even wrote a chilling novella about a vampire, Carmilla. But to maximize his appeal to English audiences, Le Fanu toned it down and turned his penchant for horror into the sensational—with a touch of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. Uncle Silas’s unique blend of ghostly, Gothic, and Sensational styles makes it a suspenseful psychological thriller that’s way ahead of its time.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, 2002, Penguin Classics, originally published 1870 (Fiction Classics)

Charles Dickens was the penultimate Victorian writer. His books have gone from bestsellers in his day to classics of Western literature in ours. Dickens knew Sensation very well—he was acquainted with many Sensation writers (Wilkie Collins was an especially close friend and sometime collaborator) and many Sensation novels were serialized in the magazines edited and operated by Dickens. There have always been elements of the Sensation in Dickens’s works, from orphans to insanity to outrageous coincidence; the melodramatic, after all, was a staple of Victorian literature. But Dickens never wrote an actual Sensation Novel. The closest he came was his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens’s novels had been getting darker for some time, but with Mr. Edwin Drood there was to be murder, deception, jealousy, and addiction. The story takes place in a seemingly benevolent small town; the central character is the seemingly benevolent John Jasper. But in private, Jasper is an opium addict and almost another man—a bitter, tortured man whose jealousy of his nephew, Edwin Drood, overwhelms him. When Dickens died in June 1870, he was working on the sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The plot had been established; characters had been fully developed. In fact, all that really remained was the discovery of the solution to the mystery. In other worlds, readers are left with a permanent cliff-hanger. Even in its unfinished state, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a gripping story that not only solidifies Dickens’ place as one of the finest writers of all time, but assures us that he would have made a damn good Sensation novelist to boot.

Victorian Sensation Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Michael Diamond, 2003, Anthem Press (Nonfiction/ British History/ 19th Century)

Critical studies about the Sensation Novel are few and far between. But Victorian Sensation has a whole big fat chapter (complete with illustrations) devoted to the scandalous fictional affairs of wicked Count Fosco, daring Marian Halcombe, treacherous Lady Audley, dashing Aurora Floyd, complacent Archibald Carlye, and more (including Charles Reade, a sensational and popular author whose books are very hard to find today). Victorian Sensation really proves how much Sensation Novels flavored Victorian life—there were songs and dances based on characters by Wilkie Collins (“The Woman in White Waltz”), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (“The Aurora Floyd Galop”), and theatrical presentations of Lady Audley, The Moonstone, and the very popular East Lynn. We inherited our present obsession with pop culture from the Victorians, so it’s refreshing to read about a population of people that ate up news about serial killers, would-be assassins, circus freaks, opera stars, and of course, the royal celebrities. Author Michael Diamond (an author, editor, and producer for the BBC) tackles an extensive subject with a passionate interest to present a lively, interesting, and very readable history of sensation.

Note: The Victorian era was a long time ago. Many of these books are in limited printing and are difficult to find. Remember to check your local library, independent bookstore, and when all else fails, used copies are readily available from a wide variety of online booksellers for very reasonable prices. Or ask me, and I'll lend you one from my own extensive (and somewhat obsessive) collection.