Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"Love and Friendship," the Movie

If you love Jane Austen’s work, as you know I do, I recommend you see the new movie “Love and Friendship.” It is based on Austen’s early, unfinished book, “Lady Susan.” (This is a little confusing, because Austen’s first published juvenilia was a novella titled “Love and Freindship,” and yes, the misspelling was in the original title.) I have read the book several times (although fewer times than Austen's complete novels; it is Austen, so I love it, but it is clearly not at the level of her six finished novels), and just saw the film and liked it very much. It (the book and the film) is a bit darker (not too dark though) than most of her work, and than the other movies based on her work. Both still have the wit, the comedy, the razor-sharp observations of Austen’s work. What is different is that the main character, Lady Susan Vernon, is truly unscrupulous and manipulative, more than most of Austen’s characters in her other novels, especially women characters (there are a few deceiving rakes in the other novels, but even they are usually repentant at some point, and/or have some redeeming qualities). But even so, we see that as a female on her own, a widow with few financial resources, Lady Susan has to use whatever she can to survive (one of Austen's messages in some of her other novels, but usually in less blatant form). She has her own agency, and is able to achieve her goals (eventually) of marrying off her daughter and then getting married herself, flirting and having affairs with others, always playing one man off against another. The acting is excellent, with Kate Beckinsale in the part of Lady Susan, and other wonderful actors, some recognizable (Stephen Frye, Jemma Redgrave), some not. As a bonus, the beautiful costumes and the settings of the impressive country houses are splendid.

Friday, May 27, 2016

"The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate," by Nancy Mitford

While reading a review of yet another book (at least two or three of which I have read) about the famous Mitford family, I saw mention of “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate” (originally 1945 and 1949, but available in many editions since then) as Nancy Mitford’s best novels. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed her several novels over the years, and feeling in need of something light, humorous, and very British, I re-read these two interlocking (although each can stand on its own as well) novels (each of which I have read a couple of times before, but not recently) and enjoyed them thoroughly. Readers probably know the background of the Mitford family, but just as a quick refresher: The family of six sisters and one brother were part of the British upper class, raised during the period between World Wars I and II in a huge house in the country with little education (for the girls) but much exposure to books and educated people. They developed their own little society with secrets, inside jokes, special languages, and general hilarity. What makes them noteworthy is that Nancy became a bestselling novelist; Jessica became a famous Communist and muckraking writer (“The American Way of Death”) in the United States; Diana and Unity, in stark contrast, became Fascists and were involved with Hitler; only Pamela and Deborah led quieter, more conventional lives. These two novels are, in slightly disguised form, about the girls during their childhoods, and into their early adulthoods, but focus by far the most on Nancy herself (“Linda” in the novels). Political differences, or even politics at all, are rarely discussed; they would definitely not fit with the mostly lighthearted (although with some personal sadnesses) stories in these novels. A cousin “Fanny” is invented to serve as an involved observer and narrator who has spent much of her childhood with the Mitfords (the “Radletts” in the novels). “The Pursuit of Love” focuses on the childhood years, and then jumps to the girls’ young adulthood years. “Love in a Cold Climate” has most of the same characters, but focuses largely on a grand neighboring family, the Hamptons. Again, Fanny serves as the main observer and narrator. The plots of the novels are both too complicated and too light (although at times turning quite serious) to summarize here. Suffice it to say that they are mainly about family life, outsized characters, the relationships of the “girls” with each other, their parents, their neighbors, and their various suitors. The books are beautifully written (writing in this style is much harder than it looks), very entertaining and funny, if you like this genre of British domestic comedy of the early-to-mid twentieth century, and I do, very much. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) Another issue is that the books are sometimes quite blatantly un-PC, and certain storylines definitely jar on our twenty-first century sensibilities. I, although I concede to no one in my PC-ness, thank you very much, am willing to give the novels partial passes in view of the time period when the events happened and when the novels were written.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"The Swans of Fifth Avenue," by Melanie Benjamin

WHY did I read “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Delacorte, 2016), by Melanie Benjamin? Well, I know why: it has a literary aspect, in that it tells the story of the well-known author Truman Capote’s betraying the confidences of his society women friends (Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, etc.) (dubbed "the swans") when he wrote about them, in thinly disguised form, in “La Cote Basque 1965,” the first installment of a planned (but never finished) novel “Answered Prayers.” This was a major literary and social scandal at the time (1975). Of course the New York City aspect also attracted me. But why did I think I would learn anything new, or that reading about this old scandal would be enjoyable? Yes, this novel about a real-life situation is fun in a sort of catty way, with bits of insight and occasionally thoughtful portrayals of both Capote and his friends, as well as of the “high society” of the times. And of course there is some juicy (but old) gossip. But mostly it just doesn’t live up to the potential of its topic or its real-life characters. OK, I did keep reading, and I did finish the novel. But I closed the book with the question I started this entry with: WHY did I read it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Everybody's Fool," by Richard Russo

I really, really don’t want to essentialize gender roles. But sometimes, for reasons of either nature or nurture, or some combination thereof, there do seem to be differences between men and women, and also in the ways that male writers and female writers portray life and the universe. And these differences are an element in the reasons I read far more fiction by female writers than males. There is a tendency for women to write more about characters and relationships, it seems, and those are among the most important qualities to me when reading novels and short stories. Obviously these statements of mine are broad generalizations, and there are many exceptions. There is probably some kind of Venn Diagram somewhere portraying the overlap, when the work of individual writers of each gender (not forgetting those who do not fit into this binary) is analyzed and classified. Which leads me to the work of Richard Russo, and specifically to his new novel, “Everybody’s Fool” (Knopf, 2016), which I have just read with great enjoyment and a bit of awe at what an amazing writer he is. In this novel (and in some but not all of his others, several of which I have read and which I highly recommend), he writes mostly about male characters, mostly of the working class, and there is a lot of male-type action (if I am allowed this shorthand, appended to which readers will please assume all the usual caveats and hedges), such as heavy drinking in dive bars, fights and brawling, guns, criminal behavior (mostly petty, but not all), crazy stunts, and “guy talk” about the bodies of women. Those are all elements that I usually am not very interested in. But Russo makes these characters come alive, with all their complicated qualities, and makes me care about them. “Everybody’s Fool” is a sort of sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” taking place about ten years after the events of that novel. The main character in the original novel, Sully, is a complicated, ornery, tough, confused, devil-may-care, seemingly aimless guy (played, incidentally, by my longtime favorite actor, Paul Newman, in the movie version of that novel). Sully is a main character in this current novel as well, but other main characters step up, including a minor character from the first novel, Doug Raymer, now in a much more prominent role as the somewhat hapless police chief of the small, hapless upstate New York town of Bath. Other male characters such as the mayor, Gus Moynihan, and a failing developer, Carl Roebuck, are in equal parts swaggering and overwhelmed by life. The fewer women characters generally don’t fare better, and mostly serve as foils for the men. One wife and one ex-wife are mentally and emotionally ill. Only one female character, Chief Raymer’s assistant, Charice, is (mostly) confident, healthy, independent, and strong, and even she often prioritizes her commitment to help her emotionally crippled brother Jerome over her own needs and desires. But I don't want to leave the impression that Russo slights women characters, or that they are one-dimensional; neither characterization is true. Mostly, all the characters, male or female, just muddle along. There are many robust plot points in "Everybody's Fool," some comedic and some tragic, and most some combination of the two. The novel's characters are all caught in an environment of failure, in a town that progress has passed by, yet its inhabitants find ways to get by. After all, Bath is home, and those co-inhabiting the town are -- whether loved, loathed, or simply tolerated -- family members, ex-spouses, friends, former classmates, drinking buddies, and former and present love interests. Despite some rivalries and resentments of past slights and fallings-out, there are many moments of humanity, of mutual support, of good intentions, and of insights hard won. Russo never, ever condescends to his characters, but he also is not afraid to show their foibles and limitations. All this is a long way of saying that I believe Russo’s fiction combines the best of “men’s fiction” (otherwise known by some as “mainstream literary fiction”) and “women’s fiction,” and the result is rich, funny, sad, entertaining, uplifting but not in a sappy way, and just plain bursting with humanity. During the time period when I was reading this novel, I happened to stumble on -- with great delight -- Russo being interviewed on the radio, on "Fresh Air," by the terrific Terry Gross (about whom I have written here as well), and he sounded like a man I would love to know in person: a classic smart, gifted, funny and caring "nice guy." So thank you, Richard Russo; I "heart" you and your wonderful fiction. Please write many more novels!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Too Long Without Reading Makes Me Feel Out of Sorts

Edgy, cranky, out of sorts, sorry for myself…that’s how I feel when I don’t have time to read fiction. As I wrote about on 1/23/16, when there are periods of time when I don’t read my beloved novels and short stories for days or weeks, I feel like an addict without her fix. I know that sounds exaggerated, and of course it is, but it often feels like the right simile. Because of a very busy semester, and especially because of preparing for, traveling to, attending, and returning to the backup of things to do after, two academic conferences out east in early-to-mid April, I have barely read any fiction for about five weeks. Two novels, yes, but that is a small number for me. (I know I posted here about four novels in April, but I had read two of them a few days earlier.) Newspapers and magazines, yes, and I do enjoy those, but they do not fulfill the same need in the same way. Of course I loved the conferences, and wouldn’t have missed them for anything, but now I really need to get back to fiction reading, and in that way back to my “normal” self. I just picked up and starting reading -- well, I will write about it soon, so I won’t say the title now, but let’s just say a big novel by a wonderful, favorite writer of mine -- and I already feel substantially more like myself.
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