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Archive for March, 2012

Gigi and The Cat are two short novels (60 and 100 pages respectively) by French writer Colette.  Both revolve around the theme of love, or some twisted version of it.  Gigi – which was adapted into a hugely successful musical in the 1950s – is about a young girl, who is being groomed (or trained) by her grandmother and great aunt, into becoming a courtesan.  They try to educate in the ways of the world and the ways of men, but the naive yet impetuous Gilberte (‘Gigi’) instead falls for a French playboy twice her age (I’m not making this up!).

Despite the subject matter, the book is written in a light-hearted, humorous way, and the subject is handled delicately.  The writing is both charming and eloquent, and I loved the way that so much of the action was unseen, but related through dialogue between the characters.  Gigi is likeable, her grandmother and great aunt less so.  I didn’t much care for Gaston (the film interpretation of the character, played by Louis Jourdan, is much more sympathetic), but he more or less won me over in the end.

The Cat is about a young girl named Camille, who is jealous of her new husband Alain’s love and affection for Saha, his Persian Blue cat.  Camille eventually goes to extreme lengths to rid herself of her rival for Alain’s affections – with far reaching consequences.

I didn’t like this story as much as Gigi, mainly because neither Alain nor Camille were particularly likeable characters, and I felt that two such selfish and self-absorbed people probably deserved each other.  Nonetheless, the writing is eloquent, even with occasional humour, even if the ending was almost inevitable from the outset.

These stories are the first works by Colette that I have ever read.  Based on these, I would probably be interested in seeking out a full length novel, where the characters might perhaps be slightly better developed.  (The lack of characterisation was a little niggle I had with the book, but I find this to be fairly common in short stories or novellas.)  Overall, I would recommend Colette as a writer.

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Click here for my review of the 1958 movie adaptation.

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Dustin Hoffman is excellent in this 1980s comedy. He plays Michael Dorsey, an actor who is talented, but has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. When his agent says that nobody will hire him because of his attitude, Michael disguises himself as a woman who he calls Dorothy Michaels. As Dorothy, he gets a job in a soap opera, and meets the lovely Julie. He falls for Julie – but she thinks that he is her good friend Dorothy…

The American Film Institute rated this as the second funniest comedy ever (beaten to the top spot by Some Like It Hot). I personally wouldn’t agree with that – but of course it’s all subjective – as I can think of several films which I found funnier. However, Tootsie IS a lovely film – it’s warm, amusing and sweet. And the acting is just superb. Hoffman really shows just why he is such a respected actor, switching seamlessly from Michael to Dorothy and back again.

Jessica Lange is just gorgeous as Julie (and she won an Oscar for her performance), injecting just the right amount of humour and vulnerability, and the excellent supporting cast includes Sydney Pollack, as Michael/Dorothy’s agent George – and who was also the director of Tootsie; Bill Murray as Michael’s friend Jeff – Murray improvised all of his lines; Terri Garr as Sandy, Michael’s on-off girlfriend; and Charles Durning, as Julie’s father.

Overall, it’s a lovely, ‘feel good’ film, elevated from good to great by the excellent cast. If you have never seen Tootsie, I would recommend giving it a try!

Year of release: 1982

Director: Sydney Pollack

Writers: Don McGuire, Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, Elaine May

Main cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman

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This books takes narrative liberties to tell the true story of a real Wyoming cowboy, Colton H. Bryant.  Born in 1980 to a loving and close family, Colton is often teased in childhood for his short attention span and simple outlook, but he never loses his love of life and grows up to be a decent and kind husband, father, brother and son.  With stunning blue eyes and a truly beautiful soul, Colton becomes one of Wyoming’s favourite sons, but as he and his friends grow up, reality bites and he starts working on one of Wyoming’s Oil Rigs, a dirty and dangerous job, but the only option for many young men in the area.

The book tells Colton’s life in a series of short vignettes and ‘snapshots’ from his youth and adulthood.  It is mostly told in short chapters (about 3 – 5 pages long) and through these chapters, we not only get to know Colton, but also his family, best friend Jake and wife Melissa.  (His family and friends were completely open and honest with Fuller in describing his life.)

This book made me cry – and that isn’t something that happens very often when I’m reading (I love to read, and books often make me laugh, but rarely do they make me cry).  Alexandra Fuller’s writers is incredible – beautiful, evocative and poetic.  This is an author who can bring such emotion to the reader.  She finds the hero in Colton, and really made me feel for this sweet young man, in a way that I almost didn’t even realise until tragedy hits in his story.  At times, I found myself re-reading passages simply because the writing was so lovely.

Despite the harsh life for many people in Wyoming – which is perfectly illustrated, Fuller makes the place – and its people – incredibly interesting, and it’s clear that despite hating the greedy oil companies who have taken over so much of the area – she has a deep affection and love for the place.

I adored this book, and getting to know Colton, his family and friends.  It’s a story that won’t leave me for a long time, and I would highly recommend this book to just about anybody.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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In an attempt to tap into the male psyche, and discover how groups of men act together, Norah Vincent disguised herself as a male, who she named Ned, and went into various situations – a male bowling league, a monastery, a men’s self-help group, to name a few – to find out how men interact with each other, and how the world treats men.  She makes it clear that she has no desire to actually BE a man – Vincent is not a transsexual – and the effort that she went to in order to make herself convincing as a male, was extraordinary.

In many ways, this book was interesting, and certainly the writing flowed well and didn’t seem stilted.  However, I have a number of problems with this book.  The first is a question of ethics – surely it isn’t okay to pretend to be a man in order to infiltrate a monastery, just for an experiment?  In doing this, Vincent actually unwittingly makes the point that sometimes the balance is skewed in favour of women.  The monks were surprisingly forgiving when Norah eventually told them that she was a woman, after having deceived them for quite some time (okay, their religion teaches forgiveness, but still – I would have expected more anger) – but can you imagine the uproar if a man had disguised himself as a woman, in order to infiltrate a nunnery?  Also, Norah, as Ned, attended a men’s therapy group – a place where men were supposed to be able to be completely honest and open about their problems and feelings, in a way that they could not be in their real lives – yet as one of the group, she was blatantly lying to them.  (I should point out that the author does express guilt at her deceptions, and remorse about the people she lied to.)  She also dates women, as Ned.  Admittedly, she told all of the women – eventually – that she was also a woman, but this still sat uneasily with me.  We warn youngsters constantly that people who you meet online (where Norah/Ned) met most of these women, may not be who they say they are.  While Norah/Ned did not place any of the women in any danger whatsoever, I still felt uncomfortable with her deception.

The other problem I had with the book was that none of the conclusions which Vincent drew were actually anything other than what I would have expected.  For instance, she went to a strip club (which was a depressing chapter to read) and concluded that women are objectified in such places.  What else would you expect?

However, there were brief moments of illumination – in one chapter, Ned joins a male bowling league.  When he eventually reveals that Ned is in fact Norah, the other members of the team took the news extremely well.  

It might have been interesting if Norah/Ned had conducted the experiment in places that didn’t encourage such extremes of behaviour (for example, perhaps an evening class, or a book group); although this might defeat the object of the exercise in the first place.

Overall, this book might have some value if it just encourages people to think about gender, the expectations of people based on gender, and issues of identity – but I would question the methods used.

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This 1958 movie was the final of four collaborations between Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart. The film performed modestly in cinemas, and Hitchcock apparently blamed Stewart for this, saying that at 50, Stewart was too old to draw in large audiences anymore. (Hitchcock also made a few less than complimentary comments about female star Kim Novak.) Regardless of it’s initial viewing figures, it has since become regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best films, and a classic of the genre.

I find Hitchcock’s movie’s somewhat hit-and-miss. To Catch A Thief and North by Northwest are both superb (maybe it’s the Cary Grant effect) and if you haven’t seen them, you definitely should! This is the third Hitchcock/Stewart I’ve seen, and is my favourite of all three, although it’s not perfect by any means.

Stewart plays John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, a detective who leaves the police force, due to suffering from acrophobia. An old friend named Gavin Elster asks Scottie to tail his wife Madeleine, as Gavin is concerned about Madeleine’s unusual behaviour and fears that she will end up hurting herself. Scottie accepts the job, but quickly becomes obsessed with Madeleine…

There was a lot to enjoy about this film – Stewart (whatever Hitchcock thought) was perfect in the role of Scottie, a man who finds his equilibrium disturbed by the elusive and beautiful Madeleine. Personally, I thought this was one of the best roles I had ever seen Stewart play. I also really liked the dynamic between Scottie and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Kim Novak looked stunning as Madeleine, and she gets the chance to really demonstrate her acting chops in this film. There was real chemistry between Stewart and Novak.

The story itself is pretty straightforward, but there is a big twist, which I absolutely refuse to disclose here. Had I known about it before viewing the film, it would certainly have spoiled it for me, so I won’t spoil it for anyone else.

However, the film raises as many questions as it answers. There is an air of implausibility about the whole thing – a common thing with Hitchcock films – and one scene in particular, while intruiging enough, seems to serve no real purpose. I also find the use of highly dramatic music at moments of tension to be unnecessary, although I appreciate that at the time that the film was made, it was probably a very effective technique. (I always just feel that I don’t need dramatic moments to be signposted; I can spot them for myself).

In the hands of less capable actors, this film could have fallen flat. However, the talents of the two main stars keep things tense and interesting, and fans of the genre, and I would recommend watching it at least once.

Year of release: 1958

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Maxwell Anderson

Main cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

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As a recent convert to Shakespeare, I found this book invaluable.  I used to think Shakespeare was stuffy, boring and confusing.  Ben Crystal LOVES Shakespeare; that much is evident from the way he writes about him in this book – but that wasn’t always the case – and to me, that made me feel confident about this book (because he gets that sometimes Shakespeare can seem unapproachable).  I’m am still in the early stages of discovering the beauty of Shakespeare’s work, and I can honestly say that if I had had this book when I was at school, I probably would have discovered the beauty of it years ago!

Shakespeare on Toast is sort of like a key to unlocking the Bard’s work.  As Crystal acknowledges, you don’t have to really analyse or study Shakespeare to enjoy his plays (or his sonnets, although this book concentrates more on the plays), but a bit of background knowledge and understanding will really enhance your enjoyment.  Crystal states clearly that his book is not a full guide to Shakespeare, nor is it intended to be, but it will provide you with all the tools you need to understand his plays a bit better, and thus get more out of them.  For example, the way Shakespeare uses ‘thou’ and ‘you’ to different effect; this had never occurred to me before, but once pointed out, the way in which he used these words, and his intention in doing so, become clear.

There is also a section of the book devoted to the dreaded iambic pentameter, the form of verse in which most of Shakespeare’s work is written.  When I studied poetry, I LOATHED iambic pentameter – or rather, I loathed trying to get to grips with it.  However, here it is laid out plainly, and it suddenly became clear to me.

The book is written in a chatty, laid back style, and as one of the quotes on the back says, it’s like going to the theatre with a knowledgeable friend.  I would strongly recommend anyone with a even a passing interest in Shakespeare to read this book.  Terrific!

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Chloe and Sue are twins.  They are blonde, beautiful, and identical.  But although they look the same, they are very different.  Chloe is pleasant, anxious to do well at school, desperate to be liked and eager to look nice.  Sue on the other hand, is abrasive – and downright horrible most of the time – rude and spiteful.  She cares little about school, or about anything at all other than Chloe.  Sue resents Chloe’s need for independence and other friends, and wants Chloe to want Sue, and nobody else.  Not even their brother, not even their parents.  As they grow increasingly apart, while always drawn together, Chloe and Sue both seem set on  path to doom.  This book follows them through their teenage years, through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, unexpected friendships, and lost dreams.

This book started well – the chapters are narrated by Sue and Chloe in turn, and I felt that the characters were well drawn, and distinctive.  Chloe actually seemed rather bland, at the start of the story, whereas Sue, though a far more interesting character, was completely unlikeable, with almost no redeeming features.  It actually felt uncomfortable to read some parts, where for example, she was very spiteful to people, and cruel to the poor family dog.  However, Sue’s behaviour is somewhat understandable when the parents’ characters are introduced – because the twins’ parents are just horrible, selfish people.  I actually felt myself getting angry with these characters while reading the book – they seemed to care little for any of their children  and were only bothered about making themselves happy.  The character in the family who I most warmed to was the twin’s brother Daniel.  He champions Sue, although she rarely sees it, and despite his hostility, obviously genuinely cares for his sisters.

For the most part, the book was compulsively readable, and touched on many adolescent issues, such as obsession with looks, the desire to ‘fit in’ and the need for individuality, while trying to forge a path towards adulthood.

However, towards the end, I found that some of the situations which the twins ended up in were slightly unbelievable, and I started tiring of both girls, and just wanting to sit them down and talk some sense into them.  I appreciated the fact that the book didn’t tie everything up neatly, but did still give some sense of conclusion.

I think I would probably read more by Marcy Dermansky – she certainly has a way of writing which draws you in, and creates interesting, if not always pleasant characters.  If you don’t mind all the teenage angst, this book is well worth a look.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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