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Archive for May, 2014

Author Susan Hill was looking for a book in her house one day, and ended up coming across others which she had read and loved, or intended to read but never got around to, or some which she had read and wanted to read again.  As a result, she decided to not buy any new books for a year, and to only read those books which were already in her house.  What follows is a journey through Hill’s bookshelves, where she talks about which books and/or have inspired or moved her.  She uses these examples as a starting point for relating anecdotes and memories about her life, and about the authors who she has met.

I have read two novels by Susan Hill, and while I can’t say I actively disliked them, I also can’t say that I was blown away by them, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this non-fiction work.  However, the premise really appealed to me – and has inspired me to at least consider doing the same thing – so I thought I would give this a try, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I enjoyed Hill’s reminiscences, and her musings on such subjects as items which fall out of books (presumably used as a makeshift bookmark) and the importance of an interesting title, or why new books are often published first in hardback, when they have not really earned that right.  (It makes sense when you read her view, even if you don’t agree!)

Definitely an enjoyable and uplifting read, and one I would recommend to all fellow bibliophiles.  As I mentioned, this book has made me think about doing the same thing myself, and not buying any new books for a year.  Hill was successful, but I don’t know if I would be – but what a wonderful idea, to really get to know the books on your shelf, to rediscover old loves and maybe find some new ones.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies, and this particular production, starring Eve Best and Charles Edwards, was filmed live at Shakespeare’s Glove Theatre, in 2011.  Briefly, the storyline for the play revolves around two pairs of would-be lovers: Beatrice and Benedick (Best and Edwards), who verbally spar with one another and pretend to feel contempt for one another, although there is obviously chemistry between them.  The other couple are Hero and Claudio, who fall in love, but on the night before they marry, Claudio is duped into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful, and cruelly rejects her in front of everybody at their wedding.

While (without actually counting the lines), I would guess that at least as much time, if not more, is given to the Hero/Claudio story as is given to the Beatrice/Benedick story, it is really the latter couple that make this play come alive for me, and Eve Best and Charles Edwards are just wonderfully cast.  Both of them made me laugh out loud, and the scenes where first Benedick and then Beatrice are tricked into thinking that the other has feelings for them were beautifully done, with some wonderful physical comedy adding to Shakespeare’s witty script.

Philip Cumbus was an effective Claudio; Cumbus does actually make him fairly sympathetic, and Only Uhiara was also very good as Hero, although I get irritated with Hero in every production or film I see of Much Ado….. because – spoiler alert – she takes Claudio back, instead of kicking him into touch, which he deserves.

If you are a fan of Shakespeare, or just like good comedy, I definitely recommend this, mainly for the highly comedic yet touching story of Benedick and Beatrice, which was truly joyful to watch, largely because of the perfect performances of Eve Best and Charles Edwards.

Year of production: 2011 (first televised in 2012)

Director: Jeremy Herrin

Writer: William Shakespeare (play)

Main cast: Charles Edwards, Eve Best, Philip Cumbus, Only Uhiara, Joe Caffrey, Joseph Marcell

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Click here for my review of the 1993 film adaptation.

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Leila is a lonely woman in her early 20s.  She is smart and resourceful, but when it comes to social skills, or any kind of a social life, she is sorely lacking.  Her mother has recently died due to complications from Multiple Sclerosis, and it is clear that she and Leila had a close, almost suffocating relationship.  Leila finds solace in an internet site called Red Pill – a forum for philosophical debate and discussion, run by Adrian Dervish.  Leila is flattered when Adrian contacts her directly and asks for her help in an unusual project.  He has a friend called Tess, who is desperate to commit suicide, but wants to spare her family and friends the pain of dealing with it, so the idea is that Leila will learn all about Tess’s life, history and relationships, and after Tess “checks out,” Leila will maintain an online presence as Tess (updating her Facebook, answering her emails etc.) to keep the truth of Tess’s death from those who know her.

The story is told in flashback, with Leila narrating.  Some time has passed since Project Tess (as Leila refers to it), and Leila is now at a commune in Spain, trying to work out what happened to Tess.  However, the main bulk of the story revolves around Project Tess, and I don’t want to say too much about the specifics, for fear of revealing spoilers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and was really drawn into the story.  Naturally the idea behind Project Tess seemed ludicrous – how on earth was it going to work long-term?  Surely her family would want or expect to see Tess at some point?  However, as the story is told from Leila’s point of view, her own solutions for dealing with such problems are explained.

Leila was very well drawn, and I alternated from feeling sympathetic towards her, to being frustrated, and at times incredulous – not at the storyline, but at Leila herself.  She is a mass of contradictions – being so naive in some ways, but in other ways perfectly describing situations and people with cringe-inducing bluntness.  And she did make me wince, literally so in one particular scene in a bar in Shoreditch, in which I felt totally embarrassed for her.

The book does obviously touch on the subject of someone’s right to die, but is more detailed in its exploration of how people behave online.  Near the beginning of the story, Leila talks about how people she went to school with behave on Facebook, and many of things she notes are amusingly familiar.  The question of whether it is right to assist, either directly or indirectly, someone who wants to kill themselves, is an obvious theme, although Leila does not question herself with regard to her own beliefs.

I thought the book was beautifully written, and flowed easily.  As well as Leila, Tess was also a very believable character, and was brought to life (no pun intended) by both the author, and Leila, posing as Tess.  If you like psychological dramas, and don’t mind reading about a cast of largely unlikeable people, then I would definitely recommend this book.  It gets five stars from me for sheer enjoyment, and as this is Lottie Moggach’s debut novel, I look forward to reading more by her in future.

 

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This is the second adaptation of Virginia Andrews book of the same name (the first being made in 1987).  I read the book many years ago, although it is on my list to read again.  This particular version was made for the Lifetime channel, and while it was not brilliant, it was certainly watchable, and more or less faithful to the book.

The Dollanganger family have an idyllic life, until their father dies in a car crash, at which point their mother Corrine (Heather Graham) takes them to live with her Grandmother (Ellen Burstyn).  To their shock, the children are expected to live in the attic, and are never permitted to leave.  Their mother explains that after a fall-out with her parents years before, she is trying to win back her sick father’s affection, so that he will change his will and leave all of his money to her.  However, her father must never learn that she has children, because if he does he will never leave his inheritance to Corrine.  The children are told that their situation will be temporary, but they end up spending years in the attic, with their mother all but forgetting them.  Their grandmother resents their very existence and treats them cruelly, and Cathy and Christopher must find a way for them to survive.

Kiernan Shipka, better known as Sally Draper from Mad Men, plays Cathy, and Mason Dye plays Christopher.  The younger children, twins Carrie and Cory are played by Ava Telek and Maxwell Kovach.  Shipka is a wonderful young actress, and I really liked her performance.  She really has potential for a great career (I love her in Mad Men too).  Mason Dye was also very good, and Ellen Burstyn was fantastic – rarely do I wish for a horrible and painful ending for a character, but in the Grandmother’s case, I will make an exception.  The weak link in the cast was Heather Graham, who unfortunately was unconvincing as Corrine.  She looks perfect for the part, but was badly cast, and seemed wooden.

The story was compelling however, if not altogether pleasant to watch – anyone who has read the book will know this already, but honestly, things just keep getting worse and worse for the children, and Cathy and Chris end up finding a terrible way of coping with their new life.  There were a few things that could have been done better – for instance, throughout all of his time in the attic, where they have no access to any kind of hairdresser, Christopher’s hair didn’t grow at all and always looked immaculate!

The ending is somewhat abrupt, but that is understandable, as the book, and this film, are the first in a series.  An adaptation of the second book in the series, Petals in the Wind, is currently being made, and I look forward to watching it, although I would hope that the part of Corrine is re-cast.

Despite the slight niggles I have with this film, it was worth watching, and I would probably recommend it, especially to those who have read the book and are familiar with the story.

Year of release: 2014

Director: Deborah Chow

Producers: Lisa Hamilton, Merideth Finn, Charles W. Fries, Harvey Kahn, Tanya Lopez, Rob Sharenow, Michele Weiss, Damian Ganczewski

Writers: Virginia C. Andrews (novel), Kayla Alpert

Main cast: Kiernan Shipka, Mason Tye, Ava Telek, Maxwell Kovach, Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham

 

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Caitlin Moran writes a regular column for The Times newspaper, and this book is a collection of those columns (almost 80 of them in fact).  They cover a very wide array of subjects – Moran’s childhood in Wolverhampton, late night conversations with her husband, the Eurozone crisis, the welfare state, Ghostbusters, and celebrity weight loss, to name just a few.  There are also some longer columns where she reviews/discusses some of her favourite TV shows, including Sherlock and Doctor Who, or where she describes a day spent with stars such as Lady Gaga, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney.

Just as the subjects of her columns vary widely, so does her tone – some of the columns have an air of melancholy, some are humorous, and some are angry.  Obviously, people’s enjoyment probably depends on their level of interest in whatever subject is being written about, so there were a few columns which I found, if not exactly unenjoyable, not particularly memorable or engaging (sorry, but I’m not interested in Moran’s holidays, not because the places she writes about aren’t interesting or beautiful, but because she focuses so much on how they affect her personally).  Occasionally she comes off as trying a bit too hard to be funny or quirky, but for the most part -and especially with the lighter hearted columns – her writing makes for enjoyable reading. I wish she didn’t write about so much about politics – it is a fascinating subject and I enjoy reading about it, but not in this kind of three-page-essay format.

So there were a few things about the book that didn’t grab me, but with a collection of columns on a wide variety of subjects, that is almost bound to happen.  If I sound negative, I should point out that many of the columns really did make me laugh out loud, and on a personal note, I did enjoy her mentions of Wolverhampton, because it is also the town where I grew up.  Moran is clearly a clever and witty writer, and quite frank about her own life (including her past drug taking, and her weight issues).  I’d like to read more by her, but I would prefer a book which stuck to just one or two main themes, as this one felt rather scattered, but that made it a good book for dipping in and out.

 

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Real life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star as married couple George and Martha, in this intense and absorbing film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play.  Fuelled by alcohol, and years of resentment, disappointment and bitterness, the couple take verbal swipes at each other, and drag young couple Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) into their drama – manipulating the younger couple, as well as each other.

This film left me feeling as though I had been through an emotional wringer, but for all that, it was very satisfying, and impossible to stop watching.  Taylor and Burton are both wonderful (if anyone has doubts about whether or not Elizabeth Taylor could act, watching this film will put paid to any reservations).  Martha is, by her own admission, loud and vulgar – the kind of person you avoid at parties, because you know they’re a nightmare when they’ve had a few drinks.  Initally, George seems the more reasoned and put-upon member of the couple, but it becomes clear that in fact, he is just as cruel (crueller, probably) than Martha, and knows exactly how to push her buttons.  Both of them are obviously disappointed by the path their lives have taken, and in each other.  They have both obviously failed to live up to each other’s expectations.  Nick and Honey are both fascinated and repelled by the warring couple – and George and Martha seem to get some kind of perverse pleasure out of making Nick and Martha uncomfortable.  Nick is a young professor at the college where George is also a professor, and while George’s career has not taken him where he and Martha hoped that it would, he sees Nick as a threat – a younger, more handsome man, ready to usurp George.  Martha is quick to exploit this.

Sandy Dennis was wonderful as Honey, who was the most sympathetic character of the four.  That is not to say that she was particularly likeable, but whereas the other three actually came across as unpleasant, Honey is merely irritating, especially to her husband, who clearly does not find her stimulating, either intentionally or physically.  But despite the behaviour of George and Martha, I did find myself feeling sympathetic towards them, especially as the story progresses, and you see that they are acting more out of frustration and dashed hopes, than any kind of intrinsic nastiness.

There are just four members of the cast throughout (to be exact, six people appear on screen, but the other two appear for about 30 seconds each, and one of them doesn’t have any lines), and there is a general feeling of claustrophobia and tension throughout the film.  The glaring close-ups on people’s faces, and fact that it is filmed in black and white rather than colour – quite unusual for 1966 – add to the general atmosphere.

I found the film emotionally draining, and after finishing it, felt like I needed to watch something light-hearted and funny, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is also compelling viewing, thanks in large part to the skill of Taylor and Burton, and the screen chemistry between them.  Definitely recommended.

Year of release: 1966

Director: Mike Nichols

Producer: Ernest Lehman

Writers: Edward Albee (play), Ernest Lehman

Main cast: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

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When Anna Leonowens is brought to Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s, to be governess to the King of Siam’s many children, there is initially a culture clash between Anna and the King.  Both have preconceptions about the other’s respective country, and when Anna is not given the house which she was promised in her contract, she threatens to leave.  However, she falls in love with the children, and decides to stay, and both the King and Anna come to regard each other with respect and warmth.

Anna Leonowens was a real person, and this film is based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon.  That novel was based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens, but it should probably be noted that the events are today disputed.  Also, this film was considered so offensive to the Royal Family of Thailand, due to its historical inaccuracies, that it is actually banned there.

As pure entertainment however, this film did tick all the boxes for me.  I would have liked to have seen more Thai actors playing Thai (Siamese) roles, and if this film were to be made today, hopefully that would happen.  Here, we have Deborah Kerr, who I always enjoy watching, as Anna, and Yul Brynner as the King.  Incredibly, this is the first Yul Brynner film I have ever seen, and any future ones will have a lot to live up to, because I absolutely adored his portrayal of the King (even if a lot of dramatic licence was used in his character).  There was real chemistry between the two leads, and Brynner was really funny throughout; I particularly enjoyed his boyish insistence that Anna’s head always be lower than his, and his constant, and sometimes inappropriate use of the phrase “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” after he hears Anna use it when she arrives, and she tells him what it means.  Incidentally, Brynner played the same role on stage, in over 4000 performances –  no wonder he inhabited the character so well, and with such charisma.

The film is also beautiful to look at, with an explosion of colour, and there is always lots happening on screen.  In addition, there are some lovely songs, including Shall We Dance? and Getting to Know You.  I also liked the beautifully danced, and wholly inaccurate interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was put on for the benefit of a visiting English envoy.

Don’t watch this film if you genuinely want to learn more about the events or period upon which it is based.  But if you like musicals, and want to listen to some lovely songs, and watch a terrific central performance, then give it a try.  I’ll definitely be watching it again in the future.

Year of release: 1956

Director: Walter Lang

Producers: Darryl F. Zanuck, Charles Brackett

Writers: Margaret Langdon (novel ‘Anna and the King of Siam’), Ernest Lehman, Oscar Hammerstein II

Main cast: Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Rex Thompson

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