Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Romance faves... with just a little bit about Mr. Potter

— OR —

Saturday night, I went to two bookstores in search of Harry Potter — and they were both sold out!

I felt a little silly. Just hours earlier, I had been assuring someone else that the whole "pre-order" frenzy was just a scam on the part of booksellers to make you part with your money (and to commit to their store) earlier than you really need to. Deathly Hollows was going to have the largest print run of any book ever. What kind of store would actually run out of stock?

The kind I shop at, apparently.

This has not happened to me before. But, while I'm certainly interested in what happens to Harry (And PLEASE don't tell me... I JUST got my hands on a copy and am about to start reading!), I really am more of a casual fan than anything. I was willing to see what else was new — and (yay!) I found the latest Julia Quinn, The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever.

It goes without saying that I'm a hopeless romantic, but I'm not a big "romance" reader — though I was for a while. I went through a spell where I would go to the library every couple of weeks and come back with a stack of historical paperbacks a mile high.

But, after awhile, I had to stop. One can only read about so many Regency rakes and tortured knights ravishing beautiful maidens without beginning to feel brainless and numb. The pencil-thin characters weren't helping me differentiate between the oh-so-similar plots and I was beginning to feel like I was reading the same book over and over again.

So, I set those Harlequins aside and moved on to more "literary" offerings that I like to call "romantic fiction" rather than "romance novels." But I make an annual exception for Julia Quinn.

Why? Because her breezy, light-hearted books can be laugh-out-loud funny AND sweetly poignant. She actually creates a relationship between her main characters based on something other than sex. Walking away from a Julia Quinn novel, I always get the feeling that her main couple are best friends as well as lovers.

She also captures the family dynamic as well as any author I know. This is evidenced in her eight-volume Bridgerton series. Each book tells the story of one of the alphabetically-named siblings of the Bridgerton clan. (In birth order, though not necessarily book order: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth.)

Throughout the series they fight; they laugh; they cry; and, deep down, they all love each other. You haven't lived until you've attended one of their über-competitive games of Pall Mall (they play with something called the Mallet of Death), or read one of Lady Whistledown's gossip rag entries about them.

This new book had all the good humor and likable characters I've become accustomed to when reading Julia Quinn. In fact, I liked it about as well as anything she's ever written. Anytime you have a hero that, in the prologue, promises a 10-year-old girl that someday she will "grow into herself" and "be as beautiful as you already are smart," I think you have a keeper.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

My favorite literary adaptations...

I mentioned all that was wrong with the unlikable The Scarlet Letter. So, as an antidote, here are some of my faves that I think to a great job of conveying the emotional truths of the books they represent. (Is that a nice way of saying not all of them to stick to the very letter of their source material, but they're such good movies, I don't care?)

•I've said before, Little Women was one of those books of my childhood I could never slog my way through. I always felt there was something wrong with me for just not getting this American classic. Then I saw this movie. Somehow it made the book come alive for me in the way my multiple attempts over the years at the first two or three chapters hadn't. I found out all the good stuff I was missing — and eagerly took up the book once more.

•I hold nothing against Keira Knightley's version, except, perhaps, that it tried to cram six hours' worth of story in a two hour movie. My favorite literary adaptations are often miniseries (like this BBC gem from back in the days when the A&E network aired programs that I actually watched) because they can take the time to flesh out important parts of a book that a feature film just can't take the time to. Besides, there may be nothing wrong with Matthew Macfadyen, but Colin Firth will always be "my" Mr. Darcy.

•I began watching these movies right around the same time as I was reading L.M. Montgomery's books for the first time, so they are irrevocably intertwined in my mind. Even when these films take liberties (and the second one does collapse several books into one story, combining characters and moving events around in time), they still get the emotional heart of the books absolutely right. This, unfortunately, cannot be said for the third segment of this so-called film "trilogy." I don't have the space here to describe how awful it was, but suffice it so say, I wondered why they bothered calling it "Anne of Green Gables" at all. (Actually, that isn't true, I know they did it because they knew loyal "Anne" fans like me would watch it — once, at least.)


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To Audio or Not to Audio

My writing friend Mandy had an interesting blog entry the other day on audiobooks that I thought I'd echo here. (I hope she doesn't mind.)

She said she tried them out for the first time recently — and was bored. They were incredibly hard to get into and she was glad she was able to quickly return them to the library.

I have to say I'm not a big fan of audiobooks either. Yes, it's nice to be able to feel like you've accomplished something on a long car trip (though I'll take a good Tigers game over an audiobook any day), but I have a hard time saying I really "read" something that I've just listened to. It often feels like the CliffNotes version — or that I've just watched a movie based on the book.

I absolutely refuse to listen to abridged books on tape or CD. As an author, I feel something of a moral outrage at condensed books. They often leave out everything (or nearly everything) that made the original beautiful or thought-provoking.

I usually stay away from fiction too. Somehow listening to a non-fiction book seems less jarring. Maybe I don't hear as strong a voice of narration in my head when I read non-fiction, so I don't mind if the one I'm getting on tape sounds differently. I can't tell you my exact reasons why, because I don't know what they are.

So, while I don't mind hearing Stephen King narrate his life's story in On Writing on tape, I just can't get excited about audiobooks in general. I enjoy the mental process of reading too much to ever give it up for audio. They are two completely separate ways of absorbing information as far as I'm concerned.

*Poohba steps off soapbox*

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Happy Second of July, everybody!

I meant to post this earlier, but hopefully I can sneak it in before the date changes.

I have to post one of my favorite historical quotes today. It has nothing to do with literature or writing, but it's very timely.

And funny...

"...The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
— John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, dated July 2, 1776

It's one of those little quirks of history that amuses me. Poor John Adams was so very close to being right. He just got the date a little wrong, is all. If it had been me, I probably would have thought the day Congress voted on Independence would be more memorable to future generations than two days later when a draft of the paperwork got signed too...

Anyway, if you've never read the Collected Letters of John and Abigail Adams, you really should. I never used to think much of the second president of the United States, but the more I read about his marriage and the relationship he had with his wife, the more I have developed a grudging affection for him.

And, for the record, no I did not name the main character in book after Abigail Adams. Not consciously, anyway. I have to admit I did read a biography of Abigail Adams (Lynne Withey's excellent Dearest Friend) the summer before I first began to write Thorn. So, who knows. I may have had a spunky historical figure in the back of my mind when I started to write and I just didn't know it.

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I'm Back/Literary Adaptation Review #1

I know it's been a long time since I've updated — but I think one of the reasons I haven't is I intimidated myself with my highly-organized movie review system. It's a nice idea to have all those stars, but I don't know how practical it is for someone with my less-than-organized brain.

So, I am going to start reviewing literary adaptations, and likely I'll cover many of the points on my Checklist 'O Fun, but don't expect to see fancy charts, OK?

First up is 1996's The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale and Robert Duvall as Roger Chillingworth.

You may recall in my review of the book I referred this adaptation as "the trashy Demi Moore movie". That was based on my recollection of one viewing more than 10 years ago. I recently had a chance to see this film again and my perspective on it has definitely changed. To be sure, it still completely misses the point of the book — but I did find a little bit more to like about it in this go-around.

Books and film are different mediums. I have no real objection to the movie starting a year or two before the book's action begins. In fact, I rather liked seeing Hester and Dimmesdale getting to know each other. The look on his face when he finds out the pleasant young woman he was flirting with in the forest is actually a married woman — and therefore out of his reach — is priceless.

Part of what makes the book great is that we don't find out immediately who the father of Hester's illegitimate child is. I missed the "forest" scene that comes midway through the book and finally makes it clear Dimmesdale is Daddy. I understand, though, the literary tricks that make that scene great would be impossible to translate to film.

There was just enough retained from the book's opening scene, where Hester faces the public humiliation of receiving her Scarlet "A" (for Adultery) at the town stocks, to tantalize me. That scene, where the Rev. Dimmesdale speaks from above, entreating Hester to name the father of her child for his own good, is one of the most powerful that I've encountered in literature. Of course, a first-time reader may not realize that he's talking about himself. When Gary Oldman gave the highly-abbreviated version in the movie, it was still a meaningful scene — but not quite what I was hoping for. And, of course, having seen him and Hester literally rolling around in the hay together, we were all already clued in that he was Pearl's father.

So, that's the good. (Or, at least, the "not bad.") Now, what was still downright laughable/awful?

Lisa Joliffe-Andoh's mute slave girl character, Mituba — WHAT??? What did she contribute to the story? She's not in the book. Yes, we all got the P.C. reminder that Puritans kept African slaves — but this character was just awful. All she did was spy on Hester in compromising positions and giggle like a madwoman. Don't even talk to me about the candle scene. How creepy.

Robert Duvall's portrayal of Chillingworth — Again, WHAT??? How did a nice character actor like Robert Duvall get suckered into a goofy role like this? Yeah, Chillingworth was a little over the top in the book too, but he didn't go around jumping off big rocks and scalping people. In the book, he waited seven years to get his revenge through "scientific" means. He was "chilling" because he was so tightly reined in, not because he was certifiably bonkers.

The Native American war sub-plot — This was another thing that feels like it was in there because it was made in the 90's and we have to be acknowledge that these Puritans have taken over lands that belong to someone else. OK, point taken. I was kind of intrigued that Dimmesdale was trying to translate the Bible into Algonquin (Although did Algonquin even HAVE a written language back in the 17th Century?) But most of this plot just seemed to have nothing to do with anything else — and the final scene made no sense at all.

The Steamy Scenes — Granted, if there wasn't some adulterous sex going on, there wouldn't be much of a story. But did we really need the bathing scenes? Any of them?

And finally...

It misses the point — Ultimately, the story of The Scarlet Letter isn't "an erotic tale of forbidden love," as the movie poster tagline says. It's about hypocrisy and the hidden effects of guilt. Once she receives her "A", Hester's conscience is clear. She can't hide her sin, it's right out there in front for everyone to see. She is able to build a new life starting from scratch, until, at the end of the book, people don't even remember what the "A" originally stood for.

That doesn't happen to Demi Moore. She's too busy whining about equality and fair treatment for women.

Dimmesdale's story is supposed to be the exact opposite. He carries the same guilt around as Hester does, but he's too much of a coward to reveal it and face the public disgrace he knows would follow. He wants Hester to rat him out, but she absolutely refuses. But, with no way of relieving his secret, he grows more and more frail over the years as his conscience gets the better of him.

That didn't happen in the movie either. In the film, it's Hester that stops him from telling everyone he's the father. He's in a hard place, to be sure, but he still gets to drive happily away into the sunset at the end of the picture.

That ending left me feeling robbed, and that I hadn't just spent the last couple of hours watching the "real" Scarlet Letter.

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