This was a book which I had reserved for ages thanks to a work-related book club listing. It was so readable and engaging in tone that it took one sitting to finish reading although it was approaching the wee hours of the morning by then. I didn’t realise it encompassed the perspectives of different characters (Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter) until the fourth chapter – I was too engrossed in the unfolding plot. This is a book written by a writer who has paid attention to suspenseful build up of plot with teasers – in my experience, those books are the page turners. Each character also has a unique voice but while I’m sure it helped the reading, I didn’t exactly dwell over it.
So here’s the summary: The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the story of Skeeter Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackson. Skeeter has graduated from college and has returned to Jackson, Mississippi. She feels unsatisfied by her small town, Wednesday bridge club and working as the editor of the Junior League, because she wants to be a professional writer. She has her fair share of troubles because unlike her friends she has not found a husband yet and her mother is always trying to remind her to find dates. She wants to obtain a publishing position in New York but she has only received rejection letters. Inspired by her fondness for her former maid, Constantine — who left without a word before she returned — and annoyance with her friend Hilly’s “Home Sanitation Initiative” (a scheme for white people to set up bathrooms for their colored help), Skeeter sets out to write the stories of the black maids in her town. Naturally given this story is set in 1962 and given the setting, they are embarking on a fairly dangerous mission.
I’m not white, I’m not African-American and I’m not a citizen of USA. While I knew some background on civil war history, I liked the angle this book took on the Jim Crow laws and maids working for white women that they once raised as babies. There were two readings which struck me: Skeeter, a white woman gives a voice to “colored” maids who are silenced by the laws governing their state about race. On the positive side, it represents a simple college girl finding courage to stand up for the oppressed race. On the negative side, this is a story about mastery and race – the maids could not have done this without Skeeter’s assistance. At least, those are the two sides of the coin to me.
What was most beautiful to me was the relationship between Aibileen and motherly affection-starved Mae Mobley. I loved how the racist first grade teacher was changed when Raleigh Leefolt saw her playing ‘Rosa Parks on the bus’ with her sibling after she lied to defend Aibileen. Celia Foote, Johnny and Minny also had quite interesting interactions. The book definitely has its share of dramatic and funny moments.
Well, as for my opinion? It is worth reading, though there is plenty of subject matter about racism in the Southern States, because of the perspectives from which it is written – especially that of Aibileen andMinny.
So I finally have some breathing space to actually sit down and write a review. I have been reading but just haven’t had the time to write since my reading is mostly done during my one-hour train commute to work. Well, I was fascinated by The Collector’s cover and the vintage classic which was the first effort of John Fowles (better known as the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) was an unexpected treat.
Here’s the basic overview of the plot: Dull and ordinary clerk Frederick Clegg has an obsession. The object of his obsession is a woman, namely a pretty art student named Miranda Grey. After lucking out on the lottery, he moves out from his aunt’s and purchases an old estate with a cellar in country England. This is where it starts getting bizarre. Deciding he has to have the company of Miranda at all costs because he “loves” her, he kidnaps the poor girl and keeps her captive in the cellar which contrasts with his hobby of collecting different butterflies. Essentially Miranda is a human specimen.
The first half of the story is narrated from Frederick’s point of view while the second half is gleaned through Miranda’s diary. It is obvious that these two are far from being a perfect match because their opinions conflict and their individual perspectives are at odds with the beliefs of the other party.
but I have left the best part for last. With the last of Miranda’s diary entries, we come to a plot twist that will shock you about Frederick for whom, nine times out of ten, you would have felt sympathy so far because of his lack of social skills. Reeling with that, we are treated to an unexpected ending which is very ingenuous for book written in 1963. There was a movie made in 1965 but seriously don’t miss out on the prose. I thought Miranda’s rambling went on for a little too long for my liking since I found her own obsession with an older paramour grating but other than that I have no quibbles with it. It is in the face of what happens, I would say, a horror story in the sense of psychological suspense.
Based on Irish expat Frank McCourt‘s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, this 1999 film adaptation shows us how he grew up in the wretched slums of Limerick during the Depression. It is clear from the start food is as scarce as employment, poverty is rife, disease is a precursor to death and squalor is everywhere. Nevertheless despite all the tragedies that befall this family including their pathetic alcoholic father figure who uses even welfare money for the drink instead of feeding his babies, Frankie seems to find some joy in life and builds his dreams on escaping to America while even managing to love his irresponsible dad. It is the rich variety of characters and experiences he has along the way to achieving this that makes this story so poignant and moving. Frank’s Irish Catholic upbringing is given a lot of focus on the film as well as the rank hypocrisy of the church.
The film is brutal in its depiction of the bleak and sad life that was had to be in Ireland with the drab brown and grey tones pervading it. Nevertheless it is still injected with doses of optimism and humour, sometimes from the most unexpected quarters. Robert Carlyle does a great job as the laconic and irresponsible Malachy while Emily Watson seems to bear the patience of a saint as she portrays the self-sacrificing woman who was Angela, Frank McCourt’s mother and the namesake of the film. The three boys who portrayed Frank were all great actors in their own right so kudos to the casting people.
Despite Angela having a husband who rarely if ever fulfilled his obligations as a father, she is the rock who made Frank determined to achieve his goal and move on from the past. It is clear she was a good-hearted person who coped with immense hardships that were thrown in her way. Ultimately while this is a tragic movie about the pain and suffering one can undergo for the love of one’s children, the ultimate triumph at the end eclipses it all.
While this is a good movie, it is possibly because it stays true to the heart of the book most of the time. If you want to watch it but haven’t read the book yet, I suggest trying it out first. Angela’s Ashes may be an uplifting story in its final message but it is not a happy one. After seeing this, you might want to think twice about complaining about your lot in life and eat humble pie instead!
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about accident-prone soldier Billy Pilgrim who does not happen to like war and consistently bungles his duties. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse known as “slaughterhouse number 5”, hence the title. During the bombing of Dresden during WWII, both Billy’s fellow prisoners and the Germans hide in the cellar and manage to be some of the few who survive. Sounds OK so far but now get ready for the arrival of some sci-fi detail.
In addition, Billy is also an optometrist in a dull marriage who claims he was abducted by aliens from Trafalmadore; these aliens can see four dimensions and have witnessed their futures but are powerless to change it although they can choose to relive and reexperience specific moments continuously. These creatures, we are led to believe, exhibit Billy in a zoo with a B-list film actress Montana Wildhack selected as his “mate”. He even knows and expects when he is to die. So time travelling Billy moves forward and backward in time, while he relives occasions of his life, both real and fantasy.
The experiences Billy relives again includes being a captive zoo exhibit in Tralfamadore, Dresden during the firestorm, Germany just before his capture, his dull post-war life in USA and the moment of his murder. Billy’s death is caused by a chain reaction of events that precipitate his death. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets soldier Roland Weary, a bully who picks on Billy due to his lack of zeal about war. When they are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has including his boots and gives him wooden clogs to wear. He dies of gangrene brought on by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary convinces petty thief Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge his death by killing Billy. But while Billy knows how, when and where he will die, he can’t do anything to change his fate. He relives these experiences in fragments of bits and pieces in no particular order.
Still as protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller, who experiences random events of his life, with no idea of what part he will live again — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time (just like Time Traveller’s Wife although this is more of a absurdist postmodern book rather than a romantic novel), like another experience mingled with his other experiences which seem to have a sharper edge to them in any case. While the book is interesting in its exploration of free will or lack thereof depending on how you choose to interpret the underlying message, I found that I’m one of those people pigeonhole Slaughterhouse-Five as belonging to the science fiction genre even if it’s an anti-war novel but please keep in mind I tend to hate anything that references aliens of the non-immigrant variety as much as I dislike Jane Austen. So for a different point of view, check this review out.
I usually tend to hate black and white films (despite my love of vintage fashion) so it was a pleasant surprise when I found myself enraptured by one. This was the black and white rendition of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita by Stanley Kubrick, director and fan of the game of chess (a passion he shared in common with the author of Lolita who was also an avid lepidopterist). What a shame that Kubrick died even before editing Eyes Wide Shut properly – his films resonate with the audience so well because of his distinctive touch of style.
On opening credits, it had me spellbound on seeing a very pale and small foot having its toenails painted rather tenderly and fluffs of white cotton balls stuffed between the toes. This simple foreshadowing scene of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) painting Lolita’s (Sue Lyon) toenails is artistically composed with soothing music to match the mood. It then cuts to the first scene which has changed the order of events in the novel by putting the last event to unfold first in order to sustain interest.
The plot contains more of Kubrick’s vision despite the screenplay credit made to the original author; Vladimir Nabokov’s original content in Lolita was used sparingly in this adaptation produced in 1962. In this film, Quilty (Peter Sellers), a man similar to Humbert Humbert in Lolita’s life but lacking his naiveté, plays a more active and prominent role.
The film has been panned in the past because the eroticism was not as overt as depicted in the book and the young “nymphet” of Humbert Humbert’s infatuation looked less like a child and more like a teenager with developing curves especially when he is first tempted to stay by the sight of her in a bikini. The toning down of the sexual tension between the principal characters was mostly because the production had to be demure enough to make it by the censorship board of that time. But in doing this, Humbert Humbert is made to look less of a predator on a vulnerable young girl. This could also be due to the fact this film falls into the genre of dark comedy, hence Peter Sellers and his multiple personas. But this did make me feel uneasy and perhaps this was a clever stratagem on Kubrick’s part as this seems to be the intended feeling he wanted to evoke.
Nevertheless I found it to be an interesting interpretation that was skillfully delivered through the cinematic medium for me to remain engrossed from start to finish. For some reason, I feel that if you liked American Beauty by Sam Mendes, you will enjoy Lolita if black and white does not pose a problem for you.
I first fell in love with Thomas Hardy novels after reading The Woodlanders. If you are familiar with tales by Hardy, you’ll know this guy probably would have been the master of soap opera storylines if television had been invented in his days but it really is his descriptions that you can’t go beyond due to his skill with evocative prose. Recently I watched The Mayor of Casterbridge, based on his novel of that name, adapted for the silver screen by David Thacker, starring Ciaran Hinds as Michael Henchard, who delivers a stellar, heartbreaking performance in the pivotal last scenes. The captivating and beautiful score set against the lush country backdrop does not hurt. By the way, Casterbridge is a fictional town representing Dorchester. Do note though it is a long production with a running time of almost over three hours so only start watching when you have enough time to spare.
It all begins in a small town where a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard sells his wife and infant daughter for five guineas, in a bid that begins as a joke but turns serious, after having too much to drink. When he sobers up and realises his folly, he makes an oath not to touch alcohol 21 years, the number of years he has lived, and builds a good life for himself.
Nineteen years later he is a successful agrarian and the mayor of Casterbridge – a town not far from the fair where he sold his family. When his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey) returns with his daughter Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May) because her other “husband” Newson was lost at sea, Henchard is tormented because while he has a chance to atone for his wrongdoing, he is paranoid that his past transgressions will be discovered by the townspeople. His deep-seated need to protect his reputation from past improprieties soon leads to a complex web of deceit and lies involving Henchard, his “mistress” Lucetta (Polly Walker) and his wife. Poor Elizabeth-Jane is an innocent but cannot help being caught in the middle of the ensuing drama.
Meanwhile on the same day his family returns, Henchard meets a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), who has developed a technique to restore bad grain. The mayor persuades Farfrae to become his manager and confesses his secret to the young man. Luckily for him, although his secret is ousted later in court when he is judging a case, Farfrae is an honourable, just and trustworthy man unlike the mayor. So the mayor turns bitter and jealous when his new manager consistently outdoes him.
Like most other works by Hardy, the plot is full of secret revelations, hidden romantic entanglements, family feuds, complicated tangles of lies and business rivalries. What makes this story so interesting is that Henchard, his wife, and his mistress are not bad people but each makes terrible choices of which the aftermath is horrible. There are many themes in this story but the recurring theme is deception. In the end the people who hurt the most are the ones who give rise to it. Henchard’s behavior makes him difficult persona to admire mostly because of his hostility to Elizabeth-Jane after Susan’s letter provided the truth but because in sudden bursts he will do the right thing or tries to enables the audience to feel empathy for him especially when we hear his final will and testament.
I think that was the last straw for me because I felt stinging in my tear ducts and let out the waterworks. If you can stand tragic melodrama, enjoy classics and are able to endure the screen time, you’ll love this production if you can forgive the farfetched plot.
Wives and Daughters (based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel of that name) was a BBC drama based on 1930s life in an English provincial town that pleasantly surprised me. If you follow this blog, you know how much I love period drama miniseries. I thought the title was dull so I imagined this story would be equally bland. How wrong I was to make such a decision!
It opens with young Molly Gibson looking for a place to rest at a garden party as her father has gone on an errand; he’s the local doctor. She is taken into the big house of Lady Cumnor and her employed governess, Miss Clare (Francesca Annis) is charged with Molly’s care. The governess makes a big fuss of how kind she is but it’s far from the truth. Molly asks her to alert her father as to her whereabouts but this slips from flighty Miss Clare’s mind and the poor child wakes alone to a house full of complete strangers. Fortunately for Molly, Lady Cumnor arranges for Dr. Gibson (Bill Paterson), a widower, to come and pick her up and she is relieved after her father’s arrival. Molly (Justine Waddell) grows up into a young beauty and her father on realising she is arousing the attention of his apprentice chemist intercepts a note for her and hastily sends her away to stay with Squire Hamley and his sick wife, landed gentry whose circumstances have dwindled. They dote on their eldest son Osbourne, a poet (yes, it’s Mr. Collins from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice), and pay little attention to second son Roger, a man of science.
Molly is impressed when she hears Cambridge student Osbourne (Tom Hollander) – more clever, more fashionable and reputedly more handsome than his brother – being lauded by his parents for his poetry so she has a minor spat with Roger (Anthony Howell) when he bears bad news regarding his brother’s lack of accomplishment. This situation amicably resolves itself later on when Roger consoles Molly after she’s upset at news about her father’s second marriage about which she received no prior warning. Meanwhile Roger does very well in his chosen field. But Molly is aware that as the daughter of a professional man, she cannot expect a union with either of the Hamleys. It turns out that Osbourne had a secret which caused the neglect of his studies – the secret is confided only to Molly and Roger. Meanwhile Mr. Gibson marries mainly to provide a mother for Molly rather than because he’s inclined to marry so in ignorance he selects the unsuitable Mrs. Kirkpatrick , the former Miss Clare, to be his wife. When he begins to live with her, his high estimation of her drops considerably due to her behaviour until he regards her as no more than an annoyance he had brought upon himself. Molly and her stepmother naturally do not get along due to their contrasting natures which are at odds but she does her best to be a dutiful daughter for her father’s sake. If there were illustrations in the dictionary, Molly would be the pictorial entry under the definition of “good”.
Funnily enough, the naive and sweet Molly gets along with her rebellious and conniving stepsister Cynthia (Keeley Hawes), who was educated in France. It becomes clear her stepmother and stepsister have some previous secret involvement with a man of ill repute, land agent Mr. Preston (Iain Glen). Meanwhile heartbroken at the failure of her beloved eldest son, Mrs. Hamley (Penelope Wilton) passes away. It came to my notice that Michael Gambon who plays the Squire is very touching in his performance of farewell scenes. Her death only widens the divide between him and his eldest son. In the middle of these happenings, Molly’s stepmother decides to play matchmaker for Cynthia with Osbourne, having no idea her manuevers and efforts are futile. This does not affect Molly since she has fallen for the charms of Roger. Unfortunately Cynthia has the upper hand in the good looks department and he falls for the wrong girl. After overhearing a confidential discussion the state of Osbourne’s wavering health, the stepmother plots a union between Cynthia and Roger before he leaves for Africa. Molly hears her stepsister who does not even love Roger has accepted his proposal, in secret, and becomes upset. Also she finally discovers the secret Mr. Preston holds over Cynthia and intervenes on her behalf which almost negatively affects her reputation while her stepsister ignores her fiance’s letters – which Molly peruses with fervour – and enjoys society company in London instead. The interference of well-meaning Lady Harriet (Rosamund Pike), who takes Molly under her wing as a protegé, makes amends to the circulating town gossip. When Cynthia returns, she breaks the engagement to Roger deciding she would like to be the wife of a professional gentleman from London, Mr. Henderson despite being rebuked for her hasty decisions.
Convinced the time to meet his maker is drawing near, Osbourne makes an additional confession to Molly. Poor girl has to keep secrets for a lot of people. When tragedy strikes, Molly tells what she knows to the Squire who sees this as a new chance to make reparation for his old mistake after some well-meaning advice from Roger. Meanwhile Roger settles into the local, scientific community and finds that he never realised that the brotherly affection he thought he felt for Molly was an entirely different emotion. This comes to the forefront when he sees Molly dancing with Lady Harriet’s cousin. Feeling unworthy of having professed his love to Cynthia before, he admits his intentions to Dr. Gibson who gives him the go ahead but he is prevented from contacting her due to a scarlet fever scare.
This is where the story deviates from the book as the original had no ending. Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly before she completed it so the ending was written by Frederick Greenwood. It is said that she told a friend that she had intended Roger to return and present Molly with a dried flower, a gift to him before his departure, as proof of his enduring love (Sidenote: Thanks, Wikipedia) to contrast with Cynthia’s fickle love. The BBC adaptation uses an alternative ending because Molly and Roger are able to meet once more, despite being unable to touch each other, before he departs again to Africa.
I have been a little distracted as I’ve been catching up on reading a lot – think I read about eight books in the past week (look forward to more book reviews). But I did manage to find some time to watch Little Dorrit directed by Adam Smith - starring Claire Foy and Matthew MacFadyen – based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Given her timid personality, ‘Little Doormat’ could have been considered more appropriate nomenclature.
Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison after her father’s business failed and he was unable to pay off his creditors. Born a gentleman, Mr. Dorrit can’t stand being so low in regard and manages to cultivate a position as the father of the Marshalsea with the aid of the head turnkey, Mr. Chivery (senior). His son, John, is in love with Little Dorrit although her real name is Amy. Her older sister, the snobbish and beautiful Fanny, has a job as a dancer at the theatre while her idle brother, Frederick, is a young wastrel who keeps on losing his positions due to gambling and laziness. Amy finds employment as a seamstress at the old dilapidated mansion called the House of Clennam, run by a cold-hearted, grumpy, paraplegic matriarch called Mrs. Clennam, despite her father’s objections that she is a lady and should not have to work. Meanwhile Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur returns bearing a gold pocket watch and a message – Do Not Forget. His father has requested this as his final wish before his death. Perplexed Arthur asks his mother about the mystery but is cruelly turned away when he discloses that he does not wish to be involved in managing the family business. Before leaving, Arthur notices Amy and wishing to do her some kindness makes some enquiries about her present situation and what can be done for her.
In contrast, we have two side stories which connect with the above plot. One involves the Meagles family who have a beautiful, young daughter of marriageable age. She also has an adopted sister, a coloured child, named Harriet but she is called Tattycoram by the family. Their natural daughter has felt an attachment to Mr. Gowan, an artist, and despite their efforts to unite her with the good-hearted Arthur Clennam, they do not succeed. Meanwhile Harriet feels ill-treated by the family as she’s asked to fetch things, perform tasks and in frustration turns to the mysterious Miss Wade, who seems to be present every time Harriet feels anger at the way she is treated, for friendship. The Meagles do not like this as Miss Wade is widely perceived as someone with a bad influence. We realise this when it turns out she even associates with a French murderer by the name of Rigaud (played by Andy Serkis of LOTR‘s Gollum fame) who gives her some possessions to keep regarding Little Dorrit and her inheritance as well as the truth about the birth of Arthur Clennam so he can blackmail Arthur’s “mother”, Mrs. Clennam.
Rigaud escapes from his prison cell with Italian inmate, John Cavaletto. He takes the name Rainier and commits another murder, a barmaid. He makes the acquaintance of Flintwinch who has decided to disobey his mistress, Mrs. Clennam, and obtains the copies of documents stating the truth about the events of the past. Flintwich has lied to his mistress about destroying the documents but her old maid, Affrey, hears it all and when he discovers her spying, she is threatened. Meanwhile Cavaletto escapes the company of Rigaud and finds a residence at the home of a kind-hearted family who is always being squeezed for rent by Mr. Pancks but we discover someone completely different is the true manipulator.
Arthur employs Mr. Pancks as an investigator and finds that Mr. Dorrit is heir to a fortune. So the Dorrits resume a life of cultivation but ashamed of his past, Mr. Dorrit cuts his connections to the prison and wishes his children also do so. This includes the Chiveries, Arthur Clennam and Maggie, a dimwitted woman-child who likes to eat a lot. Used to being a caring, motherly person, Amy finds the adjustment to a life of leisure difficult unlike the others and keeps communicating with Arthur in secret as she knows he has done a great deal on behalf of her family. She also makes an acquaintance with the Gowans as she realises who Mrs. Gowan could have been. In any case, she’s in love with him while he is getting over Mr. Gowan getting married to the girl he loved. She is rebuked by her father constantly causing her much unhappiness as she used to be his favourite child, mostly due to the influence of Mrs. General, the formal etiquette trainer. Frederick, her father’s musician brother is regarded in the same manner as Amy due to their uncultivated mannerisms. Fanny, on the other hand, thrives and makes a union with the fool Edward Sparkler, a fool she can rule over with her iron thumb much to the irritation of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Merdle, who had scorned her when she was poor. Meanwhile Mr. Dorrit makes a trip to England to invest his capital in the bank belonging to Mr. Merdle and Mr. Clennam who has since become a partner with Mr. Doyce, an engineer who is having trouble finding investors as he is a foreigner, decides to put the company capital into the bank to gain interest on the advice given by Mr. Meagles and Mr. Pancks while Doyce goes off to Russia to develop his inventions. Mr. Dorrit returns to Italy (after giving a not so cordial reception to John Chivery who had the audacity to visit him even after his proposal had been rejected by Amy when she was poor) but his trip to England has unbalanced his mind and after returning to Italy, he embarrasses himself in public and finds peace in death. So does his brother, Frederick.
When Mr. Merdle commits suicide after borrowing a penknife from Fanny, it turns out that the bank was conducting major fraud by embezzling and shuffling the funds of different depositors. The tables turn for Fanny’s mother-in-law as she finds herself at the mercy of her daughter-in-law. Meanwhile Little Dorrit finds peace again in her poverty because she can start taking care of others again. She finds Arthur Clennam at the debtor’s prison and the roles are reversed when Rigaud entrusts her with the truth. Arthur’s mother makes a miraculous recovery to get up from her wheelchair and after telling the truth to Little Dorrit herself asks for forgiveness which she does and dies. Meanwhile the House of Clennam tumbles down taking Rigaud to his maker but Flintwich and Affrey escape. Amy explains the mystery to Arthur and when she explains that she has no fortune any more like him, the insensible fellow is happy to accept her love. But then Doyce returns bearing no ill will and best of all, good news.
Meanwhile Pancks has his revenge on the man who posed as a figure of benevolence while being crafty in secret, the father of Arthur Clennam’s childhood sweetheart, Flora. The Meagles family tell Henry Gowan’s mother what they really think of her son and Tattycoram returns with the documents that were in the possession of Miss Wade after discovering them. So we have a happy ending for ‘Little Doormat’, sorry I meant Little Dorrit.