Saturday, July 31, 2010

Murder On the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I watched this wickedly good rendition of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, a Masterpiece Mystery that was more than likely a BBC programme, starring David Suchet and a host of other actors and actresses who were all wonderful (there's a whole passenger train full of characters in Murder on the Orient Express). I went back and skimmed the book afterwards, to compare and contrast. It's a brilliant, brilliant mystery, one of the very best ever written. I actually shed a few tears as Poirot laid it all out at the end of the movie. It was the first time I'd ever thought about the murderers themselves, their motivations, how much they hated a justice system that failed and both how easy and how difficult it was for them to kill this man. I also think I shed a few tears at the brilliance of the mystery itself - it is absolutely perfect. I'm sure that someone bitter with too much time on their hands and too much sourness in their heart could poke a million holes in the plot, and to that bitter sourpuss, I say bugger off. Agatha Christie was a genius, and the holier than thou's can go bite themselves.

Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham (1937)

I read Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham (1937). Being Julia starring Annette Bening, is one of my favorite movies. I recently watched with a group of friends, some of them seeing it for the first time, and they all thoroughly enjoyed it too. We all laughed, and marveled at Bening's performance, and marveled a bit about what the movie had to say about the theater in general and actors in particular. Bening is simply marvelous is every role, but in Being Julia she was delicious. I think this is the second time I'd seen the movie, maybe the third, and in the credits I noticed for the first time that it was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. I've never read any Maugham before, but because I liked Being Julia so much, I wanted to give the novel a try.

In comparison, Theater makes Being Julia seem frothy. Being Julia is still an enormously fun and funny movie with sharp writing and fantastic performances, exhilarating and fresh. Theatre is far darker and meatier; Being Julia is a dessert and Theatre is the main course. In Being Julia, the characters are incredibly filtered; it's like the writers left all the characters in cheesecloth overnight. What was drained into the bowl is what they used, but all the angular sharp dark gritty bits were left behind in the cheesecloth. The characters in Theatre have all sorts of sharp edges and holes in them: Dolly deVries is far less funny and far more pathetic, petulant, and ugly; in Being Julia's Michael is far sexier, not the cold fish of Theatre, which makes Julia's affair seem all the more likely; Tom is much more subtle in Theatre (and English), how he was able to fool the canny and crafty Julia Lambert in the book -- in the movie, we can see through him from the start, and you wonder why Julia could not as well (love is blind? Is that what we are supposed to believe?). Julia's loving relationship with her son Roger in the movie is exposed for what it really is in the book, by Roger himself, whom Julia mistakenly believes to be a boring milquetoast; in fact, Roger sees right through everything. The movie has that scene as well, but it seems to be aimed more at Tom in the movie; in the book, it's arrow aimed at Julia's heart, if only she had one. Julia herself, as played by Annette Bening, is marvelous; but the Julia of the the movie is far more agreeable and sympathetic than the Julia of the book. What becomes so clear in the book is that Julia is always acting (Roger points this out in both the movie and the book), and almost always in a not so likable and self serving way. Julia the book character is far more self absorbed than Julia the movie character. I can imagine that the writers wanted the star power of Annette Bening, and created a vehicle that made her more sympathetic and less the self serving actress type.

The movie does have some wonderful scenes, and the screenwriters took artistic license that works well in the movie. Jimmie Langton as Julia's stream of consciousness Jiminy Cricket constant acting coach is a magical touch. Julia still ruins Avice Crichton at the end of the book, but seeing her do it in the movie is the moment you wait for, it's painfully funny and you can't watch without feeling Avice's utter horror; it's Annette Bening at her most brilliant.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess by James Chambers (2007)

What is it about me and royalty? What draws me to books about kings and queens? I read Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess by James Chambers (Old Street, 2007) and it was frothy, shallow, a little bit bitchy, and completely irrelevant fun. I devoured the whole book. I will admit that I'm not a huge fan of Regency history, but I couldn't resist this poor, loud, obnoxious princess alienated from her god-awful parents, loved by the public, and rescued by Prince Leopold - and then she tragically DIES. What a story! Chambers as a writer leaves lots to be desired, but the story overshadows his bad writing. The Prince Regent / George IV was ghastly, that's for sure. I'm interested in reading about all of those scandalous sisters now too. The family of George III were all rakes and reprobates - it's no wonder everyone started out afraid of Queen Victoria. With such an rough start, and surrounded by the worst examples, I wonder how she turned into such a strong monarch? The what if game: What if Charlotte had lived to be queen? A Charlottians vs. the Victorians. I wonder what the world would be like now?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 2009)

I read Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 2009) and I would definitely call this a good book but not a great book. I finished it nonetheless. First Lady history and biography has always interested me from an early age - the domestic intrigue, the marital spats, the bad children, the influence behind the throne. We know so much and then again so little about most of our First Ladies. What did they think, what did they whisper into their husband's ears each night, how powerful are or were they. Clearly Julia Grant had some power over her husband; an artfully thrown fit and she got her way about many things (I'm a sucker for romance and love stories too, and I think Grant must have really adored his homely cross eyed little wife).

Civil War Wives wasn't really about the Civil War -- the three women all lived through the war, but I think that only one -- Varina Davis -- was directly impacted by the war in a meaningfully interesting way. She was definitely stuck in the cross hairs of the war from the very beginning to its end. The most interesting parts of Angelina Weld's life took place before the war; she didn't really have an active role in the war itself. Julia Grant was definitely a sightseer, but again she was mostly following her husband from engagement to engagement; her involvement was still more than Weld's Weld felt like a tack on. The whole book is a misnomer. But interesting to read nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conspirata by Robert Harris (2010)

I read Conspirata by Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster, 2010). This is my second fictional account of the Cataline conspiracy and the Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman mystery (the others by John Maddox Roberts) and my second in a row about Cicero and Tiro (the first being a murder mystery based on a real 2,000+ year old Roman case by Steven Saylor). And you know what? I've immensely enjoyed all of them! For ancient Romans, Cicero and Co. seem remarkably real right now. And the portrayal of the characters between the three comes off as very similar, although Caesar is Conspirata is far more tyrannically cunning and bit more unpredictible. Caesar in Roberts is always a bit of an amusing sly fox; he's more a tiger in Harris' book. The portrayal of Tiro differs between the two, but then Tiro is narrator in Harris' book and a character in Saylor's, and I don't recall Tiro being in any of Roberts's books. Are books about the fall of the Roman Republic interesting because it can sometimes mirror events in our own time? I wonder how "modern" these ancients really were? They certainly invented politics.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010)

I read Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010). The plot really meandered here and there, and to be frank, I thought the alchemy bits were kind of dull. I much rather liked the actors and Meggy exploring London - but I guess in order to explore London, she had to have some place to come home to, and some sort of trouble there or there isn't a story (I guess). The Elizabethan perception of disability was interesting though. If Cushman is correct - and I think she does her research - then Meggy lived in a transitional age where superstition and reason were clashing, and reason was slowly winning (Renaissance anyone?). I liked Meggy herself, transitioning between a world where she was a grumpy cripple to a world where she could be accepted (but still remain grumpy, which I liked). I also liked her that she could still be seen as a romantic love interest - I think Roger should have kissed her. As with many children's books, I wondered what happened next -- what does Meggy grow into? A printer? Roger's wife? Both? I guess I'll have to make that up in my head, but I would like to see them happily married.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

I read Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and found it to be an absolute delight. Montgomery's "adventures with a pack of hens, a peck of pigeons, cantakerous crows, fierce falcons, hip hop parrots, baby hummingbirds, and one murderously big living dinosaur" will keep you interested and learning the entire way through. Who knew that chickens were so smart, that crows and humans had so much in commons, that parrots are the only other species besides us that can shake their booties in time to the music, that cassowaries are so elusive, that falcons never forget, that hummingbirds are little murderers... in wide-eyed wonder I kept on learning new facts every few pages. As much as I hate touchy feely do-gooding animal rescuers -- and this book is chock full of them -- all of them still made for interesting reading.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir (2010)

I just couldn't finish The Lady in the Tower the latest by Alison Weir. I've read this story before, even by Alison Weir herself, only not in so much detail. I think that's what killed my interest in this - all the minutae. The details ended up sucking the story dry.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim (HarperCollins, 2010)

I read Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim (HarperCollins, 2010) and of the three Little House biographies published in the last year or so, this is by far the funniest and maybe the best. As full of juicy details as Melissa Gilbert's, with more humor (and better written). And fathoms deeper than Melissa Sue Andersen's, which was basically drivel (sounds like Melissa Sue was basically drivel herself). It's not a perfect book, but it will certainly make you laugh, and maybe even weep. A woman who can laugh at everything - even her own horrible sexual abuse - is my kind of gal. A friend who read the book first made a poignant point - Alison Arngrim took one of the most infamous characters in television or literature, and turned her into a power for good.

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