Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

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Why you should read the world’s longest novel

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)

Mr Norrell … stood on the lawn and stared up at stars he had never seen before. He did not feel as though he were inside a Pillar of Darkness in the middle of Yorkshire; he felt more as if the rest of the world had fallen away and he and Strange were left alone upon a solitary island or promontory. The idea distressed him a great deal less than one might have supposed. He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Simply the… biggest. Cool cover, huh?

Since How to Cure a Bibliomaniac ended I’m not blogging every book I read, but after the sheer length of time I spent reading this I felt it only right that I should receive a medal, I mean give it an entry.

I should probably acknowledge though that it is not quite the world’s longest novel. My now finely honed collection (one set of shelves! Woo! And, er, one crateful standing in front of it) still contains one longer, Isobelle Carmody’s doorstop The Stone Key which lords it over Clarke’s 800-odd page tone with a whopping 1000 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also nearly 800, though a shade shorter than Clarke’s.

I know I’m harping on about how long this is, but frankly, there was a (now) amusing period in which I was convinced that no matter how many 15-minute blocs I dedicated, it grew gleefully a few pages longer each night while I slept and kept me stuck interminably at 200 pages in. I kept dropping it with a thud on my knees and saying tragically to the Ministry of an evening, “THIS BOOK IS SO BLOODY LONG.” Not helpful was the limited time I had to give, maybe 15-30 minutes each night, so it sure did take a while to read.

OK, enough on the form, here is content.

It is 1806. The heyday of English magic is widely regarded as over. Several hundred years has passed since the time England’s magician King and his numerous magician subjects who mingled matter-of-factly with regular folk. The door between Faerie and England once lay wide open and English roads tangled with fairy roads leading to weird and sometimes terrifying places. Now magic has become an area of historical and theoretical study rather than a practical profession and any man who calls himself magician is in fact a theologian.

Imagine the surprise and delight of this theological society and of society at large when they uncover in the Yorkshire countryside one man who is truly a real live magician, with a spectacular library of rare and long-forgotten magical books, who proves his talents in spectacular fashion then travels to London to lay his gifts at the feet of the government and generally be adored. This is Gilbert Norrell and quickly he is famous.

But Norrell is also mean-spirited and possessive. He wants to be the only magician in England and he certainly doesn’t want to share his priceless library. With the help of his servants he tricks and bullies anyone else who might like to give magic a go into giving it up before they have fairly started, outsmarting them into signing contracts saying that they will cease and desist, even convincing the government to outlaw the hocus-pocus-sellers on the street corners and run them out of town. He does all this despite the knowledge none of them pose any sort of real competition.

But the younger, more charming and far more adventurous Jonathan Strange slips through the net and disarms him. Against all odds he becomes Norrell’s pupil. Together they serve the government in matters at home and abroad – Strange travels with the army in the Napoleonic wars for several years, moving the countryside about to confuse the enemy, creating illusions to frighten the other soldiers. They prove themselves indispensable to the government and the people. Norrell even lets Strange read one or two of his books and they get on all right for a while.

But Strange is a strong and opinionated pupil, wanting to throw wide open the doors between the ancient magical world and the modern one and summon all kinds of magic and magical creatures – not just the ones sanctioned by Norrell. Master and pupil, once friends and colleagues, become bitter enemies.

But when Norrell is tempted into an act of magic, an impressive but foolish and ignorant feat in an attempt to stop death snatching away love, he unleashes an evil that will have consequences for him, for Strange – for the whole of England and beyond.

You think I have gone on too long like a modern movie trailer and told you the whole story, so there’s no point shelling out $20 to go to the cinema. But in fact I have just outlined the introductory premise. You’re only a few hundred pages in. Ha! No spoilers here.

This is a thoroughly English book and I mean that in a most complimentary way. It is almost Dickensian, full of detail and a definite comedy of manners. It is, as I have mentioned, also set in the 1800s, featuring cameos from Lord Byron, Napoleon and Wellington, with much chronicling of earlier centuries through extensive footnoting.

Despite knowing it is fiction, my hatred of pre-1900s history discovered in high school and strengthened in university extends into historical fiction. So I find it a hard slog to read what feels like a history, no matter how convincingly and deliberately this format is used, when I have been banking on straight fantasy. I have to force myself to read the footnotes despite an abominable temptation to skip them and in some cases my reading of them is shamefully close to skimming. But I read them all and so should you. You’ll need them.

To be brutally honest, and I concede this could be the hater in me talking, I think this novel need not go quite so far into the Napoleonic wars as involving Jonathan Strange. It feels somewhat like a sidebar, one that just goes for too long. You could probably cut out a good 200 pages and make them a spin-off novel, which makes me sound terribly Grinchy. In fairness, perhaps someone who likes historical fiction and has more than 15 minutes a night up their sleeve will probably lap it up. Perhaps the book is to be applauded for keeping someone like me involved enough to keep going in the first place.

But wait! What light through yonder window breaks? About halfway through, on a rainy weekend day I am able to settle in for a few hours, I begin to appreciate the fullness of the portraits of Norrell and Strange, and the depth of the tale, so tightly packed with asides and footnotes and backgrounders, now slowly unfurling, its darkness gathering.

And it bewitches me. The central trunk supporting its many branches, many leaves, is a story of love and risk, of an otherworldly danger that lies in wait for people to stumble into its trap – and pay the ultimate price. As widely as the net is cast across the real world and the magical one always just beneath, it is this central story, this central danger that finally gives it urgency, a sense of what is at stake.

Quite after I have stopped expecting it, compulsion floods in. At last I feel that glorious feeling, the one I live for, of being glued to a lovely fat novel.

This is a truly outstanding book, the more so because it is Clarke’s first – according to Wikipedia she took 10 years to write it and this surprises me not a whit. It nearly took me 10 to read it. (only kidding, I’ll stop).

Approaching the end I am savouring each page, gleefully anticipating each twist, acknowledging that every little note sounded, every scene drawn has had its place as this violent and utterly fantastic adventure hurtles to its conclusion.

“Closing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell after 800 pages, my only regret was that it wasn’t twice the length,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his review.

A bit masochistic of him, perhaps, but I think we all get the point now. Go read it.

Postscript: oooooh. Have just seen this has been made THIS year into a BBC miniseries with an IMDB rating of 8.4. I knew I was right to read this book 11 years after its publication… 

Blithe Spirit (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, 2015)

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

In Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Ruth and Charles Condomine invite their friends, along with local kook Madame Arcati to an all-in-good-fun seance. But the fun soon fades for the couple when the seance leads to the mistaken calling-forth of the spirit of Charles’ dead first wife, Elvira, much to his and Ruth’s horror.

I have loved this supremely funny farce since first performing monologues from it as a teenager doing Trinity College Speech exams.

Later I saw it in the fabulous movie version starring the indomitable Margaret Rutherford as scatty but enthusiastic medium Madame Arcati, and loved that too, so much so that I made the Ministry watch it a few years ago.

Most recently I saw a stage version Roleystone community theatre performed perhaps just two years ago, to which I dragged the Ministry in an effort to show him both why I like community theatre (not just for the free cream sherry starters) and enjoyed myself immensely.

While I have liked previous contemporary works by Black Swan – last year’s Gasp! for example – I do think the company shines brightest when it goes traditional. So when I heard it was doing my old favourite I knew that, given my recent viewing history of the play it was complete overkill to attend, but nevertheless absolutely necessary.

I got the news on the day of the preview that the actress playing Madame Arcati – not the biggest role of the play but arguably the show-stealer – Roz Hammond, had fallen ill and had had to withdraw from the season, I greeted the news with mingled worry that my guest, The Tutor, who I had been sure would share my enthusiasm for this play, might not see it at its best.

Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler appeared before curtain-up to tell her replacement Alison van Reeken, who had played to acclaim in the recent season of Dinner, had been called upon just that day to play the role and would do so bravely, script in hand, on the strength of a single run-through that morning.

Despite my trepidation I was very much inclined, as I’m sure the rest of the audience was, to show goodwill to anyone with the balls to get up and star in a production at the drop of a hat and joined in the warm applause at her appearance.

Well, by golly. As I told the Ministry that night when I appeared at home deliriously sleepy after staying up two hours past my regular bedtime (I know, it’s pathetic) anyone who thinks acting is a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession should have seen what van Reeken stumped up.

She used the script as she had to, but she did so fluidly and with amazingly little reliance on it. She made it part of her movement (and Madame Arcati is a very physical role, so this was no small achievement.) She used the stage space without a single stumble that I could see, and of course we were all looking for one.

Physically she was about as far as you could get from the Madame Arcati of my imagination, who behaves firmly like a stout middle-aged crazy auntie (we’ve all got one) so it was a shock to the system to see her played by a slender young blonde. But this fine-boned woman had a big stage presence and my suspicions faded quickly.

I was honestly so impressed by van Reeken’s self-possession, professionalism and general aplomb that it was an inspiration to see her in action.

Her performance was all the more impressive in such a dialogue-heavy play. This play has a relatively basic set and as Coward fans will understand, the rapid-fire comedic dialogue is everything. If that fails you got Buckley’s. And it didn’t fail.

With this in mind, credit must also go to the other actors who supported van Reeken so strongly in her every scene, particularly the roguish Charles (Adam Booth) who loves both his wives (but perhaps not quite as devotedly as all that, as he himself confesses) and snappish but pitiable Ruth (Adriane Daff) as well as peevish and excitable Elvira (Jo Morris), who wreaks such merry havoc upon their once-contented marriage.

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth, onstage for virtually the entire 2.5-hour play, never miss a beat despite the phenomenal amount of dialogue they have. The speed and skill and timing of their repartee is flawless. Despite the entire cast looking rather younger than I would generally expect (it is traditionally a middle-aged sort of crowd whereas none of these characters, apart from one, looked much over thirty) they were all so on-beat that I eventually forgot the characters I imagined and started appreciating the ones in front of me.

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

My favourite was probably Ruth, whose keyed-up speeches (screeches?) made me laugh, but simultaneously grimace in solidarity with her. The Tutor loved Charles and a special nod must go the maid Edith (Ella Hetherington), whose exaggerated mincing about the stage had perfect comic timing.

I made particular note of the beautiful use of lighting, which managed to produce the effects of all times of night and day with uncanny authenticity. At one stage I could have sworn I was myself sitting at a sunlit breakfast table on a crisp English morning.

Don’t let the change of cast put you off. If you love a good English comedy of manners then it would be a sin not to take yourself off to this one. Alison van Reeken will probably have learned her lines and written a novel and baked a cake by the time you’ve booked your ticket if what she managed in one day is anything to go by.

But do watch Margaret Rutherford in the movie as well – afterwards, of course.

I got review tickets for this, I should mention, but my appreciation is genuine.

Blithe Spirit runs until August 9.

 

Inside Out (2015)

What a good day it is when a new Pixar movie comes out. The Ministry and I have been salivating over this trailer since seeing it for the first time maybe six months ago so the anticipation level was high.

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can't tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I'm really excited about seeing Inside Out .

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can’t tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I’m really excited about seeing Inside Out .

In case you have been living under a rock, this is a movie about a Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has always been happy and well-adjusted but is teetering on the edge of puberty when her parents uproot the family from its idyllic suburban neighbourhood and move to a grubby inner-city apartment because the dad’s job requires it.

At first they try to make the best of it, but the moving van fails to show up and cracks begin to appear in this previously close family unit.

The viewer not only sees the real action of what’s happening to Riley and her family, like they would in any animated movie, but also has a unique insight into Riley’s mind. The control room is operated various base emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust – who govern her responses to situations and all work in harmony to keep her safe, well and rounded-out, personality-wise. Around the control room is the rest of her inner world, including a land of imagination, long term memory storage vaults and a dream land. An all-important storage facility for core memories powers various islands that make Riley who she is – Family Island, Hockey Island, Honesty Island, Friendship Island and of course a Train of Thought running through it all.

The shock to the system of the move causes the whole system to tremble. Sadness starts acting out, touching stuff she shouldn’t. Internal infrastructure begins to collapse and Riley becomes sullen, withdrawn and depressed. Her parents are at a loss.

What they can’t see is that Joy, played, well, joyfully, by Amy Poehler, has left the control room to try to sort things out and get Riley back to normal. She’s Riley’s best hope to recover, but that means Riley’s left in the care of some highly unsuitable emotions.

Complex, right? And pretty heavy. But you’ll be glad to know they don’t get bogged down in explaining all this. It just happens. In the words of writing experts everywhere, they don’t tell – they show. The whole system is such an imaginative wonderland, so bright and gorgeous and humorous, that it’s not a chore to work all this out.

The messages about depression and personality and dealing with crises are meaningful, not preachy or forced. The movie is about a kid and any kid you took to see it would love it, but at the same time many of the jokes would go straight over kids’ heads. This is real insight, incredibly relatable, and it rings very true to me. As the Ministry said, it sweeps you up.

The voice casting was great, with a special stroke of genius putting Richard Kind (in lots of stuff, but I’ll always remember him as Mark from Mad About You) as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

This is an incredibly funny, clever, innovative and profound movie. It breaks new ground.

We walked out exhilarated, our words falling over each other, telling each other what bits we loved – an all-too-rare cinema experience. Do it. Do it now!

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can't tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I'm really excited about seeing Inside Out .

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can’t tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I’m really excited about seeing Inside Out .

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 7: Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman, 2005)

Books remaining: 19. Weeks left in which to read them: 37 (bad). 

Anansi Boys cover

Annoyingly water-damaged, pretty book.

There wasn’t much to choose from for G – my only other unread (ha! typo undead) options were Peter Goldsworthy’s Everything I Knew – worthy, but meh – Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach, which looked cool but was so skinny it felt like cheating, and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. This came a close second but seemed a little dark for how I was feeling so I went with the reliably brilliant, AND happy, Neil Gaiman.

He authored American Gods and Neverwhere, both great, though I liked American Gods best. This, another Gods-themed novel, is blurbed (now a word):

Anansi Gods - blurb

Can’t go wrong, see?

After the endless, though awesome, wrenching of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I needed something just lovely, and the logic seemed sound that something this big, bright and blue would have to be.

I feel as though I can’t be the first to compare Neil Gaiman to Terry Pratchett, though I scarcely dare to. For those of you who have lived under a rock for their entire lives, Terry Pratchett is author of the Discworld fantasy-humour series, and several others just as brilliant, and he is adored worldwide.

Anyway, a little scared to make the comparison, as feel that whole internet will crash accusatorily Ialso now a word) down upon my head, breathing fire and shouting that I am wrong or, alternatively, that everyone already knew this. Well, I will resist the urge to Google it before I publish and just bravely sally forth with my likening. It’s just the sheer gladness of it, the inventiveness, big-thinking plot twists in almost-real worlds, flashing and ready humour tempered by plenty of warmth.

The story of all the mad things that happen to Charlie is anchored by the narrative running underneath, in which he is slowly uncovering a long-squashed sense of self-worth. As inevitably (and quite rightly) happens with stories about uncovering self-worth, he also finds out who he really loves in life, and who loves him.

This is a lighthearted read with a kernel of seriousness at its heart. It’s quotable and causes numerous giggles of the out-loud variety. I doubt Neil Gaiman can do any wrong; at least, he certainly hasn’t here. This is the sort of book that’s too good NOT to pass on to a friend immediately after reading, secure in the knowledge that you have done them a service.

I’m going to pass this on, mainly because it got water-damaged in a rain storm just as I started reading it (you can see in the picture) and I just can’t stand water-damage. Also, he recently wrote another novel that has caught my fancy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I’d like to make room for that, should someone Just Happen To Buy it For Me.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

 

Misfits (2009)

I know I’m about a thousand years behind the rest of the world (yes, a THOUSAND), but hey, whatever.

After another berserk week, I have just enough energy to quickly tell everyone that they should stop what they are doing to binge-watch Misfits.

This TV series is laugh-out-loud funny and the plot, though random, is cool enough to keep you caring (in the opposite way to how the plot of the latest season of True Blood is random enough to stop you caring).

A freak storm gives a bunch of twenty-something reprobates on community service orders a bunch of superhero powers, and they have to figure out basic life skills such as how to control their powers, how to keep them hidden, how to hide a rotting corpse… the usual.

As well as developing powers, the characters actually develop as people.

Amazing!

Tried both this show and Sons of Anarchy recently, as instructed by numerous people, and Sons of Anarchy was good, but a little ugly and depressing for what I’m after right now.

At the moment, I want lighthearted, funny and sexy as well as unpredictable, but I don’t want it to be dumb.

I still want it to be awesome and have good dialogue, and Misfits has this in spades.

Turbo blog

Those with short attention spans rejoice! I’m low on time this week, so I’m keeping it snappy with a handful of snippets.

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  • 3rd Rock from the Sun (1990s)

Working through it all over again. As good as ever. Pluses: baby Joseph Joseph Joseph.

  • movie: Kid (Disney schmaltz), 2000

Watchable, harmless couch fluff. Pluses: Bruce Willis being suave, and a funny fat kid.

  • Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Funny and clever. Win. Have never liked Will Ferrell but he does a great job in this. Win. Also, movie has Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Win, win, win. Also, is about literature and baked goods. ALL THE WINS.

  • Hope Springs (2012)

Entirely watchable, but don’t bother seeing it at the movies. Funny but cringey. Would be worthless without Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (who plays his usual crusty old bugger with an intimacy problem).

  • Easy A (2010)

I know, I’m so behind the rest of the world. Fun, with racy dialogue and a Mean Girls-ish flavour. Highlights: Emma Stone is nice to look at, and one of her adorably dotty parents is Stanley Tucci who even The Lovely Bones couldn’t stop me trusting.

  • Body Melt (1993)

My partner – let’s call him the Ministry of Magic – had a birthday so watched this as a gift to him, cause he’s been talking about it for ages. Worth watching just to see various Blue Heelers cast members and Harold from Neighbours being younger, but still wobbly-jowled. Also, of course, for the bodies melting. Would make a great drinking game.