Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Thirty-One - The Great Gatsby - Part One

So far, The Great Gatsby isn't. I suppose this is one of those books I must devote several hours in a row to before I become terribly interested. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

David Copperfield - The Movie

I went with the 1999 adaptation - it's wonderful. The casting is amazing. Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey! One of the Davids is a very young Daniel Radcliffe. Bob Hoskins is Mr. Micawber and Imelda Staunton is his wife. The young man who plays adult David even manages to look like Dickens as an older man… perhaps because of the facial hair. Also, Ian McKellen is an incredibly nasty Creakle! Dawn French is hilarious as Mrs. Crupp. I wasn’t previously familiar with Pauline Quirke, who plays Peggotty, but she is marvelous in the role. The sweet relationship she has with David is quite evident in the film. Joanna Page plays Dora - I loved her in Gavin and Stacey!

It’s a BBC production and they always seem to get these things right. Raise your hand if you’ve watched the five hour Pride and Prejudice more than a dozen times. (Dude, Colin Firth coming out of the lake? I'm with Bridget Jones on that scene.)

They use the older David as narrator just like in the book. It's beautiful and haunting at the same time. And they kept/adapted the wonderful first line – “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, this story must show.” How great is that on the scale of great first lines?

It’s a very long book so of course much had to be cut even though it’s a three hour production. I could have done with more time in Switzerland but then I am in love with mountains. I would love to see the Alps! They did a seamless job of blending when they needed to blend and cutting out the minor characters. And in case you were wondering, Uriah Heep is marvelous!

There’s also a 20 minute feature – half of which is academics talking about the novel and Dickens and half about the filming of the movie. I enjoyed it, as well. 

Now, how does the book compare with the movie? Well, duh, I like the book better. Even though it’s a fine and faithful adaptation, it isn’t as good as the scenes I imagined as I read. How could anything ever been as good as imagination?

I really like the Books to Movies challenge so I plan to do more of these. (Plus I’m going for the steak knives.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Thirty - David Copperfield - Part Four

Nanny nanny boo boo, Dickens doesn’t like you -

A display of indifference to all the actions and passions of mankind was not supposed to be such a distinguished quality at that time, I think, as I have observed it to be considered since. I have known it very fashionable indeed. I have seen it displayed with such success, that I have encountered some fine ladies and gentlemen who might as well have been born caterpillars.
 Ooh, snap.

'… that what such people miscall their religion, is a vent for their bad humours and arrogance. In the meantime, sir,' said Mr. Chillip, 'they are much disliked; and as they are very free in consigning everybody who dislikes them to perdition, we really have a good deal of perdition going on in our neighbourhood! However, as Mrs. Chillip says, sir, they undergo a continual punishment; for they are turned inward, to feed upon their own hearts, and their own hearts are very bad feeding.'
Dickens is all about kindness.

Word pictures - 
I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.
 Do you have some of those memories? Little snapshots or videos in your mind?

… I had considered how the things that never happen, are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.

In another, the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which—having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather—they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves.
 Can’t you picture these half-buried abandoned metal objects?
...a man must take the fat with the lean; that's what he must make up his mind to, in this life.
This has as much to do with Dickens’ message as anything. Sometimes life must be endured. Sometimes it will be joyous. Mostly it will just move along. What are you going to make of it? What are you going to do with the good times and the bad times and the in-between times? 
'And since I've took to general reading, you've took to general writing, eh, sir?' ...  'What a lovely work that was of yours! What expressions in it! I read it every word—every word. And as to feeling sleepy! Not at all!'

I laughingly expressed my satisfaction, but I must confess that I thought this association of ideas significant.
Charles, I totally love your sense of humor.
 ...when a man is drawing on to a time of life, where the two ends of life meet…
Lovely metaphor.

Mr. Dickens has a way with words -  
We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannize over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well.
… if I may so Shakespearianly express myself...
…I had (and have all my life) observed that conventional phrases are a sort of fireworks, easily let off, and liable to take a great variety of shapes and colours not at all suggested by their original form.
Things that felt trite

First person narrative is tricky, I know. Dickens had to figure out a way for us to “see” all of the pertinent scenes. And at least once, this felt artificial. He needed a way for a character to tell her story but the scene doesn't ring true to me.

The poorest family is tremendously kind-hearted and the wealthiest is terribly selfish. Is Dickens trying to say that kind-hearted people surround themselves with other kind-hearted people; that kind-hearted parents rear kind-hearted children? Or is his meaning the “You reap what you sow” principle (these days perhaps more commonly known as “What goes around comes around”)? Because it isn’t true. Bad things happen to good people – have you ever known a child with cancer? Evil people frequently reap rewards.  Of course, money can’t buy peace of mind or kindness or happiness, and those are the real treasures. Dickens doesn’t come out and say this, but David comes to a sort of realization of this.

There was also a part at the end that felt gratuitous – as if it was thrown in only to make a social statement. But then, that’s what Dickens did. He had a voice in his time, and people listened.

Random thing that caught my attention -
It was such a strange scene to me, and so confined and dark, that, at first, I could make out hardly anything; but, by degrees, it cleared, as my eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, and I seemed to stand in a picture by Ostade.
 What are Ostade's paintings like? Here's an example -

Popular fiction

Currently, some people read Dickens because he’s a classic. When he was alive, some people did not read him because he was contemporary. What makes a classic? I don’t mean works that become part of the academic canon since politics plays such a large part in those decisions, but what is a classic? Is it merely a book we read years after the author died, or is there more to it? Is it a book that we read because it is popular? There are contemporary books that many people have read – I’m thinking Eat, Pray, Love, The Book Thief, or anything by Dan Brown. Will these books be classics in one hundred years? Is a classic a book that is popular? Is a classic a book that speaks to us on a level below the surface? A book with characters we care about? Is that why a classic survives the years?

I understand the appeal of Dickens during his lifetime – he wrote about the world as it was - and in this book, he describes the Swiss Alps to his readers!

Question: why did/do people from England move to Australia so frequently? Why not emigrate to Spain or Italy or France, which would be so much closer? Is it the language barrier? During Victorian times, Australia was still colonial, so I guess they got land allotments and things like that, maybe. And what’s the deal with the Commonwealth? I do not understand it. They’re independent but the Queen is their head of state even though they all have their own leaders… very confusing.

Charles I - 1649, right?!

Me: Mr. Dickens, if I may be so bold, I should like to say that this book rocked my world.

Dickens: If that is a compliment, Madam, I thank you.

Me: You got it, bro.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Thirty - David Copperfield - Part Three

I finished the book last night and was completely drained. I laughed, I cried - toward the end, I mostly cried - and I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I have pages and pages of notes, most of which I won't be able to use because they're spoilerific - but I'll edit as I go and do a proper post soon.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Thirty - David Copperfield - Part Two (Officially)

In this novel as well as in Bleak House, a big deal is made of who will keep the household keys. What is the deal with keeping the keys? What is locked? The china? The silver? The pantry? Did they expect everyone in the household to steal?

Dickens has a way with description -

… said the Master, looking at another old woman in a large chair by the fire, who was such a bundle of clothes that I feel grateful to this hour for not having sat upon her by mistake.

All this, I say, is yesterday's event. Events of later date have floated from me to the shore where all forgotten things will reappear, but this stands like a high rock in the ocean.

A few of David’s brilliant observations – 

At a dinner party he meets a man he says is like Hamlet. The man’s aunt he names Hamlet’s aunt and says, “… Hamlet’s aunt had the family failing of indulging in soliloquy, and held forth in a desultory manner, by herself, on every topic that was introduced.”

This dinner party is made up of people who seem to me to be not quite aristocracy but desire to be; there is much talk of Blood with a capital B.  The only frame of reference I have for this is the Harry Potter books, and I suspect that JKR had these people in mind when she wrote of those who talk of the superiority of Purebloods. I don’t know if this sort of thing is exclusive to England; I suspect other countries with a tradition of divided social classes have this prejudice as well. I am not saying that in the U.S. we don’t have social classes, for we do, much as no one wants to discuss the matter. But due to our relative youth as a nation we don’t have the history of being born into a class, knowing your place and knowing you will never be anything other than what you were born. I’ve often wondered about the servants in Jane Austen’s books… if the Dashwood girls’ lives were so difficult after they moved into a cottage and they could only escape their relative poverty by marriage, what were the servants’ lives like? Could they “marry up?” The servant class is never addressed in Jane Austen and I understand that. Her goal was to write a novel that would sell, not a history book. Still, I always wonder about that.

Another example from David Copperfield –

It completely conveyed the idea of a man who had been born, not to say with a silver spoon, but with a scaling-ladder, and had gone on mounting all the heights of life one after another, until now he looked, from the top of the fortifications, with the eye of a philosopher and a patron, on the people down in the trenches.

General thoughts - 

… how kind and considerate [name removed to avoid spoiler] had always been to her, and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers.

Something I have noticed from past experience: trying to be something you are not is unwise. It doesn’t work.

I don’t know how good a movie of this book could ever be – I’d miss all of the feelings we get from the first person narrative. You can see him cry in a movie perhaps, but the way he expresses the depth of his childhood emotions is magnificent.

'For stubbornness won't do here,' said his sister 'What it wants is, to be crushed. And crushed it must be.'

That’s the way – crush his spirit. Quell any hint of creativity or imagination or ambition. This is something I think we do too much of. We make children conform when they go to school – I know when you’re dealing with a room of 25 children there must be conformity to rules in terms of lining up to go to the bathroom and things like that but do we reward imagination? Do we really encourage children to think for themselves? Are we surprised that so many people are sheep when they’ve experienced nothing but being shepherded their entire lives?

Dickens was such a great observer of human nature… people think they are right, and do not change that opinion just because someone tells them they are wrong. Dickens is clear about who he thinks is right and wrong, but don’t most people do the best they can do with the tools they have at hand?

One family in the novel would fit right in today. They’d have bought an expensive home and filled it with big screen TVs and the latest iPhones – even though they couldn’t afford any of it. They live beyond their means because they don’t like their means. So they spend money and are happy for a moment - until the next time they are forced to think of their debts. The husband and wife in this case are perfect for each other; they hold out for something to turn up some day like Richard in Bleak House. They are always waiting for something good to appear out of thin air and actually convincing themselves that it will.Raise your hand if you knew the Mrs. of this pair was going to make her usual speech at David’s dinner party! That’s one reason I love her – she’s consistent. I cannot abide artificial people. You never know who they’re going to be from one day to the next. But with these people – you know. You always know.

The courts – 

The languid stillness of the place was only broken by the chirping of this fire and by the voice of one of the Doctors, who was wandering slowly through a perfect library of evidence, and stopping to put up, from time to time, at little roadside inns of argument on the journey.
Roadside inns of argument! Ah, I love this, Mr. Dickens.

The court scenes are similar to Bleak House in their description of the courts, particularly their absurdity and power (a dangerous combination).

Lawyer/proctor quotes –

We had an adjourned cause in the Consistory that day… and as the evidence was just twice the length of Robinson Crusoe, according to a calculation I made, it was rather late in the day before we finished.
I’m still trying to figure out the Victorian court system – it was a mess.

David’s desire to be loved – 

His dealings with boys/men older than him speak to his greatest longing. One person who shall remain nameless [spoiler avoidance] appropriately represents a universal experience. Haven't you had a friend you had doubts about? Maybe you weren’t sure this friend was truly sincere, but he (I prefer the generic “he” in most cases) was just so amiable and fun! Have you ever known anyone who seems to be at home no matter where he is? He can converse with kings and with the poorest fisherman equally and seems to appreciate both equally.

But later, when the two of you are alone, this friend begins to show that he is not all he seems. Maybe he secretly laughs at others, telling his true feelings only to you. Maybe he has a mean streak. And maybe someone else warns you of this person’s underlying insincerity but you keep hoping it isn't so - even though when you examine your heart, you know the truth. Certain people seem to have a power, a gravitation pull, which draws others toward them. Obviously, not everyone with a powerful personality is secretly selfish and careless with the affections of others, but the ones who are tend to be very dangerous indeed. Dickens does a wonderful job with the first person narration on this account. David writes about his youth from the perspective of age yet he does not make excuses for his behavior. 

There are examples of bullying in the book. Lots of attention is paid these days to bullying, but haven’t we all been bullied? Aren’t there people we’ve known at work or school or church – in some setting in which we cannot easily get away from them - who are bullies? These are the people who rarely have a nice thing to say, who won’t abide an opinion other than their own – in short, people who think only of themselves. Like David, we are frequently torn between acting properly (we would call it being “nice”) and not allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. As David ages he does a better job of balancing the two, and I think we can all relate to this. There are times when I have difficulty with the balance between being “nice” and not being bulldozed. Selfish people are ruthless in their quest to do only what they please. They are difficult to deal with under the best of circumstances.

Nankeen, it turns out, is a fabric. (This will make sense if you've read the book. Seriously.)
Miscellany -

A game called skittles is mentioned. According to Wikipedia, “Skittles is an old European lawn game, a variety of bowling, from which ten-pin bowling... [is] descended.”

Dumbledore likes ten pin bowling! (It turns out that "ten pin bowling" is what we simply call bowling in the U.S.)

“In Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, Charlie Banks, the star third baseman for the pre-war New York Giants baseball team, gives Joseph Margolis, the then-twelve-year-old narrator, sage counsel on life and literature, since, as he tells him, "me being your hero and all, it's only fair if I give you one piece of advice." That advice involves the "writer Chas. Dickens," whom the baseball player admires for two reasons — first of all, he says what he means and second, he creates a protagonist with bravery and self-control.”

Last Days of Summer is excellent! My book club read it a couple of years ago and I found Steve Kluger’s website and emailed him. He replied and gave me a couple of morsels about characters in the book that I shared with my book club! You can find the book at Amazon  if you’re interested.

Needless to say, I am LOVING David Copperfield. It provides such good thinking material! I'm currently a little more than halfway through. Dickens is amazing in this one, that's for sure.