Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment

John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights is a collection of wicked, darkly comic little stories, written mostly in the 1930s and '40s.  Reading them made me think of Saki, as each story has some kind of twist:  the evil get their just reward, or sometimes the innocent are the ones who suffer.  Because life is random that way.  Life is also a little quirky in John Collier's world:  husbands murder their wives, a rare orchid devours humans and cats, a young shop assistant falls in love with a store mannequin, a Hollywood screenwriter is sold to the devil by his agent.  Good times.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Blogger About Town

In front of Trader Joe's, Richmond, Virginia:

A small crowd of shoppers gathered in front of the store, where a lone shopping cart stood, abandoned.  Everybody wanted that cart, but nobody wanted to appear to want it.  A polite charade ensued:  "You take the cart,"  "No, you take it,"  "No, YOU take it, I insist."  The invisible Hand of Society made it impossible to bypass the crowd and take a different cart from the cart corral.  We were at a standstill, unable to shop, until a woman bravely stepped forward and claimed the cart only she was so flustered she somehow tipped it over.  Have you ever seen a shopping cart crash onto its side while a crowd of middle class women look on?  It is dramatic.

Western New York, near Ellicottville, on the road to Buffalo:

An old house by the side of the road had an enormous Christmas wreathe--still fairly fresh--nailed to its front, above the porch.  The house was clearly abandoned, with boarded-up windows.  What tragedy occurred between Christmas and now to this house to which someone had so lovingly affixed this wreathe?

The morning commute:

I am not one to criticize eccentricity of dress.  How boring the world would be if everybody was tastefully clad at all times.  Still, I do wonder what odd combination of personal style and career choice led to the man wearing a button-up business-style shirt with denim bib overalls on the Charlottesville number three bus.

Spot Coffee, Williamsville, NY:

A group of late-middle aged men met for coffee in the middle of the morning on a weekday.  They had the look of comfortable small business owners and they spoke a curious Italian/English patois.  A very Italian scene but I'll bet my grandmother they were all born in the United States, and very likely their parents were too.  Had I stayed in Buffalo my whole life, I would not have noticed anything remarkable about these men, but you don't see this sort of thing in Charlottesville.  They were also unashamedly checking me out, something else that doesn't happen often in Charlottesville.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Fluff

Before there were blogs there was Ladies Home Journal, where witty lady writers published witty little essays about their domestic troubles.  Today's assignment, The Snake has all the Lines, by Jean Kerr brings to mind many of the blogs I read.  Who among us knew that when we set out to document our lives in the latest high tech medium, we were emulating the style of a woman of our grandmother's generation?

Jean Kerr was a mid-century playwright and humorist whose book Please don't Eat the Daisies was made into a Doris Day movie.  The Snake has all the Lines is a collection of funny little essays, mainly about middle class married life.  Yes, it's dated, but some of these essays are strong enough to transcend the time and style barrier.  My favorite is "When I was Queen of the May" in which she recounts a particularly mortifying May Crowning ceremony.  I'm Catholic and a graduate of traditional Catholic schools that celebrated May Crowning and I had a mother who refused to cooperate with the edicts of the nuns, so this story really appealed to me, but I'm pretty sure that non-Catholics would find it funny as well.

This is one of those books that takes little time to read and doesn't tax the brain.  Sometimes we need that.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Companion Read

I've been reading Forbidden Journey by Ella Maillart and it has turned out to be one of those books that you look forward to reading at the end of a work day.  It's the 1930's, and Maillart is hanging around in Peking, trying to find a way to travel across northern China and Tibet and down into India, a journey that presented certain difficulties related to politics and general physical hardship.  She meets Peter Fleming, correspondent for the Times, who is planning the same journey and they decide to travel together.

Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming) wrote a book about the same journey:  News from Tartary, which I read several years ago and loved. I remember his account of meeting Ella Maillart and how he seemed to think her pretty impressive, and his references to her throughout his book made me long to learn more about her, so I was really happy to get my hands on her version of the story.

I love travel literature, and this book has all the hallmarks of the classic adventure:  difficulty with passports and Byzantine Asian government systems, getting arrested by local authorities in provincial outposts, clinging to the back of a truck on a bumpy ride over a mountain pass, unreliable guides, hunger, thirst, cold, and heat.  Also, heart wrenching accounts of faithful horses and camels that are too worn out to move another step and must be abandoned to die in the desert.  These stories always get to me.  Maillart mentions that they wanted to shoot a camel thus abandoned, to put it out of its misery, but the local custom of the desert forbade that practice, as it was preferable to hope that a miracle would save an abandoned animal.  Her beloved horse, Slalom, she left by a river--the first water they'd seen for ages--hoping that he'd gain strength eventually by being able to drink.

Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming

Aside from the adventure, I enjoyed Forbidden Journey for its accounts of Peter Fleming, who had a good sense of humor--his books are hilarious. He and Maillart were both quite young when they made this trip. It was interesting that for all Maillart was considered to be impressive, the domestic chores of traveling--laundry, cooking, mending--were her responsibility.  I was a little surprised that she seems to accept this as natural, and even says she was glad to be able to feel useful.  On the other hand, she writes of how she preferred to travel alone and be truly independent.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't read two accounts of the same journey, but News from Tartary and Forbidden Journey complement each other, yet also highlight the different goals and priorities of the two adventurers.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A whole lot about washing machines. And more.

During a rage-induced google search I found a forum with hundreds of complaints about my washing machine.  Not exactly soothing, but mildly entertaining and it put me in that "other people have it worse than I do" place.  One person complained that not only did her washer quit working in the middle of the cycle, but the lid remained locked with her clothes imprisoned inside it.  Can you imagine your clothes slowly rotting with mold while you wait for weeks for a repairman?  I would be pissed.

Still, some complaints suggest that the machines are working as designed and that some washing machine owners are perhaps unfamiliar with the concept of "high efficiency."  Several complaints were from people who felt the water level was too low, and there are people, apparently, who are augmenting the water level in their HE machines by topping them off with a garden hose.  Seriously?

 Other people complain that there is no such thing as a hot wash in an LG washer.  If you select "hot" the machine is designed to dilute your hot water with cold.  This is something I realized myself when I was trying to felt some of my knitting and opened the machine during the wash and found the water to be distinctly tepid.  The purpose, of course, is to use less energy, and I'm all for using less energy, but sometimes you do want to wash a load in truly hot water.   LG sucks for stooping to this sort of cheating in order to achieve an Energy Star rating.

That said, I am hopeful that yesterday was my last trip to the laundromat.  Last Tuesday a repairman came and my second-worst-case scenario was realized:  that the washer needed a part that was out of stock and needed to be special ordered.  (The absolute worst-case scenario was that he would come down the stairs sorrowfully shaking his head and tell me that I had voided the warranty by laundering too many comforters or dog beds or curtains or couch cushion covers.)  Last Friday the UPS truck came with five packages for my washing machine.  The repairman is supposed to return tomorrow.  So keep your fingers crossed for me.

I don't really mind the laundromat.  Lots of friends offered the use of their washers and we did take advantage of their kindness a few times, but we're a big family and we have a LOT of laundry.  We got into a routine of stopping at the laundromat, starting several loads, running our errands, and returning to pick up the clothes.  It was all very simple and easy.


I was pulled over by a cop yesterday (on my way to the laundromat, doh) because my inspection expired in April.  OK, no big deal and the cop was actually quite cute and very nice.  It takes quite a while to process a ticket and in the meantime two more cops pulled up--one in the paddy wagon--and blocked me in with their cars and they were all standing around, conferring, and one of the extra cops was glowering at us, or at least he appeared to be as I tried to look at him while not looking like I was looking at him.  I was a little worried.  Like maybe someone had stolen my identity and I was wanted for armed robbery in Missouri.  Meanwhile, everybody driving past had to gawk.  Naturally.  I know what I would be thinking if I saw three cop cars surrounding a car, and this town has a ferocious gossip mill.  My car is a make not as commonly seen as others and could be easily identified as mine.

Eventually, the nice, cute cop approached my window and said, "I guess you didn't know you were a hardened criminal," and I couldn't tell if he was joking or not but then he said, "It's just a slow Sunday in Charlottesville."  Jesus.  You know you live in a small town when the cops get excited about a mousy housewife in a Scion with an expired inspection sticker.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment

Once again I am without a Friday reading assignment.  My life has not yet returned to normal.  Indeed, I may need to redefine normal because most likely we will never achieve my former version of "normal lives" again.  I've been reading a few books lately but none of them have been so satisfying that I want to compel the rest of you to read them.

I read 1776 by David McCullough, which is certainly very good but at times feels more like medicine--good for you, but not necessarily what you want if you're trying to escape.  I also read Little, Big by John Crowley.  This has been labeled as the best work of fantasy by an American. I loved it at first but found much of the middle to be a bit of a slog.  It requires more concentration than someone who is going through a crisis can devote to it.  Still, if you feel ready for the sort of novel that provides reward for a challenge, then this might be the book for you.  It's the story of a family in upstate New York that has a relationship with fairies.  I also read Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.  This is a children's book about a girl at a British boarding school who exchanges places in time with the girl who slept in the same bed, forty years before.  This was excellent and great comfort literature and I was pleased to learn that it's part of a trilogy.  Finally, I am reading Flashman and the Tiger, the last book in the Flashman series.  I am sorry to say that this is the novel in which Flashman jumps the shark.

In lieu of a proper assignment this week, please leave a comment if you've ever read something that was so good that you felt compelled to tell everyone you know to read it too.

Monday, June 04, 2012

An Illustrated Guide to Jane Eyre

Surely everybody is familiar with the story of Jane Eyre:  orphaned, raised by an aunt who hates her, she is sent away to a school in which the girls are underfed and treated cruelly.  She ends up as governess to the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester and they fall in love, but just as they are about to get married, it is revealed that Mr.Rochester has a mad wife he keeps locked in the attic.  Jane runs away and starts an entirely new life with the Rivers family.

Jane Eyre has been made into a movie twelve times, not including early silent versions, Jane Eyre, the Musical,(!) and two foreign adaptations.  I watched only those that are available through netflix, which was quite enough.  These are presented in the order in which I watched them.

Jane Eyre (2011)

This is a restrained and beautiful film.  I loved every minute of it.  Mia Wasikowska is a perfect Jane Eyre.  Michael Fassbender plays Rochester.  I began watching this movie with a bias towards Toby Stephens as the best Rochester, but Michael Fassbender is the sort of person you can't stop looking at.  Judi Dench plays Mrs. Fairfax.  Her presence in any film is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

This is a feature length film, but the editing is done so skillfully, the film is so beautiful, you don't mind that parts of the story have been cut out.  It starts in the middle, when Jane has just run away from Mr. Rochester, and the story is told in flashbacks--an effective treatment.  The scenes from Jane's childhood--the vicious blow to the head from her cousin, the death of her only friend Helen at school are especially well done.  And--bonus--several of the actresses would be perfect to play Fanny Price, if someone ever decides to make a good version of Mansfield Park.  Mia Wasikowska herself would make an excellent Fanny Price, as would Holliday Grainger who plays Diana Rivers.  Everybody in the movie has a wholesome, pink cheeked German look.  Jamie Bell, who is stunningly good as Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, plays St. John Rivers and it's a treat to see him again.

Holliday Grainger--the next Fanny Price?

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (2006)

Until I saw the 2011 version, I thought that this Jane Eyre was the best, and it is certainly still a strong contender.  It's a four-hour BBC miniseries, almost as beautiful as the 2011 movie.  Toby Stephens plays Mr. Rochester; more playful than brooding and very sexy.  Ruth Wilson is Jane Eyre and until I saw the Mia Wasikowska version, I would have called her the best Jane Eyre to date.  Pam Ferris plays Grace Poole--a minor character who is edited out of the 2011 version.  She is absolutely fantastic, as she sits calmly sewing, vaguely sinister.  I also have to give a shout out to Cosima Littlewood who plays Adele, Rochester's ward, because she is so fabulously annoying, pirouetting all over the place.  In general, I'm a fan of Tara Fitzgerald, who plays cruel Mrs. Reed.  She deserves high praise for her deathbed scene.  Christina Cole plays Blanche Ingram, the girl that Rochester is supposedly courting.  She seems to have snatched up the bitchy role in every costume drama in the last half of this decade. She was Mrs. Elton in the Romola Garai version of Emma, and Caroline Bingley in Lost in Austen.  Also excellent is Claudia Coulter as Bertha Mason Rochester.  The scene in which she visits Jane's room in the night is truly terrifying.  Having her scream puta at Jane is a nice touch. Overall, I give high marks to this adapation.

Toby Stephens as Rochester.

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre (1943)

I had my doubts about a glamorous 1940s movie star like Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre, but actually, she isn't bad.  Orson Wells, on the other hand, plays Mr. Rochester like a sulky boy who's been denied a second helping of dessert.  The movie was filmed in black and white, effective for setting a gloomy mood, and sometimes the cinematography is beautiful. Elizabeth Taylor plays Jane's school friend Helen Burns.  Other than that, this film doesn't have much to recommend it.  Especially obnoxious is the soundtrack, typical of the dramas of its time--loudly clashing horns at the dramatic bits, sprightly tunes whenever someone is in a carriage--it's awful.  The movie follows the story fairly accurately up to the moment when Jane runs away from Thornfield, then crams the entire second half of the story--the part that took nearly two hours to show in the 2006 version, into the last ten minutes.

Jane Eyre (1996)

If I had known that Franco Zeffirielli had directed a version of Jane Eyre, I'd have seen it right away, but this movie somehow escaped my radar.  It's beautifully filmed, but I'm still partial to the Mia Wasikowska version.  Charlottes Gainsbourg is excellent Jane Eyre, and would have been a perfect Fanny Price, if only someone had had the wit to cast her for that role in the 1998 Mansfield Park, instead of Frances O'Connor.  I never would have imagined William Hurt for the role of Rochester.  He's a sad, sensitive Mr. Rochester,  not nearly as sexy as Toby Stephens or Michael Fassbender and there is no chemistry between him and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Elle Macpherson is Blanche Ingram. She's like a stick figure with ringlets.  Joan Plowright, another actress I like, is Mrs. Fairfax, and Fiona Shaw--famous for playing Harry Potter's Aunt Petunia--is cruel Mrs. Reed.  Samuel West, another one of my costume drama favorites, plays St. John Rivers.  He was Leonard Bast in Howard's End and the rapacious cousin in Persuasion.  Unfortunately, this movie also severely abbreviates the St. John Rivers part of the story.  Anna Paquin is the best of the young Jane Eyres, and that is saying something because they've all been good so far.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.

Jane Eyre (1997)

This one stars Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Rochester.  Gemma Jones, who I always think of as Bridget Jones' mother, plays Mrs. Fairfax.  I'm not sure I like Ciaran Hinds as Rochester, although in general I do like him as an actor.  He certainly gives Mr. Rochester a lot of personality, but they have him tricked out like a Victorian advertisement for shaving supplies, with a ghastly mustache and sideburns that look like bonnet straps meant to tie his hair to his head.  Still, he's Ciaran Hinds, and you can't help forgiving him his bonnet strings.  Samantha Morton can't compete with the other Janes mentioned so far.  Sorry.  This movie is mostly boring.

Jane Eyre (1973)

If there was a famous novel written in the 1800's, the BBC made a low-budget movie of it in the 1970's.  Here, Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston are Jane and Rochester.  You can only watch and roll your eyes at the flimsy sets and awful costumes--Jane's nightgown in the bedroom fire scene is so obviously polyester, you wonder it didn't melt.  I realize that Jane isn't supposed to be a fashion plate, but the other movies dressed their Janes with a certain severe charm.  This one wears a white pilgrim's collar like a tablecloth, her dress is too large, and she wears her hair in a ghastly bubble around her head.  Michael Jayston has a certain amount of verve as Mr. Rochester, but I picture him as more suited to a magazine ad for a top shelf scotch.  Actually, he would be perfect as a British version of "The Most Interesting Man in the World."

Like all the early BBC movies, the filming is amateurish--the scene in which Jane hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling to her from miles away made me laugh out loud.  This movie is true to the book, but I'm learning that that's not always a virtue in a movie.

Sorcha Cusack as Jane

Jane Eyre (1934)

This movie is billed as the "first talking version" of Jane Eyre.  Even with allowances made for the general shittiness of the early filmaking industry's adaptations of classic novels, this movie is pretty bad, starting with the overture, which is the tune to a lullaby.  Are we being told a bedtime story?  The movie is only an hour long, so it's understandable that they had to make heavy cuts to the story, but why then did they add incidents and characters that never appeared in the book?  Jane is dismissed as a teacher at the Lowood "orphanage" after she calls Mr. Brocklehurst an "old crocodile."  There's "Sam Poole" a jolly Irish manservant at Thornfield who frightens Jane by driving the carriage too fast.  Later, he turns up at St. John Rivers' soup kitchen and breaks the news to Jane about the Thornfield fire. Adele gets stuck in a tree and Jane has to climb up after her, a perfect opportunity to be gallantly rescued by Mr. Rochester.  Virginia Bruce plays Jane like she's Miss American College Girl, 1934.  In one scene, after hearing  Mrs. Rochester laughing in the hall and being reassured by Mrs. Fairfax, she skips back to her room, smiling, and finishes a letter with, "I think something strange just happened!"  Who is she writing to?  Her sorority sisters?  Colin Clive is Mr. Rochester.  He has as much depth of character as a cereal box.

The Happy Couple

Jane Eyre (1983)

I try to stay away from the amazon customer reviews when I'm writing these movie posts because I don't want to be influenced, but I cracked about halfway through my Jane Eyre marathon and learned that the Amazon customer reviewers consider this Jane Eyre to be The Jane Eyre. Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke are Rochester and Jane.  I could tell from the photographs that this was another low-budget BBC affair and prepared to be underwhelmed, but there's something about this movie that grabs your attention.  The acting is good enough that the cheap sets and costumes don't distract you.  This movie has the best Mr. Brocklehurst of them all.  I have seen a parade of Mr. Brocklehursts, and this one made me sit up and take notice.  Here was The Mr. Brocklehurst (played by Robert James).

This movie is not as pretty as the 2011 and 2006 versions, but it is strangely absorbing.  And Timothy Dalton is hawt as Rochester.  He actually outhots Michael Fassbender and Toby Stephens. My one complaint is the long scenes of dialogue between Jane and Rochester.  One's attention will wander.  This movie (11 half-hour episodes) is the most comprehensive in terms of portraying everything that happens in the novel.  I would watch it again.

Zelah Clarke:  the luckiest woman in the world.

What do you think, dear readers.  Have you seen any of these films?  What did you think?