Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Six Albums That Make Me Happy

Charlotte was kind enough to tag me for this meme. Originally, it was a Six Things That Make You Happy meme. Charlotte turned it into a Six Books That Make You Happy and I'm turning it into a Six Albums That Make You Happy. And instead, I'm posting the 6 albums I've just bought. I've already recommended them at least once on this journal. So far I had only been able to listen to them online on Deezer but now I own them all forever.

I'm not fond of compilations because I usually want to buy complete discographies but no label has released her whole discography as of yet, so I have to make do with this nonetheless strong Essential, for the moment being at least.



Released by the wonderful label Jasmine. They have a great catalog, and I've already sent them an email about the Boswell Sisters, asking if they had any plan to release anything. By the Andrews Sisters, I already have this excellent 4-cd boxset which I highly recommend. Now is the Time completes it. This isn't Now is the time but a selection of their most famous songs:



I want to be a Puppini Sister when I grow up. No, SERIOUSLY.



I wish I could see them perform live, they're amazing.



She's one of my favourite composers. This score is perhaps a bit more ambitious than her other ones, she draws inspiration from different things. I know Rachel isn't really loved among score collectors because her music is considered derivative, repetitive and thus unimaginative. I disagree, although I do recognize some of the same ideas throughout her scores.



I hate summer, but this score was by far the best part of this movie and makes me very happy.


I tag whoever wants to talk about six things!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Guess it was Easier for her to Change her Name Than for her Whole Family to Change Theirs


The Observations
by Jane Harris was absolutely excellent. Here's the summary:

When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy’s narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.

In my opinion, the true strength of this book is its narrator. Bessy is one of the best heroines I have ever come across in literature. She's feisty, strong, opinionated, very intelligent, practical and incredibly funny. It was a joy following her in her adventures and discoveries. The cover of the hardcover edition is shocking - once again, a beheaded woman in a book where the author chose to give a voice to a female servant. Ironic. This book is very much a feminist book, and it's always refreshing when dealing with stories taking place in the 19th century. Bessy comes to a better understanding of herself and in a way, this book shows how women can deal and triumph over men's selfish desires. The language used in the book is a game unto itself - there's lots of slang, Irish, Scottish words, made up words - more than a tool, Bessy's way of expressing herself is truly art (this idea is developed when Bessy ends up creating her own bawdy songs).
The plot is solid, its characters not too numerous to allow for deep attachment. I can't really talk about the plot as such as my thoughts would be filled with spoilers. What I can say is that it's chilling and terrifying, some kind of a detective story narrated with common sense, lucidity and great comedy throughout, even in nauseating moments that have to do with Bessy's shady past.
However, I would recommend anyone who wishes to read the book to avoid any sort of review or blurb. The plot can be quickly summarized and I fear any spoiler would be a huge one. I'm sorry I had to leave Bessy, she sure was fun company!
I found some interesting interviews of Jane Harris (to read AFTER you're done with the book) here, here and here. The last link is particularly helpful as it contains a list of questions about the book, below the interview. The Observations raises so many questions about self, feminity, class, insanity, sex. The more I think about it, the more I realise how much of a real tour de force this book is.

Moving on to cinema. I'm incredibly happy with the winners of the 81st Academy Awards. Kate, Milk and Slumdog. I couldn't have hoped for more, really. They all deserve it. Here are several things. First of all, Kate's acceptance speech (it's touching that she thought of thanking Peter Jackson, who gave her her first role in the disturbing Heavenly Creatures, as well as Emma Thompson, her Sense and Sensibility co-star and one of my favourite actresses as well):

Dad, whistle or something!

Here's what is probably the best speech of the night, Dustin Lance Black's acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. Please read this article (long but well worth the time) afterwards.

I watched a movie entitled The Awful Truth, released in 1937 and directed by Leo McCarey. It stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

What a riot! I've never laughed so much watching a movie, it was beyond great. Irene Dunne absolutely deserved an Oscar for this one (she was simply nominated), she's so natural! I can't believe this isn't a more famous movie, Cary Grant is always remembered for comedies like The Philadelphia Story, which does have its merits, but is not nearly as insane as The Awful Truth. The movie was almost entirely ad-libbed and both leads wanted to walk out on it at some point because there was no script (a married couple tries to have various affairs outside of marriage, waiting for their divorce, only to realise they're really in love with each other). I'm so happy they didn't! It's got some of the greatest scenes, all hilarious, there's physical comedy and snappy, witty lines (the title of this post is one of them, Irene's character Lucy says that after watching a particularly risqué singing performance in a restaurant, the singer is the person she's talking about). I don't understand why Irene didn't lead a more successful career. I read it was because she mostly got parts in remakes of previous movies and wasn't offered anything original. Directors who just can't see talent where it is anger me to no end. Speaking of ends, the ending of the movie was perfect, and Production Code be damned. Good review here.

I didn't say anything about it on this journal for fear I would give up midseason but it's now official: I've started watching Battlestar Galactica, the 2004 reimagined series. Let's sum it up briefly. The original Battlestar Galactica was a TV show that aired in 1978-9. It only had one season. In 2003, a new reimagined series (that is, a TV show that would take the original plot, but with twists that would expand it) was launched by a three-hour miniseries. The miniseries was broadcast in 2003 and then a TV show started in 2004, beginning where the miniseries ended. Today, in February 2009, three whole seasons of this reimagined show have been broadcast. However, the fourth season was split into three: the first part (episode 1 and 2 of the fourth season) premiered at the end of 2007, in November and December. The second part (episodes 3 to 12 of the fourth season) started airing in April 2008 and ended in June 2008. The third part (episodes 13 to 22) started airing on January 16, 2009 and will end on March 20, 2009. This split was due to the writers' strike. This is important because it shows you that I've started the series in a critical moment: I've watched only the first season and in less than a month, the third and last part of the fourth and last season will have been broadcast and everybody who follows the show will know the end of Battlestar Galactica. Bottom line is: I DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED. So I either have to rush or just avoid any kind of spoilers the best way I can.

Now to the plot, it's pretty simple. The TV show takes place in space, sometime in the future. I knew absolutely nothing of the show when I started it, so this is really all you need to know. The little more you need to know to understand anything about the series is what is explained at the beginning of each episode: the Cylons (machines, robots, don't go away, it gets better) were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human (I mean, you absolutely can't tell the difference, it's half the fun). Some of them are programmed to think they are human (i.e., they don't know they're Cylons). And they have a plan (we discover in the first few seconds of the pilot that this plan is to destroy humanity).
Humans lived on twelve different planets when one day the Cylons attacked them all, destroyed everything and everyone. Some humans managed to organize and flee into a space ship. These 50,000 humans who managed to escape are the only survivors. They are now searching for Earth, the only planet that was not attacked, in order to rebuild humanity. Meanwhile, the Cylons are chasing them.
The first season was interesting enough for me to watch an episode regularly. I have never been interested in science fiction before so this was quite a turn. But Battlestar Galactica makes it so easy. There's no complicated science fiction vocabulary you have to understand (aka technobabble), the characters speak normally and what you don't understand at first you usually understand a few minutes or episodes later. For example, there's something called "to jump", which in Battlestar Galactica basically means "to teleport oneself". To be precise, it means to travel faster than light. It's useful where you're attacked by Cylons, for example. I was anxious at first when I didn't understand all that was going on but I stuck and in the end I understood better what they were talking about.
There are no aliens. Don't look for them. The only thing you'll find that resembles science fiction is a battleship in space and occasional robots (we don't see much of them). Many of the aliens we see look human, as explained in the introduction, nothing green or strange.
There are battles. But they're fun. Once your understand which is which, you'll root for the humans and wish the Cylons dead.
You don't need to know anything about the 1978-9 original series. I know nothing about it and I'm doing just fine.
Most of the twists have nothing to do with science and computers. They're your basic coups d'état, assassinations, betrayals, sex, prisoner riots.

During the first half of the season, practically nothing major happens, character development is taking place. I must say this was the part were I got close to giving up for good: I wasn't sure what the writers were trying to say, nothing seemed to happen, I was bored. There were only micro changes. I'm so glad I stuck. Retrospectively, I realise that the huge revelations and plot twists that happened during the second part of the season could only have had the impact they had with this long phase of character development. Otherwise, you just don't care. The season finale is mindblowing and totally unexpected so I would suggest everybody to go that far before deciding if they want to continue (and I can't imagine anybody not wanting to know what happens next).
This isn't all. The first season was already a good reflection on politics and what makes a state a state. Several things happen and you can see the show through this layer if you wish, it totally works. For example, since the twelve planets were democracies, they chose to keep a president, President Roslin (a woman, sorry but yesssss, a thousand times yessss). But it's a choice and one of the questions you have to ask when you're starting a new civilization from scratch is whether or not you want to keep the former political regime.
There's also something going on with religion. I can't really talk about it as we've only got glimpses of it in the first season and I still am very suspicious of what they're trying to say, but the point is the show is also exploring that area.
Finally, there's this whole cylon/human thing, which is seriously a problem. What makes somebody human? Can we really tell? Is what we are the only thing that can be remembered? Are we not what we decide to do, more than what we can do? Yes. Dumbledore to the rescue. "It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Battlestar Galactica is about that, too.
The characters are great, seriously. You care for them, they're alive. One of them (Starbuck/Kara) is one of the best I've ever met. It's one extreme situation when you think about it: you're aboard a ship which is the only home of what remains of humanity. Most likely your whole family is dead, and yet you have to go on and start a new civilization from scratch. I think the thematic is very ambitious. We got a pretty good idea of what all this leads to and implies, and I think it's going to be developed in the other seasons. Reminds me of Noah's Ark which is probably the point.

Bottom line is: it would be unfair to ignore this show just because it's labeled as science fiction. I think it's science fiction at its best: no technobabble but a deep reflection on humanity. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Boswell Sisters were a close harmony singing group in the 30s. The group, composed of Martha, Connie and Helvetia was Ella Fitzgerald's favourite. Connie sang from a wheelchair during her whole career due to polio. She then got a very successful career by herself in the 40s. I love them to death. Their music is terribly catchy and creative. They were the first vocal group to request for arrangements of classics. By the way, I need to find good jazz books.

The label Nostalgia Arts released their complete discography as a group in 5 volumes in 2000. Unfortunately, the volumes are now out-of-print, difficult to find and expensive when found. I have a gift for discovering great stuff that doesn't get a proper release. It's frustrating.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Believe I've Seen Hell and It's White, It's Snow White


At least we know whom I'm rooting for tomorrow!

The vacuity of this journal astounds me sometimes. I've just spent hours reading a blog (in French so I won't link it here) which is so complete, the articles are huge. The blogger goes at the bottom of things. She's obsessed (and I mean obsessed, when you post a video of yourself taking earth from the grave of a dead author to put in a bag and give to nearest and dearest when back home, you are clearly obsessed) with James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan's father. She takes trips to Scotland to visit anything related to him, posts videos of her trips with extremely detailed accounts of each piece of paper or plaque she found there, posts pictures of rare letters she was offered, others she collected, writes pages and pages of reviews of movies and books in a poetic style, buys tons of books, etc. I wish I could do more than just report what everybody else is reporting. At the same time, I don't have an obsession like she does (I would love to, although it does sound insane at times), and I didn't create this journal to share anything rare or substantial. I created it so I would know, a few months from now, what was in my life at any given time. What inspired me, what made me feel alive.
I don't feel good. I have papers to write and little time for myself. These days, I wake up, have breakfast, do research for various papers, have lunch, do research for various papers, have a snack, do research for various papers, have dinner, do research for various papers and go to bed. I feel life's being drained out of me.

I haven't read or seen anything good in a while. I finished Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders, a history book that focuses on the development of leisure in victorian Britain. It sounds better than it is, really. It felt like the draft of a book more than a published one : it's fact, after fact, after fact, with lots of numbers and no explanation that stuck. I was very disappointed, especially since the author has written some other books I wanted to check out, most notably one about the victorian home. Now I'm not sure her other works are worth buying.
I also read The Blue Sword, a fantasy book written by Robin McKinley which won numerous awards and is highly praised in the fantasy fandom. Unfortunately, I didn't think it was earth-shattering. I understand why some people would consider it a comfort read but it had trouble keeping my attention. Little happens. The only positive aspect of this reading was that it made me think about the "chosen one" leitmotiv in fantasy books. It's almost a cliché, really. I kept thinking about it when it occurred to me that every book ever written seems to focus on somebody special. The very fact that this character was chosen, out of thousands, to be focused on, is also a leitmotiv, really. A Room With a View is the story of Lucy Honeychurch who is transformed, changed and eventually finds a passion in herself, a fire, she never knew existed. She is special. Nan in Tipping the Velvet, leads a very singular life, meets plenty of different people who change her for the best. She is special. I could go on and on. It's not just in fantasy.

My only source of happiness these past few days was the rediscovery of the 2005 miniseries North and South. I remember my exact feelings when I finished watching the 4 episodes for the first time three years ago. I envy every person (I don't know if there's any left) who has yet to discover this magnificent production. It's an adaptation from a book by Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1851, Margaret Hale (played absolutely brilliantly by Daniela Denby-Ashe, who doesn't get enough praise), whose father has decided to leave his church and go teach in the North of England, finds herself thrown into busy Milton, where cotton mills flourish and where everything is so different from her native South. That's where she meets John Thornton (played by Richard Armitage, who's got a cult following similar to the one Colin Firth has since the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), a master in a mill. At first, they don't understand each other. Margaret is clearly, despite her upper-middle class upbringing, on the side of the workers whom she befriends, and can't justify Thornton's apparent harshness towards them.
I think everybody who's ever seen this miniseries agrees that it is one of the best. The script is flawless, the social commentary wonderful, the actors spectacular and the score composed by Martin Phipps (which has never been released on CD, what is wrong with the BBC?) gorgeous. I never saw a train station the same way again after watching this. It's a comfort miniseries for me. I read the novel not long after being blown away by the adaptation and I couldn't experience the same emotions: it's very very religious, something the adaptation toned down and even rebelled against. Margaret Hale is a strong heroine in the adaptation, way stronger than in the book. I suggest seeing the adaptation first - and I almost never do that.
It's been often compared to Pride and Prejudice. I can't see how that could be. One is a book, the other a miniseries, first of all. North and South is not a comedy of manners and does not mock sentimental clichés, it's got a social conscience and shows an evolving working class during a turning point for the whole of Britain. Both works deal with prejudice, of course, in more ways than one, and there's love in both, but that's about it for the similarities.
You can find a very good, detailed review here. An excellent website entirely dedicated to the miniseries (yes, it is popular and justly so) can be found here. It's got clips and goodies. I don't think any miniseries ever got quite a similar following and legion of fans. C19, of which I am a member, is a forum created after the BBC board for North and South crashed because of too many connections. Today, it's got 6,500 members.

I've got so much great music to share. Let's begin with Rachel Portman's score for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. It's always summer somewhere.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Premio Dardos Award

I don't even know what to say. I'm completely shocked. Obscure Classics , an excellent (and I do mean excellent) blog about "classic movies" that don't get enough recognition (don't look for Casablanca there, for example, we're talking mostly pre-code and more often than not movies that haven't made it to DVD yet) has granted In Training for a Heroine a Premio Dardos award. My blog was created last November, it seems awfully soon and sudden. Thank you so much, Obscure Classics team, for this award. I wish I could award it to you back!

"Premio Dardos" means “prize darts” in Spanish.

The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.


  1. Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
  2. Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.
It was hard to choose just five, there are so many good blogs out there. So here are the journals I am awarding this Premio Dardos to:

A Work in Progress : I wish I could write book reviews as detailed as Dani's ones. I really enjoy her personal pictures of book covers and to be read piles, something clearly missing from this journal because I don't own a working camera.
Geranium Cat's Bookshelf : Her reading habits are very eclectic and she knows a lot about children's literature so there's always something new to discover there for me. Very good reviews.
Geata Póeg na Déanainn : Very interesting posts about many different things, mostly to do with life in Cambridge, fantasy and science fiction and YA literature. She doesn't post often but each one of her entries is food for thought and I'm always looking forward to them. A blog with a real point of view.
Charlotte's Library : YA reviews and news. She knows a lot, and I do mean a lot about what's going on in teenage writing. I love this colourful blog.
This is my Secret : Author Kristin Cashore's blog. It's incredible. She has lots to say about publishing and writing (of course) but some posts that have nothing to do with that are so good and really hit home. Her "personal values" so far are mine (see the whole journal, but perhaps more specifically this post). It's rare and brave for a writer to be so right and have such a great view of the world.

And last, but not least, I wish I could give this award to:

AustenBlog : but I would feel as if I were a mouse standing in front of a whale waving a trophy in the air (they don't post awards they receive on their blog). I would like to give this Premio Dardos to this journal, because it's the only Austen blog so far that has reflected my opinion on practically everything Jane (practically because we don't always agree on the adaptations for example, I thought PP05 and NA07 were excellent, they don't). It's witty and informative.

Once again, thank you so much, Obscure Classics!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Buying

I feel bad but they all had at least 50% off.

1) The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - I saw the miniseries which was beautiful and I'm looking forward to reading the book. I'm expecting modernist style of writing, just like Proust's or (from what I've heard) Henry James'. I hope I won't be disappointed.

Set in the United Kingdom in the early to mid-1980s, the story surrounds the post-Oxford life of the protagonist, Nick Guest. As the novel begins, Nick moves into the household of the Fedden family, comprising his friend, crush, and fellow Oxford graduate Toby; Toby's eccentric sister Catherine; their wealthy and aristocratic mother, Rachel; and their Thatcher-obsessed father, Gerald, a newly-elected MP for the Conservative Party. Nick has his first romance with a black council worker, Leo, but a later relationship with Wani, the son of a rich Lebanese businessman, illuminates the ruthlessness of 1980s Thatcherite Britain. The book explores the tension between Nick's intimate relationship with the Feddens, in whose parties and holidays he participates, and the realities of his sexuality and gay life, which the Feddens accept only to the extent of never mentioning it. It explores themes of hypocrisy, homosexuality, madness and wealth, with the emerging AIDS crisis forming a backdrop to the book's conclusion.

2) The Observations - Jane Harris - Compared to Sarah Waters, one of my favourites, and the summary looks good and original for once (set in the victorian era, the diary of a feisty servant), the reviews are excellent. A beheaded woman on the cover - it's getting old, really and it's especially ironic since really Harris' point was to give a voice to the subaltern. Never mind.

When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy’s narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.

3) The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson - It was cheap and I can't find a cheap copy of A Company of Swans. Ibbotson is a favourite of Jo Rowling's. So far all her favourites have become mine as well (Jessica Mitford, Jane Austen, Dodie Smith) so I'm looking forward to reading it. Philip Pullman blurbed it, it's always a plus in my book.

Under Platform 13 in one of London's busiest trains stations is an old, forgotten doorway covered with peeling posters. Little do the Londoners know that behind that door is the entrance to a magical kingdom - an island where humans live in harmony and happiness with mermaids, ogres, hags, mistmakers.

4) Me and Orson Welles by Robert Kaplow - Good summary, want to read it before seeing the movie starring Claire Danes and gorgeous Patrick Kennedy in a minor role.

In November, 1937, Richard Samuels, 17, a high school senior drifting relatively painlessly through school and relationships, feels there might be more to life.

5) Debs at War by Anne de Courcy - Non-fiction about débutantes during the Second World War, subject matter sounded interesting.

Pre-war debutantes were members of the most protected, not to say isolated, stratum of 20th-century society: the young (17-20) unmarried daughters of the British upper classes. For most of them, the war changed all that for ever. It meant independence and the shock of the new, and daily exposure to customs and attitudes that must have seemed completely alien to them. This book will record, in their own voices where possible, the extraordinary diversity of challenges, shocks and responsibilities they faced - as chauffeurs, couriers, ambulance-drivers, nurses, pilots, spies, decoders, factory workers, farmers, land girls, as well as in the Women's Services. How much did class barriers really come down? Did they stick with their own sort? And what about fun and love in wartime - did love cross the class barriers?

6) A Rambling Fancy: In the Footsteps of Jane Austen by Caroline Sanderson - Published before it was fashionable to write a book about Jane.

Following in Jane Austen's footsteps, Sanderson tramps the muddy fields around Austen's childhood home in rural Hampshire, walks the elegant streets of Bath, and strolls along the breezy promenades of south coast resort.

7) The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy - Warmly recommended by, among others, Kristin Cashore, and I was so happy to find one of her books was still in print, they're hard to find.

While gathered together for the Christmas holiday, a large New Zealand family and their various guests and hangers-on find their lives suddenly invaded by three fascinating but rather sinister brothers and by New Year nothing is the same again.

8) February House by Sherill Tippins - Non fiction, one of those biographies of a group of artists during WWII, sounded interesting.

From 1940 to 1941, WH Auden and Benjamin Britten shared a house in Brooklyn with Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, among others. The house was established as an artistic and intellectual community, and Tippins brings to life the rise and fall of the group, exploring the role of art in the first years of World War II as these creative geniuses struggled with the conflict of what to do with so much creativity when the world was so close to chaos.

9) Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb - Warmly recommended, looks good for my fantasy/sf challenge this year. The summary is frightening if you're aware of my history with high fantasy, but it never hurts to try again.

A glorious classic fantasy combining the magic of Ursula Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea with the epic Mastery of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Now reissued in gorgeous new livery. Fitz is a royal bastard, cast out into the world with only his magical link with animals for solace and companionship. But When Fitz is adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and learn a new life; weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly. Meanwhile, raiders ravage the coasts, leaving people soulless. As Fitz grows towards manhood, he will have to face his first terrifying mission, a task that poses as much risk to himself as it does to his target: for Fitz is a threat to the throne ! but he may also be the key to the future of the kingdom.

10) Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland - I first heard about it on Bas Bleu's website. I love impressionism, and I want to read books on the subject, fiction or non-fiction.

Imagining the banks of the Seine in the thick of la vie moderne, Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) tracks Auguste Renoir as he conceives, plans and paints the 1880 masterpiece that gives her vivid fourth novel its title. Vreeland achieves a detailed and surprising group portrait, individualized and immediate.

11) Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip - Lyrical prose apparently, a fantasy author I'd like to discover. I read it was a good place to start.

As an infant, Nepenthe was abandoned by her mother on the edge of a cliff so high no one can hear the sea below. Nepenthe was raised by the librarians of the Royal Library of Raine, and knows little of the outside world beyond what she reads. She has a gift for translation, and she alone has a chance of translating a newly arrived book, a mysterious tome written in an alien alphabet that resembles thorns. But Nepenthe has fallen in love with the high-born student-mage who brings her the book. And the thorns are exerting a strange power over her--a magic that may destroy not only Nepenthe, but the kingdom of Raine and the entire world.

I gave in when I read this magnificent review by Publishers Weekly :

"Best of all, the strong female leads neither rail against nor submit to patriarchy. In this magical world blissfully free of bias, people are simply themselves, equally intelligent and witty and thoroughly capable while prone to the occasional error, in a manner that transcends feminism and becomes a celebration of essential humanity."

That's all, folks!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Singles Awareness Day

Life's in slow motion right now. I'm so tired of February, it's not a good month. I've always been at least indifferent to it as far as I can remember, but this year I just want to kick February out of the calendar. At least, there's always Jane Austen (my master's dissertation is about her and it's been a delight to work on). And books. And music. And cinema. So one of each, shall we?

Milk was outstanding. It's sad to release this movie now after proposition 8 passed (I still can't believe it passed, what a sad moment in History) because it could have made a much bigger impact before, but it resonates now better than ever. At times it looked like a documentary on today's San Francisco - that was the scariest part. The acting is incredible and I thought the direction was beautiful, it really looks like the 70s, not the 70s filmed in 2009 like in most movies that deal with the period. It's particularly striking when archives are shown - there's no difference except better film, the colours are the same. I was so invested in it I could hardly believe it was 2-hour long, it felt way shorter. Sean Penn deserves to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I can't decide between Slumdog and this for Best Picture. I think Milk impressed me even more, which is saying something because I loved Slumdog Millionaire. It had the right amount of private and public scenes, which is always hard to get in biopics.
Inspiring, beautiful (I loved the parts when Harvey in all his speeches says that his actions will have consequences on the whole country- and then proceeds to give the names of some of his lovers and ex-lovers' hometowns as examples, that was incredibly touching and subtle), compelling movie relevant to today's society. I had great expectations and it exceeded them all. Probably the most important film made in 2008. It hit home in a special way.

Now to literature : White Boots by Noel Streatfeild is my favourite of hers along with Ballet Shoes. Once again, it focuses on children doing sports, this time Harriet learns how to ice skate not for money but for health. I loved this book. Ever since I was a little girl I've always been in awe of ice skaters, particularly women who get to wear gorgeous leotards and be graceful on ice. What I love in Noel Streatfeild's books is that she always spends a lot of time focusing on details - the ice skating world is very well depicted in this book, the characters are great as usual, not at all idealized (and writers for children tend to idealize them), full of flaws and yet terribly touching because so human. Following Harriet who gets better and better at skating although without reaching an unrealistic goal at the end of the book as is often the case, and Lalla - a gifted but not very hard-working vain ice skater - was a joy. In every one of her books, Streatfeild never gives in to simplicity, the end is never quite satisfactory at first, it always takes days of thinking about it to understand that in fact it couldn't have been more satisfactory because it's food for thought. Rather than giving the reader what he wants, she gives him all the ingredients and leaves the story wide open as if to invite us in and I find that very modern and daring for a children's book and in fact for any book. I'm so happy I found this author last year, she's a true gem.

My day has been filled with Lily Allen's music. Her first album is cheerful and the lyrics are really funny. My favourite songs are LDN, Alfie and Friday Night. So here you go for Alright, Still:

I also want to post this one hip hop song by M.I.A. on my blog. Paper Planes is a song used on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. A line from her song "No one on the corner has swagger like us" was actually used as the title of a song called Swagga like us by rappers Jay-Z and T.I., with vocals by M.I.A. herself, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. The whole group performed Swagga Like Us at the Grammy Awards the day 9-month-pregnant M.I.A was due. So here are several things, first of all the song Paper Planes by M.I.A. on a YouTube video, and then a link to the song Swagga Like Us by the whole group of rappers at the last Grammy Awards. I'm sure this is a given for everybody but I barely know any contemporary music so this is news to me. I didn't know I could like hip hop or rap before hearing these two songs so even if you don't listen to hip hop or rap, give them a shot, they may surprise you.

Swagga Like Us performed at the 2008 Grammy Awards on February 8.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Ivy's Long Fingers Were Torn Away From the Windows

Okay. I think I may have reached my limit with A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. As some of you may know, I decided back in 2008 that I would read as much fantasy and science fiction as possible in 2009 because I was tired of dismissing two whole genres when I was sure there were some worthy books out there.
I was right. The more I read Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's books, the more I love them and they're slowly becoming two of my favourite authors. Also, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was one of my best reads this year and I would never have picked it up if it wasn't for my fantasy/science fiction challenge. I've just discovered Tamora Pierce and I want to read more of her stuff, Garth Nix's Old Kingdom is quite appealing also.
But I think I will stay away from high fantasy. I cannot for the life of me finish A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin. I know it's a classic, and it's got lots and lots of praise, but I just can't. I only see it as an plot-driven story with absolutely no character development, and it bores me to no end. It's a short book (166 pages) and I didn't think I wouldn't be able to finish a book that's so short, but I'm just not able to.
I'm glad I'm starting to see some huge differences between works I would have put in the same category only last year, it also means that I'm starting to know what I like, which is always good for the bank account. I think from now on I'm going to focus on contemporary fantasy, I feel way safer with that. I have lots of books to read by authors I've discovered this year, and lots of new names to check out, all of which is super exciting to me. I feel I'm growing as a reader when I explore new things and find wonderful books outside of what used to be "my comfort zone".
I would strongly recommend everyone to discover a whole new genre, it's a really rewarding experience, full of surprises.

I've finally read Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. Love her more and more with each read. She's an exceptional writer, her use of free indirect speech is superbly evocative, her world rich and her depictions read like poetry. I love her characters, there's such an eagerness about them. Rosamond Lehmann is brilliant, I want to live in her books. I can't believe I've already read three of her novels, I feel so lucky they're still in print. The foreword of the Virago edition, written by her Roland Phillips, Lehmann's grandson, sums up the book as "being inside the mind of a teenage girl going to a dance". She's very special in that way, I've never read somebody who can produce such a warm and intimate narrative, full of details that break your heart or make you eager to read pages aloud to feel the flow once more. For me, she's the writer of sweet agonies, of, as Janet Watts puts it, "the delight of being alive".

She saw the glinting stream running between the garden and the park. The spaces of sky and lawn were broad and peaceful. Trees, water, moonlight made up their own cold world, unalterable, infinitely detached from humanity. It was like dying for a bit to be out here...

I saw quite a few movies that have been nominated for an award. The first one was Doubt. I so hope Viola Davis (who plays Donald's mother) wins her Academy Award, she was fabulous and her scene was by far the most powerful of the film, I couldn't see any difference between her and Streep. Strong movie. Shame it wasn't nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Although to be honest I'm rooting for Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture. It was both hugely entertaining and profound, there was not one dull moment in it and my only regret is that the actors who played Salim and Jamal when young didn't get nominated for anything, I know I'm not alone when I say they stole the show.
I hope The Curious Case of Benjamin Button wins every production design and costume award it can be nominated for. It was a weird adaptation that had little to do with Fitzgerald's short story, and I thought the acting was average -Brad Pitt in my eyes has only played himself so far- and I failed to be moved by it in any way, although some things were really inspirational and I respect the attempt. Benjamin, for example, is a great character, I just wasn't personally involved. On the other hand, the atmosphere and design were just wonderful. I felt as if I were in the 30s. The scene in which Daisy dances in the gazebo mesmerized me.
I also saw Happy-Go-Lucky because I've been following Sally Hawkins' career for quite some time - ever since I saw Fingersmith, in fact, the adaptation of the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters. Sally also played Anne Elliot in ITV's Persuasion and also had a small part in the adaptation of one of my favourite novels, Tipping the Velvet, in which she plays Zena.
I didn't know what to make of it at first, but I think the movie takes a turn for the best as soon as Poppy finds out about some bullying at her school, I finally saw where Mike Leigh wanted to go - Poppy is definitely here for contrast and act as a foil to society, I don't think the character was supposed to be realistic (she laughs so much you're bound to wonder if she's on drugs). The least we can say is it's an original approach. I really loved her boyfriend, he's a great character, it's not that often that we can find a good boyfriend in fiction.
Sally Hawkins was great as usual. I would have slapped Poppy in real life a long time ago, though. This is the kind of oblivious attitude to life that I absolutely can't stand. I used to have a friend like that, he could never be serious, everything was a joke, I ended up yelling at him because we could never discuss anything and we haven't talked in three years. As far as I know he hasn't changed, I think it's just his natural response to life, a way for him to feel safe, just like Poppy.
In the end I liked the movie, the pros won overall although I can see both sides of the argument.

Viola Davis in Doubt

I don't have much else to say for now. I have lots of things to do for College (my university is on strike because our government is awful so it looks like I have more time but I don't) and I don't have enough books in my TBR pile to last till the 25th when I get paid (very little but still) so I'm sort of rationing my reading - hence the number of movies I've watched these past few days. My copy of Graceling got lost in the mail so I asked for a replacement order and I'm waiting for that one (I'm dying to read it) and I've found Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (I'm so behind, she's already published another book during the time it took me to get hold of the first one) for next to nothing on Amazon UK, as well as The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West for about the same ridiculously low price, so I took them both. They don't count, right?

Friday, February 6, 2009

I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future--there will be books written about Harry...

Excellent news came in for me yesterday : I passed my first semester and got better grades than I expected. This will be useful for something I want to do next year - I don't want more pressure so I won't talk about it but let's just say I've just filled in an application for something special and I would love it if I could be chosen. There are only 3 students who can have it so I try not to think about it too much as there's a better chance of me not getting it.

I've finished Affinity by Sarah Waters and have now read all her books (love them all).

Margaret Prior (also called "Peggy" and "Aurora"), an unmarried woman from an upper class family, visits the Millbank Prison in the 1870s Victorian era England. The protagonist is an overall unhappy person, recovering from her father's death and her subsequent failed suicide attempt, and struggling with her lack of power living at home with her over involved mother despite being almost 30. She becomes a "Lady Visitor" of the prison, hoping to escape her troubles and be a guiding figure in the lives of the female prisoners. As she peers through a flap in the door, entranced by the sight of a young woman with a flower — she is reminded of a Carlo Crivelli painting. Of all her friendships with prisoners, she is most fascinated by this woman, who she learns to be Selina Dawes, medium of spirits.

It was a haunting read and even though I knew the end from watching the adaptation last year, I was still surprised at how well the story unfolded- it was very impressive. The first-person narrative was so effective in giving me the feeling I was in the Millbank prison along with Margaret. It felt claustrophobic at times. Waters tricks the reader into believing in the unbelievable, it's genius. It could have been called Persuasion as well, actually, as it's definitely the main topic here. She's such a warm writer, the words are simple, the voice complex and absorbing, there are always so many things going on at once. I had trouble choosing another book after this one, it's wonderfully evocative and I always feel out of place when I have to go back to reality after reading one of her books. Her characters are so real, the world so perfectly detailed...

Virginia Woolf thought The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was a dull book. I can't fully agree with her opinion but there is a part of truth in it. Hall's style is not terribly original and I was bored more than once. It surprised me by its scope as we follow Stephen's life from childhood to adulthood, she is even caught up in the turmoil of the First World War in Paris and I thought she was an interesting heroine to learn about. The secondary characters were also well-drawn.
The real flaw of the novel, in my opinion, is its long developments that have to do with Stephen's conflictual feelings towards society and the mutual rejection her lovers and her have because of society, it doesn't really work today I think, I read better books that depicted this particular dialectic (self/society) in inventive prose. Mary Renault, a writer, talks about "earnest humourlessness" and "impermissible allowance of self-pity"-I agree with that. It's funny that I should have read this after Affinity by Sarah Waters, they couldn't be any more different.
While I realize just how pivotal The Well of Loneliness is in the history of LGBT fiction (and reading it you do know that Hall knows she's the first one to depict lesbians and being frank and honest about what she depicts), I don't think it stood the test of time very well, it's too linear. I read it as the important piece of history it is, but that's practically the extend of it.

I also watched many movies these past few days, including The Shopworn Angel (1938)

During WWI Bill Pettigrew (James Stewart), a naive young Texan soldier is sent to New York for basic training. He meets worldly wise actress Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan) when her car nearly runs over him. Daisy agrees to pretend to be Bill's girl to impress his friends, but then a real romance begins.

It was directed by H.C. Potter (who doesn't seem to have made unforgettable movies) and I watched it for Margaret Sullavan. It was very slow-paced, the plot was flimsy and the story overly sentimental - the end in particular. While Margaret's character was interesting (the parts when she explained there are many different kinds of love was good I thought), it clearly wasn't well exploited and James Stewart was almost clownish in his role. Has nothing to do with the masterpiece that is The Shop Around the Corner.

The Shining Hour (1938) is the weakest Borzage I've seen. It simply wasn't a topic for Borzage :

Joan Crawford plays Olivia, a dancer who tires of the fast life, and marries a man she is fond of, but does not love. When Olivia moves to her new husband's farm, she encounters trouble from his sister-in-law (played by Margaret Sullavan). Olivia's situation is further complicated when her brother-in-law falls in love with her as well.

It has little to enjoy. The really good scenes in the movie featured Hattie McDaniel, once again typecast as the strong maid full of common sense. I didn't like the ending at all, it was ridiculous and had little to do with the plot, the characters were out of character. I've always been indifferent to Joan Crawford and this did nothing to redeem her in my eyes. I'm very disappointed in Borzage - sometimes, you just have to pay the bills I suppose.

A good surprise came from The Bridge to Terabithia (2007). Now that was a good movie. The children were charming. I have never read the book so can't compare but it had the right balance of everything, intelligent stuff.

Bridge to Terabithia is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbor Leslie Burke when he loses a footrace to her at school. Leslie is a smart, talented, outgoing tomboy.

The actors were so natural, real finds. I really want to read the book now - it was published in 1977 and won the Newbery. The end was surprising but treated as honestly as the rest of the movie, and that was refreshing for a children's film. It really is a tribute to the power of imagination as a wall against real-life problems. The friendship between Leslie and Jesse was touching and ultimately heartbreaking. I loved it and find it strange that it was produced by Disney - it has nothing of its saccharine.

I want to thank Stephen King for brightening my day a few days ago. I am thinking about rereading all the Potter books before the end of the year, that shouldn't be too difficult, they're my favourite books. Speaking about Potter, I discovered a pretty good blog called Wizards Wireless about children's books and Harry Potter (of course, hence the title). Any Potter fan is worth reading in my book, and Susan is no exception to the rule, her posts are informative and interesting.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

She Promised Us South Rooms With a View

RORY: You're lying.
LORELAI: I'm being mysterious. That's what women do.

I've just finished Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. I have mostly positive feelings about the book. I completely fell in love with some aspects of it - a fair portion of the book is dedicated to explaining the art of bookbinding and several characters collect rare and old books, mostly I loved the fact that this book is about books.
I'm pretty sure you all know the plot by now : it's about a man who can read characters out of books he reads aloud. One day he reads a villain and his men out of a book entitled Inkheart and troubles begin.
What I can say for sure is that I started seeing the other side when the plot became too redundant and predictable. This is the problem with Inkheart : it's very much a manichean book and the greatest parts didn't have much to do with the plot as such - the action moved in circles - they escape, they're prisoners again, they escape, they're prisoners again.
However, and this is where I got mixed feelings, some characters were so good (Elinor in particular - a crazy book collector who loves books more than she loves human beings - but also, although I liked him less, Dustfinger) and I thought the writing was spectacular, and Meggie, the heroine of the book was so likeable and honest for a 12-year-old that I can't help thinking that the flaws of Inkheart were somehow intentional - the bad guys, after all, are characters from a children's book, isn't Funke making fun at the one-dimensional villains one can find in such stories? I want to believe that this is what she thought about when writing, that her book is really a deep reflection on what books are and what we expect from them. I truly want to believe that, and it is hinted at in the book so I'm not completely making that up.
I hope that the best parts will be expanded in Inkspell and that it will less resemble yet another predictable and easy children's book -albeit with a twist- but that the compelling, interesting and well-researched aspects I got glimpses of in the first volume will play a biggest part and that the plot will have a little more meat to it, a little more adventures would be welcome - there's so much potential there!

I was very enthusiastic about the premise of Mervyn LeRoy's Three on a Match (1932) - three schoolmates seeing each other again when they're adults - but it was very different from what I imagined it would be. I liked how contextualised the movie was - newspaper articles, constant references to the Depression, some light passages involving bathing suits fashion, etc. I thought Joan Blondell was the real find of this movie -her acting is so natural- and she isn't even the lead. It was very refreshing (scenes on the beach, constant music hall music in the background even when what happens is terrible) at times and the twist towards the end took me by surprise. Very weird movie, but good all in all, perhaps because it's so bizarre and transgressive!

From left to right : Ruth (Bette Davis), Mary (Joan Blondell), Vivian (Ann Dvorak)

The movie can be bought as part of the second Forbidden Hollywood boxset : it features drinking, adultery, child neglect and suicide, the sort of movie that can only be pre-code. I'd like to read Matthew Kennedy's biography of Joan Blondell. It's surprising that she never was as big as Stanwyck or even Davis (in a very forgettable role here), given her unmistakable talent. The title of the movie is quite interesting, here's what I found about it : "the title refers to the superstition that if three people light their cigarettes with the same match, the third person will soon die. While some attribute the superstition to World War I, where it was sometimes thought that lighting a match long enough to light three cigarettes would attract enemy gunfire, it is now known that a match company "created" the superstition to cut down on sharing of matches and thus increase sales."

Jo Rowling will be awarded the Légion d'Honneur tonight. This is the only good thing the President's done so far - it's a shame she actually has to get it from him of all people. Anyway, I love Jo, she's my inspiration for everything and she's getting all the praise she deserves. I was sobbing yesterday listening to Harry's Wondrous World.