Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

2018:5
4 of 5 stars
Published 1818

Next up in my quest to read all of Jane Austen’s novels is Northanger Abbey. Unlike the other major works, I knew nothing about this one going in. I’ve never read it before nor have I seen any cinematic production of it.

This is Catherine Morland’s story. She’s a young woman from a modest family. She travels to Bath with family friends and there meets the shallow and ambitious Isabella Thorpe and her smarmy brother John. Catherine is naive and innocent. She does know her own mind, but tends to have a vivid imagination. She has her head turned a bit by the glamorous Isabella but resolutely rejects Henry’s attentions.

She also meets siblings Eleanor and Henry Tilney who are much nicer. They invite Catherine to stay with them at their family home, Northanger Abbey which sparks that vivid imagination due to Catherine’s love of sensational gothic horror novels that always take place in shadowy, old abbeys and castles. Once she has lived through several embarrassing situations where her imagination is her own worst enemy, she settles down and learns a few life lessons. The book ends happily as you would expect but it does wrap up a bit too suddenly, I think.

This was the first novel Ms. Austen wrote though it was not published until after her death. The plot isn’t quite as complex or layered as some of her other books but it’s enjoyable just the same. I am also using this for a Bingo 2018 square though may change it later on.

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Review: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

2017: 94
Rating 3.5/5
Published 1902

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus – L. Frank Baum

You may recognize the author. He wrote the Wizard of Oz books but he also wrote other children’s books as well and this one is a lovely holiday book. I don’t know if there’s ever been a picture book made from the story but it would lend itself well to that. In any case, this book is about the life of the man that became the personification of Christmas even if he isn’t the “reason for the season”.

This book takes religion out of the holiday altogether and focuses on the Man in Red. The man who was raised by a wood nymph and protected by other other-wordly groups like the faeries and sprites and the Master Woodsman, Ak, himself. From the Forest of Burzee to Happy Valley, we watch as Claus grows up and develops a love for children, carving little toys to make them happy. His need to spread happiness to the children grows until he is the man we all know today, delivering toys around the world every Christmas Eve.

The book is a sweet, imaginative story, very positive, upbeat and cheerful and an interesting take on the myth behind the man.

Review: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

2017:85
2 of 5 stars
Published 1972

I read a few books by some newer Canadian authors over the summer. Now it’s time to go back to some of the classic Canadian writers like Robertson Davies. I avoided him for many years, thinking he would not be very interesting and perhaps when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated him anyway. Last year, I read Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. The Manticore is the second of the three. Davies’ characters are really well drawn, interesting. I remember thinking after reading Fifth Business that I wasn’t so keen on the main character but all of the others that he encountered in his “life” fairly leaped off the page.

This book continues with a character, David Staunton, who was a minor character in Fifth Business who is also from the town of Deptford. I wasn’t too keen on him, either. After the death of David’s father, “Boy” Staunton, David retreats to Switzerland to enter treatment with a Jungian psychiatrist to figure out his relationship with his father and how it affected his life. Thus we return to his earlier life and experiences and follow them through as David gets to grips with who he is.

The Jungian psychoanalysis side was a hard slog for me so there were parts where I found it difficult to concentrate. And as was the case in Fifth Business, the characters David encounters in his life are more interesting than David himself. His father might have kept him on a short leash, but David was still a spoiled rich kid with a major sense of entitlement. He is a spoiled, rich adult too. I found the book a struggle to get through.

Davies is a very good writer and he ties things all together well. His books are not light and fluffy nor would you want them to be. He tells a good story and his characters are all well written. I only rate the book lower than I might have because I find it difficult to get on with a book where I find the main character uninteresting and I also didn’t enjoy all the analysis bits. It’s ok if I dislike a character because that’s often the intent of the author. But I found David to be far too self absorbed and had no charm or mischief in him. I suppose that also was the intent and I should take in the overall story and I did, which is why I didn’t give up on the book half way through like I thought about doing. It did keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile, though and it took awhile to get to the end. I’m glad I got through it but I’m also glad to see the end of it, if you get my drift.

Review: The Watch that Ends the Night – Hugh MacLennan

2017: 82
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 1959

This is the final book I needed to read to complete my 2017 Bingo Reading Challenge “Card”! The square called for a book published in the year you were born (or decade if you couldn’t find something). That gives me a few months to research books that might work for next year’s Bingo challenge!

George Stewart is married to Catherine, the love of his life whose health is precarious due to a heart condition. But she was married to a man before him, a man who became his best friend, Dr. Jerome Martell. Jerome went missing in WWII, presumed dead in a POW camp. But Jerome has returned to Montreal and the apple cart is upset.

The story then retreats into the pasts of all three characters to bring t heir stories from the 1930s right up to the early 1950s when the story began. George became a third wheel in the relationship between Catherine and Jerome and was a good family friend to them both up to when Jerome left Montreal to take his medical skills to the Spanish Civil War.   Montreal in the 1930s was crackling with politics, with the Spanish war between the Fascists and Communists firing imaginations worldwide. George then has to deal with the huge impact that Jerome’s return has caused. I did find that the narrative got dragged down by too much philosophy near the end. I don’t think it really added to the story much, just gave the author a chance to express his own views on the world and the individual.

It’s the story of relationships, friendship, politics, families, love, survival and loyalties. The characters are interesting and the dynamics between them are written very realistically. I’m reading this book nearly 60 years after it was written, but it doesn’t feel dated at all.

Book to Screen – Mansfield Park (1999)

Recently, I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. In my review, I mentioned the movie from 1999 that I’d seen and liked. But I haven’t seen it in quite a long time so I thought it was time for another viewing since the book was fresh in my mind. I got quite a surprise. There will be spoilers below for both book and movie.

The movie is very different from the book. Character personalities are changed. The plot is manipulated and changed somewhat and there’s even a brief sub plot injected for no other apparent reason than to make a politically correct comment that slavery is a Very Bad Thing. Unless I missed it, that’s not in the book at all and it felt very out of place here.

Fanny Price, our heroine, as written by Jane Austen, is meek, mild, proper, respectful, intelligent, shy and tends to blend in to the background, the objective observer. She has her own opinions but doesn’t usually express them. She loves Edmund Bertram from afar most of her life but never breathes a word about her feelings to him or anyone else. She doesn’t trust Henry Crawford and will never love him.

The movie starts with Fanny moving to Mansfield Park from her home in Portsmouth. You get a few brief scenes where you understand that she is the poor relative and will always be treated as such and there’s a scene where Edmund introduces himself to her. You kind of see that they become good friends in a brother/sister way but it’s not really emphasized and the next thing you know, the plot leaps to somewhere near the last third of the book. We’ve barely met the Crawford siblings and they’ve hardly made an impression on us and yet Fanny already has them pegged and figured out as not to be trusted.

When Henry Crawford decides he will woo Fanny, it’s nearly instant and after he asks her uncle for her hand, he accepts and she refuses, it all goes to hell. In the book, her relatives are far more gentle in their attempts at persuading her to accept Henry. In the movie, she is immediately banished back home where, after some time, Henry Crawford appears with sparkly fireworks and doves. Huh? Henry confronts her with his knowledge that she loves Edmund which she admits and is told Edmund is going to marry Mary, Henry’s sister. We really haven’t seen much of Edmund and Mary together to fully accept that he’s besotted with her and she’s undecided because he’s only a second son and is going to be a minister.There’s really not much build up to that on screen at all aside from a couple of speeches and no chemistry.

Henry nearly convinces her to accept his proposal, at least I think that was what her dream of doing exactly that was about, but the health crisis of her cousin Tom calls her back to the Park, which also didn’t happen in the book.  And also, never part of the book, Tom’s extended illness seems to be implied caused as a result of his reaction to seeing slavery at his father’s estate in Antigua. His father has a book with drawings of slaves and says his son is mad. I believe the implication is that his son saw the mistreatment of the slaves in Antigua, drew the pictures himself and what he saw is now haunting him. What? In the book Fanny remained in Portsmouth and was continually updated by letter as to Tom’s  recovery. She didn’t return until the scandal about Henry Crawford and her cousin Maria hit the fan.

Ah yes, the scandal. In the book this was totally off “screen” as it were. Fanny receives news that her newly married cousin Maria has run off with Henry Crawford after Fanny firmly rejects his proposal yet again and Edmund arrives to take her back to Mansfield Park.  In the movie, Fanny walks in on Henry and Maria in bed after she has returned to Mansfield and while Tom is still ill. I can understand why they’d change this for the movie since it would have more impact for a viewing audience but by this time as you’re watching the film, having read the book, you’ll just be shaking your head.

Then there’s Fanny herself. Her personality is very different. She’s bright and cheerful, ready, willing and able to stand up for herself if need be. She’s also a budding writer, having loved to write her stories since she was a child. This is encouraged as she gets older, by Edmund, and at the end, a possible publisher is found for her. Not even close to the Fanny of the page.

The bare bones of the story is the same and there are the same characters but they really aren’t developed well. The story, such as it is, resembles that of the book, or a small part of it. So much of the detail has been left out. Most of the characters have a tenuous relationship to the personalities that Jane wrote for them. I do get that you need to see a lot of the action that, in the book, was only conveyed by letter or conversation. A movie would be very boring otherwise. I know that a lot of detail has to be left out of a book because there’s only a limited length for a film. I tried to think of how the movie might be viewed for someone that has never read the book, and I think that was me when I first saw it. I’m pretty sure now that was one of the books I hadn’t read.

I did like it when I saw it but it’s been quite a number of years since I have seen it, likely rented on DVD at the time. Fans of Jane Austen’s books will not like this filmed version very much. I would be curious to find other versions to compare but I’d not be optimistic that I’d actually think any of them are a worth adaptation.

To use a phrase from the end of the movie, it could have been different. But it wasn’t.

Review: Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

2017:81
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

The next in my effort to read all of Jane Austen is Mansfield Park. This is the story of Fanny Price, one of the many children of a younger of three sisters, the one that married for love and now struggles to feed the children and pay the bills. Because she married against her family’s better judgment, she has had no contact with her sisters for many years but reaches out to ask for help in desperation. The other two sisters decide they should take on one of the older children, a daughter, and so they do. This is Fanny, of course, who is moved away from her home and beloved brother William to Mansfield Park where her aunt and uncle, the Baronet and Lady Bertram reside.

Fanny is homesick and miserable but makes friends with the younger of the two sons, Edmund, who treats her affectionately and looks out for her, at least some of the time. The two Bertram sisters more or less leave her to her own devices most of the time. Fanny is generally treated all right but is never allowed to forget she’s not their equal, a poor relation dependent on them, and is kept in the background, running errands and keeping her aunt company for her keep but Fanny is a quiet girl and seems happy enough. Things change when she’s about 17 and new neighbours, the Crawfords, Mary and her brother Henry, move to the area.

Talk about setting the cat among the pigeons! There are romantic entanglements, jealousy, scandal, and flirtatious games being played. Through it all, Fanny watches with an objective eye, the Crawfords are “society” and are shallow and insincere, they corrupt those around them but only Fanny seems to see it. She stays true to herself even when she is rejected and banished as ungrateful but never fear, Fanny gets her happy ending.

I like Mansfield Park a lot. Most of the characters are great fun, in that they’re not all upstanding, honest and stout hearted. Many are by and large devious, haughty, shallow, naive, self absorbed, shrewd and snobby. They aren’t horrible to Fanny mostly but they never let her forget that she should be grateful for the advantages they have provided for her and very surprised when she is shown to have integrity and a mind of her own, as most of Jane Austen’s heroines have, even if some of them are easily swayed from the straight and narrow path on occasion.

As with most of Austen’s books, it has been filmed. My favourite is the movie released in 1999 starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund.

Official trailer here.

Review: The Chronicles of Avonlea – L. M. Montgomery

2017: 72
4 of 5 stars
Published 1912

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables. She wrote many books about Anne Shirley but she also wrote about the Islanders and communities in and around Avonlea where Green Gables is. These are 12 stories about the men, women and children of various communities in the area around Avonlea and Carmody. Anne Shirley even gets name checked or makes a brief appearance now and then but the stories aren’t about her. They’re about an engaged couple that haven’t spoken in 15 years, or a proud old woman who sacrifices to do special things for the daughter of a lost love, or a young lad who has an extraordinary talent for the fiddle or two very different sisters trying to raise a young lad. We get heart warming stories, humourous stories, hopes and dreams all told in the superb prose of Montgomery, never cloyingly sweet or “folksy”, just prose glowing with wit and painting a perfect picture of rural Prince Edward Island and it’s inhabitants.

This book nearly completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. Just one for the Northwest Territories left, that will be “Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay.