Five-and-a-Half Stars!

NTLive_AStreetcardNamedDesire_DigitalA5LandscapeI was completely blown away last night at the National Theatre Live presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire, performed at London’s Young Vic Theatre, with Gillian Anderson playing the lead role of Blanche DuBois. Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski and Vanessa Kirby as Stella were also standouts, but Gillian Anderson was so completely imbued with the character, she was actually physically transformed to the point of being unrecognisable until the very end during the standing ovation. The role of the self-deluded, blind-drunk, neurotic, loud, talkative aging beauty seemed to suit her to a T, and you had a sense she must have practiced it all her life, either that or she was showing us her true personality (somehow unlikely), so totally convincing was she. Every time she downed a mouthful of “alcohol” and careened along, you fully believed it and felt the booze was coursing through her veins, and the intensity of her performance, down to the funny-yet-heartbreaking little broken giggle she let out after every utterance didn’t let up for a moment. It was truly an electrifying performance. I don’t know if it helps that I never did manage to sit through the movie version with the oh-so-beautiful Marlon Brando when I was younger, making the material seem that much fresher to me. You could have cut the tension between Stanley and Blanche with a knife and I hated Ben Foster with all my might, believing him to really be Stanley, so fully was I invested in the play. The whole cast was outstanding, and director Benedict Andrews made this now nearly 70-year old Tennessee Williams play feel absolutely fresh and timeless. I’m even considering going to see the encore performance. Nothing light and easy about it, more blow your socks off, tear you heart out, but oh my, what powerful entertainment! And what a role of a lifetime for 46-year-old Gillian Anderson, who certainly seized the opportunity to leave her mark on an unforgettable Blanche performance. Five-and-a-half stars! ★★★★★½

Encore:
Sunday, September 21, 2014

While Uncovering a Masterpiece…

0940322471.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr ★★★★
Source: Abe Books
Edition: NYRB Classics (2000), Paperback, 135 pages
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize Shortlist (1980), Guardian 1000 (Love)
Original publication date: 1980

In 1920, Tom Birkin, a young art restorer who’s fought in the great war and come out suffering from shell shock, is hired by a small village church in Oxgodby, Yorkshire to uncover beneath a layer of whitewash what is suspected to be a mural from the middle ages. He makes friends with another war veteran working on the grounds of the same church, archeologist Charles Moon, who has been hired with the same funds originating from a wealthy recently deceased old woman, who desired that the tomb of one of her ancestors who had been buried outside church grounds sometime in the 14th century be found. Tom is paid a pittance for his efforts, but he hardly minds this; he sees this contract as an opportunity to spend the summer in the country, away from London and the stresses of city life and an unhappy marriage to an unfaithful young woman he’d barely known when they’d married. The discomfort of sleeping almost directly on the floor just below the belfry is amply compensated for by the healing benefits of his stay in Oxgodby and his daily contact with Moon, with whom they establish a daily ritual of breakfast before setting to work. The work itself proves incredibly rewarding as he uncovers what is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but perhaps best of all are the unexpected friendships he makes with some of the village people, some of whom take him into their small community and seem to want to convince him to stay among them for good. And then of course there’s the reverend’s wife, Alice Keach, a young woman of great beauty, whom he knows instinctively cannot be happy with her husband, and if he only had the courage, might perhaps be willing…

My only regret with this book was that I wasn’t able to fully plunge into it as I would have liked to. It’s such a short work, that I felt it would have been best ingested in one or two, or three sittings at most. But I read it at night just before sleep, and always fatigued as I am, couldn’t keep awake beyond a dozen pages or so at a time, and it seemed to me the effect was diluted. Still, I can hardly fault the book for this, and it only gives me another excuse for revisiting it, perhaps making room for it in daytime hours in future. Perfectly charming.

220px-A_Month_in_the_Country_posterThere was a British film version released in 1987 starring none other than Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson which I’ll simply have to get my hands on one way or another. 

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Fans

ebe9ad16d94aa71596877676777444341587343Book #175:  The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann ★★★½
Source: Amazon Daily Deal
Edition: Ecco (2012), Kindle Edition, 433 pages
Original publication date: 2012

A young man called Emil Larsson decides to seek for help when he is told by his boss of a new policy wherein he needs to find a wife in short order to keep his post as a bureaucrat. He puts his hopes in a French-born fortune-teller who goes by the name of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, known to give counsel to King Gustav III himself, over the course of eight days she sets out a spread of eight cards, known as the Stockholm Octavo, which are to indicate to him the eight people who are to help him along his path to fulfilling his future. But young Emil Larsson can’t be sure who the eight are, and he gets lost amid the turmoil of late 18th century Stockholm, when the whole Western world is rocked by the revolution in France, and King Gustav III of Sweden is at pains to try to save Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette from the guillotine, and his own skin as well from the plots and conspiracies surrounding him. Among young Emil’s eight individuals is a baroness, knows as the Uzanne, who with her connections might well lead him to his future wife. But the Uzanne is a dangerous woman and has a singular obsession with hand-held fans, which she collects in the hundreds and which she claims to manipulate with such skill that she is able to perform magic with them. The Uzanne has one goal in mind, which is to bring down King Gustav, and before he knows it, Emil Larsson is involved in a plot which suddenly has much further ramifications than the need to find a wife so he can simply hold on to his post as a sekrétaire and his satisfying life of drinking and playing at cards.

This novel held promise for me. I’m a great lover of historical fiction for a start, and this story is based on true events and dangerous times: the plots against King Gustav III of Sweden and his eventual maiming by a gunshot in 1792, leading to his death when his wound got infected less than two weeks later (though here his death is attributed to other factors). The character of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, who in the novel is obsessed with the King and acts as a foil of sorts to the Uzanne, is based on the real-life Ulrica Arfvidsson, a famous medium of the Gustavian era, who had more or less predicted to the King the attempt on his life. Engelmann devotes much of the narrative to the fans themselves, so that they become a character in their own right, what between the Uzanne and her obsession with one particular fan from her collection called Cassiopeia which she loses at cards and is then willing to literally kill for in order to reacquire, and a fan-maker from France called Nordén and his Wife who are also part of young Larsson’s eight. I found this focus on fans interesting at first, but the problem I ended up having with the book is that, unlike Karen Engelmann, I haven’t grown up admiring a collection of folding fans as she has, and they simply seemed to take up too much room in the narrative, so that what already seemed like a difficult story to keep together, considering the wide cast of characters encompassing various story tangents, became unwieldy. There were plenty of interesting details and incidents to keep going, but none of the characters felt especially well developed or seemed to want to lift off the page, and the whole felt somewhat disjointed, much as Emil Larsson’s quest appeared to fall flat in the end. But then, I don’t seem to take to devices in novels, and just as I didn’t appreciate the astrological aspects in Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries, I found the aspect of the Octavo spread distracting and perhaps didn’t read into it as much as another more discerning reader might have.

I found the NY Times review pretty great: Eight Degrees of Separation 

Rubens’s Wicked Sense of Humour

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Book #173: ♫ A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens ★★★½
Source: Audible
Narrator: Nicolette McKenzie
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 7h23
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize Shortlist (1978)
Original publication date: 1978

On the day of her retirement from the sweets factory where she has been working for over 40 years, Miss Jean Hawkins has resolved this to be the last day of her life, and she has made all the necessary preparations to that end. Then she goes in to her last day of work and is given as a cheap retirement gift a five-year diary, and she takes this as an order from above that she’s been given a five-year sentence to live, and that furthermore, she must fill a page from the diary every single day. Miss Hawkins has had up till then a rather sad and uneventful life, growing up in an orphanage, from which she took away mostly unhappy memories of the nasty Matron, who held her back from being adopted into a foster family because she was a good helper around the orphanage, and properly trampled down on any sense of self or individuality, among other minor horrors, and also of finding young Morris’s body, a fellow orphan girl who took her life by hanging herself with the rags used as sanitary napkins, shortly after beginning her menstruation, after which Matron had convinced Miss Hawkins she had had a nasty nightmare and the event never took place, even though Morris was never seen again. In short, nothing since then has come into her life to make her forget these sad events, and nobody in all her decades at the factory has ever even bothered to find out what her first name was beyond the ‘Miss’. Lacking in sophistication or imagination, used to taking orders all her life, she initially has little to say for herself in that diary, until the day she has a sudden inspiration to give herself orders which she must follow up on and then tick off once they are accomplished. At first she starts with easy to accomplish things, such as “watch tv” or “take a long walk”, and eventually she becomes more daring till she works her way up to “meet a man” then once that’s accomplished, “have the man kiss you”, no small thing for a woman who is still a virgin by her mid-sixties.

Rubens’s writing is excellent, and her black humour just as excellently mordant as I enjoyed it to be in The Waiting Game, my first book by her (click on link to see my recent review), but somehow I couldn’t enjoy this novel as much. For one thing, Miss Hawkins is such a pathetic character and so self-deluded, which in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad and might have been very amusing to me if there hadn’t also been a man present to take advantage of her foolishness and rob her of all she had, a situation which I couldn’t help but find unbearably sad. There’s the way in which she goes about finding a man, which is initially very pathetic yet quite funny. It’s mostly in the details, but in essence, she goes to the library and stands in the religious texts sections and there tries to grab the first man she sees by calling out to him “isn’t it a nice day?!”, and sure enough, eventually she does bump into a man and run her line by him, even though it happens to be raining by then. That he happens not to seem particularly interested and then shortly establishes that he lives with his mother who never lets him out of her sight other than to go to the library to get her lurid thriller novels which he picks out purely by how graphic the covers look doesn’t deter our heroine, nor does the fact that he turns out to be a perfect cad who expects her to pay for everything. No self-respecting woman would give a man like that the time of day, but our poor Miss Hawkins has no notions of self-respect, so instead she finds him all the more appealing for it and is willing to enter into a little game with him, and furiously expends her frustrations in an endless scarf knitting project, where she puts all her anger about Matron, which has never abated, even after all these years, into every stitch, never once considering that the man who has been taking advantage of her and stealing her savings should be the target for her anger instead of all the girlish fantasies she indulges in over several years to come.

While I’m able to see the humour in the situation, it also cuts a bit too close to the bone. How many times have we women deluded ourselves to make untenable situations seem rosy just in order to keep going? In that sense, this book is truly brilliant, which is probably what garnered it a shortlisting for the Booker Prize in 1978, but I rated it based on the reading pleasure it did or did not give me, and in this case, while I enjoyed it, I was also rather looking forward to getting to the end of a difficult ordeal. All the same, recommended—Rubens does have such a great wicked sense of humour—but with some reservations of course.

The narrator Nicolette McKenzie was excellent on this audio version, but there is a very minor glitch, with one 3-second bit that was obviously intended to be edited out and left in by mistake.

Amusing Yet Disgusting Critters

lterbig1770496580.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Rat by Élise Gravel ★★★★
Read for: Early Reviewers
Series: Disgusting Critters
Edition: Tundra Books (2014), Hardcover, 32 pages
Original publication date: 2014

As the back cover informs us, Montreal writer and illustrator Élise Gravel has always been fascinated by disgusting little creatures. At three-and-a-half, she founded the Organization for the Defence of Disgusting Critters, of which she was both president and the only member. She followed through as an adult with the “Disgusting Critters” series of little books, recommended for children ages 6 to 9, so far covering *beloved* creatures from the animal world such as The Fly, The Slug, The Worm, and of course, The Rat. Originally published in French in 2013, this is an English translation. The large text is minimal an accompanies the humorous and equally bold and rather simplistic illustrations. This is not a criticism, but rather an observation: Gravel’s drawing style, which I have long admired as a fellow-Montrealer has always been deliberately naïve, cartoonish and very much tongue in cheek. The book, which makes for quick reading and would probably also amuse children younger than the recommended readership, includes interesting facts on each spread about the critters being profiled. For example, among the longer entries: “The rat has four long, yellowish incisors (big teeth) that are very sharp. They can grow up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) a year. To keep them from growing too long, the rat has to file them by chewing on stuff.” Yikes. I had no idea they grew at quite that rate—what a terrifying prospect! I’m sure that kind of thing must be incredibly amusing to children. I liked the book well enough, but I’m not exactly the intended target, so I will donate this little hardcover volume to my local library and am sure it will make for hours of entertainment and good laughs for plenty of children and their parents.

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This review was written in exchange for a free book via the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing.com.

Charmed by the Atmosphere

2253142484.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #172: La Nuit du carrefour / Maigret at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon ★★★★⅓
Source: Municipal Library
Series: Maigret (7 of 76)
Edition: Omnibus (2007), Paperback, 930 pages (French edition anthology)
Original publication date: 1931

As the story begins, we discover Maigret and his colleague Lucas have been taking it in turns questioning a Danish man named Carl Anderson, suspected for murder, for the last 17 hours without any satisfactory results. Eventually they are forced to release him, lacking any evidence to arrest him. This is a very bizarre case; Andersen lives at a crossroads outside a small village, and a man has been found murdered in his garage, in a brand new luxury car belonging to a neighbour from one of the only two other houses at that crossroads, while Anderson’s old beat up car was found at that neighbour’s garage. The murder victim is a rich Jewish merchant whom Andersen claims never to have met before. If it weren’t for this murdered man, one might think this case was a practical joke. In typical Maigret fashion, our inspector leaves his Paris office to investigate the scene of the crime and observe the residents of the three households at the crossroads; one which comprises a busy commercial garage where motorists frequently stop for gas and various repairs, another, the insurance broker’s whose brand new car the murder victim was found in and who has since been making loud noises about wanting restitution, and the strange old house with a creepy past where Carl Anderson, a displaced and penniless aristocrat who has sought to bury himself in an anonymous little place, lives with his sister Else, whom for reasons nobody quite understands, he keeps under lock and key. Once again, I was charmed by the atmospherics Simenon imbues his stories with. It really is an immense pleasure to be able to read the stories in the original French and to imagine the dialogues spoken in the various local accents, and it must be said that he is a very good writer, something which isn’t always the case for mystery writers, and is doubly impressive when one considers the author’s output (10 books in 1931 alone, 76 Maigret books over his career, not counting all the other novels he wrote). That being said, I am sure the English translations make for excellent reading as well, as they have become enduring classics. Definitely recommended. I’m reading these novels in publishing order, but am discovering this is not at all necessary since there is no running back story to speak of, so this is as good a place to start as any.

We’re Open Labour Day

keep-calm-we-re-open-labour-day

Happy Labour Day everyone! We celebrate it here in Canada too; mostly it means the end of summer (sniff!) and the turning of a new leaf.

August Reading Stats

Total books: 28 (same as July)

Graphic Novels: 9
Mystery / thriller: 7
Literature: 4
YA: 4
Historical fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 1
Quarterlies: 1
Series works: 17
Male : Female authors: 11 : 6

Audiobooks: 13
Library: 10
Off the shelf: 5
Unfinished: 1

Ratings:
5 stars: 0
4 & up: 20
3 & up: 6
2 stars: 1

Longest work: The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtenay (27h56 audio / 711 pages)
Shortest work: The Pilot and the Little Prince* by Peter Sís (48 pages)

Oldest work: Le Chien Jaune / The Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon (1931)
Newest work: The Good Girl* by Mary Kubica (July 29, 2014)

A Quick Summary 
A long month of bad migraines left me pretty brain-dead and unable to tackle anything too complex, so graphic novels were very welcome (the complete Aya* series was prominently featured, and also an omnibus of Edward Gorey’s work, Amphigorey Again), as were quick entertaining reads like the Montalbano and Maigret mystery series and a few YA adventure novels of the Harry Potter and the more recent Cinder* varieties. I did manage to fit in a bit of literary fiction, and Amsterdam* was a major hit, as was my first Bernice Rubens, with The Waiting Game*, probably because both of them featured lots of black humour, whereas more poetic novels like The English Patient, though really gorgeous, left me scratching my head and wishing I had a few more working grey cells to rub together so I could fully appreciate it. Plenty more series planned for the September Series & Sequels theme on LibraryThing (my scary list of options is here), though I will try to fit in a bit of literature in there too, like the long overdue The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell, book 2 in the Empire Trilogy. Am off to a great start with The Stockholm Octavo, briefly mentioned on this blog once, which I started on a couple of days ago and which manages to blend historical fiction and literary mastery both.

* click links for my recent reviews.