Friday, June 28, 2013

The Last Trail by Zane Grey

Frankly, I was surprised that I enjoyed The Last Trail so much. I have always thought of Grey as a man's writer so I was taken aback at the centrality of the romance in this book.  Since it is vintage fiction, there are VERY negative stereotypes of American Indians and also the unfortunate use of the "n" word (once).  But it was a rollicking good story that caused me to skim as many paragraphs as possible to get to the action.

The story takes place just after the American revolution.  Jonathon Zane is a border man "out west" in the Ohio valley who protects the settlers from outlaws and Indians.  It's an all-consuming job which leaves no room for family attachments.  Helen Sheppard is the newly arrived pioneer who is about to change all that. The book is called "The Last Trail" because when Zane goes off to break up a band of horse thieves he knows it will be his last adventure.  He'll either get killed or give it all up for the love of Helen.

The women in the book are beautiful (but hardy) and teach Sunday School. The men cuss and kill injuns. But in spite of the stereotypes, the mild cussing, and the melodrama, I was hooked on the story from start to finish. Some of the dialogue is laugh out loud funny.  Good vacation reading. And free on Kindle.

P.S. I read Betty Zane, the first in the trilogy, a year later. In that book it's a bit harder to ignore the stereotypes. Both the settlers and the Native Americans are bloodthirsty savages.

Friday, June 21, 2013

1984 by George Orwell

1984 has been on my TBR list for years. It was only after I read it last week that I learned that it’s sales have risen 10,000% because of recent current events pointing to the NSA as a Big Brother-type organization.

Because the book is cited so often, most people know its basic premise: In a futuristic society all people are watched and controlled by a totalitarian government. The first half of the book was surprisingly engaging so I was taken aback by how dark the second half was. The novel was written in 1949 when much of the optimism of man had been dashed by both World Wars.

Winston Smith, the protagonist, works in the government records department where he and his colleagues are constantly re-writing records so that no falsification of the facts by the the Party can be proven. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary” so that nothing that the government officials reported as truth could be verified. (p. 40) Although Winston does his job faithfully and without question, he commits the worst crime possible by beginning to think his own thoughts (thoughtcrime) rather than accept the Party tripe that’s been pumped into him his whole life.

His colleague Syme works in the Research Department where he is constantly revising a dictionary of words called “Newspeak.” He tells Winston, “We’re getting the language into its final shape - the shape it’s going to be when no one speaks anything else... You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words - scores of them, hundreds of them every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.” (51) “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.  In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. (52) Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." (53)

It’s impossible to read the book without making connections to our present culture: the re-writing of history books, texting as the new Newspeak, the perversion of sexuality, etc.  In the book the government makes a huge effort to erase any traces of “vaporized” criminals. But since most of our lives today (photos, diaries, documents, mail) are online, most proofs of our existence could be erased with a few clicks of a button.

As I mentioned, the book addresses sexuality.  Winston has a liaison with a prostitute and an affair with Julia (no unsavory details though). Since love and lust are out of the control of the Party, they are not permitted.  Conception and child bearing are done only as a duty to the State.

My favorite (albeit rare) thread in the book was the idea of love. Winston finds hope for living when Julia tells him she loves him. The Ministry of Love is a place where people are forced to recant their beliefs “for their own good” - because the government “loves” them. Winston argues with his torturer, “It is impossible to found a civilization on fear and hatred and cruelty. It would never endure... It would have no vitality. It would disintegrate. It would commit suicide.” (269)

Fascinating stuff! This is a dark, but important book.  I could write a lot more about Newspeak, but I’ll leave that for a future post.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Emma (2009) - Worthwhile Movie #8

Shortly after finishing the book, I watched the movie of Jane Austen’s Emma (2009 BBC). I had seen two other movie versions but had not yet found an Emma I could like. While I can’t say that I will ever love this heroine, this film certainly made her more endearing than the others. In fact, this production took the sharp edges off of several of the book’s most annoying characters.

Actor Michael Gambon was perfect as the father.  His performance was much more understated than the book, which made him a likable hypochondriac (rather than a huge bore). Even Miss Bates, the talkative spinster comes off more sympathetically. Best of all is Emma who is as silly and conceited as the novel portrays her to be, but who is also shown to be thoughtful, caring, and genuinely sorry for her mistakes.

The relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley is done to perfection. There is just the right amount of brotherliness for him to be always giving her advice, but not enough to make make the romance unbelievable.  In the other films Emma seems intimidated by Knightly, but in this one she cares about what he thinks, while at the same time valuing her own opinion.

To top it all off, the filming is glorious.  And I must say I was pleasantly surprised to see less heaving bosoms, which seem to be a standard component to many modern Austen films. A very pleasant four-hour series.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Emma by Jane Austen

I've been trying to get through Emma for decades but always tire of its annoying heroine by the fifth chapter. So when I heard that Elizabeth Klett (at Librivox) had done Emma, I was sure I would finally get through it. (Klett had changed my mind completely about Northanger Abbey, another Austen novel I did not enjoy.)

Emma Wodehouse is an impressionable young woman who lives alone with her hypochondriac father.  She has never been in love, but thinks she knows everyone else's hearts and has chosen matchmaking as a hobby.  The book is about her "insufferable vanity and unpardonable arrogance" in arranging everybody's destinies (Emma's own words later in the book).

If you can make it past Chapter Fifteen, you'll see Emma becoming aware of her shortcomings; and by the end of the book you'll even like her. Even so, my favorite character in the book is Mr. Knightly, an old family friend, and a gentleman to the core.

Miss Klett does an amazing job with voices, portraying each characters personality with aplomb.  But she surpasses herself with the voice of Miss Bates, the talkative empty-headed spinster.

I was intrigued by the fact that Peter Leitharth calls this the "most Christian" of Austen's novels.  I think it's because two of the characters act very wrongly and are shown much grace by the book's end.

I'm glad I finally got through this one. Thank you, Elizabeth Klett, for making it possible.