Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

DVD Review: The Thomas Hardy Collection

Article first published as DVD Review: The Thomas Hardy Collection on Blogcritics.

To many people, the name Thomas Hardy will draw a blank, but he is quite well-known through the titles of his books: Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thomas Hardy wrote of 19th century rural England and the conflict that ensues when the poor bump up against the wealthy. The Thomas Hardy Collection is a two-disc DVD set, containing imaginings of two of Hardy’s greatest works, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1998) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (2001).

Of the two, it’s easier to love Tess as a protagonist. Justine Waddell is an inspired choice and believable as a period heroine, all billowy clouds of brown hair and pure pale skin. Her Tess evolves from glowy farm girl to hollow-cheeked beauty ground up by poverty and then finally to fae-like impulse child with nothing to lose. Arguably one of the most believably written women in the English language, Tess appeals to modern audience with her bold independence.


Justine WaddellThe first time Tess leaves home, she tries to improve her family’s situation by approaching the wealthy D’Urberville family, to whom she mistakenly believes she is related. She staunchly refuses the advances of the master of the house, Alec D’Urberville (an excellent Jason Flemyng).

There’s a charming sequence involving Tess trying to whistle at the songbirds, at the request of the eccentric Lady D’Urberville: “Mother won’t be happy with you unless you can whistle to her birds”, teases Alec, whistling before he kisses her on the cheek. She pulls away and he snappily retorts: “I taught you whistling, cuz, and one day I’ll teach you kissing.” As a Victorian tragedy, though, such repartee does not lead to happiness.

Tess takes takes a job as a milkmaid, which offers a second sighting of her first love – Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn). This film version will introduce you to the unexpected romance of milking a cow, the sideways glance along the haunch. Symbolism of the natural world and its dangers abound: the sharpening of a scythe, the pricking of rose thorns. Watching love’s petals unfold for Angel is touching, but Tess has been compromised and happiness is all too brief.

The ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is abrupt after such an epic travel, but oh, what a journey. Both books (as well as the movie adaptations) are set in the semi-fictional part of England known as Wessex, based on Hardy’s homeland of Dorchester.Tess of the D’Urbervilles features idyllic artistic visuals, from May Day dances to gloriously golden brown harvests, industrial age machines contrasted with peasants bent-back from scything.

Contrasted with Tess’ indomitable resourcefulness is the character of Mike Henchard. Henchard is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, a believably flawed man who is the sole disruptor of his own happiness.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard starts off as a drunken sot who sells off his wife and infant daughter for money to drink. This leads him to vow off alcohol for a period of 21 years and he manages to build himself a life of respectability as a prominent corn and grains merchant.

Ciaran Hinds
Henchard, played by the ever-astonishing Ciaran Hinds, is by turns unfaithful, fickle, cruel and unjust. A chance at redemption arrives in the appearance of his formerly-sold wife and their now-adult daughter. They are destitute and so move to Casterbridge where she poses as a widow and he “marries” her. He confides in his new manager, the confident and charming Farfrae (James Purefoy), of his past shame.

Lucetta (Polly Walker), a wealthy widow loved and abandoned by Henchard, seizes her chance at happiness and marries Farfrae, who up till now had courted Henchard’s daughter. Henchard sees both of the women he loves being lost to Farfrae and jealousy blooms, leading him to a series of bad business and personal decisions.

One consistent thread through the The Mayor of Casterbridge is the female characters’ anxiety about their public reputation and lack of control over their destiny; this is shown in moments like the suspenseful delicacy of opening a highly-anticipated letter.

Lies are told, secrets are kept, and shame is hidden until publicly exposed. Henchard’s weaknesses lead to the loss of all he holds dear; the plot rivets your gaze, like a carriage crash in slow motion.


This 2-DVD set is the perfect addition to any literary film buff’s library. Watching The Thomas Hardy Collection made me wish to go back and reread the books…and what greater gift can a literary movie adaptation give?

Book Review:To Be Sung Underwater

Article first published as Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal by Anna Meade on Blogcritics.

When I was little, my father taught me to sit cross-legged on the pool bottom. We sat in my underwater kingdom, holding breath as long as we could and then go bursting up through the surface. The light refracted in those mesmeric patterns that are only found beneath, when the light pours through bluely chlorinated water. Below, we would have nonsense conversations and sing little snatches of song to each other that sounded like the distant keening of whales.

So the title drew me in and the book held me underneath, until I popped up gasping for air. In To Be Sung Underwater, Tom McNeal has written a gently yearning novel, one you will quickly read to find out the fate of these characters. The plotting is deft and the characterization of these flawed people is so believable that they will stay with you long after the last page.

Judith Toomey has a model life, the one she has arranged perfectly for herself: a rewarding job in the film industry, a wryly handsome husband, a teenage daughter who occasionally allows her a kiss goodnight. Then one day she discovers a crack in the veneer and slips sideways out of her life; the past she has so neatly boxed away starts to whisper to her.

Judith gives a name for herself that she hasn’t used in years in order to rent a storage unit, simply to reconstruct her bedroom from her teenage years – a bedroom where she loved a boy. The longer she stays in this facsimile room, the more she remembers about the past she tried to forget and the boy she left behind. Her real life, with her job and husband and daughter, slips away like shadows on a wall. Judith follows the memories back and back, like tugging on a pull on a sweater, unraveling until she is left with the truth.

To Be Sung Underwater paints warm vistas of two lazy Nebraskan summers for Judith, one endlessly vibrant with newly-discovered love and one that offers recovered love. That’s when the book really sings. It explores the secrets we keep from our parents and loved ones, the ones kept in boxes tucked away, snippets of first loves and forgotten dreams. This book’s siren song, the temptation to return to your one true chance at happiness, is the one sung underwater. From a great distance, it calls Judith back to the plains of Nebraska and the memories of a boy she once loved.

Visit Tom McNeal’s website.

*Book preview video best if music player turned off at lower-right corner of blog*

3 Question View – Alisa Libby

This post is the sixth of a new series, highlighting talented people whose work I admire.

I call it ‘3 Question View’ because it’s limited to three questions (Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three) and it’s a rather truncated inter-view, designed to elicit three compelling answers from each artistic mind.
Alisa Libby

3 Question View – Alissa Libby

Author, The Blood Confession and The King’s Rose

Anna:
Your novels, The Blood Confession and The King’s Rose, are historical fiction; what drew to this genre? In your travels to do historical research, where was your favorite destination? How does being in a place inspire you? What is the most fascinating fact you discovered in your travels by being “on the spot”?
Alisa:
I came to write historical novels by accident. History was a bore to me in school, just a list of nameless dates and facts to memorize. But when I started reading about particular people, it occurred to me that history was filled with characters who were once vital and alive. History is about people—fascinating, flawed, lovestruck, mad people, in many cases.

As for historical research, my husband and I took a trip to England to research Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. We visited the Tower of London on February 13th, the anniversary of her execution. I visited her crest on the chapel altar, beneath which she is buried. I felt her presence there more strongly than I had at Hampton Court, where her ghost supposedly still haunts a particular gallery, running and screaming Henry’s name. 

It was a bittersweet meeting; Catherine is buried alongside her infamous cousin, Anne Boleyn, who had a half dozen roses on her crest on the day we visited, while Catherine had none. The yeoman guard showed us that the white marble of Anne’s stone has turned pink from so many years of red roses being laid upon it. This made me sad for Catherine, the overlooked (but still doomed) wife of King Henry. I said hello to her and left a stone to mark our visit, and made it clear that we had come a long way to visit her, specifically.


Anna:
On your blog you say you are attracted to “characters who do something
wrong.” Which character was a greater challenge for you to write – Katherine Howard or Countess Bathory? Out of all the females in history, what led you to these two as the focus of your novels?


Alisa:
I love this question! Each character posed unique challenges. With Bathory, the challenge was to make her a sympathetic character. That book is more historical fantasy, because I added many fictional elements to her life (this is why I changed her name to Bizecka in the book). I still wanted her to commit the crimes of legend: bathing in the blood of her servants, believing that it would keep her young forever. So, how to make the reader empathize with such a character? How to show her madness growing gradually, in a way that is believable? That was the challenge. I started at a place that I could deeply understand: I gave the young Countess a best friend, and felt her betrayal when that best friend leaves her behind. A very common story, but it alters Erzebet’s perception of her world.

With Catherine Howard, the challenge was perhaps even greater: her sin was stupidity. This is extremely difficult to empathize with, as a reader. What could she have been thinking, cheating on King Henry? Didn’t she know that adultery – or even the intent to commit it – was a crime punishable by death? She surely must have understood this, to some extent; the Tudor court was a dangerous place, ruled by an emotional, unpredictable king. I had to remain true to historical accounts of Catherine while also filling in the gaps to reveal more of her character and create her own “logic” (however illogical) to explain her actions.

Anna:
When writing historical fiction, how do you balance between sharing juicy historical bits with the reader without overburdening the story? Has there been a historical detail in one of your books that you badly wanted to include, but cut for story purposes? Will you stay with the genre of historical fiction or are there other types of writing calling your name?

Alisa:
Oh, so many details! It really was difficult, especially with The King’s Rose. I researched their food, clothing, daily life, holidays, music…The details are valuable for world-building, but it is tricky to include just what you need and not a sentence more. A delicate balance that I’m still learning to strike! I took a break from history and was working on some contemporary stories for the last few years. But there is something exciting about setting a story in a different time period. The beliefs and customs of that time influence the characters and the story itself in very interesting ways.

The King’s Rose
Appointed to the queen’s household at the age of fourteen, Catherine Howard is not long at court before she catches the eye of King Henry VIII. The king is as enchanted with Catherine as he is disappointed with his newest wife — the German princess Anne of Cleves. Less than a year from her arrival at court, Catherine becomes the fifth wife of the overwhelmingly powerful, if aging, King of England.

Caught up in a dazzling whirl of elaborate celebrations, rich gowns and royal jewels, young Catherine is dizzied by the absolute power that the king wields over his subjects. But does becoming the king’s wife make her safe above all others, or put her in more danger? Catherine must navigate the conspiracies, the silent enemies, the king’s unpredictable rages, as well as contend with the ghosts of King Henry’s former wives: the abandoned Catherine of Aragon, the tragic Jane Seymour, and her own cousin, the beheaded Anne Boleyn. The more Catherine learns about court, the more she can see the circles of danger constricting around her, the threats ever more dire.

Check out the book trailer for The King’s Rose! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGaAGyAgvas

The Blood Confession
Erzebet Bizecka lives in a remote castle in the Carpathian mountains, the only child of the Count and Countess Bizecka. Born under the omen of a falling star, Erzebet is a child of prophecy: the predictions of a scryer tell of a child whose days will end quickly, or whose days will have no end. As a teenager, Erzebet strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young village girl, Marianna, but even her dearest friend can not understand her overwhelming fears of growing older and losing her beauty. The only one who does understand her is Sinestra, the beautiful, mysterious stranger who visits Erzebet and assures her that there are ways to determine her own destiny. With the Biblical passage “The life of the flesh is in the blood” he successfully lures her into a dark world of blood rituals in order to preserve her youth and beauty for eternity. But will the blood treatments—exacted from willing servant girls—be enough to keep her safe forever? How far will Erzebet be willing to go to sever her life from the predestined path God has chosen for her?

Visit the book trailer for The Blood Confession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYyij1xBLv8

Alisa’s Links
www.alisalibby.com
www.alisalibby.com/blog

Picturing Mr. Darcy

Article first published as Picturing Mr. Darcy on Blogcritics.

Books and films have an uneasy alliance. If you truly love a book, you may passionately want to see it brought to life in a film…or you may not. In fact, some of the most vehement reaction to a book adaptation comes from some of the book’s biggest fans.

When you are first reading a book, you picture the characters, visualize the scenes as they unfold. For me, it is like watching a movie in my head. My actors do as they are told, as they turn the page. In fact, there have been a few times where I remember a “scene” in a movie, when in fact it was only in my head from reading the book.

Though the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) is as beloved as Jane Austen’s classic (#13 in Amazon’s top bestsellers), I defy anyone to watch it and then reread the book and not see this:

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

Arguably, seeing Colin Firth in your head for long stretches of time is not a bad thing. However, I can’t even remember what my original Mr. Darcy looked like. I’m fairly certain he had dark hair and flashing eyes and a haughty demeanor, as Darcys are wont to have. Other than that, I can only ever see Colin Firth.

It is a tribute to Firth’s acting skills that he has replaced the actor in my head; he was voted the Best Darcy by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. But what of my long, lost Darcy?

Once a book’s character is codified into the face of an actor, there’s few ways to reset it: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter are actors who permanenty define their character hereafter.

We are a deeply visual culture, so we delight in the ease and immersive experience of watching a movie. No one denigrates the joys of a classic, well-done film. But reading a book requires us to conjure faces and feelings in our own imagination, subject to no person except ourselves.

I have resisted watching the new Jane Eyre thus far, to avoid replacing the Mr. Rochester in my head with this:
Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

As for you, which characters are now inseparable from the actors that have made them famous? Does this please or dismay you?

3 Question View – Sarah Jamila Stevenson

This post is the second of a new series, highlighting talented artists whose work I admire.

I call it ‘3 Question View’ because it’s limited to three questions (Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three) and it’s a rather truncated inter-view, designed to elicit three compelling answers from each artistic mind.

Sarah Jamila Stevenson

3 Question View – Sarah Jamila Stevenson
Writer & Artist, Author of The Latte Rebellion (Flux, 2011), Co-Author of Finding Wonderland: The WritingYA Weblog



Anna:
The Latte Rebellion deals with some sophisticated themes, including racism, bullying and complex adult choices. The main character, Asha, is referred to as a “towel head”. What do you hope your book can offer young readers, multi-racial and otherwise, who might be experiencing similar challenges?

Sarah:
There are rarely easy answers to such challenges, are there? I suppose I hope that my book successfully conveys that while some situations can be tough, and there aren’t many easy answers, it’s still possible to survive and even thrive despite (and even because of) life’s challenges. That you can make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. That being yourself is a complicated endeavor, and every person’s journey is different. That having a sense of humor is an important survival tool. That friendships may change, and plans usually do change, and life goes on. That, even if high school is disheartening, (to borrow some words of wisdom from Dan Savage) it gets better.

Anna:
Your writing and blog focus on Young Adult literature. Why were you drawn to YA literature? What has been your favorite experience with a younger reader?


 
Sarah: 

I’ve always enjoyed coming-of-age stories, and stories in which the characters continue to grow and learn and change, and explore who they are. YA literature seems to specialize in that, for sure. And because of that, I’ve never stopped reading YA books–in fact, the range, depth, and quality of the YA field has only increased since I was a teen reader. It’s a very exciting time to be a YA writer, and some of the most thoughtful, honest, tightly-written, and pretension-free fiction I can think of is being produced by YA writers.

My favorite experience with a younger reader happened this past February, at a visit to Balboa High School in San Francisco. I was invited to speak to their lunchtime book club, which was great because it meant the group of students I spoke to had already read my book! After I gave my reading and answered some questions, one girl came up to me to say how glad she was that there was a book out there for kids of mixed race, that talked about their experiences, and said “thank you for writing this book.” I was thrilled! That one moment confirmed for me beyond a doubt that this endeavor has been worth it. :)
Anna:
You are also an artist. One of my favorite features on the ‘Finding Wonderland’ blog is your “Toon Thursday”, a humorous take on the pitfalls of writing
.

 

The Latte Rebellion features your artwork as well. How do you divide your time between your art and your writing? Do you ‘rotate the crops’ artistically? Does sketching lead to story ideas or vice versa? Can you tell us more about your new printmaking/collage project in the works?

 
Sarah:
I’m so glad you like Toon Thursday! It’s a labor of love, so my primary reward is when people let me know they enjoy it. With respect to my art and writing, it’s definitely a challenge to juggle them both. I’m usually focusing more on one than the other–lately it’s been mostly writing, but the artwork is never far from my mind. I try to take as many opportunities as I can to stay in drawing practice. Fortunately, my husband is a college art professor, and I have a standing invitation to come into his class and draw! That helps a lot.
Sometimes sketching does lead to story ideas, and vice versa, but usually the ideas are separate. I do have a strong interest in graphic novels, though, and would love to write and draw one sometime. Also, the project I currently have in the works combines elements of text and image. The plan is to carve an image into a linoleum block, print it several times, and then collage text and maybe images–different ones–onto each print. I want each print to have the same basic underlying image, but be distinctly different visually and tell a different “story” using found text. This idea got started after I worked on a collaborative print project with 9 other artist friends (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=36097397321). I used various collage techniques on my contributions for the project, and wanted to pursue that line of inquiry further. I’m excited about it, but so far I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I would like.

Thanks so much for interviewing me and asking such great questions!

The Latte Rebellion Manifesto

If you are reading this, you are clearly sympathetic to the cause!
What cause, you ask?
The cause of brown people everywhere—
whether you have espresso-colored hair,
a perfect latte tan, or you’re as light as a mocha bianca!
The world must acknowledge you!
The world will appreciate you!
Our philosophy is simple:
Promote a latte-colored world!
Forget bananas and coconuts!
Go for the seamless blend! You can’t un-latte the latte!
It doesn’t matter if you are only coffee on the inside.
If you’re a latte at heart, you are welcome.
Iced or hot, raise your cup to the cause!
Lattes of the World, Unite!

See Sarah’s very clever website for the book here: http://www.latte-rebellion.com/index.html

You can order your own copy of The Latte Rebellion at: http://www.fluxnow.com/product.php?ean=9780738722788

Synopsis:
When high school senior Asha Jamison gets called a “towel head” at a pool party, the racist insult gives Asha and her best friend Carey a great money-making idea for a post-graduation trip. They’ll sell T-shirts promoting the Latte Rebellion, a club that raises awareness of mixed-race students.

Seemingly overnight, their “cause” goes viral and the T-shirts become a nationwide fad. As new chapters spring up from coast to coast, Asha realizes that her simple marketing plan has taken on a life of its own-and it’s starting to ruin hers. Asha’s once-stellar grades begin to slip, threatening her Ivy League dreams, and her friendship with Carey is hanging by a thread. And when the peaceful underground movement turns militant, Asha’s school launches a disciplinary hearing. Facing expulsion, Asha must decide how much she’s willing to risk for something she truly believes in.

Visit Finding Wonderland: The WritingYA Weblog, the excellent writing blog Sarah co-authors: http://writingya.blogspot.com

See Sarah’s website: www.sarahjamilastevenson.com