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Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

surprisingly-lurid-thane-coverIf you’ve already read the Williamsburg series, you can have a good laugh at this cover, which has a very noir, “Philip Marlowe in Colonial Williamsburg” feel that is completely unlike the actual novels. (Let me take a moment to picture Humphrey Bogart in a tricorn hat… OK, moving on.)

Elswyth Thane’s old-fashioned family saga begins in our own home town of Williamsburg in 1771. Julian Day, a schoolmaster newly arrived from England, is a staunch defender of King George, but befriends St. John Sprague despite his views on colonial independence. As revolution approaches, Day’s loyalties conflict with his friendships, including one with Tabitha “Tibby” Mawes, a young girl he helps to raise from poverty to gentility. That’s right: they are enemies “even in love!”

May-December romances are a recurring theme of this series, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tibby and Julian become the matriarch and patriarch of a family which the novels follow for generations. Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles, Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, and Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy seem to be leading a return of great, multigenerational sagas, those books with family trees on the endpapers to help you remember the cast of characters. Elswyth Thane was there first, and her seven-volume series follows the entangled Day, Sprague, Murray, and Campion families on both sides of the Atlantic, from the American Revolution to the early days of WWII. (At the time Thane was writing, this was recent history.)

Genteel, involving stories, these novels are gentle reads: there is love and war, but not sex or violence. Their age (or mine) shows in places; the Civil War-era episodes have a Margaret Mitchell-like nostalgia for Southern plantation life that is not concerned with the system of slavery on which it was based. My favorite, Ever After, takes place during the Spanish American War and covers every highlight of romance and melodrama that one might wish: War! Journalism! Malaria! A locket hiding a portrait of a forbidden love! When I picked it up after a decades-long gap, I expected to find it less readable, but hours later I was still sitting in the same armchair, caught up all over again in doomed romance and tearful deathbed goodbyes.

Check the WRL catalog for Dawn’s Early Light.

The series continues with Yankee Stranger, Ever After, The Light Heart, Kissing Kin , This Was Tomorrow, and Homing.

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WestmarkThis trilogy of children’s adventures is a longtime favorite of mine, but I find it difficult to categorize. Libraries shelve it in juvenile fiction, which is misleading, as it has more tragic deaths than Game of Thrones, plus an ironic style that would likely whoosh over the heads of most children. It certainly did mine. On the other hand, it made me cry like a kid when I was in my thirties…

Three volumes with a Dickensian ensemble cast, from monarchs to street urchins, cover several years of political upheaval in the imagined countries of Westmark and neighboring Regia. Theo is the viewpoint character, a printer’s assistant who is driven from his livelihood by an increasingly despotic government bent on censoring the press. He takes up first with a traveling ensemble headed by showman and charlatan “Count” Las Bombas, where he meets Mickle, a streetwise apprentice thief, ventriloquist, and (unknown to anyone, including herself) missing princess. The escapades grow more serious when Theo falls in with a cell of student revolutionaries headed by the charismatic pragmatist Florian, a dashing figure in a soldier’s greatcoat. Now Theo is loyal both to the next monarch of Westmark and to the soldier-philosophers who want to abolish the monarchy.

Theo’s adventures present him with several moments of split-second decision making followed by self-doubt—is his hesitation to take a life a moment of conscience or of cowardice? Ideals are tested to the breaking point in the second book of the trilogy, The Kestrel. As Regia invades, the young are betrayed by the old, and fighting in the countryside intensifies, conscience seems ever more a luxury. Readers who thought this would be a light and fast-paced adventure will instead be traumatized by the sharp turn the series takes into harrowing warfare. The third book, The Beggar Queen, sees the survivors dealing with the legacy of their decisions, their lives further complicated as former enemies and worshipers of fallen heroes try to shape their country to different ideals.

The Westmark books are crowded, packed full of characters and events, and yet they aren’t long books. Alexander’s style is so streamlined, not a word is wasted; like a caricaturist, every line counts either to sketch a character or further the action. The books are fast-moving and dramatic, with characters and situations reminiscent of the French revolution, the Three Musketeers, or other Ruritanian adventures like The Prisoner of Zenda.  There’s a lot of overlap between devotees of this series and fans of the gallant, doomed student revolutionaries of Les Mis. With well-drawn characters and moral complexity, it’s also a natural choice for readers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, starting with The Thief

Check the WRL catalog for Westmark.

The series continues with The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen

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Cover art. Watson and Holmes standing before crime tapeSherlock Holmes and John Watson have been repeated, revived, and reimagined countless times in literature, in addition to TV and movies. Whatever dreams Arthur Conan Doyle had for his creation, I doubt he could have foreseen the wild success and immortality his work has achieved. As a mystery lover and a graphic novel lover, I was intrigued by the combination of my two favorite genres, and I love a good twist on a classic.

In this iteration, writer Karl Bollers conceives both characters as modern African Americans living in New York’s Harlem district. Watson, not yet a doctor, is an Afghanistan war vet working in a clinic. Sherlock is a dreadlocked, fedora wearing PI who steps easily into the storied role from the first “Elementary…” that passes his lips. The game is indeed afoot.

A seemingly unconnected string of murders and kidnappings brings the two together. The duo dash through the streets of New York, chasing clues and hoping to stay one step ahead of their increasingly desperate quarry. The Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance, as well as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, although he quite understandable prefers the nickname “Mike.”

Why does Watson join Holmes in his quest? I think this is the crux of any successful remake of Sherlock: tying the two characters together not only in their interactions with each other, but making their collective motivations realistic and sympathetic to the reader. As this volume only covers the first arc of the series, much of the interaction between the two characters is a slow buildup of that relationship, and the acknowledgement that sometimes what drives you can’t be easily explained, even to yourself.

My only issue with this title is that the author did such a fantastic job of echoing Sherlock’s unique way of speaking, that I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head with an English accent, which jarred against the setting. However, since this is such an intrinsic part of the character, I can’t really knock the authors for being too successful.

The art in this series has a rough quality, with some lines still maintaining the attributes of a sketchbook rendering. At times the faces of characters are executed in detail, at others they are kept fuzzy as the viewer’s eye is pulled back to take in more of the scene. The coloring is downright phenomenal, with scenes moving fluidly from night to day or outside to computer-screen lit inside. I eagerly look forward to a second volume.

Recommended for readers of mysteries, graphic novels, and crime fiction.

Check the WRL catalog for Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black.

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The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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Soliloquy to StormtrooperAlas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,

Yet have I taken both uniform and life

From thee. What manner of man wert thou?

A man of infinite jest or cruelty?

 

I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.

The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”William Shakespeares Star Wars

Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.

Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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CyranoFor his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.

De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.

Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.

While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.

Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.

Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac

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remarqueIt’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”

Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.

Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.

When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor.  Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.

The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.”  Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.

Find All Quiet on the Western Front in the WRL catalog.

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