Monday, November 30, 2020

Jane Austen’s Emma on Film

Comments by Jeanne

Jane Austen once said of Emma that the novel had a heroine whom she felt no one but herself would like.  I confess that when I started reading it, I tended to agree with her as I found Emma to be too self-centered.  It turned out that we both had a bit of growing to do, and I ended up loving the book.  Naturally, I then had to check out some of the filmed versions of the book so I could be disappointed. 

I have to say, though, I haven’t been disappointed in any so far.  True, none quite came up to the book but I find that with most film adaptations—with a few exceptions, of course.  (I’m looking at you, Jaws.



I started with “Clueless” because I didn’t expect a lot.  I ended up being pleasantly surprised at how much of the original made it into this updated version about the spoiled daughter of a high-powered lawyer who decides to match-make for the new kid in school.  While Alicia Silverstone’s Cher may not have had the exquisitely precise manner of upper class Emma, she certainly knew her way around social situations and couldn’t resist the opportunity to play Svengali. The result is a funny, charming movie that features a very young Paul Rudd and the excellent character actors Dan Hedaya and Wallace Shawn as Emma’s father and her teacher, respectively. I especially liked the way the relationship between Emma and her father was reimagined in this one:  they are still very close, Emma is still protective, and Dad is so proud when daughter argues her way to a better grade.


The 2020 version, “Emma.” has a period after the title to indicate that it is a “period piece.” I think of it as a good “Emma” for those who haven’t read the book and that’s not a put-down.  Bright, flashy, energetic,  and with good bits of social information woven into the dialog, its intention is to fill in needed information for the viewer unfamiliar with book or time period.  The movie moves at a good pace and is a visual treat.  The costumes are incredible.  Emma herself is played by Anya Taylor-Joy and may be the closest I’ve seen to the book Emma.  While solicitous of her father, this Emma is definitely spoiled and entitled and while at the end she becomes aware of some of her more egregious behavior, there is no astounding transformation as in some adaptations.  Bill Nighy makes for an interesting Mr. Woodhouse.  He has the quirkiness and there are some fun visual statements (Mr. Woodhouse fears drafts and at one point he is all but invisible behind a phalanx of screens), but he seems more lively than I would have expected.  Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley is okay; there wasn’t anything objectionable, but I didn’t find much to be memorable, either. I quite liked Josh O’Connor as the ambitious Mr. Elton too.  The whole movie seemed to be just slightly exaggerated—not enough to annoy, but in a spirit of fun.  Again, I think the idea was to appeal to an audience who might not have read the book—those who have are pretty much guaranteed to watch it.  I like this one because I think it’s one that would encourage people who haven’t read the book to pick it up.


The 1996 version with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong was another good entry.  This one has a dark-haired Emma instead of the more usual blonde.  There were a lot of solid performances, but for me the standout was Raymond Coulthard as Frank Churchill.  This is the only one I have seen in which Frank is a genuinely appealing character and I could understand why the other characters were charmed by him.  In most of the other versions, I’ve failed to see the attraction.


Last but not least, there is the 2009 miniseries version with Ramola Garai as Emma.  For the purist, this one has the advantage of time:  it doesn’t have to cram the richness of the book into a two hour space.  I’m sure that’s one reason I like it so much, but there are some excellent performances as well.  Michael Gambon is to my mind a perfect Mr. Woodhouse, always worried about digestion, drafts, accidents, and any disturbance of routine.  Garai is a good Emma; she plays the role as a bit younger and a tad more innocent than some of the others, but just as willful and, on occasion, thoughtless.  Blake Ritson is well cast as Mr. Elton.  The real coup in this one is Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, who fits my image of the character to a T.  He pulls off the exasperation and fondness toward Emma in a way none of the others really manage.  He is an actor whom I’ve watched and enjoyed as Sherlock Holmes in the modern series and as both Victor Frankenstein and The Creature in the stage version of “Frankenstein” (thanks, Fathom and Tinseltown!) but he wasn’t a “must see” actor. In this, he excels.


The Gwyneth Paltrow version isn’t reviewed here simply because the library didn’t have a copy.  No editorial comment is implied.


The verdict? Not a bad one in the bunch.  For re-watching, I’d opt for the 2020 version because it is so pretty or for the 2009 mini-series because Jonny Lee is so pretty. Your mileage may vary.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly


Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Reviewed by Kristin


If Beth Ann Fennelly has one gift, it is the ability to winnow down her thoughts to include only what is essential. It is difficult to avoid being wordy; I could make several examples of that in this review alone. I’ll do my best to follow her lead.


From a single sentence to a few pages, Fennelly shows her readers snippets of life. Her observations are sometimes comical, sometimes wry, and sometimes heartbreaking. She talks about grief in a way that anyone who has lost someone would understand, as a tangible item of clothing weighting her down. With just a few words, the depths of feelings flood my mind.


Fennelly is not all sadness, though. Her sly wit shines through as she discusses a neighbor’s chicken who visited them regularly, and who chose to lay a beautiful, delicious egg on her side of the fence. Where else might you find an escaped-from-strictly-organic-feed-and-the-Taj-Majal-of-a-coop rogue chicken renamed BeyoncĂ©?


When some dinner guests insisted that Fennelly and her husband accept a $50 bill in their younger days, they placed the money in a book for a future splurge, and then promptly forgot which book. After hiding other things in books and perhaps loaning them to any number of friends over the years, she still wonders where these items ended up, or if she will find them the next time she opens a volume.


The tenderness and mundaneness of married life is threaded throughout the collection, along with child rearing, friendship, and coming of age stories. Anyone who has lived a life, (and haven’t we all, by our virtue of breathing and walking and reading these words?) will likely identify with something within this small volume.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Nevermore: Murmur of Bees, Bitter and Sweet, Alexander Hamilton, The Historian, Man on a Raft, Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good


Reported by Kristin

Nevermore began our latest Zoom book club discussing Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years by Michael E. Newton. Our reader is a huge Hamilton fan and has read many books about him over the years, but was highly impressed with Newton’s research. She said that she thought she knew everything about Hamilton, but learned so much more with this reading. Hamilton’s heroic exploits of the Revolutionary War were emphasized, even praising his compassion at the Battle of Yorktown as he quickly outmaneuvered the British troops, but let the defeated soldiers go rather than dispatching them with bayonets.

Our next reader picked up a recommended book from six decades ago, (1960!) Man on a Raft by Kenneth Cooke. Although faded and worn, this little paperback was proclaimed to be wonderful, even though the main character endured so much misery. Our reader said that it was truly about courage, and that she was inspired by others’ perseverance.


On another serious note, the same reader highly recommended the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Set in Seattle and moving between the 1940s and the 1980s, this debut novel tells the story of Asian families removed to internment camps. The Panama Hotel once served as an intersectional place for the Japanese and Chinese communities, and indeed, Henry Lee met his first love, Keiko Okabe, there during the war years. Our reader said that one of the best parts of the book was how Henry and his father came to understand each other as they each tried to define their cultural identity.


Moving further back in historical fiction, another book club member read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, a venture back to the fifteenth century in another retelling of the Dracula tale. The novel uses three different narrators: an unnamed young woman in the 1970s, her father Paul in the 1950s, and Paul’s mentor a generation earlier in the 1930s. The story weaves much travel through Eastern Europe through the pages, visiting monasteries and villages while looking for the origin of Dracula.


Back on this side of the Atlantic, our next reader read another novel that sounds all too familiar these days because it involved an influenza pandemic, The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. The first of this Mexican author’s books translated into English, this is the tale of Simonopio, a baby found under a bridge and covered in bees. As he grows, he has visions, causing some villagers to view him with superstition. With the 1918 pandemic and the Mexican Revolution intertwined, Segovia’s beautiful voice tells of turbulent times of change.


Finally, another reader enjoyed a book that has been making the rounds of Nevermore for months: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten. This small book of stories was translated from the original Swedish, and has been well enjoyed by most readers. Maud is 88 years old and has been living in her inherited apartment for decades, (rent-free, mind you) and has no plan to give it up anytime soon. She is clever, possibly criminal, and an absolute joy to know—as long as you don’t cross her.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Archie Goes Home by Robert Goldsborough


Reviewed by Jeanne

Archie Goodwin has a lot of experience with crime detection as Nero Wolfe’s indispensable assistant, but this time he’s undertaking an investigation of his own.  Archie’s Aunt Edna calls with suspicions that the suicide of a local banker is murder.  Her suspicions seem to be confirmed when a reporter—let me add here that it is a very pretty female reporter—has a shot fired through her window.   Still, it’s not enough to really interest Archie, but he and Wolfe both know that Aunt Edna is not going to give up but will continue to badger him until he goes.  Besides, she’s made some veiled comments about his mother not being well, probably to guilt him into coming home, and of course it works.  Archie heads off to small town Ohio.

Once there, he finds gossip aplenty about the deceased banker.  The question is, did anyone have a big enough grudge to commit murder?  The local police don’t think so, and don’t care for some slick detective from New York butting in, while the intrepid reporter seems determined to rush in where angels fear to tread.  The fact that this story could be her break through to move on to bigger and better things, maybe even a job at a big city newspaper, definitely factors in.  It’s definitely to her advantage that this turns out to be murder.  But is it?  And if so, who is the culprit?

I am a long-time fan of the original Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout so when Robert Goldsborough continued the series, I had to check his books out.  I’ll be honest:  some work better than others.  His version of Wolfe especially is “off” to me, but that is a personal feeling.  Others have felt his portrayals were good (and he has gotten support from Stout’s daughter) and a strong continuation of the series.  Still others have disparaged them.  I’m in the middle.

That said, for me this is one of the more successful entries he’s done.  In part I think I like it because Goldsborough has created new characters and put Archie in a different setting.  The plot was good too, which always helps.  I liked the relationship Archie has with his mother, and that she and Wolfe are friendly.  Aunt Edna is another matter, but she’s never so obnoxious that I wanted to close the book. Also, lest someone think this is a Nero Wolfe Mystery without Wolfe, rest assured that the great detective does put in an appearance.

Definitely one of the better of Goldsborough’s interpretations.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue



Reviewed by Christy

            Julia Power is a young Irish nurse on the cusp of turning thirty. She’s a midwife in the maternity ward of the hospital, and finds great fulfillment in her career. But work has been chaotic and overwhelming the past couple weeks. The hospital employees are overworked and understaffed, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. It’s 1918, and the Spanish Flu is ravishing Dublin and the entire world.

            The Pull of the Stars is a day-in-the-life type of book that takes place over three merciless days in a makeshift maternity ward for expectant mothers with the flu. Julia must keep her patients comfortable and keep an eye on their vital signs, all while delivering an occasional baby and deferring to male doctors who are quick to dismiss her expertise. Sometimes the deference is more difficult than the rest. Luckily, she has the assistance of a scrappy, young volunteer who is a quick learner and an enormous help. She also meets the new female doctor who is rumored to be an activist against British rule but seems to be on Julia’s side when it comes to medical practices.

            Once I realized the book would be “merely” following Julia around as she does her job, I was a little apprehensive that it wouldn’t grab me or worse, bore me completely. I could not have been more wrong. While there are glimpses of her home life with her World War I veteran brother, most of the action takes place in the hospital. And it is action! Julia is a wonderful, capable nurse who always has her patients’ best interests in mind. Her volunteer, Bridie, is bright-eyed and eager to learn. The female doctor, Dr. Lynn, is gentle and understanding. Basically, I loved all of these characters. My only real qualms were a romance plot line that felt a little out of nowhere, and some of the events at the end of the book. I’m not really sure how I feel about them but I can say I didn’t love them.

            I was fortunate enough to catch the audio book available on READS, and at times, the performance had me on the edge of my seat. Listening to a lyrical Irish accent was certainly nice too. Although Donoghue had started work on this book in October of 2018, the release is quite timely, and I’m sure our current state of affairs factored into the urgency I felt while reading this book. I’ve read a couple of Donoghue’s books and enjoyed them immensely, but for some reason it’s been quite a long time since I’ve given her another go. I don’t think that’s a mistake I’ll repeat.