Books to read in pairs

Often I find some books are better read together, back to back. They have similar settings or subject matter, and it’s always interesting to see the different perspectives and connections, intentional or not. A testimony to the six degree of separation.

Here are a few. Can you name some more from your reading experience?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Pachinko is a family saga set in a period of history that’s seldom told in North America, the first part of the 20th century in Korea and Japan. Annexation of Korea is to put it mildly, prelude to the Pacific War later when the Japanese army invaded her neighbouring countries during WWII. The sufferings of those in the frontline and those at home are vividly depicted in Sakamoto’s family memoir: his maternal grandfather as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and later shipped to Japan as slave laborer, while his paternal grandmother and her family mistreated in internment right in their homeland of Canada. (detailed reviews coming up)

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Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Barne’s biographical vignettes of Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s reign is like a compendium to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which depicts the three choices one can make when confronting a ruthless, totalitarian Ruler. Thien’s fictional characters struggled to survive during Mao’s cultural revolution and the subsequent years. Speak truth to power, unfortunately, is not a viable alternative. Death and oblivion will be the certain and swift consequences.

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Nutshell by Ian McEwan and Hamlet by William Shakespeare

McEwan’s modern day, in utero version of the Bard’s incestuous mayhem. Very perceptive, considering its from the voice of a baby in the womb.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Don’t think of the accented Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa, just imagine the ‘real’ Karen Blixen, on her farm in Africa, a tough woman on her own most of the time, and then there’s an acquaintance (can’t say friend) Beryl Markham, a female aviator, equally pioneering, a Brit expat in Africa, doing more than the discovery of the land but also of the man in Karen’s life, no, not Robert Redford.

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Hours by Michael Cunningham

One day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway can have so much meaning under the pen of Virginia Woolf. The Hours are equally perceptive, internal depiction of three women in different periods of time. And throw in The Hours the movie after, an excellent adaptation and hauntingly worthy of Woolf’s literary style.

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Mrs. Osmond by John Banville, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. 

Mrs. Osmond is Banville’s imaginary sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Seems it all point to bad choices when the protagonist naive and a little too idealistic. I’m exploring how George Eliot’s Middlemarch may be a precursor to these novels of the young and restless and marital mismatch.

And here’s an invite, Middlemarch in May (makes a nice hashtag) is a read-along I’ll be joining with Bellezza and other readers. It starts in May, and it’s our intention to finish before summer, hopefully. Feel free to join us and explore the Dorothea Brooke connection to Isabel Archer, and I’m sure other delights as well along the way.

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The Portrait of a Lady, Sequel, Remake(?)

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

First, thanks to Bellezza’s open invite to a read-along, posting the photo of John Banville’s newest book Mrs. Osmond, a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I’d seen the 1996 movie adaptation directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), but had never read James’s novel. What better time to read both books than now.

The Portrait of a Lady

I got hold of The Portrait of a Lady (Modern Library, just love the cover) read part of it then turned to a sound recording (unfortunately couldn’t find the Juliet Stevenson narrated version). Prompted by JoAnn, I interspersed reading with listening and gleaned much pleasure doing that. Here’s my very short, 5-Star Goodreads review:

“Actually I was listening to the Blackstone Audio version of the book as well as reading  parts of the book to ascertain facts in the story or just savour the passages again. James’s portrait of Isabel Archer is one of the saddest fictional heroines I’ve come across. A reminiscence of Anna Karenina emerged as I read the latter part, but Isabel is a character much more likeable for me. Should she be destined to a ruined life due to a naive misjudgement, ok, maybe even foolishness, by marrying Gilbert Osmond? Osmond is evil personified, and I just can’t shake off the face of John Malkovich (from the movie) whenever I read about his cold, domineering hand over Isabel. Isabel definitely needs redemption and saving grace. So I do hope John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond will grant her that.”

The Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion

Since the image of John Malkovich kept creeping up my mind as I read the book, I quickly turned to the movie adaptation right after I finished the book. I remember I was most disturbed by Osmond’s callous treatment of Isabel when I first watched it years ago; he appeared as a chilling, silent villain, bullying his innocent victim mercilessly. His stepping on Isabel’s floor-length dress to stop her from walking away was still vivid in my mind.

Nicole Kidman

Now as I saw the movie again, I find the feature more style than content. The tilted camera shots? A bit contrived. Malkovich is still evil, and Kidman still the innocent victim, but there isn’t much complexity in the characterization. The editing and much abridged dialogues leave a vacuum. Considering the rich descriptive prowess of Henry James, much is left to be desired in the film. Yes, I’m one who advocates for the appreciation of books and films as two different art forms, and should not be doing a literal comparison when judging the adaptation. Well, I’m not. I’m weighing the film on its own merits. Yes, set design is rich and some artistic shots, but overall pales despite the sumptuous colours. And, what happened to Nicole Kidman’s hair? As much as I’d appreciated Campion’s works, especially her Oscar winning (Best Original Screenplay) film The Piano, I do feel maybe it’s a good time to do a remake of The Portrait of a Lady.

Mrs. Osmond by John Banville

After the movie I turned right away to Banville’s book. Here’s my review on Goodreads:

Mrs. Osmond

“I jumped to this book right after reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. As I understand this new work of Banville’s to be a ‘sequel’ to James’s book, I had high expectations of the Booker winning author carrying Isabel Archer’s (Mrs. Osmond’s) story forward, taking her through twists and turns and eventually letting her find redemption and a new life. However this was not to be exactly as I’d envisioned.

Mrs. Osmond is divided into two Parts. Maybe for the benefit of those who haven’t read or reread The Portrait of a Lady in preparation for his book, Banville retells James’s story in Part I. While he’s very detailed in his descriptive style, and to his credit, creeping inside the minds of his characters, he repeats himself frequently in reminding his readers how Isabel Archer got deceived by Madame Merle and fell into the marriage trap of Gilbert Osmond’s. So basically the story remains static throughout Part I.

(Spoiler Alert in the following)

Part II leads us to Isabel’s own scheme of turning the tables on Osmond and Merle, and let them have a taste of their own medicine by just transferring the ownership of her residence the palazzo in Rome over to Madame M. and let the culprits be trapped with each other. That’s all there is to her plan, and it’s an expensive vengeance. As for her own dear life and its purpose for the remains of her days, the path is as obscure as before, albeit Banville has dropped a hint of the suffrage movement being a meaningful direction.

While Mrs. Osmond may not be as gratifying as I’d expected, this is an interesting concept, taking literary classics and imagining a sequel. Now that could lead to a brave new genre of fiction writing.”

A Movie Remake, anyone?

If there’s one, who’d you like to see playing the role of Isabel Archer? Gilbert Osmond? Madame Merle? Director?

 

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Related Post:

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

 

What Maisie Knew (2012): From Book to Film

With all due respect to Henry James, I’d rather be watching this contemporary adaptation of his work than slashing through the thickets of his novel. A thicket of a book, the last time I used this description was with Proust. And, if I’m to decipher long and incomprehensible sentences I’d rather be reading Proust than James. Nevertheless, James’s novel is a dense and deep psychological analysis of a dysfunctional marriage and its fallout on the child, a relevant issue today. Nobody wins in cases like that.

When published in 1897, it was probably one of the earliest fictional depictions of divorce and child-custody. Precocious Maisie knows much more than her parents could ever imagine. Like a volleyball, she is being tossed back and forth between her Mama and Papa, whichever side she lands on loses, for they both want their life to be free from child-rearing, free from ties and obligations. The notion of being ‘free’ recurs in the last chapters of the book, a key to how Maisie ends up choosing who to follow — her governess Mrs. Wix, someone who is not obsessed with being ‘free’, but who is committed to Maisie’s welfare.

What Maisie Knew

 

Again, may I reiterate here as in previous posts about books to movies, the two are totally different art forms. Here, one is a 300 page literary work, internal, dense and deep. The other is a 93-minute production of visual storytelling, enhanced by dialogues and musical score. To achieve this end, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have to pick and choose the most relevant storyline and characters, and opt out of lengthy, internal exploration of psychological entanglements, something the literary form can describe readily. The screenwriters have done a good job in their choices, keeping the story simple and relevant for viewers a hundred years after the book was published. Despite the subject matter, the movie is enjoyable and highly watchable.

Set in modern day NYC, it smoothly tells a poignant story from the child’s point of view. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is eyewitness and victim of her parents’ constant quarrels and later divorce, a young child caught in the thorns and thistles of adult relationships. It is unfortunate that the most sensitive and observant child is often the most vulnerable. The naturalistic capture by the camera of Maisie’s quiet observations is most heart-wrenching. Maisie learns that the adult world is a busy place, her presence, an inconvenience. Thanks to the screenwriters’ gentler treatment, the movie spares us from some cruel, hateful fights in the book. We see Maisie ultimately get a taste of what it’s like to be cared for and to have some simple, childhood joy. The ending shot is beautiful.

Unlike Maisie in the novel, there is no moral dilemma for her in the movie. No doubt, the moral element is crucial in James’s novel. Divorce and adultery must have poked deep into the heart of James’s readers in his days. But our contemporary society has, alas, evolved into a ‘morally neutral’ state of numb resistance. The screenwriters may well know too that entertainment value comes before the didactic. We see no moral choices here with Maisie in the movie. After all, a young child will readily cling to whoever that loves her in deeds rather than mere words. Kudos to the filmmakers, they know the heart of a child.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel capture the story from Maisie’s viewpoint, natural and realistic, camera lens often at a lower angle. Certain shots are particularly affective, from inside a taxi, the transport of choice in Manhattan, at different times the vehicle that takes away Mama, Papa, and caring Margo. We would see from inside the taxi out to Maisie standing on the roadside, abandoned and distraught.

The wonderful cast is what makes the movie so absorbing, and at times, even heartwarming, despite its subject matter. The then seven year-old Onata Aprile is a natural. Julian Moore’s solid performance as her mother Susanna is convincing. She is a touring rock-and-roll singer who has passed her prime. Jealous and temperamental, Susanna’s love for Maisie is possessive, and often displayed in empty words. British actor Steve Coogan, known to North American viewers by his recent starring role in Philomena, plays the career-minded art dealer father Beale. Like his ex-wife, he is too busy with his own life to care for a child. They both say they love Maisie, showering bursts of affection whenever they see their child.

What saves Maisie is the awkwardly positioned step-parents, her father’s new wife and Maisie’s former babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham, the parallel of Ms. Overmore in the book) and her mother’s new love interest, the tall and young bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård, a Sir Claude parallel). As predicted, they soon are abandoned themselves and the two quickly form a tie that includes Maisie in their life. Diverging from James’s story, the two are genuinely loving and caring, a soothing balm to Maisie and the viewers.

Overall, a fine, contemporary adaptation of the novel. To James purists, a loose reinvention; for viewers seeking meaningful entertainment, this should be on the list of films to watch.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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More Downton Ripples

Two years ago, some time after Downton Abbey Season 2 had finished airing on PBS, I wrote my first “Downton Ripples” post. I subtitled it “How I Overcome Downton Abbey Withdrawal Syndrome”. In that post, I’d listed some books and movies/TV productions that relate to the setting similar to Downton Abbey, for I was fascinated by the Great War period after watching Downton.

Some of the authors I read included Robert Graves, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and watched Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Easy Virtue and discovered Lost Empires, the TV series with a young Colin Firth together with Laurence Olivier, amazing.

This time, after Season 4, the withdrawal syndrome seems to have numbed a bit, but the ripples continue to spread. Again, Downton has prodded me to seek out the literature around the time between WW1 and WW2 Europe. While there are many present day authors writing about that era, I’d like to hear more authentic voices. I went looking for writers actually living in that period of history to hear their stories.

The following is a list of titles I’ve gone through this time, some I have finished, some still on my ‘To be’ agenda:

Parade’s End (2012, BBC/HBO co-production)

Parade's End Blu-Ray Cover

This series complements Downton Abbey perfectly. While Downton is light and heart-warming, soapy in its feel, Parade’s End is cerebral and literary, its social commentary of the time harsher and more incisive. I think the difference is, Julian Fellowes creates as a contemporary screenwriter, and knowing what modern day viewers want, he caters to their desire. Yes, he has offered us charming entertainment, and for the stars and the show, opportunities for Emmy and Golden Globe noms and wins.

Parade’s End is another story. Playwright Tom Stoppard (Emmy and BAFTA nom for this) adapts from Ford Madox Ford, a writer during WWI period, contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the Lost Generation after The Great War, and witness to the destruction of the old world order and individual lives. Sure social barriers were dismantled, but together with such collapse came the shattering of long-held values and beliefs. Through the protagonist Christopher Tietjens, we can feel the intense struggles and poignancy of a man caught in such desolation.

I first saw Parade’s End on HBO when there was a window of free viewing. After watching one episode, I knew I must subscribe to continue with the rest of the series, and so I did. Effective advertising indeed. That was last year, and I recently just finished re-watching Parade’s End on Blu-Ray.

Parade’s End is the first time I watch Benedict Cumberbatch in a leading role (Emmy nom), an impressive performance as Christopher Tietjens, one of the last remaining honourable men struggling to stay afloat in the drowning waves of social change and ideals. Rebecca Hall (BAFTA nom) is effective as the scheming and seductive wife Sylvia. The young, almost ethereal Adelaide Clemens as suffragette Valentine Wannop is perfect. She makes me think of Carey Mulligan. And what a wonderful connection — Mulligan will be the star of the new film Suffragette, which I highly anticipate.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Parade's End BBC Book Cover copy

This will be my major challenge in TBR books this year. Image here is the BBC Book edition I bought in a book sale a few years back. It has 906 pages, and is made up of four novels — Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post. A more recent edition is the reissue of Penguin Modern Classic, with a new introduction written by Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending). You can read the intro here.

Parade’s End by Tom Stoppard

Parade's End Script by Tom Stoppard

I enjoy reading the scripts of productions I like. It’s a kind of deconstruction, if you will, demythisizing of sort. I’m fascinated by the skills of a screenwriter who uses words to elicit images for the director to execute, translating the literary into the visual using words. To write for the screen almost sounds like an oxymoron. I’ve read Julian Fellowe’s Downton Abbey scripts and found it most interesting. I’d like to explore Tom Stoppard’s journey of adaptation. But first, I need to tackle Ford Madox Ford’s original texts.

T. S. EliotT. S. Eliot — After Downton and Parade’s End, I’m all geared up to explore deeper into the the psyche and spirituality of the time. Why, after all, what had lost in a generation was not just the physical bodies or social structures, but the internal, the destruction of a value and belief system. I’d like to read and reread Eliot’s works, delve into a time that prompted the poet to see hollow men, and women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. What’s underneath the façade of human progress?

The Europeans by Henry JamesThe Europeans by Henry James — A voice from the dawn of the 20th Century. I have finished listening to the amusing auidiobook of The Europeans. Yes, unlike many readers’ impression of James’ works, The Europeans is a delightful read (listen). It is like a medley of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen. Humorous depiction of the different POV’s between a pair of European sister/brother coming to visit their American cousins residing in the outskirt of Boston. With some LOL moments. My next James read is The Ambassadors.

The Collected Stories of Stefan ZweigStefan Zweig — While Lady Edith’s love Michael Gregson headed to Germany and mysteriously gone missing, the then famous (real life) writer Stefan Zweig in Austria was lamenting the spread of anti-semitism in the continent. It’s interesting that Downton has led me to connect, at least in historical timeline, with an author I’ve just recently discovered, thanks to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, to which he has credited the works of Stefan Zweig. I’ve recently read Zweig’s Chess Story, and now delving into his short stories.

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