A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

Every once in a while, I turn back to a book that I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy at all) in my  early teenage years, only to find that my experience of the book has completely changed.

So it was with A Room With a View. While I didn’t read the book until I was about 16, I believe I must have first watched the film when I was about 10 (and this is one of those instances where the film is astonishingly loyal to the book).

A Room With a View

This was the first film I saw Helena Bonham-Carter in, which has made her subsequent films quite startling.

When I first watched and read A Room with a View, it was in the same sort of way that I generally read classic romances (a dreadful habit I need to get out of): as a character study with a love story in it. I think that A Room with a View  can still definitely be read in this way – after all, there are so  many interesting characters in this novel.

However, this is the first time I have read the book, and felt something deeper in it – understood a sort of moral standing within it, I mean, which can definitely be applied to one’s own life. In this instance, the novel suggests a way of living that is true to yourself, and true to decency, while disregarding the niceties of society.

The View

The story follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who is travelling in Europe with her poor older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two of them are shocked to meet two men in their Pensione in Florence who not only come from the working class, but also disregard tact – when they mention dissatisfaction with the room they’ve been given, the men (Mr Emerson and his son George), immediately offer them their own room in exchange. Note: this is considered inappropriate because it leaves the two women beholden to strange men.

While they are in Florence, Lucy finds herself in a number of situations which challenge her ideas of how to behave; she is separated from her chaperone while exploring the city, witnesses a murder, and finally finds herself being kissed by George, in a field above Florence. Charlotte convinces her that George views this as an exploit, and they leave.

In the second part of the book, Lucy returns home with her new fiance Cecil (in the film, played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Cecil

This was also the first film I saw Daniel Day Lewis in – which made all his other film roles even more of a shock than those of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Cecil is a bit of a snob – he looks down on her friends and family as being too middle-class, closed-off, and not interested enough in the higher things of life (such as art and music). He is actually a fascinating character: he doesn’t become a villain at any point, when it would be very easy to make him one. Nor is he particularly ridiculous. His one fault is that he is a restraining influence on Lucy, wanting her to fit into a particular mould, mix with particular people and live in a particular way.

I will leave the ending to you to discover, but I will say that this is a wonderful book, both as a character study of Edwardian society, and as a way of understanding a radical lifestyle lived in an unobtrusive manner. It is well worth reading, and also very short. Also, the film is lovely.

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A Brief Note on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I went to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies last night, as my Valentines Day treat. I expected it to be ridiculous, silly, action-y fun.

It wasn’t.

It was actually really good.

The film maintains the mannerisms of Jane Austen’s characters the whole way through, adding new touches that come about with the zombie apocalypse (for example, it is now fashionable to travel to the far east in order to study martial arts; the most fashionable people go to Japan, while the less fashionable go to China – so there is some snobbery about Eliza being unable to speak Japanese).

It makes friendly digs at the original text, as well as at the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Mr Darcy dives into the lake!). However, it does not go too far in parodying the source material, and strays from making the very obvious jokes.

The costume design is also fantastic. The filmmakers have put real thought into how Regency ladies might fight zombies (there’s a sentence you don’t see every day!) without simply updating their clothing  – and there was surprisingly little sexing-up of the main characters.

The plot can be a little confusing at times, but it all makes sense in the end. Even if it wasn’t, though, anything can be forgiven when you introduce Lena Headey as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a famous zombie slayer.

Lady Catherine du Bourgh

We first see her standing on a mound of corpses.

If you are a fan of Pride and Prejudice, go and see it. It is brilliant, and deserves a lot of recognition.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. One of my favourite films is the adaptation made of it in 2006, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking. For years, however, I’ve been under the impression that I would really dislike the novel. The film has a sort of slow, ponderous beauty to it which I thought might be stodgy and dry when written down.

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Oh, how wrong I was.

But to get to the matter of the story. It is the tale of a youngish woman in the 1920s who, realising that she is running out of time to make a successful marriage, marries a government bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. He loves her, but is incredibly awkward and shy, and we never really get to grips with what he is thinking.

Being bored, she has an affair with a far more attractive man. Her husband finds out and makes her a deal: either he will divorce her (which would have been a massive disgrace in those days), or she can come with him to Mei-tan-fu, a part of mainland China which is suffering from cholera. She chooses to go with him.

At this stage the film and novel somewhat get away from each other: in the first, she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* falls in love with her husband, in the second she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* begins to find a sense of herself which is independent from men and from what her mother has told her. She also does not fall back in love with her husband, seeing him until the end as somewhat malevollant.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I've put on this blog.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I’ve put on this blog.

Maugham (who, by the way, seems to have had an amazing life, being first a doctor, then a novelist, an ambulance driver in WWI, and a spy), writes at the beginning of the book that the story is based on another story which he learned from a young woman called Ersilia who was teaching him Italian. There are some lines in Dante’s Purgatorio which Ersilia told him related to Pia, a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband suspected her of adultery and who took her to his castle in the Maremma where he was sure she would die of the noxious vapours (when she did not, he threw her out of a window). Sometimes the inspiration which authors get for their stories is really fascinating, and while it seems that Maugham’s book fits more closely with his original inspiration I think that the film is still well worth watching. Nevertheless, and surprisingly to me, I think I prefer the novel to the film.

The Castle in Transylvania, by Jules Verne

I found this delightful little book when I was wandering aimlessly around the Forum library in Norwich. The Forum is fantastic, by the way, and if you live in the East of England (or are visiting) it is well worth going to.

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

In any case, the book confused me at first. I haven’t read any Jules Verne before, but I was pretty convinced that he wrote science fiction. And yet, here was I, reading a book with a title that sounds like gothic horror, with a plot that reads like gothic horror, and with characters who could only belong in a gothic horror story.

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

The Castle in Transylvania is very short, and I will try not to give too much of the plot away. It takes place in a village in Transylvania, which is near to an abandoned castle. The villagers maintain all of their superstitions, which include a deeply-rooted fear of the castle. None of the villagers would dare to go near it.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

That is, until the local shepherd notices that there is smoke coming from inside the castle. He becomes convinced that the castle is inabited by spirits. A forester and the local doctor (who has always pretended to be immune from the villagers’ superstitions) go to find out what is going on – with dire consequences.

I really loved this book. It’s a fairly easy and quick read, with some pretty standard gothic themes. However, the twist at the end makes it all rather wonderful. If you can find a copy, definitely go for it.

Also *SPOILERS* it’s not actually a gothic horror story. It’s science fiction. I knew I could depend on Verne.

Yay for Jules Verne!

Yay for Jules Verne!

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

Last night, I sat down to watch the new film version of Much Ado About Nothing, which was directed by Joss Whedon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – here is one of my favourite directors, directing my favourite Shakespeare play, and yet as far as I have seen, it has not received the best ratings. The ratings are not the worst, to be sure, but at three and a half stars, I feel that I should be able to expect more from Mr Whedon.

Of course, this seems to have been a little bit of a departure for the director. I have not seen absolutely everything he has ever directed or created in general, but the things he is most famous for – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers, etc – are all either science fiction, fantasy, or a mixture of both. Whedon is also especially good at two things – witty and interesting dialogue, and finding excellent choreographers for fight scenes. Since he chose to stick to Shakespeare’s script, and Much Ado is almost completely lacking in physical conflict, there does not seem to have been much room for Whedon to add his own style.

There isn’t much room for this kind of thing in a romantic comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s romances. Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, comes to the house of Leonato following a battle. Two of his officers, Claudio and Benedick, are already known to Leonato and the ladies of the house, Leonato’s daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice. Claudio sets eyes on Hero and falls heartily in love with her, and following a small amount of confusion obtains Leonato’s permission to marry her. Benedick and Beatrice have both sworn against love and marriage, but through a cunning plan carried out by the Prince they are tricked into declaring love for each other. The force for bad in this story comes through the Prince’s brother, Don John, who is intent on messing things up for the Prince and chooses to ruin Claudio’s marriage since the Prince had encouraged them to wed.

I just have to say, at this point, that the main reason I love Much Ado About Nothing is because of Beatrice. As I said before, she has sworn off marriage, and she declares this in beautifully witty ways. She is a devastatingly intelligent character (apart from the fact that she is tricked into falling in love), and despite being tricked into falling in love with Benedick, she is shown as remaining strong and having a fair amount of power within the relationship.

Much Ado About NothingGenerally, I think the problem with Joss Whedon’s version of the play is that he changes the setting, without changing much else. His version is in black and white, and the characters appear to all be a part of the mafia or something similar, but I don’t feel this really brought much to an understanding of the story. Where Baz Luhrmann decided to bring Romeo and Juliet up to date and used it as an opportunity to make the audience consider, for example, how violent young men never really change over the course of history, Whedon’s version of Much Ado About nothing just seemed very slow-moving and the updating of it did not really go very far.

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the great science fiction writers of the last century, and it is easy to see why. He created loads of different worlds, both futuristic and contemporary, for readers to enjoy, which (like all good science fiction) reflect back on our society. At least two of his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly have been made into films. Today’s review, The Man in the High Castle, won a Hugo award in 1963 for best novel. I want to stress from the outset that I admire Philip K. Dick and his work a great deal. But for some reason The Man in the High Castle  just was not for me.

The Man in the High Castle
The premise of the novel is very interesting. It is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis powers won WWII. America has been divided between the Germans and the Japanese, with a small buffer zone in the mountains. There are several different plotlines going on: more political ones including a German man who is attempting to give German secrets to the Japanese, and very everyday ones such as an antiques dealer who realises that many of the antiques he has been sold are fakes. In addition, many of the characters refer to a book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen. This novel is supposed to be about an alternate reality to the one in the novel, in which the Allies won the war, but in a different way to that which actually happened. Meta.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

I found a lot of things about the novel interesting. For one, the majority of the action happens in the Japanese section of America, rather than the nazi-occupied section. This was quite interesting to me partly because in the UK we tend to learn a lot more about the European aspects of the war and partly because it is a culture which I am just starting to learn things about, and would very much like to know more. Philip K. Dick also places a lot of emphasis on the I Ching’s ability to tell the future. In this universe, it works, and the characters who use it have absolute confidence in it.

However, I had some problems with the novel. It follows the tendency of some science fiction to make all reality quite bleak: none of the characters seem to have actual relationships with one another, instead using one another to obtain their own desires. I would suggest this is due to the cultural differences which are being imposed upon the characters, but it is no different with Julia Frink, a character set in the US zone, and it is a style which the author has also used in the other book of his I have read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This makes it quite hard for me to have empathy for the characters; they feel more like chess pieces than people.

The ending also felt very rushed and a little confusing. It is difficult to tell whether, by the end of the novel, anything is actually achieved, or whether the author merely intended to give his readers a glimpse into this world.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published under a pseudonym. Its title refers to the feeling which the narrator has of being trapped under a bell jar, and unable to breathe. Credit for this artwork goes to lazykitsuneReading The Bell Jar was a very odd experience for me. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, recalling her experiences in New York. She is a poor girl, who won an opportunity to live in a hotel in New York, working at a magazine. The beginning chapters of the book are all, in my opinion, terribly dull – tales of dinners that Esther attends, her friends getting up to no good, steering her down the wrong path and so on. Frankly, it reads like a kid’s TV show with a moral to it.

Then, the tone changes. Esther returns home from New York, and finds that her life lacks direction and meaning. It was at this stage that I realised the first chapters had not, in fact, been an after-school special, but had been dull for a reason. Esther’s unhappiness and depression was, to an extent, present the whole time, and can be read from the beginning.The rest of the book, detailing Esther’s downward spiral, is wonderful. It details the experiences of depression in an incredibly realistic manner – as might be expected, given that Sylvia Plath suffered from depression, and tragically killed herself a month after The Bell Jar was first published in the UK. Sadly, the book’s theme, that of a young person being depressed, has made it a symbol of teenage angst, and a quick search on google shows that this is not entirely unfounded.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

One of the reasons why it stikes such a chord with the angsty teenage crowd, among others, is because it reflects the ways in which so many people can feel alienated, and find difficulties with life’s demands. It is far from a cheerful read. Indeed, it so vividly portrays the detatchment of depression that the reader is at risk of becoming detatched and gloomy themselves. It would not make for good bedtime reading, but for a greater understanding of the mind, and the serious problem of depression with which a number of people today still struggle, I believe that no book written can match it.