Friday, October 31, 2008

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

One of the reasons I do not join book challenges is because I don’t like anyone to tell me who/what to read. I admit it. I am prejudiced against certain authors because my first and only contact with them has been negative. Like Mr. Darcy, “my good opinion, once lost is lost forever”. Occasionally, though, I find an author who redeems himself in a second novel. And I’m glad to admit I was wrong.

After the dismal ending of Gallico’s acclaimed Snow Goose, I had sworn him off forever. But when I saw his Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris at our school library I just couldn’t resist. It’s the story of Ada Harris, a London charwoman, making the best of her widowhood by cleaning other people’s apartments. One day she opens the closet of one of her wealthy clients and sees a Dior dress hanging there. Suddenly, beyond all reason, she knows she must have one of her very own.

Her efforts to make her dream come true are only the beginning of this charming story. It could almost be categorized as a “grown-up” fairy tale because wherever she goes Mrs. Harris seems to sprinkle fairy dust over those she meets. YET she’s very realistically drawn (missing teeth and all!) and the book is fraught with painful setbacks.

As I read the book I wondered if it would have been ignored by today’s publishers. After all its emphasis on feminine longings (to own a Dior creation) or to be married instead of have a career (a dilemma of one of the book’s characters) just doesn’t fit into a culture dominated by feminism. But I appreciated Gallico’s handling of these themes. He had a gift for making me care very much about the people in the book. I inwardly shouted “Bravo!” as they each took steps forward to help others and became better for it themselves.

In the end Mrs. Harris’ yearning for the dress is secondary. The friendships that are made because of her quest are what change her life forever. This book was a delight from start to finish.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Read A Book by Mortimer Adler

The first sentence of How to Read a Book says, “I have tried to write a light book about heavy reading. Those who take no pleasure in knowing and understanding should not bother to read it.” He was, in fact, saying, “Read this if you dare. Wimps not welcome!” How could I turn down a challenge like that?!

It soon became clear that this was not a “light” book in the common sense of the word. Adler humbly concedes that his book is easier to read than the heavier books he is promoting, but he also points out that understanding takes effort and he definitely wants the reader to make some effort. He contends that “All books become light in the proportion that you find light in them.”

Part One was sprinkled with juicy quotes on the importance of reading and required little exertion on my part. In Part Two Adler gives three steps for getting the most out of what you read. Keep in mind that his emphasis is on classic non-fiction, called the “Great Books” because they contain the important ideas that have been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of written language. Plato, the Bible, Aquinas, Darwin and Newton are a few examples of “must-read” works. A limited amount of fiction works are included such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville and Dickens.

The second and third parts of the book are heavy and didactic, but I kept reading out of sheer stubbornness. If you’ve read my profile you know I consider myself somewhat of a book snob, but to Adler I’m a total amateur. According to him any baby can read for pleasure, but someone who reads to learn and be changed will have to pay a much higher price. Of the 131 important books listed in the 1939 edition I’ve read only six! Adler wrote that he put the list in the book reluctantly because too often students read through it and consider themselves “educated”. He emphasizes that it would be better to read a few of these books well rather than all of them poorly. Although I wasn’t completely converted from classic fiction to the “Great Books” list I have decided to occasionally branch out from my usual fare. I’ve even marked six titles to add to my reading list over the next two years. Hopefully Adler would approve.

Two notes of interest: First, Adler’s emphasis on paying attention to repeated words and phrases seems elementary to the experienced reader, but I can tell you that that particular method of “deeper” reading (sometimes called inductive study) became life-changing to me as I learned to read the Bible that way. Second, I found a slightly updated version of the "Great Books" and was thrilled to see my two favorite authors (Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Brontë) included this time around. One list is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Worthwhile Movie #1 - Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

I like clean movies that entertain without offending. I like good dialogue. If the actors have British accents so much the better. Obviously there isn’t much out there that I will watch. But this past weekend I saw an unusually good film that I think thoughtful viewers will enjoy.

I am already a fan of Joan Plowright and the reviews of Mrs Palfrey  implied the movie was driven by dialogue and not by action. I did not realize when I ordered the film that the male protagonist was Rupert Friend (the dastardly Mr. Wickham from the 2003 version of Pride & Prejudice). I very much enjoyed seeing him in a sympathetic role and think he was “just right” for the part of Ludo, the struggling writer.

The film is about the friendship of two lonely and very different people who are brought together unexpectedly. Ludo is the age of Mrs. Palfrey’s negligent and uncaring grandson and soon takes his place in her heart as a surrogate. She even leads the fellow guests at her hotel to believe he is her real grandson. The gentle conversations and small acts of kindness between these two make the movie a real gem.

My major complaint with the movie has to do with the movie tie-in (Brief Encounter  1946) and the obligatory lovers-in-bed scene (thankfully only 30 seconds long, but absolutely unnecessary to the story). Since one of the major themes of the movie was Mrs. Palfrey’s deep and enduring love for her deceased husband, these glorifications of love outside of marriage just didn’t ring true.

Still, this is one of the most charming and poignant friendship movies you’ll ever see. Keep some tissues handy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Lately I’ve read a string of books that have taken me out of my comfort zone. First it was science fiction (Out of the Silent Planet), then it was a play on the hopelessness of self-seeking relationships (Death Of A Salesman), and now it’s a horror novel, The Turn of the Screw

This is a book I knew I should read, but kept avoiding because stories about ghosts and demons don’t interest me. The movie based on this book gave me the creeps as a kid. Certainly the book was destined to do the same thing. So I finally "read" it through Librivox because it was highly recommended by the blogger at Free Listen (now defunct). I don’t know if it was the superb writing or the amazing narration done by Nikolle Doolin (or both) but I could not stop listening once I started. Nikolle Doolin read so well that she convinced me she was the book’s narrator and that this was indeed her story. Kudos to her for a fantastic job.

Turn of the Screw is about two parentless children and the governess hired by their uncle to take care of them. As the story unfolds we, along with the narrator, begin to wonder if these angelic siblings might just be too good to be true. Their visits with ghostly figures and the governess’ designs to protect them make up the bulk of the story. Creepy? Yes! Well done? Absolutely!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

I heard this Pulitzer Prize winning play quoted at length two different times this past year and decided it was time to actually read it. “Willy Loman” is apparently a name that every “cultured” American should know, but I had no idea who he was as I opened the book. Although Death Of A Salesman is a short book, just over 100 pages, it took me a whopping three days to read it because it was a bit grim for my tastes and I had to keep putting it down to take a breather. What struck me from the beginning was the profuse profanity – interesting for something written in 1949. While I dislike gratuitous swearing, its repeated use here seemed somehow appropriate – to show how lost these people were. Written today it would have been much worse.

Willy is a 63 year old traveling salesman who wants to quit, but can’t afford to. He is tired and disoriented. Clues to how he reached this condition are given through subsequent dialogue and occasional flashbacks. Obviously something is very wrong with his relationship to Biff, his oldest son. Their struggles to relate to each other are evident from the first scene. As the story unfolds we discover that Biff and his father had adored each other earlier on in their lives. In fact, Willy had pinned all of his hopes on Biff. He had been convinced that his son was going to be “somebody” and had pumped him up with false ideas of his own greatness. Only when Biff recognizes he’s “nobody” does he have a chance to start over without all the lies and pretensions, but this happens near the conclusion of the play.

There were several twists in the play (which will go unmentioned here). The reason that Biff never finished high school comes out near the end. At that point the reader is not sure whether to blame Willy or Biff. Both of them made wrong choices that destroyed their futures. I don’t know what Arthur Miller’s intentions were when he wrote this play. Nothing redemptive seems to come out of all the suffering. When Linda talks about being “free” in the last scene she is referring to their money problems. I think the freedom could also be applied to Biff’s decision to finally give up a life of pursuing false hopes. The truest freedom would have come if the people in this story had been able to experience forgiveness for their past foolishness. Miller effectively showed the oppressive heaviness of their sins and how the whole family was still trapped by them.

Because of the heavy subject matter this play was not pleasant reading material, but I’m glad I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.