November recap

Two…count ’em, TWO…movies this month. How freakin’ pathetic is that? And one of them was because I was writing about it for class. Oh well, there are twelve books. That’s right. More than I’ve ever read in a month before, ever. Well, yes, all of them were for school. Or work. A lot of them are plays that I read into a CD burner so that the stage design professor I work for in the theatre department could listen to them later.

Movies

Excalibur
I’m fairly certain I’ve seen Excalibur before, but it didn’t show up in my records, so here it is. Excalibur is ostensibly John Boorman’s version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, but it’s a great example of a very effective non-faithful adaptation. (I’m sorry, I’m sort of focused on that lately.) Though the beginning of the story is very like Malory, the rest draws heavily on mystical elements of the Arthurian legend, emphasizing the close relationship between Arthur as king and the earth itself, sort of conflating Arthur with the Fisher King of the Holy Grail legends. The best thing is that what Boorman does, combining Malory with Germanic tales of Tristan and Isolde and French Grail quest stories, with a pinch of pre-Christian mysticism highlighted by critic Jessie Weston, is very similar to the mix-and-match approach Malory took with his own sources. It creates a film that is intriguing, provocative, and very much Boorman’s own. See the full analysis of Excalibur‘s relation to Le Morte Darthur I turned in for class here (warning: spoilers for both Le Morte and Excalibur).
Above Average
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Casino Royale
A return to form for Bond. The last several films have just gotten more and more bloated with gadgets and far-fetched plots. Casino Royale comes closer to the Bond of the Sean Connery films and the Ian Fleming books–a tough, brawling “blunt instrument,” as M calls him here. I’ve seen it twice now, and there are a few things that bug me (the villain’s asthma inhaler, the final action of Vesper Lynd…) but all in all, it’s a roaring good time, with less silliness than usual. Okay, the credit sequence is pretty silly. But hey. I’m just happy to see a credit sequence at all anymore. Plus, Daniel Craig is hot. And so is Eva Green. Just so we get that out of the way. See my longer (also non-spoilery) review here.
Above Average
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Books

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
This is one of those plays that you hear about all the time if you’re into 20th century literature at all, so I was glad to be pushed into actually read it. However, I’m not sure I really “got it.” I sort of liked it on an “okay, that was sorta weird” way. But in another way, nothing happened. And I know that’s the point, that they’re just waiting for something to happen, but my professor was trying to convince us that there was hope at the end of the play just in the simple fact that they do continue waiting, and maybe Godot will actually show up. But that didn’t really seem convincing to me…I mean, if that’s the only thing that brings meaning to their lives, it’s not much, is it? I dunno. I’d like to see it performed. A lot of times plays I don’t “get” on paper become much better on stage, since, after all, that is how they’re supposed to be experienced.
Average
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Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
Why don’t literary critics write like this anymore? Idiosyncratic, personal, subjective, and gorram enjoyable to read as well as being insightful. It was especially enlightening to read this in light of the paper I was writing on Forster’s novels (which is, of course, the immediate reason for my reading it, although it has been on my “eventually read” list for a while), in order to see how he incorporates his principles of literature into his actual novel-writing. His style of writing reminds me a lot of some of C.S. Lewis’s more mainstream criticism, like An Experiment in Criticism. Basically, he just goes through different aspects of a novel–plot, characterization, rhythm, story, etc.–and talks about them. No deep theory or scientific classifications. Just a writer and a reader writing his observations of novelistic form. I don’t always agree with him, but I certainly enjoyed reading him.
Above Average
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Early Modern English Drama edited by Garrett A Sullivan, Patrick Cheney and Andrew Hadfield
I read this collection of essays for a book reviewing assignment for Bibliography and Research class. I think I got off a bit lucky compared with some of the other students, many of whom complained profusely about how horribly-written and argued their books were. ;) This one really wasn’t bad…twenty or so short essays, each addressing a specific Early Modern play (time period: 1450-1650 or so) and relating it to a specific aspect of Early Modern society or literary trend of the time. It’s nothing that anybody not studying the time period would want to read, but there were several really excellent essays…and two or three real dogs. It did turn me on to some nearly postmodern Early Modern plays that I now want to read, so there’s that. See the full review for class here.
Average
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Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman
Recording plays as part of my job in the theatre department was tremendous fun. First, I got to pretend like I can act, but without consequences, because the guy I was reading for was mostly interested in the staging and design of it; second, I got exposed to a lot of new dramas that we’d never read as literature. This one is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and most of it is played as mythical/classical, but a few scenes were more modern. One of my favorites was Cupid and Psyche (I think…it’s been awhile) in a modern-day psychologist’s office. The play as a whole was pretty light and breezy, but the mixture of contemporary and classical stylings kept it interesting.
Average
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Joyful Noise by Tim Slover
Trying to read this one aloud for the CD-burner almost made me cry. It’s about the writing of The Messiah, and by the time the Hallelujah Chorus brought together King George, his anti-oratorio bishop, the aging Handel, an outcast opera singer, and her social-climbing replacement, I nearly couldn’t keep going. I don’t know how historically accurate it is–I should find that out, actually–but it was quite a good play. Not really, like, groundbreaking drama or anything, but solid, well-written, and I guarantee there won’t be a dry eye in the house once Handel’s music is added. I think this is one of the ones getting produced next semester as a thesis project, so perhaps I’ll get a chance to see it performed.
Above Average
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Okay, if you like Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, you must must must read or see this play. Tom Stoppard is the same guy who wrote Shakespeare in Love, and he’s extremely witty and thought-provoking. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet–Hamlet’s two friends that Claudius summons to spy on Hamlet and eventually escort him to England and to his death, but the plan goes awry and R&G are killed instead. Stoppard’s play shows what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were up to during the majority of Hamlet, when they are offstage. Mostly, what they do is discuss philosophical questions and wait for something to happen to them. Sounds really boring, BUT IT ISN’T. It’s awesome. See it live if you can. There’s also a movie, which is quite good, but quite different from the play. So you can see them both, and it’s like, double the fun!
Superior
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Posing as People by Scott Brick, Aaron Johnston, Emily Janice Card
This amalgam of three one-act plays is based on three short stories by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card. The first one concerns an aged man, rich due to his invention of a sort of time machine, who wants to go back in time himself to get another chance with a girl he blew off in his youth. The second was sort of Truman Show-esque, about TV series called “Lifeloops,” basically 24-hour improvised soap operas. The third, I don’t remember. The first one was rather sweet but insubstantial, and the second could have gone so much further into the idea of living your life as a fiction than it did. Like so much science fiction, unfortunately, the premise was far more interesting than the execution.
Average
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Howards End: E.M. Forster’s House of Fiction by Alistair M. Duckworth
I picked this as one of the critical books I had to review for my twentieth-century Brit Lit class, and it was a really good thing I did, because I based a lot of my argument in my final Howards End paper on it. Duckworth is a well-known scholar, especially in Jane Austen studies, and he does a really nice job showing that the very inconclusiveness of the end of Howards End is part of Forster’s point. As far as critical books go, this one is indepth, clear, easy to read, and makes a lot of sense. See my full review here.
Above Average
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Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie McDonald
The main character of this play is a female literature scholar working on Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo & Juliet, trying to prove that the two tragic plays were based on earlier comedies. One night while researching, she gets sucked into the two plays, first Othello (where Othello thinks she is an oracle of the gods and Desdemona tries to get her to enjoy the battles going on around them) and then Romeo and Juliet (where Romeo thinks she’s a boy but falls in love with her anyway, and so does Juliet, even after she finds out she’s a girl–the gender-bending is as good as Twelfth Night!), and finally a mixture of the two, as Desdemona is ported into R&J as well. A lot of it is very funny, some of it quite clever, but the ending stretches the whole conceit a bit too far, and it ultimately breaks. Still, I can see it would be incredibly fun to act. It was fun to read into the CD burner. ;)
Average
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Translations by Brian Friel
Friel is one of the leading Irish playrights of the twentieth century. I, of course, not being up on Irish literature, had not heard of him. This is why we go to school. :) Translations is set in the early 19th century, when England sent military cartographers and surveyors over to Ireland to rename all the towns from Irish to English, and concerns the effects of the English influence in one Irish town. The play covers most of the bases–the imperialist English captain, the small-town Englishman who see something of value in Ireland as it is, the Irish schoolteacher who wants to ignore the English invasion, his two sons, one of whom works for the English, while the other plans to escape to a more remote part of Ireland, and the Irish girl who desperately wants to learn English. There are a lot of great moments, and the entire play is very thought-provoking about the relationship not only between England and Ireland in the 19th century, but about their relationship during the IRA Troubles, as well as any other place where one culture and language is being replaced by another. The only problem is the fact that in the 1980s, you can’t write a play three-quarters in Irish even many of the characters only speak Irish, and a lot of the scenes depend on the inability of the characters to understand each other, because very few people speak Irish anymore. In a way, this works because it underlines the nearly complete eradication of Irish by English, which is beginning at the time in which the play is set. Yet, although Friel did a good job indicating when Irish was begin spoken, I did find myself wishing the differences in language could be made more clear.
Well Above Average
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Straight Man by Richard Russo
Oh, such a fun read. Probably because it was A NOVEL after so many works of criticism, poetry, and drama. Not that criticism, poetry, and drama aren’t good things. But novels are better. For me, anyway. Straight Man is set in a university English department, and I think our Bibliography and Research professor had us read it to get an idea of what we were getting ourselves into. ;) It’s really comic, but apparently there’s a lot of truth in it about what English departments are really like. I wouldn’t say it’s great literature, but it was certainly a good book to take the edge of the last few weeks of school.
Above Average
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One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
Now, this was great. And to think I nearly didn’t read it because it was the one thing at the end of the semester that I safely could’ve skipped and it not affected my grade. But I decided I would at least start it, and I ended up reading it in just two sittings. It’s set in Ireland in 1994, with flashbacks to the seventies and eighties, and follows one family’s devastation due to the Troubles. I really don’t want to say much about the story, because part of the beauty of the book is the way Madden meters out information about the events of the Troubles and how they affected this particular family. It’s not a happy book, but neither is it depressing. It’s poignant and heartbreaking and…beautiful. I do recommend checking out the Wikipedia article on The Troubles if you’re as sheltered from Irish history as I was. One by One brings the time period to life, but it doesn’t give a lot of background on it.
Superior
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