February 25, 2012

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle is a book written by Philip K. Dick.  Before now, I was familiar with his work solely through movie adaptations of it.  Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, and most famously, Blade Runner, are all based on his books or short stories.  I decided that my first Philip K. Dick book should be something completely new to me.   

The Man in the High Castle takes place in a world similar to our own, with one startling difference in its history: the Allies lost WWII.  The United States as we know it has ceased to exist.  The western states have become the Pacific States of America, occupied by the Japanese, and while the east is still referred to as the United States of America, it is controlled by the Germans.  There is a free, independent area in the Rockies, and the South is barely spoken about and only as a place where people would never want to go.  The Reich rules almost all of Europe and Russia and has taken over all of Africa only to eliminate the entire population in something described as an experiment gone wrong.  All of the atrocities of Nazi Germany continue unabated, and Americans are second-class citizens in the P.S.A. and the U.S.A.  I don't think I can express how unsettling this was to read.  Dick describes this world so well, it is frighteningly real.

Most of the book takes place in San Francisco (in the Pacific States of America), with some parts in the Rocky Mountain States.  There is a new bestseller in this world, banned in the Reich, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  It chronicles an alternative history in which the Allies win World War II.  The way in which one of the characters talks about this book, with such hopeful desperation, if only F.D.R. hadn't been assassinated and could things have been different, is heartbreaking.  The author of this book is "the man in the high castle," supposedly locked safely away in the Rockies to keep him safe from those who want him dead for writing it.

I thought The Man in the High Castle was great.  You get to the end and realize that it's so much more than just an alternate history novel. The characters are interesting.  The book isn't filled with caricatures of evil Nazis and Japanese oppressors.  In fact, I ended up liking a couple of them better than one of the Americans.  It didn't seem right!  I'm eager to read more of Philip K. Dick's work.

February 22, 2012

North & South

Let me start off by saying, North & South is fantastic.  I'm referring to the BBC miniseries based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell about the north and south of England, rather than the show about the American Civil War with the guy from Dirty Dancing.  It is the story of Margaret Hale, the daughter of a country parson who uproots his family from the south of England to move to the mill town of Milton, in the north. 

Margaret Hale
Margaret, played by Daniela Denby-Ashe, has lived in her southern English town her entire life, and the industrial city of Milton is a completely different world to her.  She has never before encountered mill workers or the merchant class who employ them.  Margaret didn't want to leave her home, and she has a difficult time adjusting to the people and customs of Milton.  One of those with whom she butts heads is John Thornton, owner of one of Milton's cotton mills.

John Thornton
Thornton is played by Richard Armitage.  (My fellow geeks will recognize the name as the actor who is playing Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming Hobbit movies.)  Margaret doesn't think he is a "gentleman," she doesn't like how the workers are treated, and they pretty much fight about everything.  He thinks she is a snob who doesn't know how the world really works.  Naturally, this is just masking the feelings they are developing for each other.  Margaret soon makes friends with one of the men working in John Thornton's mill, Nicholas Higgins, and she becomes very close to Higgins's daughter, Bess.  Hey, Higgins looks familiar...He's Bates from Downton Abbey!  Well, he wasn't Bates when I first saw North & South, but he is now.  This friendship draws her into the plight of the workers and the drama of their plans to strike.

Wait, this isn't Bates, I mean, Higgins...
I need to mention that the story is very much not about workers being oppressed by capitalist mill owners.  John Thornton is a self-made man who is struggling to keep his mill profitable.  The problems between the owners and the workers are looked at from both sides here.  What goes on with the mill is only the backdrop to the story of Margaret and John.  And what a story!  They each have issues with their families and other potential love interests.  Their characters undergo significant transformations over the course of the four episodes, and Thornton shows there is a lot more to him than it seems at the start.

I don't want to give away too much by going deeper into the plot.  When I first saw North & South, I immediately thought, why haven't I seen this before?!  I'm a fan of Jane Austen, and I'd put this right up there with the Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice.  That is high praise coming from me.  Margaret Hale is outspoken and strong, in the same vein as Elizabeth Bennet.  John Thornton is also similar to Mr. Darcy.  He makes a terrible impression at first, but as you get to know him, and as he gets to know Margaret, not only does she bring out the best in him, but it is revealed that he was good at heart all along.  Also, you can probably tell by the fact that I have put four pictures of him in this post that I think Richard Armitage is pretty good looking.
This will be the last pic of Richard Armitage
North & South completely sucks you in.  At the end of episode two, you'll be yelling at the screen, "What are you doing?! ARGH!" just like I did.  Even the score is compelling.  There is one melody which will stick in your head for hours after watching it. I think anyone who likes Jane Austen or anything by a Bronte would like this a lot.  I'm not sure why this isn't more well known, but it deserves to be.

February 19, 2012

The Code of the Woosters

What ho!  It's time to talk about Jeeves and Wooster.  The Code of the Woosters is one of many books written by P.G. Wodehouse featuring these two characters.  There was also a television series based on the books, with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster.  Yes, Hugh Laurie from House.  He's British, and he's hilarious.  I saw an episode of House once, and it was jarring to see him with an American accent and acting grumpy. 

Jeeves and Wooster
In the U.S., we might call Jeeves a butler, but Wodehouse describes him as Wooster's valet, his "gentleman's gentleman."  He helps Wooster get dressed and undressed, picks out his clothes, makes tea, prepares meals, runs Wooster's bath, answers the phone- generally anything that Wooster needs done, Jeeves takes care of it for him.  The Jeeves and Wooster stories are told in the first person by Wooster.  They usually revolve around Wooster and his friends getting into trouble, whereby they rely on Jeeves to get them out of whatever mess they have created with some ingenious plan.  None of them have jobs and they have plenty of money, so they have the time and the resources to wreak havoc in each others' lives. There is a recurring cast of minor characters who show up among the different Jeeves and Wooster books, such as Wooster's aunts Agatha and Dahlia, and friends like Gussie Fink-Nottle and Tuppy Glossup.  Wooster quite often ends up accidentally engaged to a few of his female friends, although he has no desire to marry any of them.

As with other Jeeves and Wooster stories, The Code of the Woosters is very funny.  Wodehouse is clever and witty, and there were times when I laughed out loud reading it.  Actually, I can't just leave it at that.  Wodehouse is a master of language.  The way he turns a phrase is remarkable.  For instance:

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.


'There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, "Do trousers matter?"'
‘The mood will pass, sir.’

It would almost do it a disservice to describe the plot, with all of its twists and turns and misunderstandings.  It involves a silver cow creamer, a lost notebook full of insults, and more than one on-and-off again wedding engagement.  The characters are likable, and the book is light-hearted and fun to read.  Even the antagonists aren't really bad.  They're more comical than anything.  I'm looking forward to reading as many Jeeves and Wooster stories as I can get my hands on, and luckily for me, P.G. Wodehouse was a prolific writer.

And what is the code of the Woosters?  "Never let a pal down."

February 17, 2012

The Neverending Story

The Neverending Stoooor-y!  Aa-aa-aah, aa-aa-aah, aa-aa-aah!  Everyone my age knows that song, from the movie of the same name.  I love this movie.  I loved it as a kid, and I love it now.  It was in the rotation of movies that I watched again and again, like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Star Wars movies, part of a triumvirate of fantasy movies with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

I think this movie hit the mark with me even more because I was and am a big reader.  I know what it's like to get lost in a book.  And if you are a Gen-Xer and say you don't want to ride on Falcor the luck dragon, you are LYING.

It also has the coolest accessory this side of a lightsaber, the Auryn.  Atreyu wears the Auryn on his mission to save Fantasia and its Childlike Empress.  I've never been much into jewelry, but I'd be a happy lady if I had an Auryn. 

It was time I read the book.  I picked up a hardcover edition first published in 1997 which alternates green and black text depending on whether the story is in the real world or in Fantasia.  I found that to be a great effect, and it was helpful in the sequences which quickly switch back and forth between Atreyu and Bastian, the main characters.  The movie covers the first half of the book and sticks pretty close to it.  There are some differences, which is to be expected.  Fantasia in the movie is Fantastica in the book.  In the movie, you pass through two gates to get to the Southern Oracle, and in the book there are three, along with a completely different Southern Oracle.  How Atreyu and Falcor meet is different (and it's Falkor with a "k" in the book).

 I was happily reading, and then I got to the part where Atreyu is introduced with his horse, Artex (or Artax).  I thought, OH, NO.  The scene.  There is a scene in The Neverending Story that I haven't seen for years.  I always fast forward through this scene.  It is the scene where Artex sinks into the Swamps of Sadness.  I suppose in order for Atreyu to be free to ride Falcor, he had to lose the horse along the way, but did he have to die in the Swamps of Sadness??  I started riding horses when I was eleven.  This scene is very upsetting to me.  There was no way to fast forward through it in the book.  To make it worse, Artex can talk in the book, so you get to hear their parting words.

Halfway through the book Fantastica is saved.  The second half of the book is about Bastian in Fantastica.  Atreyu and Falcor are minor characters.  It pains me to say this, but the second half of the book isn't that great.  Bastian is completely unlikeable and becomes more so due to the power of the Auryn.  I understand that the Auryn was influencing him and that this was necessary for the plot, but he started out unbearable and got worse.  He at least should have been sympathetic at first so that you could see the transformation.  From the second he gets to Fantastica he is awful. I did end up liking the book, but I was a bit disappointed.  It felt as if I had read two different books rather than one long story.  I would still recommend reading it, though.

February 15, 2012

Reversing the Polarity

I've started this blog to share things with family and friends.  I might blog about books, movies, baking, vacations, my beagle, or any number of things.  "Reversing the polarity" is a nod to Doctor Who, the British television show.  For now, you can see my beagle, Kenobi, as the background to the blog: 

Disapproval of which a rabbit would be proud
The funny thing about this photo of Kenobi is that it is probably the least representative picture I have of him.  He is a loving, friendly, happy beagle.  His tail never stops wagging.  He wasn't very keen on leaving his toys and posing at this particular moment, I guess.  It was also taken many years ago, so now his face is mostly grey.  He is named after Obi-Wan Kenobi, of course- the Alec Guinness version, not Ewan McGregor.  I live in a world where Han shot first.
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