Archive for Books

Browsing my Bookshelf: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

This novel has been calling to me from my shelf for nearly a year, and I finally decided to pluck it from the to-b-read pile.

 

Synopsis: Nothing can stop Sarah Nickerson: a smart, sophisticated, Harvard Business School-educated Vice President of Human Resources for a Boston Consulting Firm, not to mention a wife and a mother of three. Adept in her climb up the corporate ladder, Sarah is keen to catch and juggle the many curveballs that life throws at her from all directions, until she suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that, quite literally, reshapes her world. Left Neglect prevents Sarah’s brain from registering sensory information on her left—everything from food on the left-hand side of her plate to the left side of her own body.

 

As Sarah struggles to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of which she is only partially aware, she is challenged to see just how short-sighted she has been and that the key to conquering Left Neglect is to focus on the corners of her life that she has filtered from her field of vision. Forced to reach into the black hole of neglect to retrieve her life, Sarah discovers not just herself, but the hands of her children, reaching out to comfort and be comforted, the touch of her loving and supportive husband, and the embrace of a mother who had for so long existed, unseen, in the blind spot of Sarah’s life and heart.

 

Left Neglected is a novel that powerfully reminds us of how a single moment can change the course of an entire life; of how loss, in its own strange way, offers us gifts we could never otherwise have received. With Tenderness and authenticity, Lisa Genova offers us a story that bears witness to the triumphs that emerge from tragedy and the journeys that we can only take when we recognize that the first step is accepting that we must allow others to walk with us. A novel that is a true testimony to the ways in which health, illness, ability, and disability are inevitably a part of the vocabulary that shapes the stories of our lives, “Left Neglected” also speaks universal human truths about love, loss, friendship, and trust.

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Who needs therapy? Not I, surely

Friday, 6:30 A.M. I’m standing in the cold, cheerless dawn, listening to the pattering of raindrops on the hood of my slicker and the squelch of mud beneath my dog’s paws as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to find a dry patch of grass on which to squat.

Suddenly I hear the distant slam of a door and a call of “Sancho, come,” followed by a frantic yip. Despite my rain-soaked clothing and my dripping dog, I giggle, because Sancho is the name of Gilbert Markham’s dog in Anne Bronte’s /The Tenant of Wildfell Hall/, possibly my favorite Victorian novel, not least because I devote an entire chapter to it in my dissertation. I strongly considered sloshing through the mud to my neighbor to inform him that his canine has the distinct privilege of sharing a name with that of a dog in a (moderately) famous work of Victorian Literature. IN my frenzy, I conveniently overlook the fact that the call to come” was delivered in heavily Spanish-accented English and that Sancho might just as likely be a nod to Don Quixote as to Anne Bronte, but it’s too late to capture my imagination, which has wandered off like a wayward child down a path of rainbow fantasies: I am Helen Huntington, and the owner of that noble canine is Gilbert, and we will exchange greetings that lead to a long, passionate love affair. Never mind that Helen is attired in workout pants and a rubber ducky yellow rain slicker and Gilbert sounds more like Ricky Ricardo than a Victorian hero.

I am pulled from my revery by the brush of wet fur against my hand. My dog has apparently decided that the heavy precipitation is hardly conducive to relieving his bladder. ON-balance, I think it best to avoid capture by white-coated men and slosh back inside through the puddles without enlightening my neighbor about this fun factoid of literary trivia.

Conclusion: I am not, contrary to popular belief, certifiably insane, though I did wonder last summer when a TB test result I took mistakenly appeared as positive if there might be health risks to reading too much Bronte.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Some Thoughts on Finally Seeing the Film

After months of following press coverage and whetting my appetite with trailers and snippets, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from the John LeCarre novel of the same title, has finally arrived in my local theater.

It is the early 1970’s, in the midst of the Cold War, and the head of British Intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt), has stepped down after a failed operation in Budapest, Hungary. Control suspects that one of four senior British agents has been acting as a Russian agent—”The Mole”—and that the operation in Hungary was an attempt to identify him. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who retired after Control’s resignation, is asked to investigate a claim by agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) that a mole does in fact exist. Smiley’s investigations—aided by the young and ambitious Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) lead him down a twisted trail of deception to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), an agent believed to have been killed in the failed Hungary operation who is at the center of the fiasco and holds the key to the identity of the mole.

Boasting a cast including Gary Oldman and Colin Firth as well as promising, young talent like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, this is a film that seems at times to call more attention to showcasing the skill of its actors than on plot detail. Gary Oldman and Colin Firth are as usual on top form; Oldman in particular is the perfect fit for George Smiley. With a quiet, understated authority, he has the bearing of a man both accustom to and weary of living in a world where mistrust and suspicion are the order of the day, and betrayal often comes at the hands of those you thought you knew. Firth’s characterization of Bill Haydon yet again displays his mastery of the ability to capitalize on very little screen time to create a character who, despite flitting along the outskirts of the story, maintains a mysteriously pervasive presence. Haydon is a character whose casual machismo and wily charm readily lend themselves to the aura of intrigue that surrounds his absence from much of the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Peter Guillam was especially rewarding to witness, as seemingly enamored of Oldman as Guillam is of Smiley, and yet holding his own alongside his seasoned co-stars. Given Cumberbatch’s oft-quoted claim in an interview in The Observer that the call sheet for Tinker Tailor is one he will frame and keep forever, he plays that acknowledged admiration to his advantage to cultivate the relationship between hero and hero-worshiper that exists between Smiley and Guillam. The film also boasts strong performances by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, as well as Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs and Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina.

For viewers who’ve read LeCarre’s novel, the film sustains the basics of the suspenseful plot with a few minor departures, and some of the more poignant scenes—particularly those that lingered on facial expressions and wordless but heavily coded gazes did homage to Lecarre’s fluid, descriptive writing. To those unfamiliar with the original story, the plot is summarized concisely, if confusingly at times—mostly due to the challenge of adapting such a complex story into a two-hour film—but the frequent flashbacks and oft-jarring scene shifts lend themselves well to the air of suspense. The real enjoyment, however, comes from watching a selection of talented actors conquering a cast of complex characters.

Film synopsis partially taken from IMDB, and thanks to Benedictcumberbatch.co.uk for posting the article in The Observer

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Playing with Fire, Scorched by Flame: Ellen Hopkins’ Burned

I’ve had this novel in my “TBR” pile for several months, and in the humdrum of returning to work after the holiday, I decided to pick it up, thinking that some good young adult fiction would help me forget, at least temporarily, the stress of life. (Obviously I was new to Ellen Hopkins). I found, instead of the trials and tribulations of teen angst, a compelling story of love and hate, of faith and doubt, of feud and forgiveness.

Pattyn Von Stratten is a good Mormon girl: completing her chores, caring for her six younger siblings, dutifully attending sacrament meetings and seminary, tacitly tolerating her father’s alcoholism and abuse and her mother’s submissiveness to his domineering ways. But then a secret relationship with a “real boy”—a non-Mormon boy—incurs her father’s wrath and triggers a chain of drama that results in Pattyn’s “exile” to spend the summer with an estranged aunt in Nevada.

Banished from her home to be punished, Pattyn finds comfort in the arms of “Aunt J”. Battered and broken, she learns about the healing power of love. After years of attending sacrament meetings and adhering to church elders who rarely practice what they preach, Pattyn finds God in the thunder that rolls across the mountain range, in the rhythmic rocking of a horse’s canter, in the eyes of a boy who loves her. So long crouched in cold darkness, she blooms in the wild of the Nevada desert. But in these vast, wide open spaces where her heart is free to fly, is there a shelter in which she can escape her demons?

Burned is a story about the choice to love and the consequences of that choice—that with great gifts come great responsibility, and that even God, in his infinite wisdom, deals doses of tough love. Ellen Hopkins’ simple yet elegant pros at once touches and twists the heart of the reader, and Pattyn’s story is one that gives voice to any young girl forced to grow up in a narrow-sheltered world where questions are forbidden by adults who have no answers.

Note: not being entirely familiar with the Mormon faith, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal, but this is a story whose power is not bound by cast and creed; Pattyn’s family could just as easily be a Protestant family, A catholic family, a rich family or a poor one. It is a story that will resonate with anyone who struggles in a world where being lost seems far easier than finding oneself.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am channeling Jane Austen

Yesterday, in full-fledged literary geek mode, I wrote this post in tribute to Jane Austen on the day of her birth. I therefore found it surprisingly appropriate that this morning, when I stumbled across the I Write Like analyzer, that according to the sample I submitted,

I write like
Jane Austen

I Write Like
by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze
your writing!

At the tender age of 12, when my classmates were immersed in Choose your Own Adventure Stories and the Baby-Sitters club books, I fed my mind on a steady diet of Austen and the Bronte sisters. (Admittedly I did read a few of the Baby-Sitters Club stories). In any case, this was also roughly the period when I began to produce my own “Juvenilia”, dabbling in poetry, fiction, and, I confess, fanfiction. It shouldn’t therefore surprise anyone that my voice echoes that of the writers I was reading at the time. Still, because I’m nothing if not inquisitive, I wondered just how versatile my writing is. A page of my dissertation run through the analyzer claimed that

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write
Like
by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

and another blog sample apparently indicates that

I write like
Margaret Atwood

I Write
Like
by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

A sample of the Sherlock Holmes article I’m working on at present compares me with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though my minimal powers of deductive reasoning conclude that this has little to do with my own way with words; rather I think the analyzer detected a few direct quotations from /A Study in Scarlet/. I’m surprised the analyzer didn’t begin flashing red and accusing me of being a plagiarizing fraud.

As randomly generated as the results are, it’s interesting and a bit entertaining to see how well they do—or don’t—compare with how we describe our own writing voices. I always tell my students that the best writers are good readers, and just as we learn to speak by listening to our parents, we learn to write by emulating other writers. The Austen result was predictable but gratifying; the Atwood pleasantly surprising, the Lovecraft, slightly off-putting, and I’m somewhat disconcerted about the future of my dissertation. It could have been far worse though, I suppose; I could write like Danielle Steel.

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December 16, 1775- For Unto us was Born this day: an Austen Addict’s Tribute

On this day in 1775, was born in Hampshire one of the most captivating and enduring novelists of English Literature: the one and only Jane Austen. Austen was one of eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen; of her siblings, Cassandra was most notably the closest to Jane, and her brother Henry served as her literary agent.

Among Austen scholars and biographers, she is well-known for rarely straying outside the boundaries of home and family life. Her education was completed largely at home after a brief stint under the care of Mrs. Ann Cawley, during which period she and her sister Cassandra caught typhus and returned home. the sisters briefly attended a boarding-school between 1785 and 1786, returning home when the family could no longer afford to keep both girls in school.

Austen began writing in 1787—a series of poems and short-stories later collected into what is referred to as “The Juvenilia”. During her lifetime, Austen published four novels:/Sense and Sensibility/ (1811), /Pride and Prejudice (originally written in 1795 under the title /First Impressions/), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). /Persuasion/ and /Northanger Abby/ were published posthumously by Henry and Cassandra in 1887. She died on July 18. 1817 after a prolonged illness, and aside from a twelve-year period between 1820 and 1832, her novels have never been out of print.

As Robert Urvine writes in his introduction to /Pride and Prejudice/, “Austen is one of few nineteenth-century novelists who have entered popular consciousness as genre screenwriters”. Her work captures, for her contemporary readership and modern audiences alike, a “fantasy of Englishness,” particularly in her depiction of pre-industrial England. Such literary escapism is clearly evident in novels like /Pride and Prejudice/ which, though originally penned in the midst of French-revolutionary turmoil, deals not with the social and political issues at the forefront of social consciousness, but offers a comical and satirical treatment of “polite society”. Austen’s novels have been the subject of numerous adaptations, from Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility” and the now legendary BBC/A&E “Pride and Prejudice” to the modernized version of Emma in “Clueless” and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels (/Bridget Jones’ Diary and /The Edge of Reason/, also adapted into film). Not to mention Seth Grahame’s horrifyingly humorous /Pride and Prejudice and Zombies/: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If not for the fact that Jane Austen is well-known among her adoring readers for her sense of humor, the earth might have felt the tremors emanating from Winchester Cemetery as she turned in her grave.

I adore Austen for her quick wit and satirical sense of humor; for her comical yet thoughtful treatment of issues of social mobility, gender politics, and sexuality; for creating a rich cast of characters as familiar to readers as our own families and friends. I can never resist—rascal though I know him to be—falling in love with Frank Churchill, and witnessing Darcy’s reformation is as rewarding to me now as when I first read /Pride and Prejudice/. As a graduate school professor of mine so rightly put it, we don’t read Austen novels to find out what happens; we know already who’s going to wind up together. The magic of Austen isn’t finding out what happens in the end. It’s discovering how we get there.

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Chillin’ With ma Boys at Baker Street!

Project Give Thanks Day 11

I usually have at least one moment every day when I lean back in my desk chair, clasp my hands above my head, stretch luxuriantly, and think to myself, “God, this is too much fun. They can’t be paying me for this.” On some days, I have to search for that moment, like rummaging in a pile of dirty laundry for one clean sock. ON other days, like today, it’s far easier.

As several of you know, I am currently co-authoring a chapter in a collection of essays, /Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century/, scheduled for a late 2012 release. Working on this chapter involves, among other things, watching and re-watching Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film and series 1 of BBC’s “Sherlock”. Amid the flurry of end-of-semester insanity, I’m grateful that this project, as demanding and time-consuming as it is, has actually forced me to sit down and spend 90 minutes doing something I thoroughly enjoy. I love the fact that I can legitimately categorize my love of British television and my adoration of Benedict Cumberbatch as the sexy-but-sociopathic Sherlock and the adorably hobbity Martin Freeman as John Watson under the life heading of “professional development”.

I realize that I am probably shooting myself in the foot here and that this confession is only contributing to the numerous arguments that the Humanities are a “soft sell”. It’s a bit like the time during my first semester as a PhD student when I was working on a seminar paper on /Pride and Prejudice/, and one night when on holiday visiting the family, my dad found me feverishly taking notes on the infamous wet shirt scene in the BBC television adaptation while everyone else was in the living-room decorating the Christmas tree. I had to manufacture this expression of intense concentration, all the while feeling like a guilty kid with my hand caught in the cookie jar.

Ah well. There’s plenty of time for me to prove the value of my career choice to you all. For now, back to Baker Street I go!

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