Reading in translation: getting a global perspective

Gaining insight into other cultures and perspectives is one of the things I most enjoy about reading. And, of course, books can be therapeutic too. Susan Chira’s recent New York Times article, In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen, rings true.

Returning to old favourites and the reassuring stability of the classics can be just what you need when times are tough, so it isn’t surprising that bibliotherapy is growing in popularity. After all, many of us need some sort of escapism when the world seems to be getting more turbulent by the day.

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Modern Living: When Clean Eating Goes Bad

modern-living-chocolate-brownie-1Photo credit: Toa Heftiba

In my new semi-regular blog series on modern living, I’m taking a look at lifestyle trends — like fashion, make-up and eating — and exploring some of the issues related to our modern ways of living.


The other day, I was flipping through a magazine and spied something that made me roll my eyes: a ‘clean eating’ version of a chocolate brownie recipe. The recipe instructed to include baobab powder in the brownie mix: a so-called ‘superfruit’ powder formed inside the fruit of the African baobab tree. Continue reading

Travels in Madrid: Part 3 – art galleries, Egyptian temples and more

After the busy sight-seeing in Toledo on the second day of my trip to Spain, my friend had to work on the third day, so I ventured out into Madrid on my own. I decided to go to El Museo Nacional del Prado — one of the most magnificent art galleries in the world.

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Before you can enter the museum, you have to go through a more basic version of airport-style security: bags through the scanner as you walk through a metal detector. As I only had a small backpack, I was allowed to carry it with me but people with any larger bags had to leave them in a room behind the security desk. Continue reading

Travels in Spain: Part 2 – Adventures in Toledo

If you read my previous post, you’ll know that at the beginning of June I flew to Madrid for a four-day mini vacation. Four days isn’t a long time, but it’s surprising just how much you can see, do and experience in that time. I spent three days in Madrid and one day in Toledo, a nearby city.

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A view of Toledo, looking back across El Puente de San Martin (Bridge of St. Martin)

 

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Books and movies to watch out for in 2016

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that reading books and watching movies are two of my favourite ways to rest, relax and recharge.

I love this quote from an Iranian woman photographed by the Humans of New York project:

HONY books photo

Books and films can transport you into different lives, different worlds, different possibilities. And reading a book or watching a movie you enjoy can be a real mood-booster too. The last movie I saw was Joy (here’s my review), and I felt great when I left the cinema.

We’re a week into the new year already, and 2016 has some exciting new books and movies in store. Last year, I wrote that I was looking forward to Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and the adaptation of the Irène Némirovsky novel Suite Française.

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Festive Traditions

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The Twelve Days of Christmas. By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (Creative Commons)] via Wikimedia Commons

When I was growing up, family traditions made Christmas special, and we still continue many of these traditions.

On Christmas Day, we always unwrap our gifts in the afternoon, after lunch. When I was a child, on Christmas morning I was occupied with gifts from the stockings that had been hung up the night before. These gifts were delivered by Mother Christmas, not Santa Claus. And our Christmas lunch was — and still is — vegetarian. No turkey in sight!

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Fortified by Poetry

This week, I listened to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the poet Mary Oliver. Although I was familiar with Mary Oliver’s name, I knew nothing of her poetry other than the often-quoted final lines from The Summer Day:

Mary Oliver ~ Siyan Ren

Unsplash photo, courtesy of Siyan Ren

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Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

Serena by Ron Rash, a novel which has recently been made into a film adaptation, begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his new wife set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees the logging empire of the Pemberton Lumber Company and this provides the backdrop to the story. But the title of the novel is the key to its plot: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice: she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story is interwoven with the young woman’s, Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth, in that she works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor with her. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth, act 1, scene VII)

In the novel, neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it difficult to empathize with them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the logging camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic and Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made in the movie adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet. I expect Serena and Pemberton will be softened somewhat, as audiences tend to dislike movies where they cannot relate at all to the principal characters. It is certainly unusual for protagonists to be entirely unsympathetic or unlikable.

The trailer for Serena:

Although the craziness of the two protagonists is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds dryly:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed […] You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened in the end. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility, such as the character of the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecies.

By the time I finished reading Serena, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top, with little character development. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives. For me, this is a major weakness in the plot. Again, it will be interesting to see how/whether this is elaborated on by the scriptwriter in the movie adaptation.

Have you read any of Ron Rash’s novels? His new short story collection, Something Rich and Strange, is getting good reviews.

Belsay Hall: an exhibition of Jane Austen costumes

Driving south from Scotland last summer, we stumbled across Belsay Hall in the north-east of England.

Built in the early nineteenth century, Belsay Hall was the home of the Middleton family until the 1960s, when it was discovered that the house had been very badly affected by dry rot. Today, it lies empty.

A view of the Pillar Hall atrium at Belsay

A view of the Pillar Hall atrium at Belsay

Another view of Belsay

Another view of Belsay

 

Although I prefer visiting country houses which are still furnished and lived in, my interest was piqued by Belsay’s advertisement for an exhibition of costumes from movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen novels. People who know me well and regular readers of Cultural Life will know that I take delight in all things Austen, so it was a fun opportunity to be able to see some of the costumes from the adaptations.

Outfits from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: the 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

One of the outfits worn by Elizabeth

A coat, shirt and breeches worn by Mr. Darcy, during the infamous scene when he dives into the lake near Pemberley. The script-writer took some artistic licence with that scene; it’s not in the book.

Mr and Mrs Darcy’s wedding clothes

Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennet): “It is settled between us already that we are to be the happiest couple in the world”

The wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy -- copyright BBC

The wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy — copyright BBC

Outfits from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy

A dress and necklace worn by Mr. Darcy’s fearsome aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Judi Dench)

A suit worn by Mr. Darcy

Outfits from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: the 1995 movie version starring Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood and Kate Winslet as Marianne

One of Elinor Dashwood’s outfits:

The wedding outfits of Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) and Marianne Dashwood

Colonel Brandon was now as happy as all those who best loved him believed he deserved to be. In Marianne he was consoled for every past affliction; her regard and her society restored his mind to animation, and his spirits to cheerfulness; and that Marianne found her own happiness in forming his, was equally the persuasion and delight of each observing friend. Marianne could never love by halves and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.

Do you enjoy costume dramas and adaptations of classic novels?

“Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

The recently released movie, Belle, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great-uncle in the privileged setting of upper-class Georgian society. It is a costume drama and there are stately homes, pretty dresses and carefully landscaped gardens aplenty. However, it is an unusual costume drama because Dido was a wealthy mixed-race woman at a time when black or mixed-race aristocrats were almost non-existent.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

The director of Belle, Amma Asante, was inspired by this portrait, which shows Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted in 1779. The painting is extraordinary for its time because black or mixed-race subjects in Georgian paintings were rarely portrayed as equal to white subjects. Asante says that “Everything you see in the film, the vision I have created, comes from the painting” (quote source: Ham & High).

I saw the film last week and while I am always a fan of costume dramas, unlike many period drama films this isn’t a typical love story. There is a romance but that is mostly eclipsed by the focus on issues of class, gender and racial politics of the time in which Dido lived. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807 and the film is set in the 1780s, a time of great legal significance in the battle between those who opposed slavery and those who supported it. Belle is a costume drama with a difference!