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!

My Literary Wish List

A few weeks ago, Emily January over at The Bookshelf of Emily J. posted this post with ten books that she wouldn’t mind getting for her birthday. Emily suggested that her readers could post their own literary wish lists too. My birthday isn’t for another eleven months but here are ten books I would be delighted to be given. Perhaps I will gift them to myself! 😉

Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2007) by Christopher Davies.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love language and the study of linguistics. One thing, out of many, that fascinates me about language is the fact that English has so many varieties around the world. I am interested in differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in general but language differences are especially interesting to me.

One Night in Winter (2014) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There is something about literature which is set in Russia that I find absolutely enthralling. I read Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping, epic novel Sashenka a few years ago. It began in 1916, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and it was a compelling read. Sebag Montefiore is a historian as well as an author and so his novels are always scrupulously well-researched and historically detailed. He has written several books — fiction and non-fiction — about Russia and its history. I can’t wait to read One Night in Winter.

Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan

Set during the Cold War, Sweet Tooth is about a young Cambridge graduate and compulsive reader, Serena Frome, who is recruited to MI5 in order to infiltrate the literary circles of writers whose politics are in alignment with the government. It is a story of love, betrayal and espionage and it sounds intriguing!

Homage to Catalonia (1980) by George Orwell

This October, I am due to go to Catalonia to teach English. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of his time spent fighting against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I have studied the Civil War as part of my degree and there is much more for me to learn about this brutal time in Spanish history, which led to a forty-year political dictatorship. The legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive political regime can still be seen in Spain today; the cultural taboo surrounding the war and the dictatorship is only just starting to be broken.

Hard Choices (2014) by Hillary Clinton.

There are too few women in high-ranking political positions and in leadership roles in the workplace. Regardless of political views, I think Hillary Clinton is an inspiring person simply because she is a woman who has achieved a prestigious position, despite the sexism that women often face in the world of politics. I read her earlier memoir, Living History, and I look forward to reading her latest.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

Continuing with the theme of strong women who want to make a difference in the world, I Am Malala is a remarkable story of the determination of a Pakistani schoolgirl who speaks out for education. After being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school and undergoing emergency surgery, Malala has been (and continues to be) on an awe-inspiring journey and has become the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is an amazing young woman!

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) by David Rakoff

Until his untimely death from cancer in 2012, David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life and I always enjoyed hearing his humorous and often poignant stories. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously in 2013 and Rakoff wrote it entirely in rhyming couplets. I have heard a number of his stories in rhyme on This American Life; they are often thought-provoking and always enjoyable.

Looking for Alaska (2006) by John Green

I keep hearing hype about John Green but have never read any of his books. I thought I would add this to my wish list so I can find out what all the fuss is about.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

Crime isn’t my usual genre of fiction but as a fan of Rowling’s writing and superb storytelling, I want to read this. I remember when the real identity of Robert Galbraith was leaked last year. There was such a media storm! I wrote a post about it entitled Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

In the Skin of a Lion (1997) by Michael Ondaatje.

This book was recommended to me by Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog. The main character is Patrick Lewis, who “arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario” (Goodreads).

What is on your literary wish list at the moment? Have any of the books on my wish list caught your eye?

The problem with feminist characters

During the past few days, I have read at least two or three separate articles on why Katniss Everdeen is such a great female role model. Katniss is the lead protagonist of The Hunger Games series of books and films. She is a very human character with flaws and vulnerabilities. She is also determined, strong and she does things on her own terms. In her fictional dystopian universe, a futuristic imagining of the United States, inequalities between social classes are a bigger problem than inequalities between gender.

The most recent movie, adapted from the book, focuses partly on revolutions and uprisings in the twelve districts which are controlled by the totalitarian regime of the Capitol. And Katniss’s refusal to define herself by relationships with men, unlike some other mainstream franchise characters (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you), has led to her character being acclaimed as a pop culture feminist role model.

Photo credit: © 2013 - Lionsgate Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

Photo credit: © 2013 – Lionsgate
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

The issue of gender discrimination in film is nothing new. The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 and it scores movies and other works of fiction based on the criteria that “it has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man” (Bechdel Test). Recently, a few independent Swedish cinemas have started rating the movies they show and giving them a grade based on whether they pass the Bechdel test. I think there are flaws with this: a movie can still be sexist or demonstrate gender inequalities even if it contains two female characters who talk about something other than relationships. But it does highlight the fact that a lot of movies are based on models of gender bias which do not fit the feminist ideology of equality. Perhaps needless to say, The Hunger Games passes the Bechdel Test with an A grade.

However, the fact that we need to make a point out of having strong female characters demonstrates that we have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have feminist characters, especially in mainstream franchises. But I think the fact that we have to make such a big deal out of it is representative of a wider problem: of inequalities which still linger. It highlights the issue, at least in my eyes, that it is necessary to define characters by feminist and non-feminist. By all means, we still need to work towards equality but I hope that it will become standard for women to be represented in all forms of media without gender discrimination. Only then will we know that true and meaningful progress has been made.

The perfect gift for book-lovers

Last week I clicked on a link I saw on Facebook and I found this:

Photo credit: Dorothy

Photo credit: Dorothy

I loved it so much that I wanted to share it with you all. It is a creative and delightful book map from We Are Dorothy. Over 600 titles from all types of literature are included. There are areas of the map which are dedicated to the Harry Potter series, others to Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Many of my readers love books and literature as much as I do and I think you will agree that this is rather wonderful.

A close-up view of part of the book map. How many titles can you spot? (photo credit: Dorothy

A close-up view of part of the book map. How many titles can you spot? (photo credit: Dorothy)

To view more images of the book map, purchase it and explore We Are Dorothy’s other creations, hop over to their website here and follow on Twitter @Dorothy_______

A guest post for Protect My Public Media

Image copyright Cultural Life (2013). Created using wordle.net

Image copyright Cultural Life (2013). Created using wordle.net

Today I am a guest blogger for the organization, Protect My Public Media, where I share the reasons why I love public radio and my This American Life obsession.

You can read my post by clicking here.

Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?

What would you say if I told you that one of the most popular classic novelists of all time was coming back, with her works reimagined for a twenty-first century audience?

When I received an advance reader copy of Sense and Sensibility last week, my initial reaction was curiosity, followed by thoughts about the audacity of the title: the blue cover with “Sense and Sensibility” emblazoned on it in gold lettering. You see, this is not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Look upwards from the golden title and you will see Joanna Trollope’s name glinting on the cover, above an image of two modernized Regency-style silhouettes.

The Austen Project is “a major new series of six novels teaming up authors of global literary significance with Jane Austen’s six complete works”.

Three of the titles are still to be revealed but the reimagining of Sense and Sensibility will be followed by crime writer Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey in March and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice in fall 2014.

In a quote which appears on the website of the Austen Project, Joanna Trollope says that it is “not an emulation, but a tribute”. I realize that these retellings are not intended to be imitations of Austen’s novels. Whether you like or dislike Austen, the originals are obviously far superior!

When I heard about this project, I immediately felt irritated that the titles are the same as Jane Austen’s. Imagine going into a bookstore and asking for a copy of Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, do you mean the Jane Austen or the Curtis Sittenfeld one?” Because the copyright on Austen’s novels expired long ago, people can do what they like with them: reimagine the books, use their titles, create zombie mash-ups of them. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, regrettably (or delightfully, depending on your opinion), is a real title.

Why was The Austen Project created? It is a good money spinner for the publishers, no doubt. The Jane Austen phenomenon reached a peak in the 1990s with the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and the infamous “wet shirt” scene. Today, there are Austen festivals, sequels and endless film and television adaptations filled with gorgeous scenery and good-looking young men chopping logs, such as the 2008 BBC television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (trailer below)

But, money aside, why is it necessary to update Austen’s works? Part of their greatness lies in the fact that Austen was writing during a very different era. Context is key: without the complex social mores and historical detail of the Georgian period, her characters and stories do not hold the same weight.

If you don’t know the plot of Sense and Sensibility, three sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and their mother are turned out of their grand Georgian home when their father dies and the estate is passed to the next male in line. They are forced to move to a small cottage owned by a distant relative, Sir John Middleton, and their lifestyle changes dramatically. The only hope for Elinor and Marianne (Margaret is a minor character in the story as she is only thirteen when it begins) is to marry men who can provide for them.

Today, of course, this is completely irrelevant and there is no obstruction to being an independent woman. But when Jane Austen was alive, women in the middle and upper classes did not have many choices other than to marry or become a governess. As Austen herself wrote in a letter in 1816, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony“.

Do modern retellings of classic novels work? It is impossible to translate the restricted roles which women had in Austen’s time to the present day. Therefore, some of Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility comes across as a bit far-fetched; Marianne and Elinor do not need to marry to find a way out of their impoverished situation. This type of issue is one of the problems with updating classic novels into a modern-day setting. But I had to smile at some of the modernizations — when Marianne is sad about having to leave her home, instead of taking solace by playing the piano (as she does in the original) she picks up her guitar and plays Taylor Swift’s Teardrops on my Guitar.

Despite being critical about Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, I am enjoying it more than I initially thought I would. It is best if you have already read the original novel before you read the retelling, otherwise you will miss out on a great deal.

Although any answers to this inquiry are purely speculative, one of the most pressing questions on my mind is “What would Jane Austen say?” I wonder if she would be insulted or pleased or perhaps rather bemused by it all.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope will be released in hardcover in the U.S. on October 29 and in the U.K. on October 24.

What do you think about the modernization of classic novels? Join the discussion by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The joy of great radio: 6 reasons why I love This American Life

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

In the New Year of 2011 I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes after dinner. So far, so ordinary. But then I switched on my iPod and something magical happened. My first time listening to This American Life happened. On that dark January evening as I scrubbed saucepans clean and rinsed soapsuds from plates, This American Life opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at money and thinking about the world.

It all started when I got my iPod for Christmas 2010 and I explored the podcasts section on iTunes. The first episode of TAL I downloaded to my podcast was The Invention of Money (you can listen here: The Invention of Money). Like a paradigm shift, it gave me a completely new perspective on money and the world. From that moment on, I was captivated.

Now, over two years after my first time listening, I am a fan, a devotee, an addict. I listen to This American Life every week. If I miss an episode, I start to get withdrawal symptoms. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways…

1. FormatThis American Life has a very simple but very effective format.

In the words of its host, Ira Glass, “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme”.

This sentence, like a mantra, is always tucked into the first few minutes of each TAL broadcast. The audience is ready, waiting like children eager to hear a story, and the show begins.

2. Theme – the show covers an endless variety of themes. I looked through the TAL Radio Archives and picked out a few of my favorite episodes:

The Invention of Money – the first episode I ever listened to. It is truly enthralling.

Invisible Made Visible – this is the radio version of a live show which TAL produced last year. I picked it as one of my favorites because of Ryan Knighton’s contribution. Ryan is blind and in Act 1 he talks about trying to explain what that means to his young daughter.

Return to the Scene of the Crime – I spent a while trying to remember the name of this episode and trawling the archives for it because I really want to share it with you. It made me wince and laugh (Mike Birbiglia in Act 1: “D-u-why?!”) and cry (Dan Savage talking about his mom’s death in Act 3: “Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow”).

In Dog We Trust – stories about the animals in our lives. I particularly recommend listening to the last act, Act 3: Resurrection.

3. Journalism – the stories that TAL produces are examples of journalism at its finest hour, encouraging listeners to think creatively and giving them a different angle on everyday life. This article from the July/August 1999 edition of the American Journalism Review explains exactly what sets TAL apart.

This American Life wordle

4. Storytelling – On the About Our Radio Show page on the TAL website, they explain that the journalism on the program “tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads”. That technique is what struck me when I first listened to This American Life on that dark winter evening two years and eight months ago. The producers took an ostensibly humdrum topic of money and opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. The program was factual but the method of presentation was like a riveting novel that I couldn’t bear to put down.

Conversely, “the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism”. Some of my favorite moments on TAL are stories told by contributors such David Sedaris and David Rakoff, for example, the unique retelling of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, which is about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a cockroach. What would happen if Samsa wrote to Dr Seuss, imploring for help? Act 2, “Oh! The Places You Will Not Go”, of episode 470 is a correspondence between Samsa (Jonathan Goldestein) and Dr Seuss (David Rakoff).

5. Ira Glass – Ira Glass is a public radio veteran, having worked in the field of public radio for more than thirty years. As host and executive producer of This American Life, he is one of the masterminds behind the show and he is definitely part of what makes it great.

6. Relaxation – Listening to This American Life is one of my most favorite ways to relax. My preferred way to listen is to download each week’s episode in podcast form to my iPod and curl up under the covers to listen. TAL is an excellent sleeping aid! If I can’t sleep, all I have to do is put TAL on a low volume and before you can say “This is Public Radio International”, Ira’s voice lulls me into a peaceful slumber.

In short, This American Life is funny, moving and brilliant. The stories range from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans to bizarre stories which challenge your views and make you reconsider your opinions. And these things are all part of a unique listening experience: the joy of truly great radio.

Are you a This American Life listener? What do you love about the show? If you’re not a TAL listener, have I convinced you to check it out?

In August, I read…

Now that we are in the last few days of August, it is time for my literary round-up of the month. This month, I read two very different but equally gripping novels. My August reading material began with a trip to Spain and then to Morocco in The Seamstress by María Dueñas.

Note: You can also find María Dueñas’s novel under the title The Time In Between (click here to see its Amazon page). It is identical to The Seamstress, just with a different title.

“Born in the summer of 1911”, Sira Quiroga grows up in Madrid. From the age of twelve, she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker in the same workshop where her mother worked. Her life is simple, predictable, stable. “My ambitions remained close to home, almost domestic, consistent with the coordinates of the place and time in which I happened to live” (p. 3). But when she is seduced by a man who persuades her to run away with him to Morocco, her life begins to change. Her suitor betrays her and steals her money, leaving her alone in a country of which she knows nothing. This is when the novel really starts to pick up the pace. The first few chapters laid the groundwork and the background for Sira’s character but the chapters in Morocco are the ones I enjoyed most.

By now, the Civil War is raging in Spain and Sira can’t go back to Madrid, as much as she longs to return home and to see her mother, who she has no way of contacting. She is stuck in Morocco, she has no money and her duplicitous lover left her with a large debt to pay. So, Sira turns to the only trade she knows: dressmaking. Her years spent sewing dresses in a Madrid shop meant that she is an expert at her trade.

Between 1912 and 1956 in Morocco, the Spanish established the Protectorado español en Marruecos (the Spanish Protectorate) and during the Spanish Civil War many expat Spaniards and their Nazi German friends lived there. Sira manages to achieve success by setting up an atelier and sewing dresses for the Spanish and German women. “Bit by bit the business began to flourish, word began to spread” (p. 173).

The novel spans a wide arc from pre-Civil War Spain, to Morocco during the Civil War and finally to Franco’s Spain during the time of World War II. The Seamstress is full of detail and at 600+ pages (609, to be exact) I read it slowly, enjoying a few chapters each day. María Dueñas has a PhD in English philology and teaches at the University of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. Her academic expertise and research skills are evident in the novel. She includes a lengthy bibliography of the sources and texts she consulted while writing. The historical detail is wonderful and the plot is constantly developing. Despite having studied the Spanish Civil War, I knew nothing about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and its role during the Guerra Civil. The Seamstress made me want to find out more. Although the protagonist is a fictional character, many of the other people who appear in the novel were real people, including Rosalinda Fox, who had a fascinating life.

There are some areas where the novel dragged a little. The detail is wonderful and really sets the scene but there is a lot of it and I think some skilful editing would make a difference. On the whole, though, I can’t really fault this book. The plot is engaging, the setting is atmospheric and I liked the central character. Some reviews I read called Sira a shallow character but personally, I disagree with that judgement. She is an enterprising, resolute young woman and it is a credit to Dueñas’s proficient writing that Sira matures and develops throughout the novel. It is a great, memorable novel and I look forward to reading more from Maria Dueñas.

My second August read was Serena by Ron Rash. I have just finished reading it and it is in sharp contrast, both in setting and in characters, to my first August read. It begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his wife, Serena, set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees a logging empire: the Pemberton Lumber Company. But the title of the novel is really the key to its contents: 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 interweaves with the young woman’s, whose name is 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. Like Lady Macbeth, Serena works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor. 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).

Neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it very hard to get close to them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of murder and 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. Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever.

Although the craziness of Pemberton and Serena 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 fanatical lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds with dry humor:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed,” Ross noted. “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. 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 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 prophecy.

By the time I finished reading the novel, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top. 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.

A movie adaptation of Serena (Serena at IMDB) is currently in post-production. Jennifer Lawrence plays Serena and Bradley Cooper is Pemberton. At the time of writing this, there is no US release date but it will most likely be released at some point in 2014.

What did you read in August?

New music from The Civil Wars

The Nashville duo, The Civil Wars, released their second album this week. I first found out about The Civil Wars thanks to a song on The Hunger Games soundtrack which I heard in December 2011. I bought their début album, Barton Hollow, and for most of last spring I played it on repeat on my iPod. The music, sung by Joy Williams and John Paul White, is haunting and melodic. Joy Williams’s voice is astoundingly beautiful combined with the raw simplicity of acoustic guitar. From melancholy ballads to foot-tapping melodies, each song tells a story, combining rootsy Americana, bluegrass and country in a captivating blend.

I would love to see them play live but unfortunately last year they cancelled tour dates on their European tour, giving “irreconcilable differences” as the reason. I hope they don’t stop producing music together. It is unclear whether they will tour again or release another album. It is a real shame as they are definitely one of the most talented Americana/country duos around at the moment. Let’s hope they manage to resolve the problems.

This song from their latest album left me with goosebumps. Go have a listen!

(Video linked from The Civil Wars Youtube channel. No copyright infringement is intended. All rights belong to their respective owners)

If you enjoyed hearing this, I also recommend “20 Years” and “Barton Hollow” from their first album.

For more about The Civil Wars with music videos and other info, you can visit their official website: The Civil Wars and follow them on Twitter @thecivilwars

What do you think of The Civil Wars’ music? If you have any recommendations for other Americana and country artists, let me know by leaving a comment on this post. I would love to hear them!