Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Red-Headed Heroines and the Child Feminist

Culturally, red-headed women are generally cast as troublemakers, with "a temper to match her hair" (as Rachel Lynde of Anne of Green Gables would say), overly emotional, easily aroused, sexually adventurous, and generally harder to dominate. The simple quality of having red hair "explains" behavior that was, or is, otherwise unacceptable for a woman. As a result of this stereotype, many red-heads in literature are proto-feminist or feminist heroines, even in the case of children's literature. In many ways, my own identification with these heroines (though I myself do not have red hair) was crucial to my development as a feminist.

The most obvious example for me is certainly Anne Shirley, a character that was so real to me as a child that I talked of her as though she had really lived and I had really known her. Though today I identify more strongly with Emily, growing up with Anne had an immeasurable impact on my development as a feminist, as I believe it must have on many, many young women. Anne is highly sensitive about her red hair and she identifies it as the external signifier of her difference and unwantedness as an orphan, but she is not a character who wallows for very long. Anne is ambitious, willful, and secure in her intelligence. Anne's feminism isn't overt, but it is quite radical. She is motivated by her personal ambitions - to become a great writer and to thereby gain success and independence - rather than by an assumption that marriage must be her ultimate goal because she is female, which certainly is the attitude of her friends Diana, Jane, and Ruby. Her professional ambition, her insistence on her own integrity and adherence to her own moral values, her thoughtful engagement with others, and most especially her active, rather than passive, choice to enter a romantic liaison - all these qualities make her a feminist heroine.

But even before I was able to tackle lengthy chapter books, red-headed heroines were already present, challenging norms and refusing to conform to the standards laid out for women. Barbara Cooney's gorgeous, National Book Award-winning picture book, Miss Rumphius, narrated the life of Miss Alice Rumphius, a woman who wished above everything to make the world a more beautiful place and found her calling in planting lupine wherever she went. The book has a certain wistful, delicate quality that is never compromised by the unusual politics of the story. Miss Rumphius is a marvelous character - a woman who travels the world by herself and is engrossed in her own pursuits and interests, utterly self-sufficient throughout her life. She achieves what she set out to do and, most importantly, relies on herself to do it. I was also very impressed by a stunningly gorgeous picture book, Young Guinevere, by Robert D. San Souci and Jarmichael Henterly. The book's illustrations, with their vivid jewel tones, clearly influenced by medieval tapestries, are extraordinarily evocative and create an imaginative space wherein a young girl can experience adventures of a sort usually reserved for boys, acting in their imaginations as young knights. This red-headed Guinevere, in San Souci's recounting, explores the forests by herself, encountering the beasts of myth (including my personal favorite, the Questing Beast) and protecting herself with her skill with bow and arrow. In this imagining, Guinevere is a strong surrogate for young women, displacing the patriarchal politics of Arthurian legends with an active and independent engagement in the outdoor world. Her story is not about her status as a marriage object or queen-to-be, but rather her moral and emotional growth as an individual.

Children's chapter books also have many examples of strong red-headed heroines. The one that immediately comes to mind is Astrid Lindgren's supernaturally strong and extremely subversive Pippi Longstocking. When Pippi is told she "suffers from freckles," she replies, "I don't suffer from them. I love them. Good morning," providing every little girl with the correct response to anyone who would comment on the perceived imperfections of her body. Pippi's physical strength (she can effortlessly lift her pet horse) grants her a direct power over both the adults and children around her; this sort of strength is normally reserved for adult male heroes, like Hercules or Paul Bunyan. Pippi, on the other hand, is only nine years old. Tommy and Annika, Pippi's pals, are equally submissive towards her, following her lead on every adventure and trusting that she will see them through. Pippi appeals to children because she effortlessly controls adults, both physically and psychologically (robbers would be well advised not to try to rob the Villa Villekula), and she appeals to women because she triumphs over the dictum that women should be self-effacing and passive. In some ways, Pippi is the female counterpart to Peter Pan, but unlike Peter Pan, she is no tyrant and her power is used for fun and protection. Peter Pan lives in a world dominated by the fear of adulthood; Pippi is fearless.

Another wonderful children's book heroine is Caddie Woodlawn, the tomboy heroine of Carol Ryrie Brink's historical novel. Set in Wisconsin during the Civil War, Caddie Woodlawn follows the frontier adventures of its child heroine, from her friendship with Indian John and her subsequent attempt to protect her Native American friends from the violence of the white settlers to the heartbreakingly long journey of her beloved pet, Nero. Caddie exists in a world in which violence and death are never far away and yet she has a great capacity for fun and friendship and has little difficulty, particularly when she is younger, defying sexist conventions that would restrict that capacity. Her emotional strength is bolstered by the physical health that she cultivates and by her determination to act of her own volition.

The fantasy genre is rarely the most welcoming to feminist heroines, though that has slowly begun to change, and that is at least partly due to its roots in older literary traditions, like the medieval romance, the static conventions of which posited that a woman was a passive idol to be worshiped and adored, served through chivalric deeds, but without either agency or self-determination. A striking exception is found in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, the heroine of which, Eilonwy, is unabashedly testy when she wants to be, loyal and brave, and a strong fighter in the resistance against Arawn Death Lord and his minions born from the Black Cauldron. She is both smarter and more powerful than Taran, the hapless hero and protagonist of the series, and although in The Castle of Llyr, she takes on the role of a damsel in distress, the plot complicates the usual paradigms by playing with the concepts of magic power and moral power. She's also an enchantress.

And speaking of women who practice magic, one can't write about the red-heads of children's literature without talking about the Weasleys and, in particular, Ginny Weasley. J. K. Rowling can be credited in her Harry Potter series with only mundane alterations to prevailing gender norms, but nevertheless the series has quite a few powerful female characters: one thinks of Hermione of course, Professor McGonagall, and, on the other side, Bellatrix Lestrange. Ginny's superficial role in the books is as Harry's love interest, a role that overwhelmed her character in the films, but she has a good deal more complexity. For one thing, Ginny is an athlete, once again highlighting physical strength as an indication of a strong, often stubborn character. In a series that emphasizes the bond of friendship above almost every other relationship, Ginny is a strong and loyal friend and much more open than Harry or Ron to friendships with classmates in other Hogwarts houses. She's also an accomplished practitioner of the Bat Bogey Hex, which she deploys several times in defense of her friends, and her talent in magic attracts the attention of Slughorn, a professor who delights in cultivating relationships with students who promise to be rich, powerful, or famous.

Though many feminist heroines in children's literature are not red-heads - one thinks of Jo March from Little Women or Mickle from Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy - authors are able to deploy the stereotypical character of the red-headed woman to subvert and undermine patriarchal politics and thus provide young girls (and boys, for that matter) with role models that don't conform to restrictive gender standards. These are women and girls who do not choose "to be divinely beautiful, dazzlingly clever, or angelically good," as Anne Shirley says - they are themselves, for better and for worse, and they know that that is precisely who they ought to be.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

14 Period Dramas Every Feminist Should See

Period dramas are marketed almost exclusively towards women, the only real exceptions being military dramas set in the past, and they often and very unfortunately have a stubbornly misogynistic streak, superficially cloaked as a true representation of the past but in fact an interpretation based on some of the most deeply ingrained misogynistic elements of our contemporary society, norms that dictate that a woman is chiefly concerned with her romantic status and that her romantic status determines her relative social and self worth. There are indications that this is slowly changing. Recently it was announced that a film about the British suffrage movement, entitled Suffragette, is starting production with a cast that includes Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan and other soon-to-be released films such as Belle and Effie Gray focus on historical stories about women challenging the racial, sexual, and marital politics of their day. It's rather significant that all three of these films are based on the lives of historical figures. The advantage of the erroneous designation of the period drama as a women's genre is that more women are able to produce and direct period dramas and as a result create feminist work aimed at a female audience than would otherwise be able to, given the current abysmal gender politics of Hollywood. My list of films that every feminist should see already included a number of great period films, including My Brilliant Career, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Anne of Green Gables, and The Last Mistress - none of them are included on this new list.

Queen Christina (1933)
Greta Garbo's androgynous performance as the (highly fictionalized) Swedish monarch is a tour de force that is astonishingly prescient in its deconstruction of gender definition and its sexual ambiguity. In the film, Queen Christina dresses like a man and declares "I shall die a bachelor;" she also enters into an illicit sexual liaison, the intimate beginnings of which occur before her lover realizes that she is female. For that alone, the film is essential for feminists, but the plot also interrogates many crucial ideas about gender and power. Though the plot begins to fray around the edges by the end, Garbo's phenomenal performance and the brilliant exploration of the intersections between male power and royal power make this a vitally important film for feminists.

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone with the Wind becomes increasingly problematic as time goes on and politics evolve, but its thorny, unscrupulous heroine Scarlet O'Hara is one of the most enduringly fascinating of all Hollywood leading ladies. Scarlet is anything but a positive figure - she cheats, lies, abuses, and even kills - but it is made clear throughout the film that she does so not merely to get what she wants. Rather, Scarlet, throughout much of the film, has her back to the wall, and her ability to survive is completely dependent on her willingness to break moral rules. The fact that she both accrues power by unsavory means and is a woman disgusts the men around her, though they themselves break the same rules; for example, Rhett, Kennedy, and even the supposedly incorruptible Ashley raid a shanty town, killing many of its denizens, after Scarlet has been attacked. The gender and power politics in this film are a fascinating study.

The Heiress (1949)
Based on Henry James's novella, Washington Square, this brilliant film stars Olivia de Havilland, in one of her finest performances, as Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward heiress of the title, whose father (played by the magnificent Ralph Richardson, better known for his theater work) believes that her lover (Montgomery Clift) is only after her for her inheritance. Director William Wyler and writers Ruth and Augustus Goetz refuse to simplify the morally fraught situation, allowing the characters latitude to be both supremely selfish and innocent of their own motives. Few films so fearlessly examine the complexities of love, class, and money in an environment in which women are essentially investments. Like many of the films on this list, The Heiress has a decidedly bitter flavor, one that hardly mitigates the film's greatness.

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
There are not enough good things in the world to say about auteur Max Ophuls, the director of this extraordinary film and many others equally wonderful. Danielle Darrieux plays the aristocratic lady of the title, so bored in her marriage that she fills her days with the empty pleasures of spending money and thus runs up a mountain of debts. Eager to hide them from her husband, she sells and pretends to have lost a pair of magnificent diamond earrings, originally a wedding present. Through the film, the earrings pass from hand to hand, leaving a whirlpool of intrigue and scandal in their wake, a veritable maelstrom that escalates to irrevocable tragedy. Though the trappings of this film are sumptuously romantic, its characters are as seduced and deceived by them as the film's audience at first viewing. In this film, as in many others, Ophuls presents us with a tragedy that is propelled by a society that keeps women idle and subservient.

Senso (1954)
My favorite of Visconti's films is this exceedingly bitter and utterly perfect melodrama, very loosely based on the novella by Camillo Boito. Set in the Veneto, just as the Risorgimento reaches its full fervor, the film opens in the La fenice opera house, where the Countess Serpieri meets Austrian officer Franz Mahler in the aftermath of an Italian nationalist demonstration. Though the countess is herself involved in the resistance that intends to aid Garibaldi in his fight against the Austrian occupiers, she soon falls so madly in love with Mahler that she loses all desire for anything other than her lover. Visconti was himself the scion of an ancient noble house, and was known as the Red Count because of his communist sympathies; his painstaking recreation of the world of his recent ancestors, his deft and brilliant examination of Italian politics, and the superb performances of Alida Valli and Farley Granger create together a unique and essential cinematic experience, more akin to an opera than a cinematic melodrama. I highly recommend the Criterion Collection's DVD release of this film, which includes numerous goodies, including documentaries and gorgeous production stills, that cinephiles will love.

Cries and Whispers (1972)
Ingmar Bergman, the sovereign of cinematic darkness and misery, presents us with an extraordinary exploration of the female psyche, female sexuality, and sisterhood in this deeply upsetting and yet equally rewarding study of three sisters gathered together in their ancestral home, as one of them slowly succumbs to cancer. The sisters, played by Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, and Ingrid Thulin, are torn by the intricate ties of love and hate that bind them and their simultaneous fear and welcoming of death. Bergman, as always, exposes even the most painful vulnerabilities of his characters, but in a film that focuses so overwhelmingly on the relationships between sisters and that so totally eschews romance (in any sense of the word), this brutal honesty has an inevitably feminist subtext. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist (for which he won an Oscar) is truly gorgeous.

The Bostonians (1984)
This polarizing adaptation of the Henry James novel, a Merchant Ivory production with a brilliant screenplay by frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, stars Vanessa Redgrave as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy spinster who is passionately involved in the nineteenth century feminist movement which fought for both suffrage and more equitable marriage and property laws. She becomes deeply attached to a young and quite innocent charismatic speaker Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), their relationship becoming increasingly tempestuous as Verena's resistance to both the misogyny and sexual magnetism of Olive's cousin Basil Ransom breaks down. Few films focus on nineteenth century feminism and Jhabvala's screenplay quite brilliantly transforms James's misogynistic politics into a more ambiguous political stance, retaining James's almost queasy social reactions to both feminism and lesbianism while subtly subverting the male perspective of the novel.

Howards End (1992)
I never miss an opportunity to tout this marvelous film, Merchant and Ivory's best production, based on my favorite of E. M. Forster's novels. The film depicts the uneasy relationships between the classes in Edwardian England, represented by the Wilcoxes, wealthy industrialists with a terror of scandal, the Schlegel sisters, cultured and intellectual women with a burgeoning interest in feminism, and the Basts, an impoverished couple desperate for some hint of better things. The plot is set into motion when Mrs. Wilcox chooses to leave her beloved house, Howards End, to Margaret Schegel, a choice that has far-reaching consequences for all three families. The cast is stunningly good, including Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West, and the cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts is supremely beautiful. 

Orlando (1992)
Sally Potter's film, like Virginia Woolf's novel, is a bit... eccentric, but it is undoubtedly the case that no one, male or female, could pull off the title role except for Tilda Swinton, whose uniquely androgynous persona is ideally suited to the role of an immortal who starts out life as a man and one day continues the course of eternal life as a woman. Swinton is not the only cross-dresser in the cast; Elizabeth I is played by Quentin Crisp, whose performance is as odd as one might expect. Orlando is as much survey of English history as it is deconstruction of both the concepts of gender and of gendered sexuality. I can't say that I wholeheartedly like this movie, but it is undeniably a must-see for feminists.

Little Women (1994)
While previous adaptations were more faithful to the novel, this version is more pointedly political, and - perhaps - more in tune with Louisa May Alcott's own feminist beliefs. Interweaving the events of the novel with details taken from both Alcott's life (her family's involvement in the transcendentalist movement, for example) and the history of the time, this movie manages to address a great deal in its two hours, from emancipation and suffrage to romanticism and the confluence of moral values and relative wealth, while shearing the source material of its more sentimental aspects. Gillian Armstrong (who also directed My Brilliant Career, one of the greatest feminist films of all time) has given us an adaptation that nimbly blends past history and present politics, without hitting one over the head with broad declarations.

Jude (1996)
Though it is no way the superlative masterpiece that Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure unquestionably is, Michael Winterbottom's film, written by Hossein Amini (who also wrote the screenplay for The Wings of the Dove),  is a surprisingly solid adaptation with several scenes that verge on genius. Christopher Eccleston stars as Jude, a working-class man who aspires to better himself by gaining admission to university. His way is barred by an ill-advised marriage, the result of an afternoon's indiscretion, to a woman (Rachel Griffiths) he finds exciting but unsuitable. They separate, but Jude's descent into tragedy is once again set in motion when he sets eyes on his beautiful, fascinating cousin Sue (Kate Winslet). This is surely one of the most upsetting stories ever written or filmed, but its condemnation of what amounts to social servitude, particularly for women but also for men, in a culture that prohibits divorce is damning without being bombastic.

A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Jean Pierre Jeunet's World War I drama stars Audrey Tautou as a young woman who firmly believes that her lover (Gaspard Ulliel), though officially dead, is still alive. Part of what makes Mathilde such an unusual character is the fact that. although she has a disability, it's not the focus of the plot. She makes use of it to inspire sympathy, but she feels little sympathy for herself and doesn't allow it to interfere with her mission. The deeply convoluted story rather focuses on Mathilde's determined search for her lover, a search that leads her into closely kept military secrets the revelation of which could result in terrifying consequences for those involved. The film has a deeply romantic sensibility, but one that is undercut with a fleeting and dark sense of humor and bitter reflection on the brutalities and costs of war.

Miss Austen Regrets (2007)
Popular response to this BBC film was not terribly positive, mostly because it doesn't buy into the romantic fantasies that so many have projected onto Jane Austen's enigmatic and seemingly uneventful life that came to an undesirable head in the abysmal Becoming Jane. This film is essentially an imagining of Austen's last days, and her reflections on the past and particularly on her decision not to marry. It's rare for a film to focus on anyone in middle age, particularly a woman, but it's essentially unheard of in period drama, the heroines of which are nearly always young women, and it's even more rare for a film to thoughtfully examine the reasons why a woman might not marry, particularly without creating some tragic motive for not doing so. Olivia Williams is excellent as Austen and the supporting cast includes Greta Scacchi, Tom Hiddleston, and Hugh Bonneville.

The Princess of Montpensier (2009)
One of my absolute favorite films of the past decade (I saw this in the theater twice), Bertrand Tavernier's lush drama stars Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, and Gaspard Ulliel, with a gorgeous score by Philippe Sarde and stunning cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer. Though superficially a romance, The Princess of Montpensier is really concerned with issues of power - political, sexual, physical, and spiritual. Thierry plays the princess of the title, infatuated with the dashing and ultramasculine Duc de Guise (Ulliel) but married unwillingly and for political reasons to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Her extraordinary beauty also attracts the intellectual Count de Chabannes (Wilson), a warrior who eschews war after accidentally killing a pregnant woman, and the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), a decidedly more dangerous potential lover.

Friday, April 18, 2014

9 Great Historical Adventure Novels

The historical adventure novel, and really the entire historical fiction genre, have gone out of fashion in our technology-obsessed age, but who cares about being fashionable? (Or should I say, "trendy," to use a more fashionable turn of phrase.) Few genres are as enduringly entertaining as the historical adventure novel and thus here are nine wonderful examples. In order to keep this list at a manageable length (I do tend to get carried away), I'm not including any fantasy or science fiction.

9. The Call of the Wild - Jack London
Together with White Fang, this stirring novel is Jack London's most famous, a supremely American story about a sled dog in the Yukon whose brutal struggle for survival leads him to revert to the ways of wild dogs. London's visceral descriptions of the merciless Alaskan natural world were derived from his experiences at the height of the gold rush, experiences cut short only when he became too ill with scurvy to remain. Buck, the dog protagonist of the novel, is stolen and sold from a cushy life in California and becomes a sled dog, eventually challenging the leader of the team to a fight in which he makes a claim to dominance.

8. The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Set at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, this bestselling novel by the very aristocratic Baroness Orczy (who leaves her reader in no doubt as to the direction of her sympathies) is about British fop Sir Percy Blakeney, the silly and affected husband of French actress Marguerite, who can't bear her husband's frivolous interest in dress and gossip. English society is abuzz with rumors about the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a nobleman and master of disguise who is smuggling French aristocrats into the safety of England. More than a hundred years later and long past the age of a politically relevant aristocracy, this novel remains a thrilling read.

7. The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
Though there are fantastic elements in this gorgeous novel, they are part of what makes it such a fascinating work of historical fiction, as the various narrators embrace beliefs that today we would consider "untrue," but that at the time the novel is set, were accepted as true representations of reality. A European stranger arrives at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, claiming that he is a member of the royal family, descended from an exiled princess. Rushdie's critically unappreciated work is a potent mixture of erotica, epic, and romance, a brilliant work that owes much to the great Italian poets of the Renaissance and is something of a brother to the novels of Umberto Eco.

6. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
A strong candidate for the illustrious title of Dickens's most popular work, A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French revolution and it depicts both the miseries that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the increasingly random brutalities of the Terror. Charles Darnay is an exiled French aristocrat, whose untimely return to France puts him in dire peril, while his friend, Sydney Carton, one of Dickens's most fascinating characters, is a debauched English barrister, hopelessly in love with Darnay's wife, the virtuous and lovely Lucie. A suspenseful and politically nuanced portrait of revolution by one of the great masters.

5. The King's General - Daphne du Maurier
Set in Cornwall during the English Civil War, this deeply romantic gothic novel follows Honor Harris, a headstrong young woman with an incurable habit of eavesdropping who on the eve of her marriage to her lover, Richard Grenvile, is crippled in an accident. Despite the physical limitations imposed by her injuries, Honor nevertheless finds herself at the center of the political and military maelstrom that threatens to overwhelm all of England and shake the monarchy to its foundations. Richard Grenvile should be counted among Rochester, Heathcliff, and other similarly tortured, cruel, wounded, and deeply in love anti-heroes of gothic literature.

4. Baudolino - Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is one of the greatest living writers and this novel, published in 2000, is a dizzyingly erudite and witty epic, written in prose but with the decided influence of Ariosto whose Orlando Furioso tells a similarly fantastic heroic story. As usual, Eco plays with language in a way that makes any translation monumentally difficult; as an example, the early chapters are written in a pidgin language created out of Latin, medieval Italian, German, and a number of other languages. The story begins in 1155 when Baudolino, an unlettered peasant boy, is sold to Frederick I. The recounting of his life takes us through a vibrant pageant of medieval life, through both Christian and foreign lands, in an astonishing blend of myth, philosophy, and theology.

3. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
The inspiration for countless swashbuckling adventures since its publication in 1844, The Three Musketeers is an enthralling and suspenseful novel, following the heroic d'Artagnan and his doughty companions, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, through their many adventures, dueling, drinking, and romancing, not to mention tangling with the convoluted and sinister political schemes of the Cardinal Richelieu. This novel set the standard for historical adventure novels and remains one of the most popular works of French literature.

2. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
The grandpappy of all pirate literature and films, Treasure Island is so influential that many, if not most, of the pirate cliches, from the salty-tongued parrot to the black spot and the treasure map marked with an X, that still exist in contemporary films like The Pirates of the Caribbean, can be ascribed to it. Stevenson's most popular novel, though really a coming-of-age story meant for young boys, is unusually morally complex, particularly as regards his brilliantly rendered character, Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate captain whose friendship with our hero, Jim Hawkins, tests both of them, morally and emotionally. It's also enormous fun.

1. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
One of my all-time favorite books, Eco's incredibly brilliant novel (like Baudolino, an absolute monster to translate) is set in a Benedictine monastery in 1327, where Franciscan friar Guglielmo and his protegee Adso of Melk arrive for a theological debate, just as a series of monks die in increasingly bizarre circumstances. Guglielmo, a sort of Medieval Sherlock Holmes, soon associates the murders with Aristotle's long-lost second volume of the Poetics. As in all of Eco's wonderful work, the book is chock-full of theological and philosophical disputation, linguistic acrobatics, and Borgesian intertextuality, among other intellectual delights. The brilliance of this book cannot be overstated and it is a credit to Eco that it is not merely brilliant - it is also incredibly diverting.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Film Review: "The Sword and the Rose"

The third of Walt Disney's British live action pictures, The Sword and the Rose, released in 1953, is a lavish and surprisingly sophisticated if not terribly substantial costume drama. The plot concerns Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and her saucy reluctance to fall in with her brother's plans for her matrimonial future. History, however, is largely set aside, a decision that assists an already unwieldy plot, heavy with action but lacking emotional weight. In the film, Mary Tudor has the impudence to defy her royal brother and the wit to keep her head on her shoulders, but she comes very close to the edge of his patience when she refuses to marry the elderly King of France, which would thereby seal a peace treaty between the two monarchs. Mary wishes to marry commoner Charles Brandon, an adventurous hero who, excelling at fighting, fencing, and hunting, has already won the fickle respect of the king. Meanwhile the Duke of Buckingham, as slithery as an eel, desires to marry Mary, and driven by jealousy, complicates an already torturous path towards either true love or tragedy.

Mary Tudor is played by the lovely Glynis Johns, who would go on to play Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins for Walt Disney and the leading lady in The Court Jester opposite Danny Kaye. Her exceptional performance holds together a plot that is full to bursting. Her lover Charles Brandon is played by Richard Todd, in a graceful and courtly performance that might have been improved with a less romantic sensibility, while Michael Gough plays the Duke of Buckingham with a delightfully malevolent charm. The male standout of the cast is undoubtedly James Robertson Justice, who plays Henry VIII with vigor and a half-sinister, half sensuous gleam in his eye. Justice's performance is dwarfed only by Charles Laughton's immortal portrayal of the much-married monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII.

The fast pace and frothy cleverness of the spare dialogue, particularly as proclaimed by James Robertson Justice, keep the film from tedium or silliness. Overall, The Sword and the Rose is a surprisingly adult film, its dialogue demanding a fairly sophisticated awareness of gender and class politics, and it has aged quite well, particularly given how very dated similar films seem today. One thinks of Knights of the Round Table, which stars Robert Taylor, normally so good, but quite ridiculous with a startling American drawl in a suit of clanky armor, and Ava Gardner, bursting from a variety of sumptuous bodices and spouting flowery language with astonishingly little emotion. The Sword and the Rose has the full benefit of a strong English and French cast and a rather more fluid, economical screenplay (credited to Lawrence Edward Watkin, but with much input from director Ken Annakin and Walt Disney himself).

The direction by Ken Annakin (who would go on to direct Swiss Family Robinson) is solid and the art direction by Carmen Dillon is luxurious and really quite lovely; the men's costumes in particular are pleasingly balanced between historical accuracy and twentieth century ideas of masculinity.The editing by Gerald Thomas is capable and the score by Clifton Parker, though not terribly original or exciting, nevertheless effectively carries the film forward. Special mention should be made of Peter Ellenshaw's spectacular visual effects. Ellenshaw, who after this film signed a lifetime contract with Disney, was a magician, whose extraordinary matte paintings elevated many films into fabulous spectacles, including this one. Though this film certainly does not belong in the echelons of great Disney live action films like Pollyanna, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Treasure Island, it is a creditable and highly entertaining swashbuckling costume drama, one whose pleasures have not faded even in the seventy years since its release.

The Sword and the Rose can be rented or bought through Disney's VOD channel on youtube.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

13 Essential Banned Books

Sometimes banning a book can seem almost justified; as an example, it is illegal to print copies of Mein Kampf in Germany, while in Austria it not only can't be printed - it can't be owned or distributed. Sometimes banning a book is just silly, as in the case of the Dictionary of Modern Serbo-Croatian Language, which was banned in the former state of Yugoslavia for fear that some definitions might be disturbing to the country's citizens, or in the cases of Black Beauty, which was banned in South Africa, and The Call of the Wild, which Italian censors found radical. In most cases books are banned either because of subversive political or religious material, as in the cases of The Satanic Verses or The Communist Manifesto, or because of perceived obscenity, as in the cases of Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, or even Ulysses. Many books that deal with taboo subjects were simply revised, like The Picture of Dorian Gray or Sister Carrie, or suppressed. But, no matter the reason for its being banned, a banned book is a book that invites perusal, an act that can prove both enlightening and amusing.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
One of the wackier instances of censorship is surely General Hu Chien's decision to suppress Carroll's delightful nonsense tale in the Hunan province of China. Why? Because he felt insulted by Carroll's attribution of human language to non-human animals and feared that the book would instruct children to consider human beings and other animals as equals - in other words, the man had a whopper of an inferiority complex. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in fact can hardly be said to teach any lesson at all, being a supreme example of happily written nonsense. What on earth might the General have thought of Disney films?

Animal Farm - George Orwell
George Orwell's politically knife-edged allegory has famously been banned in nearly every communist country and is in fact still banned in Cuba and North Korea, and only available in a censored version in China, but, in a stranger instance of censorship, it was banned in the United Arab Emirates as recently as 2002 because of conflicts with Islamic values, one cited example being a talking anthropomorphized pig. In this instance, the power of Animal Farm's bleak vision of the intrinsic flaws of the communist enterprise makes its frequent banning understandable, though not justifiable.

The Bible
The Bible, like many religious texts including the Koran, has been almost continually banned, censored, suppressed, or otherwise restricted throughout history. It was not an uncommon occurrence that certain versions, particularly translations into the vernacular, were deemed subversive and the very existence of the apocryphal gospels is ample evidence of the controversial constitution of this, the most influential work in the Western world. Only five years ago a North Korean woman was executed for distributing copies of the Bible.Whether or not one is a Christian, the Bible is essential reading, for without at least a superficial knowledge of it, one cannot hope to grasp the full meaning of centuries' worth of Western literature, art, and music.

Candide - Voltaire
In 1929, United States customs officials found Voltaire's satire of Leibnizian optimism obscene and refused to allow copies of Candide, ordered for a class at Harvard, to be admitted into the country. One of the most influential works of philosophical satire, Candide tells the story of an innocent young man, indoctrinated, along with his love Cunegonde, into the philosophies of pied piper Pangloss, who insists that this is "the best of all possible worlds." The corruption and disillusionment of the young lovers forms the narrative of the story, but one wonders what precisely so shocked the customs officials.

The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio
Along with The Canterbury Tales and numerous other classic works of literature, The Decameron was banned from the United States mail under the Comstock Law, which prohibited either sending or receiving obscene or filthy material. It's not particularly surprising that this marvelous work should be banned, given its at times uproarious and at times lascivious but decidedly copious sex scenes, many of the participants in which are members of the clergy. Among the delights of this work are also numerous gruesome murders, successful acts of theft and treason, and a literal dunking in a vat of shit.

The Diary of Anne Frank
In a particularly ugly instance of censorship, this heartbreaking and incredibly important piece of testimony has been banned in Lebanon because it portrays the Jewish people and the Zionist movement favorably. The book has also been repeatedly the center of hysterical parental complaints over school curricula, with many alleging that the book is obscene for its depiction of a teenage girl's sexual awakening and with others objecting to literature intended to illuminate the horrific costs of the Holocaust. While I am loath to ever insist that everyone read any one book, this is certainly one of the most essential works of the twentieth century, one that attests to the unthinkable havoc human beings are capable of wreaking on each other.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
In South Africa under apartheid, Shelley's groundbreaking science fiction novel about a scientist's misguided and ultimately tragic attempt to reanimate dead human flesh was banned under charges of obscenity. This is a rare case in which the charges of obscenity do not, presumably, refer to depictions of sex or sexuality, but it is difficult to ascertain what exactly the censors found indecent. In Western countries, the depiction of man creating man provoked heated discussion over the work's alleged blasphemy, a somewhat less nonsensical charge, but it is difficult to believe that the same objection was raised in 1950s South Africa.

Green Eggs and Ham - Dr. Seuss
In 1965, the People's Republic of China banned one of Dr. Seuss's best books, the entire text of which consists of only fifty words, because of its depiction of "early Marxism." The ban was not lifted until 1991, after Dr. Seuss had passed away. This is certainly an odd instance of suppression, but it also attests to the incredible power that can be wielded with words, even with as small a selection as fifty. If Sam-I-Am can cause such consternation with his injunction to just try eating green eggs and ham, then it is easy to imagine the sort of hyper-sensitivity and wild over-interpretation that characterized the Chinese censorship office.

Howl - Allen Ginsberg
Perhaps the most famous work of beat poetry was seized before it ever made it into bookstores. An attempt to sell the book on the black market led to the arrest of a bookstore owner and the book's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested on obscenity charges. Though objections were raised to the book's many references to illegal drug use, the line "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy" appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back. But in the end, Ferlinghetti won his case and Ginsberg's brilliantly subversive poem was let loose upon the world. Only a decade later, the poem would again run into obscenity charges, this time in Finland, for its alleged encouragement of homosexuality.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita has been banned due to allegations of obscenity all over the world, including in such democratic countries as France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Part of the difficulty with Lolita is that is a filthy book, one that describes, in detail, acts of pedophilia and rape. Nabokov, in giving us a narrator that is both intellectually capable of running rings around us and unspeakably despicable, unleashed one of the most challenging literary works of all time, constantly misunderstood, and all too frequently misinterpreted as a justificatory manifesto.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert famously fought and won the case against his masterpiece on charges of obscenity, even dedicating the novel to his triumphant lawyer. That the novel caused a stir should come as no surprise, given that its heroine is an adulteress on whose actions Flaubert refused to pass judgement, but in this case the obscenity case worked in the author's favor, for its notoriety translated easily to popularity and financial dividends. Like so many of the works on this list, Madame Bovary has proved to be a ubiquitous influence, in this case setting the standard for the realistic narrative.

Moll Flanders- Daniel Defoe
This expose of a prostitute's lascivious albeit rather miserable life was another one of the great works of literature banned from the United States mail under the Comstock Law. Intended to be interpreted as a memoir, the book's subject matter is even today controversial, following Moll's tawdry birth in Newgate Prison to her career as a prostitute and her many sexual liaisons, including one with her brother, to her eventual "penitence," though Moll proves rather blithe even in her apparent remorse.

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Confederate States, unsurprisingly, banned Stowe's abolitionist opus, but so did Nicholas I of Russia, who felt that its ideal of equality undermined religion. Uncle Tom's Cabin is today one of the most reviled works of classic literature, condemned as a racist, stereotyped book, but if one has actually read it, one knows that, far from portraying African-Americans stereotypically, Stowe argues against slavery by depicting the victims of slavery as complex human beings, capable of pain, love, and sacrifice. Uncle Tom embodies the virtues of Christ and thus becomes one of the most positively transgressive figures of nineteenth century literature. More than 150 years later, we seek empowered heroes, not Christ figures, but the concept of empowerment is very much a product of twentieth century politics. The irony of being reviled both as a proponent of the abolitionist movement and as a work promulgating racist stereotypes is one of the strangest facets of this book's legacy.

In the end, it seems as though almost every great masterpiece, significant political or technically innovative works, or even particularly beloved books face some sort of censorship. The above list is far from complete and could have included many more wonderful, from Harry Potter to To Kill a Mockingbird, The Awakening to The Giver. Readers, what are your favorite banned books?

Monday, April 7, 2014

The 11 Best Period Comedies

Every year brings a small but steady crop of period dramas. But period comedies? The genre almost doesn't exist. There is no period comedy category on Netflix - and to put that into perspective, Netflix has a genre called "Cool Mustaches" and it is exactly what it says. But why take the past so seriously? And so, here is a list of great period comedies. All of these films are set between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the onset of World War I.

11. Life with Father (1947)
Based on Clarence Day, Jr.'s droll memoirs, originally published in the New Yorker, this film is about Mr. Clarence Day (William Powell), a New York City stockbroker who prides himself on his strict paternal authority and on being "the character of my home," his loving wife (Irene Dunne), and his gaggle of redheaded sons. The plot is driven forward by Mrs. Day's desperate attempts to get her husband baptized, though other domestic tempests in the teapot occupy the eccentric Mr. Day. A young Elizabeth Taylor has a small role as the eldest son's crush.

10. The Pickwick Papers (1952)
Dickens's first novel is his funniest and one of his most beloved. Starring a stellar cast of British actors, including James Hayter as Mr. Pickwick, Nigel Patrick as Mr. Jingle, and Harry Fowler as Sam Weller, this film covers many of the highlights of the novel, neatly trimming the 800 page tome to a manageable feature length. Mr. Pickwick and the members of the Pickwick society inevitably find themselves in scrapes of a pre-matrimonial or pseudo-criminal nature, but the faithful Sam Weller, always ready with a Cockney quip, is happily at hand to wangle a way out. This is the best adaptation of the material.

9. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Mae West was one of the greatest film stars of all time and we will never see her like again. She Done Him Wrong is her best film and it is heavily based on the stage material for her sexy, smooth-talking, saloon singer character, Diamond Lil, known in this film as Lady Lou. Her costar is a very young Cary Grant as the innocent and good-intentioned Salvation Army officer and the object of West's marvelous double entendres, including her iconic "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" Without a doubt, one of the sexiest pre-code films.

8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford have unbelievable chemistry as the two outlaws of the title, leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, on the run from the law in this marvelous Western comedy. The combination of the Western setting with a decidedly '60s musical and aesthetic flavor is a potent one, the witty and irreverent screenplay by William Goldman is one of the most brilliant ever produced, and Conrad L. Hall's cinematography is stunning. Even the terribly dated and irritatingly catchy "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" can't hurt this picture.

7. The Merry Widow (1934)
This sumptuous adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta was the last musical that Ernst Lubitsch directed and it is possibly his best. Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier star as the richest widow and most dashing bachelor of the tiny kingdom of Marshovia. When the widow flees to Paris for a good time, the emperor frantically sends the lady-killing bachelor to bring her (and her money) back home. Edward Everett Horton gives one of his funniest performances as the Marshovian ambassador and the great cast also includes Una Merkel, George Barbier, and Stanley Holloway.

6. Cranford (2007)
This delightful five-part miniseries was brilliantly adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell's charming novella by Heidi Thomas. Starring a group of the greatest living British actresses, including Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Imelda Staunton, the series follows the spinster ladies of Cranford, their domestic debacles, scandals, and pleasures, from the return of a former lover to a treasured lace heirloom surreptitiously gobbled up by an eccentric cat. Both the novella and the miniseries have a profound respect for these representatives of unmarried women, who may not have produced children or had great careers, but who nevertheless lived meaningful lives, though they were and in many respects still are forgotten and unappreciated.  

5. The Harvey Girls (1946)
Judy Garland stars as a mail-order bride who finds out upon arriving in Arizona that the man who signed the letters didn't write them. Incensed at the deception, she joins the Harvey girls, newly arrived young women who work as waitresses in Harvey's restaurants. They soon start a crusade to wrangle the menfolks out of the saloon and into the restaurant, though they have formidable opponents in the female "entertainers," particularly star of the show Angela Lansbury. This film has a fabulous cast of supporting actors, including Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, and Cyd Charisse in her first speaking role.

4. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
Another brilliant film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait is an infinitely rewatchable comedy of manners, frothy as a glass of champagne, with a witty screenplay by Samuel Richardson and a truly brilliant cast, from Don Ameche as the womanizer so certain of his wickedness that he applies to the Devil himself to be admitted to Hell, the gorgeous Gene Tierney as his long-suffering wife, Charles Coburn as the ever-youthful and satirical Grandpa, and Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as perpetually feuding scions of a southern fortune. This film is as purely delightful as a film can be.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Based on Jane Austen's most broadly comic novel, this film is Hollywood's best Austen adaptation. Greer Garson is wonderful as Lizzie Bennet, effortlessly delivering witty zinger after witty zinger, including "There's no one so dignified as a mummy," and Laurence Olivier's supremacy as Mr. Darcy is threatened only by Colin Firth. Much of the humor of the film can be attributed to Herbert Stothart's ingeniously funny score and the performances from such great character actors as Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet, Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet, Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins, and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

2. Our Hospitality (1923)
My very favorite of all Buster Keaton's magnificent films, Our Hospitality is a supreme example of Keaton's story-telling prowess, his astounding athleticism, his ability to build intense suspense and pathos while making his audience laugh, and his passionate obsession with trains. The film is set in the 1830s, mostly so that Keaton could play with an early incarnation of a steam locomotive, and it follows Northerner Willie McKay (Keaton) who goes South to claim his inheritance and lands himself in the midst of an old family feud. The General is another one of his brilliant period comedies.

1. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Ingmar Bergman's comedic film was written as a cathartic antidote to a suicidal depression, though one could hardly know that just be watching this thoroughly delightful romp through the bedrooms of these Swedish bourgeois and their servants. On Midsummer Night, magic is wrought and these men and women, all paired with the wrong partners, are drawn inevitably to their fated lovers. Smiles of a Summer Night has been much imitated, but no other film has succeeded in capturing its ethereal, almost exotic allure. The cast includes Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Ulla Jacobsson.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

8 Early 20th Century Novels Every Feminist Should Read

In a culture that tends to value the new over the old and the popular over the old-fashioned, it is already too easy to insulate oneself from all cultural expressions that are not immediately relevant to one's time, place, and situation. While the major risk of such insulation is cultural sterility, a more insidious one is societal forgetfulness that simplifies history to an easy-to-digest narrative with good guys and bad guys that emphasizes progression over truth. For feminists, whose political work has barely begun and whose few gains continue to be assailed legislatively and judicially, an understanding of the past struggles of women can not but be illuminating. And so, here are eight brilliant novels, all published between 1900 and 1919, that are particularly illuminating for feminists.

Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser
This novel, published in 1900, was available only in a censored version until 1981, a result of Dreiser's refusal to morally condemn his sexually active and unmarried heroine. Carrie is a young innocent, freshly arrived in Chicago and eager to participate in the vivid city life she's only read about. A traveling salesman notices her pretty face and figure and tempts her away from the miserable working conditions of factory life to a far more luxurious, if decidedly less socially acceptable, position as his mistress. Sister Carrie broke all the rules - sexuality outside of marriage is presented as natural, condemned socially rather than morally, and the still potent Madonna/whore paradigm is smashed to bits.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's first major work, is socially and financially ambitious, seeking a marriage with the most eminently eligible bachelor she can find. Far from being a mercenary shrew, Lily understands all too well the miseries of poverty and dependence and she recognizes that working for her living will irrevocably destroy her social standing and her marriage prospects. Her descent into squalor is vividly and heartbreakingly rendered, but not at the cost of severe critique. Wharton's acute examination of gender and class politics is one of the greatest of all American novels and absolutely essential for the feminist reader.

Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery's enduringly popular novel follows Anne Shirley, an orphan girl adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, brother and sister, who had hoped for a boy to help out with the chores. The irrepressible Anne is constantly getting herself into scrapes, from dying her hair green to accidentally intoxicating her best friend, but her determination, ambition, and imagination elevate her above similar girlish heroines, like Sara Crewe or Pollyanna Whittier. Anne is a genuinely feminist heroine - complex, willing to fight for what she wants and what she believes, professionally ambitious, and completely resistant to giving up those ambitions for the sake of romance.

A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton Porter
Though enormously popular in its day, A Girl of the Limberlost has gone out of fashion and is usually critically dismissed as an example of juvenilia rather than regarded as a serious novel. It would not be ridiculous to argue that this is at least partially due to the patriarchal standards applied to the literary canon. Elnora Comstock is determined to escape the squalid misery of an impoverished home with a mother who hates her. Rather than seek salvation in a male savior, Elnora chooses to attend high school, earning her way by trapping and selling rare moth specimens in Limberlost Swamp. This novel had a huge impact on literature for young girls, which thereafter tended to have far more self-reliant protagonists.

Howards End - E. M. Forster
Forster's greatest novel and one of my absolute favorites in any language, Howards End is a masterfully told story about class in Edwardian England. The Schlegal sisters are politically liberal and culturally adventurous, intellectually rigorous and relatively unswayed by social convention. While the elder sister, Margaret, becomes increasingly tangled with the Wilcoxes, a wealthy industrialist family living a rarefied existence of private house parties and luxury, the younger sister, Helen, is moved by her reckless compassion and foolhardy altruistic impulses to embrace Leonard Bast, a poor clerk with literary ambition, and his sluttish wife. Keenly compassionate and sharply critical, Forster's masterpiece is an extraordinary and essential novel.

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for her great short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," a deeply disturbing depiction of a woman's descent into madness, but Herland is perhaps the more fundamentally feminist work. Gilman imagines a utopian world, discovered by a sociologist and his two friends, entirely populated by women. In this world, children are produced asexually and society is free of violence and dominance. Herland is a challenging, if flawed, work, one that demands a critical response from the reader and still, even today, poses questions so difficult that most of us are inclined to ignore them rather than disrupt our political and social thinking.

Summer - Edith Wharton
Wharton's answer to Edwardian sexual prudishness follows Charity, a young woman who, after successfully rebuffing the abusive sexual advances of her guardian, falls in love and in bed with a handsome rake who has no intention of following through. Charity's situation as a woman, already marked by her mother's past as a prostitute, without financial, social, or sexual power galvanizes Wharton's damning social critique. A brutally frank depiction of sexual double standards and gendered power dynamics, Summer remains a deeply relevant novel, especially given the frighteningly regressive political climate in the US as far as women's rights are concerned.

The Voyage Out - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's first novel, compared by E. M. Forster to Wuthering Heights for its fearlessness, is about Rachel Vinrace, a young girl on her first trip abroad, to South America. Her journey is both an emotional and intellectual one, a liberating and sensual excursion into adulthood. Woolf's original draft (which has been reconstructed and published under the title Melymbrosia) was far more politically frank, particularly about topics like women's suffrage and British colonialism, but The Voyage Out remains a powerful work, a portrait of girlhood and young womanhood at once erotic, erudite, and ethereal.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

8 Great Novels Set During World War I

The first World War heralded the beginning of the modern, globalizing world. It was a brutal conflict, fought with a deadly combination of old strategies and new technology, that resulted in 37 million casualties, including more than 9 million deaths among the military and nearly 7 million deaths among civilians. The war that tragically did not end all wars has inspired many writers, from that period to the present, to wrestle with the particular horrors of World War I. Many poets, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose "Strange Meeting" narrates the meeting of a soldier in Hell with the man he killed, blasted the glorifying conventions of patriotic war poetry, and they were swiftly followed by a veritable parade of great poets, novelists, and memoirists who, even if they did not become pacifists (though a good number did, including E. M. Forster), examined the terrible costs of modern warfare and criticized the inhumanity and monstrous suffering that occurred during the war. Here are 8 truly great novels set during World War I, all but one written by novelists who witnessed the conflict.

The Deepening Stream/Home Fires in France - Dorothy Canfield
Dorothy Canfield was in France from 1916 onwards, working to provide relief for blinded war veterans and refugee children, and she was the first widely read American author to expose American readers to the horrific realities of World War I, particularly the realities of civilian life. In 1918, Canfield published Home Fires in France, a book of short fiction about French civilians living under German occupation and the constant threat of bombardment. In 1930, she published The Deepening Stream, a bildungsroman that follows Matey from her childhood through her marriage and her life in France during World War I. Canfield based much of her writing on this subject on what she herself witnessed and few writers offer testimony as heartrending.

The Enormous Room - e. e. cummings
cummings served as an ambulance driver in France, but was arrested by French authorities as a subversive, due to pacifist sentiments expressed in letters written by a friend. The four months he spent in a French prison were the inspiration for this witty and deeply disturbing autobiographical novel. Despite the dark subject matter and the extreme moral confusion of prison life, cummings delineates a Bunyanesque spiritual journey, finding what he believed to be salvation in the alienated freedom of imprisonment.

Parade's End - Ford Madox Ford
Ford's masterpiece is actually a set of four novels, usually published in one volume. Some critics believe that Parade's End is the single greatest war novel of all time and it would be difficult to argue against that conclusion. Christopher Tietjens is first and foremost a gentleman; he is also a brilliant statistician and a cuckold who believes that he cannot honorably restrain or divorce his wife. He enlists in the army both out of a sense of duty and out of a desperate desire to escape his miserable marriage. He is also resisting the temptation of an affair with a lovely young suffragette, a love made all the more tempting given his regrettable marriage. A brilliant, kaleidoscopic novel that captures the dying spirit of an ancient British class embroiled in violent conflict and shifting politics.

The African Queen - C. S. Forester
Today, The African Queen is remembered chiefly as the source material for the great Hollywood film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, but the novel deserves a greater readership. The Belgian Congo has been occupied by German troops, stranding Rose Sayer, a British missionary recently bereaved of her minister brother, along the Ulanga river. Cockney layabout Charlie Allnutt invites her aboard his ramshackle boat, the African Queen, and as they sail down the river, the two strong wills clash and eventually collaborate in a plan to destroy the German gunboat, the Queen Louisa, the chief German naval power in the region. The African Queen is one of the finest adventure novels ever written.

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
This novel, like The Enormous Room, is based on the wartime experiences of its author, also an ambulance driver, though Hemingway served in Italy rather than France. Banned in Italy for nearly two decades for its deeply unflattering depiction of the Italian Army, A Farewell to Arms is about American Frederic Henry, who enlists in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver and becomes increasingly disillusioned with the violence of warfare and the seemingly random and rough hand of military discipline, all the more so as the war separates him from his beloved Catherine, a British nurse who cares for him when he's wounded. This novel was Hemingway's first bestseller and the work that sealed his reputation.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
This devastating novel is about Briony, a young girl who, on the eve of World War I, witnesses a sexual encounter between her sister and a childhood friend, Robbie, that disturbs her deeply and leads her to accuse the boy of rape. This false testimony splits the family apart, sending Robbie to prison and later to the hellish French front and driving Briony to attempt to expiate her guilt working as a nurse. McEwan's novel is one of the finest books of the current century, a complex work that explores guilt, sacrifice, love, violence, sexuality, and, as the title indicates, atonement.

Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery
This, the final novel in the series begun with Anne of Green Gables, follows Anne's youngest daughter Rilla. As all of the young men leave for the European front, including three of her brothers and her sweetheart, Rilla is barely fifteen and far more interested in parties than in the frightening news from abroad, and though her coming of age is fraught by the devastation of the conflict, she finds hope through volunteering for the Red Cross and caring for a war orphan. Though far more serious in tone than the other books in the series, Rilla of Ingleside is one of Montgomery's finest novels. Significantly, this is the only contemporary Canadian novel about World War I written from a woman's perspective.

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
The shadow of World War I falls on every paragraph of this modernist novel, but it comes to the fore during the sections of the novel about Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran suffering from shell shock whose continuous hallucinations of a friend whose death he witnessed make him increasingly desperate and keep him isolated from the prosperity of post-war London.Though at first glance, Septimus seems like a superfluous character, connected to Clarissa Dalloway by only the most tenuous of ties, he is essential to understanding Woolf's many faceted depiction of post-war England, for while the other characters have successfully distanced themselves from the recent horrors that left so many dead, mutilated, or bereaved, Septimus cannot do so. Mrs. Dalloway is one of the best novels of the past century.