Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The 7 Best English-Language Films of 1988

1988 - the year the first MacDonald's in a communist country was opened in Belgrade, Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Celine Dion won the Eurovision Song Contest (why?!?), and Rupert Grint, Haley Joel Osment, and Michael Cera were delivered into the world. A lot of awful stuff involving terrorism, bombings, industrial accidents, and the formal announcement of man-created global warming to the Senate happened too. At least we had these seven great movies to watch:

7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Whether you love or hate this film, it's undeniably an impressive technical achievement, seamlessly blending animation and live-action in a frenetically paced noir satire. The late Bob Hoskins plays a private detective, hired by cartoon Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) to investigate the possibility that his sexy wife, Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner), is cheating on him. Soon Roger is framed for the murder of the owner of Toontown, the segregated neighborhood inhabited by the local cartoon population, and things just get crazier from there. A zany, weird movie that pushes the cinematic medium to its utter limit - it gives me a headache, but I'm still impressed.

6. Oliver and Company
The last animated film released by Disney before The Little Mermaid and the widely touted Disney Renaissance, this musical modern-day adaptation of Dickens's classic novel already has many of the elements that would bring its Renaissance films to critical and financial success: a celebrity cast (including Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Dom DeLuise, and Cheech Marin), some extremely successful forays into digital animation techniques, Broadway and pop style musical numbers, lovable cuddly animal characters, and a fast-paced screenplay full of clever one-liners. Oliver and Company is not a great film on a par with The Lion King or Cinderella, but it's a darn good one and from any studio but Disney, that would be more than enough.

5. Rain Man
Both the highest grossing film of the year and the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Rain Man is a rare hybrid of feel-good blockbuster and legitimately well-crafted, well-acted film. Tom Cruise plays Charley, a self-centered, arrogant businessman in desperate need of funds who discovers that he has a severely autistic brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), when their deceased father leaves Raymond all his money. The film convincingly portrays the development of a relationship between the two brothers, both the unbearable frustrations and the fleeting moments of genuine affection. Rain Man is an unremittingly optimistic film, but it never sets one's teeth on edge.

4. Willow
The 1980s saw an explosion of fantasy film-making and the best of the bunch, directed by Ron Howard and developed from a story by George Lucas, is Willow. Warwick Davis stars as Willow, a member of the hobbit-like Nelwyn community who dreams of becoming a great sorcerer. When he discovers a Daikini, or full-size human, baby abandoned by the river, his paternal affection leads him on to a quest to defeat the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Costarring Val Kilmer as Madmartigan, the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and Joanne Whalley as Bavmorda's bloodthirsty daughter Sorsha, Willow has everything one could possibly want in a fantasy film: terrifying monsters, epic battles, gorgeous castles and landscapes, and, best of all, a marvelous sense of humor.

3. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 
Though technically a television film, this wonderful adaptation of C. S. Lewis's most beloved work is both a beautifully rendered interpretation of the novel and a lovely, atmospheric fantasy film. And it is so incredibly superior to Disney's abysmally bad version. Four children sent to the country during the London Blitz discover a magic wardrobe that lets them into the enchanted country of Narnia, where animals and trees can talk, fauns have tea with friends, and the lion Aslan is on the move. The marvelous cast of actors includes Barbara Kellerman as the White Witch and Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, Johnathan R. Scott, and Sophie Wilcox as the Pevensie children. This remains one of my favorite films, even as an adult.

2. Dangerous Liaisons
Dangerous Liaisons is a stunningly good adaptation, by Christopher Hampton, of Laclos's deeply complex, not to mention controversial, novel. Glenn Close and John Malkovich play unscrupulous, bored aristocrats who amuse themselves with sinister sexual games, which threaten to destroy the lives of the players. Their victims include a convent-educated virgin being groomed for an arranged marriage (Uma Thurman), a romantic young music teacher (Keanu Reeves), and most significantly, the notoriously virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). With a marvelous period-inspired score by George Fenton and Oscar-winning work in costume and production design, this is the best drama of 1988 and one of the best period pieces of cinema.

1. A Fish Called Wanda
The plot of this jewel-heist comedy is largely superfluous (though tightly structured) - the reason to watch A Fish Called Wanda is one of the single greatest comic casts of all time. Kevin Kline (who won an Oscar for his performance) is Otto, a genuinely stupid gunman who loathes being called stupid, John Cleese is Archie Leach, a hen-pecked barrister haplessly drawn into the scheme, Jamie Lee Curtis is Wanda, a con-artist with a sexual predilection for foreign languages, and Michael Palin is Ken, a passionate animal-lover with a really bad stutter. Cleese's screenplay is incredibly funny, retaining the wit of the Monty Python Boys without their extreme zaniness and love of non-sequiturs. A Fish Called Wanda is simply one of the best comedies ever made.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 10 Best Movies Ever About Aliens

I've always been fascinated by the possibility that we're not alone and indeed, when has that possibility ever failed to provoke fascination? Since the earliest days of cinema, extraterrestrial life has been center stage, though not always with the best results. I have excellent reasons to dislike E.T., but frankly Spielberg didn't sell me on Close Encounters of the Third Kind either, as it bored me out of my mind, then got interesting about a minute before the credits started rolling. And though I admit I find Star Wars entertaining, it isn't so much because I like the movies - it's just that I find Mark Hamill's acutely sincere performance screamingly funny. I was similarly entertained by the recent feature-length incarnations of the Star Trek franchise. But, there are many brilliant films about aliens out there. Here, in chronological order, are the top ten:

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Widely credited as the first science fiction film ever produced, A Trip to the Moon is one of the most influential and significant films of the early period of cinema. Running between nine and eighteen minutes (depending on frame speed), the film is about a group of astronomers who travel to the moon and discover a bizarre race of lunar creatures. Georges Melies cast a mixture of camera crew, including himself, and French cabaret performers, including chanteuses, ballet dancers, and acrobats, in his groundbreaking masterwork - a mixture of dance fantasy, special effects bonanza, and science fiction satire. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The 50s saw a resurgence of the science fiction genre and its crowning achievement was this politically charged drama in which an alien visitor (Michael Rennie), accompanied by a powerful robot, delivers an exhortation to humanity to cease its violent ways or suffer the consequences from the larger peace-loving galactic community. This film has been frequently parodied, particularly the iconic words "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto" and the landing of the flying saucer, but it retains a startling power and continues to have relevance. Also of particular interest is Bernard Herrmann's score for the film, in which he made extensive use of electronic instruments and tape-reversal techniques, setting the standard for science fiction film scoring.

Solaris (1972)
Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece is about a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) sent to a space station in orbit around the imaginary planet of Solaris after the three scientists on board succumb to mental illness due to a bizarre phenomenon that could either be a hallucination or a strange form of alien reality that emerges as a result of the troubled memories in each crew member's psyche. Solaris is a visually stunning, deeply philosophical reflection on the inevitable isolation of the human condition. Tarkovsky's intention was to make a science fiction film with intellectual and emotional depth; his success is quite spectacular.

Fantastic Planet (1973)
This animated film, a French and Czech co-production, is about the Draags, alien beings who treat the intellectually and physically inferior Oms (from "hommes" or men in French) like pets. The Draags believe without question that their pets lack the capacity to feel psychic pain or love, until a feral tribe of Oms, who have become literate, retaliate murderously to a routine de-Oming, or gassing. Though the psychedelic style of the animation is very much of its time, the film is still a movingly idealistic metaphoric imagining of the clash between the powerful and the humane.

Alien (1979)
Both a legitimately terrifying horror film and one of the best science fiction films ever made, Ridley Scott's Alien stars Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerritt as the senior officers of the tiny crew of the Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft that intercepts a distress signal and encounters one of the nastiest alien monsters ever put on screen. A tour de force of production and concept design, this film (which has to date spawned three sequels) is the single most iconic movie about alien life ever made, one that continues to influence popular ideas of what might lie in wait for us in space.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Frank Oz's adaptation of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's musical show is bonded more firmly to its musical theatre roots than its cinematic medium, with its self-consciously affected production design and hyperbolic performances from Ellen Greene (who was in the original off-Broadway production) and the brilliantly funny Rick Moranis, playing Audrey and Seymour, who work at a struggling florist's. Their fortunes change when Seymour begins displaying an exotic plant, Audrey II, and discovers to his great discomfiture that it has a voracious appetite for human blood.

Spaceballs (1987)
One of Mel Brooks's funniest spoofs, this movie is, as far as I'm concerned, the primary reason to watch Star Wars - just so you can catch all the jokes. Satirizing every iconic picture in the genre, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Planet of the Apes and Alien, Spaceballs stars Bill Pullman as Lone Star, John Candy as Barf, Daphne Zuniga as Vespa, Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet, George Wyner as Colonel Sandurz, and of course Mel Brooks in the dual roles of Yogurt and President Skroob. Endlessly quotable, the movie works both as a wacky meta-spoof and a well-constructed, if silly, sci-fi adventure. Similarly entertaining is Galaxy Quest (1999).

Contact (1997)
Contact is my favorite science fiction film of all time. Based on the great scientific thinker Carl Sagan's novel, the film imagines what might occur if we did in fact make contact with an intelligent alien species. Jodie Foster stars as Ellie, a SETI scientist intent on making contact and absolutely closed to any kind of spiritual belief unconfirmed by scientific proof. Her single-minded pursuit of proof puts her in conflict with a prominent spiritual leader, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). This film poses extraordinary questions and explores many tantalizing possibilities.It also has some of the most impressive CGI work of its time.

Monsters (2010)
This freakishly low-budget film by Gareth Edwards (director of the latest Godzilla reboot and slated to direct an upcoming Star Wars film) shows what astonishing things one can produce with basic off-the-shelf software. Set in a future in which alien life-forms have made a huge swath of North America uninhabitable for human beings, the film follows two young Americans (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) who decide to risk crossing the Infected Zone, rather than remaining stuck in Mexico due to impending travel restrictions. With almost entirely improvised dialogue and stunningly natural-looking special effects, Monsters feels creepily real, in the best sense.

Europa Report (2013)
One of the likeliest places in which we may find life within our own solar system is on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, most likely an ice-crusted oceanic planetary body. This film imagines what a manned mission to Europa might be like and what sorts of fantastic things one might discover there. One of the best movies of the decade so far, it's a rare film about the wonder of scientific discovery, heart-stoppingly intense and ultimately very moving, a science fiction film that explores scientific as much as fantastic fictive possibilities. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a cameo.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather

Alexander's Bridge, published in 1912, is Willa Cather's first novel and her third published volume, after a book of poetry and another of short stories. Though it would be swiftly followed by a series of masterpieces, beginning with O Pioneers! in 1913, The Song of the Lark in 1915, My Antonia in 1918, on until the end of her life in 1947, Alexander's Bridge is clearly the work of a novice, still working through the challenges of long-form construction and characterization.

The plot is an old one, a standard love triangle in which no one is entirely to blame. Bartley Alexander is an engineer, famous and world-renowned for his bridges (he has been decorated by the emperor of Japan for his advances in the field). His wife Winifred is a wealthy, refined woman and their marriage is a happy one. When on business in London, Alexander meets Hilda, an actress and the love of his youth, who has rejected all other suitors out of deference to her first love. The remainder of the story can be easily surmised from the scenario I've given; it cannot be said that the story is revitalized by any innovations to the conventions of the love triangle. However, plot is rarely the most essential element in a good work of literature; where characters compel, plots may be as conventional, or not, as an author chooses. The difficulty lies precisely here. Cather's characters might as well be made of pasteboard.

Though each character is given a fairly distinct physical description, all fail to take on shape even as emotions run high and tragedy inevitably plods its way forward. Alexander is intended to be a strikingly attractive man, talked about, admired, fascinating, while Winifred is intended to be a paragon of beauty, elegance, and romance, and Hilda is intended to be tantalizing, alluring, and irresistibly passionate. The impression we are meant to have is clear from what is said by peripheral characters who seemingly cannot tear themselves away from these enticing figures. If only that were true for readers! Even such a great writer as Cather is not exempt from the hackneyed old adage, admonishing us to show, not tell, and Alexander's Bridge demonstrates precisely why we have not yet rejected that old chestnut. Alexander, Winifred, and Hilda act their roles obediently, like marionettes employed in the service of a Victorian melodrama, but at no moment do they take on depth enough to convince the reader to feel for their plight.

This is not to say that the book fails completely, as it certainly does not. Cather's prose is consistently beautiful, particularly in her evocative descriptions of London. For example: "It was one of those rare afternoons when all the thickness and shadow of London are changed to a kind of shining, pulsing, special atmosphere; when the smoky vapors become fluttering golden clouds, nacreous veils of pink and amber; when all that bleakness of gray stone and dullness of dirty brick trembles in aureate light, and all the roofs and spires, and one great dome, are floated in a golden haze." Cather's evocation of the interior thoughts of her characters are similarly lovely, but they lack a specificity that links them to particular personalities, emerging rather as beautiful, but decidedly general, reflections on love, fidelity, and purpose. In many ways, these passages are the most worthwhile in the whole novel, but they do not belong to a novel and would be far more at home in a book of essays, or perhaps even in poetry. The same could be said of the rather labored metaphor of the title. Alexander has built his life as he builds his bridges and a miscalculation can bring the whole thing tumbling down. It is unfortunate that with such fine materials, Cather's bridge, like her pasteboard protagonist's, must come tumbling down. But, only a year later she would be busy building new ones, most, if not all, of which stand firmly and without cracks as much as a hundred years later.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

10 Books for the E. M. Forster Fan

E. M. Forster, one of England's greatest twentieth century writers, completed only six novels in his lifetime, though there are also three volumes of short stories, three travel books, two biographies, two plays, and a libretto, as well as a fair amount of literary criticism. My personal favorite of Forster's novels is Howards End, though I'm also more than a little fond of The Longest Journey, which tends to be unjustly forgotten. When a Forster fan reaches the end of his works, where to turn? The first author that comes to mind, both for her romantic plots and sharp social satire, is Jane Austen, whose novels, like Forster's, were scathing critiques of English society and manners, clothed in elegant, refined prose. Any of Austen's novels should please fans of Forster, just as any of his novels would please fans of Austen. That being said, Austen's novels are already so widely read that recommending them is something of a futile exercise. Here are ten more books sure to please the Forster enthusiast.

My Lady Nicotine - J. M. Barrie
This delightful comic novel recounts the friendships of a group of men, united by their love for tobacco, and the delightfully disastrous rift that occurs when one member of their circle is unfaithful to their shared mistress with an actual woman and gets himself engaged. Barrie is today almost exclusively remembered for Peter Pan, but My Lady Nicotine, with its gentle satire of English manners and history, is far more typical of his oeuvre overall and an excellent beginning to exploring Barrie's work.

Tempest-Tost - Robertson Davies
In this, one of the most diverting of Davies's novels, an amateur theatrical society in the fictional town of Salterton, Ontario decides to put up a production of The Tempest. Local beauty Griselda is naturally chosen for the lead and is soon coldly surveying the romantic attentions of puppyish assistant director Solly, conceited womanizer Roger, and awkward, uncomfortable Hector. Davies is as deft a satirist as Forster and his loving dissection of small-town Canada is quite witty.

Parade's End - Ford Madox Ford
Ford's tetralogy is a pacifist masterpiece, the epic story of Christopher Tietjens, a painfully old-fashioned statistician caught in a miserable marriage and resisting his own desire for an affair with an alluring suffragette. Anxious to leave his troubles at home and to act honorably, he volunteers for the army and goes to the front to fight in the Great War. Forster, like Ford, was a passionate pacifist; both became pacifists after witnessing at first hand the atrocities that resulted from World War I.

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady is one of James's best novels (and also rather more accessible than his later masterworks like The Golden Bowl). Isabel Archer, an American heiress with an independent mind and a poor understanding of human selfishness, arrives in Europe intending to face what she refers to as her "destiny." James, like Forster, was fascinated by Italy and by Americans and Britishers abroad, both subjects explored at length in this novel.  

Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K. Jerome
One of the great comic novels, Three Men in a Boat is the wonderfully funny account of a boating trip on the Thames made by three friends, Jerome, George, and Harris, and their fox terrier, Montmorency. The book, published in 1889 to great popular success, is remarkably undated, its witticisms still fresh well over a hundred years later, and it is still possible for moderns to repeat the trip, following the itinerary as laid out by Jerome.

The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate - Nancy Mitford
Mitford's witty romantic novel and its sequel are neither of them masterpieces on a par with Forster's work, but they are very entertaining and have a pleasantly tart satiric sharpness. The estate of the eccentric Radlett family, led by Uncle Matthew whose love for hunting isn't swayed by a lack of foxes given his handy brood of athletic children, is the setting for this story of two young women looking for love and matrimony, hopefully with the same man.

The Blue Castle - L. M. Montgomery
My absolute favorite novel by one of my most beloved writers, The Blue Castle is about Valancy Stirling, who at twenty nine is considered a hopeless old maid and a drug on her family. When she discovers that she has a terminal heart condition, Valancy breaks free, telling her family exactly what she thinks of them, getting a job, and proposing marriage to the man she loves. The Blue Castle is an unrecognized masterpiece.

A Glass of Blessings - Barbara Pym
Wilmet Forsyth is conventionally married, supremely comfortable in her home, and without onerous obligations. Her main source of social activity is in the Anglican church (a setting central to most of Pym's novels), but the lack of meaning in her life drives her to indulge in a fantasy of infatuation with a handsome rake, Piers Longridge. Published in 1958, the novel is surprisingly frank about homosexuality.

The Custom of the Country - Edith Wharton
One of Wharton's masterpieces is this astringent story about Undine Spragg, a ruthlessly ambitious girl intent on using her family's dubiously obtained fortune to claw her way to the top of the social ladder through an advantageous marriage. A brutal social critique, a scathing proto-feminist commentary on women, wealth, and social position, and a sharp examination of the clash between American and European cultures.

For those fond of biography, Wendy Moffat's A Great Unrecorded History is both a first rate work of scholarship and an illuminating companion to the novels. It is the first biography to take into account Forster's homosexuality and its effect on his life, personality, and writing.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: Along the Shore by L. M. Montgomery

When one thinks of literature about the sea, some obvious titles are certain to come to mind immediately, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Melville's Moby Dick, and Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are Patrick O'Brien's seafaring novels, beginning with Master and Commander (I haven't read it, though I loved the film adaptation starring Russell Crowe). Then there are all of the wonderful pirate novels, first and foremost, Stevenson's Treasure Island. All of these books have something in common - they're all about men and masculinity. All of these authors are male; most of their books lack female characters.

One author that is unlikely to come to mind when one thinks of great writers of sea tales is L. M. Montgomery - a female writer, known primarily for her novels for young girls, first and foremost Anne of Green Gables. And yet, few writers can lay claim to such gorgeous descriptions of the sea. Montgomery was a native of Prince Edward Island, the principal setting of most of her writing and the magic isle that she immortalized, and the sea, like the trees, hills, lakes, and brooks of the island, was as intimate a friend to her as any flesh-and-blood human. Montgomery's stunningly beautiful descriptions of nature can be found in all of her novels, short stories, and poems, but in Along the Shore - a volume of short stories all of which focus on the sea as a central theme - one finds a veritable treasure trove of such writing. For example, the sea before a squall: "The sky was dun and smoky, the glassy water was copper-hued, the air was heavy and breathless. The sea purred upon the shore, lapping it caressingly like some huge feline creature biding its time to seize and crunch its victim."

While it's undoubtedly the case that Montgomery's sensibilities were romantic, many of her stories have a surprisingly bitter or at least bittersweet edge. In "Mackereling Out in the Gulf," Benjamin Selby is a fine fisherman and a brave, able man, desperately in love with Mary Stella and equally jealous of his rival, a Yankee lawyer. Given the extent of Selby's sense of honor, his bravery, his readiness to self-sacrifice, one would imagine the story to end quite differently than it does. Those who deride Montgomery for her sentimentality would do well to read this lovely story, which, for all its tenderness has an unexpected edge.

The oldest story in the collection, "A Strayed Allegiance," published in 1897, is a tale of romantic scruples, womanly unselfishness, and chivalric honor, set among ordinary people. It's a story that would be ravaged by most readers today and yet, beyond its almost acrobatically poetic and romantic prose, the story has an emotional depth at its core that transcends the keenly conventional trappings of its superficial story. Esterbrook and Marian, having grown up together and always taken it for granted that they would be married as adults, live a pleasant, undemanding life, though Marian, unlike Esterbrook does exert herself for others. Their serene matrimonial plans are interrupted when they meet Magdalen, a stunningly beautiful, proud, and poor woman with whom Esterbrook is smitten at first glance. The story proceeds in the fashion one would expect for a story of its era, but there is an implicit critique of gender that is certainly not in the fashion one would expect. Although Esterbrook carries on a good deal about his manly honor, the strength, pride, and self-sacrifice of the women determine the outcome of events far more than any action or feeling on Esterbrook's part.

The longest story in this volume, by quite a bit, is "Four Winds." It is also the only story that is not set directly by the sea; rather the sea haunts its characters, depending on their particular moral background, either benevolently or sinisterly. The story is about young minister Alan Douglas, living inland by a lake and longing for his seaside home, but nevertheless engrossed in his work. On a tramp by the lake, he comes across a lonely house and meets a beautiful girl. Their friendship and his desire to unravel the mysteries of her tortured past that hold her in thrall to a life of isolation form the substance of this romantic tale, which owes something to the novels of the Brontes. This story was clearly destined for adult readers; though little is made explicit, there is a sexual subtext involving rape that few would expect to find in the work of an author renowned (and criticized) for the innocence and sentimentality of her writing.

Even more unexpectedly dark is "The Waking of Helen." In this story, a painter chooses for his model an abused ugly duckling, Helen, who with his friendship and his offers of books and intellectual companionship opens up her world to dreams of finer things. The painter is not a bad man; on the contrary, he has a great deal of compassion, but almost no understanding of the behavior of beings different from himself. Though Montgomery typically kept her endings tidy and at least moderately happy, there is little room for hope or redemption in "The Waking of Helen." It is one of her rare stories that gives a glimpse into the darker recesses of the author's mind, particularly disturbing when one knows that Montgomery suffered terribly from depression and may possibly have committed suicide.

The best, as well as the funniest, story in the collection (and one of Montgomery's best stories period) is "A House Divided Against Itself," about a quarrel between Big George - five feet one inch - and Little George - six feet two inches. The source of the row is an alabaster statuette of Aurora, won in a lottery by Little George, and detested by Big George. Though the two Georges are cousins, it's difficult for a modern reader not to see their relationship as a sort of marriage. "[Little George's] marriage was so far in the dim past that Big George had almost forgiven him for it, though he occasionally cast it up to him in the frequent quarrels by which they enlivened what might otherwise have been the rather monotonous life of retired sea-folk." It seems unlikely that Montgomery intended to portray a gay relationship, but it's a convincing reading, especially given Big George's jealousy and the tenor of their domestic spats. There is an unfortunate bit of racial humor in the story that dates it and certainly makes me uncomfortable, though it is in keeping with the period and characters of the story.

For devoted readers of Montgomery, some of the stories will seem quite familiar. "The Life-Book of Uncle Jesse" was later reworked into a subplot of Anne's House of Dreams and a number of the key incidents are echoed if not downright reproduced in other works, most notably a dangerous rescue in "Four Winds" also found, though in slightly altered form, in Emily of New Moon. What is fascinating about these reiterations is the glimpse into Montgomery's process. Montgomery wrote hundreds of short stories, most destined for magazine publication, and one can see how she reworks ideas until they reach a more final form in her novels. This is particularly the case with the stories in Along the Shore, as all but one were written early on in her career, between 1897 and 1909. It is also worth noting that the stories were written for money - carefully crafted to please the editors of the magazines to which they were destined and designed to satisfy the wishes of the magazines' readership. Thus, the two stories published in Boys' World, "An Adventure on Island Rock" and "How Don Was Saved," are both about the bond between a boy and his dog and how together they become heroes, while those intended for women's magazines are generally romantic stories with happy endings and those for religiously affiliated magazines have a clear-cut moral or at least a positive message in keeping with the Protestant Christianity of the time.

Though Montgomery's novels are generally superior to her short stories, Along the Shore is a fine collection and one that will certainly give pleasure to admirers of Anne of Green Gables. It also has a good bit of variety, including stories intended for children and others for adults, both funny and tragic tales. Though Montgomery is undoubtedly a writer of her time, it is unfair and short-sighted to dismiss her work as dated or merely for girls. Is there such a great value in anticipating future literary tastes and trends? I cannot help but feel a strong desire to defend Montgomery's work against the usual criticisms leveled at it - it's sentimental, it's popular and therefore without genuine literary merit, it's only for little girls, it's too romantic, it's lacking in "realism" (a particularly bizarre and annoying criticism, given that standards of realism are constantly changing and are reflective of current cultural norms, rather than how realistic or not a work happens to be) - because her writing has given me more pleasure and joy than the work of almost any other author.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The 8 Best English Novels of the 1840s

The 1840s were tumultuous years in England, a period of labor and health reform and industrial development. By far the most influential novelists of the decade were Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, who would begin to publish under his own name with the release of Vanity Fair. The Victorian era was particularly fruitful for the English literati and the first full decade of Queen Victoria's reign saw the beginning of the careers of some of the most renowned English novelists of all time, who in the decade to come would be joined by such luminaries as George Eliot and Wilkie Collins.

8. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
It would be fair to consider Agnes Grey a lesser Jane Eyre. Like her sister's more popular novel, Anne Bronte's debut tells the story of a young governess and examines the vulnerability experienced by poor and unattached young women of the period. While few would argue that Charlotte and Emily were not finer novelists, Anne was far more political and pointedly addressed proto-feminist concerns (as well as animal rights) through her writing.

7. The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens
Wildly popular in its day, this novel follows Little Nell and her grandfather, whose desperation to deliver her out of poverty leads him to a gambling addiction and a dangerously high debt to villainous moneylender Daniel Quilp, one of the most sinister of Dickens's lowlife characters. The character of Little Nell has become an icon of the Victorian era, of its sentimentality and its idealization of female innocence and moral wholesomeness, but despite the difficulty we might have today with such a character, the novel is suspenseful, moving, and a superb example of Dickensian storytelling. 

6. Shirley - Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte's novel, set during the Luddite uprisings in Yorkshire and the Napoleonic Wars, has one of the most fascinating heroines of the period - Shirley (whose name at the time would have had a distinctly male connotation) is an independent landowner, keenly interested in running her own business affairs and invested in relieving the miseries resulting from the labor unrest and economic depression of the time. Bronte demonstrates an avid and fiercely intelligent understanding of the complex roles class, money, family connection, and morality played in the lives of women of the time.

5. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
This novella, one of the most influential and popular stories of all time, is about the miser Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is redeemed one Christmas Eve night by the visits of three spirits. Despite the story's overt sentimentality and its emphasis on moral development, a theme that has decidedly fallen out of favor in recent decades, A Christmas Carol continues to strike a deep chord with readers and is regularly adapted and retold in pretty much every medium invented to date. It is also entirely deserving of being one of the most beloved novels in the English language.

4. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
This tale of obsessive love, obsessive hate, and even more obsessive revenge on the moors of York, the only novel of Emily Bronte, is one of the greatest books of the Victorian era. Its rather weird fatalism, its mixture of stark brutality and romanticism, its damning condemnation of class hypocrisy, and most especially the stirring, terrifying character of Heathcliff make Wuthering Heights, no matter how frequently imitated, a completely unique, not to mention masterful, work of literature.

3. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
Thackeray's most enduringly popular novel begins with Becky Sharp - quick-witted, ambitious, and increasingly ruthless - and Amelia Sedley - a trifle simple-minded and angelically good - as they attend finishing school and it follows the trajectory of their romantic and matrimonial adventures during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Thackeray's satire of a vanished English society is still very funny and few novels can boast a heroine as provocative as Becky. For feminists, Vanity Fair offers a fascinating (albeit at times misogynistic) examination of the contrast between a "good" woman of the period and a "bad" one.

2. Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
This, my favorite of Dickens's novels, is about chilling businessman Paul Dombey and his children, the lovely Florence and the delicate Paul, Dombey's sinister manager Mr. Carker, the poor and caring Solomon Gills, and Gills's nephew, Walter Gay. Like many works of the period, Dombey and Son is wide-ranging and includes characters from all walks of life, including one of my favorites, Captain Cuttle, who is as good-hearted as they come, but terribly anxious to avoid a matrimonial fate, especially to a "widder."

1. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
One of the greatest novels of all time and almost certainly the greatest gothic novel ever written, Jane Eyre is about a poor, unconnected governess and her relationship with her charge's guardian, the tortured but nevertheless alluring Rochester, who hides more than a few sinister secrets within the walls of his gloomy estate. Much imitated, but never bettered, Jane Eyre remains highly popular and frequently adapted.

I felt, while doing a bit of research prior to writing this post, great frustration when faced with the paucity of information available online about older literature. I was unable, for example, to find any lists of best selling novels of the time or successfully track down books or authors that have become obscure over the past 175 or so years. Surely such information is available through academic or historical databases, but I confess that I hope my own difficulty in unearthing more obscure works is not matched by disappointment in the reader.