Review | Emma, Alexander McCall Smith

20604787Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is a funny and intelligent modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic. McCall Smith is a master at language, and his take on the story features many wry observations and witty one liners that recall Austen’s style.

I particularly liked the updating of Mr. Woodhouse, now a rather neurotic scientist and overprotective father. Miss Taylor as well, as Emma’s governess, is a snappy and smart foil to Mr. Woodhouse, a caring guardian to Emma yet also a very practical modern woman.

My primary reservation with McCall Smith’s version is that it feels dated. With the exception of Mr. Woodhouse, it almost feels like a Regency period piece, with only a few markers here and there to remind us otherwise. The characters’ concerns about class, social status and marrying well are at odds with the contemporary setting. Emma does have a career, but it feels tacked on rather than integral to the story. The character has always been spoiled, even in the original Austen, but Austen’s version had a charm to her that appears lacking in McCall Smith’s. In this contemporary re-telling, we know Emma has the best intentions because Miss Taylor tells us so. But this Emma seems more true than the original to hold to Austen’s prediction that Emma will be a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Perhaps the characters in this particular Austen just don’t translate well to the contemporary era — George Knightley in particular seemed more pompous and self-righteous than I remembered. That being said, Amy Heckerling did a fantastic job adapting Emma into the movie CluelessGranted, Clueless is a much looser interpretation of the original Austen, but it keeps the heart of the characters — Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is exactly how I’d imagine a contemporary (well, 1990s) Emma to act. Clueless is dated, even today, but it still feels fresher and more natural than McCall Smith’s Emma. 

I actually enjoyed reading McCall Smith’s Emma. It was a fun, lighthearted read, and while Emma and Knightley irked me at times, McCall Smith’s deftness with language kept me entertained throughout. I also understand that McCall Smith’s project with this book was in no way similar to that of Clueless, and it would be unfair to compare both. This is a funny, well-written book, that felt just a tad too constrained by its purpose. I enjoyed reading this book, but I also kept wishing that I were watching Clueless instead.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

01artsbeat-murakami-articleInline“The library was even more hushed than usual.” So begins this beautiful, haunting tale. It’s a masterful opening line — atmospheric, evocative, and for this reader, pregnant with promise. What wonders lie within a library “more hushed than usual”?

In The Strange Library, these wonders are dark indeed. A boy visits the library for an assignment and encounters a “little old man” who imprisons him in the basement and forces him to read. “Because brains  packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why,” explains the old man’s reluctant assistant, a sheep man. “They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.”

The story then follows the boy’s attempt to escape, aided by the sheepman and a mysterious, voiceless girl. The question of whether or not he succeeds feels almost inconsequential. The entire narrative feels like a fevered dream — the best of Murakami distilled into a child’s fairy tale.

The Strange Library is, in a word, beautiful. I’ve long been a fan of Chip Kidd (I even bought Murakami’s 1Q84 in hardcover for Kidd’s delicate tissue layered cover), and Kidd’s work in this volume is beyond words. The mere experience of opening the book feels like opening a present. And the illustrations throughout enhance the dreamscape Murakami has created, without giving anything away.

Murakami’s language as well deserves praise, as does Ted Goossen’s translation. The cadence is hypnotic, almost seductive, lulling the reader into a space where sheep men exist and the state of the moon determines one’s fate. It’s a quick read, but I hesitate to call it an easy one. I don’t think I quite understood what I read, and I mean that in the best possible way. There’s so much more to this story than the actual narrative, and Kidd’s mysterious illustrations as well hint at a universe beyond the page.

The young boy in the story sets out to research taxes in the Ottoman Empire, and ends up the star of a supernatural adventure. So too will the reader of this text set out to read a short, illustrated fable, and realize that so much of the story still lies in the white space. I will definitely have to re-read this one.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

TV Review | The Red Tent (Showcase)

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The Red Tent. Image courtesy of Showcase.

THE RED TENT (2x120min)
Canadian Premiere
TWO NIGHT MINISERIES EVENT: Sunday, December 7 at 10pm ET/PT and Monday, December 8 at 10pm ET/PT Based on the best-selling novel by Anita DiamantThe Red Tent is the sweeping tale of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was only referred to in small glimpses in the Old Testament. The miniseries begins with Dinah’s happy childhood spent inside the red tent where only the women of her tribe are allowed to gather and share the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood. Told through Dinah’s eyes, the film recounts the story of her mothers, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, the four wives of Jacob. The saga continues as Dinah matures and experiences an intense love that subsequently leads to a devastating loss, changing the fate of her and her family’s lives forever. Starring Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin, Rebecca Ferguson, Iain Glen, Will Tudor, and Debra Winger.

MY REVIEW

I grew up Catholic, and so am vaguely familiar with the story of Jacob and his children, the twelve sons who later became the twelve tribes of Israel and the single daughter Dinah. A teacher in sixth grade gave a pop quiz where we had to list all of his children with proper spelling and in the correct birth order — this made such an impression on me that even now, I can still rattle off at least nine out of the thirteen names.

Traveling to their new  home. Will Tudor as Joseph, Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Traveling to their new home. Will Tudor as Joseph, Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase.

However, I never really knew anything about Dinah beyond a name on the list. It turns out she had a pretty brief, violent mention in the Bible, and typical for Biblical stories, her passage was very much focused on the actions of her brothers and on the significance of her experience to the men around her. That’s why I absolutely loved The Red Tent. A feminist re-focusing of the   narrative, Diamant’s tale portrays Dinah as a woman who was raised and moulded by women. Diamant’s Dinah forges her own future and faces the tragic twists in her fate as an individual rather than merely a figure to prompt her father and brothers into action. I haven’t read Diamant’s book, but if the TV miniseries is any indication, the novel is definitely going on my To Read list.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Female empowerment is a theme that runs throughout the production. The tent in the title refers to the place where women in Dinah’s tribe stay when they have their period. The original purpose likely had to do with keeping “impurity” away from the men of the tribe, but in Diamant’s story, the red tent is a space of empowerment, where women share stories, celebrate their potential to create life, and secretly worship a goddess whose figure has been handed down from mother to daughter. One of the characters scoffs at how the men in the tribe pity them and their pain, when in fact menstruation is a source of power and cause for celebration.The portrayal of the red tent and the relationships among the women in Dinah’s tribe remind me very much of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where sisterhood is a potent, powerful force even within a patriarchal society.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Iain Glen as Jacob. Shot on location in Morocco, May 2014. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Iain Glen as Jacob. Shot on location in Morocco, May 2014. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Even as an adult, when tragedy takes Dinah away from her family, Dinah’s story is very much intertwined with the women around her. She is very much devoted to her son and men in her life, but the agency remains hers and the strong influences are from the women around her. Her mothers’ teachings remain strong even in into her adulthood, and her mother-in-law and a female friend help shape her future. At times, the women empowerment theme feels a bit heavy-handed, but to be honest, after having her story virtually subsumed by the male-centric Biblical narrative, I say it’s about time. The Red Tent features an impressive ensemble of actors. Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen) is a powerful Dinah. In one scene, she accuses her father of privileging her brothers over her, because “I’m only a daughter. Only property.” Her bitterness is palpable, her voice hoarse with uncontrolled fury.

Minnie Driver as Leah. Photo courtesy of Showcase

Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Dinah’s biological mother Leah is played by Minnie Driver, whom I loved in Good Will Hunting, and who brings an earth mother type wisdom to the role. Driver’s cast bio begins “Audiences may not know where Driver’s next character calls home, but they can be sure that no matter where it is, British-born Driver will make her authentic.” I agree. And finally, I have to fangirl over Iain Glen as Dinah’s father Jacob. Glen’s filmography is long and illustrious, but I know and love him best as Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones. After being so totally rejected by Daenerys, it’s nice to see him have four women in love with him in Red Tent. Seriously though, I love his work in Game of Thrones, and he makes an appealing Jacob — torn between his need to make his legacy strong and his desire to do what’s right for his daughter.

Iain Glen as Jacob. Image courtesy of Showcase

Iain Glen as Jacob. Image courtesy of Showcase

The Red Tent is a powerful story, a much-needed woman’s voice making her story heard through the centuries of patriarchal history. Originally a novel by Anita Diamant, it premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT as a two-part TV miniseries on Showcase. + Thank you to Showcase for a screener of this show in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant

22450859How did you get to be the woman you are today? Eighty-five year old Addie Baum is asked this question by her granddaughter, and thus begins a reflection on a young woman’s life in 20th century America. In Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, we learn about Addie’s involvement with a women’s reading society, her battles with sexism in the field of journalism, and her budding romance with her eventual husband.

Diamant has created a cast of memorable characters, and I loved reading about Addie’s family (overbearing mother, saintly yet unhappy sister, all mostly just trying to make the best of life in a new country) and friends (the street smart, artistic best friend, the women fighting for female liberation, a range of women trying to carve a better place for women in general).

The Boston Girl is a lovely, breezy read. The story covers major historical events like World War I and the rise of first wave feminism, yet presents them with an intimate, personal air. We feel much like Addie’s granddaughter, listening in rapt fascination to a woman whose story will likely never be in the history books and yet is part of history all the same.

The rise of feminism is my favourite part of the novel, which may explain my disappointment that Addie’s narration ends more or less with her marriage. On one hand, I like that Addie’s story is probably a more common one for women at the time, and that we have a tale many grandmothers can relate to, rather than a girl power type manifesto. I also know, logically, that of course she’ll meet a man, who will then become the grandfather of the young woman to whom the story is told. Also logically, there’s nothing that says she didn’t continue with her journalistic crusades after marriage. Still, on the other hand, part of me wishes the happy ending had involved making a landmark change in the fight for women’s liberation, rather than settling down into being a wife and mother.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Theatre Review | The Motherfucker with the Hat

I’d recently read Fr. James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadwayan account of his time as theological advisor to Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas IscariotThe book included excerpts from Guirgis’ play, and while the story certainly seemed compelling, much is lost seeing Guirgis’ words only on the page.

10342925_594387707339778_8339064364632971756_nFortunately, Bob Kills Theatre has just brought another Guirgis play to Toronto – The Motherfucker with the Hat. Coyly termed “the play that dares not speak its name” by the New York Times, Hat is loud, crude, in your face, and absolutely electrifying. The production in Toronto is at The Coal Mine, a new theatre at Pape and Danforth (Hat is their first production). The Coal Mine is an intimate space — two rows of viewers line the walls, and the set is right in the centre of the room. It’s the perfect setting for Guirgis’ intensely personal narrative. We can’t help but get sucked into the characters’ lives, and every nuance of emotion is visible to the entire audience.

The story follows recovering addict Jackie (Sergio di Zio), who has recently been released from prison, and his girlfriend Veronica (Melissa D’Agostino). As the play begins, Jackie comes home thrilled at having landed a job at FedEx, and is about to celebrate with Veronica when he finds another man’s hat in their apartment. He accuses Veronica of cheating on him, and turns to his AA sponsor Ralph (Ted Dykstra) for advice.

The play is hilarious, but with a definite edge. There’s an underlying sense of bitterness beneath the punchlines. At one point, Jackie screams, “I’m in pain!” and that pain just seeps through, not just from Jackie, but from all the other characters as well. Above all else, the play feels raw — the characters are all wounded in one way or another, and particularly in such an intimate venue as The Coal Mine, the audience can almost feel them bleed.

Guirgis’ genius is in the truth that reverberates throughout his words. In one scene, Ralph points out that friends are made before you’re 25 — any “friend” made after that age is merely an associate, because “friends are for the playground.” I don’t know if I completely agree, but I can certainly remember feeling that way. The sentiment rings true. Yet contrasted with that disillusionment is also a sense of hope. In one of my favourite lines in the play, Jackie says, “Your – whaddyacallit – your world view? It ain’t mine. And the day it is, that’s the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn’t get clean to live like that.” 

As the naive, almost child-like Jackie, Sergio di Zio’s performance just about broke my heart. The moment in the first scene when he discovers that Veronica may have been unfaithful, his face just falls, and you can feel the jubilation about his new job gradually draining away as realization dawns. And that final scene — I won’t give any spoilers away, but really, with that look on his face, I just wanted to give him a hug.

All the performances were really strong, but Juan Chioran as Jackie’s cousin Julio stole the show. I last saw (and loved) him as the Emcee in Shaw Festival’s Cabaret, where he pretty much dominated the stage with each of his songs — in the much smaller Coal Mine, he seemed even larger than life. As an empanada-making, kung fu fighting cousin with solid advice and a heart of gold, Julio stands out in contrast to the more fucked up characters in the cast. Chioran revels in the character’s exuberance, yet also imbues him with pathos that somehow seems much deeper than Jackie’s more overt emotion. “I’m only doing this for your mother,” Julio warns Jackie, admitting he doesn’t like Jackie very much. Yet later on, when Jackie’s world falls apart and he goes to confront the man he believes is sleeping with his girlfriend, Julio is the one who stops him, and offers to “go Van Damme” on the man himself, so Jackie won’t break parole. Chioran is charismatic and brilliant, and the moment when Julio reminisces about a childhood incident between him and Jackie is just beautiful.

If you’re in Toronto, I definitely recommend checking this play out. The play has also received positive reviews in NOW Toronto, The Globe and Mail and The National Post.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is on at The Coal Mine until November 30. Tickets are $30 and available online: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/859215.

The Coal Mine is such a new venue that they don’t even have a website yet. In the meantime, you can follow them on Facebook or Twitter, for the latest news. Keep an eye out for Mike Bartlett’s Bull in March and August Strindberg’s Creditors in May.

 

Wab Kinew to Host Canada Reads 2015

Great news, Canadian booklovers – CBC just announced Wab Kinew as the host of Canada Reads 2015!

Wab Kinew. Photo courtesy of the CBC.

Wab Kinew. Photo courtesy of the CBC.

If you followed 2014’s Canada Reads debates, you’ll remember Kinew as the passionate defender of Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. This year’s contenders had some pretty big shoes to fill — Canada was looking for “the one novel to change a nation.” The Orenda won, partly because it’s a really good book about important subject matter, but also partly because of Kinew’s eloquence and obvious love for the novel.

In a CBC press release, Kinew enthuses that he “can’t wait to host the debates.” He says, “Canada Reads is an amazing show to be a part of because it is both a chance to celebrate Canadian literature, and also to have some really important conversations which concern us all.” The theme for Canada Reads 2015 will certainly spark some important conversations: “one book to break barriers.” Panelists will debate books that change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues. 

Personally, I’m most interested in how panelists and readers will interpret the concept of “breaking barriers.” What barriers will be privileged and deemed “significant” enough to debate? What books will be accepted as representative of whatever community is breaking these barriers? Thematically, yes, this will be a good platform to discuss diversity in Canadian literature, but I’d also be curious to see books that break stylistic barriers. A memoir written in poetry form, or a novel like S. by J.J. Abrams where handwritten notes, maps and graphic elements are incorporated into the traditional novel. Or (I hope) a book I’ve never even heard of, where the format somehow renders it more accessible for readers with some form of disability, for whom it is difficult to find books to read.

The theme is a tall order for any book. If there was a theme to push the boundaries of creative freedom in literature, this is it, and part of me wishes that with this theme, Canada Reads opened itself up to poetry, drama and other forms of literature. Imagine a work by artist and poet Christian Bök being included in the debates!

That being said, I’m still excited about the Canada Reads 2015 debates. Wab Kinew is a fantastic choice by the CBC, and the theme should raise awareness of some really important issues that literature is at least attempting to address.

Do you have a book in mind? Readers can submit their suggestions at CBCbooks.ca or tweet their suggestions to @CBCbooks with the hashtag #CanadaReads until Sunday, November 30. The Canada Reads panelists and their chosen books will be announced on January 20, 2015 and the debates will be held from March 16-19, 2015.

Click here for more information, and follow @WabKinew and @CBCbooks on Twitter.

Review | After, Anna Todd

22557520Anna Todd’s After is a classic “good girl meets bad boy” love story that began as a fan fiction romance about teen heartthrob Harry Styles (of British boy band One Direction). It became such an online phenomenon that the story has since published by traditional book publisher Simon and Schuster and movie rights have been optioned.

After is a fun, entertaining read, and I zipped through the book in a weekend. Hardin (the Harry Styles character, renamed for publication) is definitely not my choice in boyfriend, whether literary or real life, but I think that’s just me being old. I can imagine teenage me going gooey at his broody grouchiness. As Anna Todd said when I met her at Indigo, there’s something undeniably attractive about being the one woman special enough to make the bad boy want to change. And indeed, as with TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, Wuthering Heights , Pride and Prejudice and other such influences for this book, in After, bad boy Hardin falls for good girl Tessa and finds the impetus to change his ways.

As a hero, Hardin insults Tessa, smirks a lot (though nowhere near as much as Edward Cullen) and acts like he’s too cool for practically everything. I had been dreading a controlling, abusive bad boy type, but he struck me more as bratty than abusive. The romance and their arguments felt immature, more Sweet Valley High than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it was more amusing than anything.

To Anna Todd’s credit, Tessa isn’t the precious snowflake that Bella Swan and Ana Steele are. She’s a young, innocent girl who is so prim and proper at the beginning that even I wanted to tell her to loosen up. She’s a realistic character, even with her odd quirk of setting alarms for every single bit of her day, but her personality shift happened much too quickly. The odd quirk of setting multiple alarms was abandoned fairly early on, and while she never turned into a Jessica Wakefield, she still felt like a completely different person a few chapters into the story.

To be honest, the turbulence of their relationship didn’t bother me as much as the fairy tale nature of Tessa’s internship. Minor spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: she lands a dream internship at a publishing company thanks to Hardin’s family connections (shades of Fifty Shades here). Thing is, the internship is so good that it stretches credulity past the breaking point — it’s paid, for one, and despite the job being just a part-time internship, the pay is enough for rent. Also, Tessa gets her own computer, her own phone line and her own office. Then, during her first day, the head of the company gives her a stack of manuscript submissions and tells her to send on to him any manuscripts she thinks worth publishing, and to throw away any that she doesn’t like. Seriously? I’ve never worked in publishing, so there may be some truth to this, for all I know. But I doubt it. Now, granted, a lot of my response is sour grapes at not having my own office, but well, even a wish fulfillment fantasy should have some credence of believability, no?

That being said, the romance was entertaining to read. There were some troubling aspects, but again, I think Hardin’s brand of bad boy was just too immature for me to really get into. Tessa’s jealousy over Hardin’s past relationships leads to some pretty stupid decisions, but again, it all feels very high schoolish. I generally like YA, and I know there are adult fans of this story. I’m just not one of them — I think I’m just too curmudgeonly and at multiple times wanted to tell the characters to grow up. But I did enjoy reading the book, and I even might pick up the next book in the series for a snowy weekend.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.