Tag Archives: jane eyre

The books of Jasper Fforde

fforde_setI just finished reading yet another Jasper Fforde book, I think the 9th one I’ve read.  While not a household name, Fforde has a very devoted following among certain sects of peculiar readers.  The sort of people who can read Bronte and Dickens, then switch over to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett without batting an eye. His books are often re-workings of classic stories, fairytales, even nursery rhymes. He has no fear when it comes to taking well-known characters and stories, and changing them.  It’s the sort of thing that might be posted on a fanfiction website in a strange corner of the internet, if it weren’t actually in book form.

While not Nabokov or Proust, Fforde has a few qualities that make his books extremely interesting and very different from what you normally find on the bookshelf.  For one thing, he’s a world-builder.  Like J.K. Rowling, he can introduce a new set of rules and parameters, a new way of looking at a familiar place. There are always rules to his worlds, and they make sense in your brain.  Suddenly, you begin to think it could all be a possibility, the same way you think, maybe if you stand in the right place in King’s Cross, you can see someone disappear into Platform 9 3/4.  His most famous character, Thursday Next, becomes part of a police force that operates inside books.  Jurisfiction, it’s called.  Thursday can travel inside books, right into Netherfield or Manderley or Thornfield Hall.  Of course, if I had this ability, it would be straight to Hogsmeade for me.  But I digress.  Fforde is very good at establishing these worlds, their rules. Just strange and nonsensical enough to be new and exciting, just familiar and rational enough to make it relatable. Fictional characters can easily jump from their own books to visit others.  But if someone is reading their book, they have to stay put and play their parts.  Apparently, a 1st person story is much harder on the protagonist, since it demands that his/her words, actions, and thoughts match those written in the book. A 3rd person story allows the characters much more freedom. It’s like an acting job they can never quit, in that sense.  Very interesting way to think about it.

Thursday Next has starred in 7 books so far: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot. During that time, she alters the ending of Jane Eyre, her brother Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes brother, and Thursday spends some time in a half-written, long-forgotten novel, stored in the Well of Lost Plots, inside the ‘Great Library’, where all the books are stored.

Another series Fforde has written/is writing, is called the Nursery Crime series.

148809A detective named Jack Spratt (who could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean) investigates the deaths of nursery rhyme characters. His first case, called The Big Over Easy is the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty, who took a fall. His next case involves the death of Goldilocks, and is called The Fourth Bear.

These plots sort of mirror the Thursday Next series, delving into the world of fictional characters and finding new ways to look at old stories.

The book I just finished was called Shades of Grey. Not to be confused, ever, with 50 Shades of Grey. This book takes place in a world where human beings can only see one color, rather than the entire spectrum. The social hierarchy is entirely dependent upon what you can see.  Purples rule the roost, because they fall at the good end of the Roy G Biv color spectrum.

shadesofgreyGreys are colorblind, and are the serfs of this society.  The society is also very 1984, with a pretty serious, if totally nonsensical, set of rules. No new spoons can ever be made–that’s probably the weirdest one. No one can marry a complimentary color (red/green), I believe because of the fear of any offspring being Browns.

Fforde’s other enduring quality is his humorous turn of phrase.  It reminds me of Douglas Adams, but not quite as wonderfully strange–but no one is quite as wonderfully strange as Douglas Adams. He does have a quirky way of looking at the world.  Here are a few quotes from his books:

Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.

there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.

the Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor

In my opinion, the key to enjoying a Fforde book is a pretty extensive knowledge of literature in general.  These books were written for book lovers.  If you can’t appreciate a reference to Miss Havisham’s yellowed wedding gown or understand why Heathcliff won the ‘Most Troubled Romantic Lead’ award without some googling, you won’t get these books. They aren’t for you.  They’re for people who would, let’s just be honest, prefer to live in the world of a book than to live anywhere else. Shades of Grey doesn’t rely as heavily on that sort of book knowledge, which might make it easier for a beginner Fforde fan to get into.  On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, partially because there weren’t so many winks and nods I felt pleased to understand.

I mentioned the adoring Fforde ffans, yes?  They’ve started a quasi-yearly event in Swindon (Thursday Next’s home, near London), called the Fforde Ffiesta. Fforde shows up and gives readings, but mostly people re-enact strange customs from his books. Favorites include ‘Spot the Lobster’, ‘Celebrity Name that Fruit’, and speed reading of Hamlet. I’m not quite that extreme (look, if I’m going all the way to the UK, I’m not going to go to Swindon), but I think it’s all quite lovely that people a-read his books, b-like his books, and c-embrace the strangeness of his imagined worlds so fully that they want to make it real.  As someone with a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf, I can comprehend that idea all too well.

 

Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.

 

Wuthering Heights: my own personal white whale

Wuthering HeightsI first tried to read Wuthering Heights when I was around 20. I had just read, and loved, Jane Eyre, and moved on to a different Bronte sister. Much to my chagrin, Emily is just no fun, and I didn’t make it through more than a few chapters. Since then, I think I’ve tried twice more and made it even fewer pages through.

In May, I took up the challenge again, determined to at least finish the damn thing. And I did! And I can check this off my list, know that it is not a book for me, and move on with my fucking life.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Wuthering Heights is the story of two families who occupy a stretch of land in ‘the North’ of England. The setting is based on the childhood home of the Bronte family, which was north of Leeds. The setting is perhaps the second most iconic character in this story. Long stretches of windy and cold countryside, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. That’s what people think of when they read Wuthering Heights. It’s a perfectly isolated and lonely part of Yorkshire. Or it was in the mid-19th century, at any rate.

The multitude of characters, many of which share the same names, can get confusing. I found a chart online, which only confused me more–and I’ve read the book.

Wuthering Heights character relationsIf you concentrate, you can usually figure out which Catherine and which Linton and which Heathcliff is being discussed. Plus, people keep dying in nearly every chapter, so most of the characters with the same name don’t interact often as their other half is already dead.

The story is told through a moronic and useless narrator, Mr. Lockwood. Seriously, Nick Carraway has too much personality compared to this guy. Most of the story of the two houses that are concerned in the story is told through Ellen Dean, a servant of one family, and then the other.

We learn that Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw are brother and sister, and their father brings another boy into the home. An orphan, possibly of Romani origin, that he found alone in the big city. Heathcliff. He is uneducated, parentless, and dark-skinned (a mortal sin in 19th-century England). Most of the family detests him from the beginning, but he is spoiled by the father of the house and by Catherine. The two grow up running around the moors together, like feral children.

The other family is the Lintons. Mr. Linton is a member of the gentry, and his family is a far more socialized and gentile one than the Earnshaws. When Catherine meets their son, Edgar, who is very handsome and very sophisticated, she begins to turn against the ways of her family. In some ways, she dislikes the Linton children because they are so sheltered and weak. They are polite and kind, but the smallest unkindness sends them into tears. She is used to a rough and tumble existence with Healthcliff.

As you might be able to guess, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. She likes being treated like a princess, being revered, and being in a kind and comfortable home. The Lintons spoil her incessantly, which she also enjoys. In her heart, she admits that she loves Heathcliff as if he were a part of herself, but says that she would debase herself by marrying him. His parentless, landless, poverty-stricken existence makes him an unsuitable match for her.

From that moment on, everyone involved is absolutely doomed. Heathcliff, furious with Catherine, with Linton, with Catherine’s brother, and with himself, turns from wild to calculating and vengeful. He disappears, and doesn’t return for months (years?). He has a plan to exact revenge on everyone who has wronged him. According to his own calculations, this is everyone he knows. Catherine’s brother, Hindley, is the first on the list. Inticed to gambling, Hindley ends up turning over his entire property (the eponymous Wuthering Heights) to Heathcliff in an attempt to win back what he continuously loses at cards. Heathcliff gains revenge on Edgar Linton by running off with Linton’s sister, marrying her out of spite.

After a few years, almost everyone is dead. Edgar, Hindley, Catherine, Edgar’s sister. Heathcliff has a son, Catherine and Edgar a daughter. Hindley also has a son, who is left to be more or less wild, raised piecemeal by servants. Confused yet?

Heathcliff feels his last revenge will be to get his son married to Linton’s daughter. On the one hand, I think that he feels if they marry, it is the closest he will come to marrying Catherine himself. But mostly, he wants to own what money and property Catherine has inherited.

Long story short, he accomplishes his goal, just before his son dies. Then he goes mad and dies, and Catherine falls in love with Hareton Earnshaw, her cousin.

It’s a terrible story. There are a few main themes that are sort of smashed into your head multiple times.

One is the difference between those that are treated well in life and those that are not. The Linton family, and all that have that name, live in a comfortable house surrounded by polite people. They are kind to each other, and have no evil in their hearts. On the other hand, they are terribly weak and often spoiled, and barely have the capacity to care for themselves.

The Earnshaws and Heathcliff live in a dark, dreary house with angry, drunk, violent people. They all grow up to be angry and violent. But they are tough. They outlive and outlast. Heathcliff proves himself the toughest and the most violent main character I can remember. At one point, he tries to kill a dog. Multiple times, he hits and beats, or threatens to do the same, women and children. He gets what he wants by brute force. He becomes the richest, the most powerful man in the area–a man Catherine would not have refused if given her chance again…but it is too late. She’s long dead, and his inability to fix that is what drives him mad. He has a lot in common with Jay Gatsby, if you think about it. A Jay Gatsby who is evil and cruel.

The book also shows a somewhat radical (for the time) idea of social class. At first, the Earnshaws are the owners of Wuthering Heights. While Old Man Earnshaw is alive, Heathcliff is treated like one of the family. When he dies, and his son Hindley is in charge, Heathcliff is demoted to the place of servant. When Heathcliff takes charge of the house, he elevates his own son and sends Hindley’s son, Hareton, to live the life of an uneducated servant. Yet, once Heathcliff is dead, Hareton and Catherine Linton own both properties together. Time and time again, Heathcliff takes people into his house (often by force), and forces them to debase themselves. Used to having servants, his wife, then his son, then Catherine Linton, have to learn to live by their own means.

Two things drive me crazy about this book. No, three. I’ll stop with three, though I could probably find more.

1-No one is likeable, in any way. Everyone is violent or weak, stupid or condescending, overly pious or entirely evil. You don’t care about a single character, because they are all awful. I didn’t want a single one of them to find happiness, because none of them deserve it! And I thought It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was bad!

2-Everyone makes the same mistake, over and over again. Particularly Nelly (Ellen Dean), who is the main narrator. She must say 10 different times that she should have and wanted to intervene, but paused momentarily. Then, oops, who could have guessed, Heathcliff beat them all and locked them in the house until he got what he wanted. Or Mr. Linton tells his daughter not to go to Wuthering Heights or to see its occupants, and that rule is broken again and again, supposedly by accident. If your neighbor had a habit of beating women, or forcing them into marriage, would you go visiting? Even if your horse was tired or his son was sick? I wouldn’t. What morons.

3-Heathcliff is a romantic hero. This is not the books fault, to be fair. But women love Heathcliff. Women love him more than Mr. Darcy?! Who are these women? They must be the same women who write love letters to prisoners and stay in abusive relationships. Heathcliff is a sadist. I guess that means they are also women who read 50 Shades of Grey.

Yes, it’s briefly romantic to imagine a man so enamored of you that he will destroy the world without it. A love so strong that 20 years after you’ve died he is still entirely devoted to you and finds no point in living without you. When I was 14, that would sound romantic.

But as an adult, I don’t get it. Even if he wasn’t horrible, sadistic, violent, abusive, and mercurial, it is not romantic to have someone live for you. Not in reality. I would rather have a partner who has his own hobbies, his own desires, his own independent life. Not only would it be a lot of pressure to be someone’s entire world, but it would be quite dull. It seems a very immature view of love, to want something like this. The fact that grown women are so fond of him makes me both irritated with and embarrassed for them.

One-year blog anniversary

blog-anniversaryThis year marks one year since I began to write this blog.  I’d like to say I’ve learned and grown a lot as a writer and blogger during this year, but I have to say most of what I have learned is how addictive the WordPress ‘Stats’ page can be.  I check it about 10 times per day, just to see the view count tick up.  This isn’t the sort of blog that I imagine will ever garner lots of attention; there just aren’t many Americans interested in my views on Downton Abbey, even among the subset of Americans that are interested in Downton Abbey. But I still get a thrill from anything that gives me a lot of hits.  I find one thing the most addictive–the WordPress map.  I desperately want to fill in all of the countries! I like the idea of my blog being read round the world.  So far, I’m doing pretty well.map

There are some countries I’m fairly certain I won’t ever get to fill in.  Internet access is tightly controlled, and often unavailable at all, in places like Iran and North Korea.  I don’t know a lot about, say Madagascar, but given their tiny population I doubt they will be visiting anytime soon.  I’m holding out a lot of hope for Mongolia, partially because it’s such a big country. I don’t understand why Greenland is not colored-in, because Greenland is technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  And I’ve got Denmark, so I think I should have Greenland.  *cough-WordPress-are-you-listening-cough* And it’s huge!

Not surprisingly, my blog is most popular in the US and the UK, with the rest of Europe and some other post-colonial countries (Australia, India) not far behind. But I have a lot of 1-offs, where one person from an entire country has deigned to visit my blog.  I’m always thrilled when I have new countries on the list, so thank you to the one of you from the Bahamas, Jersey, Uganda, Cyprus, Honduras, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Uruguay, St. Lucia, Grenada, and Nicaragua who have wandered in and then wandered back out.  Next time, tell your friends!

Other amusing pastimes include obsessively monitoring why people found my blog–what they searched for that lead them to my little corner of the internet. My most popular topic (more popular than all of the rest combined, I would wager) is any variation on ‘English Stereotypes’.  That makes up most of my traffic.  But when you get down to the end of the list you get to the more amusing keywords.  WHY were people searching for this stuff? WHY does searching for it lead to my blog?! Here is a sample of the weirdest searches:

Martin Freeman naked/nude (more popular than Benedict Cumberbatch naked, so Martin should be happy about that)

Benedict Cumberbatch + sloth OR ice age

bike mustache chops.   ????

Albus Dumbledore read Pride and Prejudice

Jane Eyre the hoes of these moves

bluffball did you see that ludicrous display last night

my possible favorite,

what is “wagger pagger bagger” slang for in England?

Excellent question, but one my blog does not answer.  There are also some that are less PG rated, including several people wanting to search about Fred Weasley performing certain sex acts, and something related to horses, dolls, and sex.  Yikes! For the record, my blog came up for that last one because of my review of Anna Karenina, which has a sex affair, a character named Dolly, and a horse race.  But I googled that same string of words and my blog was the second result, right behind a fetish porn site.  So…awesome.

I have learned that all publicity is good publicity.  I’ve had two writers retweet/link reviews that I posted.  In fact, the busiest day my blog ever had was when Steven Grasse linked to my review of his book.  If you didn’t read it, be aware that my review can be summarized by three words “Worst. Book. Ever.”  He seemed to find it amusing that his terrible book almost caused me to have a stroke.  I have to say that him personally linking to my scathing review means he has a better sense of humor than any of his humor book seemed to display.  Luckily, my other retweet came for a positive review.

I don’t mind being a small blog.  I think the best part of this blog is finding other like-minded individuals. I now follow a lot more people on WP, on Twitter, etc., who are interested in British TV and culture, who are British and are interested in TV and culture, and just people who are interesting.  I find that the most rewarding part, since it involves interaction and a conversation rather than answering misspelled Google queries.  It’s almost as rewarding as it will inevitably be when someone from Mongolia visits my blog.

Tsherlock and john laughingo the next year!

 

My Top 5 British Everything! part one

My monetary situation continues to not be conducive to buying new movies or books.  That means it’s time for another list–a long one this time! Part one will cover Books, Movies, and my favorite places in the British Isles.

My Top 5 British Everything*

*not comprehensive.

First off, books! This is very hard for me, obviously, as a quick inventory of my bookshelf will prove that about 60% of all the books I own are British.  To pick only 5 is like picking one meal to eat every night for the rest of your life.  But, nevertheless, here are my favorites!

1.The Harry Potter Series

Of course this is number one.  And, don’t gripe about this being 7 books, not one.  This list is only my top five, and it would be pretty boring if all five were HP books, as they most assuredly would be.  The bottom line is these are my desert island books, the only books I would truly need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life, if, god forbid, it came to that sort of choice.  These books absolutely and tangibly changed my life–cured my depression, inspired me to go back and finish my degree, inspired me to read again, to write again, to enjoy and love my time on earth.  When I am sad or weary, I pull out these books and, like some sort of black market European antidepressants, they make things better. Not only do I own the original 7 novels in their American versions, but also several foreign editions as well.  I picked up the British (children’s) copy of Deathly Hallows, plus an Italian Prisoner of Azkaban (which it took me 3 months to read), a Greek Half-Blood Prince, a Croatian Chamber of Secrets, and even a copy of Philosopher’s Stone that has been translated into Latin!

These books are largely responsible for my love of British culture, and you could draw a pretty direct line from my first experience reading HP books to me creating this blog.  They are the end all be all of my reading life.

2. Pride and Prejudice

See my earlier entry for why this is such a lovely book.  I can’t say it had the same impact on me as Harry Potter, but I just finished a reread last week and even after so many times reading it and watching the miniseries, I still find new and lovely bits that are delightful.

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3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’

The first time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I laughed so hard and so loud that I made an idiot of myself. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the story, Arthur Dent is whisked off Earth minutes before its irrevocable destruction by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be an alien.  But this isn’t science fiction; it never takes itself particularly seriously. What it is, in my opinion, is just funny and silly and wonderfully imaginative. The wordplay alone is enough to furnish me with great quotes for the rest of my life.  Here’s just a few to choose from:

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And my favorite (not technically from the series, but wonderful anyway):

I like deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

There is something very British (in my American mind at least) about this love of and playfulness with words and phrases.  Compare it, for a second, to something by Hemingway, whose prose has never even bordered on playful (at least, in my experience).  If you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide,you should.

4.Hamlet

I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life. I think I’ve taken 3 or 4 Shakespeare courses in college, plus the plays I read in high school.  I’ve read all of his sonnets and most of his other poems.  Of his 37 plays, I have read 20, so far.  I think Hamlet may have been the first one I read, back in middle school.  It has always been my favorite.  Some people think that Hamlet is indecisive and incapable of action. I just don’t see it.  He’s overcome with grief, with anger, with a questioning of the purpose of life and of revenge.  He feels trapped by circumstances and he talks his way through his feelings.  And he talks so beautifully.  I think it is, by far, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s works, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been depressed or suffered tragedy can read his famous soliloquy without finding echoing questions and statements in their own hearts. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, and encourage everyone to read it.  If you don’t think you can stand reading the play, please do not go get the Mel Gibson DVD.  At least invest the time in the Kenneth Branagh version, or at the very least the new David Tennant.

5. North and South

Please do not confuse this with that civil war miniseries with Patrick Swayze.  Though Elizabeth Gaskell is not that well known in America, she is considered just as popular as Jane Austen in England.  This is the story of a family who is forced to uproot from their life in the South (i.e. London and the counties surrounding it, which were agricultural, were old money, and were considered the most civilized) to the industrialized North (full of factories, the working class, unions, and pollution).  This dichotomy is a huge factor in England, even today someone with a Northern accent can be (unfairly) assumed to be less civilized than his/her Southern counterpart.  The book has the same plot as an Austen novel, and does have a truly scrumptious male love interest, but all of that is against an entirely different background. Gaskell weaves in poverty, unions, strikes, factory conditions, changing social norms, religious disparities, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a great way to get to know some of the background of the time, but to still get a fulfilling love story.  I also highly recommend the miniseries with Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.

Honorable Mention: Jane Eyre

now, on to Movies.
Please keep in mind that I am not a cinema expert and haven’t seen a lot of what are considered the British ‘classics’. These are mostly mainstream films that were also very successful in the US.

1. A Hard Day’s Night

My love for the Beatles from an early age meant that, at the age of 9 or 10, I dragged my father to the video store every weekend to rent the same two movies: this one, and Help!.  Help! doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as this one, but A Hard Day’s Night is a brilliant film. It captures the madness of the Beatles’ schedules and touring demands, the ridiculousness of press junkets, and the cheeky humor of the Fab Four.  It features great music, cute British boys, and lots of genuinely funny bits.

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2. Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

I am listing these two together because, recently, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg revealed that they will be making a third in what they are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead can be described as a romantic comedy with zombies, while Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy.  But not action comedy as in Rush Hour; it’s more funny than it is action. Also, it’s not terrible, so that’s another key difference.  These movies are both hilarious, have cemented my eternal love for Simon Pegg, and spoof other genres so well that they manage to be both great parodies and great examples of the genres they are spoofing.

3. Snatch

 

This movie is just…unique.  Or, it’s unique if you haven’t seen Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. But seriously, Guy Ritchie made this movie and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  Vinnie Jones is amazing, Jason Statham is in his first big role (at least in the US), and Brad Pitt plays an absolutely incomprehensible gypsy/boxer.  It’s a stylish, interesting, funny film.  It also provides one with endless quotes. This movie contains both my least favorite moment in perhaps any movie (Brick Top–aka the foulest man on earth–talking about feeding corpses to his pigs) and one of my favorites (Tyrone backs into a van and claims it was at a funny angle. Vinny says It’s behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.).

4. Atonement

Couldn’t be more different from Snatch.  For all my bitching about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, they do a spectacular job with this movie.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might be better than the book, and I loved the book.  The book didn’t have James McAvoy though, and the movie has an absolutely amazing score that actually works to help translate it from book to screen.  A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it will absolutely fuck you up. I was sobbing for days.  Ian McEwan’s fiction always does that to me, but this is a prime example.  It’s either going to make you depressed or make you very angry, or both. But it’s exceptionally good.

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary

How could I not love this movie? It’s based on Pride & Prejudice, has the real Mr. Darcy playing a man named Mr. Darcy, and features an imperfect heroine who Darcy loves anyway.

I do occasionally have a problem with the fact that Bridget is a bit of an idiot, and compared to Lizzy Bennet she’s a complete moron.  But she does have a sort of wonderful, vivacious, goofy energy that is a good contrast to stuffy, conservative, Mark Darcy.

Honorable Mentions: Notting Hill, Love Actually

Now, on to my favorite Places to visit during a trip to the UK.  Let me preface this by saying I have, by no means, seen the majority of the UK.  These are just the 5 favorite places I visited during my time there.

1. South Bank of London

I spent a lot of time on the South Bank during my time in London, though I didn’t live anywhere near it.  I did go to the theatre there almost every week, and it is among the most beautiful of all the places I spent time in Europe. As the name implies, it’s on the South Bank of the Thames, and features tons of big attractions within about a block or two of the water.  There’s the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the Waterloo station, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, and City Hall (popularly known as Darth Vader’s helmet because of its shape).  It’s a beautiful, vibrant, interesting, artistic part of town.  It should also be avoided during tourist season, but if you go when it’s not packed, it can be absolutely beautiful. A few blocks east are the Globe theatre, the Tate Modern, and the Millennium Bridge.

2. Prince’s Street Gardens and the Castle of Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh and was blown away by how beautiful this part of town was.  The castle sits at the top of a huge cliff and the gardens sit at its base.  The history of the place goes back thousands of years, you can see the entire town from the top of the cliff, and everywhere you go in the area, you have at least some chance of running into J.K. Rowling.

3. Oxford

Talk about history, beauty, the whole thing.  You can walk around this city in about an hour, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’m still considering going to Oxford for grad school, because can you imagine having this place for your home? Wandering around the same halls and rooms as so many of the important figures in political and literary history (26 prime ministers, 12 saints, kings, queens, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde…just to name a few. I could go on).  Plus Rowan Atkinson.  I think I could spend the rest of my life inside the Radcliffe Camera (reading room).

4. Bath

A place famous with Roman settlers for its healing waters, home to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Rupert Giles, and set in a really beautiful part of a really beautiful country.  It’s a small town, but I found it really charming and lovely to walk in.  There are tons of Regency-era museums and houses open for viewing, plus the Jane Austen house, the original Roman baths, and a kickass chocolate shop across from the Cathedral.

5. Hampstead and ‘the Heath’


I lived approximately 1 mile from Hampstead, and ran on the heath most mornings during my time in London. As such, I have a lot of affection for the place.  Plus, it was home to John Keats, my favorite poet ever.  Hampstead is a small village to the northwest of London, rather trendy with celebs and the rich and famous. It’s got nice restaurants, and is surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods on one side and the ‘Heath’ (park) on the other.  The Heath itself has two basic parts, from my recollection, an open park, and a wooded section.  From the top of the hills you can see downtown London landmarks like the BT tower and the ‘Gherkin’ building (so named because it resembles a pickle).  It’s similar, in my eyes, to Central Park, because it is a place that tons of people go when the weather is good and they sit in the grass and just enjoy life.  What’s not to love?

That’s all for this list.  Next time, I’ll tackle my favorite British TV, British music, and my favorite tidbits from British history.