Little Women, directed by Greta Gurwig

The latest version of Little Women hit the big screen on Christmas Day 2019. I’d read the book most recently over a decade ago, and watched several other film versions. How does this one rate?

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This edition is not only based on the Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the March family, but also on Alcott’s journals; therefore there are a few interesting additions.

Stylistically, the movie has lush deep tones in indoor frames much like the period paintings Gurwig studied. The outdoor scenes are satisfying with period details as well as fresh and delightfully lingering which accounts for the length at 2 hours 15 minutes.

The movie is set in Orchard House and surrounding area, the actual Alcott home (now museum) in Concord, Massachusetts, across the lane from Laurie’s grand mansion, presided over by his grandfather, (Chris Cooper). Father is off to the Civil War, and Marmie (played by Laura Dern) sympathizes with the poor of the town and leads her girls to give away their sparse foodstuffs and care for the sick. Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), is wilder in this version than the others, least likely to succumb to matrimony; her sisters not so much. There are subtle religious overtones as the family prays true to the original book, but more stark are the overt feminist comments not present in the original novel or the previous films, apparently borrowed from a speech in Alcott’s novel Rose in Bloom and elsewhere in Alcott’s later writings, perhaps indicative of Alcott’s growing outspokenness. While women’s social standing is a predicament of the time, the “little women” being so self-aware is doubtful. It smacks of didacticism, aimed at educating the young who may know nothing of women’s former plight and the true work of feminism to win suffrage, property, and parentage rights. Again, not true to the novel, but in retrospect it is a truthful addition in light of Alcott’s values.

The character of Laurie (Chalamet) is rendered in a believable light, immature and a brother-match to Jo, while more suitable as husband for the younger more adoring Amy. His growing love for Jo and her refusal is put forth as the main story-line, but kudos to the director, Gurwig, for also giving us glimpses of Meg’s (Watson) romance with Laurie’s tutor John Brooke (Norton), poignant scenes during Beth’s (Scanlen) illness, and more of Amy (Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March played spectacularly by none other than Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, the role of Marmie March (Dern) was underwhelming, as was that of Father (Odenkirk). However, the comic banter and rich poetic dialogue provides hints of Thoreau’s Walden and other transcendental writers and thinkers of the time. In fact, I quite expected actual appearances by the Alcott’s neighbours, but they appeared only in the script.

Jo’s friendship and ensuing romance with Friedrich (Louis Garrel) is a good fit as he is closer in age to Jo than the version with Wynona Rider, therefore more believable, somewhat reminiscent of the updating of Pride and Prejudice with younger protagonists. More of their relationship would have been interesting. However, the final scene, as sweet as it is, does not at all seem true to the story as it doesn’t lead well into the following novel Jo’s Boys where Friedrich and Jo have a school for boys. Instead, it adhere’s to the comedic form for a gathering of community.

Another stylistic update was the switching back and forth repeatedly in time between the girls’ childhood and their adult lives, unlike the chronological treatment in the Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Wynona Rider and Susan Sarandon. I personally loved this treatment, but my movie-friend who hadn’t read the book or viewed previous versions was confused.

I recommend reading Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women first then watching the 1994 Armstrong version before seeing this one in order to truly appreciate the vision which Gurwig brought to screen.

 

Recommended for all ages.

 

Alice Hoffman, The World That We Knew

I often write about “old” or at least “older” books, but I just read one that is still fairly hot off the press. It’s Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, released in 2019.

I chose this book because I like some historical and period fiction, as well as war-time stories. The appeal of war-time stories is that this is recent history and should be studied even though it is particularly chilling. The lows are dramatic, gut-wrenching, and at times horrific; the highs may be the simple beauty of something in nature or as triumphant as escaping arrest.

From the front sleeve:

In Berlin in 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive.                                  At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime …

I didn’t look any further, so after I brought the book home and began to read to discover  supernatural/fantastical elements, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t want to give it away, but a few of the characters see the Angel of Death, other angels, demons, and someone creates a golem. It’s all organic to the story and the story remains anchored in real life war-time struggles, but the elements add tension and surprise.

It’s a well-told story which kept my interest throughout, and the denouement was particularly bittersweet and yet satisfying.

Recommended for 14+.

Happy reading!

DB

Our Familiar Hunger, by Laisha Rosnau

A couple of summers ago, I was able to attend a poetry writing workshop with UBC Okanagan professor Laisha Rosnau, through the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She is winner of the

Dorothy Livesay Award, and the BC Book Prize for Poetry.

We ate lunch, she did a short Q&A, and then we got down to it… pen on paper. She provided several writing prompts. Quite a group was squeezed around the tables at the pub, some struggling to see in the din. After scribbling for a while, we took turns reading short bits aloud. Afterwards, we broke into smaller groups to write and read more.

It was a satisfying afternoon. And best of all, I left with a copy of Laisha’s book, Our Familiar Hunger. (Nightwood Editions, 2018, Duncan, B.C.). I did not know it at the time, but the volume has proved to be stark, beautiful, and important.

The work traces through ads, farm dirt, blood, abuse, and the chronology of the migration of Ukrainian women to Canada, some legally, and some as trafficked slaves to service oil workers and farmers. Rosnau uses found texts, many sources, her own poetry previously published on the topic, and she mentions works which inspired her own. Having read volumes of poetry without a unifying theme, I can see why this one is an award winner. The theme unifies the work and creates a strong statement about a people.

Noise and light explode

and we think it’s the surging

between us, what we hold

under heavy skirts, but

it’s another spray of gunshot,

another soldier marching.

The history of wars and suffering bleeds through, as do softer moments:

We sleep in our own skin

and lie so close together

I can see how there is something

in the blue of your eyes,

as wide as sky pressed against

crops of wheat before lack

Often, people don’t like poetry because it seems obscure and impenetrable. Not this. Anyone can read, understand, and gain from this work.

Happy Reading.

DB

A Canadian Author

Tolkien the Artist

In a previous post on J.R.R. Tolkien, I wondered what more could be said about the great storyteller. Well, as it turns out, there is more to learn.

I recently listened to a Tolkien at Oxford podcast entitled, The Hobbit at the Bodleian: World Book Day. It was interesting to hear about how Tolkien intended The Hobbit to be an illustrated novel, but the cost to include his watercolours was prohibitive after the war. The podcast features Judith Priestman, curator of the Bodleian library on World Book Day, 2010, on which day the original artwork was displayed.

Apparently, his watercolour paintings which he produced on plain (inexpensive) paper with his children’s low-quality paints cannot bear to be viewed normally in light at the Bodleian, and so they are stored in the dark.

Good news! There is a stunning volume available, published in 2018, with paintings, maps, and other author creations. This bookseller has several inside page views where you can see his artwork. It is surprising that Tolkien was dismissive of his artistic talent, as his work is quite vivid and enjoyable to view: Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth.

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Enjoy!

DB

Two So Small

by Hazel Hutchins

About a decade ago, I participated in a children’s book workshop in Canmore with Canadian author Hazel Hutchins.

I purchased one of her books, Two So Small, which she’d used as one of the examples in the workshop. The book has the flavour of a Folk Tale with surprises sprinkled throughout as well as sweet ending.

Here is the description from an online bookstore:

A gentle story about a brave little boy and his goat who, after many wrong turns, meet a baby giant in need of their help. In order to fully capture the size of the giants, Two So Small features an extra-large fold-out picture at the story’s end.

It became one of those books which I read over and over again to my young child. And it is one of the books which will remain on my bookshelf to read with grandchildren.

A Canadian Author

Happy Reading!

DB

Autumn Kids’ Book Tour

Dorothy would love to visit your school or organization to talk about creating a picture book!

Other options are creative writing guided practice and inspirational talks to youth.

There is funding available through the Writer’s Union of Canada to help your organization fund an author visit!

Contact Dorothy by email (editor.bentley@gmail.com) or through her publisher, Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

 

Autumn Kids’ Book Tour*

Come and say hello and have your copy of

 Summer North Coming  read & signed by the author!

Calgary postponed

Banff postponed

Lethbridge Saturday November 9th, Chapters, 1:00 pm

Fort McMurray Saturday November 23rd, Coles-Indigo, 12:00 pm

* cancelled if roads are closed due to a snow storm

 

Jamberry

As a parent who has read stories over and over again, I appreciate children’s stories which are fun, lyrical, and worthy of being read hundreds of times. Jamberry is one of those books.

This book was written and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Most children’s picture books do not have the same person as author and illustrator, but this one has equally strong verse and picture-storytelling.

The best picture books offer additional story through the artwork. As an example, the text begins: “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry…” Immediately, the illustration shows an anthropomorphized bear, interacting with a young child, sharing berries.  From this first window into the magical world of the story, the reader knows to expect a fabulous world, similar to a fairy-land. Another clue is the marshmallows on tall grass, which adds to the nonsensical world.

Another aspect I like about this rhyming story is that the rhyme shifts from one type, to another, and then another. It has the affect of shifting gears when driving through a varied landscape.

In my own poetic picture book, Summer North Coming – Winter North Coming, I chose to carefully follow a rhyming scheme throughout the story. It is a safe bet to do so, and it seemed natural; but I commend Degen for breaking that tendency and going out on a limb to create something unique.

First published in 1983, it is a new classic which I buy again and again as part of a new baby gift-bundle.

Enjoy!

Jamberry

The Hobbit

by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

I did say that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. That is true. This is another one of the very few fantasies I like. It is a classic. What more could possibly be said about this volume which hasn’t already been said? It is written by a master of the genre, it holds to all the high fantasy conventions, and it’s a fun read.

I was given this book to read by a ruggedly handsome young man. He liked dark ales, the mountains, unusual (alternative) music with haunting flutes and (other instruments) which seemed to pair mighty well with this story. I don’t know how it was possible, but at that time, I was almost entirely unacquainted with elves, fairies, hobbits, dwarfs, and other such people, before reading this book.

When I was very young, I read many folktales and fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and others. I was well acquainted with wicked witches and trolls under bridges, but those were things I had left behind when I latched onto realistic fiction as an older child. I was certainly far more protective of my young children than my parents had been of me. I shielded mine from the horrors and violence of fairy tales until they were older children. Perhaps my parents were not as careful because the stories seemed tame compared to the real-life horrors of living through their harsher times; or, there were kids to spare in my family. At any rate, I had many vivid dreams populated with monsters and bad people who I had to outrun and outwit. Perhaps giving younger children these hurdles sooner rather than later, through literature, serves them well? As parents, are we shielding our children from literature which could give them clues as to how to persevere through thick and thin?

 

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As I came to reread this book, I am a little embarrassed to say that I approached the book with a yawn, yet I was pleasantly surprised to find it offered me something new. Apparently Tolkien was not a fan of allegories in literature as were his pal, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald (whose literature he admittedly looked to), and he denied tucking any into this tale. However, I could not help but formulate parallels to other stories while reading it (there is an Elfland and Middle Earth mentioned in Childe Rowland), nor could I keep from my mind impressions, allegorical meanings, which translate into universal truths. This is what good fiction does. Whether or not Tolkien intended this, I believe many readers enjoy his finely woven prose because of his extensive world-building (which took years) and his knowledge of language creation (from his profession as a philologist), creating richness.

As I write this, the ruggedly handsome guy who gave me The Hobbit is now a bit older and cutting the lush green grass at our own Bag End (Yes, I married him). Like Bilbo Baggins, I have come to appreciate the simple life. I do not need much to find contentment, beyond all the good gifts my life already holds; and I have gone through my own perilous journey to get here. Something which I notice now while reading the story is that Bilbo is not really the centre of the story. He is one player in the larger story which began long before he came along, and continued long after he disappeared. Aren’t we all like him in that way? We are all part of a larger narrative. Perhaps that is a truth for us all. We hardly have an idea of what our little part might mean in the greater narrative of our history in (Middle?) Earth. If you read The Hobbit again, you may get something completely different from it.

I had the fun of visiting the Hobbiton movie set several years ago during a trip to New Zealand. Here is an extremely condensed film showing some of it: Hobbiton

Here is the Film Air New Zealand plays as passengers get comfortable for the twelve-hour flight: Air New Zealand Safety Video

This book is suitable as a read-aloud for the whole family. Young children should know that it is okay to kill giant spiders, dragons, and goblins, provided they are bad.

When did you first read The Hobbit?

 

The Tombs of Atuan, Book II of the Earthsea Cycle

The Tombs of Atuan, Book II of the Earthsea Cycle

by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Personally, I have never been a huge fan of fantasy. Although, I recently read that those who are not, have not come across the right book for them. This adage proved true for me, as I enjoyed this story.

The Tombs of Atuan is book two of this series, but I know I would not have been interested in the first book without reading this one. I think this instalment is a good entry point for those who are leery of the fantasy genre. There are some inventive place-names, and people-names, yet not so many that it detracts from the plot which is in turns mesmerizing with its clarity of setting and gripping when the main character discovers an intruder in the tombs.

As a young girl, the main character is taken from her parents to become the next, the always, high priestess of the tombs. She is carried along without having any say whatsoever in her life, until age fifteen, when the visitor comes. In reading the afterword written by the author, it is interesting that Ursula K. Le Guin felt she could not trespass beyond the life experience of most women of the time, when she wrote the story in 1969. Yet, together with her new friend, the main character is empowered to change her life. And he, along with her as his new friend, is able to find freedom from the tombs.

The Tombs of Atuan

It is truly an affecting story about friendship between a male and female, as well as a coming-of-age story for girls with themes about identity.

This is suitable as an independent read for ages 12 and up.

Happy reading!

DB

The Princess and the Goblin

by George MacDonald

 

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This little fantasy gem was first published in 1872. As you may have guessed by now, I really like old stories. It turns out that this tale by George MacDonald was also a favourite of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; elements of MacDonald’s stories appear in The Lord of the Rings, as well as the Chronicles of Narnia series.

George was Scottish and born to farmers. Sadly, his mother died when he was only eight years old. He shared life with his four brothers. While his family originally owned a linen mill as well as a bank (besides the farm), economic conditions swamped them. Later, George set off for university at age 15. He earned a degree in Science and Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University. It is a little surprising that he turned to writing poetry and fairy tales.

He and his wife had eleven children together, and he first wrote his tales for his children to guide them, and himself, through darkness. It holds not only little gems of wisdom, but delicious tension, a good bit of danger, and just a faint dusting of magic. And just one more note: while many fairy tales are stories with helpless princesses needing rescue, this heroine, Princess Irene, receives her own guidance; therefore, despite the fact that Curdie does help her a great deal, she also has agency. Given that out of MacDonald’s eleven children five were female, he would have witnessed capable and clever girls. No doubt, he was also trying to instill virtues, so the story is a teeny bit didactic; however, that aspect does not ruin the larger story.

The goblins are quite bad, and there is the expected bit of violence while good triumphs over evil, but there is nothing horrific for younger children to hear as a read-aloud. Since the protagonist, Princess Irene is eight years old, I think this story is suitable for children aged six and up.

Happy reading!

DB