Category Archives: Reviews

Classic Adaptations: The Count of Monte Cristo

This is the first of a series of posts on works of classic literature and their adaptations. Classic literature is usually classic for a reason (especially if they’re older than 100 years or so) ; these works tap into central concerns and universal themes. Given all of this, they’re especially prone to being remade over time, as people tell and re-tell the stories – usually while trying to knock off the jagged edges of the age and culture in which it was originally written. Taking a good hard look at classic adaptations can lend a lot of insight into cultural differences and changes over time, and also into what does not change, that universal core of experience.

My pick to launch this project is, naturally, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. It’s good (really good), especially if you like broody, psychological revenge tales.
  2. Counts as a double adaptation, since I read English, and the original is in French.
  3. This post will involve space vampires. Of course.

Before we dive right in, let’s establish some ground rules. “Classic Literature” refers to the super-stars of the literature world. These are the most famous works in the canon of their respective cultures, proverbially famous, even, and endlessly re-told. I’m also only counting works over a century old, since it would take at least that long for the culture to change around it enough to see if the story can truly stand the test of time. Until then, it’s just a best-seller.

Due to how well-known these stories are, there’s no such thing as spoilers for the most part. I mean, imagine this situation:

Romeo and Juliet’s puppy love for each other [SPOILER ALERT guys! Highlight with your mouse between the asterisks to read the spoilers!] * Doesn’t end well, because they’re impulsive teens. They both die. The end. * [Spoilers end here!]

Yeah, it’s sort of silly. If it’s been out for four centuries, and/or it’s grade school level history, it can’t be spoiled. That said, I won’t assume you know everything about it, and I’ll step lightly on the plot to keep it fresh. The focus here is on how the story is told, and how it changes in adaptations. Let’s get this party started!

 

The Classic

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

This cuddly photo of the author is completely unrepresentative of the contents. Perfect cover choice, guys.

If you haven’t read this book, read this book. Right now. It’s not like you’re on a library website or anything like that. Get to the catalog, and get a copy. It’s that good. It’s also very very long, but it covers a huge span of time, lots of characters, and a complex plot. If you like juicy, scandalous, vicious revenge stories, this one is the granddaddy of them all. There’s romance, intrigue, and action aplenty. Arguably, what makes this book a classic is how credible the characters are, and the interactions, motivations, and mental states behind what they do. This level of detail lends extra weight to the central concern of the book – revenge measured against redemption and mercy. This is heavy, good stuff right here. It’s like a rich, dark chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and drizzled in hot fudge made of more chocolate and utter ruin.

 

The Adaptations

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

This is the movie poster for the 2002 Count of Monte Cristo adaptation.

Here’s the cover art for the DVD, and I think it does a very good job of conveying what it’s all about.

This is some tremendously ambitious stuff, right here. The unabridged novel is a real doorstop of a book, and the aim in this case is to make an adaptation that fits into a standard feature-length film, with a run time of about two hours. Do they succeed??

Maybe: it’s an entertaining movie, gripping, action packed, fun to watch. I remember catching it on TV re-runs once, though, and was utterly confused about the last third or so, where it diverges wildly from the novel. Also, given only about an hour and fifteen minutes of Count of Monte Cristo, much of the psychological richness that makes the original successful gets lost in the compression to film. The storytelling would have to be incredibly compact to begin with, to fit in a complete adaptation, so maybe taking an alternate path as the filmmakers did is the better choice? But I have a hunch that they made the changes to conform to what a modern audience expects in a feature film: we want action, suspense, and a “love story” where the main character has a romance and ultimately gets the girl. The novel has no love stories in this sense, given that all of the relationships are immensely complicated by the social, economic, and political environment in which it is set, to say nothing of the plot’s impact. Any of the novel’s female characters, however, are infinitely more interesting and complete as credible characters than the stock “love interest” of most of our feature films.

In sum, a good movie, but only a very loose adaptation.

 

Gankutsuou: the Count of Monte Cristo (originally aired 2004)

Gankutsuou DVD cover art.

Any still image is a very poor representation of what this anime is like. Imagine a breathtakingly elaborate animated digital collage.

I promised you space vampires, didn’t I? You know how I implied in the movie review that an adaptation of such a long book would be more nuanced and complete if it had longer than two hours to develop characters and motivations? If it was, perhaps, a miniseries? This is that miniseries. In the future. In SPACE.

(Why yes, it IS an anime, too. How could you tell??)

Despite the changes to the setting, this is still the most faithful and complete adaptation of the book that I have seen. Told over 24 episodes, the series does make changes to the original, but keeps the engine of the plot running strong fueled by sensitive characterization and giving the story a chance to pace itself and develop to maturity. In terms of major plot points, none are lost in the telling, and only a few are shuffled around in order to accommodate the run time.

Visually, this is an impressive work of art as well ; where many series use computer animation and coloring to take cheap shortcuts, this anime uses it to render the entire series in a unique style, with each scene a moving collage of textures and patterns. The largest difference between this adaptation and the book, apart from medium and setting is what, precisely, happened at the island prison (space station) Château d’If, therefore changing the Count’s true motivations in his quest for revenge. The series begins during Carnival on the Moon, and is told completely through the point of view of Albert de Morcerf, the trusting and innocent son of one of the Count’s enemies – this choice conveniently focuses all 24 episodes on the revenge plot itself, leaving the Count’s imprisonment and escape to brief allusions. It’s worth watching even a few episodes of this riveting series, if just to admire the artistry and vision of the creators.

 

In the case of these versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, the changes made in the course of adapting the work, even in the most successful adaptations, are generally due to the constraints of space available for the plot to play out in (2 hour run length), as well as face-lifts intended to improve the attractiveness of the story to a different audience and culture than it was initially written for (love story, space vampires, the Count’s motivations). As we will explore in future installations of this series, changes to the original story don’t necessarily make an adaptation a bad one, even if it starts with Carnival on the Moon.

Alexandre Dumas, Sr.

I’ve never seen a picture of Dumas, Sr. not looking cuddly, though. Like everybody’s storytelling grandpa. Seriously, though, the Dumas family has an incredibly interesting history. Like one of his novels, actually. Specifically, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

A Glimpse of Nineteenth Century Life Through the Eyes of a Cocker Spaniel: Flush by Virginia Woolf

While I find beauty and wonder in all creatures both great and small, I must admit to a particular fondness for the canine. In fact, I will often introduce my own dog, a wire fox terrier named Thatcher, as my first child. There seems to be a particular connection, an unspoken bond, between the human and the dog seldom found with other animals.

Additionally and in regards to literature, I count Virginia Woolf as one of my favorite writers. Ms. Woolf, in my mind, penned some of the loveliest and most sophisticated novels to be found in the literary firmament. With her use of various experimental styles, most prominently stream of consciousness, she creates such wondrous scenes with her prose that one feels as if one has actually entered a painting in the impressionist style, where characters and setting do not possess definite lines or boundaries and both are viewed through an enchanting haze of color and light.

flush

How are these two interests connected, you may ask. The answer: Ms. Woolf published a short book entitled Flush: A Biography in 1933 concerning a cocker spaniel of the same name and his experiences, as told from his perspective, with his mistress in nineteenth century London and Italy. Certain historical items are learned, which would, I imagine, otherwise escape the reader. For instance, dognapping for the criminal purpose of demanding a ransom was common at the time, with owners sometimes paying large sums; in fact, in this story Flush finds himself the victim of such an abduction, and his narration of this is quite moving and harrowing.

In addition to the unconventional stylistic approach of relating a story through the internal musings and observations of a dog, Ms. Woolf further employed this book as a means of providing the reader with a fictionalized look in to the life of one of the most popular and respected poets of the Victorian era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who did indeed own a cocker spaniel to whom she dedicated some lovely poetic lines. Imagine your biography written by a close household pet; what an interesting story that would be.

Flush is a highly readable and entertaining tale that I would recommend to anyone, really, but most especially to the fellow lover of the dog and of the incomparable Virginia Woolf.

In closing, I will cite one stanza from Ms. Browning’s poem To Flush, My Dog:

Loving friend, the gift of one
Who her own true faith hath run
Through thy lower nature,
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature !

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

kitchenhouse

Seven year old Lavinia doesn’t remember her past or even her name as she is taken in by the Captain and Master of Tall Oaks plantation, on whose boat she was found.  Her parents died unable to survive the voyage from Ireland to America where they were to serve the Captain as indentured servants.  The Captain, having sold off Lavinia’s brother, takes her to serve in his kitchens.

At first Lavinia is unable to eat or speak but soon, comforted and loved by the slaves in the big house she opens up and regains health.  Dory, Belle, Papa, Mama Mae all nurture and become Lavinia’s surrogate family, not letting color stand in the way of love.

Over time, Lavinia learns all of the secrets to the plantation.  She discovers that the head mistress fights a terrible addiction to opium and that Belle, the light-skinned kitchen slave, is the Captain’s daughter.  Lavinia also learns of the tense relationship between Rankin the overseer, Mr. Waters the tutor, and the Captain who is frequently absent.

She and the slaves are apprehensive every time the Captain is gone – which is frequently.  They fear abuse at the hands of the tutor and overseer.  Soon after several beatings and abuses are doled out to the slaves (as well as the Captain’s own son), life on the plantation is thrown into chaos.  The tense line between races is broken, leaving Lavinia unsure where she fits in as a white servant who thinks of her fellow kitchen slaves as family.

This book is an interesting look at gender, family, and slavery in 1790s and early 1800s.  The Captain is described as sympathetic to his slaves’ conditions but leaves much or their care ultimately to two men who are as pro-slavery as they come.  The Captain claimed to have loved Belle yet keeps her working in his kitchens and bought her mother at an auction.

While the issues of slavery and servitude might not be fully developed, treatment of women is very clear within the book.  Female characters are powerless in the man’s world – being left for long periods of time, raped, imprisoned, and bonded.  Even the Captain’s own daughter must beg her father for her papers to be free.

Lines and characters are not clear, perhaps to represent the true nature of the time period where people might have known it was wrong but did very little to change or stop it from continuing.  So also is the interesting shadow with which indentured servitude was cast.  Lavinia is white yet lives in the kitchens with the other slaves.  The Captain dismisses that living and being raised with slaves would hurt any chance Lavinia had at a future, despite other characters asserting she’d never be able to find a husband or a future being raised this way.

The narrator of the audiobook has a lovely Irish accent and overall the book raises many interesting and important questions.  It feels like the author, Kathleen Grissom, teeters back and forth on where her characters stand on the issue of slavery but perhaps that is only to make her readers aware of the failure of society during this time to fully answer such questions themselves.  The plot is a bit convoluted but The Kitchen House is overall worth a listen or read.

Formats Available: Book, Audiobook

Reviewed by Lindsay, St. Matthews Branch

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

thisiswhereitendsThis fictional tale could have been taken from today’s headline news.

It is the story of a teen that has lost contact with reality and blames others for his feelings of abandonment and loneliness.  He enters his former high school armed with the means to lock down the school on his terms, with a deadly weapon to “show the world” and “to be remembered.”  The reader is initially placed outside when the gun shots are heard for the first time, locked out of the auditorium.   As the story progress, the author places you right there inside the auditorium facing death.

The story unfolds in four voices:

  • Claire is a senior on the track team who was excused from the school assembly this morning along with several other team mates for early morning practice. 
  • Tomas, on detention with his friend Fareed, for gluing the desk drawers of a teacher, also excused from the assembly. 
  • Sylv is a senior with her choice of college. 
  • Autumn is a junior and a gifted dancer with a dream.

The last two aren’t so lucky.  They are seated in the auditorium with a thousand other teens listening to the Principal’s speech.  That is until a young man steps up on stage to ask a question.  A young man with a gun named Tyler. 

Tyler is Autumn’s brother.  He is the son of an abusive alcoholic and their mother died two years ago in car accident.  Tyler’s girlfriend broke away from him when she saw the mean, abusive side he had hidden for so long.  In his eyes, he has lost everything and everyone he ever loved.  Tyler believes that it’s his turn to make people sit up, take notice of him, and pay for the pain they have caused him.

You are there, watching while innocent teens are murdered or maimed.  You are running for help but feel helpless to do anything about what is going on inside the school.  You are the heroes that, in spite of their bad boy images, risk their lives to free those students under fire.

Through flashbacks and memories you will learn about Claire, Tyler’s ex-girlfriend and her disabled brother Matt, who is in the auditorium.  Fareed, Tomas’ cohort in crime, is an A student who happens to be Muslim.  Tomas and Sylv are twins who were so close until a year ago and whose mother is mentally drifting away.  Autumn  dreams of going to Julliard when she graduates.  She is also Sylv’s girlfriend.  

The story draws you in and places you in seat at the center of the terror.  It locks you outside, scared for those inside the assembly hall, feeling helpless and places you in a heroes shoes.  This isn’t just a headline story anymore.  The fictional story has all the grit of a true tale.

This Is Where It Ends is a drama filled novel, full of emotion that may have you taking a second look at some of the people around you and realizing that there is more to them than what you can see on the outside.  And while Marieke Nijkamp has given us a diverse group of characters (various ethnic origins, different religions, and gay teens), each has their own perspective of what’s happening and what they are capable of doing.  Some are too terrified to move, some try to escape where there is no escape, some are targeted for death, and a few are foolishly brave, heroes.

By the end of the story, I really cared about this group that I had only met for a few hours before, and wondered where the the survivors would be a year from now.

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), eBook

Reviewed by Katy, Shawnee Branch

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History

artofhorror-atc-300x337When this book first arrived at the library, I knew that it was going to be one that I added to my personal collection just by looking at the cover. The book is heavily bound and literally a monster of a book at over 250 glossy color pages.

First let’s focus on the artwork presented throughout the book. The art presented within the book spans from early century paintings to modern contemporary art created digitally. He doesn’t fail to leave out the famous horror movie posters either. Mr. Jones organizes each section of the book beautifully by horror genre. All images are reproduced beautifully with no distortion or fuzziness. Even the historical images in this book are stunningly beautiful sitting beside their modern counterparts on the same page.

The editor didn’t aim to make just a book full of beautiful pictures when he put together The Art of Horror either. The book starts out with a foreword from legendary writer Neil Gaiman, and then continues on with ten different sections written by leading authorities of each subject. For example, S.T. Joshi writes a stunning essay on H.P. Lovecraft highlighted by gorgeous images throughout. Many of the essays deal with the origination of the genre, for example zombies, and then moves throughout history to modern times.

If you are a fan of the horror genre or just a fan of art in general, I certainly would recommend this to you. This book has become a common piece on my coffee table, and not just around Halloween time.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Sara, Okolona Branch

 

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

“A bighearted gothic novel, an intergenerational mystery, a story of heartbreak, and romance, all crammed into one grand Midwestern estate.”Los Angeles Times

100yrhouse

 

The Hundred-Year House is a great sweeping saga about the Devohr family, and the seat of all their dysfunction, Laurelfield. Once a burgeoning artists’ colony in the 1920’s, frequented by luminaries of the time, the backdrop for inspiration, romance, violence and mystery; now sits decaying and forgotten.

Rebecca Makkai hints at the family’s haunting past with the first sentences:

“For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming. She had lived, she was unhappy, and she died by her own hand somewhere in that vast house.”

Mayhem and mystery unravel over three generations of Devohr women as the house and its provenance looms over their lives and ultimately their happiness. Zee is Violet’s great-granddaughter, a Marxist scholar who is embarrassed by her family, and Grace, Zee’s mother and Violet’s daughter, and the current owner of Laurelfield. Both women grapple with trying to define their place, and their identity apart from the grim history of the family estate.

Makkai chronicles the life cycle of the house into four pivotal years: 1999, 1955, 1929 and 1900. With each year we are given a peek into the lives of one of the Devohr women. In 1999, Zee and her husband Doug move into the carriage house on the property while he works on book about Edwin Parfitt, a poet who may or may not have stayed at Laurelfield while it was an artists colony. In 1955, Grace is a newly married woman to a man her family despises, but she loves him despite this. Grace has taken refuge from her family’s disapproval and her husband’s temper in the attic of Laurelfield, the place where her grandmother took her life. While living there, the house and the grounds become a sanctuary for her but in reality it is a crumbling vestige of its former self. In 1929, shortly after the stock market crashes, Laurelfield is struggling to remain relevant as an arts colony. The staff and resident artists, including Edwin Parfitt, are desperate to convince Gamby Devohr (Violet’s son) that the estate is still profitable. And finally in 1900, when Augustus Devohr buys the land on which he will build his family estate or as his wife saw “it as a prison in the wilderness”, the story’s turbulent beginning is revealed.

In a mere 338 pages, The Hundred Year House, is at its’ core a story about a family whose history is colorful, ugly and full of secrets. It is an engaging novel that warrants a second read.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Type, Large Type)

Reviewed by Carolyn, Crescent Hill Branch

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

cuckooscallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling was written by Robert Galbraith, the pseudonym for J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. When I picked this mystery up I didn’t know what to expect. As a teen I loved the Harry Potter series. I attempted to read The Casual Vacancy, the adult fiction novel that she wrote under her own name, and didn’t really care for it. So I went into The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book in the Cormoran Strike series, with caution even though I do love a good mystery. I was presently surprised with this book in a good way.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a mystery set in contemporary London. Cormoran Strike is a wounded former SIB with the Royal Army, what would be the military police in the United States. The novel opens with his detective agency in trouble. Strike is in debt to people he really shouldn’t have borrowed money from in the first place; the same people are demanding that he repay the loan immediately or else. To top it off he’s living in his office and he cannot keep a secretary.

A case that could either make Strike’s career or finish it lands in his lap. The brother of one of his former school friends wants him to find out what really happened to the victim of an apparent suicide. The police have written the case off as a suicide but Strike’s client is convinced that the victim was murdered. He soon discovers there’s more to his new secretary than meets the eye. She’s actually quite capable of helping with his cases.

The Cuckoo’s Calling starts out a little slow but that’s to be expected with a first book in a series. It has to set up the storyline and character development. It starts to pick up from the middle of the book onward. The mystery ends with a twist that the reader might not see coming. The Cuckoo’s Calling puts a modern twist on the classic detective novel. Cormoran Strike is the new broody detective quite possibly Sherlock Holmes for a new generation.

The library also carries the next two books in the series, The Silkworm and Career of Evil.

Formats Available: Regular Type, Large Type, Audiobook, eBook

Reviewed by CarissaMain Library

The Elaborate Life of Stan Lee

stanleeA memoir in graphic novel form?  Say it isn’t so!

Stan Lee, creator of a vast universe of superheroes (The Avengers, Fantastic Four, The Punisher, and Spider-Man to name just a few), recently released a memoir of his journey to becoming an icon in the world of comic books, entitled Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir.  Early in his adolescent years, Lee could always be found with a book close within reach, reading anything he could wrap his hands around.  Lee was greatly influenced by classic characters found in pulp literature (such as Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Tarzan), as well as Shakespeare’s works of drama and poetry.  These literary influences were combined with images of what a human could become to produce his intriguing, well-rounded characters for Marvel Comics.

While much of the book is devoted to his character development of the superheroes and villains, there is also a more serious side that details Lee’s time in the military.  One of his first duties was as a graphic artist for a campaign on sexual abstinence.  He also developed materials focusing on how American troops should act in other countries.

Readers also learn about how Lee came to do hysterical cameos in recent Marvel movies.  One such example from the recent Avengers: The Age of Ultron shows him sitting around a table with the characters discussing stories over a few beverages.  Lee is as proud of his appearances as all the work he has done over the years.

Lee presents his memoir to readers as if one were to meet him at a Fandom Fest or Comic Con.  Read Amazing Fantastic Incredible and meet the man behind the worlds of some of your comic and film characters.  Hard work, dedication to his craft, and a roller coaster ride of events in his life have formed Stan the Man, a man who has brought joy to millions around the world.

Lee also dedicates portions of his memoir to staff editors, writers, and artists who have contributed to his career.

For the reader who may traditionally prefer reading graphic novels, this selection will possibly open other opportunities to read similar autobiographical texts.  A brief list of works available through the library can be found below.

Formats Available: Book, Audiobook, eBook

Reviewed by MicahShawnee Branch

Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

darksparklerDark Sparkler is a stunning look into the dark and alluring world of Hollywood and the toll it claims. It is a haunting glimpse into how Hollywood and the world fixate on actresses/women/icons; then discards them.

Just to warn you it’s a book of poems all inspired by dead actresses. You know, thought I’d throw some light reading at you for the New Year.  :-)   But if you enjoy poetry and/or unsettling, provocative prose like I do give it a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Tamblyn’s poetry is exquisite and the short glimpse of each of these women was an intense and emotional experience. Tamblyn explores over 25 different Hollywood actresses with poetic sway and truth. It’s enough to knock the wind out of you.  Some pages are a punch to the gut. Check out Lindsay Lohan, Taruni Sachdev and Sharon Tate to name a few (I know, Lohan isn’t dead. Take a look at her “poem” though).

Some of the names I had heard of and others I had to look up. Each one is equally fascinating and evocative. Tamblyn, (an actress herself) often inserts herself into the narrative, particularly in the epilogue, which is superb in itself. Possibly facing her own demons? Regardless, Tamblyn is a legit poet that I highly recommend checking out.

Formats Available: Book

Review by Heather, St. Matthews

The Continued Influence of Jane Austen on Contemporary Fiction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

longbourn

From various creatures of the ocean deep in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters to the untimely and homicidal death of Mr. Wickham in P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, the literary works of Jane Austen continue to inspire the writers of today. With Longbourn, author Jo Baker throws her own hat into the ring with a unique take on that well-known story, Pride and Prejudice.

pandprpenguin

The setting is the same as the original story, the country estate of the Bennet family named Longbourn, but it is the protagonist that is quite different: a young servant of the Bennet household by the name of Sarah. Through her viewpoint, the reader is provided a decidedly different picture of the Bennet family and their lives than the one that was penned by Ms. Austen.

As with the original, Jane Bennet takes long walks and reads, Mrs. Bennet gossips and plots marriage arrangements, the youngest daughters giggle together while speculating on romances, balls are attended, and dinner is served daily. But what was required “below stairs” to create and maintain this existence for the Bennet family? Through extensive research of the time period, Ms. Baker is able to provide an accurate description of the endless, difficult, and oftentimes unpleasant tasks that servants of this period faced each and every day, which will be of particular interest to fans of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and the like.

dwntbby                                                upsdwnst2

Those sojourns through the English countryside, for example, enjoyed so much by Ms. Bennet and that so endeared her to the reader are seen quite differently by the servants, as Sarah ruminates:

“The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls’ bedroom floor…the soap was not shifting the mark, but it was biting into her hands, already cracked and chapped and chilblained, making them sting. If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”

While daily life of nineteenth century rural England is a prominent and fascinating feature of this novel, it is not the primary focus; rather, the personal intrigues of the original cast of characters and their servants (along with some newcomers imagined by Ms. Baker) provide the reader with the storylines that supply the most entertainment and surprise.

With the plethora that currently exists of novels written by contemporary authors who do homage to the works of Jane Austen, those readers interested in this type of fiction have many options. In Longbourn, Ms. Baker has added an additional title to this genre that is distinguished from the others with her fresh and inventive look at one of the most enduring works of English literature.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill