Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Entering Quantico, Gotham deals with Maniax and keeping the Home Fires burning on PBS

Welcome back to TV Thursdays, folks, where I highlight the most interesting items on my must-watch list. This may only be a semi-regular feature,due to personal family reasons, but I'll try my best to keep up with the doings on the small screen.

First up is a look at Quantico, the new spy thriller series that stars Priyanka Chopra as Alex Parrish, a trainee at the famous FBI school. Alex winds up being in the wrong place at the really wrong time when a major bomb goes off in New York and is being framed rather fast and furiously for the crime.

As she goes on the run to clear her name, Alex goes over her time with her fellow classmates in flashback to figure out who's truly behind all of this. There's a lot of suspects, including a guy Alex had a backseat quickie with before they even got to the academy, but just about anybody here could be the villian.

In episode one alone, we've  had plenty of over the top elements(spoiler alert, you have been warned) already such as one candidate actually being twins who take turns being out in the world. How that's going to play into this whole scenario, I can't tell yet but I do suspect that it's a double portion of red herring here.

I'm willing to give Quantico a fair chance as Priyanka Chopra does make for a compelling leading lady and my Sunday nights are still up for grabs in certain time slots. This could be a nifty thrill ride if the story lines don't go completely off the rails:

Gotham has roared into season two with a serious new threat in town who called themselves Maniax. Don't worry, Penguin is still around and making power plays but there is a new act on stage that refuses to be ignored.

A band of Arkham Asylum escapees bankrolled by a mysterious newcomer to the city,  their goal is to wreak havoc in order to pave the way for some unknown "salvation". Theo Galavan and his hench woman, Tigress, are clearly using these dementors for their own dark purpose but I suspect that may backfire on them at some point.

Some of the Maniax have already been taken out of commission but the key players include Barbara Kean(Jim Gordon's exe who has become completely gone girl) and Jerome, who we were briefly introduced to last season and is more than likely our future Joker. For those of you who thought the first season was too slow to go, you need to strap yourselves in for the frenzy being unleashed as the Maniax truly paint the town red:

PBS Masterpiece is starting up their fall season with very British fare such as the period drama miniseries Home Fires, beginning this upcoming Sunday.

Based on the nonfiction book by Julie Summers(which I'll be reviewing some time soon), the show focuses on a group of English women during WWII that joined the organization known as the Women's Institute and played a pivotal role in maintaining a steady life for those folks left behind as their soldiers headed off for the battlefields.

The story of Home Fires is set in the village of Great Pagford, with women on different rungs of the social ladder learning to work together. With stars like Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond headlining the cast, this show should be a seriously sweet cup of tea for those cool autumn nights to come:


MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D: The third season has kicked off to one hell of a start as the Inhumans are the main focus, with Skye becoming Daisy,aka Quake, and the hunt is on for more of these newly powered characters from all sides. I know that the show is going to tie into the next MCU movie(Captain America: Civil War) at some point but I do hope that we keep getting this amazing action packed story telling regardless of that:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Checking for some Halloween cinematic treats in the Movie Trailer Park

With October arriving at the end of this week, the time is more than ripe to see if any suitable scary movies will be out and about this season. We seem to have a decent range of fright flicks coming soon, ranging from goth to kid friendly and menacingly meta, with a bit of action packed fun thrown for flavor.

First up is Crimson Peak, directed by modern visual master Guillermo Del Toro(who also co-wrote the script) and starring Mia Wasikowska as Edith, a 19th century writer who is swept off her feet by mysterious nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe(Tom Hiddleston) and upon marrying him, goes off to live in his remote mansion with his sister Lucille(Jessica Chastain).

Turns out the house is holding some deadly ancient secrets and Edith happens to be attuned to ghosts, which makes the whole situation turn sinister in a snap. Del Toro clearly adores classic old fashioned story telling and by mixing gothic terror into his special bag of imagination, is promising to bring us a rather elegantly upgrade to popcorn fare,to which I say "more butter,please!":

For a more family friendly crowd, the concept of Goosebumps as a major motion picture is not too bad. Jack Black plays a fictional version of real life author R.L.Stine, whose series of horror books for kids has made him a household name.

In this film, Stine has a cute teenage daughter named Hannah(Odeya Rush) who attracts the interest of Zach,(Dylan Minnette) the new kid in town who has just moved in next door. When Zach and a buddy of his sneak into the Stine residence, they wind up unleashing the entire library of the writer's rogues gallery and must use their knowledge of the books in order to save the day.

While this is not my cup of tea, it ought to be fine fearsome fun for pre-teen audiences and their folks, some of whom no doubt grew up on this particular brand of terror tales. A little hokey horror can go a long way and Goosebumps is certainly proof positive of that:

Next up is The Final Girls, which takes the 80s slasher genre up a notch with both humor and horror. The plot has Max(Tessa Farmiga), the daughter of a deceased scream queen, attending a special screening of her mother's films with a group of friends only to become trapped within the movie itself.

As Max and her pals try to survive the pitfalls of their slaughter happy setting, she also gets a chance to bond with her mother, so to speak. When a major change to the original story occurs, Max and company must work together to find a way to reach that happy ending for themselves,not to mention return home.

This movie will be released in a limited run this October and be available on home video by November, which is sort of a shame. Based on the trailer alone, this really seems to be a fun ride and having TV horror stars such as Farmiga(AHS:Coven) and Nina Dobev(The Vampire Diaries) in the cast is smartly savvy.

 Hopeful, TFG will get some of the media attention that It Follows received earlier this year and gain a wider audience that would be more than willing to get old school with this:

And finally, we have Vin Diesel as The Last Witch Hunter.  His character is named Caulder, a man cursed to immortality in order to fight evil magic practitioners as part of his vendetta to avenge his family.

Aided by a priestly order run by Michael Caine and with Elijah Wood on board as Caulder's newest assistant, a scheme to bring about the end of days by a coven in New York City must be thwarted. Caulder out and out hates witches, so teaming up with Chloe(Rose Leslie), whose dreamwalker powers are needed to save the world is not an easy thing for him to handle.

This does sound silly but hey, who am I to deny anyone some Vin Diesel supernatural warrior action? Could be a good time had by all yet I think I'll wait for a cable or Netflix viewing here:

 All in all, we do have a good selection of fear films to choose from(especially if you avoid the latest Paranormal Activity sequel; time to give that a rest, guys!) but if you prefer to have some horror movie hijinks at home, that's fine as well. For once, it can be a real trick or treat to sample a taste of terror either on your couch or at the multiplex:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Engaging in the delights of Penguin Deluxe's Anniversary Edition of Emma

I have to say that as a Jane Austen fan, Emma Woodhouse has never been one of my favorite heroines. I am one of those people who Jane herself included in that infamous "no one but myself" remark about the likability of her most forthright leading ladies.

However, over time and some re-readings, I have grown to appreciate the inherent charms and the deep down merits of  Miss Woodhouse, who as Mrs. Weston so well puts it, "with all her faults, she is an excellent creature."

Speaking of re-reading, getting the chance to talk about Penguin Classics' Deluxe special 200th anniversary edition of Emma(arriving on September 29) was a real treat for me. Each time you read any classic book, a special nuance within the pages tends to catch your eye like it never did before and for me, the humor of the story is singing out strongly.

From Mr. Woodhouse's debates over the proper healthy way to do anything to the seemingly endless chatter of Miss Bates, the mirth of the novel is well known yet in certain instances, it shyly winks out at you. Emma's small manipulations in dealing politely with not only her father's quirks and her brother-in-law's impatience with those quirks(aided at times by Mr. Knightley) is an amusing side dish to the main fictional feast here.

 There's also a merriment of misunderstandings such as the dance of manners Emma undertakes in handling the confusing attentions of Mr. Elton, who she already has a mistaken notion about which, are a bounty of comedic arrangements that could readily supply any number of sitcoms and romcoms even in this day and age:

This Deluxe edition of Emma is well dressed in a stylish wraparound cover, with the cover illustrations provided by artist Dadu Shin. That alone is enticing but there are more treasures to unpack in this particular annotated volume here.

Editor Juliette Wells starts things off nicely with an introduction that discusses what went into bringing Emma forth into the world.

I learned quite a bit here-did you know that Emma is the only book of Austen's that was published in America during her lifetime? That was not to her financial benefit,alas, as international copyright laws were not yet dreamed of then.

Also, while it is well known that Jane Austen was persuaded into dedicating this particular novel to the Prince Regent(whose morals she did not approve of), that tribute didn't boost any of the sales of the book at all. Interesting to see that publishing in those days was just as tricky as it is now, in some respects.

From the critical reception Emma received to how Austen's daily life played a part in developing the book, Wells sets up a very reader friendly atmosphere for those new to the story and ardent admirers revisiting Highbury yet again  alike:

In keeping with the reader friendly arrangement of the book, Wells provides a series of contextual essays that talk about the various social norms and attitudes of the time period in order to make Emma more relatable to a modern audience.

Along with a look at manners and social class(which makes that debate between Emma and Mr. Knightley about Harriet's merits on the marriage market more than just idle speculation), she also showcases such everyday details as travel, social entertainment like card games and dancing and the all consuming element of the book, food.

Food plays an important part in Emma, from that thin gruel Mr. Woodhouse is insistent on to the availability of certain fruits at Donwell Abbey.  Even if you are familiar with some of these aspects of Regency life, Wells does provide a tasty mental meal that refreshes as well as informs:

 There's also a section of illustrations from various editions of Emma over the years, along with a list of recommended film adaptations and books to read, both fiction and non fiction, of which Mr. Knightley would approve of, I'm sure.

Some of the books I recognize as well as read, such as Joan Aiken's Jane Fairfax(a novel that tells Emma's secondary heroine's side of the story) to All Roads Lead to Austen, which follows an English professor's Austen themed journey through South America. There were also plenty of titles that looked promising that I'll probably add to my TBR in the near future.

While the list of film recommendations doesn't include my favorite adaptation of Emma(starring Kate Beckinsale), the delightful comedy Clueless, that I just re-watched recently with a group of friends online, is top on the list as well as the recent Emmy winning web series Emma Approved.  It's good to see how well a hallmark of literature such as this is still able to be in touch with each new generation that comes across it so successfully:

With the holidays coming around, the Penguin Classic Deluxe edition of Emma is certainly destined to be the ideal gift for any Austen fan but it's also a good place to start your love of all things Jane as well. Even for the Austen reader who has nearly everything, this book is a must-have addition to your home library.

My thanks to the good folks at Penguin Classics for giving me such a lovely opportunity to rediscover Emma and to editor Juliette Wells for showing us just how handsomely bound, rich in content and clever in wit that Jane Austen and her Miss Woodhouse can be:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Taking a diverse look at Banned Books Week

A sad annual tradition among literary minded folks this time of year is Banned Books Week, starting this September 27 thru Oct.3, where we celebrate the freedom to read, a right that is getting challenged more and more often these days.

One of the trends that I noticed in the type of books that are scrutinized by would-be censors is that many of them are set in cultures other than our own in America. The reasons given for wanting to remove these titles from libraries and reading lists don't dare to mention that, but it does seem to be a contributing factor whether said or unsaid.

Let's look at a few of these questioned books that happen to take place in other countries and wonder why they in particular were selected for such anxious attention:

 KAFFIR BOY: Mark Mathabane's 1986 autobiographical account of his childhood in apartheid ruled South Africa is an award winning book that is highly recommended by the American Library Association as one of the outstanding titles to be read by " the College-Bound and Life-Long Learners."

Yet, it has been challenged in many classrooms over the years, as recently as  2007 and 2010 for a section of the book that deals with child prostitution. Many have called for a revised version to be taught in schools, something the author himself was not in favor of yet reluctantly gave permission for in one instance in order to allow students to read and discuss it.

Many teachers still use the original text, much to their credit, and it's sort of amazing than in an entire book about living under an oppressive racist regime, it's only the one page that mentions a sad yet real plight of many children in this world that makes people want to shield the eyes of students from it:

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS: Since it's debut in 1982 as a Spanish language title(which was published in English in 1985), Isabel Allende's novel about the rise and fall of a well to do family in Chile has earned international acclaim and is considered a modern classic of Latin American literature.

Yet many still raise objections to having students read it, complaining of "sexual themes" and that it didn't teach any "life lessons". In a 2013 battle over THOTS in South Carolina, a county commissioner was quoted as saying about the book: “It’s filth…. Honestly, what normal family is like this book? The Manson family, maybe, Ted Bundy? I think this is just so wrong.”

Isabel Allende herself wrote an impassioned letter to that particular Board of Education to advocate for interested students to have access to The House of The Spirits, even as optional reading. The outcome of that was a reinstatement of the book after a third and final appeal yet the fight is probably far from over to allow students the chance to appreciate the work of women authors in translation like Allende, who is one of the best known out there:

BLESS ME,ULTIMA: This coming of age story by Rudolfo Anaya has been growing in readership and praise since it was first published in 1972. Set in New Mexico during the 1940s,  it is the first book in a trilogy that explores the struggles of the Chicano community and is considered a hallmark in Chicano American literature.

The battles to remove it from classrooms include the usual suspects of censorship concern such as  "adult language" and mature content but also, the book has been accused of being anti-religious(anti-Catholic be exact) and to even be endorsing satanism!

That charge is based on the grandmother mentioned in the title who practices traditional folk healing medicine and who is willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her grandson, which sounds mighty Christian to me. It's a shame that a book of such obvious merit winds up being on the banned books list over and over again, due to some of the small minded fears that some of it's characters are made to deal with:

THE KITE RUNNER: I plan to read this one during Banned Books Week as it's far past time that I do. Khaled Hosseini's debut novel that showcases a childhood friendship in war torn Afghanistan that is vastly changed by the time both boys are adults has been a well received bestseller for over ten years.

The book has been challenged since 2008 by folks who claim that it's "inappropriate to the age group" due to language, content and a predatory sexual assault against a youth.  It's also been sited for "homosexuality" and "religious viewpoints", the latter sounding a lot like religious intolerance as a move to ban the book from an Arkansas school included the notion that the "students’ belief that America is one country under God would be undermined by reading the novel."

From what I do know of the story, one of the central themes involves trying to earn redemption for failing to help a friend in need, a dilemma that is rather universal to say the least. One of the best ways to learn that other people are no different from you and me is by reading stories from cultures other than our own, something that I hope has helped me to become more understanding of the wider world. If we can't try to relate to a story about friendship, what does that say about us?:

  With all of the political talk going on this year and will continue unto the next, maybe the best way to seek insight into hearts and minds of others can be achieved by reading a few good books.

I prefer fiction as it can be an even playing field for ideas (although not always) but think about this during Banned Books Week; how can we move forward as a people if we're too afraid to even read about people other than ourselves?

It's not only important for young people to read diversely, it's good for those of us on the older side to expand our literary horizons as well. A good story is a good story, for any race, religion or age as those checking out the much challenged YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian can attest to. The power of banning is no match for the power of reading:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My summer trip to East Of Eden has come to an end on the Road of Rereading

As today is the first official day of autumn, I am happy to report that my  summer selection for my Road of Rereading project was finished up last night.

John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a wonderful book to explore for both the first and any number of times, but it can lag a bit towards the end there. Nonetheless, considering that it was a late in the game switch(due to personal circumstances, Daniel Deronda was just too taxing for me to tackle again), I did pretty well with EOE.

The book is truly Steinbeck's saga story, as a bit of his family background is mixed into this novel of multi generational families, one of which happens to be Steinbeck's own ancestors in Salinas Valley,California, the main setting for the Trasks and the Hamiltons. While Steinbeck's people(the Hamilton family) do get more than a fair share of the narrative, the central focus of the ongoing plot are the Trasks, starting with Adam and Charles, a pair of brothers who at times unknowingly or unwillingly compete for the love of their gruff yet emotionally distant father.

Like any good saga, the story features love, hate and a slew of characters who represent one or the other yet at times can be both. It can be daunting to keep track, as the narrative does switch from one set of people to the other at different points, but there are plenty of standout figures in EOE that mark particular paths that the reader needs to follow:

One of those standouts is a sinister one; Cathy, the cold blooded beauty who has no qualms about manipulating anyone around,especially men. She first latches onto Adam as a means of recovery from a violent attack but is quick to see that his brother Charles is more like her than either of them care to admit.

In modern terms, Cathy is a sociopath as her reluctance to use and abuse others is so low it's practically nonexistent. From murder to attempted murder(she shoots Adam non fatally in order to escape becoming a standard wife and mother), along with prostitution and blackmail, there's no doubt about which color hat she's wearing here.

Yes, she does show a touch of emotion later on in the book when her teen age son Cal approaches her, although it's not quite the warm hearted family reunion there. One consistent trait of Cathy's is that she has to be control of any situation at all times and appear cool and calculating yet alluring all at the same time. It's no easy trick to be sure but you can't help admiring her evil ways there. In a way, this Cathy reminds me of another notorious Catherine, the deadly diva of the 90's thriller Basic Instinct, who played very similar mind games with the men unfortunate enough to be caught in her path of destruction:

The character that really stood out the most for me here was Lee, the Chinese American servant of the Trask family who becomes their conscience and steady influence over time.

 When we're first introduced to him, he appears to be a stereotypical figure, complete with pidgin speech, but it's not long before Lee reveals that he puts on that expected persona in order to be "listened" to by anyone, particularly white society. Over time, he drops that charade yet is still underestimated by many who cross his path. His input into the lives of this family that pretty much becomes his own is vital to the story as well as to most of the long term characters.

His backstory is a riveting tale of immigration and tragedy that is just as compelling as any of the main characters and it's a credit to Steinbeck's talent that he was willing and able to give what could have been a cliched supporting player into such a vibrant personality whose emotional journey is as equally engaging as that of the main characters.

The core of East Of Eden is sibling rivalry, based upon the biblical Cain and Abel story, and it's a theme that seems to never go out of style. Sometimes, it's friends who are like brothers who find themselves at odds with each other and most times, a woman is put between them as the source of contention, such as Abra in this book, but it's never really about the girl, now, is it?

More often than not, the real reason is that "mom/dad liked you best!" and whether or not, that's the  actual case in fact, such jealousy is insidious and almost addictive.

 Fictional females engage in this trope, too, but the whole "brother vs. brother" set-up is a persistent one, from sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier to dramas with a paranormal flair like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries. The EOE comparisons do come to mind especially when it comes to vampire siblings Stefan and Damon of TVD, whose eternal feud was sparked by a cruel Catherine but was flammable to begin with due to who their strict father preferred as a son-sound familiar?:

Well, as enjoyable as it has been to walk down this section of the rereading road with Steinbeck, I am happy to be done with this book and look forward to starting my fall selection, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, sometime soon.

Since I have a couple of other reading challenges to complete(one of which I will be talking about later this week), the March sisters may have to wait until late October or early November for me to rejoin them.

In the meanwhile, there will be a write-up regarding the film adaptations of EOE coming soon to LRG, so do keep an eye out for it. East of Eden may not seem like a soap opera saga but it's just as juicy as any nighttime drama, only with a little more food for thought being served up with story telling style:

Monday, September 21, 2015

Setting up some Misery for a Frightfall reading time

With October fast approaching, the time to sign up for the Seasons of Reading Frightfall Read-A-Thon is at hand. The guidelines are pretty simple, all you have to do is choose at least one scary book to read and discuss during October 5 and 11.

You can, of course, read more than one but I tend to narrow my focus here, due to the many TBR piles that I tackle(not to mention a special fall reading list that I put myself on).

Like I've done before with these readathons, I am going to reread a book that I haven't touched for quite a long time. I was thinking of borrowing a newer one but that might not work out for the time period in question here, besides any excuse to reread a book is a good one, in my opinion.

So, my pick for this Frightfall event is Stephen King's Misery, the 1987 thriller about a commercially successful writer who longs to be taken seriously and one of his Constant Readers who is deadly serious about him staying true to the stories she loves.

 The book has been on my mind lately, as a Broadway production is about to begin a limited run on stage. The script has been adapted to the stage by William Goldman(who also wrote the screenplay for the 1990 film version) and stars Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf. While I'm not able to see the play, it does sound like a smart idea to turn this particular King story into one:

I remember when I first read the book, how very stage bound it seem and I mean that in a good way. One of my reading kicks in my youth was reading plays and the limited setting of Misery, along with the two character struggle for control that makes up the story, felt like it could be easily adapted for the theater.

The movie version does aid the casting for the play, as Bruce Willis can be seen as a likely candidate as Paul Sheldon due to James Caan, who originated the cinematic role, being a similar type of actor. The pressure will on strongly on Laurie Metcalf, however, as fellow stage dynamo Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her fearsome role as Annie Wilkes, the ultimate "Number One Fan":

Misery was seen as change of pace for King, as the fear factor here didn't come from a supernatural force or paranormal ability gone wild. The terror was simply a woman gone way over the edge, channeling her mental turmoil into a deluded love of a fictional character and it's creator.

You could see this as a slam against escapist fare but I really don't think that was the point trying to be made. King was channeling his own issues about fame, writing and overzealous fans,some of whom he ran into along the way.

I will be looking at some of that as I reread the book, along with the nature of celebrity fixation that borders on the dangerous there in fiction and film. Folks obsessing over the faces they see on TV, films and nowadays online have become an instant go-to for either the horror or thriller genre, sometimes even veering into dark comedy such as the 2000 movie Nurse Betty did, with it's heroine burying the shock of witnessing her husband's murder by willing herself into a character on her favorite soap opera:

That might turn into a whole other discussion but in the mean while, I do look forward to Misery. Annie Wilkes has become one of our most memorable modern day villains, the kind that gets quoted for such lines as "He didn't get out of the cockadoodie car!" and is on the AFI list of iconic cinematic menaces.

Her everyday nature is what is truly chilling, as her cheerful attitude hides a multitude of hideous thoughts and actions. You might run into someone like her in the supermarket or at your local book club, never suspecting the dark side of her soul.

 If the story was told from her point of view, she would no doubt frame her time with the captive Paul Sheldon as a romance novel come to life, one that wouldn't exactly end like a Hallmark channel type of happily ever after movie. No, it would be more suited to Lifetime, a channel that Annie would probably shun, preferring her own take on true love as terrifying as that would be:

Friday, September 18, 2015

On the Jane Austen Shelf with Juliette Wells

With the dawn of this new century, Jane Austen readers have had the pleasure of celebrating the anniversaries of her works, the latest one to be Emma, which was first published between 1815-16.

Considered by many to be her masterpiece and only second to Pride and Prejudice in the affections of Austen fans, this book has received it's fair share of multimedia attention from film adaptations,  re-imagined novels, modern updates(including the recent Emmy winning web series, Emma Approved) and even comic book versions of her story as well.

 Emma Woodhouse is as her author describes her at times, "a heroine that no one will like,except for myself" yet her innate charms are hard to resist. While Emma's schemes for the happiness of others and her misjudgement regarding certain hidden plots around her do cause some trouble, her inner guide towards better behavior does assert itself to make things right for all concerned(with the help of her best critic and even better friend Mr. Knightley).

 As part of this literary celebration, Penguin Classics is releasing a special deluxe edition of Emma on September 29, with amazing cover art by artist Dadu Shin and edited with an introduction by Juliette Wells, an associate professor and chair of the English department at Goucher College.

 Ms. Wells is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America(JASNA) and an editorial board member of their journal, Persuasions. She is also the author of Everybody's Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination along with other works and in this interview provided by the publisher(both the questions and the answers were sent to me), she talks about the creation of this new annotated edition as well as her favorite adaptations of Jane Austen's work and recommendations for future Austen themed reading:

A conversation with JULIETTE WELLS, Editor and Introducer of EMMA: 200th-Anniversary Annotated Edition

When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of EMMA, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition?
We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December, 1815.  The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December, 1815.  I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year!

And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time?  Our 200th-anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel.   You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.

 In the Austen canon, what would you say makes EMMA special and unique?  
Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author.  She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer.  She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication.

 When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year.  So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved.
    Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials.  She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires.  Her effects are wonderfully subtle. 

What was the publishing process like when EMMA was first published? How was the novel received critically?  Was Austen as popular in her own day as she is today?
 The publishing process was recognizable in some ways and very different in others.  Austen didn’t have a literary agent; at that time, authors dealt directly with publishers.  With Emma, she chose a new, more prestigious publisher—John Murray—than she had used for her three earlier novels, and she negotiated hard for a good contract with him. As authors are today, Austen was responsible for proofreading and approving copy before publication.

 Since being a published author was considered not so respectable for an unmarried woman, Austen chose to remain anonymous on her title pages throughout her lifetime.  Emma identifies her as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.”  Her identity wasn’t made publicly known until after her death.
     Like Austen’s earlier novels, Emma was praised by reviewers, who appreciated Austen’s ability to convey a very realistic fictional world.  Austen wasn’t a bestseller in her day; then as now, thrillers, adventure stories, and romances outsold quiet literary fiction.  But Austen did have the satisfaction of knowing, in her lifetime, that readers appreciated her work.  In addition to reading reviews, she kept track of the responses of her friends and family, which offer a wonderful glimpse into what everyday readers of Austen’s own time thought of Emma.  Some of what they liked and didn’t like may be very familiar to us!

 One of your specialties as a professor of English is how Jane Austen’s work continues to appeal to  people, how it remains at the forefront of pop culture conversation. Last year, Alexander McCall Smith updated EMMA, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” hits the big screen in 2016, and movie and TV versions of Austen continue to draw viewers. 

Why do you think we keep updating and adapting Austen? What are your favorite adaptations or updates, and what makes them successful?
    Austen really is endlessly adaptable, much like Shakespeare!  You can transpose her stories and her characters to other places and times, and they still work.  My own favorite creation inspired by Austen is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, from 1995.  Clueless is a joy to experience, and smart too, much like an Austen novel:

   I’m also a big fan of Sense and Sensibility, also from 1995, for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay.  Experiencing Austen through the eyes of a witty, thoughtful contemporary woman—it doesn’t get any better than that!

 I like Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, from 2004, for the same reason—an experienced writer chooses to think about how Austen’s works matter to us today, and takes us along for the ride:

 Lost in Austen, the British miniseries from 2008, is also a big favorite of mine.  A rabid Austen fan finds her way into the world of Pride and Prejudice and messes it up.  It’s a hoot to see the Austen characters we know so well doing and saying things that they NEVER would have done or said in the original novel.
    I think TV and movie adaptations of Austen are so popular for two main reasons. They’re beautiful to watch, no question.  And they offer a respite—which a lot of people of all ages value—from the loud, fast, scary, stuff that much of mainstream entertainment is these days.

The tricky part comes, sometimes, when someone knows and loves Austen through the films and then goes to pick up one of the novels, only to discover that the reading experience is a lot more complex and challenging than the viewing experience.  I had those first-time readers of Austen very much in mind when creating this new edition of Emma. 

 What is it like to prepare a new edition of a book that’s so well-known and exists in many editions? What kind of research did you do? Did anything you learned during the process surprise you?
   It was really important to me to create a truly new approach to Emma—a welcoming, reader-friendly approach.  Excellent editions of Emma already exist for scholars and for devoted “Janeites.”  With this anniversary edition, I wanted to open Austen up to people who hadn’t given her a try before, and to support their reading experience by using everything I know from years of teaching undergraduates and from talking with everyday readers.

  I certainly reached for plenty of scholarly and reference sources on my shelves, but I’d say my most important preparation was to have built up, over time, a sense of what readers are curious about and what frustrates them in their first encounter with an Austen novel. And, through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of practice at explaining historical concepts in an accessible way. 

 I also had the huge pleasure of re-reading Emma myself, slowly, with pencil in hand, making lists of topics to cover in my contextual essays and marking words that would likely be unfamiliar to present-day Americans.

 By doing this, I developed a much deeper appreciation of Austen’s artistry with words.  This surprised and delighted me—I would have said I appreciated her artistry plenty before!  But it wasn’t until I was trying to figure out how to convey the meaning of a particular phrase that I realized how much meaning she packs in with her clever, economical word choices. 

 Thinking about readers’ experience with Emma also shaped how the contextual material is presented in this new edition. In my experience, many ordinary readers, and even college students too, are put off by footnotes, or at best ignore them.

 So we decided instead to group topics together in contextual essays, which are easier—and, I hope, more fun—to read.  Here too my experience explaining historical concepts And, there’s no question, the gorgeous cover by Dadu Shin is a beautiful invitation to pick up this Emma!

The illustrations for this edition are drawn from historical copies of Emma in the Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College, where you teach.  Can you tell us more about that collection?  What is it, exactly?
 The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland began as the passion project of an alumna of the college from the 1920s, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke. Alberta loved, loved, loved Jane Austen’s writings and decided that her own purpose in life was to gather as much material as possible relating to Austen.

 So Alberta bought first and rare editions and even some manuscripts—such as letters in Austen’s handwriting—all of which she felt brought her closer to her beloved author.  The images in our new edition reproduce turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrations of Emma by English and American artists, from books that Alberta owned, and which she bequeathed to her alma mater when she died in 1975.  (Her manuscripts went to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.) 
    Alberta also cared deeply about ephemera with an Austen connection, such as newspaper and magazine articles, which she preserved in ten overstuffed scrapbooks.  So our Austen Collection at Goucher is a terrific resource for popular culture studies as well as book history. 

As a college professor, what’s your favorite aspect of teaching Austen? Do you face any challenges in interesting students in her writings?

Absolutely the best part of teaching Austen is that so many students are enthusiastic about studying her writings.  She is an easy sell!  Shakespeare is the only other English writer who has a draw like hers.  And Austen has the advantage that her life story as a woman writer is especially appealing.  Many of my students are creative writers themselves and find Austen’s confidence and perseverance to be very inspiring:

That said, I do often encounter people—students and ordinary readers—for whom Austen just seems unappealing.  Maybe her novels seem girly; maybe they seem awfully full of privileged white people (not untrue); maybe the sentences or paragraphs are just too long.  Stephen King said recently in a New York Times Book Review that he had never read any Austen, and I feel it’s a real shame that a great writer like him has missed a great writer like her!  Maybe I’ll have to send him this new Emma and see if he can get into it.

I love it that everyone who reads Jane Austen has her or his own ideas about what’s important and what’s interesting.  Some readers gravitate towards her humor, while for others, the morality really resonates.  Pretty much all of us can find at least one character who reminds us of someone we know—and we’re lucky if it’s a character who’s nice!

 Do you think we have a modern-day equivalent of Jane Austen? Or do you have any “further reading” suggestions for Austen fans who’ve read all of her books a thousand times and are looking for something new?

I love to read contemporary novels and memoirs, and I always keep an eye out for hints that an author is influenced by or interested in Austen.  I recently re-read Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector and really appreciated how she weaves in elements from Emma as well as from her more obvious place of inspiration, Sense and Sensibility.

 I also particularly like that Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic-format memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics, gives several shout-outs to Austen.  Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson’s hybrid family history / memoir, includes a fascinating account of what Johnson’s foremothers in America were up to at the same time that Austen was writing about much more privileged women in England.

I’d also warmly recommend the novels of Barbara Pym, a 20th-century English writer.  Pym’s dry humor and close observation of everyday people ally her very closely with Austen:

 And it’s always rewarding to read, or re-read, 19th-century novels by authors who knew and loved Austen’s writings.  In that category, I’d especially recommend Elizabeth Gaskell (start with Cranford) and George Eliot (outside of Austen, Middlemarch is my all-time favorite novel).
And, finally, I’d say that Austen lovers are the best people to ask about what to read next!  Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of shout-outs for the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I may have to get cracking on his enormous oeuvre . . .

 Much thanks to Juliette Wells for her fresh take on Jane Austen's legacy and to the folks at Penguin Classics for sending me a copy of this lovely new edition to review!

The Penguin Classics Deluxe volume of Emma: 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition will be on sale by September 29th and we will have a write-up of this enchanting rendition to post that week. Any excuse to reread Austen must be taken and especially on such an occasion as this.

Even Emma herself would approve of adding this elegantly educational edition to any Austen library, as what could be a worthier subject of further examination than her own brilliant tale? All kidding aside, this new look at Emma is already delightful for me and I hope for my fellow Austen fans as well:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hoping to see a well deserved Emmy in their hands

The 67th annual Emmy awards will be airing this upcoming weekend and I usually don't watch, mainly due to the lack of shows that I actually enjoy being nominated. However, there are several people and series that fall into my particular TV wheelhouse who are up for top honors this time around, so I'll be tuning in.

While the Emmys do tend to get predictable with their wins(can Modern Family give it a rest?) and prone to giving overlooked shows a grand sweep once their run is completed(Mad Men will be taking home some goodies there), the chance of an unexpected win is not that far gone.

So, these are my personal picks for who should win, not who will. Maybe my wish will come true for one or all of these fine folks that night but I shouldn't be greedy about this:

VIOLA DAVIS as ANNALISE KEATING in HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER:  In the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama category, she's up against the likes of Tatiana Malsany playing a whole slew of characters in Orphan Black and Elizabeth Moss signing off on Mad Men, along with Claire Danes, Robin Wright and Taraji P. Henson. Pretty strong competition there.

Yet, Viola Davis stands head and shoulders over them all with her powerhouse performance in this debut season of HTGAWM. The depth and nuance she gives to seemingly ruthless attorney/law professor Annalise Keating is the steadfast spine of this show.

Praise is also due to the writers of the show for making her character such a multifaceted personality, the kind that we rarely see on a regular network series. Even just the simple act of taking off her make-up becomes more of a emotional event as this warrior woman slips off her armor to show her actual brave heart:

DAVID OYELOWO FOR NIGHTINGALE: This one man performance in this made for HBO film is truly the one that I would be surprised to see not win. Oyelowo holds your attention from minute one and doesn't let go until the very end, not an easy thing for any actor to do.

 Nothing against the other gentlemen in The Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series/Movie, including Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge, but this was an exceptionally good film that showcased the psychological breakdown of a man suffering from PTSD who also has a dark family secret to keep as well.

If you haven't seen Nightingale, take the time to do so as Oyelowo's artistry is on fine display here and perhaps even better than any Broadway version of this story would be:

MAYIM BIALIK as AMY FARRAH FOWLER in THE BIG BANG THEORY: She's been nominated four times already for her role as the equally brainy yet more willing to be social soul mate of Sheldon Cooper and it's about time that she got an award here.

Amy is more than just "the girlfriend" here, her awkward attempts at bonding with Penny and Bernadette over the years have made her just as endearingly odd as Sheldon is with his buddies, only Amy has shown her true emotional strengths more readily to her companions than he has.

This is a very crowded category, with SNL's Kate McKinnon, Alison Janney from Mom and even online shows like Transparent, Veep and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt having a spot here(and yes, Modern Family, too-take a year off, will you?). Yet, I really do believe that it's Bialik's turn to bask in the spotlight that Amy has earned:

PETER DINKLAGE and EMILIA CLARKE for GAME OF THRONES: The meeting between these two pivotal characters is an event that took all of the show's viewers by surprise(especially since this hasn't happened in the books yet) and it became the highlight of the season.

I really thought Dinklage would win last year, given that whole "Tyrion vs. Tywin" arc that left only one of them standing, but his chances are pretty good this time around. Granted, going up against Alan Cummings(The Good Wife) and Jim Carter(Downton Abbey) doesn't make it easy yet Dinklage looks to be the strongest contender in the Supporting Actor section there.

Clarke not only has to compete with solid Supporting Actress talents such as Christina Hendricks(Mad Men), Uzo Aduba(Orange is the New Black) and Joanna Froggett(Downton Abbey), she's also up against fellow GOT player Lena Headley, whose character had quite the memorable walk of shame this year. If she does lose to Headley, I'm fine with that but it would be nice to see the khaleesi grab hold of that victory as she heads towards the Iron Throne:

Well, if just one of my hoped-for favorites wins, that will be enough for me. At least in the Creative Arts Emmys, there is a winner that I and other Jane Austen fans are most pleased with and that is Emma Approved getting the Outstanding Original Interactive Program award(you know, Best Webseries is a much shorter name,guys!). May all of the soon-to-be Emmy winners enjoy as much imminent success as the gang at Pemberley Digital have so far: