America’s Book Club

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What does summer mean to you? For me, it’s long been a time to revel in books. As an elementary school student, it was almost a game. How many books could I rack up over the summer? There were prizes at my local library and grade school for reading a certain number of books but what I remember most from those summers was the excitement of visiting the library with my mom and brother to amass a new horde of books to tear into and the peace of sitting on my bed in my room turning page after page after page. Years later, the chore of summer reading for the next year’s English class could never compete with the illicit joy of a mystery, bestseller, or truly ANY BOOK NOT SELECTED BY THE SCHOOL BOARD specifically to pique the interests of the local youth. (No shade to my teachers. They picked good and interesting things to read; my contrariness just got in the way.) Now I tend to read weightier, so called “literary fiction” during the summer simply because of my teaching schedule during the school year (with an ample dose of mysteries as well, per my usual).

PBS kicked off their homage to summer reading with the new series The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Viera. The series strikes at the intersection of assigned summer reading and beach reads as it begins with a list of 100 books and asks viewers to vote as often as they like from now until the fall as a way to determine America’s favorite book. These kind of book lists can often be problematic, skewing too white and male for one thing, while often failing to delineate their criteria for selection (what makes something a “Great American Read”?). There seems to be an admirable effort to make the list inclusive (although we can always do better on those fronts) while people’s favorites will inevitably be left off the list (The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton? The Awakening by Kate Chopin? Kindred by Octavia Butler? The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros?) PBS manages to sidestep some of these snags by using people’s votes to compile the list of the initial 100 (the academic in me would love to know the sample size and details of how they collected this data), making the endeavor a more democratic process. As many times as I thought, “Yes, I absolutely must go and find a copy of that this moment,” (Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya and Another Country by James Baldwin) there were several books on the list I don’t care to read and probably never will.

Based on the numerous encouragements sprinkled throughout the program to vote, read the books, and join a book club, as well as several nods to the importance of reading to kids, what the program encourages just as much as reading is dialogue—dialogue about the power of reading, the fun of reading, and the sense of discovery in finding yet another book to love.

Highlights:

  • Visual style- Let’s face it, people reading tend not to make for compelling visuals. There were a number of smart choices made to break up the talking heads and bookstore/library shots. First was the screen-filling shot of all 100 book covers with what I can only describe as witness-protection-level blurring of their covers until they were revealed. Second was the animation used for classic texts like Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, and The Color Purple, among others, to provide visuals for voiceover plot summary.
  • Unbridled Book Love in Expected and Unexpected Places- Danny Boy O’Connor discussing The Outsiders was pure loveliness. Confession: I’d never heard of Danny Boy before but the fact that he’s creating a house museum for the book/movie in Tulsa, Oklahoma, testified to his passion for the novels and S.E. Hinton’s impact on him and so many other readers. Later, Gabrielle Union spoke beautifully about not finding herself as a black woman represented on local bookshelves growing up and the importance of her mother supplementing those shelves with books like The Color Purple, particularly in the aftermath of her sexual assault. Finally, John Green make a thoughtful argument for The Catcher in the Rye as a foundational text in YA literature and how different the experience of reading it can be as an adolescent versus as an adult.
  • Pace- I appreciate, too, that PBS varied the amount of time devoted to each book to keep the pacing fairly brisk. Breezing through all 100 books, albeit in two hours, is no small task.

What intrigues the most, though, is where the show goes from here. Now that all 100 books have been revealed and discussed (or at least mentioned), will there be just one final show where the winner is announced, or does PBS have more extensive plans? Will they do more specialized lists in future, such as the Great American Mystery? In the meantime, you can check out the list and vote for your favorite at: pbs.org/greatamericanread. I’ve been voting for Jane Eyre and Beloved— I can’t choose just one (the only way books are like potato chips).

Marmee Is Killing It

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If ever we needed to see strong, capable women exercising their power it’s 2018. PBS Masterpiece’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age tale largely focuses on Marmee’s four daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) and the challenges they face growing up while using Marmee’s struggles as a single mother whose husband is serving in the Civil War as a nice counterpoint. Heidi Thomas’s (Call the Midwife, Cranford) and Rainer Stolle’s writing (IMDB also credits Alcott as one of the writers and the image of the notorious LMA in a TV writers’ room makes me giggle) coupled with Emily Watson’s performance take what could be a saccharine saint in Marmee’s character and provide a bit more texture. My favorite moment of the adaptation’s first installment was seeing the March women’s early morning routine and a stern Marmee warning everybody to get out the door and on the way to school, work, whatever, in a tone that children throughout the ages have come to dread. Generally, this adaptation strives to use a smattering of nostalgia mixed with touches of everyday family life to bridge the distance between 1860s America and today. What I appreciated about this approach was its relative subtlety, especially compared with more high-octane methods of updating period material such as Peaky Blinders’ use of Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey in its soundtrack. Don’t mistake my snark for a diss of Peaky Blinders. This technique works well enough for them (and I like what I’ve seen of that show). In 2018, however, I think that technique has largely run its course and I, for one, don’t want to see a montage of Jo writing and Laurie looking on lovingly set to Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High” or, heavens forfend, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” What Thomas does in Little Women is more understated and more in keeping with the world of the March women.

Here’s a quick rundown of the four sisters:

Meg (Willa Fitzgerald)- The oldest and most well-behaved of the March sisters, Meg comes off as less preachy in this adaptation although still wedded to social norms.

Jo (Maya Hawke)- What can I say about Jo? I always love her in every adaptation, faults and all. Maya Hawke does a nice job of grounding Jo as a woman trying to grapple seriously with her faults, rather than a nineteenth-century manic pixie dream girl who is just oh-so-quirky and eccentric.

Beth (Annes Elwy)- She is likely the toughest character given that she can make dust bunnies look like social butterflies. This adaptation suggests Beth may struggle with agoraphobia or severe anxiety as we see two unsuccessful tries to make it across the street to play Mr. Laurence’s piano.

Amy (Kathryn Newton)- As with Beth, the writers did a good job of balancing the character’s pettiness and vindictiveness with better traits so that she does not come across as irredeemably whiny (which always bothered me about Amy in the 1994 film adaptation). On a side note, was it just me or did Amy seem to have on a lot of coral lipstick? Like, way more than could be considered a ‘natural look’ even by TV standards? I am both fascinated and often distracted by the way “no-makeup makeup” looks in period dramas. In general, I though the makeup design was very well done; it was just this one small detail that seemed a bit off.

MVP: Angela Lansbury as Aunt March. I don’t remember much liking battle-axe Aunt March in previous adaptations (or the book for that matter). Some of that may be that now I’m experiencing the story more from the adults’ perspectives and am not so wholly absorbed in Jo’s POV. Mary Wickes (White Christmas, The Trouble With Angels, a favorite of this former Catholic school girl) played Aunt March in the 1994 version and she can do crabby like no one else. As with Meg and Amy, the writing gives Aunt March the necessary cantankerous notes but allows her to have a sense of humor as well. This adaptation overall tries to move beyond the personality types (the smart girl, the good girl, the pretty girl, the shy girl) and provide more levels of shade and dimension and Aunt March’s character certainly succeeds in that.

Director Vanessa Caswill has done a beautiful job as well. The opening scene establishes the insular world of the four sisters as it shows the young women’s hands, loose hair, bare feet stepping in and out of petticoats. Using fluid camera movements, shallow focus, and soft lighting, the scene is intimate and feels like the opening to an indie film—albeit one set in the nineteenth century. Kudos to PBS for giving a female director the opportunity to head this project, and kudos to Caswill for setting this adaptation apart from other period dramas.

Overall, Little Women manages to  sidestep many of the problems facing other adaptions of this work. Is it the best thing I’ve seen on TV in 2018? Probably not. Will I be tuning in to see the conclusion next week? Definitely.

 

Find out which March sister you are by taking the PBS quiz: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/specialfeatures/little-women-quiz-which-sister-are-you/

It told me I was Meg. Hmmm. Will I be retaking the quiz until it assigns me Jo? Magic Eight-Ball says “outlook good.”

What’s your favorite Little Woman adaptation? Does anyone prefer one of the other characters above Jo?

Look, Ma, I Wrote a Blog!

Welcome to my little corner of the internet.

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Look past the trolls, make a right at the free recipes and, just before you reach social media, here you are– the blogosphere! As a teacher, scholar, and writer, I love to discuss art in my forms, especially books, film, and television. I’ve been longing to create something of my own for awhile now and my love of reading/writing makes a blog an ideal format. I plan to review my pop culture obsessions, write with ideas and suggestions for teachers and students, and generally spill out the contents of my brain.

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