Sunday, August 31, 2014

Classics Club Spin Read: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

This is actually the very first book I read for my Classics Club challenge. It's delightful to feel that I've gotten started on this project, finally, after 8 months of having no interest in beginning. So it was probably providential that I began with a book I had never read and really had no knowledge about. I not only read the book, but also went out of my way to watch the film adaptation for I Capture the Castle from 2003, so I will also include a write-up about the movie at the end of this post.

For the uninformed, this story is essentially the journal of a young 17-year-old girl named Cassandra Mortmain and takes place sometime in the 1930s. Cassandra has inherited her father's gift for prose, but unlike him, she does not suffer from writer's block. Her family lives in a castle but are actually the poorest of the families in the area, to say nothing of being a bit odd. Her father, a man who goes by his surname, wrote exactly one book in his life, Jacob Wrestling, and it was a monumental success. But after a bout of lost patience with his first wife, and being thrown into prison for 4 months for violent tendencies, he was never able to write again. At the castle, he lives in the gatehouse and reads detective stories, putting forth not a single effort to write.

Cassandra's older sister, Rose, can hardly stand being so poor, so poor that they are fortunate to have enough food on the table, especially when the royalty checks from Mortmain's only novel dry up. Stepmother, Topaz, does the best she can with what she has, but that isn't much considering Mortmain refuses to speak with her on any personal level, and she, as an artist herself and one-time model, stagnates with no one to encourage and no society to attend. Thomas, the youngest child, engrosses himself in his books, and Stephen, their "hired" hand who hasn't been paid in months, loyally does what he can to put food on the table, far more than Mortmain ever does. Stephen even takes his earnings from a second job to assist the Mortmain family, partially out of devotion to the family itself and partially out of his unrequited love for Cassandra.

All of this Cassandra jots down in her journal, her effort to capture the castle and the people living in it. And her journal might have been quite dull had not Neil and Simon Cotton put in an appearance. They have inherited the estate on which the Mortmain's castle resides, Simon being the heir to a vast fortune, and his brother Neil along for the ride from America. Rose, so desperate to escape poverty, is determined to marry Simon, whether she loves him or not, and quite rapidly games of love ensue that have all the characters scrambling, including Cassandra herself who wishes so desperately that she could love Stephen, but simply cannot.

Yes, this is a depressing book. Not all the time, and not for the first half, but it rapidly swivels in that direction once Rose and Simon are engaged. I wish I could have liked it better than I did. It's not that the characters weren't likeable because most of them were, even Topaz with her odd fondness for walking the exterior of the castle nude in the middle of the night. The characters are all unique, with varying personalities, and I am extremely fond of Cassandra herself, even though she wavers between being forthright and romantic. Poor Rose, so desperate for escape, and poor Stephen, whose every compassionate and caring gesture was meant to garner Cassandra's love somehow.

I think part of my befuddlement is that I have no familiarity with romantic love. I see it in movies and read about it in books and hear it in songs, but I have never once been in love myself. So I quirk my head at Rose's insistence that she cannot love Simon and at Cassandra's reticence to return the romantic feelings of her faithful (most of the time) Stephen. Many romantics believe that love is solely a feeling of excitement in the heart alone. I don't believe that. There have been two times in my life where I could have fallen in love, but I shut down the emotion because it was the wrong man. It would have been one of the worst choices of my life to have romantically loved either of these men, and so I walked away emotionally and here I am, completely whole and without having sacrificed by values for something called "romantic" love. I prefer to think of love as being a head/heart decision. The heart cannot simply run away from the head like it does, like most of us simply allow it to do. I think that's one reason why I like the movie The Painted Veil with Edward Norton. The heroine does not love her husband, at all, at the start of the story. She marries him for security, but no romantic attachment. By the end of the story she is deeply in love with him on levels that go beyond mere physical desire. That is true love and that is what I Capture the Castle lacks.

Then there is Mortmain. It is difficult to read the story of a man who refuses to support his family. He is an artist, a writer, and he refuses to be anything else, even to put food on the table. Instead his duties fall on the shoulders of Stephen, a young man not even of his own flesh and blood. It was painful to read, albeit less painful to watch in the movie since they softened him somewhat. Where Mortmain is concerned, I would say Dodie Smith did a fine job of portraying the starving artist. The thing I hated about him is that he forced his family to starve right along with him.

So, while it was very well written, Dodie Smith failed to capture more than the barest hint of love, choosing instead to play with fluffy feelings that are based solely in the heart and not at all in the head. As Tintin would say, "I'm a realist" and so this story with all its ups and downs and misinterpretations of love and no one really having a happily ever after wearied me beyond measure. As if somehow happiness is only brought about by our feelings.


Now that you know my opinions of the book, let me say that the film version of I Capture the Castle was fairly accurate. It was done in 2003 and starred Romola Garai (Cassandra) and Bill Nighy (Mortmain) as well as a very young Henry Cavill as Stephen. They tried to stick as close to the original story as possible, which was both good and bad since I had my own issues with the original. I will say that the moments I had wanted the movie to expound on from the book were either too short or skipped entirely. Also, I was never entirely sold on Romola's performance as Cassandra, which is probably not her fault just a fault in the casting. Rose Byrne was exquisite as Rose, and Tara Fitzgerald fit my imaginings of Topaz perfectly.

Yes, the film is R rated for topless female nudity. Remember, Topaz is a nudist sometimes, and we do see Cassandra sunbathing alone on I'm assuming one of the castle ramparts or parapets or whatever you would call them. Mortmain is more relatable to me in the film, probably because he is Bill Nighy and I happen to love him. He's suffering from guilt and shame and the loss of his first wife and had nowhere to put those emotions for so long. By the end of the story he's a much improved man. But my personal favorite was Marc Blucas as Neil Cotton. Don't ask me why I like him, but I always have, even during his season on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

So, if you want a movie like the book, than this film does a pretty stellar job. It has all the same romantic flaws as the book, and I wanted to smack several people upside the head numerous times, not the least of which being Cassandra herself. It was pretty, and adequately cast, but not one I would watch again, or even a book that I would probably ever read again.

There you have it. I finished my first read for the Classics Club Spin. Yeah for me!

Book Review: Fair Play by Deeanne Gist (2014)

Fair Play by Deeanne Gist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dr. Billy Jack Tate isn't your ordinary doctor. In fact, "he" is actually a she, named after two her grandfathers. She has fought and clawed her way up in a profession dominated almost solely by men in 1893, so it is a godsend when she is asked to do the doctoring at the Women's Building at the Chicago World's Fair. Her clientele of patients is almost nill so she is desperate for a regular income. What she didn't expect was the pig-headed Columbian guard, Hunter Scott, to start pestering her. On loan to the fair from the Texas Rangers, Hunter Scott is a tough man with traditional views about the role of women in society. He can't let Billy walk home alone at night, and when he finds an abandoned infant at the Women's Building, Hunter starts imagining what life might be like with Billy as his wife and lots of little babies to care for. Except that she refuses to give up doctoring and he refuses to give up rangering and so they are emotionally left at a stalemate until they can reach a viable consensus about their mutual futures. Throw in Hull House, a building dedicated to caring for children while their parents work, and Hunter's passionate desire to build a playground for the waifs of Chicago, readers of Deeanne Gist's latest work are in for an interesting ride with Fair Play.

All right, I loved the 1st book in this series, It Happened at the Fair. I loved the characters and I loved the setting and just everything about it. The book literally happened at the Fair, in the midst of it in almost every chapter. So, I admit to being a bit disappointed that Fair Play had less about the fair than its predecessor. I don't even really think Billy toured the fair at all in the book, although I could be wrong. If it had been me, I would have spent every spare moment wandering through that fair and she just doesn't do that. So, there wasn't enough of the actual fair in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, I loved the information about Hull House and the building of the playground, and it's all historical, just the dates are changed to make the events happen at the same time. It was great, just not at the fair.

My biggest complaint, though, is actually with the lead characters. I hate reckless women. I tend to give lower ratings to books where women are so independent that they get themselves into trouble, and Billy is a moron for much of the book, placing herself in unnecessary danger and nearly getting herself raped. I'm sorry but no matter how educated she is, she still goes off half-cocked like a complete nincompoop. At least she realizes this by the end of the book, but I spent a lot of time wanting to smack her upside the head. As for Hunter, I wanted to like him, I really did. I realize that men think about sex more than we women can even imagine, but really? Every time he's in her presence, he's thinking lustful thoughts that he should by trying to stem, not indulge. I mean, come on, admire things jiggling as she's washing her doctoring instruments? Not that anything actually could jiggle in a Victorian corset. So, he was one of those typical males who exhibits sexist tendencies. His mind is focused solely on the physical side of Billy the majority of the time and that got old after awhile. I like men with a little more conscience than he exhibited.

And that's another thing, where was their faith? All right, I don't like books to preach, but this is supposed to be a Christian romance, so where was Christ? I'm sure they must have mentioned faith fleetingly, but it was so fleeting that it disappeared into the ether. I was left with a "clean" read instead of a Christian read and that wasn't what I was expecting. So, with the book not having enough of the Chicago World's Fair in it, and the lead characters not really being to my liking, I sadly have to rate Fair Play a 3 stars. I expected more from Hunter and Billy than they delivered. I'm a huge Deeanne Gist fan so will continue to read her novels with great enthusiasm, but I hope she tries writing a gentler heroine and a nobler hero the next time around.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Classics Club Spin

So, I joined The Classics Club several months ago and have yet to read a single classic. This might be as good a time as any to start. The spin works with me choosing 20 books from My List and labeling them as 1 to 20. I will do as the challenge suggests and pick 5 that I'm reticent to read, 5 that I'm dying to read, 5 that I'm neutral about, and 5 that will be re-reads for me. It seems that the challenge is sort of a 3 week per book reading schedule, which shouldn't be too hard to stick to.

The first spin is #17, which I looked up only after I created this list. I'm quite neutral about I Capture the Castle so we'll see how I like it. I have no opinion whatsoever going in!

  1. Bunyan, John: The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) 
  2. Dumas, Alexandre: The Man in the Iron Mask (1850) 
  3. Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Scarlet Letter (1850)*
  4. Dickens, Charles: Little Dorrit (1857)
  5. James, Henry: The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  6. Pyle, Howard: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883)*  
  7. Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)* 
  8. Stoker, Bram: Dracula (1897)
  9. Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness (1899)
  10. Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth (1905)
  11. Leroux, Gaston: The Phantom of the Opera (1909) 
  12. Fitzgerald, F. Scott: This Side of Paradise (1920)
  13. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) 
  14. Woolf, Virginia: A Room of One’s Own (1929)
  15. West, Nathanael: Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) 
  16. Du Maurier, Daphne: Rebecca (1938) 
  17. Smith, Dodie: I Capture the Castle (1940) 
  18. Salinger, J.D.: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  19. Lewis: C. S.: Till We have Faces (1956)*
  20. Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)*

* Indicates a re-read.

Mini Book Review: A Thing of Beauty by Lisa Samson (2015)

Former child star Fiona Hume deserted the movie biz a decade ago--right after she left rehab. She landed in Baltimore, bought a dilapidate...