Saturday, July 4, 2009

Combination Plate 6

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements, including the endings of some of the works.

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. I must admit, though, that it was not love at first sight. I had tried to read Pride and Prejudice (P&P) several times but never got beyond the first couple of chapters. Since P&P is considered to be her most popular work, I figured that there would never be a meeting of our minds.

A decade or so later, I went to grad school, the English Graduate Department to be exact. In one of the first courses I took, I had to read Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I settled down for a grueling task and, instead, found it fascinating. I immediately dusted off P&P and discovered for myself why so many people enjoyed reading it. I then read her other four completed novels and have been a convert to this day. I've even read as much of her juvenilia as I could find. While I enjoy all of her novels, I must admit that Northanger Abbey (NA) is my least favorite of the six novels. If you are interested, my favorites are Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility.

The problem, or rather my problem, with NA is that it appears to be two separate novels. The first novel covers the first part of the book which sets forth her experiences at Bath, while the second novel begins with her trip from Bath to Northanger Abbey, the home of the Tilneys.

The Bath portion of the novel is a comedy of manners and, in a way, a growing up work, for we see Catherine as she encounters for the first time the great outside world and its manners, its foibles, and its hypocrisies. This part is reminiscent of the other five novels as she learns to distinguish between real and false friendships.

The second part really focuses on a satire, something of the sort one finds in Cervantes' Don Quixote or Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Don Quixote's mad behavior is supposedly induced by his constant and obsessive reading of the medieval romances which tell of knights in armor who sally about the countryside fighting dragons and black knights and wizards and rescuing damsels in distress. Madame Bovary's sad end comes about from reading romances which offer impossible flights of love and passion which she can't find in the small town where she lives, nor in Paris either, as she finds out.

Catherine's novelistic obsession is the Gothic novel, which leads her to romanticize (I'm tempted, but I won't say Gothicize) the Tilney's home--Northanger Abbey--for many of the Gothic novels take place in ancient and decrepit ruins, some of which are abbeys. She soon begins to suspect General Tilney,
her host, of having mistreated his wife and perhaps even having been responsible for her death. This portion of the novel leads back to her earlier works, many of which are satiric.

What is curious is NA's history is that it apparently was the first or one of the first of her novels that was sold to a publisher. That was in 1803. However, the first of her novels to be published was Sense and Sensibility, which appeared in 1811. What happened to NA? Nobody is quite sure, but there is an Author's Note
to NA (the only one I'm aware of to any of her novels) which tells us that the publisher, after having purchased the novel, did absolutely nothing with it. In 1816, Austen bought back the novel from the publisher, and it was finally published in 1818, posthumously, with Persuasion.

Perhaps one might see this as a transitional novel, one that bridges the gap between her juvenilia and her later more sophisticated works. In any case, it still is an enjoyable read, and I have read it a number of times, sometimes as a selection for a book group and sometimes when I'm in the mood to reread Austen, which happens frequently. And, it will happen again, I'm sure.


John Harvey's Flesh & Blood.
Mystery--retired police officer type

I had read a number of John Harvey's works before--specifically his "Charlie Resnick" police procedurals and had enjoyed them. Resnick is an interesting character, if a bit morose, but that is the trend today and Harvey possibly contributed to its popularity. Flesh & Blood is the first novel I have read that features his new character, Frank Elder, who is a retired police officer.

Flesh and Blood (F&B) is a typical Harvey novel--characterization, especially of the major characters, is good, and the plot is tight and moves quickly through the usual maze that constitutes Harvey's works.

What is surprising, or what I found surprising, are the sexual encounters in the novel and a blatant attempt to increase the tension level during the last few chapters. To be blunt, if a film director attempts to bring this novel to the screen and depicts the sex scenes exactly as described in the novel, the film would probably earn an NC-17 rating. Moreover, the sex in the novel does not move the plot forward in any substantial way. Secondly, at the end, or near the end, Frank Elder's daughter is kidnapped by the killer. The only plot purpose this served, as far as I can tell, was to beef up what perhaps a publisher or agent might have considered a novel that lacked sufficient intensity.

All I can say is that I was surprised and then irritated when the "kidnapping" took place. It just didn't fit the flow of the novel and seemed to be something that was added later. It wasn't necessary.

F&B was a selection for a mystery book group, and all agreed that the sex and the kidnapping just didn't fit and actually lowered the book's rating--one of the few times this group has been unanimous about anything over the years.

While I could easily enjoy rereading one of Harvey's "Charlie Resnick" books, I will not voluntarily pick this one up again. Perhaps I might try another featuring Frank Elder to see if this was an aberration or the "new John Harvey."


Batman: The Dark Knight, the film

Having grown up with the Batman and Robin comic books, I am interested in what happens to the Dynamic Duo when they appear on the big screen. I've been sadly disappointed by most of the attempts so far. The first of the more serious treatments, Batman with Michael Keaton, succeeded in restoring the dark ambiance of the early comic books, although Keaton's portrayal of Batman was poor. Pursing his lips seemed to be his interpretation of serious intent when he was Batman, but he did a creditable job as Bruce Wayne, a rich playboy. However, I found the second one, Batman Returns, impossible to sit through and stopped around 1/4 of the way into the film. All I will say about Batman and Robin with George Clooney is that I gave up after about ten or fifteen minutes.

In contrast to the above, I thoroughly enjoyed the two films with Christian Bale in the lead role, Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight. Both captured the atmosphere of the early comic books. Christian Bale is far more convincing as Batman than Keaton was, and Michael Caine was perfect as Alfred. I'm not going to get into any comparison between Jack Nicholson's and Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, save to say the Nicholson had a bit more of the comic book element in his portrayal while Heath Ledger was a more "human" Joker. I enjoyed both performances.

I think the director of the 1989 version with Keaton, Tim Burton, started out well but somehow lost it with the next one. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, started well and the second, The Dark Knight, was just as good as his first one.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the third one, if there is a third one.

Recommended: Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight, both with Christian Bale. The 1989 version with Michael Keaton, Batman, is a decent attempt, especially at creating the atmosphere of the comic book.


Pitch Black--a Sci-Fi film that appeared in 2000, with Vin Diesel as Richard B. Riddick.

Pitch Black (PB) is standard sci-fi fare. Sci-fi, my definition actually, is different from SF. SF consists of stories that focus on a scientific or technological development that does not yet exist, and perhaps may never exist. The story would not make sense without this element. Sci-fi stories, on the other hand, are those that are really thinly disguised adventure tales with some trappings that disguise its real nature.

Pitch Black is really the typical adventure tale of travelers who are stranded when their plane crashes in a wilderness or jungle inhabited by fierce hungry critters. In the film, the space ship crashes on a strange planet whose hungry inhabitants only emerge in the dark.

The crash landing, I thought, was well done and convincing. The special effects were acceptable, and the acting was decent. The plot called for the typical cliche of one of the survivors being a bad guy--Riddick--who is the prisoner of a bounty hunter. Riddick is a murderer who has been surgically altered so that he can see in the dark, and surprise--guess who turns out to be the one most responsible for the ultimate survival and escape of the others.

The characters make some stupid decisions, unfortunately, that are obviously driven by the plot requirements for tension, excitement, and gore.

What makes it an interesting movie is the performance of Vin Diesel (whom I don't remember seeing in another film) as Riddick, the lead character. Riddick is cynical and manipulative and unemotional, a sociopathic type who kills and thinks little of it afterwards. He does what must be done. However, at the end, he does do something that in reality has no effect on the outcome but is done for solely for revenge, something I didn't expect of him from what I had seen up to that point. Beats there a heart buried down deep somewhere?

A sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, is out there, as is an animated film, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury. Dark Fury, the animated film that lasts around 30 minutes, takes place immediately after the events of PB. The other film, The Chronicles of Riddick, is set some five years after PB.

Overall, Vin Diesel's performance makes in an interesting film, and I'm curious enough to see what the next two are like.

George Gently: a mystery TV series set in the UK
Type: police procedural

In an earlier post, I had talked about the problems that arise when the main character in a series is replaced by another actor. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. One of the cases was the replacement of Roy Marsden as PD James' Commander Dal
gliesh by another actor whom I thought was a poor replacement for Marsden. I also commented that I thought the replacement was a good actor but one who was miscast as Dalgliesh.

Several nights ago I watched a DVD of a mystery series I hadn't seen before--George Gently. I was impressed by the whole production and especially by the actor who played the lead role of Inspector George Gently. He seemed familiar, but it wasn't until I did a search on his name that I discovered that I had seen him before. He was Martin Shaw, the actor who had replaced Roy Marsden as Commander Dalgliesh.

Shaw plays a different role in this police procedural. He has decided to leave London and move to a quieter, less demanding area to continue on as a police officer, much like Peter Robinson's Inspector Alan Burke, who also left London for quieter pastures. Of course, they soon learn that this is not going to happen the way they had expected or at least hoped.

Shaw plays Gentley as a low-key police officer, rather quiet and less commanding than Dalgliesh. He is perfect for this role. In fact, he reminds me of another series which I thoroughly enjoyed, Foyles' War, in which the lead character is played by Michael Kitchen. Kitchen and Shaw resemble each other to some extent--both appearing to be in their fifties, greying, a bit thick around the waist, and reserved.

I was sad when the Foyle series ended; perhaps I'll feel the same way at the last episode of George Gently.


  1. Jane Austen's also a favourite author of mine, and it wasn't love at 1st sight either.
    In fact, I used to hate her.

  2. Di,

    I never went that far, but I definitely did not find her novels interesting for a long while.