July Miscellany – Books + Life

It seems the theme of my life in 2019 is “life gets tougher, books get better.”  Well, some books anyway.  I have to say, I haven’t been reading as much as I would like, but in spite of that, am pretty pleased overall with the books I have read so far.

I’ve also highly enjoyed reading other’s blogs this year and found many new ones to follow.  I’ve been thinking about doing a post series sharing links to blogs I follow, if that would interest anyone (?).

Ok, let’s talk about some books.

Another one bites the dust…

Here’s one of those “not so great” reads of the year.  I had every intention of posting a review on The Scapegoat, by Daphne du Maurier.  But after reaching a glorious 44%, I came to a screeching stop.  The plodding repetition of the plot was one thing… the narrator’s nauseating “aha!” moment was the cherry on top.  I thought I’d take one for the team, finish the book, and present you with a scathing review, but sanity won, and I had to shelve it.  So alas, no review of The Scapegoat.

Jonah, revisited

I may have mentioned it before, but over the past year, my family and I have been watching a YouTube series on the Bible by a preacher named David Pawson.  While I don’t agree with all of his views, the series is nonetheless thought-provoking, as he goes in-depth on the historical and geographical context of each book.  The last episode we watched was Jonah, which, coupled with the upcoming Moby-Dick readalong in August, prompted me to re-read it.

Jonah has always been one of my favorite Old Testament books.  At just four chapters, it is incredibly short, but there’s much to unpack – judgment, mercy, high-seas drama, miracles, and even humor (maybe it’s just me, but I always thought the worm eating the vine was hilarious).  Pawson observes the references to Sheol (the grave), as well as the succeeding lines in chapter 2, suggest that Jonah may have actually died and was resurrected, as a precursor to Jesus.

I grew up with the 1956 Moby-Dick film, starring Orson Welles as Father Mapple.  The sermon on Jonah is one of the most memorable scenes.  I just recently noticed how the camerawork cuts to Starbuck during the line, “preach truth to the face of falsehood,” as a foreshadowing of his moral dilemma to come.

The Professor, and writing what you know

Cleo mentioned she’d be reading The Professor by Charlotte Bronte this month, so I picked up where I’d left off (not very far).  Why oh why is this book such a struggle for me to read?  Here’s some theories:

  • Male narrator – Bronte is not bad at it, but you get the sense of her holding something back.  It just doesn’t sound entirely natural, compared with Jane Eyre and Villette.
  • Plot – The plot, thus far, is like a much more boring version of Villette – English teacher moves to French-speaking country.  However, while our narrator has some unfortunate circumstances, it is nothing compared to the heart-wrenching, excruciatingly depressing life of Lucy Snowe, which grabs you immediately.  To be fair, The Professor feels much more realistic, more akin to naturalism than the other novels.  It is more like Anne’s novel Agnes Grey, though even there, Agnes’s conflict is more pronounced.

While The Professor was indeed based on Bronte’s own experiences, so far I would say she did not perfect that story until Villette.  I think the lesson for us writers is…go all in.

Anyways, I will be finishing this one, so maybe it will get better later on.  🙂

Iwan Iwanowitsch Schischkin 003

Other stuff

I am considering trying to pare-down my 700+ list of books to-be-read.  It disturbs me.  On the other hand, it may be a waste of time trying.  I already cheat right now with a bookmarks folder of “Books” that I haven’t added to Goodreads, out of the sheer number of them (some of them are links to other people’s lists) and/or embarrassment.  But I’m genuinely concerned that the list will grow (has grown??) so large, it will cease to be useful.

I would also like to publicly confess that, thanks to the election season beginning, I’ve become slightly addicted to YouTube, particularly binge-watching political commentary.  This is part of what is taking time away from my reading.  Not sure if it’s time well spent (though I am learning things).  Hopefully I will eventually get sick of it.

Overall I would, as usual, like to take a more simplistic approach to life.  I am a very organized person, but unfortunately I am not a minimalist.  I get bored way too easily and am interested in a wide range of things, which is a dangerous combination.  See, I’ve always had escapism in my life, but it used to be books almost exclusively.  Now the internet has taken over that role, and it’s endless rabbit-hole of genuinely useful information.  Still, I probably need to change some habits, because there is still something important about reading a book, a whole composition, that the internet can’t give you.

Echoes of Literature in "Julia Ross"

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The cautionary cliche, while well known, still remains almost limitless in its potential for the mystery and thrillers genres.  Perhaps this is why watching My Name is Julia Ross (1945) immediately calls to mind its literary precursors from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Daphne du Maurier.

The opening, in fact, takes a page out of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” only this time set in the 1940s.  Londoner Julia Ross is a beautiful young woman, recently unemployed and completely alone in the world.  Her only friend and would-be boyfriend, Dennis Bruce, has just announced his marriage to someone else.  Depressed, and at a loss for how to pay the bills, Julia responds to an ad seeking a secretary for a wealthy Mrs. Hughes.  Mrs. Hughes makes Julia a generous offer, on the condition that Julia come to live with her at her mansion in Cornwall.  When Julia wakes up the next day, she realizes she’s been been drugged, taken prisoner, and given the name “Marian” in order to impersonate Mrs. Hughes’s missing daughter-in-law.

Unlike Doyle, the filmmakers lose no time in divulging Mrs. Hughes’s nefarious motives, so unlike “Copper Beeches,” the whole scheme is revealed in the first fifteen minutes of this 65-minute film.  It seems premature, but then as the plot pivots to escape-room – er, escape-estate – conflict, you can start to enjoy the tension as Julia tries to outsmart her captors.

Nothing could be more film noir than the Cornish coastal setting, one made famous earlier by Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).  Mrs. Hughes’s house could be a sister to du Maurier’s Manderley, and the sinister beach, roaring with the sound of breakers, makes you feel like you’re in a spin-off story set in the same foreboding environment.

Less effective are the characterizations.  To be fair, Julia Ross (played by Nina Foch) is a passable heroine for this type of story; in fact, she’s far more spunky than the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  On the other hand, it could be argued that Rebecca’s shyer, more nervous protagonist – especially as played by Joan Fontaine, in one of my very favorite performances – is better suited for the genre.  Julia is what I would call “selectively smart,” too dumb to see something fishy in Mrs. Hughes’s offer, but smart enough to try plan her own escape.

The other characters, unfortunately, are even worse.  The ex-husband of Marian, Ralph Hughes (played by George Macready) is supposed to come across as psychotic and rapey.  He would be terrifying if his lines weren’t so painfully hilarious and involving him randomly stabbing things with a pocket knife.  May Whitty is convincing as an apparently average Mrs. Hughes, but there is no backstory to suggest why she would shield and aid her awful son, apart from the fact that, well, they’re family.  This film would really have benefited from some tighter script-writing and/or an additional thirty minutes to fully build the characters.

One of my biggest pet peeves in a movie is when the screenwriters force a tidy ending when a succinct one would be more effective.  Spoilers in white: In this case, Julia’s future is resolved not by her making a smarter employment decision, but when the still-single Dennis Bruce, whom we’ve barely got a chance to meet, decides to pop the question.  Uh, what lesson is being learned here?  Even Doyle, back in those old Victorian days, was kinder to his heroine Violet Hunter, explicitly against Watson’s wishes!  The ending of this film was very much tacked-on and highly unsatisfactory.

Overall, I give the film 3.5 stars.  It’s not in the league of Rebecca, but if you enjoy thrillers of that style and era, then My Name is Julia Ross is a small investment of time for revisiting moody Cornwall.