Five Favorite Roald Dahl Stories

A bulk of my time the past few weeks has been spent delving into the life and work (as far as children’s literature) of Roald Dahl for a project. Reading his works as a child, they were quirky, humorous, and magical. Reading his works as an adult, then, they unsurprisingly held that same magic. Equally captivating and complex was his life, which would merit a biography even if he had not eventually created the multitude of scrumdiddlyumptious stories that he thankfully did. Now having read all of his children’s works (looking toward his adult fiction next), some for the first time, here are five — or maybe more — of my favorites…

1. Danny, the Champion of the World 

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.” 

This may be the most sentimental, most grounded in reality (no talking animals or magical powers here), most wonderful of all Dahl’s stories. It’s about a young boy, Danny, who lives with his marvelous father in a gypsy caravan. His father operates a filling station by day and engages in poaching pheasants by night. The pheasants inhabit the property of a cruel rich man, Victor Hazell, who sets a trap for poachers, namely Danny’s father. As opening day for pheasant season, on which Mr. Hazell hosts a extravagant party for stuffy rich people, nears, Danny devises a plan to poach ALL the pheasants before the big day — and if he succeeds, he will become the champion of the world!

The relationship between Danny and his father is so sweet — Danny thinks his father is the most wonderful person in the world, and he is! He teaches him, listens to him, walks him to school each day, and tells him bedtime stories, one of which features a character called The BFG…

2. The BFG

“‘A whizzpopper!’ cried the BFG, beaming at her. ‘Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time! Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness. It is music in our ears! You surely is not telling me that a little whizzpopping is forbidden among human beans?'” 

Whizzpopping = farting. The BFG speaks his own language, and it is wonderful.

The Big Friendly Giant, aka The BFG, collects and delivers good dreams to children. He is not like the other giants who are cruel, stupid, and eat humans. He is kind, eats snozzcumbers, and teaches himself new words by reading books by Dahl’s Chickens. (Get it? Dahl’s Chickens = Charles Dickens.) One night he captures a little orphan girl, Sophie, and they become friends. Together, they set out to rid the human world of those nasty, human-eating giants.

The BFG, who made his first appearance in Danny, the Champion of the World, was also a bedtime story Dahl would tell his own children, once going so far as to even dress up and visit his daughters’ bedroom window, pretending to be the BFG.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox

“‘I should like you to know that if it wasn’t for your father we should all be dead by now. Your father is a fantastic fox.'” 

Mr. Fox is absolutely fantastic. He is so clever and outwits those three horrid farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. He does this because he is fantastic and clever and loves his family very much. Some have claimed this is the most autobiographical of all Dahl’s works, as he saw himself as a sort of Mr. Fox, a paterfamilias who held his young family together through crisis after tragedy after crisis — an accident that jeopardized the life of his young son Theo (resulting in Dahl eventually creating a new cerebral shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain), the death of his young daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis, and the stroke of his first wife, Patricia Neal. He even began to think that he was plagued with a neurological curse (he himself had suffered severe head injuries following a crash in his plane en route to his squadron in World War II). But he was resilient. And absolutely fantastic. Just like Mr. Fox.

And because this is relevant to my interests, here’s Damon Albarn reading an excerpt from Fantastic Mr. Fox:

Sigh. What a reading voice!

4. Matilda

Matilda (1)
“‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked. ‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.'” 

Matilda is a bright, humble, young girl whose abilities go unnoticed and unnourished by her uncaring and dishonest parents, and so she escapes into a world of books. Miss Honey is her kind teacher who recognizes how special she is. But Miss Honey has problems of her own — like her cruel aunt who robbed her of her inheritance, Miss Trunchbull, who also happens to be the principal of Matilda’s school. Miss Trunchbull is truly horrid, throwing “naughty” children into the “chokey” and making a young boy sick on chocolate cake. Dahl had similarly cruel headmasters, masters (teachers), and matrons at the English boarding schools he attended. Unlike Matilda, however, he did not have any special powers to exact revenge on them. Then again, creating books filled with horrible characters based on those old teachers just might be the best revenge and most special power of all.

5. The Witches

“‘Tell me what else to look for in a witch,’ I said. ‘The eyes,’ my grandmother said. ‘Look carefully at the eyes because the eyes of a REAL WITCH are different from yours and mine. Look in the middle of each eye where there is normally a little black dot. If she is a witch, the black dot will keep changing color, and you will see fire and you will see ice dancing right in the very centre of the coloured dot. It will send shivers running all over your skin.'”

Dahl’s father died when he was 3, but his mother was a great influence on him, telling him great stories about Norwegian myths, legends, and mythical creatures that would influence him as a storyteller. The grandmother in The Witches is undoubtedly his literary tribute to her. She, like his own mother, tells the story’s protagonist, a young orphaned boy, great stories, including a handful about REAL witches. Yes, there are real witches, and oh, are they horrid. While staying in a hotel, the young boy discovers the Grand High Witch conducting the annual meeting of England’s witches. During the meeting, the Grand High Witch unveils an evil plan to turn ALL of England’s children into mice. The young boy and his grandmother then design a plan of their own to rid England of all its witches.

Although I kept waiting for the story to end differently, I am sort of glad it didn’t. Its ending celebrates a love based on the kind of person you are inside, not what you look like on the outside. And they said Roald Dahl was macabre…

6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 

“‘I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do this his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good, sensible, loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious sweet-making secrets – while I am still alive.'”  

Of course I have to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nearly everyone knows the story of poor Charlie Bucket, who finds the final coveted golden ticket to enter Willy Wonka’s marvelous chocolate factory. I love the Oompa Loompas singing their songs to those naughty, naughty children. I love the idea of a chocolate river. I love the idea of winning a golden ticket, visiting this extraordinary chocolate factory, and eventually inheriting that factory.

One of Dahl’s happier experiences during his time at boarding school was that he was able taste-test chocolate bars for Cadbury, inspiring a lifelong love of chocolate. He was an expert on chocolate and its history. He ate a chocolate bar every day and instead of throwing the silver wrapper away, would roll it into a ball, which he kept in his writing hut. Love this guy.

7. Boy: Tales of Childhood  

“One day, when we lifted it up, we found a dead mouse lying among our treasures. It was an exciting discovery. Thwaites took it out by its tail and waved it in front of our faces. ‘What shall we do with it?’ he cried.
‘It stinks!’ someone shouted. ‘Throw it out of the window quick!’
‘Hold on a tick,’ I said. ‘Don’t throw it away.’
Thwaites hesitated. They all looked at me.
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful. Truth is more important than modesty. I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot. We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.
‘Why don’t we’, I said, ‘slip it into one of Mrs. Pratchett’s jars of sweets? Then when she puts her dirty hand in to grab a handful, she’ll grab a stinky dead mouse instead.'”

Part of what made Dahl such an effective writer for children was that he was able to enter the mind of a child so easily, remembering how they see the world. That skill partly derived from his equally important skill of being able to vividly recall his own childhood, a skill he deftly demonstrates in Boy. Although Dahl occasionally sacrificed complete factual accuracy for the sake of an exciting and entertaining narrative, Boy is nonetheless rooted in reality and is as compelling as any fictional story he ever wrote. The Great Mouse Plot is incredible.

Roald Dahl was a spectacular storyteller. His stories are varied and timeless — and hopefully children (and adults, too!) will continue to read (…kids still read, right?) and enjoy them for years and years to come.

The Toppermost of the Poppermost

I have read a lot of books about The Beatles, so many that I began to lose faith in ever finding another one that would teach me something new or let me see them from a different perspective. I have become more and more picky about which books I will spend my time reading, especially when it comes to the Beatles — so much so that when I am in the midst of reading one and an author refers to John Lennon as the oldest Beatle, I stop reading. Because if you can’t get something that simple correct, what else are you mucking up? So, this past holiday season, when The Fest for Beatles fans touted not just one but three books as essential for every Beatles fan, I was skeptical. But oh, was I wrong! These three books are, you might say, the toppermost of the poppermost when it comes to Beatles reading…

1. All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin 

I adore this book so much I’ve already read it twice, stuffing it with post-it notes along the way. As the title suggests, this book gives you the full story about every Beatles release. This first includes an overview of each studio album and EP, and then a delicious (yes, delicious) track-by-track dissection — we’re talking the genesis of each song (i.e. what inspired them to write the song or, if it’s a cover, when they started working the song into their impressive and extensive repertoire), discussion of each song’s production, technical details, who played what, who wrote what, recording and mixing dates, the technical team (bless ’em), and the number of takes (this gets kind of crazy around oh, I don’t know…”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Bang, bang!). Oh, and there’s also little yellow boxes exclaiming “FOR BEATLES FANATICS” (…who else?), and they are packed with the tiniest, coolest tidbits…like how there is no bass after the first minute of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the mono version of “She’s Leaving Home” is slightly faster and higher than the stereo version (boo, mono forever). Here’s what a typical spread looks like:



I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Paul definitely has the best butt in the Beatles.

Isn’t it beautiful? The spread design, I mean — not Paul’s butt (although it is pretty great, let’s be real, people).

All the Songs is a great (albeit hefty) reference book that I know I will return to again and again. William J. Dowlding’s Beatlesongs has been my go-to when it comes to specifics about the Beatles’ music for years, but All the Songs just may replace it. 

I love that this book’s main focus is on the Beatles as musicians, songwriters, and recording artists with minimal personal information or defamation. I thought I knew it all, but this book taught me so much more about their songwriting and recording processes, and I came away with an even greater appreciation of and love for their music and the Beatles as musicians — who would have thought that was even possible? Not I.

2. The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970 by Kevin Howlett



Again, the title gives it all away — this book digs into the BBC Archives and gives readers every available detail about the Beatles relationship with the indomitable BBC (who, eager housekeepers that they were, got rid of so many of their performances). The book comes with reproductions of some of the documents Howlett uncovered in his extensive research, including manager Brian Epstein’s application for the Beatles (which, at the time, still included Pete Best on drums) to audition for the BBC radio and the staff’s subsequent response to their audition: “An unusual group, not as ‘rocky’ as most, more C+W [Country and Western], with a tendency to play music.” The same staffer approved of Lennon as a singer but not McCartney (“Paul McCartney — NO.”).

The early years are fascinating because, like the recordings now available on Live at the BBC and On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2, they tell us so much about the Beatles as musicians and their personalities. First, the Beatles worked hard and often a relentless, frantic pace. Their first album (well, ten of its fourteen tracks) was recorded in about ten hours; this is seen as a remarkable achievement, but, as Howlett writes, their work rate at the BBC was even higher: “Apart from when they were performing in front of an audience for a broadcast, The Beatles had to complete five or six songs in a short session. They were not fazed by this requirement.” Furthermore, their radio performances were limited by the BBC’s equipment: they had to record on mono machines and any mistakes would have to either be edited out and replaced with a separate take or a lengthy overdubbing process. Thus, most of their BBC performances were recorded live, direct to tape, revealing their strength and talent as musicians and what exciting performers they were.

The other aspect of their BBC performances is that they offer insight into the Beatles’ as music fans — what they liked to listen to and what inspired them. During their radio program Pop Go the Beatles, 39 of the songs heard in the series were not available on the Beatles’ records by the series’ conclusion and 26 of those 39 would remain unreleased during the Beatles’ recording career. Of course, many of these are now available on the Live at the BBC series, and they tell us what the Beatles liked — lots of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and records and artists that remain rare and unheard to this day (“Devil in His Heart” by the Donays, anyone?). This large repertoire of songs that remained unreleased on record gives us an indication of what accomplished musicians they were and how much variety they were able to have in their set-lists in their early performing days. And not only did they cover these songs, they made them their own, they gave them the Beatles sound.

Then there were the interviews and on-air banter between the performers and presenters that tell us what naturally charming and witty people the Beatles were. Howlett’s book is full of transcripts of such banter, some available on the BBC recordings, some not (I would love to hear a recording of the 1964 interview with Paul by George, who, at the end of the interview, thanked Paul and told him he’d receive his “three shilling fee at a later date!”). They liked to call presenter Lee Peters Pee Litres (tee hee), and when presenter Rodney Burke introduced himself, “My name’s Rodney Burke, thank you very much!” John Lennon interjected, as only he could: “That’s your fault!”

Later, however, the Beatles simply had less time (and, likely, interest) to drop into the BBC and thus their final BBC session was in 1965. They still offered interviews and television appearances, and the details of these offer insight into how they were changing as a band and as people. For example, when interviewed for a program called The Lennon and McCartney Songbook, Howlett’s transcript indicates McCartney’s diplomatic nature, while Lennon is subdued, grumpy even, showing how he was becoming restless with being a Beatle (and likely very stressed and nervous about their upcoming tour of the US, who didn’t take kindly to his “more popular than Jesus” remark).

Interesting also is the interviews of 1969 and 1970, when relations between band members were very tense and strained at times. In 1970, George was asked about the split of the group and answered, in part: “It’s the end of The Beatles like maybe how people imagine The Beatles….I can see this year us all doing a separate album each and by that time people will probably think there’s no chance at all of there ever being Beatles again. And then suddenly, there’s Beatles again.” Only eleven days after this interview was broadcast, Paul McCartney announced he had quit the band (well, basically). Jerk!

The BBC Archives is a fascinating examination of the Beatles as recording artists and people, demonstrated by their recordings and interviews given to the BBC. I’d argue that the following statements made by Howlett are some of the most important to be written or uttered about this most-written and most-uttered-about band: “The brilliant innovations made by The Beatles in their latter years are, quite rightly, regarded as pioneering achievements that continue to influence musicians. But if you did not experience the group’s musical progression as it happened, listening to The Beatles without that chronological context can distort an historical view of their career. The picture on With the Beatles may not seem so now, but in 1963 it was extremely radical. So was the album’s music: energetic, visceral, and cutting edge. Indeed, the initial years of The Beatles’ success, 1963 and 1964, may well be their most revolutionary.” Yes, yes, yes!

This book, coupled with the Live at the BBC recordings, shows just how revolutionary and fun they were in those early years. In a BBC Audience Research Report, a solicitor, self-described as “definitely over-twenty,” wrote:  “How can anyone fail to like them? Their music is so gay and uninhibited, and they themselves are so full of joie-de-vivre.” Amen, brother.

3. The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn 

When Mark Lewisohn, renowned Beatles scholar and author, told the late Neil Aspinall that he was beginning a three volume biography about The Beatles, Aspinall responded, “Does the world really need another Beatles book?” Yes, Neil, it does, and this is it!

This first installment of Lewisohn’s trilogy takes us up to the end of 1962, just on the cusp of Beatlemania. In other biographies, this section of the Beatles’ story is glossed over — not here. The book is just over 1100 pages (and there is an extended version of the book but it’s currently only available in print in the UK, what gives? This is the 21st century, where is our global village?). Other biographers, too, make this period of the Beatles’ story somewhat dry — not here. I couldn’t put this book down. I even dreamed about it. That’s normal, right? And other biographers — still, here, now, in 2014 — repeat (or even create) myths and legends that simply are not true — not here. Lewisohn is a scholar. He has source upon source upon source. And as a result, his writing is scholarly but, at the same time, engaging.

Lewisohn gives the full facts and truth about so many parts of the Beatles story — how they finally got that coveted recording contract, where those haircuts come from, and yes, not only did Pete Best have zero drumming talent but zero personality. It’s so refreshing (…especially after the headache that was Larry Kane’s When They Were Boys).

Similarly refreshing is how Lewisohn portrays and discusses the Beatles’ individual faults without making them out to be horrible people. He does not excuse their faults (John and Paul’s early views on women, Paul’s jealousy, John’s strange fixation with cripples, etc.), but he does put them in perspective by putting them in context of their lives and times, allowing some understanding of why they were the way they were.

Reading this book, I came away with a greater appreciation of how hard the Beatles worked and similarly how hard the people around them worked — specifically Brian Epstein, bless that man — to make their career happen. I appreciate how certain people, whose lives had run parallel to their own, had to come together with them to make it happen. The Beatles always had the potential to be the greatest, they always had the talent and charisma, and they certainly always had the belief that something would happen…but without certain people and opportunities, it would not have happened, and we would still be listening to Pat Boone records.

One of the most interesting things I learned was how Decca didn’t necessarily reject the Beatles — well, they kind of did, but they also offered to assist Epstein in getting the Beatles on a record. But Epstein, amazingly (albeit thankfully), refused. Lewisohn explains Epstein’s thinking: “The bottom line seems to have been that Brian couldn’t accept the Beatles’ records being made by someone who didn’t appreciate them and was doing it only for money. In a perfect world they would come under the wing of a man who, like him, could see their potential and was interested in adding his talents to theirs.” That man, of course, was George Martin who was actually forced to sign the Beatles! Oh, what stories are in this book.

I especially love Lewisohn’s thoughts about a recording of the Quarry Men’s evening performance the day Paul met John. Writing of the tape and this early Lennon vocal performance, Lewisohn hits so many things about Lennon (and by extension, the Beatles) that make them so remarkable:

“And this, even more than its highly improbably existence, is the most extraordinary thing about the tape: it is unmistakably John Lennon. Although inspired by Elvis and Lonnie, he’s not attempting to imitate their voices or their style, and more strikingly still he’s not adopting any phoney American or mid-Atlantic accent. Singers always start off as impersonators, mimicking whoever made the record they’re performing, some perhaps going on to develop their own voice. That John Lennon already had it at Woolton, that he was so audibly himself, is the mark of a true original. Not only does he have a great rock voice, it’s an honest one.”

Influenced, yes, but unmistakable an individual, an original — a natural, honest original, not painstakingly groomed for prime time but just being himself.

I just finished this yesterday, and I am so depressed. I just wanted it to keep…going. It took Lewisohn ten years to research and write this volume, and he hasn’t written the remaining two volumes, and I don’t know if I can sustain the will to live long enough to see them written and released. I hope so.

Book Review: When They Were Boys by Larry Kane

Larry Kane’s newest book about The Beatles, When They Were Boys, boasts that it tells the “true” story of the group’s rise to the top. At one point in the narrative, however, Kane notes that “foggy memories and omission” make the “real truth elusive.”

Kane, a reporter who accompanied the Beatles on their North American tours in 1964, 1965, and part of 1966, has previously published two books about The Beatles and his experiences with them, Ticket to Ride and Lennon Revealed. I remember these books as being insightful and informative; When They Were Boys sadly is not.

There are two main problems with When They Were Boys: style and content. The writing style is grating and infuriating. The content is primarily superficial, full of empty and unfounded statements, and even some glaring inaccuracies.

First and foremost, it should be noted that this book is not so much about The Beatles as it is about the people who helped The Beatles rise to the top. Having read countless books about the band, there are many stories of many people I had not heard before found in this book. It is the manner in which these stories are told, however, that I find difficult to swallow.

For example, when Kane is discussing the real reason John, Paul, and George decided to eject Pete Best from the band, Kane states that, as with the rest of the Beatles’ story, the truth is dependent upon whom you speak with. And yet, Kane’s entire book seems to be based on constructing the “truth” around one person’s (who has been underrepresented or completely ignored by Beatles historians and biographers in the past) versions of events.

An example of this is when Kane details how The Beatles’ famous hairstyle was born and brings a new source to light: a childhood friend of Brian Epstein’s, Joe Flannery, claims the source of their hairstyle was found in a 1920s photograph of his mother and that John Lennon picked up this photograph of his mother and declared, “That’s the way I want my hair to look.” Furthermore, according to Flannery, Epstein took the Beatles to a barber shop and had the cut created, using the photograph as a reference and inspiration.



I repeat: REALLY?

Because let’s look at a picture of The Beatles, reported to be taken at The Cavern in November 1961 by the great and reliable Mark Lewisohn (who has a new Beatles book out in a few weeks!!):


Epstein reportedly saw The Beatles at The Cavern for the first time on 9 November 1961. They would have been sporting this haircut. So…how did the Beatles visit the home of Brian Epstein’s friend and get this haircut weeks later? THEY DIDN’T. It’s one thing to listen to the guy’s story, but why bother printing it?

This is not the only inaccuracy found in the book. Kane cites Klaus Voorman as designing the album cover for Rubber Soul. He reports Yoko Ono as saying that when she met Lennon’s Aunt Mimi for the first time his Uncle George was sitting in the corner, not saying much. He wouldn’t have been saying much because he would have been dead for about two decades by the time Ono could have possibly met Aunt Mimi. At one point he describes Ringo as having a “sullen demeanor” throughout the Beatles’ career.

The most frustrating aspect of the book is Kane’s writing style and organization, or lack thereof. There is a lack of a flowing, coherent narrative. Each chapter of the book focuses on an individual or event of the Beatles story–Stuart Sutcliffe or their first trip to Hamburg or The Beatles’ topping the poll as most popular group in Mersey Beat. It would have been a smoother read if Kane had organized the story chronologically, inserting characters as they became relevant. Instead, we only get part of the story part of the time.

Kane also feels the need to insert his name into the story as often as possible. When quoting an interview, Kane is careful to not remove a single mention of his name. “Let me tell you, Larry…” “The truth is, Larry…” “Larry, you know…” This is unnecessary and annoying, as is his penchant for bestowing dumb nicknames upon key players in the story. For example, he calls Lennon “The Milkman” and Sam Leach, a promoter instrumental in the Beatles’ early career, “The Prince of Matthew Street.” He repeats these nicknames frequently, as if they are so memorable and true that they should automatically be ingrained into our brains, just as he repeats pieces of information. I lost count of how many times Kane told us about The Chants, a black group from Liverpool, and how The Beatles helped them in breaking racial barriers. He reminds of his every time he mentions The Chants or any member of The Chants. Got it the first time, dude.

When They Were Boys is dedicated to highlighting individuals not as well-known in the history of The Beatles, and Kane seems to take pleasure in criticizing every other book about The Beatles that does not do the same. He describes The Beatles Anthology as being biased. Well…how many interview subjects are 1000% objective? Interview subjects–including those interviewed for When They Were Boys–tell their remembrances, their perceptions, their opinions. That doesn’t make it completely true or accurate. The Beatles Anthology is The Beatles telling their story in their words. And shame on them for not remembering every single person in Liverpool who helped them in some way! Give me a break.

And why does Kane feel the need to repeatedly bring up May Pang and how she is underrepresented in Beatles history? May Pang is not even a player in the early history of The Beatles, so why mention it? Nobody knows. While Kane laments the lack of attention paid to May Pang and her relationship with John Lennon in Beatles history, he fails to make the characters actually relevant in the early history of the Beatles full and real. He describes Lennon’s Uncle George as an “unsung hero” in Lennon’s life, yet he tells us absolutely nothing about him. Forget telling us anything new about Uncle George, his relationship with Lennon, and the importance of his presence in young Lennon’s life–he simply tells us NOTHING. Except that he sat in the corner, silent, when Yoko Ono met Aunt Mimi for the first time, of course. He continually tells us how important Pete Best was to the Beatles, but he doesn’t show us. He informs us that Best was an adequate drummer, popular with the girls, and his mother owned The Casbah Club, but that’s about it.

I could go on and on, but the point is When They Were Boys is a disappointing book, and I expected so much better from Larry Kane.

Can’t wait for Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first in a new trilogy about the Fab Four, to be released on October 29!

A Christmas Memory

As the holiday season approaches so do floods of memories and traditions. I always read, or at the very least recall, one of my favorite short stories, “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, first published in 1956.


Largely autobiographical, it details the relationship of a young boy named Buddy and his elderly, distant cousin (whom Capote refers to as “my friend” in the story), in whose care he has been entrusted due to the estrangement of his parents. There are other relatives who live in the house as well, but, as Capote writes, even “though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them.”

The story focuses on one particular Christmas and their tradition of baking fruitcakes for their friends, although not “necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.” See, the only true friends Buddy and his friend have are one another, for they are both acutely different and lonely, although they never feel that way when with one another.

Buddy and his friend, followed closely by their orange and white rat terrier named Queenie, gather and purchase ingredients for the fruitcakes, using the money they’ve deposited throughout the year into their “Fruitcake Fund.” The most expensive and difficult ingredient to acquire is whiskey, which they must buy from Mr. Haha Jones, a gloomy man who never laughs, yet kindly gives them the whiskey free of charge, understanding how hard they have worked to collect enough coins to comprise the required two dollars. (This act of kindness prompts Buddy’s friend to proclaim that Mr. Jones will have extra raisins in his fruitcake.) Once they’ve finished baking the fruitcakes, there are just two inches of whiskey left, and even though Buddy is only seven, his friend divides the remaining whiskey between the two of them. They sing and dance, happy and carefree, until two relatives angrily enter and scold Buddy’s friend for allowing such a scene to occur. Buddy’s childlike friend cries and cries, and Buddy begs her to stop, telling her she is “too old” to cry. His friend replies that she is indeed too old–too old and too funny, and Buddy assures her that she isn’t funny but fun.

With their fruitcakes made, Buddy and his friend search for a Christmas tree, which attracts the envy of the rich mill owner’s wife, who offers to buy it. Buddy’s friend declares they wouldn’t sell the tree for a whole dollar, and the mill owner’s wife persists, telling her she can always buy another one. Buddy’s friend responds, “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

They are restless on Christmas Eve, confessing to each other they couldn’t buy one another the expensive gifts they feel the other deserves, and when they awake on Christmas morning, the wind is blowing–the perfect weather to fly the kites they have made one another. It is while they are flying their kites that Buddy’s friend has a revelation. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord,” she tells him. “And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are, just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This Christmas turns out to be the last Christmas they spend together, as Buddy is sent to military school, and so they are both alone until one morning Buddy’s friend is too frail to proclaim that it is fruitcake weather and carry out her yearly tradition. “And when that happens, I know it,” Capote writes. “A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a knife on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

I first read this story in 8th grade English. I loved it then, as I love it now, for its message of friendship and kindness, loneliness and understanding, the importance of what people mean to you over the material things they are able to leave behind. Every student feared Mr. Wilson, my 8th grade English teacher. He stood outside his classroom between class periods with his arms moodily crossed, and his face was always bright red as if he were a ticking bomb waiting to explode. And sometimes he did explode–onto students who forgot to write their names on their papers, use the margins of notebook paper properly (never write outside the red lines or on the white space), or students who just weren’t very bright.

Mr. Wilson had lost his family and home in a fire on Christmas day–or so the rumors said. That was why he was so grouchy, and that is why he made us read a story as depressing as “A Christmas Memory” around the holiday season. Mr. Wilson was grouchy, but he also a had a keen sense of humor, and he was a teacher who did not coddle but rather pushed and challenged. “A Christmas Memory” is depressing (to a degree) but it is more than that; it is a poignant and beautiful piece of literature. (I guess it never occurred to anyone that was the reason he assigned the reading.)

Buddy’s friend remarks that there are never two of anything–not Christmas trees and not English teachers. I never had another teacher like Mr. Wilson, a teacher who simultaneously terrified and inspired me. I am sure he has long since retired, and the junior high school I attended has sadly been demolished. We never exchanged kites as Christmas gifts. He simply inspired a further, deeper love of literature, bolstered my confidence, and left me with the memory of this brief, beautiful story. And so I read and think of it annually, and I hope, wherever he might be, Mr. Wilson does, too–and finds in it the same beauty and comfort.

Paul Weller: The Changing Man (Paolo Hewitt, 2007)

So. I kinda have this thing for Paul Weller.

(See previous post about my Post-Olympic Depression and “My Ever Changing Moods.” See also my phone log for the past month; you’ll notice multiple calls to the local Barnes and Noble, asking if they have stocked the latest Uncut Special featuring Paul Weller, Paul Weller, and then some more Paul Weller. Still waiting. Still clawing my face daily in anticipation. To quote Bob Wiley, “Gimme, gimme, gimme! I need! I need! I need!”)

But I’ve never read a book about Weller. I’ve listened to his music obsessively. I’ve devoured his interviews. I’ve watched the video for “My Ever Changing Moods”…a lot. And for most people, that’s probably normal–the whole not reading a book about one of your favorite musicians, not the watching the “My Ever Changing Moods” video at least once a day, every day. That’s not normal. I’ve accepted that.


It’s not normal for me to not read countless books about my favorite musicians. I make a goal every year to read more fiction, but I always fail miserably. Biographies and nonfiction dominate my bookshelf. One year, I was particularly obsessive and kept track of how many books I read about the Beatles–just the Beatles: I read 30. So not reading a book about Paul Weller is abnormal behavior.   

Paolo Hewitt & Paul Weller

I contemplated reading Paolo Hewitt’s book about Weller since…forever, basically. But I resisted because my whole world view is based on the fact that Paul Weller is the most wonderful human being, and I thought that reading Hewitt’s book would shatter that belief. Hewitt was one of Weller’s closest friends for twenty plus years, until they fell out previous to the publication of The Changing Man. I had read the book painted Weller in an unflattering light and that Hewitt’s vision was tainted by the hurt he felt from the loss of his friendship with Weller, who denounced the book as recently as May of this year, saying, “The Paolo Hewitt of 1979 would definitely hate the one who wrote that book.” (Hewitt states a few times that the Paul Weller of the ’70s/’80s would hate the Paul Weller of today in his book.)

So I equated reading Hewitt’s book with going over to the dark side.

But…last month, I ordered it from Amazon. I went over to the dark side. And it is not even that dark.

Hewitt shapes his portrait of Weller through his music, inspired by Weller’s declaration that interviews were pointless because “all the answers are in my songs.” He takes a song and discusses a facet of Weller’s personality/life in relation to the song. For example, he extracts these lines from “Above the Clouds” (one of my faaaaaaaves): “As my anger shouts/At my own self doubt/So a sadness creeps/Into my dreams/When you’re scared of living/But afraid to die/I get scared of giving/And I must find the faith to beat it.” He then describes Weller and anger, relating various incidents he witnessed throughout his friendship with Weller.

What emerges is neither a flattering or unflattering portrait of Weller but a very human portrait. Weller is verbally abusive, yet generous. Hewitt recalls how Weller told him he had written “Wild Wood” with him and his tortured childhood in mind. (Hewitt pays tribute to the power of the song by recalling how after years of listening to nothing but Oasis while researching his first book on the band, he chose to listen to “Wild Wood.”) Weller is constantly looking forward, musically at least, yet he vehemently hates technology. One of my favorite anecdotes included in the book was Hewitt’s admission that he often told Weller, who was notorious for being slow to return borrowed items, that VHS tapes of rare performances by bands just weren’t compatible with Weller’s machine. And he believed it. Weller is meticulous and obsessive. Hewitt talks about Weller’s love of the Beatles, whose popularity resurged in the ’90s with The Beatles Anthology, resulting in more magazine articles and books about the band, which irritated Weller who believed everything had already been said or written about the band. Then Hewitt found one of the recent magazines amidst Weller’s belongings and reminded him of his criticism of such magazines, to which Weller replied, “Well, I’m a fan, aren’t I?” He is attracted to violence, while it also repulses him.

The book reminded me of one of my favorite Beatles books, Beatlesongs, which I’m just gonna tell you right now: if you ever want to come close to beating me at Beatles Trivial Pursuit, you have to read this book. (As a side note: I first read this book in fifth grade. I rented it from the library. I used one of my Beatles cards as a bookmark. I returned the book and checked the book out again because this is not a book that you just read once to find that I had left my Beatles card in the book. And no one had noticed. What kind of world do we live in that an obsessive ten-year-old is the only person renting Beatlesongs from the library? Really? Come on.) Beatlesongs tells you pretty much every thing you want to know about each Beatles song–authorship, recording details, quotes from the Beatles and others. The Changing Man doesn’t provide every detail about every Weller song (that would be awesome), but it reminds me of Beatlesongs in that it tells a little bit about the Weller song in question and then augments the reader’s understanding of the song and Weller through Hewitt’s personal friendship with Weller. I’m glad I read it.

Probably only the most blindly devout fans would find fault with The Changing Man and its implications that Weller is not perfect. It is an honest, balanced portrait of Weller. It didn’t shatter my world view that Paul Weller is the most wonderful human being.

Key word being human.

See, even Paul Weller drools.

Favorite Book-to-Screen Adaptations

My mom recently questioned the impact of television on my life and whether my imagination had been inhibited by her decision to allow me to watch television as a child. There is a faction of people who actually believe that television (and by extension, films) will rot your brain. Well, of course it will–if you lack self-control and merely watch trash (which is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society).

My mom, though, forced me and my siblings to exercise moderation–yes, we watched television but we also read, created watercolor masterpieces, and played outside endlessly. She also had (still has!) a little something called taste, a rare commodity indeed. My childhood evenings were filled with her reading to us (and vice versa)–I can even still remember the bookmark she used to mark our place in A Secret Garden–followed by an episode of I Love Lucy. (My bedtime was 9:30 because I could not rest without my daily dosage of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel at 9:00! Thank you, Nick-at-Nite.)

I think my love of reading is partly inherent, partly because of my parents fostering it through reading with me, trips to the library, and example. Would I have loved reading more if I had been denied television? Denied the privilege to play outside? To play with neighborhood friends? To have any contact with the outside world? A thousand times no. I’m glad my parents let me watch television but I’m even more glad they taught me how to balance choice media in my life.

During this same discussion, my mom brought up the point that she was once told that watching a film adaptation of a book would diminish your enjoyment and perception of the book, especially if you saw the film before reading the book. That’s kind of ridiculous (especially considering the particular example she used–which actually appears on this list!) and most definitely the worst kind of snobbery. I hate the idea that there is a hierarchy of art–the book is always superior to the film, a thirty-minute television program can never compare to the silver screen, the painting is of more value than the photograph, music holds more meaning than dance. Hollywood has indisputably butchered some of the most beautiful pieces of literature, but there have also been some I might even argue surpass the book.

These are nine of my favorite.

(Note: I only chose adaptations based on books I have actually read. Duh, right? Well, there are dozens of films I have watched which are based on books I have never heard of, never been able to finish, or never made it off my to-read list…)

9. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1965; Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)

“I sat down and picked up my pen and thought for a minute. Remembering. Remembering a handsome, dark boy with a reckless grin and a hot temper. A tough, tow-headed boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a bitter grin on his hard face. Remembering–and this time it didn’t hurt–a quiet, defeated-looking sixteen-year-old whose hair needed cutting badly and who had black eyes with a frightened expression to them. One week had taken all three of them.” 

The Outsiders was my favorite book when I was twelve. I probably read it fifteen times. In a row. I loved this book. Loved it. I knew the entire first paragraph by heart. I sometimes recited it for no reason: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…

People probably thought I had terrets or something.

I read this book, however, for the sole purpose of seeing the movie. I had gone to a sleepover, where we watched The Newsies and drooled on our pillows dreaming of Christian Bale. But someone at that sleepover mentioned this little movie called The Outsiders, which had given the world Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez (COACH BOMBAY!!), Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. I really don’t know why this impressed me, but it did, compelling me to read the book, watch the movie, and fall in love with Rob Lowe. I have no regrets.

When I first saw the movie, I was initially disappointed. So much of the story–particularly of the Curtis brothers and the trial–was missing. Entire chapters and scenes I had committed to memory were nonexistent. While scouring the early stages of the internet for pictures of Rob Lowe, I discovered there were several deleted scenes (many of which included Rob Lowe as Sodapop Curtis). I finally had the opportunity to see the uncut film a few months ago. Even though I slowly grew to love the released film, the uncut film, as Coppola intended it, is a much more moving and coherent adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s poignant coming-of-age novel about a group of “outsiders” looking to belong amidst a society inundated with socio-ecnomic strife.

And for the record: Rob Lowe fresh out of the shower in a towel, an inhibition to my imagination? Fughetaboutit! 

8. Serpico (Peter Maas, 1973; Sidney Lumet, 1973)

“But while he would not participate in the organized payoffs, he found in the end he could not ignore them either. Instead he tried to do something about a system that allowed corruption to flourish. And it was this that angered so many police officers, and left them baffled and bewildered. He had broken an unwritten code that in effect put policeman above the law, that said a cop could not turn in other cops. Perhaps it would have been easier for them if Serpico fitted a recognizable puritanical mold. But he dressed like a hippie and sported a beard and long hair, and he lived in a bachelor pad in Greenwich Village doing, in their minds, God knows what. In the suburban tract houses with tiny, neatly trimmed lawns where most of the city’s policemen lived, in the saloons where they gathered, in the precinct houses and radio cars, Serpico became the prime topic of conversation. One frequently repeated rumor about him held that he was ‘part spic and part Ethiopian, and speaks a funny sort of Italian,’ as if this, somehow, explained everything.”

You should never, ever forget your first Al Pacino film and this was mine. Ahhhhh.

Serpico is the true story of New York City policeman Frank Serpico, an upstanding cop who uncovers illicit activity within his department. Despite being violently harassed and threatened, Serpico decides to expose this corruption. It’s an absolutely compelling read, and the film is a faithful adaptation. Al Pacino as Serpico? Peeeeerfect! I loved the film when I first saw it, shortly after reading Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico for a Literary Journalism course, but I ultimately preferred the book, which richly details not only the rampant police corruption and brutality Serpico witnesses but the prejudice he personally endures not only for his beliefs but the way he dresses and conducts his life outside of the station (illustrated by the above quote). The book, written in the style of literary journalism, employs all the typical literary devices–all except one: that happy ending. Serpico testified against police corruption, but that testimony did not completely eradicate corruption. It still exists.

7. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813; Joe Wright, 2005)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

You’ve read one Jane Austen novel, you’ve read them all. Or so the saying goes.

I never really felt compelled to read Pride and Prejudice (or any Jane Austen novel) until I saw Joe Wright’s interpretation a couple of years ago and completely loved it. What drove me to read the novel, though, was the film’s beautiful dialogue, most of which closely matches the novel. Wright’s version eliminates insignificant supporting characters and condenses Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, quickening the plot’s pace, but is otherwise a near perfect adaptation. Keira Knightley is Elizabeth Bennet; I always have to remind myself in the final scene between Elizabeth and her father (Donald Sutherland) that Knightley and Sutherland are just actors, yet the emotion between the characters is so real.

I know many people see the 1995 BBC miniseries as the ultimate screen version of Austen’s novel, and I once tried to watch it. For about three minutes and twenty-three seconds. That’s as long as I could stand the painful acting. Didn’t even see Colin Firth. Maybe I’ll try again someday–someday when I’m in the depths of despair, looking to torture myself literally to death…

(I’m just kidding–I think. I’ll try again sometime. Maybe.)

Well, I’ve only ever read one Jane Austen novel, and I think I’d watch this film again ten times before I thought about reading another one. It’s just that good.

“Mr. Collins, at your service!”

Kiss me.

6. A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean, 1976; Robert Redford, 1992)

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I’ve already gushed extensively about this film here, where I think I state somewhere that this is the most beautiful film I have ever seen. That is probably true, and I must admit I was sorely disappointed when I finally read the semi-autobiographical novella on which the film is based. The film is a much more comprehensive and coherent story than the novella, which sparsely records the early life of Norman and Paul to put their final fishing expedition, the heart of the novella, into perspective. There have been questions about how much artistic license was taken with the film and in particular the character of Paul, but I feel the film provides a fuller, deeper understanding of the characters. And without feeling something for those characters, there is no story. I often found myself referencing the film while reading the book, which, though full of the beautiful language used in the film’s narration, was too sparse on characterization and plot to hold my attention for too long. The book is also full of intricate descriptions of fly fishing, which would have completely lost me if I had not seen the film and been able to visualize whatever-the-heck-this-guy-was-talking-about.

Tears streamed down my face when I first watched A River Runs Through It; I was apathetic when I returned A River Runs Through It And Other Stories to the library.  

5. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott, 1868; Gillian Armstrong, 1994) 

“Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are?”

Just as Keira Knightley is Elizabeth Bennet, Winona Ryder is Jo March. She’s absolutely perfect in the role as one of my favorite characters of all literature. When thinking about which film adaptations were my favorite, I thought about ones that made the characters come to life, that overcame subtle plot differences (example: Laurie proposes to Jo after she returns from New York in the book, Jo goes to New York following her rejection of Laurie’s proposal in the film) to make the story seamless and believable, that made me see a book I’d read and loved multiple times differently. Little Women is all of those things. The cast is flawless. The sets, costumes, and soundtrack are perfect complements to the seemingly effortless acting. The film draws you into the world of these four sisters, each hovering between girlhood and womanhood, and by the film’s conclusion not only do you believe that those four actresses really are sisters but you almost feel like they are your sisters, too.

I love to watch this film at Christmas. Preferably with at least one of my sisters.

(I’d love to see George Cukor’s 1933 film, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo with Joan Bennett as Amy, but I’m too afraid it just wouldn’t stand a chance. Someday!)

4. The Godfather (Mario Puzo, 1969; Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

“Then with a profound and deeply willed desire to believe, to be heard, as she had done every day since the murder of Carlo Rizzi, she said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.” 

I can’t believe that I lived twenty-two years without seeing The Godfather. What was I doing with my life? What was my purpose? It’s scary to think about. I have absolutely no criticisms of the film, so how is it even possible that I could prefer the book, even just a little bit? It’s not. I love the book. It devotes a great deal more to the characterization of Johnny Fontane, it details Vito’s background which would form the basis for The Godfather II, and Michael executes his revenge on the two dirtbags who betrayed him in Italy, killing his one true love. I love reading Michael’s slow transformation from golden boy to Don Corleone, but I love seeing the change via Al Pacino even more. While the film mostly follows the novel, the greatest difference is the ending. In the book, Kay reaches a state of acceptance about Michael’s position as head of the family business; she prays for his soul. The film’s ending is much more chilling: Kay watches as Michael’s capos kiss his hand and address him as Don Corleone.

Um…I think the next nine hours of my life are booked. Time to watch all three Godfather films. Again.

3. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936; Victor Fleming, 1939)

“Sir, you are no gentleman.”
“An apt observation. And you, Miss, are no lady. No one can remain a lady after saying and doing what I have just overheard. However, ladies have seldom held any charms for me. I know what they are thinking, but they never have the courage or lack of breeding to say what they think. And that, in time, becomes a bore. But you, my dear Miss O’Hara, are a girl of rare spirit, very admirable spirit, and I take off my hat to you.”

When I was in middle school, there was something called Accelerated Reader (AR for short). Certain books in our school library were marked “Accelerated Reader”, with a certain amount of points. You read the book, took the AR test, and earned a number of points proportionate to your test score. At the end of the year, the student with the most AR points earned a prize. It was probably a library card–I can’t remember. Anyway. I always wanted to read Gone with the Wind since seeing the film, and it was worth like 900 AR points. The library’s copy was solid red, with white letters on the side: GONE WITH THE WIND. And I loved it oh so much. I never expected it to have such deep, captivating character development (although only for the white characters). Later, my senior English teacher was my favorite English teacher of all-time…until I learned he thought Gone with the Wind was a silly book. (OK, so he’s still my favorite English teacher, but let’s be real–his competition was sli-i-i-im.) Uh, no. It is not a silly book. It is not just a book about Scarlett and Rhett loving and hating and loving but a book about how some people survived the War and some didn’t, and the amount of detail and characterization floors me each time I read it.

I can only remember very few plot differences–for example, Scarlett has a child with each of her first two husbands in the novel–between the book and film, but they ultimately don’t matter because the film is so successful at bringing that novel to life. Another perfect cast. Miss Mitchell was most disappointed with the Tara set; she claimed there was nothing so grandiose as that in the South. Of course she wasn’t too concerned with the racial stereotypes or the minimization of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan or anything like that.

By the way, I earned all the AR points for Gone with the Wind, but I ultimately fell short of the overall high score. Some boy who read all the Brian Jacques books beat me by a handful of points. I was pretty disappointed at the time, but I figure since he used to sit next to me and get blamed for my stinky farts, we’re even.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960; Robert Mulligan, 1962)

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” 

I read this book multiple times as an adolescent, and I recently read it again. Each time I read it, I’m unsure whether the story is really about Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, or both, and I’m always on the edge of my seat, anxious to see how Harper Lee connects them. Atticus tells Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they make beautiful music and do not harm other creatures. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are both innocent and harmless, and it, too, is a sin to kill them. The novel is also about much more–growing up and losing that innocence, gender roles, class, status, and, of course, racial injustice and prejudice. The film version does not fully explore all those issues, but it is nonetheless a beautiful adaptation. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? I do believe that is otherwise known as a match made in Heaven.

When I was in seventh grade, I had the assignment to compose a short biography of an author. I chose Sir James Matthew Barrie, but a friend chose Harper Lee. I vividly remember sitting in the school library, doing research, and my friend excitedly telling me that Harper Lee was still working on her second novel. We were so excited, but Miss Lee has never written that second novel. She explained why in 2011: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Atticus tells Scout that you never really understand another person until you look at things from their point of view, climb into their skin and walk around for a bit. It’s a lesson of compassion, understanding, and respect that still resonates. What more needs to be said?

1. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery, 1908; Kevin Sullivan, 1985)

“I know I talk too much, but I am really trying to overcome it, and although I say far too much, yet if you only knew how many things I want to say and don’t, you’d give me some credit for it.”

Any of these screen versions could have topped this list. They all feature great acting and faithful screenplays. So why Anne of Green Gables? Is Megan Follows really any more Anne than Winona Ryder is Jo, than Vivien Leigh is Scarlett, than Al Pacino is Michael? Each of them are their respective characters to me. But Anne of Green Gables might just be my favorite adaptation simply because it is probably my favorite book. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. And when a scholarship committee asked me why it was my favorite, I told them it was my favorite because of the amazing detail, the rich language, the way Anne’s imagination draws you into her world and unlocks your own imagination along the way. Kevin Sullivan’s miniseries brings that stunningly beautiful world to life.

(I even prefer his Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, based on Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne of Windy Poplars, to the original novels. Whoops.)

Reading a book and watching a film or television program are two very different experiences that cannot fairly be compared. Of course you form your own images of what a certain character might look like (Mario Puzo always imagined Brando as Vito Corleone) or how it might feel to walk through the front door at Tara. And of course a director’s vision is always going to vary, if only ever so slightly. But both the screen and the written word have the ability to disengage you from reality and pull you into another world, if only for a two-hour movie or 30 pages a day. And what a wonderful world that is.

Return to Collinwood

About a month ago, I posted about a life-changing event in my life: the arrival of Return to Collinwood, with an inscription from Kathryn Leigh Scott. OK, so it wasn’t really life-changing, but it was pretty darn cool. And exciting, especially at the time.

(OK, so Michael Jackson didn’t come over to my house to use the bathroom. But his sister did! Just had to get that out.)

I also promised to gush about this wonderful book as soon as I had a chance to read it. Well, I read it. Also about a month ago. In one sitting. Am I really that obsessed or was it just that compelling of a read? I’d like to think the answer is a healthy mixture of both. My love for Dark Shadows is never-ending, to the point that each time I feel the warmth of the fireplace I instantly think of Angelique exacting revenge or just ruining somebody’s life for pleasure by the fire, yet I learned so much from this insightful book.

Return to Collinwood is an engaging overview of five decades of Dark Shadows, from the original gothic soap opera (my one true luuuuurve) to the two feature films derived from the series to the 1991 revival to the failed 2004 re-reivival to the upcoming Burton-Depp film adaptation. While it is largely written by Kathryn Leigh Scott, it also features contributions from fellow original cast members Jonathan Frid, David Selby, and Lara Parker, all of whom filmed cameos for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows film.

Scott and Parker both detail the filming of the cameo in the book. They write of how respectful the cast and crew were, how grand and awe-inspiring the set was, and what an overall wonderful experience it was. (There are also some really great pictures of David Selby getting his hair and makeup done. Love that guy.) Their recollections of their experience on the Depp-Burton film is what gives me the most hope for the movie. I actually finished reading the book before the trailer was released, and so I was ultra-surprised by its contents, as Leigh and Parker are so complimentary of the film. It’s hard to believe we’re now less than a month away from the film’s release date!

I just learned so much from this book. Let’s see…

David Selby is a beautiful man. Oh, wait I already knew that! Seriously, though, Dark Shadows garnered 20 million viewers in the summer of 1969. The storyline? The Victorian Nightmare of 1897 which also happens to be my favorite. I had no idea that many people watched the show, but I understand. I mean, David Selby? Sideburns? Come on.

(By the way, L.A. Times columnist Geoff Boucher wrote a column about Dark Shadows, claiming that if the show were airing today it would merely attract outsiders and youth goths. Huh? Read Kathryn Leigh Scott’s great retort here, which the L.A. Times also published. Go KLS!)

That same year, Original Music From Dark Shadows reached #18 on the Billboard album chart, with the instrumental “Quentin’s Theme” (you know, the song Quentin plays repeatedly on his gramophone while getting drunk) peaking at #13 on the singles chart. Wow! Did gramophone sales also skyrocket? Probably.

Bad things happen when you overrule/question the judgement of Dan Curtis. Please see the 1991 revival series. For further reference examine the failed Dark Shadows pilot for CW in 2004. B-A-D. Like, worse than being on Angelique’s bad side. Whoa.

Jonathan Frid is basically an old man diva. I just think that’s so awesome. It took a lot of convincing to get him to sign onto the Burton-Depp film, and once he endured the plane ride to England for filming he was so exhausted he wanted to go home immediately. And he demanded that he see a script! Love you, JFrid.

KLS & JFrid Filming House of Dark Shadows

Kathryn Leigh Scott shares relevant diary entries written during The House of Dark Shadows. I love how she talks about eating whatever she wanted just to fatten up to annoy Roger Davis. She really hated Roger Davis. Or, at least, he got on her nerves. A lot. It’s good to know that I’m not alone. Both in eating whatever I want and hating Roger Davis.

Speaking of eating whatever ya want, Kathryn Leigh Scott talks about one of her first days on the set, eating a pastry. Joan Bennett told her that in order for her (Bennett) to maintain the figure she had at 20 she had to be more careful about what she ate. KLS dropped the rest of that pastry in the trash. Joan Bennett brought a cup of homemade chicken noodle soup to the set everyday for lunch. Joan Bennett must have been so cool. I mean, she slapped Lieutenant Nathan Forbes ‘n’ all. Just sayin’.

KLS has snapshots like these lying around her house. Ummmm, can I come over sometime? This is so cool. Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Karlen just strolling like the cool cats that they are. While KLS wrote about how much she hated (more like annoyed–I doubt she really hated the guy, as she just seems too darn nice to really hate anyone and the entries were most likely inflamed by stress) Roger Davis during House of Dark Shadows, she also wrote about how much she loved Jonathan Frid and John Karlen, her two favorite actors to work with on the show. Awwwwwwwwwwwww. I wish John Karlen had a cameo in the new film. Actually, I wish John Karlen were reprising his role as Willie Loomis in the new film. The world always needs more John Karlen.

Ultimately, I learned so much from this book–I should have taken detailed notes so I could remember it all. But I just couldn’t stop reading long enough to get out a pen and paper. And I just wanted to enjoy it. I think the most poignant thing I learned–or, rather, realized– while reading the book, though, was just how much I love this show. I’m getting all teary-eyed just thinking about Willie letting Barnabas out of his coffin…

The Totally Coolest Thing Ever

I don’t exactly know how to say this…but the totally coolest thing ever happened to me–oh, about ninety minutes ago. I went to the mailbox, expecting nothing but a wad of junk, only to find that the totally coolest thing ever was stuffed in my mailbox (along with a wad of junk but that’s okay). What’s the totally coolest thing ever?

Maggie & Barnabas, House of Dark Shadows, signed by Kathryn Leigh Scott for yours truly

(Thank you, Molly, for helping her less artistic, more autistic sister transfer this beautiful image to her computer! She has a blog, too.)

This is the totally coolest thing ever. It’s a promotional still of Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans/Josette du Pres) and Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins) for House of Dark Shadows, with the following inscription: “To Brittany, a fan who would never betray Barnabas and all those at Collinwood. — Kathryn Leigh Scott ‘Josette'”

(Remember when Barnabas viciously beat Willie with his cane, screaming, “You betrayed me, Willie!” I would never do that. Betray Barnabas? No. Freaking. Way. Beating Willie, especially when played by Jim Fyfe, is another thing.)

Yeah, I requested that she write that. But still. I think it’s really cool.

To coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Dark Shadows in 1986, Kathryn Leigh Scott wrote My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, founding her own publishing company, Pomegranate Press, in the process. Her company’s speciality is nonfiction books covering all aspects of the entertainment industry, which includes the latest addition to the company’s range of books about Dark Shadows, Return to Collinwood. The first 200 customers who pre-ordred this book through Pomegranate Press received the 8×10 promotional still of Maggie/Josette and Barnabas autographed by Kathryn Leigh Scott.

As if I would order it from anywhere else.

Return to Collinwood looks back on five decades of Dark Shadows, including the original series, the 1991 “revival” series, the failed attempt to re-launch the series again in 2004, and even the upcoming feature film starring Johnny Depp. It is filled with rare photographs and anecdotes from original cast members, including Jonathan Frid, David Selby, Lara Parker, and, of course, Kathryn Leigh Scott, all of whom also have cameos in the upcoming Burton-Depp film. I’m really looking forward to reading it and subsequently sharing my impressions of it with all of you.

Thank you, Kathryn Leigh Scott, for making my day. And thank you, Dark Shadows, for creating a world filled with wonderful characters and stories that has allowed me time and time again to suspend disbelief and completely disappear into another, utterly enchanting universe. I’ll never, ever betray you.

The Right Profile: That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!

Montgomery Clift, Life Magazine, 1948

Say, where did I see this guy? 

An empty, desolate feeling always haunts the start of the New Year. Time to take down the Christmas decorations, time to go back to school, time to face three more months of dreary winter. Syd Barrett’s music, with its raw, primitive quality, is a perfect soundtrack to this sentiment, and so I began last year by reading Rob Chapman’s remarkable biography of Barrett, A Very Irregular Head. It was a great read, and it perfectly complimented the harrowing feeling of the season. At the start of this year, I decided to tackle another emotionally exhausting read: Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography.

I saw my first Montgomery Clift film in April 2011 (The Heiress), and I was never quite the same. I spent the remainder of the year working through his filmography and watched all seventeen of his films in the space of seven months. Film after film, I was completely captivated by his performance, even in some of his weaker films (of which there are literally only a couple–Clift was very particular about his film projects). I was further intrigued by his personal life, marred by insecurity and tragedy, and knew Bosworth’s biography was widely reputed to be the most thorough, accurate, and satisfying. I also knew it would be a draining read, considering the course of Clift’s life. It would be the perfect way to initiate the New Year.

Bosworth’s biography is much more compelling and original than its title would suggest. The early chapters detailing Clift’s background and childhood are utterly captivating and  essential to understanding some of the demons that would haunt Clift later in life. In a nutshell: Clift’s mother, Sunny, was born to an aristocratic family–or, rather, a man and woman who were from aristocratic families and married against the wishes of their families secretly and then had to have the marriage annulled prior to the birth of their daughter. She was then taken under the care of her delivering doctor (Edward Montgomery, after whom she named her son) for a year until she was adopted by the Fogg family, who often treated her unfairly. Once she discovered her true family heritage, however, she began a life-long quest to gain acceptance from her aristocratic relatives. When she married and had children (Clift had a twin sister and older brother), she was determined to raise them as “thoroughbreds,” giving them private schooling, music lessons, and trips across Europe, often separating them from their father for long stretches of time. These excursions were supposedly a condition on Sunny being accepted or recognized by her true family. It never happened.

The absence of his father and constant presence of his domineering mother undoubtedly had a profound on Clift’s psyche. Clift rarely discussed his family history and by the peak of his film career had completely eradicated his critical, demanding mother from his life. It seems that through much of Clift’s life, he sought surrogate parents in friends because he had never truly experienced that family atmosphere. He sought meaning in his life but never found any. As the back jacket of the book proclaims, Bosworth gives his life that meaning.

While he may have thought his life void of meaning, Clift certainly lived his life with integrity. He was one of the first (if not the first) actors to come to Hollywood, free of a slavery contract (e.g. he was not signed to a seven-picture contract with MGM, who decided which films, regardless of quality, he would make). He was allowed to exert unparalleled control over his films for a newcomer. Prior to his debut in Howard Hawks’ Red River (co-starring and out-starring John Wayne), Clift was offered numerous opportunities to become a Hollywood star. Some friends thought him ridiculous for refusing such offers. He wanted, he told them, the agency to be able to pursue projects he felt worthy of his time and talent.

(Clift would almost become legendary for the roles he refused: On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Sunset Boulevard, Bus Stop, High Noon, Friendly Persuasion, Rio Bravo, Prince of Players, Farenheit 451. And on and on.)

Clift’s film career (and life) is typically viewed in two distinct stages: before and after “the accident.” During the filming of Raintree County, Clift was in a traumatic car wreck. After leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s, he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. Taylor essentially saved his life that evening, pulling his loose tooth, causing him to choke, out of his mouth. (She remained a loyal friend to him, later offering her personal salary as insurance for him–Clift was practically unemployable throughout much of the 1960s because he was considered uninsurable–to be cast in a film that was to be his comeback of sorts, Reflections in a Golden Eye. He died before filming began, and the role went to Brando.)

As a result of the accident, Clift’s face suffered numerous cuts, his lips were severely lacerated, he lost his two front teeth, his nose was broken in two, his jaw was broken in four separate places, the entirety of one upper cheekbone was cracked, and the cracks seeped into the sinus area. The left side of his face was essentially immobile and thus he later preferred his right profile to be shot. No other part of his body was damaged–just his face. It was a cruel twist of fate. Clift had been devastatingly beautiful, and he knew it; it had been one less cause for insecurity. Now he was just attractive, replete with flaws.

While it is true that the accident caused Clift to spiral further into drug and alcohol addiction, his deep psychological and drug problems had been eating away at him for many years before his accident, as early as 1953. His truly was “the longest suicide in Hollywood.” When he died, he was deeply unhappy, largely because his ability to work and thus his main drive and purpose in life had been robbed from him because of the perception that he was uninsurable (due to a lawsuit following John Huston’s–a truly sadistic human being–butchered production of Freud). He had not worked for four years; his final film, The Defector, was released posthumously. Clift appears frighteningly thin and frail, a skeleton. It is truly a sad ending to a film career that began so promisingly.

Waste is a common theme in Clift’s life–waste of time, talent, money, energy–and this is one of the reasons why it is so devastating to read. You want it to get better, but it sadly never does. Bosworth devotes just as much time to Clift’s dedication to his acting as these disappointments, however. The amount of time and energy he consistently devoted to perfecting each of his roles is absolutely amazing–and one can see the work pay off on the screen. Clift is one of the finest actors, often forgotten in the shadow of Brando and Dean, who both worshipped him, but he is just as–if not more–talented and important in the history of film. His performances are not easily forgotten and will likely haunt me forever.

Reading Bosworth’s biography (which is undoubtedly the best of the three Clift biographies I’ve read–and just one of the plain best biographies) was a satisfyingly crushing, depressing way to begin the New Year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look out for a companion post coming soon where I detail some of my favorite Montgomery Clift performances. I’ll try not to do all seventeen films. But he’s just that good.