Literature

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

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“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”

***

I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

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This book is available for free in the public domain.

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

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During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

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What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

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In 1982, a grim incident occurs at the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York: a young bride murders her husband and then goes on to hang herself in her hotel room on their wedding day. The violence leaves witnesses and a heavy scar on the once grand hotel. It’s fifteen years later and high school musicians are descending upon it for the annual Statewide festival…oh, and there is dreadful blizzard looming off-stage ready to snow in all of the pubescent musicians and their chaperons.

The above synopsis may appear heavy and brooding (à la The Shining), which it is, but Kate Racculia also completely turns the premise upside down, running many moments of humor and suspense into each other. Most of the chapters focus on a particular character at a time–delving into their backgrounds and anxieties of hidden secrets and the festival itself.

Jumping fifteen years ahead to the same day in 1997, Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker–a pair of twins–are both invited to the festival for their talents in voice and bassoon, respectively. Alice is assigned to share a hotel room–the hotel room–with fellow participant and daughter of the Statewide’s interim director (herself a wickedly crafted character). When Alice momentarily leaves the room only to return to the other girl hanging from the same type of cord in the same exact room, everything starts to unravel. Alice leaves to retrieve help, only to return to a room where there is no body. No sign of a body. Nada. Was there a murder? A suicide? A cruel joke? Or something else?

This is an ensemble cast and I can’t help but have favorites (I assume this is a similar feeling that regular soap opera viewers have to their choice characters). For me, Rabbit Hatmaker, the seventeen year old twin brother of Alice who is struggling with personal identity and his upcoming future post-high school life, was who I clung to from the beginning. The rest of the cast, however, was robust and filled with difficult personalities that transcend the stereotypes we can think of for participants of a “band camp.” Their chaperon, who at first appears to be a meek shadow of woman, is brimming with secret history; the arrogant Scottish conductor is a former piano virtuoso, but is now sporting a hand with fewer than five fingers; that wicked interim festival director is way more wicked than we’re initially led to believe. The cast goes on, but why ruin it.

This novel is more about the characters. It’s a slight of hand that the author produces. Yes, the hotel’s background and the possible 1997 suicide/murder of Alice’s roommate are indeed intriguing, but the strength of Bellweather Rhapsody lies with Racculia’s approach to the characters. The narrative voice is close to each of them and even during this trying weekend, the voice never falters when producing quick-witted and droll chapters.  I hate to compare the novel to other works, but I couldn’t help but feel delight as the book played with the idea of a snow stranded house with a deadly past all the while producing characters that were akin to those found in Agatha Christie or Clue.

Bellweather Rhapsody was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Birdman & Raymond Carver

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This week saw the release of a short trailer for the upcoming film, Birdman. It looks weird, bizarre, and it’s starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone (pretty much, right up my alley). There isn’t much information out there on plot beyond what IMDb has in the form of a one sentence rundown,

“A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.”

The Broadway play in the film is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love–a collection filled with much turmoil and difficult relationships.

Take a gander at the trailer.

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

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This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

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Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.

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Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.

 

Summertime Books to Read

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It’s been a little quiet over here the past few weeks. I’ve just been a little unfocused, but I do have an ever-growing pile of books to read. I figured it is about that time when everyone is getting antsy about their vacation reads and I’m not ashamed to jump on the list bandwagon. My summer reading list was jump-started by the phenomenal The Fever by Megan Abbott, which I recently reviewed.

So, here are eight selections of galleys that are piling up as I type.* Do you have any summer choices you’re hot to crack open?

1. The Supernatural Enhancements “What begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in…Edgar Cantero’s wholly original, modern-day adventure.”

2. Shirley “A fictional young couple spends a year at Bennington in 1964 with novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband in this captivating psychological thriller.”

3. Bellweather Rhapsody “Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel… Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker…have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival.”

4. Jackaby “Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary.”

5. After the People Lights Have Gone Off “This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday.”

6. Lost for Words “The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year…[a] satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture”

7. The Murder Farm “An unconventional detective story, [it] is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file.”

8. Mr Mercedes “[A] mega-stakes, high-suspense race against time, three of the most unlikely and winning heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands.”

 

*I do not have a copy of The Murder Farm yet, but I am looking forward to it, nonetheless. This book is hugely successful in Germany (original title: Tannöd). The first-time writer was rejected several times and only given a 1,000 euro advance by a small publisher. Now, it’s required reading and was adapted into a film.

**Synopses provided by publishers.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

I don’t normally start reviews with being so blunt, but I must say, that I absolutely loved The Fever by Megan Abbott. Honestly, I was addicted and it was a whirlwind of a novel that tossed me out of a recent slump with novels TBR.

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The novel is bundled together between the three distinct narratives of the Nash family–Deenie, her older brother Eli, and their father, Tom, who is also a teacher at their high school. Although, each of the three has their own third person sections, I find myself rallying behind Deenie as the main character; we’re with her the most. Her brother Eli is a handsome hockey player for the high school team and so irresistible to the girls at the school that all he really needs to do to get their attention is wake up in the morning (if that).

In the small town of Dryden, Deenie is a sophomore who is dealing with what high schoolers deal with–old friends, new friends, nemeses, that weird and uncomfortable liminal space between being a kid and being an adult (although, as someone counted amongst adults myself, I rarely feel like a grown up!). The opening chapter is strange and uncomfortable. The girls are waiting for some mysterious procedure that doesn’t become clear until later in the book when everyone is in a state of panic.

One morning at school, Deenie’s best friend Lise begins to have a fit. She seizes and falls out of her desk to the floor, knocking her forehead on the ground before she is taken away to the hospital. It is a frightful sight, one that understandably unnerves Deenie and as Lise remains unconscious in the hospital, everyone is trying to uncover what caused it. But then something odd begins to happen. Other girls in the school begin to have similar fits filled with jerking head motions and then their entire bodies seizing before being carted off to the hospital. The small town is in a panic and with every new day, unsubstantiated culprits are fingered–the HPV vaccine, environmental factors, drugs, contagious disease. When common threads are found, something is right there to devalue the theories.

Right from the start, the story rushes forward. The sentences are clipped and urgent making the reader feel completely off-kilter just like the characters. Mysteries are held back and often purposefully muddled with gossip, urban legend, and mass hysteria. Although, told in the third person, Deenie’s section, at times, feels like an unreliable narrator in the way that only a partial representation of previous events are being shown until the very end when pertinent revelations are revealed.

One aspect I particularly liked (which is also infuriating) is this modern sense of “I play a doctor on the internet.” Of course, mistakes are made even by the most seasoned of professionals, but I am always terribly baffled by people who think they know better after some light Wikipedia perusing. During a highly tense school meeting with parents and teachers, Abbott writes:

“Tom sighed. There was no use talking epidemiology with Dave Hurwich, who always knew more about law than lawyers, more about cars than mechanics.”

The plot of The Fever felt really familiar and when I did some cursory Googling, Megan Abbott’s author website points to the New York Times article that I remembered reading a few years ago that clearly triggered inspiration. I’d recommend that those who didn’t read all the news articles about the school in upstate New York should avoid doing so till finishing the novel. I think it would be an even more mysterious tale.

The Fever will be released on June 17 by Little, Brown and Company, which is part of the Hachette Book Group. If you haven’t read about it already, Hachette and Amazon are currently battling, so the availability of many titles are in limbo on Amazon’s site. If you aren’t able to get a copy from your local bookstore, it can be ordered through Book Depository.

“Coral-red” by Helen McClory

I’m not sure how popular flash fiction is (or micro fiction, short shorts, or whatever we’re calling them these days), but I’ve always been a fan along with vignettes. Small impressions can be quite powerful. Many writers find the constraint difficult, but often with these miniature stories, stronger tone and detail crafting come across with starker strokes than longer stories. I find the best flash fiction pieces try to unsettle the reader or take an idea, mix it up like puzzle pieces, and reassembles itself all within the span of about 500 words (I’m one of those who tend to not consider anything of 1000 words or more flash fiction).

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I have always enjoyed the selections of Helen McClory’s work that I’ve been steered towards over the past few years. She has a new piece up on Literary Orphans, which I’ve read three times! I think with each new reading, I find something new or my focus is captivated with a different section of the story.

In “Coral-red,” we are introduced to Miriam’s house, which is often featured in stylish home magazines that reach readers all over the world. Yet, at the present moment the house is haunted. The children haunting the house are raucous and ever-present as they sing songs and walk between the walls.

Of course, when houses–especially, the haunted sort–are featured in fiction, there is usually a reason. What had once been introduced as a stylish home worthy enough to be photographed for magazines, has a deeper, more disturbing core. Houses in literature are structured to hold characters’ hidden histories, they are built to elicit fears and anxieties, and sometimes, they are crafted to hold the characters in from the rest of the world, leading them to brew inside without the infiltration of foreign touches. The house in “Coral-red” is not what we expect, nor, is Miriam.

“[S]he rarely leaves the house. In fact, she never leaves unless compelled. There is something terribly wrong with Miriam, and there has been for a long time, but she has no friends to gently tell her this, and the housekeeper Ofelia doesn’t see it’s any business of hers.”

McClory’s language is layered and pays special attention to the senses. She is able to entrance the surroundings by offering a mist of lulling prose to only lay out blunt more horrifying moments.

Lately, Helen has been writing about her consumption of horror shows and films, which no doubt are influencing her current writing. I hope to see more, because she is keenly able to capture gossamer places that keep the menacing tightly wound into it.

The  journal, Literary Orphans, has the story available for free. Besides, this story, take a look at the whole site. I’m pretty impressed by the entire scheme.

 

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Can we talk about how I lost 27 minutes of my life watching the new Rosemary’s Baby?

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So, perhaps the title is a bit overly dramatic, but the newest adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a total bore. I didn’t read any reviews of the mini-series beforehand, because I wanted to go in with a clear palette. I had heard that they relocated the story to Paris from New York, which I didn’t understand, but I gave the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt that she wanted to isolate Rosemary even more by moving her to a foreign country where she knows practically no one nor is fluent in the language (although, she seems to encounter only impeccably bilingual Parisians).

There was no subtly to this adaptation. Back in September, I reviewed the book. Although, I already knew the twists and turns from being a fan of Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation, Levin’s book still held a creepiness that made Rosemary and the reader increasingly more uncomfortable. On a small island of so many, Rosemary Woodhouse is still alone. At first, she is trusting of her friendly, elderly neighbors, but slowly the thread grows longer and Rosemary can’t seem to trust anyone, including her own husband. Polanski was immensely loyal to the novel and the movie is an accurate adaptation (he didn’t realize that directors stray from the original source material).

In both the book and the original film, there is a creep to the horror with a dash of the claustrophobic. The doers of evil are not what we all expect and, instead, as I earlier wrote, Ira Levin created a “real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people” and Polanski did the same. This new iteration of Rosemary’s Baby was so far away from this whole premise. About twenty-seven minutes into the mini-series, I finally gave up. I am not a fickle viewer and I try to give most things a go. Yet, this was so lukewarm.

There is no mystery to the underlying premise. Right off the bat, we know that Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s new benefactors/landlords/make-out buddies? are up to something more sinister. Heavy-handed would be an understatement. Zoe Saldana–the actress portraying Rosemary–keeps awkwardly oscillating between naive ingénue and the gung-ho type of woman who will chase after a purse snatcher in the middle of the Paris streets. She also has minor rumblings of discomfort over her new posh friends who gift her a wardrobe full of couture clothes, a hatbox filled with a wailing black cat, and after a quick massage to help relieve a headache, gives her a lingering kiss on the lips while lying in bed…all in the first 27 minutes! (oh, yeah, and Guy has a meeting with his colleague at a bar that could double for the set of Eyes Wide Shut). I am a fan of the ridiculous, but this falls more toward the dreadful.

There was absolutely no tension, no subtly, no mystery. We know that Satan is lurking right from the beginning. There is no Ruth Gordon to offer a glass of some questionable milky concoction, all the while, reassuring Rosemary that it’s perfectly healthy. When I turned the series off, I eventually made it to the internet where some cursory Googling confirmed by opinion. The only positive review I read was in the New York Times, but once I saw the byline, I immediately knew that the reviewer probably didn’t even watch the mini-series (my favorite article about NYT tv critic Alessandra Stanley is from the Columbia Journalism Review and is titled,“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong”; she is known for her gratuitous errors and the fact that she sometimes doesn’t even watch the program).

Okay, so I shall stop complaining now. Skip this mini-series and just read the book and watch the 1968 film. Did anyone sit through this in its entirety?

 

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