Cross-Gender Writing Part II: Eleanor Harding Bold

IMG_20150415_133204You know how last time, I was saying that I hadn’t ever run across a well-written fictional woman from the pen of a male Victorian writer? Well, now I have! The lady in question is Eleanor Harding Bold, from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

Actually, I had alrady met her several years ago during a course in Victorian lit.; I just forgot. But then last week, I took the DVD of the miniseries out of the library because I wanted to watch Alan Rickman play the marvellously slimy Mr Slope (or marvellously play the slimy Mr Slope, either way. It was his breakout role, from 1982; he’s so young there! Actually, he is what he should have been as Snape; I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling envisioned Rickman when she was writing Snape, and I’m sure if that’s true, it was him as Obadiah Slope she had in mind. The name alone suggests it – Slope/Snape). Anyway, so I was watching The Barchester Chronicles, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the characters, especially Eleanor.

From what I remember of the books, the film adaptation is reasonably close to Trollope’s original, definitely in plot line – so this is not the case of a late-20th-century feminist rewriting of the character, but comes straight from Trollope’s own imagination, ca. 1853. In both the books that make up the plot of the miniseries, The Warden and Barchester Towers, Eleanor features prominently as a key character around whom much of the action revolves, but it is in Barchester Towers (episodes 3-7 of the series) that she really takes on depth.

Very briefly, Eleanor Harding is the 20-something daughter of Mr Septimus Harding, a clergyman around whom the action of The Warden and quite a lot of Barchester Towers revolves. At the end of TW she marries Dr John Bold, only to have him die on her in the space between TW and BT, thus freeing her up to be the motivating love interest in yet another book (Trollope can get away with that – it’s totally believeable that a doctor in Victorian times would catch a fever from one of his patients and die before he is even thirty). So there she is, dripping, as they say, black lace and bombazine, and looking oh-so-desirable in her charming widow’s cap (one I enjoy about the miniseries is the accuracy of the costuming – lovely. That cap clearly demonstrates where the term “widow’s peak” for a particular hairline comes from). Slimy Mr Slope is all over her, sucking up to her very oiliy – not only is she pretty, she’s got money. Then there is the very amusing but shallow Bertie Stanhope, who is also after her money (but at least admits it freely), and last but not at all least the serious, steady and studious Mr Arabin, another clergyman, who isn’t sucking up to Eleanor at all because he doesn’t think she could ever be interested in him “in that way”, pretty and charming as she is. Trollope being a comedic writer, not a tragedian, you can probably figure out how it ends.

One of the interesting things about Trollope is that in these stories, he writes several characters of great depth – and they come in either gender. Mr Harding, Eleanor’s father, is the key figure, and he is a thoroughly good man, caught up in trials and tribulations of circumstance – but also of his own making: it is his innate honesty and integrity that cause him the greatest difficulties. If he was only willing to take a bit, to exploit some people and enjoy a little ill-gotten gains, he would have no troubles at all, and The Warden would have no plot. In Barchester Towers, it is in part Eleanor’s character which causes some of her own problems. In her case, it’s not so much her integrity and unwillingness to compromise her principles which cause her troubles, but like her father, in her sweet and gentle way she is unwilling to let others boss her around, tell her what to think, and dictate her life to her.

Mr Slope, as I mentioned before, sucks up to Eleanor, but he is a man who is thoroughly disliked by her family, for good reasons. Eleanor can’t really stand Mr Slope herself, but she is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when her brother-in-law tries to interfere and tells her to stop associating with Mr Slope, she gets absolutely furious and refuses to promise any such thing – not because she has any intention of marrying Mr Slope (eew!) but because she hates being bossed around. She almost messes up her relationship with Mr Arabin because she thinks he’s on her brother-in-law’s side, telling him off in no uncertain terms for his supposed impertinence in trying to tell her what to do (which gives him an admirable opportunity to prove himself a good guy by admitting that she is right). However, when Mr Slope tries to propose to her and won’t take “no” for an answer (shades of Austen’s Mr Collins!) she resorts to a resounding “box on the ear” (slap across the face), which finally gets rid of him. Eleanor is capable of giggling with girlfriends over people’s silliness, of a deeply loving relationship with her father without falling into Dickens-style saccharine tones, and of being thoroughly conflicted about how to deal with what life throws at her (a conflict which, in fact, makes up a great lot of the plot of the story). Eleanor Harding Bold, in other words, comes across as real.

And that, folks, is my discovery of a well-written female character by a male Victorian writer’s hand. They do, apparently, exist – I’m glad.

Life, the Universe, and Cross-Gender Writing. Check out Eleanor Bold – I think you’d like her.

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Cross-Gender Writing

As I mentioned last time, reading Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde got me thinking about what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, cross-gender writing: when an author writes a character who is of the opposite gender from their own.

Interestingly enough, both of Fforde’s series I’ve read so far, the Thursday Next novels and the Last Dragonslayer ones, feature a female protagonist. They’re great books – don’t get me wrong: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them (in fact, I’m still thoroughly enjoying them, as I haven’t finished reading either series). But one thing that stuck out to me about the Thursday in First Among Sequels is that she is, pretty much, a tough chick. Oh, she’s a loving mother and wife, very much so. But there is a certain kind of – I just have to say it – manliness about her. She’s a kick-butt leather-wearing gun-toting girl (who, at age 52 and after two pregnancies, still has a “devastatingly good figure and boobs to die for” [p. 346 of FAS]). Thursday’s calling in life is to go adventuring in the BookWorld; regularly pulling a gun with an EraserHead is all in a day’s work. Thursday is a man’s woman.

Now, one of the things that got me started on this train of thought quite some time ago was a post by Christopher Bunn on this very matter from the opposite angle. He’d noticed that a lot of male protagonists written by female writers are, kind of, women’s men, particularly when they appear in romance stories. (He then set out to write his “Sleeping Beauty” adaptation, Rosamunde, in part as an exercise in doing a female voice. Go read it and decide for yourself whether you think he succeeded; it’s a great little book overall, well worth reading.)

So when Christopher said that about female writers creating men in their own image, I started mentally sifting through some of my favourite literary characters, and I have to admit he is right. Many of my favourite literary males were written by women, and perhaps the reason they’re my favourites is that they’re idealised women’s men. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is one – he is eminently swoon-worthy, and never more so than in his romantic pursuit of Harriet Vane. Lord Peter is by no stretch of the imagination girly – but he is sensitive, cultured, caring, yet strong and intelligent… everything a woman wants a man to be, with none of those inconvenient traits like not wanting a woman to depend on him or being more concerned with the task at hand than with the woman’s feelings at the moment.

On the flip side, quite a few of the manly women written by male writers are, pretty much, what a man wants a woman to be (or so I imagine): tough, independent, beautiful/sexy (see “devastatingly good figure and boobs…” above), with none of those inconvenient traits like wanting a man to listen to her feelings or having physical issues like getting cramps once a month or morning sickness resulting from some passionate bouts of lovemaking.

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Steve and Horatio – a Bear’s Bear and a Tiger’s Tiger

This “writing characters in the image of one’s own gender” even extends down to children. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is one of the best characters he created (and he created many) – and she is one tough little girl, with an utterly unsentimental attitude to life (the very first time we meet her, she takes out one of the baddies with a cast iron frying pan. Bam!). Come to think of it, she is a childhood incarnation of another brilliant Pratchett character, Granny Weatherwax. You couldn’t imagine either of them cooing over babies or kittens (Granny has a couple of feeble cooing episodes in the first book in which she appears, but that flaw was speedily expunged from her personality). In fact, Granny’s friend Nanny Ogg, who is yet another tough broad, does coo over her pet cat Greebo – but he’s the roughest, meanest, nastiest specimen of feline you could imagine, so it’s a big joke. All of these women are far more likely to slap a crying person upside the head and tell her to pull herself together than to give her emotional support and a warm hug. They’re loving and care deeply about people, but it’s tough love – more the kind that is (stereotypically) doled out by fathers than by mothers.

Cooing, cuddling, and anything resembling emotional softness or sentiment, on the other hand, are castigated by both Pratchett and Fforde as “wet” or “soppy” – the girls (and it is always girls) who are prone to such exhibits are mercilessly made fun of. Yes, they do exist in the books – in Pratchett’s “Witches” series it’s Magrat Garlick, in “Thursday Next” it’s Thursday5, and in both cases they’re described as New Age hippie types who like to weave floral wreaths, wear unbleached cotton, and are annoyingly fond of hugging and emotional encounter groups; part of their character growth consists in getting over their emotionality – to become, in short, more of a manly woman.

A while ago I promised you a post on Charles Dickens, which I have yet to make good on. However, for now, here’s one of the points I wanted to make about Dickens: he can’t write female characters – they’re either perfect angels of light or corrupt, demonic slatterns. Dickens is in good company among his fellow Victorians in that; in fact, I have yet to read a male Victorian writer who could write a good woman. Sickly sweet, or evilly corrupt, those seemed to be the only two registers male Victorians had at their disposal for writing females; all the believable literary women were created by woman writers. (That’s not to say there aren’t well-written women that sprang from the pen of a male writer in the 19th century – just that I haven’t run across them. I’ve yet to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – perhaps she meets the requirements? But then, she dies. I’m not sure that qualifies her for well-written – if you can’t be believable and live, well…)

I can’t really speak much to the issue of the believability of males written by females – I’ll have to take Christopher’s word for it that many of them don’t quite read true. But I think I know what he means, because I can see it in the mirror image of the female written by the male.

However, none of this means that I have a problem with those literary heroines. I love identifying with Tiffany Aching’s frying pan prowess or Thursday Next’s accuracy with an eraser gun (which reduces bad guys down to their phonemes). BAM! POW!

But it’s something to keep in mind, particularly as a writer – do I create my characters in my image, even just the image of my gender or of what I wish the opposite gender was like? Perhaps, to a certain extent, it can’t be avoided. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing – maybe in reading about and identifying with what an author of the opposite gender imagines or wishes a character of ours to be like, we can come to a deeper understanding of their perspective. Perhaps in having characters of one gender created in the image of the opposite one the gap between the genders can, in one spot or another, be bridged.

Life, the Universe, Manly Women and Womanly Men. Pass the frying pan.

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Thursday Next: Stories About Stories

IMG_20150409_121001I just finished Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels – book five in a series which is, incidentally, included on the Goodreads’ “Cosy Fantasy” list I mentioned last time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been quite a few years since I read the first four books (starting with The Eyre Affair), so I’d forgotten a lot of the story – and even if I had remembered it, I don’t know that I appreciated Fforde’s work quite the same way then.

Just to briefly bring you up to speed, Thursday Next (that’s her name, not a reference to a day of the week) is a literary detective. She lives in an alternate-reality England, where part of the secret service’s job is to make sure nothing goes wrong inside the realm of fiction, otherwise known as the BookWorld. She hops in and out of books, interacting with the characters, who are actors putting on the story whenever a reader picks up the book – in their off time, they might be quite a different person than they appear to be when we read their stories – and Thursday’s role as JurisFiction agent is to keep order in the BookWorld.

Fforde’s stories are a feast for book nerds, especially if you’ve done any formal literary studies. That’s what I mean by possibly not having appreciated Thursday Next quite the same way when I read the earlier books – for one, I don’t think I was nearly as familiar with literature then as I am now and so would not have known as many of the books as Fforde is referring to (now, I get about 75% of the references); and for another, I wouldn’t quite have got the allusions to literary theory, or understood just how postmodern the stories are, let alone got as much of a chuckle out of that as I do now. They’re heavily self-referential – stories written about stories about the writing and reading of stories and so on; and they most emphatically do not take themselves seriously (for example, in the BookWorld, there are occasional chunks of back-and-forth dialogue without speech tags – and the characters themselves lose track of who’s talking: “Wait, who just said that? Was it you or me?”).

One of the aspects of First Among Sequels and the book that follows, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, is that they’re great commentaries on literary theories. Here, take this part:

“Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work – the writer might have died long ago.” (p. 52, First Among Sequels. New York: Viking, 2007)

In the story, that refers to the fact that the BookWorld isn’t real, and only becomes so when a reader picks up a book and imbues it with their imagination. But actually, this is an excellent description of Reader-Response Theory (my favourite lit theory), and presented in a context which is a heck of a lot more interesting to read than dusty academic papers.

But don’t worry – you don’t have to have spent the last three years wallowing in capital-T Theory or have read your way through hundreds of linear shelf-feet of literary classics in order to enjoy Jasper Fforde’s stories. They are, above all, cracking good (and hilarious) stories.

Now, what I really set out to write about here, sparked by Thursday Next, was something entirely different – namely the issue of writers creating characters not of their own gender. Males writing female protagonists, and vice versa, and the effects thereof – Fforde writing Thursday Next, Pratchett writing Tiffany Aching, Sayers writing Lord Peter Wimsey… But I think I’ve drivelled on enough today, so I’ll save that for some other time.

Life, the Universe, and Thursday Next. It’ll make you think differently about reading.

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Cosy Fantasy – Or Is It Cozy?

SeventhSon_CVR_XSML I have a problem with my books: Seventh Son and Cat and Mouse, I don’t know what genre to stick them in.

People ask me what kind of books they are, and I usually say “fantasy” – but then I always feel compelled to qualify: “Well, it’s light fantasy,” or “It’s kind of a romance,” or “It doesn’t have any orcs in it.” Because, you see, when someone classifies a book or movie as “fantasy”, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, and I suspect for most people, it’s Tolkien. Well, he did start the whole thing, really. Yes, yes, I know about George Macdonald’s Phantastes and that there were other fantasy writers before Tolkien. But he is the one who made the genre popular and who is unfailingly copied. Fantasy fiction, for the most part, means pointy-eared elves, vicious-looking orcs, and pseudo-medieval knights in more-or-less-shiny armour. There has to be at least one sorcerer and plenty of swords, and a dragon or other mythical creature is pretty much mandatory – that’s the essence of “fantasy”.

But my stories haven’t got any of that. Not a single pointy-eared person in sight. To date, in Ruph nobody even owns a sword, let alone has drawn it; and as for dragons, they’re mentioned once, in Chapter 6 of Cat and Mouse, but only in passing, when Cat is wondering if they’re real or just as mythical as in our own world (the jury is still out – Nikor, the librarian, thinks they might exist, but he doesn’t really care, as long as he has a good way of shelving the books about them).

So, the Septimus series is definitely not classic fantasy (nor epic, nor high, nor whatever other flattering epithet one might bestow on Tolkienesque fiction). So what is it? Well, there’s romance, in the first couple of books at least. But, then again, the books aren’t “romances”, either. No ripped bodices, heaving bosoms, or lust in the dust (nor anywhere else, for that matter); no perpetual belly-aching about “he loves me, he loves me not”; not even the high-class tension-filled relationship dance of an Elizabeth and a Mr Darcy – this is not “boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy has to overcome obstacles to get girl, boy gets girl”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that storyline (I lurv me a good romance) – but Seventh Son and Cat and Mouse don’t really run along those tracks.

They aren’t fantasy. They aren’t romance. I’ve also had readers comment that Seventh Son feels like a Young Adult novel – but Cat is twenty-eight, hardly your typical YA teen protagonist. So, really, not YA either (which is at best a somewhat controversial category, anyway – is a YA a book for teens, or about teens? Just like the Ruphian dragons, the jury is still out on that one). And then there’s mystery in those stories, but nobody dies (or at least not mysteriously), and Cat is not a Ruphian equivalent of a gum-shoed, pipe-smoking and/or mustachioed sleuth who has to figure out whodunnit. So not mystery, either.

CatMouse_CVR_XSMLBut what to call them? Because really, the Septimus books are fantasy. And they are romance, and mystery. Just not your typical example of either of those genres. And when I thought about how to describe these stories, a term popped into my mind: Cosy Fantasy.

You see, one of my favourite genres to read is Cosy Mysteries. You know, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers (to name just three of the queens of the genre): mystery novels which usually deal with a limited cast of characters (often in the typical English country house setting), have very little violence (and what there is of it, usually happens off-stage), and above all, focus on people and their relationships.

And that’s exactly what the Septimus series is like – but in a fantasy setting. So I coined this phrase, Cosy Fantasy, to describe my books – and then I found out that I’m by no means the only one who has come up with that descriptor for this kind of stories. Goodreads, for one, has whole lists of books that fit into that category (which is exactly where I’m going to go next time I’m looking for a good new read).

But here’s another snag: how to spell it? Is is Cosy Fantasy, or Cozy Fantasy? Goodreads, again, has two lists, one under each spelling – and they’re different lists. I have a feeling the Cosy Fantasies are the British ones, and the Cozy ones the American-published. Yet another dilemma – I’m publishing my books in Canada, though US venues (Amazon, Createspace and Smashwords), with British spelling… Cosy, or Cozy?

I think for the time being, I’ll stick with Cosy, to go with the rest of my spelling. But if you would rather cosy up with Seventh Son and Cat and Mouse under the name of Cozy Fantasies, please do.

Life, the Universe, and Cosy Fantasies. All that matters is that you enjoy them.

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Just Me and Art

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Vancouver Art Gallery

It’s been quite some time since I got to be alone with art (I mean small-a art – visual constructions, not big-A Art – person named Arthur who had his name chopped down to a three-letter word; I don’t know any of the latter). But this past weekend I had some business to do in the big city – Vancouver, to be precise, a five-hour trip over the mountains – and when I was finished with what I had to do, I indulged myself with a visit to the Art Gallery.

It was lovely. They had a show of a collection that included works by Cezanne, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and another of Chinese art that examines the interaction of traditional art with the modern. It was in the latter, when I was standing in front of a marvellous work – an installation of ceramic art by Liu Jianhua – that suddenly a realisation took  shape in my mind: visual art is something I need to experience alone. Inside my head, I was having a dialogue with an imaginary partner, telling them (it’s not a specific him or her, or it, for that matter) what I thought of this piece – half-baked sentences that bubbled up and sunk away again unfinished as my mind walked through the visual realities in front of me and then moved on to the next piece, focused on seeing. I was looking, I was responding – I was, pretentious though it may sound, communing with the art work.

In the fabulous art instruction book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain author Betty Edwards talks about how visual art, or visual perception, primarily takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the brain’s language centre is located in the left. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for artists to be unable to draw and talk at the same time. I know that’s certainly true for me – if I want to really focus on what I’m doing visually, my flow of words dries up.

I’ve had friends say “Let’s get together and make art!” Well, actually – that doesn’t do much for me. Sure, I have fun hanging around with friends and mucking about with art supplies, no question of that; but the result is practically never one of my better pieces, artistically speaking. If I am with another person, my thoughts are focused on that person – and as I think in words, by definition my brain is stuck in the wrong modus operandi for thinking of art. If I’m talking to someone else, I cannot communicate with the art.

So art is something I need to experience alone. In order to get the most of a visit to an art museum or art gallery, especially one of the calibre of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I need to be by myself. I need to be able to get stuck in front of a piece that grips me, just staring at it, letting it impact me, without having to get back out of myself and explain to whomever I’m with. It’s not that I don’t enjoy looking at art, or making art, with friends – but the experience of the art will be far more shallow than anything I could get on my own. I’d never realised it quite like that before – but for real depth, it has to be just me and the art.

So, what did you do last week? Me, I went on a date; we had some great conversations, myself and an installation of Chinese ceramics in celadon and oxblood glazes. We got real close.

Life, the Universe, Myself and Art. It’s got to be just the two of us.

2139PS: I wanted to post a picture of that marvellous Liu Jianhua piece, “Container”, but sadly, I don’t think it would be right under the fair use copyright law. If you go here and scroll down, the second picture on the left is of an earlier installation of the same work; at the VAG it was sitting on white ground, which made it even more amazing. But just so you’re not deprived of a photo of an interesting piece of pottery, here’s one of mine: “Squashpot, Untitled (2011)”. Yes, I know, it’s stunning.

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Cinderella, the Movie

If anyone doubts that the “Cinderella” story is a perennial favourite, they have obviously not been attending a movie theatre in the last week since the release of the live-action film. We went on Tuesday evening, the first cheap Tuesday after the movie came out, and the theatre was packed – the show must have been nearly sold out.

One of the things I loved about it was the demographic of the audience. Sure, there were lots of families with young children. But the middle of the front row was occupied by a group of half a dozen seniors, and they were by no means the only grey heads unaccompanied by grandchildren there. We originally sat at the end of a row beside two more empty seats; we gave up our spots and moved to a different row so a foursome of young adults – again, no children in sight – could sit together. The full age range of viewers was represented in that theatre. There was noise, bustling, rustling, chattering – and then the film started to roll, and it got quiet. A little voice somewhere in the front of the theatre piped up “It’s Cinderella!”

And so it was. This movie is a beautifully quintessential rendition of the Cinderella story, a straight-up, classic fairy tale version. No attempts here to modernise, to give tragic backstories to the villains to make them into non-villains, to make Cinderella into a 21st-century feminist icon, to subvert the base story into a lesson in, umm, the moral-du-jour. I found that aspect of the film quite refreshing – it’s a fairy tale. The characters are as flat as they are in the printed versions. Cinderella is sweet, beautiful and picked-on; the stepmother and -sisters are mean bullies; the prince is charming; the fairy godmother is magical. That flatness, what the folklorist Max Lüthi calls depthlessness, is one of the key characteristics of folktales, and Sir Kenneth Branagh did a fantastic job making a film that retains this one-dimensionality while harnessing the full empowering force of this tale.

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Yes. I wore this to the movie.

But you probably just want me to get down to it and tell you what I thought. Well, here it is: I loved it. This is hands-down my favourite “Cinderella” movie yet. The visuals and special effects are stunning. The way the film plays with colour is especially striking – in fact, I wonder if they cast Richard Madden as the Prince purely for the way his brilliantly blue eyes match Cinderella’s gown. Every pretty girl ought to have a prince with matching eyes to accessorize with. (To which my daughter commented: “Good thing Cinderella doesn’t have a penchant for wearing red.”) The visuals, the acting, the storytelling, the sheer fairy-tale-ism of it all – it’s a wonderful movie.

Speaking of acting, one pleasant surprise was Sir Derek Jacobi in the role of the Prince’s father (or, I should say, one of the pleasures of the movie; it wasn’t really a surprise, this being a Branagh film). Now, this is a Disney movie, and as such, gives more than a nod to the 1950 animated version (more on that in a minute). But the King, whom the older movie portrays as nothing more than an old-fashioned buffoon obsessed with getting grandchildren, is a changed character here. Oh, Derek Jacobi would be more than capable of bringing a comic role like that to the screen. But the King he plays in this film is a very different character, and in fact (SPOILER ALERT!), the scene of him lying in his great big bed dying, with his grown son curled up against his chest begging him not to go, is one of the most touching parts of the movie.

Dying parents do feature rather prominently in this version of the story. Having Cinderella’s mother die is, of course, a prerequisite to the whole plot. But like in almost all other film versions (and as opposed to the written tales), her father is killed off as well (today’s society can’t deal with the idea that he might still be around but perhaps doesn’t actually care that his second wife abuses his daughter); and then here we have the new twist of a deep, loving relationship between the Prince and the King, only to give the latter a death scene, too. All of those scenes are played very sensitively and deeply emotional, with beautiful acting on everyone’s part. However, because of this I’d be cautious about taking really sensitive young children to see the movie – I know I would have found those aspects of the story quite disturbing when I was little (yes, I hated Bambi, too). (Note: if your kid is okay with watching The Lion King, they can probably handle this. If not, I’d wait for it to come out on DVD so you can fast-forward.)

However, this is “Cinderella”, and we all know how this story goes. The Ball!! The Fairy Godmother!! The Gown!! The Prince!! The Slipper!! Oh, yes, this movie delivers on that – does it ever! It’s every fairy tale fantasy brought to life on the big screen in glorious oversized colour. The slipper alone is a dazzling piece of facetted crystal, and in spite of appearances, as the Fairy Godmother says, “You’ll find it’s really comfortable!”

Said Fairy Godmother is wonderful, as was fully to be expected – she is played by Helena Bonham Carter. The transformation scenes of pumpkin and mice and lizards to coach and horses and footmen are the most hilarious parts of the whole movie. Fairy Godmother isn’t the brightest – the pumpkin in question is inside a greenhouse, and she decides that that’s a perfectly adequate location for casting the spell to change it into a coach. Let’s just say that, contrary to expectations, getting the finished product out the door actually isn’t a problem.

I enjoyed this movie on so many levels, not the least of which is that it makes quite a few references to the various versions of the “Cinderella” story. The main source text, as I mentioned before, is (of course) the 1950 Disney cartoon, which in turn is based on the Perrault version of the written tale. However, there is also a reference to the Grimm’s tale (Cinderella asks her father to bring her back a branch from a tree), to the Czech/German cult classic film Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, to Gail Carson Levine’s book Ella Enchanted… Perhaps I’m reading those references into the film and they are actually unintentional, but as a bona fide fairy tale nerd who just wrote a Master’s Thesis on this very thing I enjoyed spotting them.

I could go on and on about this – I haven’t even mentioned some of the other fabulous characters, such as Cate Blanchett’s deliciously wicked stepmother, or the gorgeous score (it’s by Patrick Doyle. Patrick Doyle, people! Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing! The Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility!). But I think it’s time to stop gushing – I think you get the picture. The motion picture, no less. If you want to immerse yourself in one wonderful fairy tale experience, get thee to a cinema.

Life, the Universe, and Cinderella. Now I want to go watch it again.

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Check It Out: “Patrick’s Song” by Norm Strauss

For today’s Check It Out let’s mix things up a bit: instead of a book, I want to introduce a song to you. Reader, meet Song, Song, Reader. Oh, that didn’t do it? Well, how about this: Check It Out: “Patrick’s Song”, by Norm Strauss, from his new album The Color of Everything. It being St Patrick’s Day and all – the song tells his story. If you want to know what actually happened sixteen hundred years ago to make St Patrick who he was, give it a listen (and no, shamrocks, shillelaghs and leprechauns don’t come into it).

Go to the link, and click on the play button underneath the album cover; you get to listen to quite a sizable chunk of the song there. I highly recommend you spend the buck and download the full song [Addendum! See PS below!] – or better yet, spend the tenner and get the whole album. “Patrick’s Song” is only one of my favourites in the collection; for the others, it’s a toss-up between “Late Bloomer”, “Immigrant” (a song about a German immigrant coming to Canada in 1952 – a topic that is, as you can probably imagine, close to my heart), “The Roofer”, and the title song “The Color of Everything”. Norm’s songs always have a story behind them – if you click on “info” beside the blue download button, you can read the lyrics and find out the background of the songs.

Incidentally, yes, Norm is related to Lee Strauss, whose books I’ve advertised here before – they’ve been married for close on thirty years. So much awesome art in one family.

Life, the Universe, and “Patrick’s Song”. Happy St Pat’s!

PS: Oy!! Just after I first posted this I saw a post from Norm – the song is free today!! Go here and get your free download so you can enjoy the whole thing. How great is that?

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