Friday Favorites 4

This Milk-Bone marketing fail:

IMG_1591I discovered this beaut in Target today.

For the Fido who is watching his waistline.  Bring him home the low-cal treat he really craves.

And if the caloric statement isn’t enough to make you pause and raise your eyebrows into your hairline (it was for me), the grammatical error surely is.  Because unless that happy Beagle’s name is Mini and she is the owner or creator of the portion controlled Milk-Bones, there should be no possessive involved.

This meme:

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I cannot explain why Nigel Thornberry’s head placed on any body never ceases to be hilarious.  It is simply so.

This daily dose of literary magic:

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Every single day of the year, The Writer’s Almanac website posts a poem and a series of “this day in history” stories (mostly related to writers).  I’ve been an email subscriber for a few years now, and so my daily literary comfort arrives in my inbox at precisely 12:45 a.m.  If you choose, you can listen to the recording (on the W.A. website or via iTunes podcast) instead of reading the page yourself.

Garrison Keillor, lord of radio, narrates.

This book:

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I’ve read a great deal of literature concerning Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  I’ve been fascinated with them since a young age, and have consciously tried to learn everything I can about their story.  That being said, it took me longer than it should have to get around to reading Massie’s take, especially since his biography is one of the most frequently cited.

I’ve included Nicholas and Alexandra in my favorites because it is such an exhaustive account of N&A’s childhoods, their reign, the Russian Revolution, their abdication, and their deaths.  Massie has a talent for writing about immensely complex events and people using plain, approachable style.  I like that in a biographer.

There were some things I didn’t like so much, however.  Firstly, Massie’s determination to dramatically point out every bit of irony, coincidence, and “if only.”  Secondly, the lack of attention given to the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria.  I realize that since they weren’t able to inherit the throne, they were considered less important than their brother, but that’s exactly what has always made the grand duchesses fascinating to me: four beautiful, intelligent, über sheltered young women, murdered for no reason other than that they were the daughters of the former emperor and empress of Russia.  It’s the worst part of the tragedy.

This movie:

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I had not read the book.  I was unprepared for Anna Karenina’s sudden and violent end.  I shrieked aloud and immediately felt that the English major gods were ashamed of me for not having known what was coming.

Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) is one of my favorite directors, but I was happy to see him take greater risks with this film than I’ve seen him take before.  At the end of the film you will feel (A.O. Scott (NY Times review) says it best):

“Dazzled, touched and a bit tired. But, really, you should feel as if you had been hit by a train.”

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Out East Road Trip Day 3: Charlottesville, VA to Washington D.C.

Yesterday was the day we attempted to tackle both Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Our house tour reservation for Monticello was at 9:00 a.m., and our house tour (or “Mansion Tour” as the brochure so elegantly dubbed it) for Mount Vernon was at 3:30 p.m.  The estates are about 2 hours apart by car.  And we needed a lunch/gas stop in between.

We felt a little rushed, a little like we should be humming the Mission Impossible theme as we sped through the Virginia countryside, but for those of you who also want to see both estates in one day, let me tell you that it is entirely doable.  That’s with a Jimmy John’s lunch, Exxon stop, and end-of-weekend traffic included.

Before I get to the Tom Cruise-esque madness, however, I need to talk a little more about Charlottesville.  Or Cville, as the cool cats say.

There were a few pilgrimages to make in Cville.  First, to Thomas Jefferson’s adored University of Virginia.  What a lovely university.  Before driving through the UVA campus, I had been able to keep my post-grad pangs at bay for the most part, but as soon as I saw the clusters of brick buildings, the shaded sidewalks, the Dinkytown, it suddenly felt so wrong not to be buying textbooks and color coding notebooks and folders (not that I’ve ever done that).  While I swallowed the lump in my throat, Mom attempted to locate the famed UVA Rotunda.  We knew basically what it looked like.  Brick.  Pillars. Dome. But even when we spotted this:

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we weren’t convinced that it was the Rotunda.  So we drove around some more, rapidly punching buttons on Bea The Misguided GPS, until we ended up back where we started.  At the Rotunda.

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And Jefferson was all

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I bought a $20.00 mug at the Monticello museum shop to make it up to him.

The next pilgrimage is slightly more creeper-ish.  Kath’s blog is one of my favorites.  I actually squealed loudly in the UMM library upon seeing the announcement of her son’s birth last September, which drew a few glares from those in deeper study mode than I.  I never imagined that I would actually make it to Charlottesville, but since I did, I thought I should swing by the Great Harvest owned by Kath and her husband, Matt.  Alas, they are closed on Sundays.  I settled for a photo of the infamous building (the creeper part).  Wish I could have met you, Kath!  And eaten some bread!

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Here are my thoughts on Monticello:

1. Our house tour time was 9:00 a.m., which was the first tour of the day, and so the grounds were nearly empty.  This meant that we didn’t have to wait in line to peer into various rooms and to read the signs attached to various sites.  As someone who likes to take the time to read everything while touring, I rather liked being there early, and would recommend it for future visitors.

2.  Monticello didn’t feel like a tourist destination. It didn’t feel like a sight that had been paved over with excess pathways or altered for the sake of the public.  It felt like Jefferson’s house, and it was easy to picture the man himself walking around and living at Monticello.  This I appreciated above all else.  Tour guides and signs were candid about what had been restored and/or supplemented, but when they had needed to, say, repaint a room, they were careful to match the color exactly to the original.  Hooray for history buffs who take the time to read through journals and records just to find evidence of a specific paint color.  You make the world a better place.

3. The house tour was phenomenal.  If I ever return, I’d like to do the nooks and crannies tour, which covers the upstairs of the house, but I was plenty content with the standard tour.  The standard tour covered the exterior, entrance hall, sitting room, library, Jefferson’s bedroom/study suite, dining/tea room, formal parlor, Madison Room, and terrace.  Our guide explained what was special about each room and included interesting tidbits that humanized Jefferson as much as praised his character.  I gained a good deal of new perspective about Jefferson that only came from visiting his property.

4. Next we tried the garden tour.  I say tried because we are bona fide tour ditchers.  We are the tourists other tourists look down on.  But we also didn’t care to listen to the guide explain each tree and flower on the property.  I say that respectfully, because the guide was doing a wonderful, thorough job of it.  We just weren’t interested.  So we hung back and then made our getaway and were perfectly content to wander the gardens on our own.  Everything is nicely labeled at Monticello; I never spent any time guessing what the significance of something was, even sans guide.

Here are some Monticello photos:

Monticello means "little mountain."  Naturally, then, views were involved.  This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

Monticello means “little mountain.” Naturally, then, views were involved. This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

The house.

The house (back view).

The house (front view).  I really try to take straight pictures.  I really do try.

The house (front view). I really try to take straight pictures. I really do try.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace.  Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace. Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.  (Sorry about the out-of-focus.  I try to get that right as well.)

The kitchen.  All set up and reading for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.

The kitchen. All set up and waiting for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.  A sign on the wall that I found funny mentioned that Jefferson “never visited the kitchen except to wind up the clock.”

Jefferson's grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Jefferson’s grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Thoughts on Mount Vernon:

1. We did successfully make our tour time, but unfortunately, it fell during the hottest part of the day.  The time of day when I am prone to both grumpiness and sleepiness.  It was also a time of day when the estate was crowded and the lines are long.  Hot+grumpy+sleepy+crowds don’t a happy camper make.  So there were parts of Mount Vernon which I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I might have had conditions been ideal.  It’s not Mount Vernon’s fault.  Visit early, friends.  Don’t let George see you cry.

2.  Mount Vernon felt a lot like Versailles to me (the only comparison I can think of.  I apologize for whipping out my “this one time, when I was in Europe” line) in that the estate was huge, mostly self-guided, and more often than I would like, I wasn’t sure of the significance of what I was looking at, or whether it was original.  Because of my garden tour ditch, you know that I don’t always jive with guided tours.  But I do like information-laden signs.  And there weren’t enough such signs, in my opinion.

3. The best part about Mount Vernon was the fact that there were various buildings to explore.  Most of them were located in a semi-circle on either side of the “mansion.”  So, for a selection, we peeked into the overseer’s house (and read a brief description), the salt house, the stables, and the kitchen.  Washington’s estate was self-contained, and it was interesting to see its various operations.

4. Most of the Mount Vernon guides were as grumpy as I was!  Perhaps they were merely responding to my chi, but my goodness, people were being barked at left and right instead of being helpfully directed.  I didn’t feel as welcomed as I had at Monticello, which lessened the experience for me.

5. The mansion tour was not the typical small-groups-led-through-by-one-guide tour.  Instead, a continuous line wound through the entire house.  In each room was a stationary guide who repeated a memorized spiel over and over again.  They answered questions, too, but as we were kept moving, there wasn’t much time to ask.  Some of the guides were animated and entertaining, but some recited their pieces in a monotone which again, dampened the quality of the tour.  I didn’t feel Washington come alive at Mount Vernon.  I had trouble convincing myself that we were really in his home, on his lands.  I wish I didn’t have to speak so negatively about an important historical site, but I want to be honest.

6.  Lest you think I hated the experience, here are a few big positives: first, the original blacksmith’s forge is still being used.  The blacksmith was pounding away as visitors watched, and often paused to hand onlookers examples of his work to examine, and to explain the various steps involved in making axe heads or hooks or hoes.  Further (and this is the really cool part), the blacksmith–who again, does his work where it would have been done in Washington’s time–makes all of the pieces necessary for restoration projects on the estate.  The second positive is an honoring ceremony that takes place at Washington’s gravesite twice a day.  The guide pulled two veterans from the crowd to place a wreath on the grave, asked two girl scouts to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and asked another audience member to read from a passage about Washington.  I thought it was wonderful that visitors to Mount Vernon are allowed to participate in the honoring of Washington and his contributions. Third, there are animals at Mount Vernon.  Sheep and pigs and cows and horses.  And they smell and lay in the shade and chow down and otherwise behave as naturally as could be.  They lent some authentic ambiance to the place without even trying.

Mount Vernon photos:

The "mansion."  Okay, it really is a mansion.  I'll stop with the quotes.  But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion?  I'll never know.

The “mansion.” Okay, it really is a mansion. I’ll stop with the quotes. But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion? I’ll never know.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings.  But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone.  This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings. But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone. This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

The Potomac!  I won't say how much I squealed when I saw it.  It's rawthur a famous river, you know.  I'm partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon's backyard was quite grand.

The Potomac! I won’t say how much I squealed when I saw it. It’s rawthur a famous river, you know. I’m partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon’s backyard was quite grand.

The stables still smelled like horses!  Amazing!

The stables still smelled like horses!

No offense TJ, but GW's gardens were better than yours.

No offense TJ, but GW’s gardens were better than yours.

The overseer's house.

The overseer’s house.

The blacksmith's shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

The blacksmith’s shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

My sheep friends.  Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

My sheep friends. Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

Pride and Prejudice and Celebrity Creeping

Tuesday evening found me sitting in a red plush chair, in the very, very back row of the Guthrie Theatre’s Wurtele Thrust Stage.  My sister was next to me, and under our breath we were singing the theme song from Gilmore Girls.

Why?  Because the production was Pride and Prejudice, and playing Mr. Darcy was Vincent Kartheiser.  Kartheiser, or Pete Campbell as you may know him from AMC’s Mad Men, is engaged to Alexis Bledel.  Alexis Bledel played Rory on Gilmore Girls.  So you see that although we were only at a preview show, although it was a Tuesday night, and although we were much too high up to do much effective celebrity sighting anyway, Amy and I thought that it might somehow summon Ms. Bledel should we sing her song.

Photo source unknown.

Photo source unknown.

What I’m about to launch into is a play review.  But before I begin with the pros and cons, and before I tell you whether or not I was in the presence of Ms. Bledel on Tuesday evening (or she was in mine), I have a few disclaimers: 1) The performance of Pride and Prejudice I attended was a preview performance, which means that between the show I saw and the “official” show, some things will likely change.  Elements that I thought could have used improvement may indeed improve by opening night, and perhaps elements I adored will have gone missing.  Please don’t accuse me of sleeping through it if the show you see is different from the one I did.  2) I was sitting in the very back row of the theatre, and off to the right.  While I could see and hear what was happening well enough, there were some facial expressions and some quieter lines that I may have missed simply because I was so far away from the stage.  As I firmly believe that acting should be delivered to an entire theatre–peanut gallery and all–I will certainly let my physical perspective influence my commentary.  3) Preview night is a whole lot cheaper than “official” showings, and you don’t feel at all deprived.  I highly encourage you to take advantage of one some time.

If you asked me to say what I thought of the show in the most general terms, I would say this: Pride and Prejudice is not meant for the stage.  If you’ve read the novel, or even seen one of the many movie and TV adaptations, you know that the plot of the novel is extremely complicated, and peppered throughout with surprise meetings, with an abundance of characters who it is imperative we get to know, and with intimate moments which sometimes take place in the largest and loudest of settings.  I don’t blame the playwright one bit for attempting to make it work: Pride and Prejudice is beloved.  It is endearing.  It is a thought-provoking study of human nature.  But on stage, it felt like it wasn’t being given its due, purely for the complications I expressed above.

In order to keep the runtime down, the plot had to be smashed together so that at the end of the play, Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane, and then suddenly Lady Catherine arrives to yell at Lizzie, and then, again suddenly, Darcy appears to propose to Lizzie.  I felt sorry for those in the theatre who weren’t familiar with the story, because the whirlwind of twists and turns must have been hard for them to keep straight.  I felt even sorrier for myself because dear Fitzwilliam, one of my favorites, was cut out entirely.  Without him, it wasn’t made clear at all how Lizzie found out that it was Darcy who convinced Bingley that Jane didn’t care for him.

I don’t make these criticisms because I love the novel too much to give adaptations a chance: I acknowledge that any adaptation must be viewed as separate from the novel, and that directorial decisions must be made based on what works best for the format of the adaptation.  But in the end, I think what works best for Pride and Prejudice is the screen, where we can see closeups of the actor’s faces as they react to one another; where directors can use computers to flit from one scene to another, allowing them to stuff much more in without the hindrance of having to manually move a set; where even a conversation in a noisy ballroom can be heard with perfect clarity.

That being said, there were a lot of things I did like about the production: The acting was smooth and polished, the sets were realistic and moved mechanically, the costumes were lovely (although the similar colors of the women’s dresses made it difficult to pick out main characters).  The interpretation was clean, but standard: it stayed true to Austen’s period–all empire waists and bowing–which was appropriate for a 200th anniversary (of the novel’s publication) performance, but a little disappointing in its lack of freshness.

And of course, now we must come to the main event: Vincent Kartheiser as Mr. Darcy.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

As I said, the acting throughout the play was solid, with Suzanne Warmanen as Mrs. Bennet being a standout, especially when comic relief was needed.  Kartheiser was good as Mr. Darcy.  Good, but not great.  The official “celebrity cast member” of the production, a great deal of pressure was put upon him to bring something new and interesting to a role which has been played so many times before, and by so many different men: Colin Firth, Mathew Macfadyen, Laurence Olivier …  An interview Kartheiser gave in the Minneapolis Star Tribune tells us that Kartheiser was more than aware of the pressure, and planned to “bring some mischief to the role” (7/7/13 issue).  Though there were some funny bits near the end–when Lizzie and Darcy finally had their passionate kiss they quickly broke away in embarrassment–much of Darcy’s stage time was spent stiffly.  This would be acceptable if Darcy were, indeed, just another rich snob.  But we know he isn’t.  He is merely so painfully self-conscious that he doesn’t know how to comfortably interact in social situations, doesn’t know how to translate his high morality into personable conversation.  I would have thought Kartheiser’s performance more on par with what is revealed about Darcy’s character at the end of the play if he had let more flashes of truth show through throughout.  Once more, the staged version of the story failed where a screen version might have succeeded: Kartheiser certainly could have more successfully expressed the subtleties of the character had he had the option of a close-up.

In conclusion, despite my long list of criticisms, and despite the lack of childhood hero sightings, Pride and Prejudice at the Guthrie was a show worth seeing if you’re an Austen fan.  Or, heck, a Mad Men fan.

One more thing I must tell you is that Alexis Bledel did not make an appearance at the Guthrie last Tuesday evening.  There were a few false alarms: “Wait!  That girl has medium length brown hair!  It must be her!”  There was actually a lookup of Ms. Bledel’s height on mobile IMDB in order to spot her with elevated ease.  No comment on the level of creepiness there.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Welcome to the Creek

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Reasons why Dawson’s Creek has utterly captured my interest and my heart:

1. Young Michelle Williams (one of my favorite actors in the universe.  Although, let’s be honest, we don’t really want her to end up with Dawson.)

2. Young Katie Holmes (who, let’s be honest, I’ve been a little prejudiced against since the Tom Cruise fiasco, but have now officially warmed up to.)

3. Real talk.  This show has it all: parents having affairs and dealing with the consequences, teachers having affairs with students and dealing with the consequences, teenagers growing up, sex, interracial relationships, Christianity vs. atheism, high school drama, LGBT (so far only mentioned, not exemplified, but I’m only a few episodes in).

4. Wit.  Reminds me in this way of Gilmore Girls: lots of pop culture references and quick banter.

5. Best friends falling for each other.  Yes, this is somewhat less of a revolutionary aspect than the previous four, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.  It’s what keeps me watching.  Will Joey tell Dawson she’s in love with him?  Will he reciprocate?  Can they be more than friends, or will admitting their feelings only make things awkward and tear them apart eventually?

6. The title.  Like I said, I’m somewhat new to the scene, but is the creek (seems more like a river) that shows up frequently in the show actually named Dawson’s Creek?  And is the character Dawson named after the creek, or vice versa?  Or is the title some metaphorical statement about the way Dawson’s life and feelings and relationships are constantly in flux, like a moving body of water?

7. Movie references.  This goes hand in hand with item 4.  I love to hear the characters talk about different films.  What they’re watching, whether they like it, etc.  It makes me want to start a list of the ones they recommend, and then watch them myself.

8. The theme song.  (hey hey hey yeah)

Don’t Watch Downton Late At Night

***NO SPOILERS

Downton Abbey slayed me last night.  Absolutely slayed me.  I couldn’t even sleep afterwards; I had to pull the trick I developed when I was a kid: I read something nice until I’d forgotten about whatever was not so nice.

If you don’t watch Downton, you should probably get on board.  It’s only the third season, so it’s really not too late.

And then we can talk about it together.

Warning Letter

Dear Friends,

I know that Friday night is coming.  I know that it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and that having gorged yourself on cranberries still in their can-like form, turkey smothered in gravy and abutted by mounds of stuffing and potatoes, and a few rolls thatjustbalanced on the edge of your plate, you’ll be lethargic.

I know that you’ll wake up on Friday morning still woozy from that last “sliver” of pie.  And yet, and yet, you will still trek to Target before the sun is up, if only to elbow your hair stylist’s elderly mother out of the way, that you might claim the last Nikon.

I know that Friday night, after sandwiches bulging with leftovers, you will seek entertainment.  Something light, something out of the house (away from the dishes), something the entire family can enjoy.

But friends, I implore you: do not go see Breaking Dawn Part 2.  If you do, you will laugh at first, then you will furrow your eyebrows in dubious mockery, and then you will be overwhelmed by waves of revulsion and worry for the future of popular filmmaking.  You will find yourself snatching your neighbor’s Milkduds to throw at the screen. You will sob the entire way home, because how can any movie that people pay to see be that bad?

Trust me.  I’m still emotionally shattered from my own viewing last night.

Wishing you happy Thanksgiving travels,

Holly