Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In honor, I've thrown together a little list of my favorite things that are P&P or Jane Austen related. Numbered, but in no particular order:

01. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Pride and Prejudice re-imagined by Hank Green and Bernie Su as a mass communication student's video blog series. An enjoyable adaptation of P&P because of the updated setting, the lively characters (Lydia in particular), and drawn-out posting schedule that keeps the viewer guessing and anticipating the next video. The nature of the vlogs limits the point of view, but that allows the viewer to develop a connection with Lizzie and go through her emotional journey right along with her. It also allows for some hilarious costume theater segments.

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02. Austenblog. For me, the definitive Jane Austen website. It's not updated as often as it used to be, but, when your subject is 200+ years old, that's not a huge deal. Besides news about anything JA related, there are a lot of good reviews of Jane Austen offshoots, meaning P&P 'sequels,' contemporary retellings, and twists on the current obsession with Mr. Darcy. The editors have written and contributed to several Jane Austen related books.

03. Lost in Austen, by Emma Campbell Webster. Not to be confused with the 2008 BBC miniseries (although that is an entertaining romp), this is a choose-your-own-adventure-style book based on Jane Austen's works. You read as Elizabeth Bennet, and your mission is to marry for love and for comfort (ahem, money). As you choose your path, you run into different characters, both heroes and villains, from the rest of Austen's works. You have points for Accomplishments, Intelligence, Confidence, Connections, and Fortune, all of which increase or decrease according to your choices and also affect your marriageable status. While it's maybe not for Austen purists, it's great fun for someone who grew up with CYOA books and has the opportunity to sit and relax on a rainy (or snowy) afternoon.

04. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. As you can tell from the title, this is Pride and Prejudice . . . with zombies. This started the whole classic book/monster mashup genre that still seems to be going fairly strong. There are large chunks of P&P kept intact, which is sometimes jarring, but if you can suspend your disbelief and accept the concept, it can be a lot of fun. This also served as the introduction to P&P for a few guys I've known who admitted that they probably wouldn't have been able to get through the original. The last I had heard, this was being made into a movie, and Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth Bennet, zombie slayer. Related books include: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; Mansfield Park and Mummies; Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons; Emma and the Vampires. (I have to stop. There are too many.)

05. Marvel Illustrated's Jane Austen comic books. As far as I know, they have released five-issue collections of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. I'm a fan of short, literature-inspired comic series, and these are fantastic. The art in P&P and NA is especially great, and the P&P covers are designed to look like teenage magazines, which is a fun touch.

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06. Bride and Prejudice. Bollywood does everything right. This 2005 movie by Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham,  is an adaptation of P&P filled with great music, fantastic dance numbers, and lavish costumes. Standout numbers are "Punjabi Wedding Song" and "No Life Without Wife." Aishwarya Rai Bachan stars in her first English speaking role as Lalita Bakshi (Lizzie Bennet), while Naveen Andrews of Lost fame plays a supporting role as Balraj (Bingley). While the story remains timeless, the cultural translation works well, partly because cultural misunderstandings contribute to the obstacles in Lalita and Darcy's relationship and partly because of the charisma of the film itself.

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07. And last but not least, a Jane Austen action figure, because, really, there is nothing cooler than having a mini writer on your desk, especially one who comes with her own writing desk and quill pen. There is no greater writing motivation than being stared at by one of your favorite authors, is there?

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy 151st Birthday, Edith Wharton!

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." - Edith Wharton, born January 24, 1862

My first encounter with Edith Wharton was during my junior year of high school. For an assignment in American Literature, we were tasked to choose a book and write chapter summaries. I don’t remember why I picked The House of Mirth, but it was probably because it fit the criteria and it was in my parents’ library. However, it was the best book I could have plucked off that shelf. I was seduced by the atmosphere of Gilded Age America and entranced by Lily Bart, a spoiled but naïve heroine who tries to navigate New York society on her own. It remains one of my favorite books and the one I recommend the most when asked to recommend Edith Wharton.

I believe in soul mates, sort of, for authors and readers, the kind of reading relationship that even lifelong readers find only once in a blue moon. You read a handful of pages and have to stop because it’s like this writer was inside your head while penning this book. Your ideas of and outlook on life sync up so well that it becomes impossible to remember a time before you’d discovered this writer. And it’s reciprocal, because, after gleaning all the wisdom and empathy possible, you go out and recommend this book and this writer to all your friends. You can’t stop talking about it. It sneaks into every conversation.

The House of Mirth was such an experience for me. I devoured a number of her other novels, though I still have a long way to go, as she was quite prolific. Among my favorites are: Ethan Frome, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Children, and The Buccaneers.

But she didn’t write only novels. An accomplished gardener and amateur architect, she wrote books such as The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and their Gardens. Also, this is her estate, The Mount, located in Lenox, Massachusetts, which she designed herself:

I’ll leave you with a few interesting tidbits.
- She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence and was the first female recipient.
- She wrote ghost stories.
- She moved to France later in life (and wrote about it). The street on which she lived is now called rue Edith Wharton.
- She was given an honorary doctorate from Yale, and the Yale library has a collection of her letters and manuscripts.
- She was good friends with Henry James.
- The Mount is thought to be haunted. Ghost Hunters filmed an episode on it.
- She was rewarded the Chevalier Legion of Honour for her relief and refugee work in France during World War I.

Because I am a literary enthusiast and a major dork, I celebrate her birthday every year, usually by making cupcakes. This year's weren't a culinary masterpiece, but being happy in small ways is a healthy thing. :)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Music - Ulytau

American pop music is very popular in Kazakhstan. Everyone, especially teenagers, knows Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé. Even Shakira, which was a blast at the discotheques, though she's not technically American. However, one of my favorite things was learning more about local music. These endeavors included, yes, a failed attempt to learn the dombra, a two-stringed lute-like instrument (which I would love to take up again, but they're extremely hard to find here in the States). During a cultural training session, our teachers introduced us to this band: Ulytau.

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The word in Kazakh means "great mountain," which I freely admit that I found out from their official website, because I was a Russian speaker. There is also a literal Ulytau, which is an area in the central part of the country. Though a handful of volunteers were near there, I never had the opportunity to visit. Ulytau the band plays folk-metal, combining electric guitars with the national instrument of Kazakhstan, the dombra. This is a dombra:

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They play traditional folk music as well as the music of classical composers such as Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart, but they do it all with a heavy-metal twist. Their album Two Warriors is available for MP3 download on Amazon.

Standout Track: "Ata Tolgauy." (This may surprise you, but English/Kazakh dictionaries are hard to find online. I believe "ata" means "father." I cannot find a translation for "tolgauy.") This is a tune I heard often at festivals and concerts, often played by larger, traditional ensembles. Like the rest of the tracks on Two Warriors, "Ata Tolgauy" is a fun take on a traditional song with a main hook that will keep you humming all day long.

All in all, this music is a lot of fun if you're looking for familiar music arranged in a new way. Because of the fusion of Western and Eastern music, you'll also enjoy it if you're looking for something you might not have otherwise come across on your own.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day . . . I worked mandatory overtime. Not the most celebratory of activities, and I wish I had something more exciting to share. Instead, I will end with a quote. In the spirit of the recent National Day of Service:

“Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Back in the Blogosphere

What a long time it's been! I'm jumping back into blogging as I begin graduate school for an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Just to start slowly, my first few posts are going to feature some of my favorite photos I've taken over the past few years. Since the previous incarnation of this blog was about my PC life in Kaz, I'm going to start with those.

Panfilov Park, Almaty. This sculpture honors Panfilov's heroes, 28 men who served in the defense of Moscow in 1941. It is quite impressive in person.

 A view of the mountains from Medeo, Almaty. I believe the mountains are part of the northern range of the Tian Shan.

 The view of Almaty from Kok Tobe. And Lake Borovoe: