Bizarre, Fascinating Story of a Writer

After seeing Keira Knightly in The Nutcracker and The Four Realms https://wp.me/p4c1s1-tx I wasn’t excited about seeing her in Colette. But she does much better in her role in this adult film than she does in the former one for children.

Colette is the story of true-to-life author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and her writer husband Willy (Dominic West). The pair had a strange relationship. Willy moved in well-known social circles in Paris while Gabrielle (as she was known) was a ‘country bumpkin’. Willy wasted money on gambling, women and entertaining and was constantly scrabbling to put out a best-seller to cover his debts. To do this he gathered a team of people who wrote for him. Gabrielle was drawn into this stratagem and this was how her writing was ‘discovered’.

Colette – as she became known – wrote about her own youthful experiences – with some poetic licence – and Claudine the character was born. In the mid-1800s the ‘novel’ started to become popular but was considered something only women would read. Willy was at first disparaging of his wife’s writing but in desperation he submitted the manuscript to his publisher under his name and the book was a hit. Colette continued to write book after successful book in the Claudine series.

As Willy took the accolades Colette stood back and watched. Sounds like Big Eyes you say, the story of painter Margaret Keane who painted well-received pictures while her husband took the credit. But, no, Colette is different. Colette herself was complicit in the arrangement and didn’t try to wrest control from Willy – at least not for many years. The two worked together to make Claudine successful, which also involved them bizarrely ‘living out’ Claudine in order to make the writing authentic. Amongst other things, to do this, Willy took up with a mistress, and Colette experimented with lesbian sex.

As Claudine the story matured and discovered its identity, so too did Colette the person. While Willy remained the immature, self-centred individual that he always was, Colette outgrew him.

Colette is a fascinating – if weird – story of a writer who became enormously successful in her own right. The film opens in South African cinemas on 7 December 2018.

 

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Magic Story Spoilt

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a Disney film based in part on E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A family dance scene as well as flashes of a ballerina dancing – particularly as the credits are rolling – indicate the famous Nutcracker ballet.

This version centres around one family – the Stahlbaums – and in particular younger daughter, Clara (Mackenzie Foy). Clara, like the rest of her family, is grieving the recent loss of her mother and Mr Stahlbaum’s (Matthew Macfadyen) wife. The action opens one Christmas eve when each of the children receives a gift from their late mother. Clara’s gift is an elaborately carved silver egg with a message that tells Clara ‘everything you need is inside’.

What ensues is a fantastical adventure in which the young Clara ‘finds’ herself, becomes the heroine, comes to terms with her mother’s death, and contributes to Disney’s eternal message that goodness is always found within oneself.

The make-believe world Clara enters is lovely and the sets and costumes are grand and gorgeous. Toys come alive, war with one another, and Clara leads them in a battle between good and evil that takes place in the fourth realm. She uses her natural science brain to solve mechanical problems, an aspect that makes her an interesting and feisty heroine.

But when Foy is not leading soldiers in battle she minces around with her arms out to the side like a ballerina, delivering lines like a wooden puppet. Keira Knightly, who has an interesting role as Sugar Plum, is irritating. She is awkward throughout and fails to give her character any kind of depth. These aspects and a few holes in the script detract greatly from the depth and pace of what is otherwise a wonderfully imaginative children’s story.

Despite these problems The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is still worth seeing. It opened at cinemas in South Africa on 2 November 2018.

Stepping into Others’ Worlds

On a recent trip to Pretoria I stepped into several different worlds: Pretoria itself, beautiful with the Jacarandas in full bloom; a local primary school where I read an excerpt of my as-yet-unpublished children’s book to an English class; and a bird-ringing society where I observed the scientific process of ringing birds and capturing their data.

The day after my English ‘lesson’, I accompanied my son-in-law – a conservation biologist – and daughter to a bird-ringing session at the nearby botanical gardens. At 3.50am we were greeted by a crowd of friendly Afrikaans bird lovers. I could barely speak at that early hour, let alone return the hugs of strangers. I watched the group map out the areas, methodically set up the giant nets, and then set up camp together in one spot. I followed birders out to retrieve birds caught in the soft, hair-net-like-capture sites. The retrieval process was done with care, speed and logic. Each bird was then popped into a soft hanging bag and ferried to the people at the tables. Little twitching sacks hung loosely over chair ends while the men and women carefully extracted the birds, holding their heads firmly between the index and middle fingers. Heads, beaks, wings and legs were measured. The birds were sexed (if possible), a brood patch checked for (by blowing softly on the bird’s underbelly), and ringed. Everything was recorded on a form, including the time it took to ring each bird. The last measurement before the bird was released was the weighing. For this procedure the bird was placed head first into a small tube then put on a scale, its feet sticking up in an undignified fashion.

Cuckoos, blue waxbills, weavers, sparrows, thrushes, white eyes, mousebirds, a nightjar, a fruit bat, and many, many more were faithfully recorded. This data would then be sent to SAFRING, http://safring.adu.org.za/.

I marvelled at the dexterity and confidence of these citizen scientists. Many – my son-in-law included – were big men with big hands who handled the birds with such gentleness. I marvelled too to see the birds close up – the perfection of curved wings, little soft patches next to the beaks of young birds, different coloured eyes. I learnt how to begin identifying birds. I learnt that barbets have two forward-facing claws and two backward-facing claws on each foot. These, and a set of stiff tail feathers, help them balance on the trunks of trees they hollow out for their nests. I marvelled at the commitment and passion of the ringers. One man had been active in the society for 20 years and had ringed over 11,000 birds.

What a pleasure it was to step into this different world and see up close what I would have missed from afar, even with the best binoculars.

 

Who Was…?

Who Was William Shakespeare? This was the book – of all those on the display table – that attracted me most. I headed through the groups of businesswomen and picked it up. Who Was William Shakespeare? by Celeste Davidson Mannis, I read on the back cover, was part of a series called ‘WhoHQ’, and published by Penguin. Just next to the WhoHQ books on the table was a number of ‘Classic Football Heroes’ books. Out of these ones I recognised the name ‘Rooney’ and picked it up. I was so interested to see history-cum-biographical books aimed at primary school/early teen children that I bought them both (the former for R95, the latter for R135) and took them home to read.

Who Was William Shakespeare?, I learnt, is a clearly well-researched book about this famous playwright. It discusses in chronological order Shakespeare’s early life, family, and career. At the back of the book are two timelines: one for Shakespeare’s life, the other for historical events that took place during his lifetime. The book essentially uses these two timelines and posits theories as to how historical events may have influenced why, when and how Shakespeare wrote his plays. Not much is known of Shakespeare’s personal life and this method of using history to explain why/how he may have written The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III and MacBeth, for instance, makes a lot of sense. The story is fascinating and because of its simple style, eminently accessible. I highly recommend it as a teaching tool and a way of instilling in children a love of (Shakespearean) literature in years to come.

Rooney, I was told by Janine O’Connor of Books & Books, was part of a series aimed at young teen boys. Many youngsters have football heroes and love playing football themselves. But they may not like reading, she explained. Rooney (and others in the series) was a way of giving these youngsters something they would like to read. Rooney is a great story about the rise of famous footballer Wayne Rooney who played for Everton, England and then Manchester United. Sentences are short and the story positive and exciting. At the end of the book is a list of ‘Great Moments’. After being drawn in by the fast-paced storytelling I looked up these Great Moments on YouTube and enjoyed watching some of what I had just read. Like Who Was Shakespeare? I can recommend this issue of the Classic Football Heroes to reluctant readers. I feel sure they will be drawn in by a topic that fascinates and a style that thoroughly engages.

Contact Janine O’Connor, Books & Books, admin@booksandbooks.co.za to purchase copies.

 

Making the Christian Faith Tangible for Young Readers

The Little House in Heaven is a lovely story about a young girl named Melissa Green who enters another world where she learns about Jesus. What she learns of Jesus there Melissa applies to her ordinary life in an English village. The full story sees Melissa attend church for the first time in her life, learn about the love and forgiveness of Jesus, grow in her faith in Him, deal with temptation, see the answer to her prayers, make friends with unlikely people, and understand the importance of obedience and listening to her conscience.

Author, Kathleen Watson, uses the motif of a picture of a house built on a rock as Melissa’s entry point into the other world. This motif is carried throughout the story and is used as a tool to teach a number of Christian principles. One of those principles is the wonderful news that believers in Jesus will each have their own mansions in heaven, an image which both opens and closes the book.

Other important Christian principles are spelt out using Bible verses, many of them explained to the protagonist by the character of Jesus himself.

Watson intersects Melissa’s imaginative world with the character’s real one in an effort to make Jesus and the Christian faith tangible for the reader. The Little House in Heaven is thus a sort of modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress.

The writing is simple enough for middle grade children to understand and the passage of time is well handled. Characters, from Miss Amy Light upstairs, to Rufus next door, to Melissa’s mother and grandparents are gently drawn and have just enough depth to be interesting.

Whilst adults will not likely struggle to understand the difference between Christian teaching and Watson’s vehicle for telling it, it could be confusing for children. As a caveat, therefore, to Watson’s story: adults would need to explain the important difference between a mere imaginative world and the real yet intangible one of the Christian faith.

The Little House in Heaven is available for purchase on eBay or from the author, blue4flower@yahoo.co.uk.

 

The Magic World of Fiction

Tired of your daily diet of news? Want to escape into the world of fantasy? Hamilton Wende’s Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu are just the right books for you to do that. Wende has created a unique South African tale about a little girl called Arabella who lives both in the real world and in the magic one.

In Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut Arabella’s happy home life in Johannesburg is tragically altered by the death of her father to cancer. At around the same time Arabella meets some unusual characters who teach her how to enter the world of magic. Wonder of wonders Arabella turns into a butterfly, learns to fly and befriends a bunch of insects in her garden. But even in the magic world there are difficulties and Arabella, together with her insect friends, is called upon to use her newfound powers to defeat a dark enemy intent on taking over the world.

Wende cleverly intersects Arabella’s real world with her magic one, making both worlds credible. In the two realities Arabella is required to learn, grow, be brave, make good choices and deal with adversity. Her adventures in magic are a delightful vehicle for young readers to grapple with their own struggles. The story is full of tongue-in-cheek humour, too. The fearful foe is a hadeda called Ozymandias (after the character in a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem), and one of Arabella’s insect friends is none other than – the normally vilified – Parktown Prawn!

In the second book, Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu Arabella’s adventures take her to Knysna where she meets some clacking oysters, slow-swimming seahorses and noble elephants. Wende’s use of animals big and small in his tales has the effect of placing his protagonist in the larger web of life.

In this story, as in book one, Arabella lives in two worlds. Her problems at school and with friends grow steadily worse. At the same time she is desperately needed in the magic realm to defeat a terrible monster called Krakobek. Apart from this crocodile-cum-hyena-cum-scorpion beast, most of the characters in book two exhibit both good and bad traits. In other words, they are relatable to readers.

What is special about the Arabella stories is that they are ‘very consciously South African and non-racial’. Wende uses names and characters that reflect a range of South African characters, and give a deep humanity to all.

‘I had a deep desire to reflect the good things in South Africa,’ said Wende when I interviewed him. I think he has done just that in these two Arabella stories. I’m delighted, as will be fans of the well-received books, that Wende is busy on book three. ‘I owe it to myself to make it a trilogy,’ he said.

Hooray! I look forward to Arabella three, Hamilton Wende! The Arabella books are suitable for tweens, retail at R170 each and can be purchased at all good book stores or online at www.clockworkbooks.co.za.

 

 

Doggie History

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a lovely animated movie aimed at middle grade children. It’s a historical story about a dog named Stubby who participated in battles on French soil during World War I. In between action scenes are short narrations by a woman named Margaret Conroy (Helena Bonham Carter) who writes to her brother, Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman), while he fights in the war. In these excerpts the narrator sums up some of the history surrounding the war story. The film ends with photographs of the real Stubby and some statistics about the heroics of this brave and intelligent dog. This combination of animal story, history and narration makes for a touching, educational experience, one I think children and their families will find very worthwhile.

Stubby is a stray Staffordshire Bull Terrier who befriends Conroy while he is training to be a soldier in the USA. Despite army regulations disallowing dogs, the friendly, nimble pooch proves himself worthy and is adopted as the base’s mascot. When the troops leave for Europe Stubby sneaks on board the ship and so makes his way to France alongside the soldiers. There he participates in battles, dodging bullets, bombs and gas, sniffing out survivors and foes, and sending warnings to Conroy and his comrades. Stubby is so brave and helpful that he is ‘promoted’ to Sergeant.

Although a little heavy-handed with American propaganda, Sgt. Stubby is an informative, delightful, heartwarming film. I had to dry my tears before I left the theatre.

Sgt. Stubby opens at cinemas in South Africa on 14 September 2018.

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