Outlander: When Sam Heughan says “Mistress Beauchamp”

Screenshot 2014-08-26 16.20.52When Diana Gabaladon‘s “Outlander” first came out in print twenty-three years ago (damn, how time flies), I remember it took me just two days to devour the entire 600 page novel.  Outlander is the story of a Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English WWII nurse who finds magic in a Stonehenge-like Sarsen stone and is propelled back in time to the years before the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  There she falls in love and marries a Highland warrior, James (“Jamie”) Alexander Mackenzie Fraser.  Claire is the Outlander – or “Sassenach” in Gaelic: out of her time, her culture, and generally out-of-place.

When Gabaldon announced that Claire and Jamie would come alive on my 50-inch “small” screen, I was not sure I’d like the results, although I knew I’d watch anyway.  After three episodes, I am truly pleased with the adaptation, probably for the attention to detail in the filming and because they’ve stayed true to the original storyline.  Kudos to Starz Originals for buying the series.

Unlike other films supposedly set Scotland but filmed, say, in Ireland or Vancouver, the Outlander series is actually filmed in Scotland in Doune Castle in Perthshire (been there), Falkland and Culross in Fife (there too), Loch Rannoch in the Highlands, and less majestically, a warehouse off the M80 near Cumbernauld. I hear tell this production was the biggest film/TV investment in the country ever. Scotland is an astoundingly beautiful country and not before time that its beauty is captured on a wildly popular international series (the novels have sold at least 25 million copies.)  That’s a lot of eyeballs for the Scottish Tourist Board to convert to visitors.  Just saying.

There are so many fine Scots actors in the show including one of my favorites, Gary Lewis (“My Name is Joe,” “Merlin” (Alator), and “Billy Elliott”).  Love me Annette Badland (“Doctor Who” fame) as Mrs. Fitz.  Tobias Menzies (“Rome” and “Game of Thrones”) hits the right notes as Frank Randall — and so far does a creditable job as Black Jack. The Scots actors learned Gaelic, which is beautiful to hear and adds an authenticity to the Highlands in 1743.   And, they did a good job of casting.

But let’s to it – Claire & Jamie – do they cut it? Irish-born Catriona Balfe does a good job as Claire.  To be clear, that’s not damning her with faint praise.  Claire is a bit prudish, standoffish, independent and uncomfortable in the first few episodes, for all the right and obvious reasons related to finding herself in this very foreign land.  She is a well-brought up (if unconventionally so) Englishwoman in much less refined surroundings.  I’ll be interested to see how Catriona loosens Claire up as things between her and Jamie heat up. I’ve promised my sister Fiona that should happen next week or the week after.  Then, I predict a lot of heat up there in the Highlands.

About that heat – Sam Heughan – first, I’m so pleased the part went to a Scottish actor.  He has Jamie’s quiet heroism, disregard for his own safety, and matter-of-fact ways down perfectly. Not for nothing have kilt jokes been making the rounds of Facebook lately.   Aye, Sam is what my Scots cousins and friends would call a “verry braw laddie.”  It is NOT just the way he says “Missstrrrreessss Beauchamp,”  or carries himself in his kilt.  Sam has great screen chemistry.  I dunno if he has it with Catriona-as-Claire, but he has it with me, my sister Fiona and countless others watching.

We’re into episode 4 next week.  Claire is getting ready to escape…now things will get really exciting!   If you have read the novels, you will find the series is pretty faithful.  Diana Gabaldon has kept the series true to her vision, story lines and characters.  If you have not read the books, I’d say buy it, read ahead and enjoy all things Scotland.


My 2012 field trip to Scotland 

WWII Story, Love Story, Immigration Story: Read the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a love story with emotional highs and lows so well drawn that I confess I cried at least three places in the book.  See if you can spot where.

Before I sat down to write this review I checked to see when the movie was coming out, convinced some savvy Hollywood production company has bought the rights to this book, which would make a stunning movie to stir the American collective conscience.  According to author Jamie Ford’s website, the book has been optioned—someone is thinking!

But to the book itself—Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an historical fiction novel set in Seattle during the 1980s and during the in mid-1940s in WWII.  In the 1980s, we meet Henry Lee, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife Ethel, and the emotional distance between him and his son, Marty.   1980s Henry opens the story at the Panama Hotel, in the old Japanese section of Seattle, where a developer has found a room stacked high with the personal effects of Japanese (immigrants and Americans) who were evacuated to internment camps during WWII.  He recognizes some of them as belonging to his childhood friend.

Flashing back to the 1940s, we meet the young Henry, the Chinese-American son of immigrants struggling to please his parents by becoming American-educated, yet keeping their Chinese traditions of respect and authority.  Understandably, Henry fits in nowhere.  His Chinese-American friends look down on him for going to an American school, and the American schoolmates bully him.  Henry’s only friend is an older black man named Sheldon, who is a jazz sax player—first on a corner and later with a famous Seattle jazz band.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII has heightened racial tensions: Henry walks around with a button to declare “I’m Chinese” in case he is mistaken for a Japanese immigrant.  During WWII the Japanese were also at war with China, which in the mind of Henry’s father makes his neighbors in Nihonmachi (Japantown) the enemy.  This includes Henry’s best friend at school, Keiko Okabe — an American of Japanese descent (as I think she would like it put.)  Keiko and her family have embraced their new country—Keiko doesn’t even speak Japanese, and her parents love jazz.  Keiko becomes Henry’s best friend.  When the evacuation of Japanese residents from Seattle (and elsewhere) begins, Henry watches helplessly as the Okabes board the bus to an interment camp.  From this point on in the story, Henry is torn between his affection for Keiko and pleasing his father.  Tensions run high, but Henry finds his own way. Ultimately, it takes Henry’s Americanized son Marty to help Henry bridge his present and his past, and find closure—and perhaps happiness.

I loved this book.  Jamie Ford described the Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods in WWII Seattle so evocatively,  I felt real sadness for the destruction and looting of Nihonmachi post-Evacuation.  His characters were beautifully drawn.  Henry is a dutiful but torn son,  a loyal but tortured friend, and a genuinely nice guy trying to do his best.  I loved Sheldon, the mentor figure.  Keiko is a dream girl–sweet, talented, understanding and loyal and although this sounds very trite, she does not read that way.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet shines a spotlight on an ugly episode in US history.  Some of the scenes in this book resonated with current US tensions surrounding how to handle immigration, most often around our border with Mexico, and the way people of that ethnicity are often treated—regardless of immigrant status.  Read in light of today’s issues, the book is also a cautionary tale.

HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn Should’ve Been Gellhorn & Hemingway!

Last night I watched the new HBO Movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” not really sure who Gellhorn was, not sure why I cared—am not a particular fan of Hemingway the Man even if I recall enjoying Farewell to Arms and the Sun Also Rises.  I tend to think of him as an alcoholic and a bully, a view which this film did not dispel. That said, the movie hooked me and I stayed that way through the entire 2 1/2 hours, mostly thanks to a terrific performance by Nicole Kidman, who plays Martha Gellhorn so well that by the end of the evening I was reading up on Ms. Gellhorn in fascination.

Gellhorn, who died in 1998, was perhaps one of the best war correspondents of the 20th Century, with a career spanning more than sixty years.  From the Spanish Civil War through World War II to the Middle East and more, she was there bringing each conflict home in exquisite, agonizing detail.  I found an article she wrote about flying with a Black Widow Squadron in WWII.  Read it, you’ll appreciate a great, moving piece of journalism.  I’d like to read more of her work.

Kidman outshone Clive Owen‘s Ernest Hemingway.  That doesn’t mean I think Owen did a terrible job—he was good, but I kept seeing Clive Owen, not Papa Hemingway.   Of course, my opinion of Hemingway is that of an irascible individual and perhaps in the days of Hemingway and Gellhorn he was a bit more perky, more upbeat, more like Owen’s portrayal.  I have been a fan of Clive Owen’s since way, way back when he was the Chancer on a UK TV series and I’m still a huge fan.  He probably had the harder role—trying to make likable, or at least understandable, a selfish drunk. (But let me not mince words here!)

The film focuses on the romance between Hemingway and Gellhorn, beginning with a flirtation in Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West (now Captain Tony’s–been there!) and culminating in their marriage on the eve of World War II.  Gellhorn is the ambitious one, keen to go to a war zone and report on the ground. Hemingway is much more inclined to remain at home, in Cuba or Key West, fishing and partying, although he goes with her on many assignments, reporting separately—until he finally subverts her attempts to report on D-Day.  I had the feeling he was jealous of her reputation, possessive and needy in the extreme.

I found this quote from Gellhorn about her marriage to Hemingway:  “I feel quite sick, I cannot describe this to you. Shivering sick. I watch him adoring his image, with such care and such tolerance and such accuracy in detail … I weep for the eight years I spent … worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving.”   Regrets? She had a few…

This is more Gellhorn’s story than Hemingway’s.  She emerges independent and strong—even heroic.  Should have been titled “Gellhorn & Hemingway.”  I liked the film, though I gather it has had mixed reviews, some of which I’ve included below.  Curious to hear your views.

In Honor of Veteran’s Day, Review of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—A Moving True Story to Read & Weep

November 11th is Veteran’s Day in the US.  Other countries call it Remembrance Day (UK and the Commonwealth), Armistice Day (France and Belgium) or Independence Day (Poland), but we’re all celebrating the same thing.  Funny thing is, most peopleespecially young peopledo not know the day actually commemorates the end of World War 1.  After four long years of fighting in WWI hostilities formally ended with the German surrender “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918.   It was called the “war to end all wars” – but it was not, was it?  Twenty-one years later, World War II began, and we’re fighting still.  

Usually I commemorate Veteran’s Day by posting on Facebook the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, (from “Some Corner of  a Foreign Field-Poetry of the Great War“) but instead I’ve linked to it.  Today, I think in particular of Louie Zamperini, who is 93-years-old, a veteran of WWII and the subject of the most beautiful, difficult, wonderful biography I’ve read in a long time.  Louie, Happy Veteran’s Day—for all the horror you saw and endured—I hope there’s a beautiful day ahead for you.  I hope veterans of our current wars can find peace as you did. 

The title says it all: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Many, many others have reviewed this book, notably the NY Timeswhere the book reached no. 3 on the best seller list–and countless bloggers.  I suppose their reviews compelled me to buy and read itand I’d encourage you to do the same.  It is quite simply the most moving story I’ve ever read about the human spirit and triumph over adversity. I defy you to read this amazing true story and not weep buckets.

In Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand picks up the themes of perseverance and triumph against adversity that were prominent in her first book, “Seabiscuit.” This time, she  recounts the extraordinary true life of Louie Zamperini, American track star, Olympian, WWII bombardier, and prisoner of war.  Hillenbrand writes with precision and clarity—there is no overblown prose, no emotionally charged adjectives.  They are not needed—this is sharp story-telling that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages in horror, in hope and finally in joy.

Louie Zamperini was a bit of a hooligan in his youth until he found his talent as a track star—eventually heading to the 1936 Munich Olympics.   Pre-WWII, Zamperini was considered to be the runner most likely to break the 4-minute mile.  But when the US entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier, flying in the Pacific theatre.

In May 1943, the B-24 Liberator carrying Louie crashed into the Pacific. Louie survived, and spent 47 days on a raft before landing on Wake Atoll—and being captured by the Japanese.  His time as a Japanese POW-singled out because of his former notoriety in the Olympics—is difficult and emotional reading.  Louie and his fellow POWs endured truly unspeakable torture.   And even though I knew from the start that Louie Zamperini would survive, I could not imagine in what kind of mental or physical state.  This is non-fiction that you wish was fiction, because the truth pushes the bounds of believability—both of what one human being will inflict upon another, and what a human being can endure.  Indeed, Louie copes post-war with flashbacks, trauma by turning to alcohol.

Olympian Louis Zamperini carrying the Olympic Torch

When Louie finds peace post-war, by forgiving his captors and torturers, that is when the tissues come out.   I cried the last third of the book.  But it is beautiful, and moving, and I cheered for Louie’s humanity and spirit.

As Louie’s story unfolds Hillenbrand includes fascinating research on the war in the Pacific, bombers statistics, POW facts—and this background gives the reader context understand both the enormous risks taken by bomber planes in WWII, and the widespread torture tactics, yet also how much more extreme Zamperini’s treatment was as a POW.  You realize how miraculous Louie’s survival from the bomber plane crash was, let alone his survival of the events that unfold.

Louie’s WWII story is not unique—hundreds, maybe thousands, of planes crashed into the Pacific.  Thousands of allied troops were captured by the Japanese and faced torture and hardship.  Louie’s return from the war, his alcoholism and PTSD were also not unique–they are widespread today.  What is unique is Louie’s high profile pre- and post-war and his ability to overcome tremendous adversity.  The miracle is that Louie survived to tell his story and speak for many who did not.

I love a good WWII story-though admittedly I’ve read less non-fiction than fiction (Charlotte Gray, Atonement, Sarah’s Key, among great historical fiction reads).  I also love WWII movies—”Bridge over the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape”, “The Eagle Has Landed,” “Guns Of Navaronne”…and I can watch endless episodes of  “Band of Brothers.” When Universal makes “Unbroken,” I’ll be first in line, Kleenex at the ready, for this epic story about the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for forgiveness.

Related articles and reviews: 

Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

“Sarah’s Key” Kept Me Up Late, But The Ending Left Me Flat
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was recommended to me a while ago and yet I let it sit on the shelf because, among other reasons, a Holocaust story involving a four-year-old boy (I’m not giving away the plot it is on the blurb) gave me pause: some things I just can’t read. But, the film is coming out and I got stuck in over Labor Day—and stayed up until 1am to finish it. Anything that keeps me up after 11pm had better be a darn good read. And it was.

The reader follows two parallel stories that eventually converge. The first is of 10-year-old Sarah, taken from her home in a Vichy round-up of Jews in Paris, 1942. The second is 45-year-old Julia Jarmond, living a life perhaps just a tad too cliché’d in Paris, 2002 and on the verge of moving into Sarah’s old apartment.

Of the two storylines, I was more compelled by the story of Sarah—her struggle to stay alive, cope with her guilt, the loss of her family—those were the plot points that kept me turning the page. Paris, circa 2002 with a cheating French husband…not so much. Nor did I think the life/death drama for Julia and her husband—I won’t spoil it for you—was well done. It felt contrived, yet I do understand the author was trying to give some balance to the two storylines. It is hard to balance anything against the apocryphal tragedy of the Holocaust.

When the storylines finally converge, I was on the edge of my seat—and yet I think the author lingered too long. Sometimes, lives do not converge, stories are not neat and tidy—but Sarah’s story and Julia’s merge and are tied up with a pretty bow—a bit too pretty for me. All that said, it is definitely worth a read and I’ll be in line for the movie when it opens, especially because the magnificent British actress Kristin Scott Thomas is playing Julia.