Here we are dear readers rounding the corner to the finish line of Holiday Season 2015. You made it! You conquered all that hustle bustle, you cooked and cleaned and partied and pulled yourself through the merriest of months like a champion.
And by now, Ms. Jeannie bets you are ready for a little rest, a little relaxation or perhaps just some good old fashioned recovery time spent laying low. Ms. Jeannie has just the right thing for you… a suggestion list of the most entertaining books and movies she’s encountered throughout 2015.
Not all these suggestions came out, brand new, this year, some are a few years old and some are fifty years old but each of them carries the theme of history in a most interesting way, and each one will keep you entertained from start to finish.
Let’s take a look….
In the watching department, Ms. Jeannie fell in love with the following mini-series, movies and documentaries…
1. Dickens in America with Miriam Margoyles
The retracing of Charles Dickens’ 1842 travels to the United States, this documentary series sent famed British actress Miriam Margoyles (perhaps the biggest fan of Charles Dickens ever!) to a variety of cities located throughout the Eastern US. Visiting all the places Dickens traveled to… Boston, NYC, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and Canada, Miriam also attempts to eat the same sorts of foods, stay in the same hotels and travel the cities in the same way he did. The fun thing about this series is Miriam herself – a plug of energy, enthusiasm and quirky personality, she mirrors her contemporary viewpoints and attitudes alongside Dickens in all that was seen and experienced. She laughs, she cries, she compares and contrasts, she’s the ultimate fan and because of her devotion you can’t help but get caught up in her love affair as well. Here’s a clip from one segment…
2. Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries
How Ms. Jeannie escaped hearing about this Australian tv show that has been airing since 2013 is a wonder. Set in 1920s/1930’s Melbourne, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries centers around thoroughly modern lady detective Phryne Fisher and the bevy of strange and unusual cases she solves. Beautifully filmed, along the same glamorous lines as Downtown Abbey, Miss Phryne Fisher is progressive in all things thought and action. The writing is smart, the wardrobes incredible and the cases always intriguing. Currently, in its third season now with new episodes beginning in January, Ms. Jeannie recommends watching it from the very beginning because story lines do carry over from season to season.
This is the trailer for season one…
3. Mona Lisa is Missing
The inspiration for this documentary came from one line in a book (aha!) discovered during the 1970s:
In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian immigrant named Vincenzo Perugia.
Filmmmaker Joe Medieros became so obsessed with this one line and the story behind it that it took him the next 30 years to properly figure out what exactly happened to the world’s most famous painting. The result of his research is this fast-paced, funny and touching documentary stretching from New York all the way to Italy where he meets modern-day relatives of the thief who stole the painting, scours international archives, pursues all possible theories and does a re-enactment of how the whole situation went down at the Louvre step-by-step. The winner of practically a gazillion film festivals around the world, Mona Lisa is Missing is so creatively put together using a mixture of paper cut outs, film footage and moving pictures it is as whimsical in presentation as it is in story.
4. Finding Vivian Maier
Another equally fascinating real-life story, Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a thrifty collector who purchased a few boxes of old photographs at an auction. When he realizes upon returning home that the collection is quite extraordinary, he embarks on a vintage sleuthing escapade to uncover who exactly this photographer is, the influence of her art upon mid-century America and the unusual life she led in pursuit of her passion. So incredible, Ms. Jeannie will not say anything more about what happens because the pacing of this documentary and all that it reveals is fantastic. By the end of it – you’ll be a fan. Ms. Jeannie promises!
In the book department…
5. West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (published 2015)
When Ms. Jeannie traveled to Florida to take care of her sick dad in November, she spent the entire eleven hour drive each way listening to one audio book – West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan. As you know by now, (if you happen to be a regular reader of the blog) like Miriam Margoyles and her Dickens, Ms. Jeannie has a slight obsession with anything F. Scott Fitzgerald, so she was super excited to discover this newly released novel which centers around the last three years of F. Scott’s life.
This was the point in his story (the late 1930’s) when his wife, Zelda was receiving care in a mental hospital in North Carolina and he was on the opposite coast, in Hollywood writing scripts to try to drum up enough money to live. Throughout Stewart O’Nan’s novel, F. Scott travels between life in the make-believe city of Los Angeles where he spends time with Bogart and Hemingway, Deitrich and Cukor and real-life in North Carolina where Zelda is loosing teeth and losing touch. F. Scott tries to maintain a sense of marital stability, loyalty and companionship to Zelda but this hospitalized woman is someone he no longer recognizes, a child-like version of the dynamic and vivacious woman she once was. By this time, The Great Gatsby has already been published but it is not nearly the revered literary work that is today so F. Scott in Stewart’s world is old and tired and struggling, plodding day by day at his typewriter, driven by his love of words and his desire to string a noteworthy line.
Thanks to Stewart O’Nan’s humanistic approach to the end of F. Scott’s life we understand how difficult it must have been to keep up with costs to support Zelda’s mental health care, to keep his teenage daughter Scottie’s school tuition afloat and to also just be able to maintain his day to day living expenses in California while also dealing with the mental ups and downs of an unreliable creative enterprise like movie-making in California. You might know F. Scott as an alcoholic, a child of Jazz age decadence and of day to day living without future thought but Stewart O’Nan paints a highly researched depiction of this great writer in his final flawed years when he was trying – really trying- excruciatingly trying – to not drink so much, to keep his career current and to take care of his family. This is what makes this book fantastic. In our modern way of seeing success so easily promoted via social media it is easy to forget about struggle, about building, about putting in the time in so that success can happen. Stewart O’ Nan deals with all that – the unglamorous, every day side to F. Scott which made him real and likable and ultimately relateable. And there are also some very cool scenes filled with glamorous Hollywood parties and celebrity encounters that make your imagination fly:)
6. So We Read On – Maureen Corrigan (published 2014)
NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan shared her love of all things Gatsby in So We Read On, determining why and how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, The Great Gatsby is still so relevant and so important in today’s world. Covering all aspects of the book, from its writer to its subject to its themes and its reception both then and now, Maureen examines Gatsby from all sides (literally and figuratively). She even travels all the way back to her high school where she first read Gatsby and where kids now in the 2000’s are still required to read it in order to see what the modern day perception of the nearly 100 year old novel is today. How could a book written in 1925 still be so universally relevant 90 years later? You don’t have to be a superfan to understand Maureen’s book, it is wonderfully written as a quasi-memoir and interpretation of one woman’s love of reading and the impact that one particular book made upon her life.
7. A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway (published 1964)
Ms. Jeannie most highly recommends reading this book aloud, because there is a little magic that happens when you both speak and hear the lines of someone else’s memoir. The subject becomes much more intimate and much more consuming.
The true story of Ernest Hemingway’s experience of living and writing in Paris at the very start of his career, A Moveable Feast will transport you immediately out of your current situation and deposit you in the cafe scene that is Paris of the 1930’s. You’ll hear first-hand, in his own voice, how Ernest struggled to build the sentences that would build his career and how he would struggle to understand the people that moved in and out of his life, including his own wife who was a marvel of odd and exotic understanding.
You’ll learn how he plodded every day though the mud that is the creative writing field, while also experiencing the commonplace genius and artistic camaraderie that would make this time in Paris legendary. And most importantly you’ll see probably the most vulnerable side of Ernest, in his own words, before he was confident and comfortable in his own writing skin, while he was struggling to make enough money to buy dinner for his wife and baby, to buy a book from Shakespeare & Company or to buy a hot coffee to keep warm while he wrote on a cold day. This is Ernest at the very beginning, a keen observer of the situation before him.
8. Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman (published 2015)
Changing gears completely from Jazz Age Paris to contemporary New York high society, Empty Mansions is the true story of Huguette Clark of New York City and the story of her family’s fortune which spans the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as it spreads from Colorado to Arizona to New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
Now rumored to be in consideration for film adaptation, Ms. Jeannie can completely understand because the book opens with the reclusive story of Huguette, a once beautiful debutante, now aged and afraid to show her face in public due to a cancer causing facial disfigurement. From the opening pages you try to decide if Hugettte is an eccentric reclusive like the Edie Beales of Grey Gardens or if she is just extremely shy and private trying to live a life away from the press.
As the book continues and the story unfolds you wonder if she is prey to the strange health care system that plagues our country and to the managers of her welfare or if she is an indomitable force that controls her own destiny living life on her terms and her terms only.
Providing back story to Huguette’s unusual lifestyle, you learn about her family’s genealogy and the American dream fantasy of hard work, risky decisions and big rewards that built their fortune and made them a formidable impression on the New York business scene of Victorian metropolitan life. You learn about the tragedies that befell the family as well as the triumphs, how they rose to fame and slowly withdrew from it, and how all those moments one by one compiled themselves onto the outlook and attitude of Huguette and shaped a century of life.
9. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning – Elizabeth Partridge (published 2013)
Both a book and a PBS documentary, Grab A Hunk of Lightning tells the whole story of famed photographer Dorothea Lange from how she started as an awkward teenager first learning how to use a camera through experimentation and expression to how she turned into a trained eye that would make her one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century.
Beautifully laid out in folio style, Grab A Hunk of Lightening, written by Dorothea’s god-daughter, gives insight into the production and story behind her personal life and her professional photographs. And it also tells the story, again like Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast and F. Scott Fitzgerald in West of Sunset how one thing led to another in terms of career and creativity. Dorothea was a working artist trying to pay bills all the while attempting to build a style, a career and a vision that was uniquely hers. Despite difficult circumstances, marriage, children, house moves, illness and lack of confidence, Dorothea humbly went about pursuing her craft every day of her life, putting one foot in front of another.
Hope you find some new and exiting material here dear readers! If you had any extra special favorites in the book and movie department this year please share your thoughts in the comments section!
May the rest of your 2015 be lazy and lovely. Cheers and happy Happy New Year’s dear readers!!!