Remembering Robert Osborne: Classic Film’s Greatest Ambassador

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“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne, and this is Turner Classic Movies.”

Such was the beginning of many of an adventure I embarked on as a teenager when I began my transformative foray into the world of classic film. After an introduction from Osborne, I traveled to Casablanca where I first met Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman , Claude Rains and Peter Lorre, and was given a taste of the sacrifices that were made by the WWII generation who brought an end to the evil of Hitler and Nazi Germany. With Osborne as my guide, my virtual Virgil if you will(Dante’s Inferno readers will get this), I plumbed the devilish depths of film noir and the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. On a lighter note, I got the scoop behind Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe’s “Some Like it Hot”(“she kissed like Hitler,” Curtis had said of Monroe). Actors who passed on years before I was born, such as Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, Bogart, Rains, Orson Welles, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and many, many more quickly made their entrance to the forefront of my cinematic imagination, and they’ve never left.

Although I had been fascinated by classic movies since I was a child, it was TCM’s erudite and dapper Osborne who instilled a deep and abiding love for the silver screen in my heart. By the time I was a college student, I simply couldn’t watch a classic film without Osborne setting up the story for me, and concluding it with a pithy behind-the-scenes observation that I wouldn’t have learned elsewhere. It eventually progressed to the point where I felt I was being cheated if I watched a classic film without Osborne to impart the knowledge and insight I felt I needed to get everything I could get out of what I was watching. A few years ago, when I went with my mom to see Gone with the Wind on the big screen for the first time (a big moment for me!), I felt like a teenager at a rock concert when the screen lit up and Osborne appeared to introduce the film.

“Mom, that’s Robert Osborne!” I cried, a little too loud and a little too giddily.

“Who?” she asked.

“Never mind. He’s the guy from TCM who knows everything about movies.”

And it was true. Osborne was, for all intents and purposes, the world’s most famous film appreciation teacher. Sure, there are other film critics and presenters whose knowledge is as prolific as his (although I doubt there are too many), but Osborne was mainstream. Through his work at TCM, he was given the ability to touch young and old alike. Osborne carried himself with a class that embodied the glory days of Hollywood itself, and combined with the efforts of TCM, he introduced the great film classics to a new generation that has been all too willing to eschew movies that are black-and-white in favor of more CGI-laden fare. Osborne, who had worked in the film industry and thus, was personally acquainted with many of its biggest stars, had a way of bringing them back to life for us, a way of resurrecting a time that is rapidly receding from our collective memory. Osborne allowed me to imagine a world where my great-grandparents donned their best clothing, took off in their Model T or Model A, paid a dime or a quarter(whatever the going rate was at that time) to see the latest Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton flicks in the movie theatre that once existed in their little town. I mourn that lost world as I mourn him. Although Osborne and his connection to that bygone world are irreplaceable, it’s now up to my generation to pick up the torch where he left it and show the world that classic films are not simply relics of the past, but are a vastly important piece of our cultural heritage with themes that still provide a mirror to our nature as humans; themes of love, hatred, anger, and fear that are melded into tales that can still speak to us if we are willing to listen. By tuning into a movie that was made 50 years before we were born, one may discover that the film’s lack of color and technological sophistication is more than redeemed by its artistry and the depth of its characters and plot, and although the actors may dress and talk a tad differently than we do, in the areas that count, they are very much like ourselves.

Thank you, Robert Osborne, for teaching this young GenXer (old Millennial?) the value of films that were made long before I was born. It is a gift I’ll carry with me always. Rest in peace.Osborne camera

The Ten Most Depressing Books in all Literature

While many readers will habitually gravitate toward novels with happy endings, the darker and more morose among us(myself included) harbor an uncanny, compelling attraction to venture into the most tragic of stories. Here are the top ten novels that may require copious amounts of your favorite adult beverage to recover from.

1.)Tess of the d’Urbervilles-Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy, without dispute, wrote some of the most depressing stories in all literature. The heroine of this particular story is a young, beautiful and incredibly unfortunate girl named Tess Durbeyfield, who, through the course of the novel, is the victim of so many emotional disasters that it almost beggars belief that any human being could suffer such an accursed fate.

2.) The House of Mirth-Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, chronicles the life of Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite who was truly born before her time and suffers the consequent fate that usually befalls such women in literature. Lily is born into New York high society and, like most women of her class is expected to marry a rich man to support her. Lily fails to do so, and the novel depicts her subsequent plunge through the various social strata of polite society. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the novel is the “what could have been?” nature of her relationship with Lawrence Seldon, which culminates in the heartwrenching last scene of the novel.

3.) Ethan Frome-Edith Wharton

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Ahhh….Ethan Frome and the pain of unrequited love. This is the only book where death would have resulted in a happier ending. Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Poor Ethan Frome is an isolated farmer residing in the one of the bleakest of settings-a cold, desolate New England winter. Life isn’t much warmer on the inside of Ethan’s home as he finds himself trapped with his frigid, shrewish wife Zeena. On the positive side, Ethan does get to experience an ephemeral glimmer of true love, but that’s all that Wharton plans to allow him in her apparent quest to unseat Thomas Hardy as literature’s great purveyor of doom.

4.) A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini

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A Thousand Splendid Suns was a book that haunted me for days after I read it. It’s one thing to know and understand the desperate plight of many women in the Middle East through statistics and media depictions; it’s quite another to feel that plight through the characters of Mariam and Laila, two very different women who come from disparate backgrounds, but whose lives are entwined in their mutual struggles in a repressive society. The ending is devasting and poignant in equal measure.

5.) Nineteen Eighty-Four-George Orwell

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“Big Brother is watching you!” “Newspeak.” “Thought police.” Et cetera. Et cetera. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of the totalitarian state has provided some of the most iconic catchphrases in the modern political vocabulary, but its most depressing life lesson is that one man cannot overcome the power of the state.

6.) The Wings of the Dove-Henry James

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The Wings of the Dove was written by Henry James in the beginning half of the 20th century, and it depicts the tragically brief life of young American heiress Milly Theale and the effect her life has on a young couple who seek to use her for money before she succumbs to her illness. There is something so very touching about the character of Milly, but by the end of the novel, you’ll not only feel sorry for her but for the two other main characters whom James portrays in all their raw vulnerability and moral weakness.

7.) The Painted Veil-W. Somerset Maugham

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Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil tells the story of idealistic, yet selfish and spoiled Kitty Fane, who finds herself trapped in a marriage with a socially awkward, but brilliant scientist who is completely her opposite. Unsurprisingly, Kitty ultimately embarks on an adulterous affair. Out of hurt and revenge, her husband, Walter Fane, drags her along with him into the middle of a cholera epidemic that he has been assigned to research and treat in colonial China. At the heart of the story is a failure to communicate, as Kitty is unable to see and appreciate the extraordinary character of her husband, and Walter is unable what motivates his wife and her decisions. The 2004 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts provides a mutual catharsis and redemptive quality to the ultimately heartbreaking ending, but Maugham’s novel is nothing but brutal, unmitigated suffering for the characters until the very last chapter.

8.) Where the Red Fern Grows-Wilson Rawls

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Where the Red Fern Grows is the story of Billy and his coonhounds who are on a quest to capture the coveted and elusive raccoon. The ending is quite bittersweet—but,wait, who am I kidding? Reading it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my sixth-grade year :(. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered…

9.) Jude the Obscure-Thomas Hardy

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Published in 1895, Jude the Obscure was the last book written by Thomas Hardy, as it proved so scandalous among the Victorian reading public that Hardy finally threw down his pen in frustration and retired from the writing life. The plot follows the life of bright, ambitious Jude Fawley and his attempt to succeed against the forces of society and fate in his ambition to learn and love. I was actually a little afraid to read this book due its daunting reputation as the most depressing book in English literature, and although I came out of the experience relatively unscathed, I have to say that there is one scene in the book that is so devastating that it actually made me feel physically ill.

10.) Night-Eli Weisel

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Night by Elie Wiesel is truly in a class by itself. In contrast to the other books on this list, it’s steeped in the reality and horror of the Holocaust. Wiesel is unabashedly candid about life in the Nazi death camps as he seeks to ensure that the world never forgets the inherent horror and tragedy that arises from man’s inhumanity to man. If you can only find time to read one book on this list, this is the one to read, because you won’t walk away the same person you were before you read it.

My Top Six Fiction Books of 2013

I did it! At the beginning of 2013, I set the (somewhat) overly ambitious goal of reading 60 books in one year. Prior to that, the largest number of books I had read in a year was 50, and I considered that a major accomplishment. Last week, I completed my 60th book of the year, thus narrowly completing my goal a mere two weeks before the deadline. Although I’m very proud of my accomplishment, I’m planning to reduce my reading list next year so I can hone in on more classic authors and some lengthy, in-depth biographies of some of my favorite writers, poets, and classic movie actors. I would be remiss not share a few of my new favorite books with the blogosphere, so I put quite a lot of thought into what fiction books I thought were the best. Here is my list of the six best fiction books I read in 2013, accompanied by a brief description taken from from Goodreads, the website where I chronicled my books and completed my challenge.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham-This novel is said to be a semi-autobiography of Maugham’s life, and if his main character, Philip, was anything like Maugham, I have a feeling we would have gotten along quite well. This quintessential Maugham novel deals with human entanglements, or “human bondage,” that keep us in situations and in relationships that our detrimental to our well-being. How much control do we really have over life and love, and is the freedom we long for illusory? Maugham addresses this and many other themes in this classic novel.

“Originally published in 1915, Of Human Bondage is a potent expression of the power of sexual obsession and of modern man’s yearning for freedom. This classic novel tells the story of Philip Carey, a sensitive boy born with a club foot who is orphaned and raised by a religious aunt and uncle. Philip yearns for adventure, and at eighteen leaves home, eventually pursuing a career as an artist in Paris. When he returns to London to study medicine, he meets the androgynous but alluring Mildred and begins a doomed love affair that will change the course of his life. There is no more powerful story of sexual infatuation, of human longing for connection and freedom. ”

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder-I know I have said this ad nauseam, but I really do think this book should be required reading for every Philosophy 101 class. The story is fantastic on its own level, but its genius lies in the way the book allows you to see through the eyes of the great philosophers in history. Don’t be surprised if you get a sense of whiplash by how quickly and dramatically the story twists and turns depending on the philosophical glasses you are reading it with.

“One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning—but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.”

Sea Change by Karen White-This book doesn’t have quite as much depth as the others on my list, but if you are fascinated by reincarnation, lost love, and unsolved mysteries from the past, this is the book for you.

“For Ava Whalen, a new marriage and a move to St. Simons Island means a new beginning. But what she doesn’t realize is that her marriage will take her on an unexpected journey into the deep recesses of her past that will transform her forever… For as long as she can remember, Ava Whalen has struggled with a sense of not belonging, and now, at thirty-four, she still feels stymied by her family. Then she meets child psychologist Matthew Frazier, and thinks her days of loneliness are behind her. After a whirlwind romance, they impulsively elope, and Ava moves to Matthew’s ancestral home on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. But after the initial excitement, Ava is surprised to discover that true happiness continues to elude her. There is much she doesn’t know about Matthew, including the mysterious circumstances surrounding his first wife’s death. And her new home seems to hold as many mysteries and secrets as her new husband. Feeling adrift, Ava throws herself into uncovering Matthew’s family history and that of the island, not realizing that she has a connection of her own to this place—or that her obsession with the past could very well destroy her future.”

To be sung underwater by Tom McNeal-This book definitely took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. The ending was shocking, and, quite frankly, a bit disappointing, but if you’ve ever yearned for a lost love and wondered what life may have been like if you had taken another path(as most of us have), you’ll certainly find this book compelling.

“Judith Whitman always believed in the kind of love that “picks you up in Akron and sets you down in Rio.” Long ago, she once experienced that love. Willy Blunt was a carpenter with a dry wit and a steadfast sense of honor. Marrying him seemed like a natural thing to promise.
But Willy Blunt was not a person you could pick up in Nebraska and transport to Stanford. When Judith left home, she didn’t look back.
Twenty years later, Judith’s marriage is hazy with secrets. In her hand is what may be the phone number for the man who believed she meant it when she said she loved him. If she called, what would he say?
‘To be Sung Underwater’ is the epic love story of a woman trying to remember, and the man who could not even begin to forget.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham-[Taken from my Goodreads review] This novel broke my heart in so many different ways. I have to say that I found the lead character, Kitty, to be exasperating, and I alternated between wanting to punch her, to feeling profoundly sorry for her, to wanting to punch her again, to ultimately coming to some understanding of her humanity. That’s really what this novel is all about-humanity and all the ugliness, the disappointment and the glimmers of redemption that come with it. I had a very difficult time seeing the world through the eyes of Kitty in the beginning because I felt such a connection to Walter’s character. It’s hard to believe that his character appeared so little in the novel, but the author’s description was so vivid that the reader could delve into his psyche without actually experiencing the story from his perspective. Maugham’s depiction of the Walter and Kitty their relationship felt so authentic-his insight into human relationships was unbelievable! Overall, I really appreciate this book as a work of art, even though I have to say I was disappointed in its resolution. But that’s life-sometimes there is no satisfying resolution. This novel is so unsettling for precisely that reason, as there are no clear answers to the plethora of questions that it raises about how much Kitty and Walter were at fault in their own respective situations, and how much the inflexible social mores of the time trapped them into a situation they couldn’t escape from.

“Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.”

Wings of the Dove by Henry James-I have to admit, James’s abstruse, excessively wordy(in my opinion) prose made it difficult for me to get into this novel first, but I’m glad I toughed it out because it really is a gem. How far would you go to be with the person you love, and can you do so without irrevocably changing in the process? James is a master at exploring the depths of the human condition while excoriating the false societal values of his day.

“Set amid the splendor of London drawing rooms and gilded Venetian palazzos, ‘The Wings of the Dove’ is the story of Milly Theale, a naïve, doomed American heiress, and a pair of lovers, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, who conspire to obtain her fortune.
In this witty tragedy of treachery, self-deception, and betrayal, Henry James weaves together three ill-fated and wholly human destinies unexpectedly linked by desire, greed, and salvation.”

Check out the rest of the books I read in 2013 here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1643382-maria-yohn?read_at=2013