bookgazing: (i heart books)

Annalaura Welles lives above the animals in a barn, sharing one room with her four small children. Her husband John, was a sharecropper; a person hired to work an area of farm land for the owner of an estate in return for a lump sum of cash, dependant on the size and quality of the crop raised, so the whole family live on the McNaughton estate. Last season John raised an outstanding crop, but now John has disappeared, apparently abandoning the family just before the second season’s planting period. He has stolen Annalaura’s money and taken much of the family’s small food store. Annalaura is desperate to hide the fact that John is gone because if Alexander McNaughton, the owner of the estate, finds out there is no man to pull the crop in he will evict her family from the tenancy. As a black women without a husband, she will also become ‘fair game’ for any white man around (this is 1913, after slavery has been abolished but a long way from any kind of legal equality for black Americans). So, Annalaura struggles to project the idea that John is still around, while covertly dealing with the consequences of his departure and theft.

‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in the third person and relates the separate perspectives of four main characters. The reader is immediately sucked into Annalaura’s desperate attempt to survive in the first chapter, then the narrative follows McNaughton and his wife in the second chapter, before shifting focus again to concentrate on Annalaura’s husband John. The reader learns that he has gone to the city in the hopes of earning enough money to buy his own parcel of land, so that he won’t have to work for a white man any more. At this time, southern, white estate owners blatantly rob their black tenants, under the cover of providing them with essential materials for living and working ‘on tick’. It is understood that the cost of items such as seed to grow the crop and food to eat while they wait for the crop to grow, will come out of the tenants earnings when the crop is sold. By levying this ‘advance’ white estate owners make sure that black tenants never earn enough to invest in their futures and break from a cycle of what is essentially indentured labour. John Welles is an exceptional tenant, who pulled a tobacco crop that made ‘...three thousand dollars, more than twice any other tenant farmer he ever had...’ from an uninspiring mid-forty acreage but after one season working for McNaughton, he understands that he will never earn enough money from share cropping to forge an independent future . So, he robs his wife and leaves his small children to work the land during the crucial planting and harvesting period.

That might seem a harsh judgement. I mean, John Welles has noble aims right? He’s fighting his own battle against oppression. And of course, John himself doesn’t frame leaving his family, quite as I have when he thinks about his actions. John sees leaving his wife behind as a noble endeavour; he will get a city job counting cards at a high rolling establishment in order to put his children through school and return the hero. That is a worthwhile aim and many readers will surely find themselves conflicted as the man (who in Annalaura’s section is described as a reckless, restless, deserting dreamer) is humanised. It is important to note that even though his actions cause his wife serious problems, he is in his turn screwed by an unfair, prejudiced society. Intersectional analysis of history = complicated.

However, the novel is careful to never disregard the first inevitable reading of John’s actions as callous. I feel that it actively endorses the idea that John is both right and wrong by returning to focus on Annalaura’s struggles. Though John’s dreams are portrayed sympathetically in the novel, the way he goes about putting his plan into action is not. I’ve already mentioned that he steals food that Annalaura needs, in order to make his trip. While he is away from his family he takes up with other women. The sacrifices he makes are rarely sacrifices that impact on him, although he has convinced himself that he is as pained by circumstances as Annalaura must be, for example he stays in the city longer than necessary for his own pleasure, which leaves Annalaura open to serious harm but when called on this behaviour he implies that circumstances keep him from his wife and he is suffering by missing his children. If his employer hadn’t physically kept some of his wages back for Annalaura there is every possibility that he’d have kept spending in order to justify why he needed to spend even longer away from home. Meanwhile Annalaura faces starvation and is raped by Alexander McNaughton repeatedly.

Many of these thoughtless actions that readers may find hard to forgive stem from the historical context John exists in, for example he rationalises taking money from the family by claiming sole ownership of it as the man of the house and invoking his grand plans for freeing his family from white control. He also refuses to acknowledge the inevitable realities for a young woman with four children left with little food and no way to earn money, because society tells him that no matter what a woman should always remain faithful. Rape is not a concept he seems to understand in the same way that we would. Howard tries to present John as a balanced character, who has good parts to his character, but is heavily influenced by his times. However, I sometimes felt that the book had perhaps set John Welles up as too unlikeable a character for readers to sympathise with, despite the fact that he has been placed in a tough position by society. Without playing oppression Olympics I’ve got to say it’s hard to feel so sorry for a man whose dreams and aspirations are being denied him by the society he lives in, when he’s a cheating, stealing bastard who does not react as modern readers may hope on coming home to find his wife has been raped, even when we’re aware of how historical context affects his actions.

I feel the same way about how the book portrays Alexander McNaughton, the man who repeatedly rapes Annalaura. Alexander is shown as a man of his time period, claiming the free, black woman that everyone else around him said was his right, but he also has genuine feelings for his child who died and eventually comes to feel he is in love with Annalaura. Again, the bad guys aren’t always one dimensional villains. Alexander McNaughton believes he has a right to Annalaura, because his society reinforced that idea through everyday behaviour and rhetoric, much as John Welles was convinced by society’s rhetoric that it was fine for a married man to sleep around as long as he always came home, but unforgivable for a woman not to ‘fight’ if commanded to sleep with a white man. There are probably tons of things our future generations are going to boggle at that we all find totally acceptable because of our modern rhetorical structures, so we have to try not to judge historical characters in a way that positions our generation as the unquestionable pinnacle of enlightenment.

Still, the wife beating (Welles) and rape (McNaughton) perpetrated by these two men are terrible things, we know that the victims of these actions have been hurt, even if the person doing these things is surrounded by cultural reasoning that allows us to understand they were ordinary human beings rather than exceptional monsters. So, personally I needed to be given more of a reason to empathise with the male characters, in order to circumvent my impulse to judge them as bad people with everything taken on balance. I didn’t get enough sympathetic content, or perhaps the novel didn’t convey the sympathetic content that it did put across quite strongly enough. Either way I found my sympathy and interest in viewing the two men as human beings with their own problems disappeared as the novel progressed. By the end I thought they were both totally off the rails awful and although towards the end of the book both men show positive human qualities (John sets out to kill Alexander, then gives up this quest to keep his children safe from the inevitable lynching that would follow, while Alexander helps Annalaura through a difficult birth when she’s all alone) these events just weren’t enough to counter balance all the time I’d spent watching them be terrible, terrible people towards the female characters. For whatever reason I firmly aligned myself with the women against the men, instead of finding a way to sympathise with everyone. I’m still not ruling out the idea that personal feeling has influenced my reading of a couple of characters who other readers will be able to both sympathise with and hate just a bit, but I have read books that successfully convinced me to feel sympathy and dislike before now, for example ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ contains a character who is abusive, but also seemed separately sympathetic to me.

What I feel the book does really well is to show exactly how hard life could be for women involved with these particular kind of men, by introducing the reader to these two complicated, but ultimately violent male characters, which neither of the two sympathetic female characters can trust. Annalaura is a woman trapped between a rock and a hard place in this book. And McNaughton’s wife Eula Mae lives in a loveless, predictable marriage, which she tolerates by deceiving herself, until her husband begins to fall in love with Annalaura (although, of course he doesn’t fall in love with her, just an idealised version of her that he calls Laura). Both women are given active point of view sections in this book, which allows the reader to really get to know them and understand their lives. I would have liked a lot more from Annalaura after Alexander McNaughton begins to rape her, because I wanted to see her feelings about their relationship revealed. Clearly by the end of the book the time they spend together has become more than rape, but how did she reach that state of mind? I thought that the reader had much more access to Eula Mae’s troubled internal feelings. Hearing her inner thoughts humanised and developing the dull, obedient woman Alexander sees, into a person only the reader knows. Not that Annalaura isn’t taken past the image the men in her life have of her in the sections the reader gets access to their inner thoughts, it’s just that as the character the book begins with and the woman who seems to be the heart of the book, I might have expected the book to give even more space to her perspective.

To finish, just a (longish) note on the book’s writing. I started ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ a while ago and was put off by the immediate clunky exposition of the first paragraph:

‘Annalaura Welles stirred out of her fitful sleep to the certainty of two things. Husband John was gone for good this time, and even with the help of her four young children, she would be unable to bring in the tobacco harvest by the end of August. Though this was coming up the second year she’d sharecropped the McNaughton mid-forty, she still wasn’t used to living in the converted upper reaches of a barn.’

Sure, this paragraph serves a purpose. It gets a lot of necessary information across quickly: who the protagonist is (Annalaura Welles); what her circumstances are (a woman with four children living above a barn); information about her past (troubled marriage with a man who has left before and now seems to have left permanently) and what the major conflict in her life is (the inability to harvest enough tobacco). It introduces points of interest, which is supposed to intrigue the reader into wanting to continue with the story, for example the reader might wonder who are the McNaughton’s and where has John Welles gone.

Unfortunately there is a lot of information contained in this three sentence paragraph, which is a relatively cramped portion of writing space considering all the facts and information the reader is supposed to absorb. The paragraph is overburdened with more background context than it is capable of encompassing comfortably. The reader’s rhythm is disrupted by the author’s decision to overstuff this first paragraph with straight forward info dumps and attempts to naturally link two rather dramatic declarations with a sentence about living in a barn. This paragraph has the effect of making the novel sound like it is blurting out information, hurling it at the reader rather desperately, with no regard for elegance, as if the narrative thinks it needs to hand the reader all the information they could possibly need or they will leave. The effect of reading it is kind of like when you meet a stranger on the bus who tells you their whole life story in a loud voice, without pausing for breath. Book, you are making me uncomfortable!

I know how important the first sentence can be to help readers decide whether they’re going to pick up a book and continue reading it, so if this passage sounds as shouty and desperate to you as it did to me, can I just say please, please persevere. The rest of the writing is not like this at all. There are a couple of other awkward moments of exposition, but nothing on the scale of other books I’ve reviewed here before (naming no names, but you probably know which ones I’m talking about). For the most part ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in an easy to read, solid and inviting style. It’s a good piece of storytelling and I’ve spent so long going on about my problems with the first paragraph so I can explain that the rest of the book is written with much greater naturalness, because I don’t want people to be put off and miss out on this historical novel.

Of course I could just have kept my mouth shut and only talked about all the bits I liked in the novel instead.

And wow, I just called the book ‘good’, which sounds kind of a pathetic word in this world of ‘awesome’ and ‘fantabulousness’. We should rehabilitate the word good…

Shut up brain, over thinking does not help! : P

So, overall a good historical novel, that makes me want to start reading more historical fiction again, because the world within was conjured so well. It’s a book that erases some of the disappointing experiences I’ve had with historical fiction recently, which have irrationally kept me from returning to the genre. And yet, still, not a book that encouraged me to feel sympathetic towards less than sympathetic characters. Zetta Elliot and the author, Francine Thomas Howard discuss John Welles in an interview at Amazon, but I’m curious to know, how does everyone else feel about the men in this book?

Other Reviews

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rhapsody in books
bookgazing: (i heart books)

I meant to join in the Calico Reaction chat about ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness, when it ran last year, but even though I’d finished it in plenty of time I didn’t get around to it. I’ll suggest that you go over to her livejournal and read her thoughts on this book, because you’re going to get a lot more information from her (note there are spoilers). I felt the same way she did about a lot of things (loved Ness’ way with creating character voices, the creation of The Noise and the slow reveal that this is a sci-fi novel), but I felt really differently about the emotional impact of this book, but let me start with a quick discussion about the beginning of the book.

This is one of the very rare reviews where I’ll be missing out plot synopsis and going straight into the issues that I need to talk about. As a consequence there will be spoilers and a lack of plot information. )

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bookgazing: (i heart books)

Following a sequence of mishaps Jack Miller finds himself left alone in the Arctic, asked to keep a scientific mission on track during long days of permanent darkness. Jack, the poorest member of the expedition party with plenty of class pride and something to prove, is determined to remain, gather useful observations and save the scientific matter what horrors may loom out of the darkness. In the process he hopes to earn respect from the missing upper class members of his expedition team; specifically a blonde haired, strapping young man named Gus, who Jack describes early on as ‘a handsome blond hero straight out of 'The Boy’s Own Paper’.

If you’re the kind of person who despairs when horror movie heroines go down into the basement, you will be screaming at Jack to get the fuck out of camp throughout Michelle Pavers’ Arctic ghost story, ‘Dark Matter’. Even when he comes to believe that there is a malevolent presence living near his camp at Gruhuken and is convinced that it wants to hurt him, he refuses to ask to be retrieved and abandon the mission. The days pass and his colleagues' return is continually delayed. As the weather grows colder, the threat of impassable pack ice becomes ever more real. Jack, Jack. What the HELL, Jack?

I think that reaction shows that I came to care about Jack. 1 Not that I necessarily ever want anyone to be destroyed by a violent ghost you understand, no one deserves that...Alright, I’m evil, maybe I wouldn’t be so bothered if certain characters got eaten by a ghost. Still, I obviously felt pretty strongly that I would like Jack in particular to survive. How does Paver forge so strong a connection between the reader and her main character in such a short (just over 200 pages) novel? Well, in the first few pages she introduces him by having him write a definite statement in his diary: ‘It’s all over. I’m not going.’. Intriguing. Where is he not going? What about this night has decided him? I was already engaged by the end of this sentence and I want to know more about Jack. I’m encouraged to care about him, because he is interesting. I know, how unfair; in real life we should care about all the people, but this is Literature and shit is a cut throat around here.

Jack is further set up as an outsider character. In the episode that has provoked the outburst I quoted above he’s just met with men who have more money that him and more privileged educations. Several of them clearly sneer at him throughout their conversation. He’s an underdog in a classist system, where money makes your dreams come true and he can’t afford a round in an expensive pub.

From this meeting he sets off back to his rooms, ruminating on how his life has been derailed by his father’s death and the slump (The Great Depression’s manifestation in the UK). The slump left him unable to take a further degree in physics and instead he took a job at a stationer’s distribution factory, where it appears he will stay unless something drastic happens. All this social detail and the sad state of his rooms further establish him as a man thwarted, through no fault of his own. Then comes what I think is the strongest paragraph of the novel:

‘I’m twenty eight years old and I hate my life. I never have the time or the energy to work out how to change it. On Sundays I trail round a museum to keep warm, or lose myself in a library book, or fiddle with the wireless. But Monday’s already looming. And always I’ve got this panicky feeling inside, because I know I’m getting nowhere, just keeping myself alive.’

Here’s a piece of such open, simple emotion that it’s impossible not to empathise with Jack’s situation. On the way home he witnesses a body, possibly a suicide, being fished out of the river. As he sits in his grim room in a boarding house he realises that ‘This is the only chance you’ll ever get. If you turn it down what’s the point of going on? Another year at Marshall and Gifford and they’ll be fishing you out of the Thames.’. Right here, he takes his chance, despite reservations about travelling with people whose personalities and class are so different from his.

In just a few pages Jack has been established as disadvantaged, an underdog, and an outsider. He’s picked on by circumstances and desperately unhappy, yet honest and determined to grab his chance when it’s offered to him. That’s a pretty powerful arsenal of emotional hooks that Paver has given to her character to sink into the reader. Everyone loves an underdog right?

That doesn’t mean that Jack is a universally good, little orphan hero boy. He can be spiky and harsh, when he talks about other members of the team. He carries his own intellectual class privileges, saying he has no interest in mixing with people from his job socially and is disinclined to warm to those he deems stupid. Like all heroes from classic ghost stories he is sometimes frustratingly convinced that ghosts are all superstition and that no rational man can allow for their existence, no matter what kind of fear those with more experience radiate. He hates dogs!

I know, I know, I found that hard to get over as well, but over the course of the story Jack develops. He becomes friendlier and less prone to isolate himself as he bonds with Gus. He even longs for the companionship of others as the days grow dark and lonely. He gives way to reason on the matter of the ghost, allowing that it exists no matter what his cultural training says. He comes to love the huskies they bought to Gruhuken. Jack can still be prejudiced against people and never exactly heals his relationship with another crew member Algie, who seems perfectly harmless if a bit dim and rich. However, he does develop into more of a rounded human being, someone readers can empathise with without kind of wanting to give him a good hard slap once in a while.

I was charmed by Jack. I was quite scared during some parts of the novel. I loved the historical detailing of the period. I liked the clear and descriptive prose. I greatly enjoyed reading 'Dark Matter'. Yet, I can’t help wishing that I could see Sarah Waters' version of this story. There’s a certain layer of depth that would be present in a Waters novel dealing with all the same elements (ghosts, darkness, science, on coming war, differences in social class and gay love) that simply isn’t brought out in Paver’s story. As litlove said in her review ‘Dark Matter’ feels rather too slight to make it a great book. I agree; historical detail about social circumstance is included, rather than explored, which keeps the novel from being both a strong ghost story and a novel which illuminates the nature of humanity. While , Paver lets her ghost stand as a real apparition and shades social detail in around that story, Waters would have made the ghost story about the social, or character detail, allowing the whole period to be investigated in detail naturally through symbolism, subtext and the mechanism of the story. Paver’s way of writing this particular story isn’t wrong or lacking, but it’s not quite as suited to my tastes as something similar to ‘The Little Stranger’ (but set in the 1930s with a gay hero) might have been.

The gay romantic longing is another thing I’d have enjoyed seeing handled slightly differently. Perhaps from my description of Gus above you can already see where the relationship between him and Jack is going, although Jack certainly doesn’t have a clue for a long time. Alone on Gruhuken, during his most desperate times, Jack realises he’s in love with Gus (totally called it, shippers see things; they don’t just make up non-existent stuff). He has no idea if Gus feels the same way, or if he will ever speak to Gus about his feelings, but he wants to get it down in his diary. At the end of the book the reader is left with no idea whether Gus returns his feelings, although I maintain that their last moments together are pretty tender.

My problem comes with the way this relationship is resolved. Guss dies before Jack can even think about tell him how he feels. I mean I know that the story is set in the 1930s, but it wasn’t written in the 1930s right? The bonus of being a modern writer, writing historical fiction is that you shouldn’t have to enact the same fates that contemporary writers of the period would have had to put on people society disapproved. Personally, I’m not convinced there was any literary need for Gus to die, Jack and his team had already been fairly mentally and physically scared enough to keep a happier ending from appearing too idyllic and sentimental, others may disagree. If a happy ending really does seem beyond the bounds of reality, or artistic merit then why not a more complicated tragic ending, then sudden death provides? I’m not accusing Paver of anything nefarious, just saying that (especially after talking to litlove about it) I think Gus’ death seems like a missed opportunity to add complexity to the novel’s ending. How much messier and more interesting if he’d survived. What an interesting insight that would have given into that period of history.

Oh well, when you grow up reading Pat Barker you want every historical novel about men doing traditional manly things in the early nineteenth century to come complete with gay storylines I guess. Still, an enjoyable, creepy ghost story perfect for freaking yourself out with at night. Now, I must get back to reading Paver’s young adult ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ series.

1 And that I took Victoria and Danielle’s advice to increase the scare factor of this book by reading parts in the dark. Thanks ladies, thanks A LOT ;)

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bookgazing: (i heart books)

According to the introductory note ‘Gentleman Jigger’ was heavily influenced by Richard Bruce Nugent’s involvement in the emerging Harlem Renaissance. The first section is a fictional account of his time working with Wallace Thurman, with whom he created the journal (insert name). Nugent’s stand in character Stuart and Thurman’s avatar Rusty, spend this section cooking up artistic schemes on the fly. These projects are designed to enhance the artistic reputation of African American artists, but Nugent’s book also heavily frames them as flighty, off the cuff schemes primarily thought up so that Stuart and Rusty can earn more money for booze. They create a journal, open an art exhibition in their rooms when funds are tight and gather a group of artistic followers around them who keep the gin flowing.

The reader emerges from ‘Gentleman Jigger’ with an awareness that artistic revolution often springs from less than idealistic enterprises, this does not negate the readers appreciation of the value of the art that Rusty and Stuart’s group ( but especially Stuart) produce. Rusty is very off hand about the integrity of Stuart and the other contributors art work, asking them to knock something up quickly to fill space in the journal. He is more concerned with the rise in artistic status that producing a provocative journal will confer on himself and by association, African American art. Stuart himself often agrees that while talented, he is much too lazy to produce consistant work of substance and bangs out frenzied work for cash. However, his refusal to take his talent as seriously as those around him would like feels deliberately designed to provoke those who he sees as too serious, as is much of his talk.

Perhaps his resistance to concentrating on his work, as others would like him to, is his way of rebelling against what he sees as peoples wish for him to conform and gain approval from white authorities. Nugent’s novel is a delightfully gossipy, alchol drenched romp set in the 1920s and it contains a lot of dryly written dialogue and funny episodes, but it’s also a rigorously intellectual book. The first section sees Stuart calmly dispute the views that many other people, including his black peers, hold about subjects related to race. At various points he deconstructs the lazy way people label art as having a very ‘African’ style, denys that his disgust at a white mans involvement in a quarrel between two black men is an issue of race and debates the ‘one drop’ theory, often riling those around him with his calm assurance in his own ideas1. One of the recurring intellectual arguments about race that Stuart spends a lot of time disecting is what he sees as other black people’s black hating desire to be approved of by the white establishment; their quest to be validated as serious, worthwhile and civillised. Towards the end of this section Stuart is begining to see his paintings become successful without ever really becoming more serious. Although he often spends time working himself hard, he remains hard drinking, flippant, irresponsible and deliberately provoking, yet receives large commissions from his art. It feels as if Stuart’s own vision of African American liberation is the freedom to be as irresponsible as he likes, the freedom to not have to always respectably represent his race and not have to pay any kind of professional consequence for refusing to conform to a life style people would see as more ‘civillised’.

The second section sees Stuart leave Rusty and his friends. In the first section there is a running question about whether Stuart is primarily gay or straight, even though he is asumed to make love to both men and women. Although no one in the group seems to have a problem with someone who sleeps with both men and women, it does seems to frustrate Rusty’s set that Stuart refuses to confirm which gender he prefers for his romantic partners. Stuart makes a point of furthering his friends frustration and confusion in a memorable chapter where he dates a brother and sister pair, both named Bob.

However, in the second section it becomes clear that Stuart is much more sexually interested in men than women. It is also revealed that he has been playing the experienced, cynical, master of sexuality. He is still young, rather untried and unfortunately constantly open to being hurt. In this part of ‘Gentleman Jigger’ the reader sees a much more vulnerable side of Stuart, as he becomes involved in various relationships with Italian gangsters. He is required to untangle the complex way in which these men profess to hate gay men and yet sleep with him, then adjust himself to exclude anything that would align his behaviour with the gay men they profess to despise2.

I enjoyed ‘Gentleman Jigger’ because it was a witty, sometimes scathing, novel set in the 1920s, feuled by gin, that reminded me a little bit of Dawn Powell’s satires. It featured entertaining, thoughtful, if sometimes snobbish characters and made its most endearing character firmly #teamboyskissing. It was perfectly suited to my tastes. Even though I feel like a lot of the intellectual side of this novel went over my head and I expect that people with a better grasp of race and GLBTQ historical arguments would delight in unpicking the responses of its characters to some big questions. Still, I did enjoy at least trying to come to grapple with the challenge of understanding. The feeling of your mind being stretched is hard to beat.

1 I don’t have enough knowledge about how racial arguments developed to really understand the merits, negatives and depths of many of the discussions about race in the first section of ‘Gentleman Jigger’. If anyone knows where I can any critical analysis of the arguments in this book, please point me to it.

2Again, there are a lot of arguments here that I just don’t have the tools to unravel and I’d love to see someone with more knowledge about the history of rhetorical responses to gay relationships take on reviewing this novel (I know, ‘I am demanding’ redux, right?).

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bookgazing: (i heart books)
Oh here’s the film post that I promised, what...two weeks ago?
To atone for the fact that even more of my money is going to the sparklepire empire in 2011, I have been trying to watch more smart people films over the past few months. Ok, fine, I did go and see ‘Arthur Christmas’ (rocking, get yourself to a cinema screen if the compulsory holiday cheer is already wearing you out) as well, but mostly it’s been classily shot film, marketed to my actual age range.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ )

'Good Night and Good Luck’ )

'Winter’s Bone’ )

'Jane Eyre’ )

'Capote’ )

That’s what films I’ve been watching. What have you seen recently and what should I watch next?
bookgazing: (i heart books)

‘Now I sit toying with the idea that maybe life is a game after all, a game we play just once. I am coming round to Sarah’s view, perhaps. But if life is a game then it has no practises; no training; no preliminary rounds. It is a game played on the principle of sudden death. And to play it properly, to play it fairly and well, we need all the strength that self-knowledge, courage, will and discipline can impart. At twenty-two I had not yet learned to take life seriously; to know that it is not like other games; that it matters who wins and who loses; and that how they win and lose matters also. I had no idea that victory could be Pyrrhic; nor did I know that the end seldom justifies the means. I could not have known any of this without experience, and of that I had none. I was innocent; and innocent of my innocence.’

Here is an example of the dark, self- flagellating foreshadowing that makes Richard Mason’s debut novel ‘The Drowning People’ so creepily compelling. Mason’s narrator uses an over blown gothic style of narrative that is appropriate for a story which contains a family plagued by insanity, dark secrets and a castle on a private island that is the cause of much jealousy.

The seventy year old narrator, who tells the story of his life, continually makes much of the guilt he feels now and the terrible secrets that he is privy to, which his younger self did not have the foresight to anticipate:

‘He knows no remorse; no shame; no despair. I resent him. He, who thinks himself so fine, does not move as I question him. He sits by the river in an endless idle dream, as I beg for signs I might have seen, for warnings I might have heeded. But still he sits, moving only to toss a pebble into the fast-flowing waters. He pays no attention to the ramblings of an old man; he does not hear them. And I am left helpless, watching.’

He dwells on the terrible lessons he has learnt from the past without revealing the full substance of these secrets to the reader. His words in this passage convey a sense of extreme foreboding to the reader, heightening the tension of the novel. And trust me, by this point in the novel the reader is already hanging from the window ledge by their finger nails as they peer in fearfully at an old man, in a high castle who at the beginning of the novel admitted quite calmly to having shot his wife.

Now, imagine reading a whole novel of such prose. Imagine the first moment you snag on the overly melodramatic nature of these weary, foreshadowing monologues full of strong urging to heed the lessons of the narrator’s experience. Imagine the moment when the seductive spell of high emotion wears off and the mechanics of the novel become much more visible. All you can hear is that ticking of the clockwork and it starts to drive you to distraction.

Look ‘The Drowning People’ is a lovely, deep novel of self-analysis. The narrator is earnest. He determinedly examines his memories to expose the deepest truths of life. It is full of passages of good, sensible realisations, like ‘I was wrong. No love is worth that. No human being is worth the total abdication of the self.’ which may seem simple and obvious to readers with experience, but still conveys a meaningful truth. He conveys both the rigour of his approach and the unflinching nature of his analysis, by using confident, clear, definite phrases that convey how little he spares himself, for example:

‘The ease with which my ties of friendship with Eric dissolved under Ella’s influence shames me now. Then I’m almost certain that I didn’t. And as I talk I remember why it didn’t. I remember the tricks I used to bypass all considerations that might have weakened my resolution, the cunning by which my possessed mind protected itself and its intentions from all complicating scruple…’

This character analysis is shaped around a thrilling plot, full of twists and secrets which truly are shocking. And even in its quieter moments, during the clear, detailed establishment of the novel’s world and the aftermath of dreadful events where the narrator tries to set his life back into some sort of recognisable form, it’s very compelling. The narrator also shows a keen awareness of the way that the other people around him work. It is an unbelievable conceit to set this novel, with its high level of awareness of meaning, as an obsessive one night reconstruction of memories locked away for years, but I could happily let that go.

However, it is not a book I’d recommend to readers who like subtlety. Perhaps you have gathered from the quotes above that Mason’s narrator really like to bang a lesson, or a feeling home. And there is little room for reader’s imagination to interact with the text, as every single image highly described. There’s never just a ball, it must be ‘a scarlet ball’, never just a scarf only ‘a gauzy scarf’. Let me show you the effect this has on one short phrase, where every object must be accompanied by a descriptor, for example ‘the shadowy staircase bathed in short bursts of inadequate light’. That’s not a huge deal, in fact the description is technically probably very accomplished, and it’s personal taste that leads me to find it distracting and a little bit intrusive. When you’re under the spell of the novel, reading faster and faster to find out what in the hell happens, none of these little tics matter, but once you notice it you notice it all the damn time.

I read this book in two days, started noticing this kind of things about a hundred pages from the end and still managed to hugely enjoy ‘The Drowning People’. It’s a fun book to read, despite a male narrator who as you can probably tell is rather self-obsessed and seems to be rather saved by his author, rising higher and higher professionally while he weeps of suffering, in comparison to his girlfriend whose suffering leads to her break down and incarceration. An interesting novel to read then, but perhaps not written in a style that stands close analysis.
bookgazing: (i heart books)

Literary geek moment: Novels that play around with structure are so much fun! Seriously give me a novel that reorders the traditional linear structure and I am automatically fascinated, like a kitten with tissue paper.

‘The Night Watch’, Sarah Water’s WWII novel is presented in three sections: the first is set in 1947, the second is set earlier in 1944 and the third takes the reader back to 1941. Obviously the reader begins the novel on the first page, which means they read the 1947 section first and then move onto the 1944 section, so as they enter each new section the characters they have been following move backwards in time. The reader knows how the novel ends before they know how each characters story begins.

Telling the reader how a story ends, in the first pages of a novel isn’t unusual. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Drowning People’ by Richard Mason, which begins by telling the reader that the narrator has killed his wife and I’ve read a fair amount of other novels that began by revealing that the narrator has committed a crime. It’s a well established technique that, among other things, increases dramatic tension, as the reader spends the rest of the narrative puzzling over questions of how and why.

Although ‘The Night Watch’ reveals how each character’s narrative strand ends before it allows readers access to the beginning of each character’s story, its structure is re-ordered in a slightly different way from novels, like ‘The Drowning People’. ‘The Night Watch’ has more in common structurally with ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’ by Monique Roffey, which spends a whole section showing the reader where its character’s have ended up and how their story ends, before the beginning is ever written about. This kind of structure creates dramatic tension in a slightly different way.

In the 1947 section the reader is dropped into a world that appears in many respects quite normal (even though the representation of long term gay and lesbian partnerships, as normal during the 1940s makes this novel quite stand out in mainstream publishing). Helen and Julia live together as lovers. Duncan lives a quiet life taking care of an older man called Mr Mundy. Viv takes a day trip with her married lover Reg and visits her brother. Still, there is something quietly jarring about the characters lives. Kay’s life is the one most obviously out of kilter. Her words on the first page, ‘So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist- watches have stopped...’ suggests her life has been affected by some powerful force and pushed out of the shape she expected it to take. Teasingly obscure allusions that hint at secrets from the past fill this first section, making the reader crave answers to these small mysteries. Everything slightly askew and any engaged reader will want to work out what historical events have caused the sense of oddness that clings to many moments in this section.

Obscuring a mystery is a pretty standard tension building device, just as revealing a plot resolution at the beginning of a novel has become common. The mysteries being hidden in ‘The Night Watch’ are in the past. Again secrets from the past, pretty normal plot drivers. Hang on, here’s the twist. Typically in novels which reveal the end of a story before the beginning, when the characters arrive in the most present moment the reader will be allowed to follow them to all secrets are revealed. By the end of the first section of ‘The Night Watch’ (which, remember, is also the end of the novel’s overall forward progression in time) the top level secrets haven’t been revealed and the reader finds themselves asked to ‘end’ their interaction with the characters with so many questions unanswered. And so the reader turns to the next section, anxious to unearth the origins of so many teasing, potentially tragic, character details.

Instead of sticking with regular structural re-ordering, revealing just one key moment from the end of the novel Waters has placed the entire end of her novel at the beginning. Rather than returning the novel to an entirely linear narrative after that revelation, she sets up three linear sections and each section represents a later time period than the section before it. Flash back scenes in other novels, or more commonly in films, work in the same way to create both shock and anticipation as the reader sees tantalizing glimpses what past events led to the drama of the present. In ‘The Night Watch’ flashback is made use of in an isolated way. Inside each separate section time progresses forward in a straight line for the four main characters and the novel never moves between time periods within one section, which means there is just one flash back at the end of each section and there no corresponding flash forward back to a current narrative.

I’m not saying ‘The Night Watch’ has a structure that draws a reader in by creating dramatic tension in a totally unique way, but I do think her novel pushes hard at the established ways of reordering narrative. Even though above I’ve called each transition into a new, earlier time period a flashback, that label feels inexact. Most flashbacks are written in the past tense, or presented as remembered scenes, but the 1944 and 1941 sections are written in the present tense. The reader is actually moved into those time periods, rather than being allowed to locate themselves in one ‘present’ time period and experience earlier events at a remove. Although the reader should be aware how each characters narrative ends (as they’ve seen them end in the 1947 section) that knowledge fades into the background while reading the 1944 and 1941 sections, due to the use of present tense. All the troubles the characters face in these sections seem serious even if the reader knows they’ll be less important by the end of the novel. All the joys the character’s experience feel sweet and wonderful, even if the reader knows they’ll be undermined by later experiences. It’s an interesting reminder that the significance of feelings and actions can seem to be obliterated by the force of time, but they were always real feelings, important actions. As puzzles are unravelled and points where everything could have turned out quite differently are revealed, it becomes clear that everything is connected. Everything the characters do has significance, even if years later they convince themselves that past events were more important to separate past selves.

That’s a lot of words, just about structure and this feels like a good place to take a break. I’ll hopefully come back later this week with a full on emoting post about the characters, who moved me (Kay, Duncan!).

Other Reviews

things mean a lot
Tales from the Reading Room
bookgazing: (all the cool kids are reading)

Last month I was lucky enough to get to read ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman with that most generous of book bloggers, litlove from ‘Tales from the Reading Room’. Based on an ordinary seeming family, the novel follows Elly, her brother Joe and the rest of their family, as they get on with the business of living. Elly gets a pet rabbit and makes a best friend called Jenny Penny. Her brother finds joy in rugby and falls in love with boy named Charlie. Their father and mother are happy together, even though their father is weighed down by some heavy guilt that follows him from the past. They form sturdy familial bonds and at yet spend plenty of time defining themselves as separate people. It all sounds like the normal stuff of novels centred on the important events of a domestic environment.

So, what if I told you that Elly’s rabbit is named God who talks to her? Suddenly we’re in the land of magical realism, something that litlove and I talked a lot about in the e-mails we exchanged as we went along.

I’ve never explored the theory behind magical realism and sometimes feel like it sits in a funny kind of opposition to the ‘rules’ of other fantasy writing. Most fantasy novels contain a set of internally logical rules set up by the author that govern how magic works. If the author wants to overcome limitations imposed by those rules they must find logical ways to do so. Any part of a fantasy novel that amounts to ‘By the way, this thing that I have never mentioned before means that magic works in this convenient, plot facilitating way’ is generally given a suspicious side eye, with good reason, illogical circumvention of the rules undermines reader confidence in the fantasy land they’re being asked to believe in and the emotional reality of a story.

To me, magical realism seems to be made out of the kind of hand wavy supernatural that is unacceptable in the fantasy genre. ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ certainly includes convenient fortuitous events a plenty, along with unexplained magic. One day Elly’s family wins the football pools, which makes them wildly rich and saves her father from a total breakdown. Jenny Penny shows Elly she can pull fifty pence pieces out of her arm. A rabbit appears just when everyone needs a symbol of hope. Still I felt like it would be hugely arrogant to write off magical realism, just because it’s concept of fantasy seemed a little woolly to me. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the context to understand how it worked and I wanted to understand how litlove was interpreting the nebulous strain of unexplained magic that ran through ‘God Was a Rabbit’, so I asked:

bookgazing: ‘…Are you thinking that we're being presented with a childs eye view of the world and the occasional magical happenings aren't really taking place/take on a different appearance for adults? Or do you think this is a more straight forward piece of magical realism that wants the reader to buy into the reality of the magical stuff? The fifty pence piece moment has me wondering, because as an adult reader I automatically think she's self harming' and the author is obscuring this from us through Eli lack of understanding. But it's a coin from the future...

And are you just going with the flow with the sort of unbelievable bits of the plot like the football pools win? I don't feel inclined to analyse this novel through expectations of realism at all for some reason.’

litlove: ‘The talking rabbit I was inclined to put down as a child's-eye-view. But the 50 pence piece from the arm is on another level altogether (and yukky). I found myself examining my arm and wondering if it were even possible. I completely agree that it tends to send out messages of self-harm, even if it isn't supposed to be literal, the image domain it comes from seems to make that implication. Magic realism used (in the good old days) to be about alternative kinds of power, arising from folklore and magic, that were the preserve of suppressed, indigenous people. It began as a very political tool, rewriting history from the perspective of the oppressed. So in a sense children make good vehicles for magic realism as they have no actual power, but often believe very strongly in animistic powers, or forms of magical thinking.’

At this point in the conversation I was enjoying the book, but unsure how to read much of it, which is why litlove’s explanation of magical realism was so helpful. The idea that Elly, a child who has a lot of her power and voice stripped from her by an adult at the beginning of the book and Jenny Penny, who is a pretty powerless little girl (although we don’t find out the extent of her childhood powerlessness until the end of the book) were both being given power by the author, seemed in theory to fit with the tradition of magical realism.

One thing I like about book blogging – the chance to pick up bits of knowledge from smart people. I was given a glimpse of what magical realism was all about and suddenly it all seemed to make a lot more sense. And yet, as litlove said, and yet... Despite the fact that both Elly and Jenny Penny are children who have had their power taken away from them it’s hard to see how the magical realism in this novel, gives the girls their power back:

litlove: ‘I can't make that sit happily with the narrative, for no real logical reason, other than the 50p thing doesn't feel powerful, it just feels messed up (at least, to me). The rest of the set piece events - like winning the lottery - seem more derived from farce, along the lines of Voltaire's Candide, where all these mad things just happen and the cast of characters struggle along with them as best they can.

And it made me think that the magic realism parts are particularly there to bridge the gaps. I hope I'm not giving away too much if I say that there is a happy ending which resolves a lot of difficulties. Looking back over the story, it seemed to me that when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.’

As the book progressed I found myself feeling ever more strongly that the magical realism element of the book was working as litlove said and was giving some hope to the characters and reader. At the same time some other things about the book felt kind of forced.

bookgazing: ‘I finished 'God Was a Rabbit' yesterday and have mixed reactions to different bits of the book, much like you. I have to say that although I could feel some connection with the emotions of the characters and a lot more connection during the second part, it felt like a book that relied heavily on the hand wavy method of story telling. The emotion was strong, but the technique was not. Terribly convenient things happened at convenient times…which for me could push the magical realism into tweeness. Yet I was fine with the rabbit reappearing at convenient times and love your idea that 'when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.' so there must be more to my reaction, but I can't quite fathom it yet.’

I spent time enjoying the relationships between characters. I liked that Winman has included several different types of relationships (ploy amorous emotional love, friendship between old and young) and sexualities (two gay characters and one lesbian, none of whom die) in a way that emphasised how easy growing up with non-traditional people can be. The gaps in Winman’s narrative reasoning allowed me the space and time to interact with the text. However, there was no getting away from the fact that at times ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ confused me.

It seemed to me that as litlove and I talked we kept getting drawn back to some kind of central disconnect that the mixture of magical realism and the accumulation of happy accidents. A family friend who is blind has his sight returned to him when a coconut (the object a psychic predicted would kill him) is thrown at his head. Elly’s brother loses his memory only to have it return just as his sister has stormed off, after giving up hope. Something did not feel emotionally real in these events and I resented it. Ever cynical me said:

bookgazing: ‘I don't want to seem like I'm the kind of reader who thinks a happy ending is a cop out, but I do think some books about some subjects require characters to be put through the wringer. The characters here got off really easily, even though they were involved in some terrible events and for a while seemed to be about to go off the edge. I wasn't so bothered by Charlie coming home safely from his kidnapping and managing to live a normal life, but the point where her brother’s memory came back really rubbed me wrong….the return of memory in this book feels dreadfully perfect. Just when she begins to give up on him forever, he redeems himself under the effect of a good, stern talking to! It felt like Winman pulled back from the brink of the real tragedy of memory loss and the real way people manage to rebuild too soon to conjure something true. She's so close...but, no, it's too scary, so she pulls her novel back.

and litlove followed up by saying that

litlove: ‘I think what feels a bit odd is that we begin with this stream of disasters (with the occasional triumph) that look completely arbitrary and random. Well, okay, if that's the representation of choice of destiny, so be it. But then that seems to be interwoven with another strand of super-convenient events that have the contrived artificiality of the most plotted fictions. I think it makes it hard to know how to read what happens.

The novel is definitely trying to trigger the reader's sense of poignancy (and that may be a problem - it overdoes it a bit, like poking a bruise to see if it still hurts, but not letting up until it's numb), but I think we have to be won over either by the character (which is a possibility here, there are some endearing characters) or by the sense of truth in the unfolding of the plot. I have this huge admiration for novels that make me feel, yes, that is exactly what it would be like, that is just how it would happen. Now that's not the kind of novel we're dealing with I don't think, although all the quotes seem to want to push for the emotional veracity of the story. But add that to magic realism and swirl it around a bit and you've got a funny old cocktail. I think that as I look back on the book now, I feel that it mixed things together that shouldn't really go together. So you had good bits and not so good bits.’

That is pretty much how I ended up feeling about ‘When God Was a Rabbit’. Kind of frustrated happy if that’s a thing. It was lovely to see everything work out so well, but do I ever wish it could have worked out just as well and felt more emotionally real.

It was an absolute treat to get to discuss a book in detail with litlove as she was forming her initial impressions. It was also so much fun to talk about other things. One of the things I like best about the book bloggers I meet is how happy they are to talk about all kinds of things, how books lead on to other subjects and how at the same time that never distracts from the books at hand. We could easily have run away with ourselves and only talked about the Rigsby/ Van Pelt ship in The Mentalist (alright maybe I could have run away with myself and gone on about tv, while she politely replied) or we could have been strict and kept just to bookish questions. Instead we talked about a whole bunch of things including the book and I feel like I got my own private time with the whole of the personality I see appearing every week on her blog. It was such a lovely experience and one I hope we’ll get to repeat again.

You can hear what litlove thought of the book at 'Tales from the Reading Room'.
bookgazing: (Default)
I'll be back on books soon everyone (and I need to tell you about meeting another book blogger in person) but for now I have some catch up impressions to offer about television (sadly not about the new series of Torchwood, we will not be speaking of that here). Do you remember I mentioned that to recover from my recent brush with the ‘ugh’ I was watching a LOT of crime drama? Apparently all UK tv providers had some huge crime drama budgets this spring and were determined to spend them, before someone reassigned the money to the department of truly weak comedies. Here’s what that budget bought us all:

‘Scott and Bailey’

I really, really wanted to like this, but in the end I didn’t get on with the first episode and ended up just watching the first and last part of this series. This is, what, the first show focused around a female police partnership since Cagney and Lacey (I am so unoriginal in my comparisons) but what’s that in the first episode? Why it’s Detective Bailey, abusing her police powers to avenge herself after a failed romantic relationship. GOOD LORD NO. Is it possible that you could revenge yourself without abusing police knowledge in order to do so? No? Well, if you absolutely have to use that knowledge, could you at least wait a couple of episodes so we can see that in general you are a decent, professional type? Or, if you want to go a different way you could abuse your police knowledge for other reasons as well, so that it’s clear that vaguely rule bendy copper is part of your core personality, not just something that rears up when a man has done you wrong. So many possibilities, why chose the most annoying one makers of drama? Oh and also the crime plot was a bit dull.

The last episode was...not totally better, but less annoying and more smart about the ladies. We got to see a lot of Scott and Bailey’s female boss, played by
Amelia Bullmore (the more I see her, the more I like her) who sounds fascinating whenever she gets to speak. She used to be in profiling and in this episode she spends a lot of time being animated about her job, praised by a young profiler and enthusiastically missing the profiling department. Oooo. We get a better idea of Bailey’s competencies (she’s very smart and she notices everything, earning her respect and the name Sherlock), to go alongside that early picture of her abuse of power. And there’s a cracking cliff hanger ending.

Still, the villain of the over arching series plot is easily guessable and you can work out exactly what’s going on between everyone without needing to watch the rest of the series...Not exactly a recommendation, but I’ve watched a lot worse television than this last episode and enjoyed it.


I like Anthony Horowitz’s television work. It’s not fancy, or loud and although he refuses to help viewers solve crimes on their own (gah, please, I probably won’t work it out from your clues anyway, I just want a chance), his dramas do tend to contain detailed, human relationships. I got hooked during the first episode of this five part series, because it was rather slow to build and made the viewer get to know characters. These characters then changed over the five parts, into people who are not exactly sympathetic (a killer is revealed, a police man turns out to be emotionally abusive to his wife and a criminal turns out to be a scared victim). I mean if you’re going to make viewers ask ‘What are the morals of this situation?’ you need them really engaged with the characters, otherwise well who cares if you killed someone to make the world a better place soulless, featureless character?

It got good, it got a bit dull, and it got good again. Horowitz chucked in some espionage because that’s what he does (spies, EVERYWHERE) and all was disturbingly ambiguous. It didn’t really need to be on five straight nights. It didn’t have that big cliff hanger appeal and I could have done with some time to mull over how I felt about the character’s actions. Otherwise very polished.

‘Case Histories’

Jason Issacs runs. Jason Issacs takes off his shirt. Jason Issacs smokes sexily. Most of the other characters are women, so there’s no real male competition to distract from Jason Issacs.
Jason Isaacs!

Some reviews I’ve read concentrated on the large collection of strong women surrounding Jason Isaac’s character. Having so many female characters around making up the support and the background to the world is great (the sisters’ relationship in the first two parter is especially touching) and needed. At the same time the first two episodes of ‘Case Histories’ are clearly the Jason Isaacs/Jackson Brodie vehicle, where all eyes should be aimed at JI at all times, so it’s hard to get too excited about there being so many women. The women don’t get really active, present parts; instead they die, talk to JI, or recount their past (his daughter and the sisters’ parts are exceptions to this). Even when they’re murderers all their action takes place off camera. You can sort of tell they’re busy having active lives away from JI and the cameras, but is that enough? Tricky. I end up seeing the first two episodes as good subversions of lots of common female presentation, filled with that oh so unusual female gaze, but I’m still not totally satisfied with them.

Some of the female actresses talk about
the amount of strong female characters in the series, at the BBC website. Unfortunately this section is titled ‘Jackson’s Women’ a title which maybe signposts that my problems may not all be in my head.

The third episode is much more YES ABOUT THE LADIES, as Jason Isaccs is joined by plucky, odd teenage side kick played by
Gwyneth Keyworth (such a cool young actress) who gets to go around with him solving the mystery of her employers disappearance (and has all kinds of agency besides that).

Maybe if he hadn’t made that joke about his little daughter dressing like a prostitute I’d be happier with this show. Or maybe I’m just difficult and should read the books first. Drama wise I enjoyed it. It had good actors, stories and believable relationships between characters. I just wasn’t sold on the female representation.

‘The Shadow Line’

But then compared to something like ‘The Shadow Line’, ‘Case Histories’ female representation is so much wider and better, so maybe that’s what I should judge it against rather than some misty eyed ideal (eh I do not like this idea).

Not awesome:

Making the name of the one female police officer Honey
Being another crime program where women go to die, or act as plot devises to spur their men into action
Some gay representation that is questionable in the grand scheme of gay representation


Pretty much every actor and actresses performances, but especially the ooooohhh
Christopher Eccleston, Rafe Spall and Lesley Sharp
Characters like Jay Wratten and Gatehouse, creeping you out all episode long
Storylines with so much plot weaving, honestly BBC I had no idea you could plot this well, why do you not do so more often
Love of chucking in a completely unbelievable but awesome fight sequence every three episodes
The ending which put ‘The Departed’ on notice for not being ruthless enough.


I found the crimes slightly dull and unnecessarily complicated. None of the episodes needed a two hour slot except for the final one, which shows some of the complexities of police officers necessarily leaving behind unsolved cases. However, very interesting personal relationships and character backgrounds popped up (Joe’s wife’s post natal depression, Vera’s awkwardness). And I can’t be totally against a show featuring an older, non nonsense female detective. Vera’s character is really interesting, as she goes along being brusque, smart and thoughtful. So, another show where the characters trump the plot for me.

‘The Mentalist’

Another show where I’m less interested in the crimes and more into the characters relationships. When I last talked about this program someone pointed out that the crimes investigated show a remarkably lack of diversity (overwhelmingly rich, white, straight people seemed to be involved as victims or criminals) to which I’d just like to say, wow, on the money, thanks for lifting the lids off my eyes. TV lands so neatly on the default sometimes and I don’t even notice.

The over arching narratives that carry through the seasons are more compelling than each random crime, which Jane will no doubt solve at the beginning of the episode just like Columbo in a flashier suit. I’m more interested in whether Rigsby and Van pelt get back together; whether Lisbeth and Jane are really just meant to be good colleagues and friends; whether Cho will ever get a romantic partner... I was impressed by the resolution to the Red John serial killer story line in the finale. So surprised (in a good way) by who they got to play Red John and glad I guessed this series’ police accomplice (because it suggests a Rigsby/Van pelt reunion which I want desperately). There are enough lose ends for another series, but the last episode would make for a reasonably satisfying end if this should be the last series.

So, that’s the tv I watched to unwind. Did anyone else dip into everything offered by the recent crime drama bonanza? Any theories on why so much original crime drama was shown all around the same time. And has anyone seen the new series of 'Luther', which was the one big crime work I missed?
bookgazing: (Default)
Hello everyone, just a quick update post, after my second London trip to talk about theatre and sightseeing!

Two weekends ago I met
Ana, Ana and Meghan for general hanging out on the way to a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at The Globe. Honestly I had a fantastic time, in fact it was one of the best days I’ve had in ages meeting new people as everything just seemed so easy (so easy that I over talked way too often).

I thought the play was lovely, but then I’ve yet to see a bad staging of a Shakespeare play, his work makes everyone try their hardest it seems. Even the adaptations I wasn’t expecting huge things from about (Alastair McGowan and Jason Merrels in a touring production of ‘Measure for Measure’) have been wonderful. And, ok I’m a celeb spotter at the theatre so it was really exciting to see cast members I recognised from television *is a philistine for being excited to see Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bell Air on stag*. The Globe’s staging is something special. It may even compete with the RSC’s varied staging experiments (look I am RSC biased ok), because the RSC theatre in Stratford does not have water features, or real trees.

The ladies were very generous and I ended up with a huge sack of books loaned and given:

Ok, maybe I bought a few as well. I couldn't get a good picture of them and have lost my patience with the camera so they were:

'The Eagle of the Ninth' - Rosemary Sutcliffe (childhood revisit after loving the film based on this book)
'Miss Hargreaves' - Frank Baker (single woman heroine)
And a non-fiction book about the real story behind Robinson Crusoe (which I can't remember the title of right now)

And then the day after I went to meet a friend who had just got engaged. Lots of ring ogling and Pimms on that occasion.

Last weekend I went on an epic theatre trip with my mum where we saw two shows, went sightseeing around London all day every day and took a theatre walking tour. Highlights included seeing the only portrait of Shakespeare with a good claim to being painted from life (Shakespeare was a rake I tell you), finding a ‘right out of Blyton’ school fete in Deans gate, which enticed us to sit with Pimms and cake made by a Latin teacher to watch Morris dancing, spotting pelicans in St James Park, a trip to Salvatore’s (the foooood is so good) and Moroccan food on the Southbank. Oh and the theatre of course:

Les Miserables: It was my second time seeing Les Mis and omfg I had forgotten how great it is. The songs from the word go are all singalongamazing. I like the crowd songs best ( ‘Work Song’ ‘At the End of the Day’, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), but some of the solo performances were just so outstanding that even a musical dunce like me could understand I was seeing something special.

The story is kind of a weird, but oddly hopeful mixture of the socially progressive (‘Lovely Ladies’, is a song which confronts everyone’s ideas about the comic image of the prostitute and Jean Valjean’s storyline forces the audience to question established ideas about criminality) and adherence to the limitations of old standards (oh Eponine I hope thousands have written fan fiction where you don’t have to die just because you dare to love the hero when he loves someone more traditionally feminine and socially acceptable). I’d love to know how much of the each position is Hugo and how much comes from the modern producers, which I guess means I have to read the very large set of novels.

War Horse: I’m absolutely gutted that I didn’t enjoy ‘War Horse’ more, as I was expecting to throw myself into loving it more than Les Mis. First let me say everything good I’ve heard about the staging and the puppetry is true. The puppets and the people working the horses are fantastic, as the mechanism and the puppeteers work together to produce true depictions of horse’s behaviour and movements (the front legs don’t quite look right as the horses run, after Joey grows up, but I think that’s probably a technical limitation). I loved the computerised backdrops, the actors dancing birds in flight across the stage, the creation of a tank on stage – basically all the staging, sets and costumes are amazing.

Unfortunately some of the main actors in the performance we saw were really bad at their jobs. They were obviously working off that well repeated principle that acting has to be larger in the theatre to reach the people at the back, but they seemed to lack the ability to retain the nuance of the emotions they were supposed to be portraying, as they projected larger and louder. Some of the actor’s performances were shouty. Some performances were just confusingly lacking in emotion and the actors uttered their lines with such disjointed inflection that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the serious points they were trying to make.

While bad acting is obviously always a problem in a play, it was especially detrimental to my reaction towards ‘War Horse’. The play’s story is hugely sentimental. There’s a scene where Joey the horse is creates the opportunity for co-operation between soldiers on both sides of the trenches. The finale has Albert reuniting with his horse, while blinded by tear gas, just before bells signal the end of WWI. These are not subtle scenes. Their meaning and intent are clear; war is hell and we should all weep for those caught up in it. Now the uncompromising forcefulness of this message and the blatant attempt to inspire sympathetic emotions should not necessarily have been something that turned me away from this play. I agree with the sentiment that war is harmful and it would be inaccurate for me to say that I’m put off entertainment by heavy sentiment, or obvious displays of politically partial sentiment. I do prefer this kind of message to be subtle and less one sided, but I adored ‘The Lion King’, which is very sentimental and I enjoyed ‘Blood Brothers’ which contains a political message that lacks ambiguity. I could name lots of other media I like that is kind of sappy (Les Mis, that I’ve praised above got me in the heart with ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and ‘Castle on a Cloud’ which are both very much ‘cry, damn you’ heart string tugger songs), or very one-sided in its political stance, but something about the combination of sentiment, straight down the line opinions and awful acting triggered a bad reaction that I don’t think I’d have had if the play had just been kind of fuzzy hearts wanting and firm in its opinions.

I did find myself so interested, as a big ‘Black Beauty’ fan, in the parallels between Anna Sewell’s novel, which was partly written to illuminate the poor treatment of cab horses and ‘War Horse’, which shows a lot of the pain horses went through as they served in WWI. I think the production company (and I assume Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel the play is based on) have tried to follow a similar structure to ‘Black Beauty’, as the play sees one horse as he’s passed on to different ‘owners’ (there are other similarities that suggest this play is actively recognising a link to Sewell’s novel, but the structure seems like the main one to me).

It’s interesting just to compare the difference in structure, but I can’t quite stop myself from making judgement comparisons as well. Which piece of media uses this type of structuring device the best? I’m not convinced that there’s enough space in this production to pull off this structure as successfully as in ‘Black Beauty’. The play requires a narrator to help the audience understand what is going on and without having Joey talk in a permanent voice over (as Black Beauty does in the 1994 film) humans must take that part. In order to care about the thoughts each character has about the brutal world they live in, the audience needs to get to know and care about each human narrator as much as they care about the constantly present Joey. In my opinion the play just doesn’t support the audience enough to encourage them to form a deep connection with all the multiple human ‘owners’. Some of these human characters lack development. Some are cast off as soon as is convenient for the plot, for example a French child whose live is eventually blown apart by war never finds Joey again. For all the audience knows wanders in the woods alone until she dies, even though she has shown just as much narrative innocence, kindness and morality as Albert and so has by the rules of this narrative earned a similar happy ending). The narrative doesn’t encourage the audience to care what happens to her after she’s played her narrative part (sweet girl who learns a bit of English and shows her love for a horse). The consequence of including so many characters that lack back story or depth of personality is that a majority of the play has no emotional resonance and the audience must rely on their connection with the horse to feel the full importance of everything that takes place in the play. I came away feeling I’d have enjoyed ‘War Horse’ with just the horses and a mime show from the actors.

Saying that, one of the most affecting parts of the play comes when a less developed character (Albert’s cousin) must charge Joey into the gaps of the enemy lines. His repeated, desperate cry of ‘Where are the gaps, sir?’ as the sounds of war play loudly through the theatre, brought to life a soldier’s experience through the simplicity of the fear and perseverance on display. I’ve got to give ‘War Horse’ some of my heart for that and the vivid mechanical recreation of horses; I just wish I could feel a little bit more towards it.

Now a question for you all. What production should I see next be it musical, plays or Shakespeare if the opportunity comes up?

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In 'Red Riding Hood', a recent adaptation of the 'Little Red Riding Hood' story Valerie is the girl who will come to possess the famous red cape. She has always tried to be good, or so her voiceover tells us), but from the very first scene she is tempted from her duty by a hunting trip with her friend Peter. Peter grows up to be a humble woodcutter (important!) who Valerie loves very much. Sadly Valerie’s parents want more for her than a life as a wood cutters wife and betroth her to Henry, the son of a wealthier metal worker. Alas, alack Valerie loves Peter (who I was cheering for, because a romantic hero called Peter in a werewolf film, that is some meta-coolness right there).

This troubled love triangle takes place in a village that must constantly placate a wolf with animal sacrifices. The wolf hasn’t killed a human in a long time, but just as the film opens Valerie’s sister Lucy is found dead. The wolf seems to be linked to Valerie in some way and she spends most of the film trying to keep from being taken, without letting the wolf destroy her village, while the audience attempts to work out who could be the wolf.

I heard rumours that 'Red Riding Hood' was a feminist retelling, which tweaked my curiosity. One feminist reading of the original 'Little Red Riding Hood' is that the story warns young women of the dangers of straying from the path and exploring the world for themselves. The film gestures towards this reading of 'Little Red Riding Hood', by making the wolf a hindrance to women’s unsanctioned sexual exploration. At the beginning of the film Peter and Valerie are making out in the woods, only to be interrupted by the warning horn that signals that the wolf has killed again. They return from the woods and find out that Valerie’s sister has been killed by the wolf. Characters initially assume that Lucie may have been killed because she snuck out to meet Henry on a wolf night. Both of these characters are exploring romantic partners outside their parents sanctioned choices and have stepped outside the bounds of their parents village.

'Red Riding Hood' made me think hard about how I identify a piece of media as feminist. How do I interpret work as feminist? How important is my knowledge of the creator’s intent? I feel like there’s feminist intent behind this film, attempting to make it a film that deliberately pushes a feminist message. However, I also think my feelings are mostly based on flimsy moments in the source that could easily be interpreted as simple reiterations of anti-female messages. In the scenes I described above the film is restating the original symbol of the wolf as a warning against the dangers of women straying from their sanctioned lives. Valerie kisses Peter and the wolf horn sounds. Lucie possibly goes to meet a boy and the wolf kills her. This restatement of the original fairytales message that responding to unsanctioned sexual interest can lead to danger, does not make the film an explicit feminist interpretation of the story. The original tales of 'Little Red Riding Hood' contain the same themes and I don’t think many would argue that these themes make it a text with a deliberate feminist intent.

The meaning behind these moments was never explicitly clarified. No one ever comes out and says ‘Using a wolf to represent a warning to women against exploring sexuality is creepy wrong’ so, why do I interpret them as moments created out of feminist intent? Why did I see them almost as wink to camera moments and think of the director Catherine Hardwicke raising her eyebrow, pointing and mouthing ‘See the messed up anti-female bias in the original story’? Maybe I identified them as feminist because reviews had told me to expect to find a feminist slant in this film. Maybe I reinterpreted these moments in light of later, clearer feminist commentary about the uncomfortable link between imprisoning women and protecting them from wolf shaped danger. Or maybe I saw them as feminist moments, because Valerie and Peter clearly express the happy, cheerful side of their attraction to each other. I guess my assumption is that if a film includes characters who are free to express happy feelings of sexual interest, any moments that speak of sexual interest being punished by a wolf, must be included as knowing commentary? Like I said I’m concerned that this is flimsy reasoning, which relies too much on my interpretation of the films intent. And as we all know interpreting sources based on assumptions about intent is a dodgy business. I will think on and see if I can identify anything more concrete that makes me interpret these moments as feminist.

Whatever led me to see these moments of cloudy meaning as pointed feminist commentary, some kind of explicit feminist commentary needed to appear to convince me that this film was a feminist piece of media. The most effective moment of commentary comes when Gary Oldman’s character, Father Solomon, arrives to hunt the wolf. His small daughters venture out of from his heavily armoured carriage, crying and shaking. They ask if the wolf he seeks here is the one that killed their mother. Father Solomon says it might be, then bundles the girls into the carriage. They are driven away to a mysterious location while they sob and peer out from a barred grill. The shot of them being driven away is a strangely chilling moment. It also allows the film to allude to ideas that men sometimes imprison their daughters under the guise of protecting them, which subtly comments on Little Red Riding Hood’s function as a warning tale.

Father Solomon quickly reveals himself as a villain, who the audience should despise, by contradicting widely held modern sensibilities, for example by accusing a boy of being a werewolf because he is disabled. If anyone wasn’t freaked out enough by the idea of a father locking his daughters in a constantly moving jail for their own safety (I mean that pretty much had me screaming SCARY VILLIAN in my mind) the other grounds that establish him as a villain suggest that all his actions, including his attempts to protect his daughters, should be viewed as suspect. This scene acts as explicit commentary on wider ideas about male protection of the female, specifically fathers’ attempts to control their daughters lives, which the ending of the film ties into nicely.

The theme of fathers controlling daughters and the metaphor of wolves representing overly protective fathers is the best developed strand of feminist commentary in this film. Sadly, that isn’t exactly saying much. The theme is not sustained, or really referenced, very often in the film after Father Solomon’s scene with his daughters. The viewer has to wait until the end for a really strong return to the theme of fatherly control. And yet it is still the most well developed feminist thread in this film. Red Riding Hood is scattered in its presentation of feminist critique and doesn’t quite know what it wants to comment on. At first it seems to want to pick away at the anti-female aspects of the original tale. Then it switches and tries to provide a wider criticism of historical attitudes towards women, as Valerie is unwillingly betrothed to Henry. Father Solomon says he found out his wife was a werewolf and killed her, so surely the film then switches to criticism of husbands who…I dunno, kill their wolfed out wives and metaphorically clamp down on their wives abhorrent wolfish sexuality? The line of feminist investigation is all over the place.

It’s like the film knows it wants to be feminist and it knows about a range of feminist issues that could be addressed in an adaptation of 'Little Red Riding Hood', but it panics - there’s too much feminist correction to be done, it feels overwhelmed and it tries to take too much patriarchy on at once. There are flares of successful commentary, like the scene with Father Solomon’s daughters, but the feminist critique isn’t shaped into a satisfying, sustained narrative line. I was left with muddled ideas about what the film achieved in terms of feminist commentary and I feel unable to point to many specific parts of the film which are effective pieces of feminist examination. The ending brought the feminist angle to the front of the story again as a villain walked through the ways that the wolf’s killing was been full of punishments for deviant female sexuality. Valerie defeats the wolf, dressed in her red cloak which is an obvious ‘I am woman, see me stab’ moment. However, I felt that although the ending makes 'Red Riding Hood’s' feminist intent clearer, it isn’t enough to shape the film into an effective piece of feminist media.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some aspects of this film. I might be the only one, judging from other net chatter, but I genuinely didn’t know who was going to turn out to be the werewolf. The misdirection of the film worked really well for me and I followed it willingly as it suggested that Peter, Valerie’s grandmother and the young priest could each be the werewolf. I even suspected Father Solomon for a while. It’s a shame though that the film doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to offer different kinds of feminist critique as each new person is framed as a potential wolf. The symbol of the wolf could potentially change its meaning depending on which character is thought to be the wolf. The film focuses on the entertaining mystery aspect of the town’s uncertainty rather making explicit reference to the symbolic chances provided by the changing accusations.

But perhaps it’s a mistake to focus mostly on the story’s symbolism and themes. As kind of a hot, action thriller 'Red Riding Hood' is quite a fun romp. As I said, the mystery element is intriguing. It’s also sexily shot. I watched the trailers and there is something alluring about the snow, flowing red capes and dark woods . It’s a classic combination, designed to tap sensual indicators set up by a lot of old stories and cultural ideas I guess. It certainly worked on me. And there’s a lusty 12A hot edge to certain scenes, especially one where the village dances because it thinks it has defeated the wolf. I’m very fond of Amanda Seyfriend since her appearances in ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Veronica Mars’, so it was nice to see her reappear...

'Red Riding Hood' is definitely not the worst film I’ve ever seen ('Varsity Blues') or even the worst film I’ve seen all year ('The Adjustment Bureau') and I feel a little unfair summing up all it’s good qualities in such a short paragraph. Unfortunately, it’s undeniable that there’s more bad than good in this film and to say the good points go any deeper that surface appearances would be to skew the truth. It’s a sexy, adventure romp with a strong gothic violence vibe that trips daintily along the line between darkly sexy and genuinely uncomfortable (personally I think the scene near the end where Valerie is forced to wear a stylised iron wolf mask is disturbingly fascinating). It includes a feminist focus, even if that focus is all over the place. It’s a paranormal romance film where the female lead is be allowed to kiss a guy without HEAPINGS OF SHAME being piled upon her head. I would watch it again if I were to find it while idly flicking through channels.

A few comments on some of the weirder stuff found in 'Red Riding Hood':

The romantic love triangle in this film is made of fail from the very beginning. There’s a total lack of romantic chemistry between either of the two male leads and Valerie. Henry is just so incredibly meh, even his hair cut is apathetic. There’s never any real tension about who Valerie will end up with, so why include a love triangle? Answer: because someone spent a whole meeting boring on about how love triangles are hot right now, until everyone in the room caved or head desked themselves to death.

There’s a pretty lusty vibe between Peter and Valerie, but I couldn’t see any deeper romantic feeling between the two of them. I have no problem with characters whose relationship is entirely about sexual attraction, but this film asks me to believe that Peter and Valarie are the kind of loved up couple who could weather paranormal tests and forced betrothals. I believed they were hot for each other and having a great time, but I didn’t really see any especially convincing emotional connection between them.

Suzette, Valerie’s mother’s costume and makeup is zupped up to the max, in comparison with all the other actresses. I’m not sure if her corseted, brightly coloured outfit and flawless foundation was an attempt at some kind of weird feminist commentary (we find out she’s had an affair, maybe the emphasis on her overtly sexy appearance was meant to reflect her status as a woman of unsanctioned sexuality). If her appearance was intended as commentary it was stupid (as stupid as having British actors speak with American accents while playing Roman soldiers in ‘The Eagle’). If it wasn’t, her costuming and makeup were bizarre in the context of this film.

Father Solomon arrives in his ominous armoured coach and his guards step out, all wearing helmets. They remove their helmets and…they’re all black, or Asian. Right from the get go, the audience understand that he is a villain, because he’s accompanied by a guard force whose members are positioned as strange, ‘exotic’ and threatening partly because of the fact of their race. They make the villagers gasp. Black and Asian men would have been scarily unfamiliar and threatening to them right? I mean, maybe, I don’t really know enough about Russian ethnic history to comment, but whatever, that’s not really the point. The point is that Red Riding Hood is another film that associates particular racial groups with evil, menace and unfamiliarity. It misuses (probably) historically plausible attitudes to justify including a serious modern racial bias that we see reoccurring throughout the film industry. Please make this kind of thing go away.

Personally I find it annoying that a disabled character was included in this film, just so that he could be killed. Plod (yes, I know, maybe the villagers would give him a derogatory nickname, but perhaps the viewer could also have been told his real name just the one time) He isn’t given any back story or characterisation. Then he’s suspected of being the wolf, because he’s disabled and likes card tricks, so Father Solomon has him killed. It’s contextually realistic for Father Solomon to think a disabled person could be in league with the devil, but Plod needs to have some kind of substantial characterisation. His disability should not be just a plot point, which allows Father Solomon to kill him and show a modern audience how unhinged he is. I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well, but I definitely feel like everyone involved in this film needed to think harder about the inclusion of Plod.

Reading the ending with a feminist head on and looking for consistency in the symbolism creates a problem. Peter is bitten by the wolf and turns into a werewolf. He goes away for a while until he can learn to control himself. Then he returns, to continue his romance with Valerie. Well looking at that symbolically it gets all kinds of messy (and I’d probably spoil the ending if I explained why). I suspect we’re supposed to view Peter returning to Valerie’s arms as a wolf, as Valerie embracing her sexuality…Meh, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it feels dodgy to me. This was the only moment in the film where I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of the director of a Twilight film ( part of one of the most anti-feminist teen franchises in the last five years) directing a feminist remake.

So, it’s another case where I quite enjoyed a film that was a bit silly and found plenty of fodder to roll round my brain. At the same time there were some parts that would make me uncomfortable talking about this film as just a silly romp, with a few theatrical problems, so you got this long post. I hope you found something of use here (and now off to try and get some book reviews written up, before my weekend disappears under a friend’s birthday celebration).


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April 2019



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