Monthly Archives: February 2012

From the book section: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

This book is a book lover’s treasure.  It’s not written by a British author; Palma is Spanish, I believe. But the book is very British, in my opinion. It is set in England, in 1896, and many of the characters featured walk straight out of English history. I love love love historical fiction, and am particularly smitten with the late 19th century. This was ideal for me, obviously.  And what other book has H.G. Wells, Bram Stroker, Henry James, fake time travel, real time travel, and Jack the Ripper?

The novel contains three intertwined stories, all different, all wonderful.  Some questions posed in the first story are not answered until the end, but they are all eventually answered in wonderful and unexpected ways.

I loved everything about this book, from the amazing packaging Simon & Schuster put together:

to the fact that it absolutely avoided genre conventions and cliches. I am normally pretty alert to the conventions of whatever book I happen to be reading, and am able to guess fairly accurately what will or will not happen.  70% through this novel, I was still unsure whether it was entirely based in reality or had elements of the fantastical within.  Each story was a surprise and something novel. That’s rare nowadays, to be honest. I heard from someone at S&S that Palma’s idea regarding these stories was to imagine the impact a particular novel (in this case, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells) has on society and culture in its time. I think that’s a really cool and unique way of approaching the value of literature and it’s very real effect on its world.

I can’t say enough about my enjoyment of the book. It was a delight to read. I was sold with the premise, but also really loved the prose. It was simple, but not minimalistic, and definitely engaging and active in a way I find hard to describe. It was an adventure to read. I am honestly not sure whether to attribute this style to Palma or to his translator. I often wonder how much of the credit should go to the unsung heroes (or villains) that translate foreign works.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, was pretty terrible, in my opinion. I enjoyed the movies much more than the book, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the translation. But that’s a separate diatribe, so I will keep to my praise of the book at hand.

I cannot stress how much I love it when books are about books, or about writing. Palma has sprinkled in bits about Wells writing his novels, about his process and his feelings regarding his works. We even get a sense of how Stoker and James worked and lived around literature. As an aspiring writer, I adore these glimpses, fictional or not, into the world of famous writers.

In short, I loved this book. I’ve heard rumblings of two more, and in doing a search online it seems that the second one was published a few weeks ago in Spanish. It’s called El Mapa Del Cielo or The Map of the Sky.  But I don’t read Spanish nearly well enough to read a full-length novel in it. So hopefully Atria, or someone, will pick up the American or UK rights to the second one soon and I’ll get to experience more of Palma’s stories.

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Surfing the Channels: Sherlock Season Two

I had high hopes for season two of Sherlock, since I absolutely adored the first season and the wait was just long enough to make me want it all the more. This season, the writers tackled the stories “A scandal in Bohemia” (renamed a Scandal in Belgravia), “the Hound of the Baskervilles”, and “The Final Problem” (renamed the Reichenbach Fall).  These are perhaps the most famous Holmes stories.

Belgravia tackles “the woman” as she is known. Irene Adler.  For the first time, we see a Sherlock Holmes who might actually be interested in a woman. And she is more than interested in him. If anything, I think this episode improved upon the first season. I loved the pacing, the action, the wit. I loved the last 2 minutes. I loved the first ten minutes. I’ll be honest and say I thought the answer to the passcode riddle was corny. But, I can forgive any episode that provides a moment as ridiculous as this one:

I also found this episode particularly lovely in terms of the relationship between Sherlock, Watson, and Mrs. Hudson.  They do care for each other and we really start to see the human side of Sherlock in this episode, even as he pushes people away who care for him. There’s plenty of Watson and Sherlock banter, and Martin Freeman is somehow even better as Watson in this season than he was in the last.

Also, I must take a moment to point out something I forgot to mention in my first review. The music! I adore the music from this show, and I’m not someone who particularly notices peripheral things like music or set design, but I notice, connect with, and appreciate all of the little things that go into making this show wonderful.

The “Hound of the Baskervilles” is, I would guess, the most famous Holmes story in the original canon. With such large expectations, and such a strange story (more ghost story than typical detective fodder), I wasn’t surprised to find myself a bit disappointed in it.  There are good moments, particularly with Watson, and the awkward men on holiday together feeling of it, but overall it was my least favorite episode of the show so far. The resolution was a bit far-fetched for my liking. What I did enjoy about it thought was seeing a Sherlock that was actually fearful.  It is refreshing when someone so seemingly all-knowing is confronted with something simultaneously unbelievable and terrifying. It is good to see him humbled, and I think it is necessary to prepare him and us for the next episode.

Also, I have to say…I know a lot of people love Russell Tovey, who has had roles in Being Human, Dr. Who, Little Dorrit, and loads of other British stuff, but I dislike him for whatever reason.  He’s very odd looking, but then again so is Benedict Cumberbatch and I adore him.  So that can’t be it.  Perhaps it is that in absolutely everything he seems to play a whiny complaining incompetent. Could he ever just be happy in a role? If so, maybe I wouldn’t dislike him so severely.

Finally, we have “The Reichenbach Fall”.  I’m not sure I can talk about this episode, to be honest.  I might need a few months of therapy before I get over it.  No, I don’t think I can discuss it in full.  Needless to say, it is a beautiful and tragic and horrible and wonderful episode and truly brilliant work on the part of everyone involved. I won’t go into details, but I will say that we see relationships truly tested, and Sherlock truly tested. And he proves to be not just a great man, but also a good man.  And, oh god, Watson. Martin Freeman does an amazing job and made me cry repeatedly. And that’s all I think I can say, because I’m just too emotional about the whole thing. Plus, I don’t want to give anything away.

I think that series two is actually far better than series one, and that’s pretty remarkable considering how much I loved that first season. Thank the lord they are making a 3rd series, and it shouldn’t be too long before it’s on TV. This is my favorite show on TV right now, and the best thing I’ve seen on TV for years.

Surfing the channels: Sherlock season 1

You know, when I started watching Downton Abbey, I thought it must be the greatest thing on British TV right now.  And when I saw the Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr, I thought it was pretty damn good, and RDJ was a good Sherlock.  I was incredibly wrong on both counts.

The fact is, the BBC series Sherlock is my favorite thing that has been on TV for years.  I adore it so much that I’m going to devote two posts to it, so that I can concentrate on each season in turn.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a modern retelling of the classic Arthur Conan Doyle tales.  Martin Freeman (whom I have loved since The British Office, adored since Love Actually, and would watch anything if he were in it) plays Dr. Watson. Of course he is about to be a lot more famous around the world, since he is starring in the Hobbit later this year. Before seeing him in this, I would have found it difficult to imagine him as a soldier, and as a serious man.  But he is flawlessly good at portraying everything about Dr. Watson, without being derivative. And Holmes?  Well.  His name is Benedict Cumberbatch–yes, that is his actual name. And, while some say he looks like that sloth from Ice Age, after a few episodes of Sherlock, I found myself putting him on my relationship-exception list. He isn’t very well known yet, outside of England at least, but he will be soon.  He was in War Horse this past year, and coming up he’s got the Star Trek sequel and some voice work in the Hobbit with Martin.

So why do I love it so much?  Part of it is the format.  Even a one hour show would be difficult to work with in terms of the depth of the mysteries and the adventures involved in solving them each week. Instead, the BBC, quite smartly, ordered 3 90-minute episodes per season.  Ok, 3 episodes is a torture, to be honest. I just start to get really obsessed and it’s over. But each one is like a little movie, so it gives you a lot of time to get invested in what’s happening. There is time to set up the mystery, time for lots of banter between Holmes and Watson, time for adventure and danger, and of course time to wrap up the mystery. By the time you watch all 3 episodes, you feel like a season’s worth of pathos and drama have gone by.

The first season had “A Study in Pink”, “The Blind Banker”, and “The Great Game”.  All the episodes are based on the classic stories, but updated and varied in some ways you expect and some you don’t.

Another reason to love it is the actors and the dialogue.  Perhaps that’s two reasons, but the point is how they work together. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a “high-functioning sociopath” with little social skills, a sadistic enjoyment in humiliating others, and, as is eventually revealed, a soft spot for a select few people in his life. He is brilliant, he is cruel, and he is absolutely impossible to look away from. Watson is, as in the books, more of a human being, with more recognizable feelings and moods. He is the everyman witness to the brilliance of Holmes, but he is essential to the whole thing. He is also quite funny, and very moving when the situation calls for it.

There is even the all important Moriarty. He is not what you would expect, which makes him all the more brilliant.  I won’t give anything away, but he is scary and funny and witty and memorable, all at the same time.

It’s the mark of a truly remarkable show when a complete novice like me recognizes the brilliance of the direction and the set design.  How can everything about this show be completely modern, and at the same time, reflect so well the Victorian era of its source material? Through incredibly good work on the part of everyone involved.  I can’t praise it highly enough, it is perfect. It is smart. It is a ton of fun. GO see it immediately. It’s on Netflix Instant and it’s been on PBS Masterpiece theater lately. Go, now, GO!

Surfing the Channels: Downton Abbey Seasons 1 and 2

Well, the finale of Downton Abbey was on last night on PBS, so I need to share my thoughts before they vanish from my mind.  Downton Abbey has been everywhere lately, and it’s wonderful for me to see other Americans realizing the incredible quality of the shows that Britain can produce.  And to see Americans enjoying something so quintessentially British as an upstairs-downstairs drama. It’s been so ubiquitous here that SNL did a skit about it:

If you haven’t ever seen it, I would recommend it highly.  If you’re new to period dramas especially, it may be the most accessible.  The concepts are more easy to understand and more readily explained than in some of the more classic period dramas that the BBC is famous for.

A short primer for the uninitiated: Downton Abbey (the name of one of the great aristocratic English houses) is the story of everyone that lives and works in one house in early 20th century England. For a great house like this, that means something like 50 people, though the show focuses on about 15 of them.  The ‘upstairs’ family consists of Lord Grantham, his wife Cora, their three daughters, Mary, Sybil, and Edith, and Robert’s mother, The Dowager Countess (Maggie f’ing Smith!). The ‘downstairs’ portion of the house is where the servants spent most of their time.  Back in the 19th century, English kitchens were in the basement, and this is where the servant’s worked and socialized. They usually slept in the attic, but that’s not particularly pertinent.  So there is Mrs. Padmore, the cook, and Daisy, the kitchen maid (one of the lowliest positions you could have).  They mostly stay in the basement.  The rest of the servants spend time waiting on the family, being lady and house-maids, butlers, valets, and footmen.  The show focuses on Anna, a housemaid, Thomas and William, the footmen, Bates, the valet, Carson, the butler, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, and O’Brien, a lady maid.  If you’re not aware of the distinctions between these ranks, I’ll not bore you with my archaic knowledge. I did a fair bit of research in the past year, as I am writing a historical fiction novel myself.  But the knowledge of who reports to whom is communicated pretty effectively in the show without my pretentious ramblings.

I must say this show is proving very hard to sum up in a short primer! The only characters I’ve left out (besides incidental comers and goers) is Matthew Crawley and his mother. He is cousin to Lord Grantham, and because of rules about women inheriting in England at the time, the entire estate and fortune of the family will pass to him.

The first season is absolutely sublime. It’s dramatic, it’s enraging, endearing, hilarious.  Maggie Smith is perfection.  My only complaint about season one is that it ended, and then the wait was so long before season two arrived on our shores, that I had to rewatch so that I could remember what had gone on.

Season two leaves me a bit more uncertain.  Before and as it was starting, I heard a lot of bad reviews had come out.  Some critics even recommended not watching it, as it would ruin the first season.  I don’t agree that it was bad.  But looking back there were bits that I wish they had avoided.  Not giving anything large away, I am thinking of Edith and that farmer, and Lord Grantham’s indiscretions were particularly annoying and offensive considering the good opinion I had of him before. With all this happening, the second season seemed a bit more melodramatic soap opera than the understated drama of the first.

But there were such beautiful and sad and happy moments, and I found myself just as elated/devastated as the characters. That must be the mark of an excellent drama, when we feel things as keenly as those to whom they happens. And the horrors of WWII were enough to send me nearly over the edge. I also admire this story and its auteurs for being upstairs-downstairs, but always maintaining that the stories of the downstairs occupants are just as important and valid as those that are happening upstairs. And to see real loyalty and fondness cross that boundary. Plus, I am a sucker for a Christmas Special.

In short, I absolutely adored it, despite any flaws.  I cannot wait for the next series.

The DVD shelves: The Trip

The Trip is a mockumentary about two actors, playing sort of warped versions of themselves.  Steve Coogan, I’m sure a lot of people have seen in films, even if they don’t recognize his name. He was in Tropic Thunder, the Percy Jackson film, both Night at the Museum movies, etc.  He’s most famous in England for playing Alan Partridge, though I must confess I haven’t the foggiest idea who or what that is.   The other actor in this film is Rob Brydon. I haven’t a clue who he is. I’ve gleaned from the film that he is most famous as an impressionist and voice worker.

The plot to the film is actually quite similar to Sideways, a film that I absolutely adore. Two men who knew each other when they were younger reconnect over a road-trip revolving (in theory) around food (though in Sideways they are mostly interested in wine, not food). Similar to Sideways, one of the two is intelligent, bitter, a bit depressed, very lonely, and occasionally quite acerbic and mean.  That would be Steve.  The other is more gregarious, good-hearted, and less intelligent.  That is Rob.

The two characters in this movie are truly dreadful people.  Steve is simultaneously egomaniacal and incredibly insecure. He is only confident if Rob has a smaller room than him at each hotel they visit on their food tour.  Rob, on the other hand, is one of those people who constantly need attention and need affirmation of how funny they are.  I hate those people. He spends the entire movie doing impressions.  It’s funny for about 10 minutes, then it’s just annoying, then it’s almost unbelievable.

So, if these are two horrible men, why spend two hours with them? Well, partially it is that they are so different and they are enduring time together.  They are challenged by being together, and it’s honestly quite uncomfortable sometimes. Each begins to see himself through the other’s eyes. Well, to a point. There is no massive revelation, and no sense of enduring friendship. Mostly, there is discomfort.  Which, from reading a few interviews about the film, was partially the point.

For my part, though, if I wanted to sit for a few hours with people who don’t understand each other, I’d go see my family. Maybe my enjoyment of the film was lessened by the fact that I didn’t recognize a lot of the cultural references.  The Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Woody Allen impressions were funny.  The first time. But almost every other reference and impression was lost to me.  I like to think I’m more versed in British culture than most Americans, but this reminds me how completely unaware I am of most of their TV culture. And this movie was not made for international consumption, in my opinion. I guess, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t recommend it for people not very familiar with British culture.

Surfing the Channels: Stephen Fry in America

This TV documentary recently became available on Netflix Instant, which is awesome because I missed it when it was on BBC America.  Stephen Fry, who has long since owned my heart because of his work on …everything?  To name a few of my favorite of his projects: The British Harry Potter audiobooks, Little Big Planet video games, QI, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder, and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Check out his nonsensically large resume, filmography, etc. at his IMDB page and Wiki page. He is absolutely wonderful.

So, here I am, an American, talking about a British show where a British man comes to see and talk about America.  It’s rather hard to get hold of the concept.  Fry manages to see 50 states in a London cab.  Ok, 48 states in a London cab, then Alaska and Hawaii without it.  He has officially seen more states than me.  But, he’s got a few decades on me, so maybe I’ll get there eventually.

It’s interesting to hear an outsider’s opinion of America.  We can learn something about both America and England by hearing the differences he sees between the two.  Fry reckons that we are far less cynical, and much more comfortable engaging in activities that might be seen as ridiculous by the Brits (meditation, pretend spy games, group song and dance). He mostly seems to admire these qualities, but is quite obviously also unable to embrace them himself.  Natural British reserve, I suppose.

I found the series quite interesting, and I even learned a few things I didn’t now.  It’s always good to be able to appreciate as exotic something that seems quite normal and uninteresting to you.  And only foreigners seem brave enough to wander through the deep South without fear.  I know I couldn’t manage a solo road trip through Alabama or Mississippi.  Of course, he wasn’t really solo, as he had a camera crew with him.  But I’ve seen My Cousin Vinny too many times to think a road trip through that bit of the country could ever end well.

Fry seems to find the accents of the south and deep south charming. I read an article once that said Americans find the Welsh and Yorkshire accents of the UK particularly lyrical and charming.  In Britain, though, these accents are considered sort of trashy and/or uneducated. But I imagine that comes from their cultural precedent, where we are ignorant of it.  Just as they are, at least to some degree, ignorant of the cultural associations that we have with Southerners.  It’s interesting to think about that stuff, because it exposes the amount of subtle prejudices we don’t even realize we have.

My only complaint about this documentary is that in his effort to be polite, Fry doesn’t manage to tell a lot of the truth. His only real negative thoughts seem to be about his own reaction to what he encounters.  Editing is used to create a better impression of the people he meets than I think the truth would show.  It just seemed too polite to be genuine.

from the book section: The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.  I’ve enjoyed the two Julian Barnes’ books I have read before (Arthur and George and England, England), and was eager to read another.  This one was especially promising, since it won the Man Booker prize last year.

I must start by saying there are books that win you over gradually, through lovable (or hateable) characters, a gripping plot, or well-written prose.  Then, there are books that you open and realize almost immediately they are breathtaking and beautiful and you fall head over heels in love.  They are the literary equivalent of that beautiful boy in the 8th grade that you will always remember.

This was one of those books for me.

The book is quite short, but covers a long life in retrospect.  Barnes’ begins with the story of his narrator, Tony Webster, as a teenager and covers time through university, first love, marriage, divorce.  But the point of this novel is not the plot.  It’s not even really a novel, more like a fictionalized memoir.  The main point of the story, as I see it, is both the power of and the complete unreliability of our memories.  It is told through the lens of a retired narrator, looking back at a life he now has to re-imagine as he begins to learn some truths. It is part mystery, part memoir, part intellectual examining of the meanings of our lives.  It is, at times, overly intellectual for some people. Or so I imagine.  It is not a novel you read for the plot. It is not a novel you read if you normally read novels for action or thrills. It is introspective and at times a bit slow.  But it is beautifully written, elegant, and depressingly, harshly real.

The ending was disappointing, but no other ending would have fit it.  The point of the novel is rather post-modernist, if I may risk sounding pretentious.  Almost with every major recollection of his life, Tony tells us that his memory has been most certainly clouded and tainted by time, by his own idea of what happened rather than the reality of it.  Barnes’ makes a clear point about story-telling in this way, and I find that as I get older I quite agree.  So a happy ending, or even a true ending with all the pieces tied down nicely, wouldn’t have fit. It wouldn’t have agreed with the point he is making.  But the reader in me wishes some middle ground may have been found.

But that’s part of the point as well.  Satisfaction we feel with our ideas of the world is…an illusion.  Our ideas are true to us, perhaps, but they are not True with a capital t.

But, god it’s a beautiful book.