Monthly Archives: September 2012

Doctor Who Series 7 (part 1)

The (half) series finale of Doctor Who aired in the US last night.  I am finding it difficult to gather my thoughts about this one, partially because I swear to god the damn thing just came back on. FIVE episodes? I don’t think it can possibly count as a season (or even half a season) if all the episodes took place during the same month.  I do not like this half season now and half season in January thing.  It didn’t used to be like this. There were usually episodes in April, May, and then there would be a break for the summer, and then it would come back in fall. Right?  I’m confused by this schedule. Also, normally there are 6 or 7 episodes before the long break. Five barely feels like enough.  But, okay, I can’t do anything about their scheduling decisions. I assume things didn’t air in Spring-Summer because of the Diamond Jubilee and then the Olympics.  It doesn’t make me happy about waiting until Christmas for more, but moving on!
I have to say I really wasn’t that impressed with this season, which makes me sad.  I love Doctor Who, but for whatever reasons these episodes didn’t have the same quality as the previous seasons.  Excuse me while I ramble, Virginia Woolf-style, about this meh season.

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Asylum of the Daleks– This one was a pretty bad start to the year. Why would the Daleks have an asylum for their crazies? They have never had a problem with destroying weaker members of their species in the past.  Also, I saw the twist coming quite early on.  Well, maybe not early, but well before it was actually revealed.  And the Rory and Amy problems are getting old. They love each other, but …even though Amy shows again and again that she loves Rory, I still find it hard to believe. Maybe it’s because her chemistry with the Doctor is much more potent than hers with Rory. Which is crazy, because I think Rory is adorable, especially this season when he doesn’t have a ridiculous pony tail or whatever.  But when Amy looks at the Doctor, you can see light in her eyes, and it’s just not there when she looks at Rory. Maybe it’s just because the only time we see them together it’s when one or both of them are near death. They are always fighting or not together, and then the Doctor fixes all their marriage problems within one 48 minute episode. Pfft.

Also, the Doctor is really violent in this episode! I know they keep pushing the fact that he shouldn’t travel alone, but jeez!

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Dinosaurs on a Spaceship– I had really high hopes for this episodes. Dinosaurs are cute, two people from Harry Potter are in it. What more could I ask for? Well, I could ask them not to kill off my favorite dinosaur.  Also, it just was…meh. Maybe I should re-title this review “Meh”.  I loved Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams) as Rory’s dad, and found that to be totally believable.  On the other hand, I’m never going to like a big game hunter, and think he should have been punched in the face for killing defenseless animals as a career. That’s just me, though.  And probably the animals are on my side, but I digress.  I just found that, once again, it didn’t have as much of an emotional impact as I thought.  Am I growing cold-hearted and cruel in my old age or something?  I’m starting to think maybe it was the music.  You know how music can trigger emotions in you? I’m wondering if the music was different in this season and it kept me from having the connection.  Also the pacing was a bit too quick, which meant that by the time it occurred to me to start caring about someone or something, they were usually dead or the episode was over.  Doctor Who is always a fast-paced show, though, so it seems odd that this would just bother me now.  I really don’t know what it is.

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A Town Called Mercy– This one is more or less a blur. I like the Doctor with his Stetson back on, but that’s about it.  I think this was the weakest of the episodes, perhaps because I didn’t really care for anyone in it. We didn’t even learn the names of anyone, except for the sheriff and the evil doctor.  I also remember the Doctor has guns. What’s with the violence this season?

Similarly, I hardly remember anything about The Power of Three, except for the corny final line about cubed…oh wait, now I remember.  I think this story had a ton of potential. It’s always amusing when the Doctor has to stay in one place for very long. To be patient.  Because he is, essentially, a 10-year-old boy inside. And they did show that, but once again it wasn’t as funny as I felt like it should have been. I sort of would have enjoyed some bits about the Doctor not cleaning up his dirty dishes or something. Something to make it seem like he was really living there, and they were almost a family.  Plus the plot seemed mostly unexplained.  Okay, the cubes are observing us and infiltrating our homes, etc.  Why did some of them play music, or take blood, or trigger emotions? It either doesn’t make sense or wasn’t explained well enough for me to get it. Maybe true Whovians know the back story of the villain for this episode, and perhaps that makes it easier.  On the other hand, in the past the show would at least ensure the plot made sense for those who hadn’t been watching Doctor Who for 40 years.

And The Angels Take Manhattan? *sigh*  I am scared to death of the weeping angels, I will freely admit that. They scare me more than every other DW villain combined. Every episode with them has been awesome.  And this was the last episode with Rory and Amy, this was really important.  I’d like to say I liked it.  I do think it was the best episode of the season.  But…it should have been better.  Rory and Amy (especially Amy) have been so important.  As important as Rose, I think.  And they have been on the show for quite a while now. I wanted to see them go out in epic fashion, and I wanted to see them happy.  What will happen to Mr. Weasley now, waiting for them to come home?

And the Doctor this episode was sort of awful.  He had a tantrum, he acted like a child. He was no help with River, and Amy and Rory had to save themselves. The Doctor couldn’t do anything. He just wasn’t on his game. He wasn’t himself.  He acted like a petulant child. Normally he acts like an excited child, but this was just…not fun. Not helpful.  Rory and Amy and even River were able to be adults. The Doctor wasn’t, and that bothered me. He seemed really fallible, and not in a way that you want.

I think I would have been okay if I had just seen Rory and Amy together, maybe in some 30’s clothes with jobs or a puppy or something.  A life together.  Instead, it seemed a lot like Back to the Future III. You get a last letter/farewell, you can see the gravestone that says they lived long lives together, but that’s it. You want to go back and see for yourselves. It feels rushed and incomplete. Which is how it would feel for the Doctor, of course, so maybe it’s a conscious decision, but as an audience you want some sense of closure.

Also, one thing is driving me fucking crazy: How did River get the book back to Amy to publish if it’s impossible to get in to that time vortex again? And if she could get in with her vortex manipulator, why couldn’t she just get them back out? Or at least she and the Doctor could go back to see them periodically?

Am I alone in this? I don’t think I am, but you never know.  Here’s hoping the next half of the season is much better!

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

When the Man Booker Prize Long list was released in July, I went out and bought a few of the books. The Man Booker Long and Short list could possible renamed “Courtney’s birthday/Christmas list”, and still be very accurate. Want to find the best British fiction of the year? Go to the Man Booker lists, or the Orange Prize.  So that’s what I do.
This is one of the books I bought, knowing almost nothing about it until I picked it up to read a few weeks ago.  I kind of love picking up a book and having no expectations, no ideas of its writing style, genre, subject matter. I bought it based on it being on the Man Booker list, nothing else. I didn’t even read the sleeve copy before I bought it.  A move like that could be disaster, but I have faith in the people who make these lists.  And, it’s well deserved. I loved this book.

The plot is fairly straightforward and almost uneventful from the outside.  A retired man, Harold Fry, gets a letter from a former co-worker/friend, Queenie. He hasn’t seen or talked to her in 20 years. She writes to tell him she is dying of cancer.  He writes her a quick and un-emotional response and walks out to slip his letter into the post box.  And somehow he just keeps walking, perhaps trying to just have a nice walk at first.  He gradually realizes that his letter isn’t enough. There’s unfinished business between him and Queenie, and the letter can’t sum up what he wants to say to her or ask her.  He stops at a garage/petrol station for a snack and starts talking to the girl who works there. She tells him that her aunt had cancer and how important it is to stay positive, believe the other person can get better, etc.  Harold takes her idea to heart and he suddenly feels it entirely necessary to walk to see Queenie. He will walk and it will take a long time (he lives in Kingsbridge, over in the West Country, and Queenie is in a hospice at Berwick-on-Tweed, way up near Scotland) but as long as he is walking she will wait for him, and she will stay alive.

He continues his walk N.E., despite being completely unprepared. He is wearing yachting shoes, has no mobile phone or walking equipment. But he has made up his mind.

The rest of the book is the stress of this quest. There are good times and bad, there are inspiring people and hopeless people. Harold’s wife is completely thrown by his undertaking this epic journey to see another woman before she dies.

As he walks, Harold meets strangers and listens to their stories, he also examines his own memories of very painful parts of his life.  He is often overwhelmed by the emotional experience just as much as the physical. I don’t want to say more about how everything unfolds, but I will say that I cried quite a few times through the book.

It’s a lovely book, quiet and subtle and beautiful. I really enjoyed reading it, despite the simple plot and the genuineness of it. It was refreshingly simple, actually.

The whole journey, Harold’s and the reader’s, is cathartic and allows an expression of emotion and a slow examination of life and our individual struggles and pains throughout.  It’s really well done, the mirrored journeys. Harold slowly and methodically makes his way North and East. There are good days and bad. He stumbles and is injured; he gets back up and continues and things get better.  Repeat. Sounds like life to me.

I’m sure there is a lot of religious significance in this book. Harold is a pilgrim after all. He acquires followers, who bicker among themselves and eventually leave him behind. He begins to fast at one point. Unfortunately, I am thoroughly uneducated in Christian (or any other) mythology, so I am not able to recognize these themes when I read them. I know that it loosely parallels the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet either.  It’s not that high on the to do list, to be honest, because as important as it was to Christians in the 17th and 18th century, I’m not certain it would be of much interest to this 21st-century atheist. I don’t think it has the literary chops to make great reading, if you don’t believe in the ideology.  I could be wrong though, so I’ll probably read it one day. I got through Paradise Lost, after all.

Since the religious symbolism was utterly lost on me, I read this book as something realistic, but simultaneously surreal. Surreal in the same way that a lot of what people do to cope with modern society seems surreal and inexplicable. But at the same time, you understand why they do it because there is no sane way to deal with what life is.  Last year, a man was hitchhiking across America to work on a book about the kindness of people. That is surreal and strange. Then he was shot on the side of the road.  Strange and ironic.  Then it came out that he had injured himself to gain more publicity for the book.  With reality like that in mind, nothing seems too incredible to be true. Harold Fry, even in undertaking this unexpected journey, seems to be just as normal and logical as anyone else who can see the world for what it is.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world, as I have said before. I never considered myself a fan of the theatre (yep, I spell it the English way. deal). before I went to live in the UK.  I think that is because, here in the US, the vast majority of theatre that gets any attention on this side of the pond is musical theatre. I cannot possibly describe how much I hate musical theatre. Only the use of italics can lend the situation the necessary gravity. I don’t like to be sung at. I don’t like people who sing while smiling or smile while singing. I can take it in Disney cartoon form, but that’s it. When the people are in real life, and right in front of me, I want to escape, ASAP.  The only musical theatre I have ever enjoyed was Rent and Wicked.  I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber (yep, enough to use bold).  Anyway, so no wonder I dislike the theatre here.

But in the UK it’s really different. Yes, there’s the trite West End shows like Oliver and that one about Queen. And I’m sure they’re quite good if you like musical theatre. But if you don’t, then there are other options. And they are much easier to find there than in the US. There are tons of theatres in and around London, offering new plays, old plays, dramatic, comedic, historical, controversial. I went to see 12 plays during my 6 months in London. I would say I enjoyed 10 of them. None of them involved music. One was about the stock market. One was about a young, idealistic Muslim girl in the UK, one was about an American journalist (Richard Dreyfuss) forced to name his source for an article. They were all vastly different and interesting. They were also all pretty inexpensive. The thing about theatre in the UK is that it’s not such a big deal. People wore jeans. It didn’t cost $70 for each ticket, so there is more of a range of socio-economic status represented in the audience. It is just more accessible, not so fancy as it is considered here.

So now, I’m a theatre fan. If it’s that kind of theatre. Interesting, well-written, dramatic, and unpretentious. I first heard about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when I was living in the UK, from one of the other students in my program who was a theatre nut. She now works in theatre in some capacity.  Unfortunately, my visa expired that June, so I wasn’t able to go. But this year, I finally went!  So, based on my limited personal experience and lots of internet research, here are my tips and tricks for surviving the Fringe.

History

The Fringe Festival started when 8 different theatre companies who were not invited to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 showed up anyway and put on shows in small venues for small crowds. It has grown in size and attendance pretty consistently for the past few decades. This year, I don’t know if numbers have been released, but it seemed pretty damn busy to me!

The festival, because of its history, attracts weird and avant-garde performers and shows. Just be ready for anything and everything. Embrace the strangeness of it all.

Where to Stay

Edinburgh is a fairly small city, with lots of hotels and hostels. Some people even open their private homes and rent out rooms for the festival. They all seem to be booked at capacity during August, though. After all, not only are all the visitors staying in hotels and hostels, but most of the performers are too.  We were able to find a hostel room at short notice, but only after an hour of internet searching.  During a visit to the hostel’s pub, we were ‘treated’ with what I can only describe as a real-life version of Glee. A group of performers from Australia were singing and dancing to a selection of mid-90s pop songs. Not my favorite night in history, though that may be because an Italian man touched my hair with his cigarette-smelling fingers. If you’re fiercely antisocial, you might be better off at a hotel.  Either way, aim for something in Old Town or New Town areas. Those are the most convenient to the various venues and also the tourist attractions.  Anything with a view of the Princes’ Street Gardens is highly recommended, as it is a gorgeous part of the world.

What to See

There are two ways to do the Fringe, from what I can tell. 1-Plan, 2-Don’t.  We did not plan.  If you walk down the Royal Mile during any day of the festival, you will be accosted by approximately 5 million people handing out fliers for their shows, ghost tours, exhibits, whatever. You will have a handful of papers by the time you get your tea and muffin in the morning. There is no shortage of choice.
On the other hand, I can see the virtue in planning if you have things you particularly want to see. Or if you are just the planning type. Or if you find being handed fliers a troublesome experience. The festival website has a full program that you can order/download up to a few months beforehand. Once the schedules are finalized for the year, you can also search which shows are going on during a specific day or weekend or whatever. Warning, though, there are TONS of shows. Hundreds each day. Alphabetical order is not a great way to try to sort through.

Another word of warning. Avoid comedy shows.  This mostly applies to those of us not from the UK. I wish I could find video of this, but there was an episode of the Simpsons where Groundskeeper Willie did some comedy. He said something like  “Did you ever notice that people from Aberdeen hold their golf clubs like this, and people from Glasgow hold their golf clubs like this…” with accompanying motions.  Get it? Me neither.  That’s rather the point. Comedy is a difficult thing to translate across cultures. I am pretty aware of British culture, and have watched a lot of British shows. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get the cultural significance of ASDA when you mention it, or see why your story about buying a Cornetto is funny.  There’s a big chance that I’m just not going to understand.  Also, those venues in the Fringe are (or can be) very small.  There’s always some chance that it’s going to be you and 2-3 other people in the audience.  If you’re not laughing, the comedians can very easily see that.  Also, try to sneak out and you will be heckled.  In fact, you may, out of politeness, be forced to sit through an hour-long midnight show in which an Irish man rants incessantly about the IRA and government corruption. Then gets into an argument with someone in the audience about how nice Wales is or isn’t.  Then complains about how the show isn’t going well, so he’s going to end it early after this next story. But then he DOESN’T.  I’m just saying. Learn from my mistakes.

Another word to the wise. Sometimes the free shows are free for a reason. We only had time to see 4 or 5 shows, but the paid shows were much much better than the free alternatives.  And the ones we saw that were paid were only like £5. It’s worth it.

Other Advice:

Bring a raincoat or umbrella. It may be August, and therefore summer, but it’s still Scotland. It gets cold at night, it gets wet often.

The Radisson on the Royal Mile has a bathroom in the lobby that anyone can use. You have to go all the way through the lobby and down a set of stairs, but it’s there and it comes in handy during a long day wandering around.

There are a lot of stairs and hills. Don’t wear your platform heels or your shoes with no tread. It’s steep and they are often made of cobblestones.

There are other festivals going on simultaneously, including the book festival, art festival, and film festival.  Allow some time to explore those as well. (Sadly, I didn’t heed my own advice on this one!).

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Do NOT under any circumstances order a Long Island Iced Tea anywhere in Scotland.  I only ordered one, in one pub, but I’m putting a blanket  ban on them for the whole country.  Do not assume just because it is listed on their menu that they know how to make it. Two shots of tequila and some generic-brand Coke is not a Long Island Iced Tea.

On that note, don’t expect any pub in the UK to be able to do proper cocktails.  There are a few that can, but you have to seek them out.  If you want something resembling a cocktail, your best bet is rum & juice or vodka & juice.

 

I have to say that I wish desperately that I could have had more time at the festival. The atmosphere was great, even when the weather wasn’t. The shows were fun and I was disappointed with not having more time to see all of them. People were incredibly nice, and I would go again every year if I lived less than 1000 miles away. Go if you can!

Book Review: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

I probably picked up this book because I am increasingly obsessed with anything Sherlock Holmes.  No idea why, since I don’t find the original texts to be that good, personally. They are very…masculine. I suppose I mean that there isn’t much in the way of character development or emotion. Masculine in the old-school, totally ridiculous definition. I think a lot of what we associate with Sherlock Holmes now has been added later, filled in by movie- and show-runners and writers. But what a character that Doyle managed to come up with. The idea of Holmes far outlives and outweighs Doyle’s lackluster storytelling.  The character is massively important to the history of mystery fiction, and has obviously been incredibly influential to everything from books to TV to movies. Anyone who’s been paying attention can name at least 5 characters that wouldn’t be possible without Holmes.
So this is an interesting idea for a mystery novel.  The book is split in two, each chapter alternating between present day characters who are Sherlock Holmes fans, and Arthur Conan Doyle, in the period between his killing Holmes off and Holmes’ resurrection 8 years later.  The timing is particularly interesting to me, since we are currently (in terms of the BBC series Sherlock) occupying that very depressing interregnum.

In the modern part of the story, we follow Harold White, a newly inducted member of the Baker Street Irregulars (a group of very intense Holmes fans), as he investigates the murder of one of his own, Alex Cale. Cale had recently discovered the long-lost diary of Doyle, covering that same period in the late 1890s, after Holmes is killed off and until he is resurrected. Then, he turns up dead (Cale) and the diary is m.i.a. Harold White, a speed-reader and slightly ridiculous (he wears a deerstalker. in public.) totally-amateur detective, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery.
In the 19th century part of the story, ACD is surprised by a letter bomb in his post one morning. Upon discovering how truly useless Scotland Yard is, he takes it upon himself to discover who is trying to kill him. His case gets wrapped up in one where young girls are being murdered, and of course he needs to solve that too.  His friend, Bram Stoker, accompanies him on his adventures, and ACD attempts to put Holmes’ theory of deductive reasoning to use in reality.

There are interesting ideas in this book. It’s obviously well researched. I found it particularly interesting to consider how ACD thought of his creation. After he killed off Holmes, readers were so upset and indignant that they wore black arm bands in his honor, and were none too happy with ACD.  Doyle felt that Holmes always overshadowed him (probably true), and that people thought Holmes was real and ACD was more of a Watson figure, documenting everything.

The title, The Sherlockian, refers to a group of people among Holmes fans that believe that Sherlock was real and that…I’m a little unclear on whether they think ACD was Watson or ACD was Sherlock.  Either way, it seems a bit loony.  Then again, anytime I call a theory loony (*cough*Shakespeare not writing his own plays*cough*), I have people hounding my blog for weeks on end trying to prove me wrong.  So, in that case, it seems like a totally solid theory but I’ll hold back judgment until there is more evidence.
The book, unfortunately, just didn’t have a big impact on me. I didn’t care much about Harold or his girl Friday. I found the bits with ACD and Bram Stoker far more interesting, but I don’t think they were burdened with over-accuracy. I found the ending totally ridiculous.  I found much of it totally ridiculous. It was borderline farcical, which meant that all of the serious scenes were missing any weight or depth.  At one point, Bram Stoker and ACD have to dress up in drag to infiltrate a suffragette meeting.  Really?

Also, as often happens with these novels, it seems sort of homeless. Harold is from LA, but we never see him there.  The bulk of the action takes place in NYC, London, and then Switzerland.  But it doesn’t feel like we’re anywhere. You can’t picture the places in your head, and even when I came across places in the book that I’ve seen in real life, they didn’t have any familiarity.  Doesn’t anyone care about setting anymore?

I like the idea of this novel, I like the setup. The flipping back between stories didn’t bother me.  In the end, it just wasn’t very well written. It’s hard for me to say very disparaging things about books, because I’m a writer and I know how sensitive I am.  But, I don’t recommend this one. I kind of it enjoyed it while reading, but my enjoyment went down as I got to the end of the book. I let it sit in my brain for a few days afterward, and all of the details sluiced out. I was left with something of a distaste for it.  Now I’m kind of irritated by it.
On the other hand, if you ever do have an interest in reading about ACD and his life, I can recommend one book whole-heartedly.

Arthur and George is adapted from a true story. A man named George Edalji is accused of a really terrible crime that I would not like to think about right now.  Anyway, he’s essentially accused because he’s an odd guy, and he’s a little antisocial (Asperger’s comes to mind, from a modern perspective), and (this is probably most of the problem) he’s half-Indian. Arthur Conan Doyle hears about what’s happening to him and personally helps him to beat the charges against him.  It’s a really interesting portrayal of a totally weird friendship and alliance. And it also, if I remember correctly, deals with the period between the two Holmes timelines.

Most importantly, it’s written by Julian Barnes, who I have discussed multiple times, whose book The Sense of an Ending, I raved about earlier this year.  He’s a great writer, and it’s a really interesting, far more believable, far more satisfying read.

 

Upcoming British TV

You may have noticed, if you’re one of the 3 people who regularly read this blog, that content about British TV has been lacking lately.  That’s natural, given that it is summer and there isn’t much of anything new on.  But fall is approaching fast and there are a lot of good shows coming back, and a lot of new shows that look awesome.  So here’s a primer on what to expect over the coming months on TV.

Doctor Who premiered last Saturday, and another episode was just on last night.  I have grown to really love 11, though I still prefer 10 and probably always will consider him the best Doctor ever.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, skip this bit as you are not a Whovian and won’t particularly care.

I have to say that these last two episodes have seemed rather lackluster to me.  There were some plot holes in the Asylum of the Daleks, and I saw the twist coming fairly early on.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a bit better, and I love Mr. Weasley as Rory’s dad.  Something just seems off with both episodes so far, and I can’t tell if it’s the show or it’s me.  I suspect, however, that it is not me.  They’ve jumped right in as though there’s been no gap, and I could have done with a bit of a slow submersion.  I do love Karen Gillan, though, and she has been awesome as always.  I think it’s the writing or the direction to blame, but I”m having trouble putting my finger on why or how.  It’s almost like the episodes start too quickly and keep going too quickly for you to be emotionally invested.  And then they’re over, and you still aren’t particularly invested.  It’s missing some of the emotional scenes that you find in other episodes, and so far there hasn’t been anything particularly scary.  A bunch of rusty old Daleks and Filch? After the weeping angels, it takes a lot to scare me anymore, but they’re not even trying!

So why is this on my list of what to look forward to this fall? Because it’s Doctor Who! I will continue to watch it, and hopefully it will get better.

Downton Abbey

There are two trailers out right now for the third season. This one:


And this one (which I prefer):


Maggie Smith is divine.  And Shirley MacLaine as the American grandmother? Wonderful. I cannot wait to see those two in action together.

Okay so here is the big problem with Downton Abbey, and I cannot believe that in the 21st century it has come down to this.  On ITV in the UK, it premieres this month. Next week, I believe.  When will it be on PBS? January.

January?! This is ridiculous.  Why cant the studios just get together and decide to air it at the same time? Or shortly after?  As far as I know, there is no legal way for Americans to get their hands on the show before it airs on PBS or comes out on DVD (which might happen first, to be honest).  I would honestly pay to watch it, but I don’t think there is a way to do so.  Whose idea was that? I realize that ITV can’t broadcast here, and they are a British only channel, but this is ridiculous.  I suppose now I know how it feels for Brits who want to watch the latest episodes of our shows. But honestly, there should be a way to get it through iTunes or something. I am honestly not going to wait until January. I refuse.

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And a similar thing is happening with Parade’s End.

This was actually a joint venture between BBC and HBO, which means they have equal rights to air it (in my non-expert legal opinion).  This aired during August in the UK (I only know about it because I caught the last 20 minutes of one of the episodes while I was in London).  HBO hasn’t even announced an air date for the US.  BLARGH. Why do they do this to me?

In case you haven’t heard of it either, let me describe.  This was originally four novels by Ford Maddox Ford, and has been adapted into this mini-series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.  The plot revolves around a wealthy couple, and it is set in the early 20th century, so there are naturally comparisons with Downton Abbey. The husband is sent off to fight in the trenches in WWI.  There’s a love triangle somewhere in there. I didn’t want to read much else because I don’t want to spoil the fun of actually watching it.  If that ever happens.

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So, will anything actually be on soon for us unlucky Americans?  Yes! Thank god.

   Judging by the press photos, this one is about women who ride around on bikes in matching outfits.  Okay, actually, it’s titled Call the Midwife and I am quite excited about it, despite being horrified by the idea of childbirth and by the presence of nuns.

The show centers around a group of midwives in 1950s Britain, and it was a huge hit there. Smashed all sorts of ratings records.  It even beat Downton Abbey in the ratings. So, I’m definitely going to give it a try.  It airs on PBS, starting September 30th.

Richard Hammond’s Crash Course is also returning this fall (October 15th).  It appears they have abandoned the need to associate him with vehicles, and the show has devolved into him simply encountering as many ridiculous and possibly embarrassing Americans as possible.  There is, thought, a really cute trailer.

Another one coming down the pipeline this fall:

Spies of Warsaw

This is another period piece, a WWII-era drama set in Poland (obviously). It stars David Tennant, and that’s about all I had to know before I decided to watch it.  No firm release date yet, that I can find. I believe it comes on when The Hour and other Dramaville programming returns, which would be November, I think.

So it’s set to be another year of British cultural imports.  I do want to add, however, that as much as I joke about being forced to wait for a long time to watch British shows, I am just joking. Of course I hate the waiting, and I don’t see a need for it when we’re perfectly capable of downloading everything anyway.  But as I learned on my trip to London last month, the TV in England is really terrible.  What? What am I saying?! This is a blog about British TV, among other things, so how could I be committing such blasphemy?  I never had a TV when I lived in London, so I had little experience with it.  At my hotel, though, we did have a TV. I didn’t sit down to watch it at any point, but before bed or in the morning I would switch it on, and I was shocked by what I found.  There are only 10-20 channels, and some of them are only available at certain times of the day.  They play a lot of American programming, from old episodes of sitcoms (Frasier of all things) to really terrible American movies that wouldn’t even be shown here (Bowfinger…really?).  Then there seems to be some sort of 24-hour Big Brother channel.  Mix that in with Coronation Street and East Enders, which seem to be less slick and less attractive versions of our soaps, and that’s about all of your choices. Of course, there’s always BBC news, right?  They do news incredibly well there. But, you soon realize that it runs on a 10- or 15-minute loop, especially in the morning.  It’s not fun. If I lived there, I don’t think I’d bother having a TV at all.  So when I complain about having to wait for these mini-series, I do not mean to imply that I would rather switch places with them. They have to wait a long time for our shows as well, and well, we just have a lot more options here. Plus, no TV tax here, always a bonus. So, take the complaining with a grain of salt, and everyone let’s try to be patient, and pretend we aren’t illegally downloading these things. We certainly wouldn’t do that.

Movie Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

This is another movie that I saw on the way home from London, on a plane. Yet again, it has a lot of visual appeal that probably would have been more effective on a screen larger than 7 inches. But I really enjoyed it regardless.

The plot is pretty simple: Emily Blunt works for a sheikh from Yemen, who wants to bring salmon fishing…well you get that part from the title. He has nearly unlimited funds, and wants to make fly fishing possible in his home country (as well as having a dam, etc. for agricultural development). Emily Blunt approaches Ewan MacGregor, a fisheries expert, to work on the project.

Ewan MacGregor’s part could easily have been played by a 60-year-old man, with no real differences in the script. He is not an old man, but he seems to be one inside. He wears argyle sweaters, he makes his own flies, he feeds his fish when he is upset.  He does have a sarcastic and cutting sense of humor, but other than that one aspect of his personality, he is almost emotionless. Emily Blunt’s character accuses him of having asperger’s at one point, because he doesn’t seem to respond to other people’s emotional states.  I think he’s just sort of stuck in a rut, letting life pass him by, before this opportunity comes in to shove him out of it. To say he is reluctant is an understatement. He thinks the project is impossible and even if it were possible, he thinks it shouldn’t be done. It’s ludicrous and a waste of time to even have a meeting about it.
Searching for a positive story from the Middle East to allay bad press over the Afghan war, the PMs Press Secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) pressures Ewan MacGregor and his boss into working on the project and getting it done, whatever it takes–that is when she isn’t swearing, threatening employees, chain-smoking, being a general despot, or playing video games with her son.  Her character is simultaneously incredibly un-likable and quite amusing.  So Ewan is forced to work on the project, to worth with Emily Blunt, to find creative solutions for problems like the fact that Yemen is hot and dry, and thoroughly unwelcoming to the salmon they’re hoping to introduce.

It’s a really beautiful and interesting movie about faith, hope, being a dreamer, going against the current, etc. etc. It can tend toward the cheesy of overly philosophical at times, but it’s not too detrimental. Ewan MacGregor’s character is really, truly adorable. I also think he has a lot of chemistry with Emily Blunt, so their relationship and friendship as it progresses is great to watch. The film has a great mix of serious, contemplative and funny, goofy without ever losing the point, the theme, the feeling of the movie overall.

My only complaint about it is the ending! I…I don’t want to give it away, but it made me sad. It picked up in the last moments, but the darkness sort of overwhelms the light.  I suppose that’s pretty realistic, in terms of our experiences in life.  But that doesn’t make it less upsetting.

Book Review: Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

This isn’t a book that I think I ever planned to read.  It was known (derisively) as a sensational novel, in its day.  Sensational, not in our modern understanding of the word, but meaning provoking intense and myriad emotions.  Collins more or less invented the genre, combining the overly dramatic elements of the French Gothic style popularized in the 19th century with local (re: English) settings.  The formula is pretty simple: Take a helpless maiden, pure and innocent, and put her in some hideous danger. Add at least one lunatic asylum, a deteriorating castle, and at least two false identities.  Write in a manner that will provoke the most clutching of pearls and dropping of monocles.
But seriously, the point of the novels was something akin to a modern soap opera, or miniseries like the Thornbirds. You were meant to go through a range of emotions, from desperate sadness to fear, to hints of the salacious, and usually they end happily.  Or they end in complete ruin.

This book is about a drawing/painting master, Walter Hartright, who goes to the country to teach two half-sisters, Laura and Marion. Walter falls for Marion, but she is already promised to another man.  I don’t want to give up the secrets to this one, because it is a book you read in order to figure out what’s really going on.  In fact, I don’t really feel comfortable saying much else. I will add that the eponymous woman in white is named Anne Catherick, and she escapes from a mental institution in the first pages of the novel, and stumbles upon Walter Hartright as she does so. From then on, a lot of the action revolves around her, though she only wanders dazedly into and out of the book a few times throughout.

I think that much of the ‘sensational’ qualities of the book don’t really hold the test of time, because we are just less likely to clutch our pearls these days. Someone having an affair with a housemaid isn’t going to send me for my smelling salts. I imagine it would have been far more shocking back then, however.

So, my 21st century impressions of the book are as follows:

Collins is very inconsistent when it comes to characterization.  We get to know, very well, the characters of Marion Halcombe, Walter Hartright, and Count Fosco.  Everyone else is a bit flat, and occasionally pretty unfathomable.  I believe the major difference is that we spend large quantities of the narrative being told of events  (through written diary entries & etc.) from the voice of those three characters. We are never admitted into the thoughts of Sir Percival Glyde or Anne Catherick. Even, after all is revealed, we do not fully understand their motivations in some of their actions. It’s strange to me that Collins can provide such a convincing and full account in the first person, but each narrative fails when it attempts to draw the personalities of the other people involved.

The book is interesting, but it is not entirely rewarding.  Add to that, it’s really long (616 pages, for this edition), and it’s not the best value for the time invested. It’s too evil in its evilness, too good in its goodness.  I understand why it would appeal to women in the 19th century, because women were often shielded from emotion over ridiculous notions about their delicacy.  Note to men from 200 years ago: women aren’t that delicate if they aren’t wearing corsets. They don’t faint all the time if they aren’t wearing corsets.

I liked the book for the picture it drew of mid-Victorian era England, because I always want to know more about life in that period. I learn from books like these about things like train schedules, and food, and rampant xenophobia, and distrust of legal procedures.  It’s all going to help me write my novel.  But! If I was not obsessed with Victorian England, and was not researching for a novel, would I find it worth reading?  Hmm.  I hesitate. There are moments I really enjoyed it, and despite my best efforts I could not predict all of the twists and turns–and there is plenty of time to think when you’re reading a 600+ page book.  In that way, it was worth reading.  And I liked the shifting narrative style–we start with the story told by Walter Hartright, but as he exits the action, other narrators take his place. I thought it would annoy me, but it is done seamlessly and does add to the suspense of the piece. All things considered, if given the choice to get the time back, I would still read the book. It’s worth the time, if suspense, the Victorian era, or helpless maidens appeal to you. But…you’d be better off with Dickens.