Tag Archives: miniseries

The Crimson Petal and the White

7263Before I read this book, I heard rumblings that it was unsatisfactory. This seemed weird, because the front and back cover were filled with critical praise. And it’s a lovely long book, set in the 1870s. My novels are set in the 1870s, so I was excited to read this one.

The book spans, in Dickensian fashion, nearly 900 pages and begins with the lowest dregs of society (whores near St. Giles) before taking the reader through the middling neighborhoods to the upper echelons (ladies enjoying the London season, the newly created ‘suburbs’ of Notting Hill). Though there are many characters, two are the most important.

William Rackham. At university, he was a dandy and an intellectual. As he grows older, he is intensely dissatisfied with his life. His wife is mentally ill and hates him, his father will no longer pay his expenses if William does not begin to be responsible for the family business, Rackham Perfumeries, and he’s had no great success in his attempted literary career. He is mediocre to the nth degree. Until he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a prostitute. Her mother roped her into that life when she was a tween, and it’s all she’s known since. She is unique for a whore of this era, because she is (self-)educated, and she knows how to manipulate men emotionally as well as physically. She is thoroughly unimpressed with William when she first meets him, but he is utterly taken with her. She hates men and is working on a novel about a prostitute (named Sugar) who disembowels the most pathetic of the species.

After their first night together, William decides to turn his life around. To stop dithering and to take over the family business, to make a large fortune, and to spend a good deal of it on Sugar. Within a few weeks, he’s paying for the privilege to be her only client. His fortunes continue to rise with her careful stroking of his ego (and his other parts), and her advice on matters of business and etiquette. A month or so later, he has moved her from her dingy whorehouse to her own private abode.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and a lot to wrap your mind around. William’s wife, Agnes, was raised to be the female ideal. That means she is pretty, naive, and plays the piano. It also means she has no knowledge of sex, and doesn’t understand why she bleeds every month. She thinks it’s a demonic affliction. She has similar feelings toward her baby girl.

Sugar, on the other hand, has grown up with experiences of everything vile (death, disease, poverty) and everything sexual (she’s been a prostitute since she was 13, and has a reputation for never saying no to any sexual act).

In the end, as you might expect, both female characters inspire far more empathy than William. William is a blundering, selfish, disloyal villain of a man. His least likable quality is that he feels he’s accidentally pushed into these situations where he hurts the women in his life.  But he’s not. He chooses to be a complete ass, and attempts to explain it away with any available excuse. Pitiful.

The narrative style is engaging, and the writing is good. Technically good. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t over or understimulated to the point of distraction. The characters were realistic and relatable, very fully developed. (WordPress, why do you insist that relatable is not a word when it is a completely cromulent one? Why are you now insisting that cromulent is not a word?)

So what is keeping me from writing a glowing review? Two things.

1) The Ending. It was nonexistent.

Agnes departs the story about 70% through, and we’re never entirely certain what happened to her. We get the beginning of a denouement between Sugar and William, but then we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help wondering what the real point had been.  Why start the story where it started and end it where it ended? What was this story saying?  After 900 pages, you don’t want to feel that way.

2) The strange and constant fixation on bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing about fiction. You’re taking a huge data set (all things you know about the world) and you’re editing. You’re taking out what’s unimportant, and leaving in only what furthers your story. This can mean you take out the guy standing in line at the grocery checkout. Or it can mean you leave in the checkout line, when the guy has a complete meltdown because the lady in front of him has more than 10 items in her basket and how dare she.  It depends on the story. But there are a few almost universally omitted things.  Like trips to the toilet.

How many times do Jane Austen’s characters mention a chamber pot?  Did anyone from the Great Gatsby stop to pee? What about the Hunger Games? How on earth did they go to the bathroom while attempting to not be killed?

Why do writers omit it? Because it detracts from the story. It’s not important, it’s just something that has to be done. It only makes its way into the story if it’s suddenly significant. The shower scene in Psycho, the heinously awful scene in Trainspotting that nearly made me sick, and I can’t even think of a third one.

In addition to detracting from the story, it also conflicts with the purpose of the characters. They are simulacra; they are not human. The purpose of a book’s characters is to help us understand humanity, not to accurately capture humanity. You don’t need to know that the character sneezed (unless the character is sick), or that they have something stuck in their teeth (unless they’re on a first date!). Their humanity is exposed only when it is in service to the story. The rest of the time, it isn’t present.

This author, Michael Faber, does not approach literature this way. He is somewhat obscenely fascinated with body fluids. There were many descriptions of the sound, smell, and sensation of someone (usually women) emptying their bladders or their bowels. There were many mentions of the slippery dribbles of semen down women’s thighs. There was a particularly grotesque scene depicting a woman having a miscarriage on a public toilet.

The worst part, for me, was descriptions of the red inflamed skin of the vulva of a young girl, because she habitually wets the bed.

I’m not a prudish person, in general. I’m not overly fond of raucous humor, but I am not the type of person to pretend I don’t have a human body. And a human body sometimes means unfun things, like bogeys and belches and menstruation. But this was too much for me. It made me uncomfortable, by the end of the book. And it served absolutely no purpose, that I could tell. The miscarriage was obviously a ‘plot point’, but is there some reason I needed to know that the maid scrunched up her nose at the smell of diarrhea on the 3rd day the governess was in the house? No.  Did I need to have my attention directed to the vulva of a young girl? No.

It was creepy. It was unnecessary. I’m not in favor of censorship, I’m not saying this should be taken off the shelves. But…I wouldn’t recommend reading it. It’s more scatological than it is meaningful. Although if you have a fetish for urine or feces, this might be just the book for you.

There is a miniseries. It came out in 2011 and stars Chris O’Dowd plays William Rackham.

the_crimson_petal_and-the_whiteThough I’m sure they’ve removed much of the strangely biological portions, I’m still afraid to watch it. I adore Chris O’Dowd, particularly since Moone Boy, and since I saw him on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I’m not sure I can handle watching this. I’m working up my courage, but no promises.

 

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The-LuminariesLet me start by remarking on how immensely large this book is. It is 832 pages long. In fact, it’s the longest book to have ever won the Man Booker Prize (it won last year) and Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win that award (she’s 26). I’ve been working on my own novels for 4-5 years at this point, and if I added everything together, it might be 400 printed pages.  And I’m 33.  So…way to make me feel totally pathetic, Eleanor Catton.

Moving on from my jealousy, let’s talk about the book. It is set during the New Zealand gold rush during the mid-19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in New Zealand before. I suppose the Lord of the Rings is the closest, only by its association with the movie locations. The New Zealand gold rush seems to have been very similar to the gold rush here in the US. When you have the chance to make a fortune, you attract all manner of people, and nearly everyone is from a different country. Some are high-born and wealthy, seeking to bring the civility to the frontier, others are rough workmen, bringing a distinctly not-civil attitude to their labors, others poor servants or slaves. And you attract all the things that survive and thrive in the periphery of these male-dominated, mostly lawless, harsh places in the world. Prostitutes, gambling halls, strong drinks, opium, and minority migrants (mostly Chinese and Mexican/Native Americans during the US gold rush, but Catton’s book features a Maori man and two ‘Chinamen’). The most unifying thing about these places, is that all manner of people who would, 50 years earlier, have never met, are occupying the same little patch of land and hoping to radically change their lives.  This is what Hokitika, the town, looked like during the gold rush:

Hokitika_township_2C_ca_1870s_2_m-1

Similar to most mid-19th century tales, The Luminaries features a long cast of characters. There’s a page in the front listing the character, their occupation, etc.  It’s a list of nearly 20 characters. That alone could make it difficult to hang onto all the facts of the story. But (again a common facet of Victorian novels) there are several people who go by false names, change their names, have several naming variations. It can be very complex to remember which descriptions, stories, and actions are attributed to which character. The book features a Maori man, Kiwis, Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Chinese men, Australian men & even a few women. Catton is extremely good at bringing each of these characters to life, of offering a perfect snippet of how and what they see in the world, and how those traits will motivate their actions. Trends have changed, throughout the last few hundred years of literature, in how much or how little to reveal about characters, but I think she strikes a perfect balance. Each character is almost immediately distinguishable, recognizable, but not so well known as to prevent a surprising turn of action or character.

The plot of the book revolves around a large fortune (£4000, which would be approximately £325,000 now), and how it passes from one character to the next. I think every character has their hands on it at one point or another.  It turns up as gold as fine as sand (if this statement confuses you, I recommend you watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as large nuggets of gold, as bricks pressed and measured. It is stuffed into a dress, in a bag under a bed, buried in the desert, stolen from a safe, hidden piecemeal throughout a dead man’s house.  It turns up everywhere, and it’s hard to keep straight who and where and why and how this gold passes through these states.

To add to the many characters and many incarnations of this fortune, the story is told through a series of parts, spanning forward and backward in time at will. It’s hard to keep track of who, what, when, and why. As The New York Times put it in their review, “it’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair”.  Very true.  I found it fun to read, because the storytelling was so good. But it’s a circular and confusing novel, and there were portions that left me confused.

The structure of the novel–as its title suggests–is based on astrological concepts.  I’m not a believer in astrology, so many of the allusions and illustrations of the different signs were probably lost on me. Each part opener identified the date, the astrological signs and their positions, but I can barely remember my own sign, let alone the other 11.

8657216However, I have it on good authority (Wikipedia) that each of the 12 main male characters involved in the ‘mystery’ of the gold corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs. The other 7 (living) characters correspond to ‘heavenly bodies’, i.e. the planets. Maybe to people more versed in astrology (or astronomy), this conveys some significance. But not to me.  I had a hard time finding my own sign in the little drawings, and I have no idea what the other scratches mean. Might as well be in cuneiform.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know or believe anything about astrology to enjoy the book. You do have to put forth some effort to pay attention to the shifting timelines, the ups and downs of each character’s journey, and everything said about the elusive gold. I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of the time, as Jane Austen said, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” This was not the case with The Luminaries. I enjoyed it as I read it, but at the end I felt a bit spent. I exerted a little more energy to get through than I got back in satisfaction, and that is disappointing. I think it could have done with a trim here and there. All of the book is well written, but more words are crammed in than the story needs to tell itself. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is under 400 pages, so I think that will be do-able.

They are discussing a TV miniseries, which I think could be excellent. This is the sort of sweeping Dickensian story that works fabulously in a 6 or 8 part miniseries, particularly if they actually film it in New Zealand.  If it ever plays in a format to which I have access, I will definitely watch.

 

 

The Devil’s Mistress or the Devil’s Whore

The_Devil's_WhoreI happened to catch this miniseries on TV this weekend and I found it really engrossing.  It was called The Devil’s Whore in most of the world, but we puritanical Americans needed the modified title of the Devil’s Mistress. Because if you pay her in the street she’s a dirty whore, but if you get her an apartment and buy her some gifts, she’s a classy mistress.  Apparently.

The miniseries is from 2008, and features a lot of well-known actors who have gone on to be quite famous. For the Doctor Who fans, we have John Simm (the Master) as Edward Sexby, and Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor) as the ill-fated Charles I.

Dominic West (the Wire) plays Oliver Cromwell, Andrea Riseborough (W./E., Oblivion) plays fictional Angelica Fanshawe, and Michael Fassbender (every movie ever) plays Thomas Rainsborough. Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove in Mr. Selfridge) plays Honest John Lilburne.

As you’ll have guessed (if you know even basic British history), this miniseries takes place just before and during the English Civil War.  If you haven’t learned basic British history, here’s the 2 cent tour of the era.  Charles I was a dictator of Scottish descent with a French wife.  That meant people thought he was too close to ‘Papists’, and that his policies would benefit Catholics at the expense of Protestants.  After all the bloodshed and confusion of the 16th century battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England, the majority of the English were vehemently opposed to ‘Papists’. Charles I and Parliament engaged in a very long struggle for power, which ended with Charles I being beheaded in London.  Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the Long Parliament, and appointed himself ‘Lord Protector’.  Though he’d argued against monarchy, he very quickly established himself as a king in all but name.  This lasted until the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles’ son returning to England after Cromwell’s death.  The monarchy has existed without any real interruption since that time.

This miniseries starts with Angelica Fanshawe preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart, Harry. She’s wealthy and connected; King Charles himself attends and blesses her wedding.

Angelica Fanshawe3 (Andrea Riseborough)

We see brief flashbacks. Angelica was raised by a Catholic mother, during the very violent time just after Protestantism was established in England. Her mother abandoned her for God, and Angelica was (understandably) angry.  She proclaims that there is no god, and that is the first time she gets a vision of a demon.  She sees them all her life.

A lot is going on during the day of her wedding.  John Lilburne is whipped for distributing pamphlets arguing against the tyrannical rule of King Charles. Sexby sees Angelica and immediately falls in love with her, though he is quickly reminded that his social standing (lowly soldier for pay) prevents him from even thinking about her in an untoward way.  The ribbing of his friends causes her groom Harry to have a really pathetic problem with insecurity. He spends the rest of their marriage being jealous and angry, trying to make her give up her independence and her ability to make decisions.  To say I hate him would be an understatement.

Thankfully for me, Harry meets a sticky end at the hands of the ever-more tyrannical Charles I.  We see Angelica’s situation change overnight. She’s no longer wealthy or desired, she’s out on the streets. At the same time, Sexby, Cromwell, and Rainsborough are leading the charge against Charles; they are allied with Honest John Lilburne, but not for long.

article-1086202-027D020F000005DC-344_468x328Episodes 2 and 3 see Angelica change a lot.  She is forced to become independent and to examine the world she’s living in–rather than just accepting it as good based on her own privileged experiences.  *Cue Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘*  As a woman, this is a lot more difficult than for a man. She has no property, no money, no skills.  Starving, she accepts some soup offered to her by a wealthy man.  As soon as she is done eating, he tries to claim his ‘payment’.  After a bit of a tussle, she stabs him to keep him from raping her. Sexby turns up as Angelica is on the run, and helps to protect her from justice.

Angelica finally sees the bitter truth of life for those who aren’t as privileged as she has been.  Her loyalties change and she abandons the royalist cause and takes up with the Roundheads (aka those allied with Parliament in their conflict with the king.  The royalists were called Cavaliers).  She is drawn to Fassbender’s Rainsborough. He is a good mix between the too-earnest and impractical Lilburne and the severely pragmatic Cromwell. The two take up a love affair, but alas.  It’s not to be. Joliffe, the best friend of the man Angelica killed, is after her.  He wants to hang her as a murderess and a whore, and seems to take extreme pleasure in the idea of punishing a woman who wouldn’t give a man what he thought he deserved.

Things turn uglier as the miniseries continues.  Rainsborough and Angelica get married, but he is killed soon after–by his supposed friend Cromwell.  Angelica is pregnant and mourning a second husband, and is soon after arrested and sentenced to hang. She is due to be executed the same day as the king, newly convicted by a brutal Parliament and Cromwell, its leader.

As he can generally be expected to do, Sexby turns up to save Angelica. I won’t spoil what happens in the 4th episode, but it doesn’t turn out particularly well for anyone. I will say that at least one person dies, Sexby has at least one more chance to save Angelica from a terrible fate, and a baby is born at the end.

Here are a few things that struck me about this miniseries:

1-The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Under Charles I, John Lilburne is imprisoned for causing trouble, there is corruption and tyranny from a despotic ruler, and women are under the proverbial boots of incredibly awful men. After Charles I is killed and Cromwell takes over…it’s all the same.  It was a time of great revolution in England, but the changes seemed to be superficial and ineffectual.  Certainly nothing seemed to change for the better. John Lilburne rots in prison for criticizing Charles I, but he dies in prison under the governance of his supposed friends.

2-I have mixed feelings about Sexby.  I think he’s quite heroic and certainly a friend a girl wants to have if she’s going to constantly be in danger of being raped/murdered/executed.  His long slow burn of pining love for her is romantic, when it’s happening on screen.  But if it were real life, I don’t know that I’d feel the same way.  If the miniseries was set in modern times, I feel too much that he would be wearing a fedora and complaining that the girl he liked kept him in the ‘friendzone’. Side note, if you’re unfamiliar with the trope I am discussing, look at a few pages of this tumbr (or this one) and you’ll learn a new breed of  men to avoid. Sexby is a loyal and good friend to Angelica, but it’s quite clear he spends each moment hoping for more, and-once-gets unjustifiably angry and almost violent with her for not feeling what he feels.

While I find Sexby quite engaging and interesting, Angelica tells him she can never love him, and then ‘realizes’ her feelings for him almost the very next time she sees him.  Who wrote that? I have never once had that sort of reversal of feeling. Any women reading this: has this ever happened to you?  Did a man write this? Because I find it really hard to believe.

3-Note to self: do not attempt to lead a happy life during Civil War or revolution.  Both Angelica and Sexby get fucked around by the royalists and the roundheads, and the system in general.  There’s no hope for a happy ending.

4-Why on earth did they make her see the devil?  A lot of the miniseries paints Angelica as a liberated, almost modern, woman, which was very dangerous and could be considered demonic during that (literally) puritanical period.  She’s seen by several of her opponent’s as the Devil’s Whore, because she’s living a life outside social norms.  That’s all pretty powerful and makes me feel so grateful I don’t live in the 17th century. I would have been burned or drowned long ago.  The whole hallucinating a demon thing just seems like a strange distraction. It lessens the lunacy of their claims that she is the Devil’s Whore, and almost gives their accusations some weight.  I don’t understand the purpose of it at all.

Despite my reservations, I think it was a good miniseries.  I found it engrossing and easy to watch, and I did learn some things I never knew about that period of English history.  I take it all with a grain of salt, but a little bit of history and some entertainment are (in my book) a good way to spend an evening.

Summer British TV

Summer and Winter seem to be when the best of the British channels finally hits our shores. This summer is no exception. Just because Doctor Who is over, and Downton Abbey is months away, don’t despair! There are a lot of premieres in Summer and early fall. Starting in chronological order:

Family Trees

Family TreeChris O’Dowd’s new show on HBO started last month, and I have really enjoyed it so far! It’ll be running every Sunday through early July. Chris plays Tom, a somewhat depressed, slightly pathetic man living in London. His great-aunt dies and leaves him a trunk of family paraphernalia. He gets interested in his history, and goes about tracing his family lineage by finding out more about the objects in the trunk. It’s a very British show, so far, but later Tom does take a trip to the states to find out more about one branch of his family. It’s a hilarious show, very self-effacing and extremely odd. Tom’s sister, uses a monkey puppet to voice all her strangest and most offensive thoughts. She has conversations with this monkey all the time; she goes everywhere with the monkey. Tom also has a best friend, Pete, who is dumb as a post, and his dad is played by the always hilarious Michael McKean (of Clue and Spinal Tap fame). The show relies on awkward and embarrassing moments to make you laugh, which is a theme with British TV I think. Probably because awkward situations are the biggest fear of most English people.

Here’s a trailer (though I must warn you that it plays up the American part of the show far more than has happened in each episode yet):

In the Flesh

In the FleshThis is a miniseries that started June 6th. I’m not a zombie person, okay? I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that’s about it. Okay, I’ve seen Zombieland. And 28 Days Later. And Shaun of the Dead…okay I’ve consumed more zombie books/movies than I thought. Still, it’s not a concept I’m particularly attracted to. On the other hand, this is only a 3-part miniseries, so I might as well give it a try. It aired in the UK and March, to generally positive reviews. These zombies are presented as a socially-marginalized minority, have been diagnosed with PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome), and have been rehabilitated with medication and cosmetics. It sounds vaguely like True Blood‘s approach to vampires. At least In the Flesh won’t be just another scary movie a la Dawn of the Dead. I’m willing to give it a try. My only qualm is that I’m not very good with gore. Even in comedy films like Shaun of the Dead, I’m horrified by the sights and sounds associated with…zombies eating human flesh. Particularly while said human is alive. But it’s on BBC America, so it can’t be too bad. Here’s the trailer:

On June 23rd, the second season of Copper premieres.

Copper trioI was on the fence about this show throughout the first season. The three characters I liked (conveniently pictured above) are all coming back, so I’m going to give it a try (new motto for me?). This show always seems to be on the edge, teetering on the precipice of me not wanting to watch it anymore. I dislike the violence and blatant corruption, but I like the fact that it is set in the 19th century, and I think it always has potential to be a really great show. I’m hoping this year, now that it is a bit more established, it will reach that potential. Here is the trailer:

Also, on June 30th, the twentieth season of Top Gear premieres in the UK. No word yet on BBC America’s air dates, but last season they were only about a week behind, so hopefully more info will be forthcoming.

In early July, PBS will begin airing Endeavour, a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse detective series. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Inspector Morse, so this wasn’t on the top of my Must-See list. But, I had second thoughts when I saw who they cast as Morse:

EndeavourAdd to the obvious appeal of…whoever this guy is…it’s still set in Oxford. Oxford is so picturesque, and so quintessentially English (it’s what we think of in America when we think of an English village) that I could watch just about anything that takes place there. Plus, I have a certain weakness for incredibly smart, rail-thin detectives, even when they are not played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s only 4 or 5 episodes, so I’m going to go ahead and watch. I hope not much will be lost on me for not having followed the original series closely. Trailer is here:

The same night Endeavour premieres, the biggest thing since sliced bread is set to hit BBC America.

BroadchurchDavid Tennant stars in Broadchurch and uses his Scottish accent, which is my favorite thing in the world. This show was a huge hit in the UK this Spring, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for it since. A second series has already been announced.

It’s a whodunnit murder mystery set on the Dorset coast. In addition to Tennant, Olivia Colman co-starred and co-produced the show, and Arthur Darvill (Rory!) also co-stars. This is at the top of my Must-See List, FYI. Trailer:

Since I will be thoroughly busy watching all of these shows, I’m glad there is a bit of a break before more begin. The next one starts August 18th. It’s called The Lady Vanishes.

The Lady VanishesPBS is airing this remake of a Hitchcock thriller about a woman who goes missing, and another who tries to alert authorities about the incidence, but is not taken seriously. Listen, I tend to think any remake of a Hitchcock film is just a terrible idea. Are they going to improve on his direction? No. Is the addition of color going to add more suspense and creepiness? No. Are there modern actresses/actors who could play these roles better than the likes of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart? Hell no. But, this actually got pretty good reviews, so I’m going to watch and keep an open mind. I’ve never seen the original, so that should help. Trailer:

At the end of August, PBS is also airing Silk, a legal drama. Prepare your powdered wigs, we’re off to the Old Bailey!

SilkI don’t have a lot of info on this one, partially because the title is very hard to Google well. Apparently it deals with two rival barristers. PBS is airing it in 3 two-hour increments from August 25th-September 8th. Bonus-it features Rupert Penry-Jones, of Whitechapel. Less of a bonus–his character looks like a d-bag, judging by the trailer:

Next, starting September 3rd, the all important Idris Elba returns to my life on BBC America.

luther series 3You gorgeous man, you.

There’s not a proper trailer for this one yet (that I could find), but they made an ‘announcement trailer’

Judging by this video, I’m guessing the episodes for the new season will disturb me just as much (if not more) than the last two seasons. Don’t care. Idris Elba calls, and I must answer.

Last, but not least:

The ParadisePBS is airing this one on October 6th, and calling it The Paradise. It’s an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel, and was sort of squared off against Mr. Selfridge when it aired in the UK, because of the similar subject matter. The show revolves around the first department store in NE England. It looks a little more soapy to me, based on the trailer. But I plan to watch and compare. Bonus–Arthur Darvill is also in this one (briefly).

Beyond here, there be trailers:

I’m going to be a busy blogger over the next 3 or 4 months. Yay!