July 31, 2011
Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw star in BBC2's 'The Hour'.
It was bound to happen.
Stylish newsroom drama on BBC2, set in the 1950s. Classy, period costumes and the constant fug of cigarette smoke. Overt sexism and unspoken desires set against the backdrop of major historical events.
Exchange the journalists with advertisers and you get Mad Men. Sort of, as in: Not really. At all. Several critics have compared BBC2’s new drama—The Hour—to the U.S. critical darling, but the comparison is shallow. The two shows share a handful of stylistic conventions, but they could not be more different. Mad Men relies upon ‘slow-burn’ narrative and suppressed emotion. The Hour presents itself as a historical drama with the added twist of political conspiracy. The element of suspense—the pilot begins and ends with separate, violent deaths—creates an entirely different pace and feel than that of Mad Men. So please, no more comparisons between the two.
After two episodes, The Hour offers an adequate, entertaining programme. The script, for the most part, is sharply written; the visuals are pleasing to look at. Best feature: it’s about a television newsroom in the 50’s. As a news and television drama junkie, I thoroughly enjoy stories about journalists. Good Night and Good Luck, All the President’s Men, BBC’s State of Play. There is something compelling about the intensity and chaos of a major investigative or breaking story. The Hour provides glimpses of that environment, but it lags in originality for much of the character development. Unfortunately the three main characters are crudely sketched stereotypes: the hot-headed journalist who speaks whatever is on his mind, the charismatic, dashing—yet insecure—married man, and the ahead-of-her-time female producer who, despite her accomplishments, pursues unattainable men due to her ‘vulnerability’. Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) has succeeded in aggravating me the most thus far. Instead of presenting a ‘spirited and ambitious’ producer—as described by the BBC—Bel’s fierceness is constantly undercut by her soulful gazes and undeniable longing for front man, Hector (Dominic West). Why a self-respected, accomplished, professional woman would fall for an entitled, arrogant flirt is beyond my limits of comprehension. As Guardian critic Rebecca Nicholson stated, the foreign desk correspondent, Lix (Anna Chancellor), seems better suited to the leadership role than Bel.
The Hour possesses a smidge too much intrigue for my tastes, made all the worse by the horrendous saxophone/cymbal music that accompanies ‘mysterious’ scenes. Any potential weight is sucked out, and I half-expect Dick Tracy to hop on screen. Why must British screenwriters feel the need to include political thrillers in their dramas? They do it well, but a straight drama about journalists during tumultuous world events at the dawn of the television era would be just as compelling. Perhaps that is why I adore Mad Men so much. Human complexities and the pressures of the advertising business drive the plot. Plot development relies on people rather than spywork. Still, The Hour offers solid storytelling and smart cinematography. While the first two episodes have progressed slowly, the eruption of the Suez crisis injected a necessary shot of energy into the plot—let’s hope it lasts for the final four episodes.
The Hour airs on Tuesdays, 9pm. BBC2.
July 20, 2011
These days I have more books waiting on my ‘to be read’ shelf than I dare admit. Graduate research certainly takes its toll on pleasure reading as academic articles and theoretical texts trounce literature. I still manage to squeeze a few novels into my overstuffed reading life—mostly for my own sanity. Fiction provides a much-needed escape at the end of a day full of analysis and theory.
Bookstores and newspapers have already circulated their recommended reads for the long, not-so-lazy days of summertime. For those of you who have already chewed through those recommendations—or for those who didn’t find anything appealing on this year’s NPR Summer Books blog—here are my suggestions for fiction-induced bliss.
1. THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY
by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
I refused to read this book for three years. Despite its place on nearly every bestseller list imaginable—and its prominent display in bookstores—I simply would not read it. Why? The novel is comprised of fictional letters. I believed that such a format would disrupt the immersive experience of reading, not to mention annoy me endlessly. When I was preparing to move to England, a friend recommended Guernsey to me because of its ‘British’ flavour. Finally, the book possessed appeal. To embrace my new English home, I tentatively picked it up…and commenced to eat that proverbial humble pie. The story is charming and highlights a part of World War II I had never heard of before: the German occupation of the Channel Islands. The letter format of the book did take a little getting used to, and the plot is more ‘fluffy’ than I usually like. As The Times wrote, Guernsey can ‘lift even the most cynical of spirits’. And I, more cynical than most of my friends, genuinely enjoyed this short book. If you’re looking for a sweet, non-complicated, feel-good read (I cannot believe I’m advocating this!), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is outfitted for you.
2. THE UNDERSTUDY by David Nicholls
I read Nicholls’s One Day last summer and became infatuated with his writing style. Sharp, witty, cynical—Nicholls exemplifies the dry, droll humour that I have come to love in Brits. So when I discovered that Nicholls had published a novel four years prior to One Day, I simply had to read it. While The Understudy is not as innovative or compelling as One Day, it still serves an enjoyable, funny read. The book focuses on Steve McQueen—no, not that one—an actor who is doomed to play silent stage roles and corpses due to his ordinariness. His latest job is to understudy ‘The Twelfth Sexiest Man in the World’, Josh Harper, in a play about Lord Byron, and Steve enviously watches Josh maintain perfect health. The two develop a bizarre friendship, and Steve discovers a way to perhaps get his lucky break after all—proving to his ex-wife and daughter that he truly is an Actor—only his plan requires a helluva lot of lying. The Understudy illustrates the strength of some dreams, the futility of others, and the all-too-common bridge between them.
3. JULIET, NAKED by Nick Hornby
Sticking with British authors for the moment, Juliet, Naked delivers a bittersweet, humorous novel about loneliness, music, and life changes. Annie and Duncan have been together for many years when suddenly they realize they may not love each other as much as they believed. Duncan is obsessed with a washed-out musician—Tucker Crowe—more enthusiastic about maintaining the Tucker fan website than his relationship with Annie. When Tucker releases a stripped version of his album Juliet, Annie decides to contact him about the album’s weaknesses, instigating a surprising relationship between the two. Hornby gives us access to these three characters and their flawed lives without judgement, adeptly balancing humor and honesty. Fans of Nicholls’s writing will enjoy this book.
4. THE LUXE SERIES by Anna Godbersen
For years I noticed the Luxe books at Barnes and Noble, drawn to the gorgeous, opulent dresses on each book cover. I refrained from reading them, however. They were, after all, a late 19th century version of Gossip Girl. And I am, like, so above that kind of trashy reading. But then I caved. The flouncy layers of shiny pink satin proved too irresistible, and I devoured the first novel (The Luxe) in two days. The Luxe was quickly followed by Rumors, Envy, and Splendor. Brimming with juicy scandal, gossip, and schemes, the Luxe series is my guiltiest pleasure. The books follow the interwoven lives of the most prominent families in 1890’s Manhattan—their secrets, their affairs, their deepest desires. What makes The Luxe series even better is that Godbersen did her homework. She meticulously researched the Gilded Age of New York City, down to the fashion trends during that time. So alongside delectable plots, you also receive mini-history lessons. Godbersen also does not believe in happy endings—so her novels are imbued with a sense of realism—and she never shies away from including the unfair and the unjust. The Luxe reveals the caged, oppressive, and duty-bound existences that come with high society and money. Godbersen just published a new novel, Bright Young Things, about young women in 1920s Jazz Age Manhattan. And, yes, it’s waiting for me on my bookshelf.
5. THE SWAN THIEVES by Elizabeth Kostova
If you’re looking for a sweeping, epic-length novel this summer, The Swan Thieves may be exactly what you want. When artistic genius, Robert Oliver, attacks a painting at the National Gallery of Art, he becomes the psychiatric patient of Andrew Marlow. Oliver is obviously deeply disturbed but refuses to talk—forcing Marlow to go to extreme lengths to uncover his patient’s tormented secrets. Kostova exquisitely weaves Marlow’s investigations with a hidden history that transpired alongside French Impressionism. History and art lovers will revel in the intricate details, drawn from Kostova’s dedicated research. The ending is a mite too abrupt for me—challenging my notions of realistic character motivation—but the 564-page novel redeems itself by its sheer ambition and adoration of French art.
6. THE WISE MAN’S FEAR by Patrick Rothfuss
It is here. It has finally arrived. The second instalment of the Kingkiller Chronicles Series. Described as a ‘mesmerizing sequel’ and ‘towering work of fantasy’*, Kvothe continues to share the story of his search to find answers about the murder of his parents—even as the dark present is creeping towards him and the identity he is so desperate to hide. I have only read the first few pages, but already Rothfuss has shown that the past four years of waiting have not been in vain. The Wise Man’s Fear promises to be just as exhilarating an experience as the first novel, and once I finish it, I’ll post my review here on (edge)wise.
Do you have any book recommendations? Please send them!
July 10, 2011
I have not posted on (edge)wise for the past few weeks because my good friend has been visiting here in York. During her stay, I expected to provide a robust tour of York and explore new cities while backpacking through southern England. I did not, however, anticipate our unintentional literary tour of Bath and Torquay. And it was not just any literary tour—but the stomping grounds of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, two of my favourite authors and female literary icons. My loves of literature and history collided in both cities, and it was as though I had entered a novel myself. Fanciful? Absolutely. But I am a firm believer in small bouts of fancy every now and then. It keeps us young and our imaginations agile.
In Bath, I visited the house in which Jane Austen lived for awhile after her father died. (It is sadly now a dental surgery.) Two of Austen’s books are largely set in Bath: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Having read Northanger, I could see how the city of Bath inspired Austen. It was great fun imagining the city as she had seen it—not so very difficult to do as most of Bath is one, large historical postcard, the Georgian architecture standing as testaments of a past era. One of the highlights was walking past the Pump Room, adjoined to the Roman Baths, which is featured in Northanger.
Darci - on the lawn in front of the Royal Crescent, Bath.
No. 25 - the house where Jane Austen lived.
Heading further south, we arrived in Torquay. It is called the ‘English Riviera’. As I have seen the ‘actual’ French Riviera, I was sceptical of Torquay’s purported charm. It sounded more like a tourist gambit than actual truth. Oh, how I was wrong. Glorious sunshine, turquoise water, rambling streets that climbed over hills, colourful houses stacked upon one another. Torquay is magnificent. Sunsets ignite the skyline with brilliant oranges, coral, and dusty amethyst. Temperatures crept into the mid-20s (upper 70s F). And best of all: Agatha Christie had spent significant pieces of her life in Torquay. En route to Meadfoot Beach, we passed the Imperial Hotel, which is featured in three of Christie’s novels. If Jane Austen’s Bath delighted me, then Christie’s English Riviera filled me with a childlike giddiness.
From the Princess Pier, Torquay.
For those of you who do not know, perhaps I should explain that I grew up on Agatha Christie novels. They are formulaic and repetitive to be sure. But they captured my imagination as an 11-year old. They hold a certain whimsy. When I was a gangly teenager, I’d stick an Agatha Christie book into my back pocket and head to the park where I consumed the story in a single afternoon. Now I prefer my mysteries to be darker, complex, and deeply psychological. (Here’s to you P.D. James and Henning Mankell.) But I still read Christie novels whenever I need to slow down and relax. Agatha Christie is my form of therapy, it seems.
I never understood the scenes in Christie’s books in which a character would go for an evening stroll and then ‘happen’ to overhear a conversation close by—in a garden or beneath a wall or along a coastal path. Now having walked the coastal path that begins at the Imperial Hotel and ends at Meadfoot Beach, I completely understand how those scenes could have transpired. Crumbling walls create half-hidden alcoves along the walkway, not to mention the numerous benches that overlook the water—situated right on top of dirt footpaths further down the steep incline. Those scenes gained life to me, and I am sure that Darci grew weary of my frequent ramblings, connecting vistas and locations with settings in the books.
Along the coastal path.
Even when Darci and I visited Edinburgh, we could not escape literary connections. Edinburgh was home to Sir Walter Scott—Ivanhoe and The Lady of the Lake—and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, we passed by Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, named after an 18th century citizen of Edinburgh—member of the gentry, city counsellor, and businessman by day, thief and gambler by night—and the man who inspired Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yorkshire, even, is home to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. My visit to Whitby last April holds the abbey that supposedly inspired Bram Stoker while writing Dracula. These cities hum with literary history.
I have never paid much notice to authorial connections when visiting new places. Now having seen the locations that inspired Austen, Christie, and Stevenson—never mind walking in their footsteps—this aspect of travel will become a key component in future expeditions. It adds another layer, another dimension, to the travelling experience, enrichening and enchanting in equal measure.
Have you ever visited a place with strong literary connections?
Agatha and I.