torsdag 15 mars 2018

Is The Mouse running out of ideas?

I was counting on getting a blog post out of Coco, the latest Pixar film which I went to see at the cinema a couple of weeks back. But it's not that easy to find something to discuss about it. It's... good. Really good, solid quality work. I had the same feeling when I saw The Last Jedi. It wasn't disappointing, so I couldn't spend a blog post whining about it, but neither was it spectacularly groundbreaking. It was simply good, and pretty much what you'd expect from a Star Wars film, just as Coco is pretty much what you'd expect from a Pixar film.

Coco started slow, but the visuals are stunning, it uses the Mexican Day of the Dead imaginatively in its story, and it has a surprising, heartwarming moral about the importance of family, when at first you thought it would be all about self-fulfilment and the power of music (which is a pretty well-worn theme). Having said that, I saw one plot twist coming a mile off, and some other plot details made it into the film which we've seen a little too often in Pixar films by now. The surprise villain was mostly a surprise because you didn't expect the film to have a villain at all - after all the times Pixar and Disney animation films have used the trope in later days, you're unlikely to go "Oh, wow, X was bad all along?" The premise of the protagonist Miguel's family hating music is pretty forced, and how often haven't we seen the "villain unwittingly reveals his or her true nature publicly" scene? But the ending made me cry, the film is a whole lot better than The Good Dinosaur or Finding Dory and the message it peddles is something I can buy - unlike some hard sells which we've had from Pixar.

And even if some of the plot elements are familiar, the story itself is fresh with a touch of magic, which is what you want from an animated flick. But what exactly is Disney - including Pixar - up to next? The immediate future looks uninspiring. Pixar is releasing a sequel to The Incredibles, one of my least favourite Pixar films, and Disney animation is releasing a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, which judging by the trailer looks mildly amusing but not in any way unmissable. The original Wreck-It Ralph may have been a celebration of video arcade games, but for those of us with little or no experience of these kind of games it also had a story to tell about friendship and finding your role in life - nothing astoundingly new, but sweetly handled. The premise of the sequel seems to be "what if we let our two lovable protagonists from film one loose in the Internet?", and that's not good enough. Where's the story? However, trailers are sometimes misleading, so I'll try to keep an open mind. And I do like Ralph.

So, on the animation front, two sequels, and... very little else. At the same time, there appears to be a slew of live-action remakes of Disney animation classics in the pipeline. I can't help thinking that this is the wrong way to go. I like live-action fairy-tale films when they flesh out or give a fresh spin on a familiar story. As I've mentioned more than a few times, Once Upon a Time is my current TV series obsession (unsurprisingly, given its solid villain focus), and I also really enjoy the old TV series The Storyteller which highlighted some lesser-known but juicy fairy tales. There's nothing wrong with the genre, then. However, you can't settle for simply reshooting the animated Disney version of a fairy-tale with a few added scenes and live actors instead of animation - that's just pointless. The live-action Disney Cinderella looked good, but didn't give you any new take on the story, and from what I've seen trailer- and review-wise of the live-action Beauty and the Beast, it's pretty much the same there. (To be fair, I haven't watched it yet, nor do I fell very inclined to do so at the moment. I think Once may have ruined me for other Beasts - the traditional "cursed prince" version seems pretty tame now.) And honestly, who needs a live-action Lion King? At least traditional fairy tales offer grand castles and pretty dresses. What could a computer-animated Scar add to the beautifully animated, Jeremy Irons-voiced version?

A while back, there was a buzz that Disney was working on an animated film based on Jack and the Beanstalk  (called Giant, I think), but I haven't heard anything about it lately. What happened to it? Animated fairy tales are what Disney does best, and each of its more successful animated eras - the Golden Age, the Renaissance, the Revival - sparked off with fairy-tale films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog/Tangled). But OK, I could understand if they wanted to try something new - as long as it is new. Rehashing old material is unworthy of The Mouse.         

onsdag 28 februari 2018

Is Lizzy really prejudiced and Charlotte really wise?

I've now finished Pride and Prejudice, the second novel in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, and yes, I can see why it's a favourite with so many Austen fans. It feels like a much more assured work than Sense and Sensibility, and Elizabeth Bennet really is a charming heroine. One problem I had with the novel - and this is nothing that Austen could help - is that the plot is by now overfamiliar to me. If you have seen the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies, then you already know pretty much everything that will happen plot-wise - there are no "deleted scenes", as it were. Davies even added some scenes in order to flesh out the depiction of domestic life at Longbourn. As Austen's novels are comparatively short (well, compared to the average Victorian novel at any rate) there isn't really much in the way of sub-plots to discover either.

Are there no surprises in store, then, for someone who clearly remembers the numerous TV and film adaptations but hasn't read the novel for quite some time (or for someone who hasn't read the novel at all)? Well, there were a few things that I'd forgotten since I last read it and that haven't been emphasised much by the various adaptations. My views on Mr Darcy remain pretty much the same as when I wrote about Darcymania, but two things did take me aback somewhat. Firstly, there is absolutely no indication for the first half of the book that Darcy is actually a good egg. On film and on TV, you tend to get the sense that Darcy is more gauche than proud, really, and his brusqueness a sign of insecurity. His initial rejection of Lizzy is the sign of a man "in denial", and their romance is foreshadowed with exchanged glances etc.: the "love story that starts with a fight" trope is set up clearly enough. This isn't really the case in the novel. I first read Pride and Prejudice in a Swedish translation when I was about twelve or thirteen, which incidentally was too young as I was rather bored by it, but I remember finding it a pleasant surprise that Darcy turned out to be Elizabeth's love interest. I don't know how I managed to be so completely ignorant as not to know about this famous pair, but it proved a boon to me that I didn't. Darcy proving himself in Elizabeth's eyes became a plot twist - the villain was suddenly the hero. It would interest me to know if the novel's first readers had the same experience. If for some reason you would stop reading Pride and Prejudice after 150 pages (not likely), you would come away from it convinced that Mr Darcy is nothing more than an arrogant, conceited and humourless young man, almost as unfit to be a husband to Lizzy Bennet as Mr Collins.

In fact, adaptations tend to play up the "prejudice" part of the novel's title and play down the "pride" part. Elizabeth is shown to be full of mortification over the vulgarity and inappropriate behaviour of her family, and it is implied that it was perfectly reasonable of Darcy not to want his friend Bingley mixed up with that kind of people. Furthermore you are more or less given to understand - in the Davies adaptation especially - that if Elizabeth hadn't been such a silly goose, she would have understood all along what a sterling chap Darcy is. In the novel, on the other hand, there's no way for Elizabeth to know anything of the sort. When she meets him at Pemberley and he is suddenly all politeness and charm to her and her uncle and aunt it is acknowledged that he's a changed man, who behaves completely differently than when he was at Netherfield. Elizabeth wasn't blinded by her partiality for Wickham and dislike for Darcy into not seeing his good qualities before - he just never displayed them before.

Secondly, I must admit to having wronged Darcy in one instance. I've claimed more than once that I didn't believe he ever truly apologised for separating Bingley from Jane, and that the scene where he asks his friend's forgiveness in the BBC adaptation is a pure fabrication on Davies's part. It turns out, however, that he does apologise for the Jane-Bingley affair, and for all his other failings, to Elizabeth in a most handsome manner towards the end of the novel. It's true we don't see him apologising to Bingley, but he tells Elizabeth of having confessed to his friend that he was in error, which made even the good-natured Bingley angry with him for about five minutes. The Darcy apology doesn't get much air-time when the novel is adapted, and I honestly wonder why. If it's anything that earns Mr Darcy his high standing as a romantic hero, then surely it's this - his ability to understand when he's been in the wrong, admit to it and change his behaviour accordingly.

Another thing I didn't remember from the novel is just how negatively Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr Collins is depicted. From adaptations, you mostly get a sense of this being a sensible move on her behalf: she is not likely to get another offer, and Mr Collins's situation as a vicar under Lady Catherine De Bourgh's patronage provides solid material comfort. Moreover, he is the their to Longbourn. Later, when Elizabeth visits her friend, she finds that Charlotte has arranged things rather cosily for herself and seems contented.

However, her arrangements include seeing as little of her husband as possible. I used to believe that Charlotte thought rather better of Mr Collins than Elizabeth, and that this was one reason why she could face marrying him when Lizzy couldn't. From the book, though, we are left in little doubt that Charlotte has no high opinion of her intended. "Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary." Not only does Charlotte not love him: she doesn't even esteem him or like him (those words that Marianne in Sense and Sensibility found so insipid). When Elizabeth leaves Charlotte at the end of her visit, "Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms". The "not yet" strikes a worrying note, and one wonders if such a marriage can prove happy to Charlotte - or, for that matter, to her husband - in the long run. For all her apparent sensibleness, I suspect that Austen is really too much of a romantic at heart to make a very convincing advocate for a marriage of convenience.

tisdag 13 februari 2018

Mad hype

Nope, I don’t get it. I’ve watched five episodes of the madly praised Mad Men without coming any closer to understanding what the fuss is about. And this is all the time I’m going to waste on it: I won’t make the same mistake as with The Collection and spend hours on a TV show that I don’t enjoy in the vain hope that it will get any better, just because there’s some slight improvement after the first one or two episodes.

It may sound harsh, but though I understand that television can be considered an art form of sorts, it still has to entertain. Theoretically, I can buy that one could read a book in order to improve one’s soul rather than be entertained, though it’s hardly something I tend to do – I read for pleasure. The pleasure factor is even more important when it comes to TV, though. No-one is going to give you kudos for watching something on the gogglebox, however much it’s been hyped.

And my goodness has Mad Men been hyped; it’s supposed to be the height of high-quality drama. When Downton was still airing, this was the kind of show it was compared unfavourably to – and if we Downtonites felt like sharpening our knives, our hostility was hampered by the fact that Julian Fellowes watched and admired Mad Men, too.

So what did I find when watching it? The first two episodes were downright clumsy. In episode two, one of the ad men suggests to the new girl in the office that they should “go to the zoo and see what the animals are up to”. This is exactly how this show feels: going to the zoo that is the US in the late Fifties and early Sixties and see what the human animals are up to. Look, how they drink and smoke! And how the men tell sexist jokes, and make a pass at everything in a skirt, and how the women have to bear it, and then there’s the casual racism… Oh, shocking, shocking.

One politically incorrect reviewer praised Mad Men because he thought (or pretended to) that it depicted the ideal life: lots of guilt-free smoking and hot babes. This was disingenuous, though. We are clearly meant to tut-tut in our enlightened way about all that was going on, and so close to our own age too. At the end of the second episode, I felt quite depressed at the thought of having to continue with it, but I've heard it said that the series picks up after three episodes, so I persevered.

It did pick up a little bit, and spent more time exploring the characters and less pointing out what horrible times they lived in. The problem is that the characters aren’t that worth exploring. Never mind not igniting my passionate engagement, as my favourite TV dramas do (especially when an intelligent villain’s happiness is on the line): Mad Men doesn’t even spark the mildly benign interest I take in the characters in Game of Thrones. While I still don’t care a lot about the GoT crowd, I don’t mind spending time in their company. A few episodes into season three, I even find myself kind of “shipping” a possible, unlikely romance. But no character in Mad Men is interesting or likeable enough to give a fig about even for a moment – and the depressing thing is that I think it’s deliberate. The men are all jerks. Don Draper, the protagonist, is a little more pensive and tormented jerk than the others, but that’s it. The women – whether “liberated” or “conventional” – are ciphers. We see a lot of the action through the eyes of Peggy, the new secretary, but I have no idea why we should root for her especially. She doesn’t seem to be that smart, considering that she sleeps with the baby-faced jerk Pete Campbell at the end of the first episode. Her worldly-wise colleague Joan looks like a million dollars, but what personality does she have apart from being worldly-wise? Heck if I know.

Hype really is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you might very well start watching a praised-to-the-skies series hoping you’ll dislike it, like I did with both Game of Thrones and Mad Men. On the other hand, you’ll most likely give it more time than you would a less well-known and less well-spoken-of series – because if even Julian Fellowes thinks it’s great, then there must be something to it, right?

Five episodes must be considered  giving a series a fair trial, however. I could see how it could possibly make decent-enough, meditative post-gym viewing (not a lot happens in each episode) – not that I’ll continue with it even for that. But a subtle and sophisticated masterpiece? I think not.

torsdag 1 februari 2018

Elinor, Marianne and their beaux

I'm now one book down in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, having finished Sense and Sensibility. At the beginning, I must admit I didn't like it much, but it got more enjoyable as the story went on. The first 60 pages cover a lot of ground - in no time, Elinor meets Edward at Norland, the girls and their mother decamp to Barton Cottage, the family gets to know the Middletons and Colonel Brandon and Marianne is romanced by Willoughby - but the characters don't come properly to life until more dialogue is included. Elinor's and Marianne's stay in London may take more time than it needs to, as does the winding-up of the happy endings (so as to make them seem as realistic as possible, I suppose). However, as the characters have more to say for themselves and the author has more to say about them, it is on the whole time pleasantly spent.

So is Elinor a stick in the mud, and Marianne a complete flake, as one would have reason to fear from the setup of the book? Well, no, not entirely. At first, the novel does seem to be something of a "compare and contrast" exercise, but fortunately it's not quite as simple as that. I must admit that Elinor sometimes got on my nerves. It is very hard to imagine any nineteen-year-old in love behaving as she does and hiding her feelings as much as she can simply in order to spare her family worry. Also, there is a certain smugness about her - she's well aware that she's behaving more nobly than Marianne, and at one time even hopes that her greater fortitude will act as an inspiration to her sister. Add to this that I didn't always think her behaviour was as admirable as all that, and that the "sensibleness" of it carries its own risks. Granted that it's maybe not necessary to make such a meal out of one's broken heart as Marianne does in front of her concerned family, but to hide your heartbreak altogether means depriving your loved ones of any chance to comfort you. When Elinor takes such pains to hide her feelings for Edward from Marianne and her mother, can she really blame them when they end up with the impression that he's not that important to her after all? Elinor has better manners than Marianne - I feel a bit guilty now for stating that the novel's Marianne is "a great deal" more polite than the film's, because she can be very rude - but that doesn't necessarily mean that Elinor appreciates, say, the kindness of Mrs Jennings, more than Marianne does for the better part of the book; she's just better at hiding her sense of superiority. Both Dashwood girls think of themselves as a cut above the whole Middleton family. In one instance, Elinor's politeness (unsupported by any real warmth of feeling) is downright counterproductive: while Marianne distances herself from the Miss Steeles, Elinor suffers their company while despising them, which gives Lucy Steele the chance to make an unwilling confidante out of her.

At the end of the day, though, the sisters' real affection for each other makes them both likeable, and Elinor is not annoyingly sensible all of the time. She believes at one point on scant evidence that Edward is carrying a ring with a lock of her hair (which she never gave to him), and she does some endearing pining after him. For instance, she is pleased that she doesn't like Mr Palmer better than she does, even if he improves on acquaintance, because it enables her to compare him unfavourably with Edward.

The sisters' love interests are a little more problematic than the girls themselves. The providers of the happy endings long remain scantily characterised. We learn little more of Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon when they are first introduced than that they are "not handsome" and do not fulfil Marianne's romantic notions of how a man should be. It's small wonder that adapters have seen fit to ignore the "not handsome" tag for these suitors, especially in the cases of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in the film and Dan Stevens (albeit with an unbecoming haircut) as Edward in the BBC adaptation. Of Brandon, we learn that he has a grave disposition, and he seems particularly unsuited to the lively Marianne. Even as we learn more of him - and his tragic past does much to make him more interesting as a potential suitor - he still appears as a better match for Elinor than for Marianne. I'm with Mrs Jennings and the mercenary John Dashwood on this one: Elinor and the Colonel would have made a fine couple. As for Edward, yes, he does reveal himself to be gently and self-deprecatingly amusing on topics such as admiration of nature, but it's still not entirely easy to see why Elinor should be so very much in love with him.

And as for the supposedly seductive Willoughby - I had forgotten just how awful his attempt at self-justification is, and it's made even more so by Elinor showing so much sympathy with him. From beginning to end, he is full of self-pity, and his only self-reproaches are of the dramatic "oh, what a fool I was to let this lovely woman go" kind. He has little real regret - certainly not when it comes to seducing the 15-year-old Eliza and leaving her pregnant - and is keen to blame any cruel behaviour towards Marianne on his wife. That the sensible Elinor should be so taken in by what this whining puppy has to say for himself is more than a little strange, even if she gradually comes to realise just how selfish his behaviour is. I stand by what I've implied earlier: the film did Willoughby a favour by cutting this scene.

I can understand why there are those who are disappointed in Marianne's fate; it is a little unfair to have her marry Colonel Brandon at a time when she's not yet in love with him and only feels "strong esteem and lively friendship" towards him. But she does grow to love him, and one thing's for certain - she didn't miss out in not becoming Mrs Willoughby.   

onsdag 24 januari 2018

The BBC Sense and Sensibility - a respectable achievement

As a way of bolstering my pleasure in reading, I've started a Jane Austen Rereading Project. It's been a while since I've read most of her books; I'm actually far more familiar with the TV and film adaptations. Rereading the novels will be a pleasure in itself and will give me some decent blog-post subjects, both on the novels directly and on how well adaptations work when compared directly to the novel (I'm more used to comparing them to each other).

Sense and Sensibility - the first of Austen's novels I've decided on rereading, as it's the one I feel least familiar with - is a case in point. I've watched the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility penned by Andrew Davies more than once, and each time I've struggled to see the point of it. It's perfectly good in its way, but there's hardly a thing in it that the marvellous 1995 film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet didn't do better. Also, the BBC version more or less courts comparison with the film by handling some things in exactly the same way. Notably, the characterisation of Margaret, Elinor's and Marianne's younger sister, is lifted directly from the film. In the book, she hardly has a character to speak of, but instead of coming up with a new way of filling the part with some purpose, Davies borrows the lovable moppet version of Margaret created by Thompson (who wrote the script for the film) wholesale. She even hides under a table in Norland Park's library, and Edward Ferrars endears himself to Elinor by being kind to her, as in the film. None of this is in the book.

If I compare the BBC version directly with the novel, however, it fares rather better. I'm halfway through the novel, and so far the adaptation has proven faithful as far as plot and character are concerned. The dialogue could be more elegant at times; on the other hand it is refreshing that Davies does not try a faux-Austenesque style (I remember one Persuasion adaptation where the characters kept saying "Indeed" when meaning "Yes", which is typical costume-drama speak). David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, though cutting a perfectly respectable figure, may not be Alan Rickman - but then from what I've seen of the novel's Colonel Brandon so far, he's not exactly Alan Rickman either. Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings are more toned down than in the film, and though I really enjoyed watching Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs letting rip, there's an argument to be made for a less extreme interpretation of these characters - they may be vulgar, but they're not quite strangers to polite society. It was also a nice touch that the BBC versions clung to the fashions of their respective youth, looking more in style with the 18th century than with the Regency.

Of all the adaptations I've seen (besides the film and this one, there's a somewhat crusty one from the 1980s) this is the most favourable to Marianne. Charity Wakefield is charming and pretty in the right, bright-eyed way. She is a little more polite than Marianne in the novel, who in her turn is a great deal more polite than Kate Winslet's Marianne. In particular, though she has her private doubts concerning the depth of Elinor's feelings for Edward, Marianne in the novel is always respectful and affectionate towards her sister and shows a great deal of interest in the subject of her future happiness. In view of this, perhaps it is fair that we get an adaptation where Marianne is not seen as such a selfish brat as all that.

The casting is good on the whole - Hattie Morahan's "sensible voice" as Elinor reminded me a little too much of Emma Thompson's, but she is the right type for Elinor, and closer to the novel's version of the character seeing that Elinor is only nineteen at the start of Sense and Sensibility. Janet McTeer is great as the girls' mother - a little more down to earth than she appears in the book - and we see a welcome glimpse of Jean Marsh aka Rose in Upstairs Downstairs as Edward's dragon of a mother. The only real miscasting is Willoughby. Dominic Cooper is a good actor; I remember him valiantly making the most of things as the daughter's fiancé in Mamma Mia. However, ungallant as it may be to say it (if you can be ungallant about a man), he's not dashing enough for Willoughby. Willoughby is the only one of the girls' love interests that is described as handsome in the novel, so he must be good-looking in an obvious and generally acknowledged way, especially as he has very little else to recommend him. I may have scoffed at Marianne's cheap taste in the film in preferring Greg Wise's Willoughby to the delectable Rickman, but I could see how it happened - Wise has exactly the right kind of film-star looks for the part.

This adaptation included the scene where Willoughby shows up while Marianne is ill and tries to justify himself to Elinor. I was always glad that this scene was not in the film, as Willoughby does such a poor job of defending himself, but I saw another review of this TV series which pointed out that this is precisely the point of the scene - not to make us sympathise with Willoughby, but to make us even more certain that Marianne is well rid of him. Viewed in that light, it certainly works well. When it comes to secondary characters included here but not in the film, you can see why they weren't in the film as they serve little purpose for the plot. But the elder, beau-obsessed Miss Steele is amusing, and though Lady Middleton is a personality-free zone (as she is in the book, where she only serves as a vehicle for barbs against over-indulgent mothers) it makes sense that there should be a Lady Middleton, with children. If Sir John was a childless widower, it would be a little remarkable that he should be so merry, and that his match-making mother-in-law should make no attempt to set him up. He would in that case be in need of an heir.

I still don't view the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as entirely necessary, and if you only watch one screen version of the book, I would still recommend the film rather than the TV series. Even so, I think I can understand why Davies wanted to have a crack at it, and it is far from badly done.

onsdag 10 januari 2018

Is The Crown sitting a little askew?

Most of the time, reading background articles about TV shows you're following is highly satisfying. However, there are exceptions. Before embarking on The Crown season two, I read an article where among others the creator of the series, Peter Morgan, was interviewed. It turned out he was a bit of a republican and all-round "progressive" - which is fair enough, as long as he can convincingly enter into the mindset of the Queen and her set, something I did think he pulled off well not only in The Crown season one but also in The Queen and The Audience. Maybe, though, that article is colouring my judgement subconsciously. Five episodes into season two, I imagine myself detecting a certain patronising tone that I never noticed in season one.

In many respects, The Crown season two is more of the same thing that we got in season one. It is still well-crafted, the acting is still great, the pace still a little to stately for my liking. But whereas in season one I bought into the idea that real events could actually have happened along the lines imagined by Morgan, this time around the illusion of authenticity doesn't hold up as well. I'm suddenly more aware that I'm watching a fictional version of Elizabeth II and the other "real-life" characters, and that they sometimes act in a certain way merely because it makes for better TV drama.

To tell the truth, I feel a little manipulated at times. Tory politicians, as depicted in this series, are all fusty and hidebound, the PMs especially: we see Eden holding a smug speech at Eton just before the Suez crisis. The courtiers representing a traditional viewpoint are always wrong, and those in favour of change are always right. What’s more, they become more an embodiment of the categories “traditional courtier” and “progressive courtier” than persons in their own right. In one episode, Charteris – the man that the royal couple wanted to have as their private secretary, according to season one, but weren’t allowed to hire in that capacity – visits the office of Michael Adeane, who did get the job, in order to discuss a possibly unfortunate wording of a planned speech for the Queen. Who should be sitting there, though, but tough-as-nails Tommy Lascelles, the former private secretary of George VI? He immediately shuts down Charteris’s concerns. I didn’t believe in this scene for a second, but because Lascelles is a traditional hard-liner and good at it he must needs be the one who symbolises the Bad Old Ways of the Old Court at every opportunity, whereas Charteris, because he wasn’t picked as private secretary, must be a good egg.

There are other scenes that don’t convince: a peer and owner of a small periodical is a warm and idealistic supporter of Change. He tries to discuss such weighty matters as the EC with his staff, but they’re much more interested in the home-made toffee which one of them has brought to the office. If this had been only a small skit, it would have been believable – who wouldn’t rather discuss home-made toffee than politics at the workplace? – but the scene goes on for far too long and makes its point far too heavy-handedly. Elsewhere, Prince Philip is usually cast as the voice of reason within the Royal Family – reason in this case meaning that they must move with the times etc. But old Prince Philip put the case for less people-pandering in The Queen, and quite well too. I’m aware that several decades had passed by then, but it’s still hard to believe that this is supposed to be the same man.

I’m quite content with The Crown not being too perfect. Small gripes keep me more alert than if everything had flown smoothly – especially since this is still not the most action-packed TV drama out there. Too transparent attempts to make me side with one faction against the other do, however, have the opposite effect on me, as per usual. Let’s hear it for ball-breaking Tommy.

lördag 30 december 2017

New Year’s resolution: to read more (or better) books

“Ooh, look, she’s reading a book, isn’t that nice”, a mother cooed to her toddler on the bus the other month, when same toddler was intrepid enough to take an interest in my reading self. It was a heartening comment as it shows how books (real ones made of paper) are still generally considered to be A Good Thing. At the same time, I felt a bit of a fraud. 2017 has not been a great reading year for me. Increasingly, I have been so little engaged in the book I’ve had on the go that I’ve preferred spending spare moments trawling the net or partaking of mood-lifting villain clips on Youtube.

Mind you, I haven’t completely neglected the reading part of life this year. I started on some of my impulse buys from this and previous years and managed to finish at least some of them. Tainted by Brooke Morgan (an impulse buy from the Strand, no less) proved to be well and evocatively written, though the genre – domestic chiller – isn’t really my cup of tea. With the irresistibly named If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio it was the other way around. I found the prose style a little precious, but the genre and setting was exactly the kind of thing I enjoy: the novel followed a group of drama students at a prestigious, seemingly idyllic College for the Creative Arts in Illinois. I’ve been stage struck since childhood and I love stories taking place in a theatre/drama school setting; it didn’t hurt that the College specialised in teaching its drama students nothing but Shakespeare. (It’s a little unlikely, though: surely, a successful drama education needs a bit of range?) The novel owes a heavy debt to The Secret History as we see a group of talented but not necessarily wise group of young students grapple with collective guilt. Fortunately, though, they don’t let the guilt get in the way of a lot of Shakespearean acting scenes.

Another impulse buy was the promising-looking family saga Roses by Leila Meacham – however, I’m ashamed to say I gave up on this one. My shame stems from the fact that it was written in a very enjoyable, page-turning style, so quality-wise there was no excuse not to finish it. The problem was I just couldn’t get behind the story, which seemed to follow the old pattern of “tough female neglects what really matters (family, love of her life) in favour of something that matters less in the great scheme of things (her family’s plantation)”. If you have no problem with this storyline and would like to try a doorstopper that’s unusually well-written, this could well be worth a look. For my part, I just thought the heroine’s family and love interest were tiresome and felt full sympathy with her for prioritising the plantation.       

Truth be told, there have been few novels this year that I’ve felt like losing myself in. This is irksome. I want to be the lady on the bus who reads a nice, old-fashioned book; being bookish is part of my identity. Steps will have to be taken in 2018: the question is, which ones?

At the end of the year, I always feel full of ambition regarding the cultural consumption of the year ahead: there’s so much to explore and whole new worlds to be discovered. Once the new year gets started, though, my ambitions tend to shrink very fast. I have a theory that this could be connected to sleep, and the lack of it: it’s always easier to set yourself life-expanding goals after a good lie-in. Also, once you get started, it’s discouraging if you happen to read more than one book in a row by authors you’ve not tried yet and find them disappointing. Much as I’d like to make new discoveries, perhaps I should be more open this year to re-reading classics from favourite 19th-century authors and reading more Ambitious Book Projects by the few high-prestige authors I’ve already tried and liked. It may not be the most innovative way to go, but it could be a way to get properly into the reading habit again.

There’s no denying that my Once Upon A Time obsession has got in the way of reading a bit, more than Downton Abbey ever did. Downton at least had the saving grace from a book point of view of making me interested in family sagas (admittedly, my search for the perfect family saga was not a great success). So maybe 2018 will be the year when I discover fantasy?