Monday, April 22, 2013

The Red Queen

‘You make everything into your own tragedy.’

I was at an academic conference last year called Marginalised Mainstream which had a really interesting paper on the books and perceptions of the books of Philippa Gregory.  I had to confess that I had never read any of her work though I am of course interested in historical fiction and occasionally read the kind with the more “feminine” slant.  I also had to confess that one reason I had been put off had to do with the covers—shallow, I know, but it happens that the “headless woman” covers of Gregory’s earlier work, The Boleyn Girl included, are a bone of contention due to the way they depict their heroines. 

I will say this book, which does not deal so much with the Tudors as with the generation before, the War of the Roses, a subject I confess I don’t know that much about (my main source is Shakespeare), is quite different than Wolf Hall.  I preferred Wolf Hall, yet I did find it entertaining and worthwhile.  I did learn quite a bit about Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, who, like Mary Tudor, is perhaps a bit difficult to love.  It feels a bit fan fiction-like in places (though it’s difficult for me to explain why and how).

The book started slowly, and its use of point of view and time foreshadowing took some getting used to.  Nevertheless, what seemed a handicap actually became one of the book’s virtues when it allowed it to show Margaret’s character change over time.  Personally, as a reader and as a writer, I love flashing about and revelling in period and sensual detail.  This is a problem in my own writing as I try to tell the reader too much and hit them over the head with the history.  Gregory certainly doesn’t do that in this book, though at times the insistence on Margaret’s singular, first-person-present narration makes things deceptively simplistic.  In one sense, it’s a good device for getting to know Margaret, while at the same time being aware of the depth of her self-delusion, which grows over time.  The eponymous Catherine, Called Birdy was able to bring in ample period detail through the voice of a beset teenaged girl, but there is not this sense of effusion from Gregory in this book.  For me, therefore, the start was slow, a little ponderous, and a little too visible. 
I didn’t start to get lost in the thread of the plot until the last third, which, admittedly, flew by and kept my interest.  Perhaps that’s due to the fact that Richard, Duke of York, had a major role, and I love Richard III, historical, Shakespearean or otherwise.  Gregory’s characterization—not that we get much of Richard directly, and she pointedly refuses to weigh in on the spine—interestingly supposes that Richard and Princess Elizabeth were genuinely in love, despite the difference in ages, and despite Richard’s extant, youthful, and affectionate marriage to Anne Neville.  What is frustrating is to have the Battle of Bosworth Field  told from a bizarre halfway omniscient POV which has nothing to do with Margaret.  

Margaret is especially memorable in her holy rages, galvanizing her two most powerful emotional states, her religion and her righteous anger.  She invests a great deal emotionally in her son, of course, but her towering, somewhat repetitious treatments of Elizabeth Woodville, Princess Elizabeth, and all the Yorks, make her an unusual female character.  Margaret tastes the realities of war far too late, and they do not make her any less determined to put her son on the throne of England, no matter the cost.  I found the final few pages to be the most riveting, and did not know—why should I, given I’m familiar only with Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda?—that it was no certain thing that Richard III should lose on the battlefield, that he was beloved by the people, that Henry was nearly friendless and quite inexperienced, and it was only his importation of Swiss mercenary pike techniques that turned the tide (with, so it is assumed, the participation of the Stanleys).  

The transformation from Margaret, particularly devout child through whom godliness was one way of expressing her individualism and superiority, to a woman who could contemplate murdering the Princes in the Tower was the strongest point of the book.  Gregory feels certain that Margaret would have been happiest as an abbess in her own nunnery with access to knowledge and power, but her circumscribed life allowed her to express her desire for ascendancy in marriage alliances and through spy networks.  Margaret learns the hard way—which is yet illustrative for all of us 21st century gals who may have forgotten how restricted a woman’s role was in the 15th century—that her early marriage into darkest Wales, her loss of innocence, and her difficult pregnancy are just a foretaste of the difficulties foisted upon her sex and class in her era.  I found myself somewhat surprised that Gregory did not dwell upon Margaret’s shock on the wedding night—surely these books purport to connect “us” more deeply with the emotions of women of the historical/literary past—but perhaps she has had to describe that aspect of marriage too many times in her previous books. 
Gregory presents Margaret as having had only one romantic relationship despite three marriages, that with her son’s uncle Jasper Tudor, which appears to finally have some hope of consummation or at least legitimization in 1485, when Margaret is 42 (positively ancient!).  (Meaning there are some repressed love scenes which are enjoyable but not smoldering.)  She has what in material/emotional terms is a reprieve in her second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, yet it is a mark of her character that she finds Stafford weak and foolish rather than kind and level-headed.  In many ways she is more matched in her third marriage, which Gregory thinks she arranged herself, to Lord Thomas Stanley (a character represented, at least, in Shakespeare).  Stanley is, like Cousin Bette, one of those characters you love to read about but whom you would never want to meet.   

I am interested to read The White Queen, which looks at the very different fortunes of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret’s great rival. 

The X Files: Remote Control

This has a real retro feel, which is appropriate, given that I cannot seem to find any indicate that it was not published in November 1994 (!).  Therefore, the inking and particularly the coloring in the second story, “Be Prepared,” looked a bit less vivid and lush as what we sometimes come to expect in digital.  On the other hand, these were excellent stories and for the most part, drawn very well—especially the likenesses of Mulder and Scully.

I was a casual fan of The X Files.  I was a bit too young when it was first on TV (I must have been about 11) but I did see some of the later series and given an already burgeoning interest in the occult, it was enjoyable series to watch.  However, I was never in the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade.  Nevertheless, in reading these highly traditional (in the sense they exude the mood and tone of the TV series) graphic stories, I recall how absolutely appealing Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were.  

I really like both the storylines, though one sets you up to think “conspiracy” and “aliens” and one gives a fairly rational explanation.  Both are by John Rozum, and though fairly talk-y (usually Mulder explaining stuff to Scully) the movement potential of the art propels you along.  John Adlard and Joseph Purcell pencilled and inked “Remote Control,” giving some impressive spreads (think Judge Cerillo in The Dark Knight) and good close ups.  “Be Prepared” feels quicker and invokes some of the sense-centric qualities of TV stories like “Ice.”  

I will have to see if I can find any other volumes from this series. 

Birds of Prey/End Run

I suppose it’s my own fault that this failed to live up to my expectations, given that I jumped into it right away with only a peripheral amount of knowledge about Black Canary and Huntress (and none at all for Hawk and Dove).  I don’t tend to like Justice League-anything, but since this was Gail Simone I thought I would give it a try.  Frankly, it was boring, and the exploitative artwork of the superheroines made me roll my eyes (fair enough, it was explained away as being in Penguin’s imagination, but still . . .).  I expect it’s too steeped in backstory for me to fully appreciate/understand . . . moreover, I know it must be difficult to create real-life-based thoughts, emotions, and impressions for larger-than-life superheroes, but Greg Rucka, Darwyn Cooke, and Jeph Loeb can do it (to mention but a few).  I remember enjoying the Wonder Woman I read from Simone before; yet End Run just did nothing for me. 


20/04/13 “Hide”
I’d rather have a nice cup of tea.” –Clara

How long can this winning streak go on?  I have been more excited about Doctor Who this series than I have for many years.  It’s great but I just fear for when it will end.  Unfortunately, I missed much of the dialogue at the beginning of this second story by Neil Cross, but soon find out we are in 1974 in a haunted house—we could, for all we know, not be far from the events of “Planet of Spiders” (which seems likely given the Doctor talks about a crystal from Metebelis III—though I was shocked to hear Matt Smith pronouncing it wrong). 

I absolutely adored “The Eternity Trap” by Phil Ford for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and like this it was a ghost story in a haunted house with parapsychologists using equipment to monitor and track everything from EVP to heat waves.  However, this being Doctor Who and adhering to Pertwee’s doubtful adage of “Science, not sorcery, Miss Hawthorne,” both stories were intent on giving a rational explanation—though I was impressed that “Hide” took a completely different tack than the normal one.  I’m not that up on my history of parapsychology, so I don’t know when it became a formalized (pseudo)science; the dating of this episode would suggest it was the 1970s, though that dating could be merely to tantalize fans with its many references to Old Skool Who.  Clara names Emma as the “companion,” though the Doctor changes that to “assistant.”  Clara walking into the TARDIS with an umbrella and the Doctor insisting there should be somewhere to put it.  The Cloister Bell. (Notice how we’re skirting 20th century Earth here?  Clara’s parents in the early 1980s, the Russian sub in 1983 . . .  I thought the ghost in this story was going to turn out to be Clara in some way . . . which is probably what we were meant to think.)

“Blink” probably still reigns supreme as one of Who’s scariest stories, though attempts to topple its crown have been made in recent years.  Despite copious efforts to affix one into a sort of pre-Most Haunted televised fearscape—with candles for mood lighting, long sequences following Clara and the Doctor “real time” into “haunted” rooms, and creepy figures just out of sight—I couldn’t completely concentrate and lose myself into this world.  Moving at the snappy pace of all new Who stories, I couldn’t get an enormous amount of character development out of Alec and Emma, the researcher who “will not have my work stolen!” and the “empathic psychic,” whose lonely occupation exposes her to the “guilt, pain, and sorrow” of others.  The repressed romance reminded me more of Professor Yana and Chantho than anything from the Tom Baker era, especially Clara’s heart-to-heart with Emma.  We’ve had empathetic, “touched” women sacrificing themselves for the Doctor before—Gwyneth of course in “The Unquiet Dead.” 

Curiously, the ghost in the story is older than the house, a phenomenon at least I haven’t come across much in my years of armchair ghost-hunting and is tied to a well, “the witch of the well.”  It reminds me of The Devil of Lanyon Moor, of all things.  However, speaking of armchair ghost-hunting, they set up everything very well.  “The music room is the heart of the house.”  While we all (or maybe just I) was expecting poltergeists and phantoms on spinets and harps (I still find harps in spooky-looking ancient rooms a bit unnerving and it’s the subject of a poem), all we get are some literally cold spots.   This is followed up by a trip through a half-lit pantry, easily the creepiest part of any house on Most Haunted. 

Much like a seed of doubt, mixed up with a dash of Saxon, was planted in series 3, Emma is insistent at the Doctor is “a liar.”  And I suppose he is—also, as established two episodes ago, raaather stalker-ish.  It’s a bit the Doctor assessing Amy’s pregnancy a few series back—he’s not telling the whole truth.  Will it prove satisfying à la McCoy or just infuriating?  The romance here, between impossibly-young looking Prof. Alec Palmer (played, in some very strange casting, by Dougray Scott) and weird-ish Emma, hasn’t quite got the charm of Yana and Chantho as mentioned above, and the connect-the-dots quality is fairly grating by the end.  Nevertheless, the skittish TARDIS hearkens back to classic Who, too, somehow, and even in personifying her, I have difficulty envisioning Idris inside.  “The TARDIS is like a cat,” the Doctor says.  A trip six billion years into the past does not produce Scaroth but still the ghost is there.  Funny how the emotional realism and resonance of new Who used to be moving and astonishing in light of classic companions just deciding to go or stay or whatever—and now it’s a bit pedestrian?  I understood and appreciated Clara’s points, all the more noteworthy against the example of Amy, but in some ways it felt like, “We’ve been over this ground, haven’t we?”  We have, but Clara hasn’t.  “To you, I haven’t been born yet, but I’m already dead. . . . To you, I’m a ghost. . . . We must be nothing!”  “You are the only mystery worth solving.”  Now, does he mean humans by that, or companions, or Clara specifically?

The Doctor has, meanwhile, cracked it—the ghost is a time traveler, a “pioneer.”  Before Prof. Palmer can protest, “Paradoxes—” “—resolve themselves.”  The Doctor very demonstrably gives us a pocket universe; he can’t go in with the TARDIS because “entropy would bleed her.”  He mentions the Eye of Harmony, and puts together a set-up that’s adorably Pertwee-esque, causing Prof. Palmer to say, “it’s rather make-and-mend?”  The Doctor, using Emma’s amplified psycho-chronograph’ed power, tosses himself into the whirlpool of the pocket universe to rescue the time traveling pioneer.  I’m not a big fan of “Warriors Gate,” but I must say I was thrilled to see the pocket universe’s atmosphere have much in common with that story’s famed depiction of the vagaries of time.  Beautifully done, and beautifully creepy.  “There’s something in the mist . . .”  “Then run!”  “An echo house in an echo universe,” which was also beautifully achieved.  I am also thrilled that they managed to keep the monsters out of sight for so long, upping the terrifying factor and giving enough glimpses to suggest the kind of nightmare of the bone spider in The Gallifrey Chronicles.   

I didn’t think I would like it, but I rather enjoyed Clara having to fight against the TARDIS and its interface system.  “Let me in, you grumpy old cow! . . . You are a cow!”  I can even accept that Clara can (badly) pilot the TARDIS into the pocket universe to save the Doctor.  Clara has had many opportunities to save the Doctor, at least as many as for him to save her.  Furthermore, it’s great that he can see that “blood is calling to blood . . . every lonely monster needs a companion.”  So, in the end, this combines the small cast of “Horror of Fang Rock” with the haunted-house-that-wasn’t of “Ghost Light” with “Warriors Gate” and “The Doctor Dances.”  What’s not to love?

A few days ago, I was sitting on a bus and a woman and her young son were sitting next to me.  They were talking about the nature of infinity, and she was trying to explain to him how a concept like infinity can exist, something that just exists and you can’t quantify it.  Is the universe quantifiable in Doctor Who?  Stories like “Logopolis” and “Utopia” would suggest it is not infinite.  Like Moffat’s famous line from “The Doctor Dances,” “Hide” seems to end on an upbeat note by reversing the totally frightening monster into one of a pair of star-crossed lovers and suggesting that love conquers all.  “Everything ends.”  “No, not everything.”  I don’t have anything profound to say about this, but I just wonder where it’s all leading.  We all commented on the fairy tale quality of Amy’s first series, which was never totally resolved.  That whole tack started up again once we saw Clara’s 1001 Places to See—how will it end?  “This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story.” 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major

Adrian Mole:  From Minor to Major 

I needed to rest my head from its multi-century bounce between AD 46 and the 1770s, so I decided on what seemed to be historical (non)fiction’s furthest pole, the lauded Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend.  At first, I really wasn’t sure.  Then I resolved that I was going to teach Adrian Mole as part of curriculum to Americans training to go to the UK (diplomats, transplants, and interested parties):  I can’t think of many avenues so comprehensively and idiosyncratically symptomatic of the real British psyche, though naturally 1981 when Adrian began his diaries is far removed from us today.  But not so far removed.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is in many places absolutely hilarious and, to use a thoroughly British phrase, completely mental.    The back of this collected edition, From Minor to Major, tells us that Adrian Mole diaries “constitute an attack on all the half-baked ideas of marriage and parenthood.”  I wouldn’t phrase is quite like that, though not having ever spoken to Sue Townsend I have no idea what her thought process was.  I would say Adrian Mole, like some of the greatest characters in literature, is so utterly successful because we can all relate to him, despite now being an advanced age and never having been his gender, in my case (therefore having foregone Adrian’s obsession with measuring his “thing”).  I don’t know about you, but I was pompous at 13.  Sometimes I did look at grown-ups and certainly at my peers and think, “Oh the humanity.”  Only to me did the world reveal its revelations and even then I was too young and insignificant to do anything about them.  We can laugh at Adrian because he acts utterly ridiculous to an outside and rather cooler mind, but at the same time, it gives us a valuable nugget of humility, as even in moments in which we find ourselves of turmoil of soap opera dimensions, we need to put it all into perspective.  

I commend Townsend for being able to so easily and completely assume the authorial voice of a 13 ¾-year-old British boy of the Midlands.  Occasionally you come across an author who is otherwise masterful, but for some reason their getting inside the head of certain characters rings false (I had a bit of trouble, for example, with the way Sarah Waters presented her male characters in The Night Watch).  This never happens in Adrian Mole the first 10 years.  Alas, I think the collection suffers from the fact that as Adrian gets older, he becomes much less interesting, much less sympathetic, and peters out the kind of character—I must speculate—populates the writing of Kingsley Amis et al.  Furthermore, by 1989, reality seems to have spun wildly out of control and I feel less and less invested in the characters’ lives. 
Much of Adrian’s conflict, humor, and indeed, the source of the rather improbable turns the narrative eventually takes, is with his parents.  “My father is in a bad mood,” he writes on January 10th [1981].  “This means he is feeling better.  I made my mother a cup of tea without her asking.  This made her cry as well.  You can’t please some people!”  On the next day, as per his “bad home,” poor diet, and not liking punk, he decides he is an intellectual.  Upon making this decision, he decides to write some poetry, which he sends to Malcolm Muggeridge[1].  “I showed it to my mother, but she laughed.  She isn’t very bright.  She still hasn’t washed my PE shorts, and it is school tomorrow.  She is not like the mothers on television.”  Having recently read into the history of Britain from 1956 to 1970 and a bit of the 1970s, I am familiar (and feel I could teach to my hypothetical American class) the significance of Adrian worrying he will become a “latchkey kid” when his mother starts looking for work.  This gives one further importance of Adrian Mole; it’s certainly worth reading as a historical document.  Adrian becomes a big reader, and since I was reading Wuthering Heights[2] and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was 13 (or younger) I can understand some of his (big, intellectual) choices.  On the other hand, I draw the line at War and Peace—I couldn’t get through it at 27, so there’s no way Adrian could have read it within 1 day.  

 All joking aside, Adrian’s eventual having to go to school, take care of his father and/or mother and/or baby sister plus Bert Baxter, his OAP (another footnote for my American class, that’s old age pensioner = senior citizen), whom he grudgingly likes but causes him no end of trouble.  This is like Adrian being of a sandwich generation before such a thing was called that, although a radio play I heard not too long ago makes me think young people as caretakers for their older dependents, even their parents, is quite entrenched in British society.  Furthermore, I don’t know exactly what Townsend is saying about Women’s Lib.  “It is lousy having a working mother.  She rushes in with big bags of shopping, cooks the tea then rushes around tarting herself up.  But she is still not doing any tidying up before comforting Mr Lucas[3].”  As far as I can tell, the days of electricity rationing were over before Adrian was 13 ¾ , but his father does fail to pay the electricity bill.  “After supper of cream crackers and tuna fish, played cards in the candlelight.  It was dead good.  My father cut the ends of our gloves, we looked like two criminals on the run.  I am reading Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.”  July 1st [1981] marks the arrival of “brown-skinned” people to Adrian’s neighborhood.  On Royal Wedding Day (ie Charles to Diana, not William to Kate), Adrian writes, “How proud I am to be English!  Foreigners must be sick as pigs!”  And Adrian weighs in on the recently-deceased Margaret Thatcher.  “Sometimes I think Mrs Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman.  Then the next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid.  She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person.  It is a bit confusing.”   Furthermore, “Grandma has got a funny look in her eyes.  My mother says it is called Jingoism, but I think it is more likely to be cataracts forming.”  Adrian’s mother’s dour Yorkshire relatives the Sugdens are also worthy of a sidebar in American class. 

Despite moments of clarity, Adrian can be thick (again, in the English parlance).  It takes him way too long to realize his mother is having an affair with Mr Lucas from next door and longer still to discover his mother is pregnant.  But other surprises we don’t see coming.  For example, it’s Adrian’s grandmother who somehow convinces Barry Kent to stop bullying Adrian[4].  Adrian, of course, reacts in a totally overblown way.  “I bought her a box of diabetic chocolates as a token of my esteem.”  I read a headline on a magazine at the supermarket counter the other day that asked, “Are you so much posher than him?” and presumably detailed the dangers of being posher than your husband/boyfriend.  Pandora, Adrian’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, is certainly posher (and from a more liberal background) than him.  Due to Pandora, he tries many things he might not have, including starting a short-lived literary magazine.  They also star as Mary and Joseph in a “progressive” version of the Nativity play (you can imagine how that goes).  

Of particular interest to my American class will be Hamish Manicini, Adrian’s occasional pen-pal from New York.  Hamish is an odd one, because his first appearances in the books require him to be a hysterical, stereotypical loud-mouthed gum-popping slang-toting American; it caused me to wonder if Townsend had ever, at that point, actually met an American.  I don’t think she had[5].  I do think she may have, however, in the extended Mancini letter, in which he gives a list of British-icisms that he needs translated by Adrian, which Adrian helpfully does[6].  (Nice to know, also, that I missed the roller skating craze by about 29 years.)  

“I have put my name down for the school play.  We are doing The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.  . . . I hope I get to play Earnest, although my mother says the handbag is the best part.  She think she’s such a wit.”  I am pleased that Adrian saw fit to laugh at Waiting for Godot:  “Nigel had hysterics when I said that Vladimir and Estragon sounded like contraception pills.”  I’m even more pleased that Radio 4 plays such a big part in Adrian’s life, even if it is a satirical one (isn’t that rather like biting the hand that feeds you??).  “There was a good play on Radio Four about torturing in concentration camps.”  Adrian also hears about a “yukky” woman on Radio 4 who has made millions writing romantic fiction; therefore Adrian tries his hand at it.  In fact, Adrian begins a correspondence with John Tyneman, then Head of Drama at Radio 4.  Tyneman is more than indulgent with Adrian, but by the time The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole ends, things have gotten a bit surreal.   I imagine “Adrian Mole on ‘Pirate Radio Four’” is meant to be funny.  Perhaps to someone, somewhere, it is.  Furthermore, Adrian Mole in Moscow?!  Adrian Mole and the Amphibians is a real disappointment, to the point where I do hope the next books in the series are nothing like it.  

There are, I confess, a few moments of genuine gooey-eyed sentiment in this book.  For example, after the birth of Adrian’s much-younger sister, while his father is living at his grandma’s with a woman he got pregnant, “The midwife came at 2.30 . . . She asked me who was looking after my mother.  I said I was.  She said, ‘I see,’ in a thin-lipped manner.  I said, ‘I am perfectly capable of pushing a Hoover around!’  She said, ‘Your mother needs more support.’  So I took the pillows off my own bed and gave them to my mother.  This act of kindness made my mother cry.”  Furthermore, Adrian’s entry for December 4th [1982] is my motto for the rest of life:  “I am having a nervous breakdown.  Nobody has noticed yet.”  Adrian runs away and lives rough starting on March 29th 1983.  (I ran away but only to my grandma’s house and I was about six?  But it was for the same reason:  lack of parental paying attention.) Adrian’s depressive episode after he runs away is funny and yet recalls my own black moods, so it’s nice to see it satirized. 
So there you have it.  I found most of Adrian Mole to be hilarious, but the last third seriously needed an editor’s pen. 

[1] By the way, Adrian never hears from Muggeridge.  “Perhaps he is in a bad mood.  Intellectuals like him and me often have bad moods.  Ordinary people don’t understand us and say we are sulking, but we’re not.” 
[2] “I am reading Wuthering Heights.  It is brilliant.  If I could get Pandora up somewhere high, I’m sure we could regain our old passion.”
[3] Can a woman have it all?  It’s something still debated to this day.  I lack kids, but having juggled working part time, studying full time, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and keeping my affairs in order, I think it’s an unrealistic expectation to force on women. 
[4] In some of the latter pages, Barry Kent actually becomes a friend to Adrian. 
[5] One address in the US she gives as The Dixon Motel
1,599 Block 19
NY State
[6] See January 1st 1985.