Tom’s Midnight Garden, Time, and the Pain of the Inevitable

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When you read a time travel book, you know someone’s going to die. That’s just how history works: everyone died at some point or another. If you go back and talk to them, they may seem alive, but from your point of view they’re long dead.

When I read “Tom’s Midnight Garden,” and joined Tom as he traveled back through time to a Victorian garden and Victorian world, perhaps the greatest sorrow I had reading was one never outright stated in the book. I knew that these people were dead, but Tom’s perspective kept him from understanding it.

What Tom learns to understand over the course of the novel is Time. The changes that time brings, the joys and sorrows, aren’t something we are born knowing. We have to learn them. And we have to learn about how love survives when faced with an enemy as implacable as time. Or perhaps, what we really learn is how time can make love all the more precious.

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“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” and to Feel as Though You Have Read This Before

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“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” is, of course, an amazing collection of short stories. Each of the stories is funny, eerie, beautiful, and wonderful. Susanna Clarke is practically perfect in every way, etc.

But what struck me while reading the stories was the odd sense that I had, somehow, read them before. I absolutely had not read a single one before, of course. But in each story, there would be something as familiar to me as “once upon a time.”

I think Clarke achieves this original non-originality through a perfect balance of three things. First, the setting is familiar to anyone who’s read or watched period pieces (which is a surprisingly large number of people). Rural Regency English society, concerned as it was with marriage, appearance, and money, is portrayed perfectly.

Secondly, the writing style. As has been said before “it’s like if Jane Austen wrote fantasy.” But while Jane’s gentle humor and sharp observations were confined to the human world, Clarke has stretched out further. Each story tells of a moment when the Fairy world clashed with the human world, and each character has their own way of reaching across the divide between the races. All of this told with a light, familiar-sounding voice.

Thirdly, there’s the folklore. This is something not everyone will get, because not everyone is silly enough to consider three-hundred-year-old tomes on rural Welsh folklore to be top-notch bedtime reading. Yes, I’m weird, moving on. Many of these stories have a solid base in a real superstition, or a series of similar stories that were told regualrly centuries back but have since fallen out of the usual run of fairy tales. A midwife, taken to a strange and beautiful mansion in the dead of night to deliver a fairy child, then returned home with riches: it’s not a usual tale anymore. But it plays a key role in one of the stories. So do fairy-tale-like scenes like a bridge being built in a single day and night, a woman dancing until her feet are bloody, and a garden filled with fairies disguised as insects.

Together, the effect is sublime.

A Good Book Does Not Equal a Good History: China Witness

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I’ve read a lot of history books. The contemporary historian’s job works as follows:

  1. Come up with a theory.
  2. Test the theory against the information
  3. Change to suit the data.

I don’t know if Xinran really thought of herself as a historian when she wrote “China Witness.” But if so, she didn’t do her job.

She states, several times, that she believes that there is a moral vacuum in China, that there is a spiritual whole in the modern Chinese reality. Although she does not state outright that it was what she was planning to find, it becomes clear in several of her interviews.

She went in looking for a hole, and she carried out interviews with many older Chinese people in order to confirm the existence of that hole. She edited her interviews, she asked leading questions; she knew what she wanted to find, and nothing contradicted it.

This lack of anything to contradict the theory (there’s always at least one outlier), coupled with her failure to openly acknowledge what she was looking to find, makes “China Witness” a bad history. That said, it’s not necessarily a bad book. I don’t know a lot about journalism: maybe, through that lens, it’s a quality work. There are many interesting moments and lovely reflections in this book. But don’t read it alone and think you’re getting a good view of China and its history.

The American Fairy Tale: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

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There’s something so anti-traditional, so eminently practical, about “The Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” that both makes them timelessly wonderful and, I think, peculiarly American. I’m not talking about the complicated reality of conflict, contradiction, and prejudice that is the lived experience of Americans. I’m talking about the idealist at the soul of so many of us, who flouts convention and blazes their own trail in the world.

All of the characters who populate Wrede’s world feel real, and many of them are recognizable to practically every American (of a certain class and race, I must admit). We all had a schoolteacher like Morwen, we all knew a firecracker like Cimorene, or a down-to-earth boss type like Mendanbar.

I’d actually argue that the main characters–Cimorene and Mendanbar in particular–are (idealistically) Americans. Cimorene has no interest in the life of a fairy tale princess, so she gets a job, rolls up her sleeves, and becomes good at cooking, cleaning, and Latin. Mendanbar may not argue with being king of the Enchanted Forest, but he isn’t a usual king. He is as careful to be polite as any one of his subjects, he tramps through the woods on his own, and he refuses to let his very British-seeming servant make him behave “properly.”

This practical, get-your-hands-dirty attitude is at the soul of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and this application of “American” values to fairy tale worlds gave us some of the most fun and sensible books ever written.

 

The Dangers of Reading Henry James and Jane Austen at the Same Time

264I have ended up really disliking “Portrait of a Lady.” I am listening to it, and although Flo Gibson is an excellent narrator (narratoress? should we collectively agree that that should be a word? Or would that be stupid?), I’ve ended up really getting annoyed with Mr James.

What I have shouted at my headphones, again and again, is “will you please get on with it!” Every single time two characters interact with each other, it’s like he has to spend half an hour explaining their opinions of each other, their worldly success, their perceptions of wealth, power, freedom, democracy, and cheese, and their relative weights and thoughts on the rise of the printing press in the middle ages. Seriously, James spends so much bloody time in asides and explanations that there were moments when I genuinely lost track of who exactly was talking to whom. And there would only be 2 people in the scene.

18619998This may have been more palatable, if I had not been re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” at the same time. And also George Eliot’s “Adam Bede.” As an aside, Eliot does the “explaining the mind at work behind the action” much better than James, faster, more directly, and with more humor and sympathy. But the important thing is the fact that Austen’s magic is to put characters in a room together and show their souls through conversation and occasional brief authorial commentary.

In fairness, I’m near the end of “Portrait” and James is finally starting to let people actually talk to each other. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome comparing him to Austen and finding him verywanting.

Walking Out of the Book to the Screen

thIt doesn’t happen often. When it does, it’s both thrilling and frankly strange. But every time a book is turned into a movie or a tv show, there are a few characters–maybe only one or two–who somehow walk out of the book and come to life on the screen.

It can’t be easy, as an actor, to try to personify a book character. The character has already been filtered once through a write, then through a screenwriter or three, then through a director. And that’s the bare minimum. Interpretation is a necessity.

But sometimes, the actors don’t seem to be interpreting the character. Sometimes they just are the character.

When exactly this happens depends on a lot of factors. If the original author was too good, the actors have an impossible job: they must interpret the character. Jane Austen characters are almost completely unable to walk out of books. The closest I know of is Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett, and even that one is questionable.th.jpg

 

 

Sometimes, you get a fantastic author and fantastic characters. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had almost half the characters escape the book. Not Norrell or Strange themselves, but Childermass, Stephen Black, Lady Pole, Lord Wellington, Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot all walked directly out of the page. Vinculus isn’t quite the same on the show, but I found when I re-read that he had somehow walked into the book, and the actor appeared to be speaking from the page to me.

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Often I have found that minor characters are more likely to talk out than major ones. On The Expanse, Holden and Miller are more interpretive but many of the minor characters are uncannily perfect portrayals.

Every once in a while, there is an actor who nails it so perfectly it’s scary. The Jane Eyre of the 1940 version, and the Mr Rochester of the 2011. Mrs Thornton in North and South. Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit movies.

There’s a magic to seeing an actor interpret a character. The choices they make, the inflections they give, the looks in their eyes: they can make you see a character in a way you never had before, can make you understand things you could never have reached on your own. But there is an uncanniness accompanying a perfect meld of character and actor, one that varies from viewer to viewer and is always captivating.

 

2007 Persuasion: What’s this Gothic doing in my Austen?

th.jpgSeriously though, who thought gothic melodrama was the missing piece of a Jane Austen novel? From the romantic hero to the tragic heroine forced into servitude, with the massive wide shots, the pale faces and the dark colors, this movie screams “Gothic melodrama.”

And by melodrama I mean melodrama. The great moments, rather than being earned and interspersed in the story with the care of Jane Austen’s gentle touch, are chopped into pieces and tucked into ridiculously unsubtle moments of histrionic. Instead of being attacked by a spoiled child (and the spoiled children are almost totally absent), Anne takes a terrible fall and limps around for the next few scenes. Instead of Wentworth slowly loosing his composure at the musical performance, he storms out (opening both double doors on his way, of course).

25597577Oh, and the conclusion of the book that being sensible to persuasion is something that a prudent person must deal with, while being proud and stubborn costs happiness rather than ensuring it? Yeah, who needs it. Just turn Lady Russell into a villain and drop “persuaded” into the scene before the incredibly awkward kiss. Like, incredibly awkward kiss. My God, that man is over 6 foot and she’s a tiny little thing–what’s she doing, standing on her big toes like a ballet dancer?

Worst of all, the warm heart of the book which perfectly complements the romance is missing. In the novel, Anne has not only lost Captain Wentworth–she has lost the life she would have had with him. She would have been happy and valued. She would have lived among people who are kind and affectionate. She had a future in store for her like that of the Admiral and Mrs Croft. But the Admiral and Mrs Croft are pure plot devices in this movie–their lovely, devoted relationship is gone.

One more complaint: what kind of Austen adaptation doesn’t have a laugh until the last few minutes? Austen balanced her portrayals of selfishness–which sometimes verged on the cruel–with kindness and comedy. It was a delicate mix that she had mastered as no one before or since has managed. But, in the interests of the gothic, melodramatic tone, this movie slaughters 98% of the comedy so that we can get the camera shoved up in pale faces instead. Jane Austen novels are many wonderful things, and one constant in them is a spirit of fun. This movie is the least fun thing I’ve watched since a movie ended with dead children.