strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
2009 was my third year of reviewing all of the (non-work-related) books I read and films I watched here in my journal, and my second year of also doing the same for Classic episodes of Doctor Who. My overviews of 2007 and 2008 are at the links, and the same for 2009 follows below.

Books )

Films )

Doctor Who )

Other telefantasy )

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
This is the sort of book that I would probably never have read if I hadn't spotted it for £1.25 in a local charity shop. But I have always been curious about the origins of the TV series, and at that price it seemed foolish not to have a closer look.

The link between the two is recognisable, but nothing like as straightforward as I'd assumed. For a start, Carrie Bradshaw is not the narrative voice - although she is a journalist, and one of the most frequently-recurring characters. The fabulous foursome at the centre of the TV series is also absent. There are characters present in the book called Charlotte York, Miranda Hobbes and Samantha Jones, but their jobs, backgrounds and personalities don't match the HBO characters at all. Besides, they only crop up a couple of times each, and never together.

That means that one of the most comforting and alluring aspects of the TV series - the emphasis on supportive female friendships - is totally missing from the novel (or the newspaper columns which it collects). As in fact, are many of the other elements which give the show its veneer of glamour - the fabulous frocks, the cocktails, the shoes, the parties. Mahnolo Blahniks get mentioned all of about once in Bushnell's novel, and then only really to act as a symbol of empty consumerism.

In short, the novel is darker. The characters (both male and female) come and go without ever establishing any emotional connections with one another; the only thing they really care about is constantly outdoing one another; and the world in which they move is brutal and unforgiving. There are no happy endings here.

This rather took me by surprise, as I had been expecting brainless, fluffy chick-lit. I'd assumed that the TV series with its confident, liberated women and witty lines was cleverer and more highly-developed than the book, but that isn't really true. In many ways the book is much more hard-hitting, and much better at exposing modern illusions.

That doesn't mean there isn't a place for both of them. The TV series certainly still acknowledges the inequalities and insincerities of the world that Carrie and her friends inhabit - the difference is just that it is more optimistic about their ability to overcome these things and enjoy happy and fulfilled lives all the same. Meanwhile, the book is more honest about the darker side of modern life - but arguably paints too negative a picture when it suggests that none of the people caught up in it have any warmth or kindness or generosity about them whatsoever.

It's a question of what you prefer, really, as well as what is appropriate to each medium. Bushnell's dark vision of 1990s New York probably wouldn't have made a very popular TV series. But it definitely deserves a lot more credit than I had assumed as a strong piece of writing in its own right.

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strange_complex: (Seven Ace)
This is, of course, the novel on which the two-part Tenth Doctor story, Human Nature / The Family of Blood is based. I read it online courtesy of the BBC, but did so increeeediiiibblllyy sllooooooooooowly over a series of short sessions while eating lunch-time sandwiches at my desk. Since I don't have that sort of lunch-break every day, and indeed often do not do so for a week or more at a time, it has taken me since last December (when I finished The Well-Mannered War) to complete the book. That wasn't too much of a problem for understanding the plot, since it is similar enough to the TV version for my memories of that to have helped me keep track of it between gaps in reading. But it probably did mean I maintained less of a grip on all the various minor characters than I might otherwise have done.

The novel features the Seventh Doctor rather than the Tenth - although, spookily, someone claiming to be the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor does pop up at one point. The premise is also slightly different from the TV version. In the novel, the Doctor comes to the Aubertides wanting to be human, and the technology to enact that transformation comes from them, not the Time Lords. The only problem is that they have offered that technology as a bait, in order to get a Time Lord into a vulnerable enough position for them to be able to steal his technology and ability to regenerate from him. Hence their pursuit of the unsuspecting school-teacher, John Smith - protected in this instance by Bernice Summerfield, a companion of Cornell's own creation.

I think I actually prefer this set-up to the TV adaptation. One obvious difficulty with the TV version is that it requires us to accept that the Doctor has known how to transform himself into a human all along, without ever having mentioned it before. That's one of the problems you run into after forty years of continuity, and I wouldn't want it getting in the way of good stories. But having the technology come from a previously-unencountered source instead does feel more convincing. The setting for the novel also changes the Doctor's motivation for becoming human in the first place. Whereas in the TV episode, he does it in order to save the Family of Blood from their own desire to hunt him down and devour his life force, in the novel he knows nothing about that at the point when he makes the decision. Instead, it is implied (though never explicitly spelt out) that he does it because he wants to understand humans better, and perhaps also take a break from himself - something that is certainly an outcome of his actions in the TV series, but not his actual reason for doing it. That said, perhaps his motivations in the TV version are more in keeping with the established character of the Doctor - certainly of the Tenth Doctor, anyway.

Either way, the idea of making the Doctor experience life as a human is real genius, and even with my rather limited experience of Doctor Who novels, I think I can fairly safely say that this is as good a Who novel as the TV adaptation is a Who episode (or two). The writing is markedly better that the other Who novels I've read so far, and there are lots of great little scenes set into the narrative. I especially enjoyed one early on in the novel, where the Doctor / John Smith finds himself teaching the boys about the rebellion of Boudicca / Boadicea. Cornell uses it as an opportunity to set their early-twentieth century understanding of war and rebellion against the Doctor's 'out-of-time' (but obviously late-twentieth century) perspective. It works nicely in its own right as a case-study of the way that history shifts and changes entirely according to the needs and interests of its interpreters, and it also serves an important narrative purpose in bringing out some of the main themes of the novel - aggression, resistance, and the acts of individuals caught up in wars beyond their control. But in the context of a story which in itself also constitutes a particular interpretation of early-twentieth century Britain, it also draws attention to the fact that we too are viewing the past through the filter of the present as we read. We end up with multiple different histories all bouncing off one another, and I thought it was fantastic.

That's not to say the novel is entirely flawless. There are occasional sentences which haven't been proof-read carefully enough, and contain awkward repetitions: for example, "The blast knocked Smith's party off their feet, blasting the wooden pub tables into the field beyond the garden." There is also a rather long and boring back-story all about Aubertide society in chapter 7. I personally felt that it would have been better to leave this out, and just concentrate on the one renegade family which actually features in the book - and RTD clearly felt exactly the same way, since that's what happens in the TV version. It also seems rather implausible that this long and ponderous Social and Political History of Aubis is narrated to Bernice while she is tied up as their prisoner, despite a few knowing jokes at the beginning of the process about how they're not going to be tricked into revealing all their plans just because they have captured her - which is precisely what they then go on to do. On the whole, though, this is a jolly good read, and I quite often found myself actively looking forward to reading another little chunk of it on my way in to work.

It gets bonus points for a Hitch-Hiker's reference: Bernice grabs some Aldebaran brandy at one point in chapter 4, which I rather think she must have acquired from the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was also intrigued to note that the phone in the front panel of the TARDIS rings in chapter 12 as a means of communicating with Timothy, the boy who has found the pod with the Doctor's bio-data inside it (what would become the fob-watch in the TV version, but here looks more like a cricket-ball). Obviously, this crops up in The Empty Child as a means for the child to communicate with Rose - but I'd be very interested to hear from more knowledgeable Whovians than me about this device as a story element. Had it ever happened before this novel was written, or is this the first instance? More props to Cornell for creative use of the TARDIS's police box disguise if it was.

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
I picked this up rather expecting something along the lines of Saki or P.G. Wodehouse. From a purely stylistic point of view I wasn't far wrong - Fitzgerald definitely displays the same facility with language, choosing words which are surprising in their context, but at the same time highly evocative of the atmosphere he is trying to create. (There's a collection of quotations from the novel on Wikiquote which should give some idea of this).

The content, though, is much more gritty and sombre. Yes, there are parties at lavish villas on Long Island - but there are also frustrated hopes, social divisions, emotional betrayals, callous manipulations, badly misplaced priorities and two entirely avoidable deaths. On the whole, the New York of the 1920s is portrayed as rotten and superficial, and the novel ends with the first-person narrator (Nick Carraway) choosing to return to what he considers to be his more wholesome origins in the mid-west.

I also decided to read it now because I had heard that it related to Petronius' Satyricon, and wanted to see how. In all honesty, it's not a terribly profound resonance. Jay Gatsby resembles Trimalchio in that they have both made a lot of money after coming from a humble background and like to give lavish parties, but Gatsby is far less brash and vulgar than Trimalchio, and far more concerned to draw a veil over his true origins. Indeed, he comes across as a reserved an enigmatic figure, whom we get to know only very gradually. For the first few chapters, our narrator encounters him solely via distant glimpses and reports, and utterly fails to recognise him when they do actually meet. We also hear several exaggerated, sensational and completely inaccurate accounts of his past before we get anywhere near anything which might plausibly be true - and even then there is still room for doubt. Gatsby is very much at the centre of the events of the novel, but it remains always a rather thin and insubstantial centre - presumably in keeping with the superficial atmosphere which Fitzgerald wished to create.

I did spot one other Classical reference which I hadn't been expecting, though. At the beginning of chapter 4, our narrator presents a list of everyone who visited Gatsby's house in the summer when the novel is set. It's too long to include here in toto, but a typical paragraph runs like this:
"From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly—they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day."
A list is a list when all's said and done, but the incidental details about the people being ennumerated reminded me rather of the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad (lines 2.494-759, starting here). And I think the closing phrases in each case seal the deal:
"Such were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans." (Iliad 2.750, tr. Samuel Butler 1898)
"All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer." (The Great Gatsby (1925) ch. 4).
Not identical, obviously, and anyway I don't know whether Fitzgerald would have encountered Homer directly in the Greek, or what translation he might have used if not. But the device of recapping what the list has just been about is the same in both cases. The immediate effect appears to be a sort of parody, emphasising the insignificance of what is going on at Gatsby's parties by comparison with the epic warfare of the Iliad. But evoking the theme of the Trojan Wars perhaps also has a wider resonance for the rest of the novel, since it raises the possibility of casting Gatsby's devotion to another man's wife (Daisy) and the disastrous consequences which it ultimately has for him in the light of Paris' devotion to Helen. All in all rather more meaningful than the Trimalchio reference, I think - but knowing about it is still not an essential prerequisite for enjoying the novel. It merely adds an extra hint of spice to what is anyway a great read.

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strange_complex: (Latin admirable sentiment)
I encountered Petronius for the first time at school, when we read sections from the Cena Trimalchionis for what it reveals about Roman attitudes towards slaves and freedman. As a postgrad, I returned to consider the design of Trimalchio's house and his funerary monument, and also had a go at translating the stories of the werewolf and the widow of Ephesus in various Latin classes. At Warwick, I set (in English) Echion's speech on the gladiatorial spectacles of Titus and Norbanus as a way of helping first-year students to understand ancient attitudes towards the games. Now, though, I have finally done for this book what I did two years ago for Apuleius' Metamorphoses: actually read it as a proper novel, rather than just mining it for historical data and language practice.

Not that I can quite do that in the way that its author intended, since unlike Apuleius' work, it survives now only in fragments. In some places, in fact, I'm pretty surprised so much does survive, given that the principal means of transmission for ancient texts is being copied out by medieval monks. The surviving portions include, to give just one example, a scene of the main character (Encolpius) being anally raped with a dildo rubbed with crushed pepper and nettle seeds. Yet this clearly was copied out; and indeed was still being read widely and treated as a great work of literature by Christian authors such as Sidonius Apollinaris, Fulgentius, Jerome and Isidore of Seville, all of whom use citations from Petronius to demonstrate grammatical or other points in their own work. I suppose it just goes to show a) how an established status as great literature can carry a text forward into a new age even if its subject-matter might be considered distasteful and b) that we shouldn't over-exaggerate the extent of early or medieval Christian prudery just because we are looking back at it through a Victorian filter.

The identity of the author )

The plot and structure )

What I got out of reading it )

But I'm off into territory that more properly belongs in my academic publications, here. In this context, I'll content myself by saying that Petronius has been a brilliant read - and I will be back for Lucian's True History before terribly long.

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strange_complex: (TARDIS)
I'm personally of the opinion that 'traveller' should have two Ls in it, but maybe people in North America feel differently about the matter. Anyway, only one L is included on the cover (in the title at least), so there it is.

Spelling aside, I enjoyed this novel very much. It suppose you could call it 'fantastical realism', or something of the sort - it isn't magical realism per se, as the time travel in it is explicitly presented as a genetic disorder rather than the result of magic, but it has the same sort of quality of depicting an entirely realistic world except for the one small detail of involuntary time travel. As such, the extent of its emphasis on the feelings and development of its characters is greater than you tend to find in a typical fantasy novel - and this, presumably, is why it's found such acclaim outside of SF circles.

I'm rather late to the party in reading it myself, as [livejournal.com profile] nearly_everyone seems to have done so several years ago, but I suppose that gives me a slightly different perspective, since I had heard a lot about it before I read it. My chief surprise was to find that the time traveller (Henry) was featured in the novel as much as he was. What I'd picked up was that the novel focuses primarily on the effects of his time travelling on his wife (Clare), but although this is more true than with most novels featuring time travel, in fact the experiences and traumas of the two get more or less equal billing.

What I didn't anticipate based on what I'd heard begins to be a bit spoilery )

Anyway, I'm glad I read this, and indeed enjoyed it so much that I may well return to it sometime. If you enjoy fantasy novels, you'll definitely like this, but even if you usually don't, it's worth making an exception for this one.

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strange_complex: (Poirot truth)
So, back to Poirot! I've got loads of them to get through now, after all.

This is Hastings' second outing, and takes the duo to northern France. There, of course, Hastings serves the very useful linguistic purpose of being the only person present in quite a large number of scenes who needs everything to be explained to him in English. That said, there are a number of other scenes in which he isn't present and Poirot discusses the developments of the case with local French officials, but Christie takes the classic SF approach of just carrying on as though everyone spoke English anyway. She even continues to characterise Poirot via the use of French phrases and syntax, while the French characters around him converse in perfect English - which is slightly disconcerting.

The story is again largely as replicated by the TV adaptation, but with a few differences which speak volumes about the approaches and priorities of each. Spoiler cut, just in case )

In short, then, the novel is stronger on the plot, but the TV adaptation is stronger on characterisation. And, as I observed for the last Poirot novel I read, the TV version is better on detail and richesse, too. Once again, Christie gives us lots of dialogue and action, but very little setting and atmosphere. And my personal preference is very much for the TV approach.

That said, I was distinctly impressed by the literary twist which she suddenly served up on the last page. Won't really spoil the plot this time, but you never know )

In other words, all of a sudden Christie is drawing attention to the fictional nature of her story, both by suggesting that Hastings is an unreliable narrator who may be relating what he wanted to happen, rather than what actually did happen, and by suddenly transforming her two characters into figures from a romantic fairy tale. In some ways, it's rather out of keeping with the straightforward tone of the rest of the novel - but it is nice to see the occasional touch of something a bit more interesting popping up alongside all the careful plotting, in any case.

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strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
The film of this was the best thing I saw in the cinema last year, and I've meant to read the book ever since. It entirely lived up to my expectations - it is bright, funny, original and beautifully put together.

The story and structure are essentially the same as the film, but not identical. The film includes all the same characters, but has extended the story-arcs of some of them and given others more complicated motivations and agendas, creating more opportunities for drama and tension. But I think this is a case of each medium doing what suits it best - that makes for a great 21st-century film, but part of the delight of the book is that the narrative remains quite simple, allowing plenty of commentary on the small details of the scenes and personalities being described, and plenty of insight into the internal thought-processes of Guinevere Pettigrew.

Meanwhile, in the other direction, one thing the book does which the film really couldn't have is to show very vividly how everything that is happening to Miss Pettigrew is, for her, essentially like stepping into one of the films which have been her only escape from drudgery for the past twenty or more years. She judges the apartments and nightclubs she finds herself in by the standard of what she has seen in the cinema, categorises the people she meets as 'heroes' or 'villains' and of course throughout is described in terms of someone acting a role - which she eventually discovers might actually be the real her after all. It makes the whole novel a very enjoyable and rather mischievous commentary on the escapist romantic films which were regularly served up to female audiences at the time, and are what Miss Pettigrew must have been watching.

And by contrast to those films, which tended to emphasise conformity to traditional gender roles and to present marriage as the ultimate female aspiration, Miss Pettigrew offers up a quite different view of femininity. Every woman in it is, in her own way, strong, independent and capable of shaping her own destiny, while of course the central relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse presents a strong picture of two women helping and supporting one another, rather than relying on the input of men. As [livejournal.com profile] the_lady_lily pointed out in her own review, there is the occasional slight hint of racism in the story - particularly concerning Phil, who is essentially rejected as a suitable husband for Miss LaFosse because "somewhere in his ancestry there has been a Jew." But other than that, the story and characters feel incredibly modern, and I'm not surprised to learn from the introduction that it was considered rather shocking at the time.

Finally, alongside the text, the modern Persephone Classics edition also presents the wonderful original illustrations produced by Mary Thompson to accompany the book. I'm glad to say that someone has scanned one of them here so that I don't have to - but that really is only one example of a fabulous set of drawings which run right through the entire book.

In summary, highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended - especially, but not only, if you are female. I now have a huge crush on the author.

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strange_complex: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
So, having just read a novel about a Belgian detective written by an English author, and whom I encountered in print for the first time in a French translation, I move on to a novel about a French Commissaire written by a Belgian author, and whom I am accessing here via an English translation. I'd be confused - if they weren't such utterly different characters.

For Maigret, it transpires, is nothing like Poirot. Where Poirot is genteel and elegant to the point of fussiness, Maigret is worldly and practical. He's willing to chase criminals across muddy fields and physically overpower them if necessary, in a manner which Poirot delicately leaves to Hastings and Japp. Where Poirot proceeds via Order and Method, Maigret follows up gut instincts and intuition until he sniffs out the truth. Which is not to say that Maigret doesn't pick up on the little mistakes his subjects make, or that Poirot isn't guided also by his psychological judgements about people's characters - but Maigret is definitely inhabiting a more realistic world, in which a less supernaturally-intellectual method of detection is required. Most fundamentally of all, while Poirot is clearly the no. 1 subscriber to the cult of his own personality, Maigret is introverted and even gruff, very much preferring to skulk alone in the shadows than to be surrounded by crowds of appreciative admirers. If it weren't for the fact that he smokes a pipe and is explicitly described as overweight, he'd put me strongly in mind of the chap from the "You're never alone with a Strand" advert.

Simenon, too, is nothing like Christie. Quite apart from the colourful life story I've just been reading about on Wikipedia, his prose is oozing with exactly the elements I complained were absent from Christie's - richness of setting and atmosphere. You can see the exact configuration of the Three Widows crossroads at which Maigret spends most of the book as you read; and what's more the character of the houses there, the shape of the landscape and the rustlings of the natural world around all serve to enhance and support the development of the story. There's no question about who is the better writer here - and what makes that all the more astonishing is the sheer pace with which Simenon churned it out. This is one of no less than TEN Maigret novels which he published in 1931 alone - by contrast, even Agatha Christie, who can hardly be said to have suffered from writer's block, seems to have managed no more than a modest two or three a year for most of her career. It makes you wonder how he found time for all the womanising.

Which brings me on to my chief complaint about the story, which is that the women of Simenon's fictional world get a pretty raw deal as characters. They are all, without exception, either wives or whores, and nothing much beyond. Even the most prominent of them, Else Anderson, who is initially presented as alluring and intriguing and does prove to be rather brighter than most of the other characters, is eventually unmasked as "the typical tart, ordinary and vulgar, healthy and cunning". Meanwhile poor old Mme. Maigret gets to appear for a total of two-thirds of a page in the entire novel, during which she is permitted to pack her husband a suitcase and express mild concern for his safety, while he largely ignores her and storms off in pursuit of his criminals. Maigret is, in fact, to all intents and purposes a single man (like Sherlock Holmes and Poirot), and I'd much rather Simenon had just written him that way. But I suppose that would have seemed unthinkable for a middle-aged police inspector in the 1930s, and so he has to be equipped with this cardboard cut-out of a wife instead.

There's not much point in complaining about it, really - it was 1931 after all. But the fact remains that this is man-fiction, written by a man for other men. Which means that for all its stylish prose, there's just not that much here for me, now that I have grasped the basic parameters of Maigret's world. It's been an interesting and enjoyable investigation, but if I return it will probably only be because I've stumbled across a cheap copy of one of Simenon's novels in French, and want to take the chance to experience him in his original language. Otherwise, I don't think it's terribly likely.

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strange_complex: (Poirot truth)
It's no secret that I've been watching a lot of Poirot lately. It's part of my growing obsession with the 1930s - in fact, in a sort of circularity, it's probably also part of the reason why I was so attracted to my house and its neighbours in the first place. For a girl drawn to the style moderne in any case, the luxuriant treatment which it gets via ITV's Poirot cemented that attraction, iconising it into something truly to be aspired to. And, once I moved in, how much more exciting the TV series became in its turn, as I could imagine myself inhabiting the same universe as the strange little Belgian detective.

A tangential eulogy on the TV series )

Thus have I gone from half-watching Poirot whenever it happened to be on without really paying full attention, to being utterly caught up in it, and indeed last weekend finally deciding to invest in the DVD boxed set. And it seemed to me also that it was about time I extended my interest to actually reading some of the books. In fact I did read a Poirot novel some years ago, when I had just turned 17 and we were staying for a family holiday at a gîte in France. There on the bookshelf I found a copy of Le Crime de l'Orient Express, which I devoured during the long afternoons when it was too hot to go out. But while it taught me a great deal about how to use the past historic tense (the one tense we hadn't 'done' as part of our French GCSE, and which I felt disempowered without), it obviously wasn't an authentic encounter with Christie's original English prose.

This time instead, I've gone right to the root of the matter. I spent my Christmas book-token on a volume containing the first four of the Poirot novels to feature the character of Hastings, including the very first one of all, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Technically, I've seen the story on TV, but since it belonged firmly to my 'not-really-paying-attention' phase, I could remember very little about the plot. I knew there was something important about the spills on the mantelpiece, but I had no idea whatsoever who had committed the murder, so it didn't really spoil the 'whodunnit' aspect of the novel for me. Not that I think that will ever be the important thing for me anyway - as with my watching of Doctor Who, it is the (semi-)fantastical settings and the characterisation that attracts me to the Poirot stories.

Now, having read the novel, I am half-satisfied by what it offers on those fronts. The characterisation which I so love on the television is definitely nascent here. It isn't perhaps yet quite so rounded or so profound as what David Suchet does - but then, this is only the first novel, whereas he had the benefit of Christie's total Poirot corpus on which to base his characterisation from the beginning. There's definitely enough here, anyway, to make me want to return and read the other three volumes in my collection at some point.

The setting, though, is pretty deficient. Of course, Christie doesn't have the visual resources at her disposal which the ITV production team do. And fine clothes and elegant stream-line moderne houses don't really belong in a novel set at the end of the First World War. But, as I said above, the settings for these stories are not merely window-dressing in the television series. They are all about creating an appropriate world in which the characters can come to life, and an atmosphere to suit the developments of the plot. The same effect can be achieved on the printed page, as Thomas Hardy demonstrates so brilliantly. But Christie largely eschews it in favour of dialogue and action. The result is that although I do see that what she achieved in her novels was tremendously innovative and exciting and important, I'm left feeling that it was the ITV series which really added the richesse that now makes them masterpieces of the small screen.

I don't know whether that continued to be the case as she developed as a novelist - it's one of the things I hope to find out as I explore her other stories. But for the moment, I think their value to me will be largely as the foundation stones on which a beloved TV series has been so carefully constructed. And there's much to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.

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strange_complex: (Tom Baker)
I bought this in Hebden Bridge last July, but held off reading it for a while on the grounds that I was just way too invested in the character of the fourth Doctor, and couldn't bear the possibility of having my illusions shattered by finding out that the guy who played him was actually a jerk (cf. Christopher Lee, passim). I don't think I need have worried too much, though. There's certainly a touch of melancholy to Baker's life story, and the ending which sees him obsessive and paranoid about his lawnmower and his own gravestone is frankly kind of unsettling. But I ended up feeling more sorry for him than anything else.

He's a born escapist - something I can relate to myself - and spending his childhood being told that he was thick and worthless clearly didn't do much to help him develop goals or ambitions, or give him the confidence to pursue them. The result is that his life story is basically a series of escapes from reality into which he stumbled into more or less accidentally, each time completely sublimating his own identity to whatever dominant person or institution presented itself for the purpose - the Catholic church, the army, acting school, a disastrous first marriage, a contract with the National Theatre, and finally Doctor Who. There, of course, the match worked perfectly, because the character of the Doctor responds beautifully to someone who can bring to it both an awkwardly non-human quality and a total conviction - and Baker had both in spades. But it was a flash in the pan. He had very little ambition to build on it, even at the time - a television interview from 1981 shows the rather sad spectacle of him shrugging when asked about his plans on leaving the show, and saying, "Well, I'm going into oblivion I suppose" (about 3 minutes in on this video). And indeed he pretty much moved smoothly onwards into his next avenues of escape - initially pub culture, but later a clearly much more satisfying marriage to Sue Jerrard.

The book contains a great deal of information, yet somehow never reveals terribly much about its author. There's enough story and colour to make you feel you are living his life alongside him at certain points - particularly his Liverpool childhood. But he very rarely steps back to give the bigger picture regarding what all this meant to him, how he felt about it or why it sent him in the directions it did. And that's kind of the point, really. He still doesn't really know who he is, as the title of the book proclaims. He knows what he did, but as for why he did it? He never knew at the time, and he certainly doesn't know now.

The style is also quite impressionistic - as, indeed, his televised interviews and DVD commentaries usually tend to be, too. He jumps from phase to phase of his life quite abruptly, so that I sometimes had to spend quite a lot of time working out how much time must have passed between one event and the next in order to make sense of the story. The amount of space given to each period of his life in the narrative is also sometimes quite skewed in proportion to the amount of time it actually took up. This applies particularly to his post-Who years, which accounted for about 25% of his life (15 years) at the time of writing the book, but only get 10% of the space in it (two chapters) - a stark contrast with his childhood, which took the same length of time but gets six. That probably makes for a better read, as one of the post-Who chapters consists of very little else besides him sitting around in the pub, and wasn't terribly interesting to read. But I'd have liked to hear more about his life in the present day, especially since he does seem to have found some kind of settled happiness at last with his third wife.

I suppose the truth is that another chapter is needed now, covering the renaissance in his career over the last decade - largely, as he often says in interviews, as a result of the generation of children who loved him so much as the fourth Doctor growing up and into positions where they can employ him. Long may he be far too busy doing fun things on television to write it.

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strange_complex: (Room with a View kiss)
I did enjoy this, but by the time I got to about chapter 9, I began to feel that it didn't quite have the same depth and complexity as the other Austen novels I've read to date: Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I wondered whether this might be because it was an earlier effort that the other two, and when I checked, this turned out to be true - although she actually also wrote Pride and Prejudice between her original draft of S&S and the final, and significantly revised, published version, so things are a bit more complicated than their publication dates alone would suggest.

Compared to Austen's other novels, even the main characters here feel rather like stereotypes, and although Marianne in particular does develop over the course of the novel, it is not a particularly surprising or challenging course of development. The three men who become involved in the sisters' lives also seem rather deficient from a 21st-century point of view. Willoughby is a slimy, lying bastard, Edward Ferrars is as dull as ditchwater, and Colonel Brandon is self-centred and manipulative. I'm particularly curious as to whether Austen meant Willoughby's 'explanation' of his behaviour towards Marianne to sound convincing or reasonable. Since the sister who represents 'Sense' is swayed by it, I can only assume so, but to me it read like the worst kind of back-pedalling worming - the sort of stuff which the Sex and the City girls would see straight through. Then again, the entire plot revolves around social norms which Carrie and her friends would laugh at, so it's hardly fair to hold it up to the same standards.

The social satire and humour I associate with Austen is definitely here, though. I especially enjoyed Mr. Palmer and his wife as comic characters, although that view may be partly influenced by Hugh Laurie's brilliant performance as Mr. Palmer in the film. I also found myself wondering, in the light of Clueless, how this novel would play as a high school drama - and I think the answer is extremely well. Compared to most adult women today, the concerns and priorities of Austen's characters do appear rather green and teenaged, and if marriage to a man of fortune is only replaced by an invite to the prom date from a member of the high-school band, football team or whatever, the rest of the plot continues to work pretty well.

Finally, I owe an apology to the author of An American Boy. I complained when I read that about what seemed to me the over-done mannerism of writing all street-names in the format 'Wellington-terrace' instead of 'Wellington Terrace', feeling that it was a case of trying too hard to evoke a period feel. But it really is exactly what Jane Austen does with total consistency throughout this book - along with other idiosyncratic spellings like 'chuse', 'shew' and most interestingly 'our's' and 'her's'. I like that last one particularly, because it is one in the eye for the people who seem to believe that there was once a Golden Age of spelling in which everyone knew exactly how to use an apostrophe. I fear there never was - but I also believe that is no reason not to try to create one in the present.

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