Tuesday, June 26, 2012

still technically here!

I am, in fact, alive. There is Bad Stuff going down at work, and of course I'm not going to talk about my work on my blog because I'm not an idiot. (Well, I am in many aspects, but not this.) Anyhoodle, due to the Bad Stuff, reading and the blog have both been neglected, except that I forced myself through the entirety of Ivanhoe, which I didn't enjoy one bit, because I am disappointed in myself regarding the Bad Stuff and so needed to be punished.

(Eventually I did start to skim. Like the chapter where the fool and Richard the Lion-Hearted trade twelfth-century Saxon jokes for fifteen pages? Skimmed like the wind!)

I do not recommend Ivanhoe - Scott is really invested in clothes, castles, and food, and leaves the plot pretty much entirely up to the reader. I remember rather liking it as a teenager, but can't now recall why. The 1982 miniseries, however, comes highly recommended (of course I had to watch that other feather in Anthony Andrews' cap after "The Scarlet Pimpernel"). It mostly consists of everyone, including the director, just staring open-mouthed at Olivia Hussey. This is natural. Holy cow, that face.

I also read Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood, which was very odd. It's an early bunch of what are not even quite stories, but very short (sometimes only a couple of paragraphs) takes on myths and fairy tales. Some of them I liked; some were embarrassingly amateurish, especially "Gertrude Talks Back". I came across that somewhere else years ago, and was floored to see it again here; I had no idea it was by Atwood. This collection reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman's short stories / myth fragments: occasionally awesome, mostly unimpressive.

I could see, however, where she came back to some of these ideas for The Penelopiad, and that makes me glad she tried them out. It's like reading Hilary Mantel's incredibly flawed A Place of Greater Safety after reading Wolf Hall - I'm glad she wrote the first one, because it was clearly a testing ground for the second, and is probably the reason the second is so good.

Now reading Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King. It is an absolutely crazy story. I'm not sure what I think of King's writing per se, but the story is so bizarre that it's fairly gripping.

Friday, June 15, 2012

still more Tudors! plus: tight pants

In the last week I finished my Early Reviewers book, Catherine Fletcher's The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican. It follows the fortunes of the Casali brothers, Italians who for many years were Henry VIII's ambassadors to Rome and did their best to obtain his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This book was, well, as interesting as papal diplomacy can be. Fletcher tries her best to liven it up, but the story bogged an awful lot, especially since the Casali brothers never succeeded.

Because of all the Tudor-ness in my life right now, I also re-read Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, by Tracy Borman. My sister-in-law gave me this book a while back and I just loved it. It was even more fascinating the second time around, feeling as I do that I know the historical personages well from all my recent reading. I have a secret sympathy for Mary Tudor (Queen Mary I); she was admittedly nuts but who, in her circumstances, wouldn't have been?

Then, because I have no built-in quality control, I proceeded to read a bunch of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels, which are abject trash.

Let me back up. While watching the "Pallisers" miniseries, I was delighted to see a baby Anthony Andrews playing Lord Silverbridge (he was twenty-four at the time but looked sixteen), and then I had to queue up the 1982 hilarity which is "The Scarlet Pimpernel". It is the type of made-for-TV movie in which one character says, "If you look out that window, you will see my yacht anchored just off-shore," another character looks out the window, and then you get stock footage of a three-masted ship moving rapidly ahead under full sail, in the middle of the ocean. It actually appears to have had a decent budget, but I'm just saying that where the budget (and the acting) fails, it fails spectacularly.

I probably saw it for the first time in 1982, when I was far too young to understand why these lithe men in extraordinarily tight trousers were so compelling, and I then watched it repeatedly* for the next ten years (it was also the first thing in which I saw Ian McKellen, and I was not too young to realize that he was some sort of god). The appeal of the tight pants did eventually become clear. According to Bill Bryson, men of the time not only wore the tightest pants they could find but avoided underwear. Hey hey. The romance novels are not so wrong after all!

Speaking of romance novels, that is precisely what the Scarlet Pimpernel books are, albeit chaste precursors to what we have now (in the first one, I'm not sure there are even any kisses other than on the hand). Sir Percy, far from being whippet-hipped à la Andrews, is constantly described as "massive", which for me is not only violently un-sexy but reminds me of the two most ludicrous romance novel descriptions of male ginormousness that I have come across: one featured a man with "shoulders wider than a longbow", which meant his shoulders were about six feet across, and the other had a heroine realizing, with a shudder of desire, that "each of [the hero's] thighs was, without a doubt, bigger around than her waist". Yes, I am aware that as a romance novel heroine, she's supposed to have a roughly fourteen-inch waist, and it's possible Lord Hamhock is in training for the Paris-Roubaix, but I still cannot read that without picturing a tyrannosaurus in a doublet.

The heroine in the Scarlet Pimpernel books is dumb as a bag of hammers, and in proud romance novel tradition it's supposed to be "impulsive" - she does the "I'm going to do something that endangers everybody, because I am so spunky!" thing constantly, including at one point putting an entire town under threat of the guillotine. The villain keeps hatching complicated schemes which depend upon her doing something very stupid, and she never fails to come through. And just as the hero is always described as massive, she is always described as tiny and childlike (oh sweet jeebus the emphasis on her tiny hands and tiny feet), and in that childishness apparently lies her irresistibility to all men. You can imagine the face I am making right about now. 

Mary Tudor is not impressed.

(In one book she swoons while saying her impassioned impulsive good-bye to the hero, and he's like, "Thank heavens for that," and dumps her in a hedge. Of course he kisses her tiny feet before leaving, but it was still my favorite scene.)  

But after watching the movie again, and laughing my ass off at its cheesy melodrama, and enjoying it enormously, I found that all the novels are free for Kindle, so I downloaded them and turned off most of my brain. This is especially necessary in pro-aristocrat French Revolution literature, because my sympathies are thoroughly with the peasants. A Tale of Two Cities walks a line with this, establishing the horror of life under the nobility's thumb, but then writing the deaths of many of the aristocrats as tragic, at which I scoff. Go, mob, go! One of the Scarlet Pimpernel books brings up, for pathos, the death of Madame de Lamballe, and all I could think was, "Does this pike make me look fat?"

In conclusion: even for someone as easily entertained as I, the movie is far better than the books, and I am going to be mainlining some Margaret Atwood short stories over the weekend, because I am now starved for good writing.

Also, to the person who found this blog by googling "Cormac McCarthy stories": I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not.

*I mean repeatedly. Twenty years after the last time I saw it, I still knew all the dialogue.

Monday, June 11, 2012

just a quick little post

Over the weekend I finished Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life and then read Ruth Rendell's Road Rage. At Home was very, very enjoyable; Bryson attempts to put his discussions of living standards and their changes through the centuries in some order, based on rooms (each chapter is titled "The Kitchen", "The Dining Room", etc.), but he mostly just bounces all over the place with his facts and tangents. I am fine with this, since I like the way his mind works, but I can see how someone else might be annoyed by the lack of cohesion.

In some of his more recent books (especially The Mother Tongue and Made in America), Bryson offered up apocryphal stories and/or debunked urban legends as fact, and took some guff for it in reviews. He has clearly taken that to heart, if we can judge by the number of times in At Home he qualifies his claims by saying, "This is the generally accepted story, but we don't really know," or something equivalent. I appreciate that. In all, a very funny and interesting book, even if there is a glaring Shakespeare misquote* in it (I did read it on the Kindle, and I know that sometimes e-reader versions have typos, but I didn't come across any other errors). That threw me off in a big way. Other than that, I can recommend it.

Rendell's Road Rage, another Inspector Wexford mystery, was utterly engrossing. In the last one I read (The Babes in the Wood), the scene-setting was more important than the actual mystery, and it sort of petered out. This one kept me up late to find out what happens next.

Is it just me, or are over-exuberant environmentalists used as punch lines in British novels all the time? The Brits seem to have little patience for people who are demonstrative enough to live in trees. This is one of the many things which make me frequently believe I live in the wrong country.

Also this weekend, I saw "Prometheus", which is terrible, but I should have known it would be terrible. Note to self: if a movie title makes reference to the subtitle of a book you hate, don't let yourself believe it's a coincidence.

And, in kitchen news, I finished stripping the last cabinet. It turns out that the two doors on it are completely different shades of wood, both from each other and from all the other doors. Don't quite know what I'm going to do about that.

*The line, from King John, is misquoted as "grief fills the room up of my empty child". It's "absent child". "Empty" doesn't even make sense.

Friday, June 8, 2012

the Tudor spectrum and my illustrious acting career

I finished up my re-read of Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII; I've been talking about it here previously, and don't have much to add. It's so, so good. Fascinating and difficult to put down; I've given it as a gift to people and they always tell me, "I can't stop reading this!" Unfortunately, it's hard to find, but if you come across a used copy, snap that baby up. You won't regret it.

Interestingly, both Fraser and "The Tudors" have Cromwell being tight with the Boleyn clan and with Anne in particular. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, he's their enemy. I trust both Fraser and Mantel, so don't know quite what to do with that.

Speaking of "The Tudors: Leather Pantaloons Edition", the first season ended with Cardinal Wolsey committing suicide, which was telegraphed about fifteen minutes ahead (significant looks at a knife, Chords of Self-Harm, etc). I started shouting at the television and didn't let up that whole fifteen minutes ("You are NOT going to have a 16th-century clergyman KILL HIMSELF, are you SERIOUS"), which is kind of a shame because Sam Neill, who was not afraid to ham it up prior to this, did a very quiet and beautiful job with the scene (until he was required to slash his own throat in a moment hilariously reminiscent of my backdrop-chomping high school performance of Salieri in Amadeus, of which more below). And then of course when the king was told, he said, "History must never know," to explain the fact that the writers decided history wasn't stupid enough. I was so disgruntled by this that I banished the subsequent seasons back down the massive queue; I will probably re-encounter them in a year or so.

Now I am happily watching "Primeval" - the British miniseries about dinosaurs coming through a time portal, not the slasher movie about a giant killer crocodile.* The main actor's Glaswegian accent is both divine and incomprehensible, the special effects are about two notches above early "Doctor Who", and it features the cutest dinosaur puppet I have ever seen. Good times.

As indicated above, I was reminded of my own goofy acting career by the excesses of "The Tudors". For most of my life I was that type of incredibly shy person who wants to perform all the time. It goes hand in hand with not liking yourself very much: I cannot improvise to save my life, but give me a character and a script and I will do anything. In fact, for most of my acting (i.e., academic; I haven't acted since college) career, I was uncontrollably over-dramatic to an extent rarely witnessed outside of Nicolas Cage films. My specialty was death scenes which left entire elementary school gymnasiums stunned into awkward silence: you have not seen Mercutio's death until you have seen it performed by an eleven-year-old girl who thinks she's Laurence Olivier ("nor as... [gasp] WIDE... as a... [wince] church DOOR...").

The following year I died as both Hamlet and Cyrano de Bergerac, with equal subtlety ("my... PANACHE! [rattle]"). My high school drama teacher, after I auditioned for something with a monologue from Romeo and Juliet and one from Marat / Sade (I wish I was kidding, but I'm not), said, after a long silence, "You know, it's okay to, um, show a lighter side." He then cast me as Mrs. Peacock in Clue, and I had more fun than I would ever have imagined, and I am grateful to him for helping me distinguish between people laughing at you and people laughing at your funny performance. As a teenager, that distinction is hard to make.

I was frankly not reined in as an actress until my sophomore year of college, when my acting class had an intensive Chekhov focus, and each student was assigned a character or two from his plays and basically lived as those characters for the entire semester. I got Sonya from Uncle Vanya, and was no one else for three straight months. We were forbidden to sigh. It was an amazing experience; I finally learned how to use my natural stillness, and ability to be silent, in a character.

I then proceeded to direct myself in monstrously self-indulgent versions of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. I'd learned nothing!

Of course I periodically want to act again, and consider seeking out community theater. The one time I'd actually signed up for an audition slot I promptly went out and got a puppy, and then withdrew because I couldn't be away from home for long periods of time. I considered that self-sabotage, though Claudio and I had always known that the moment we had a house we'd be getting a dog. It's true, absolutely, that I need the outlet of acting now so much less than I did at twenty-two, when I didn't even dare be myself without six drinks in me, and the only truly safe person to be was a character. But it's also true that I miss the fun of it, and there's little reason to deny myself fun. Alas, a lot of it just comes down to time, and lately my focus is my writing. (And of course I'm terrified of finding that I'm no longer good at something which used to define me as much as said writing.)

We shall see what happens down the road. In the meantime, I reserve my melodrama for that fifteen minutes every morning when I am hitting the snooze button and Darcy decides to sing me the song of his people. "I have faith, Darcy. I have a passionate faith. WE SHALL REST!"

*Which I have seen. Oh, like that's a surprise.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I have not been doing as much weekend reading as I normally would, because I have been arguing stridently with the kitchen cabinets. They were originally painted Sea Foam, that lovely mint-green shade which is so bizarrely popular in New England. The entire house, including the outside, is that color; when we first looked at it, by the time we got to the master bedroom and its slightly darker shade of Sea Foam I was giggling hysterically. But it is most egregious in the kitchen, where not only the walls but the cabinets, and the basement door, and the bathroom door, and the window frames, are all minty fresh. It is like living in a toothpaste tube or a bridesmaid's dress.

I've hated that color for four years. And, this winter, I realized that I was spending no time in the kitchen, despite my love for sitting at the table by the window looking out into the yard. A long, pale kitchen with a tile floor is a cold, cold room in wintertime. I want it to be cosy. I want to settle into that room with mugs of tea. And I do my best writing at that table, not at the big-ass inherited desk in the living room.

So I started stripping paint. The top cabinets turned out to have nice wood under the two layers of paint (beneath the Sea Foam was an amazing pink), so I scraped and sanded and slapped on some stain, and won the alliteration prize, and am quite happy with the way they turned out.

The bottom cabinets are a mess. The wood is battered and pitted, and it looks terrible uncovered. It was very discouraging to look at them Sunday night, after ten hours of work over two days, and realize I'm going to have to paint them anyway. Oh well.

It is not just the worn-out wood which is making this project spawn others. Of course at this point in my life a change is enormously appealing, and reclaiming the space in which I now live alone is symbolically important, but the additional projects are for the most part caused by my own incompetence. Despite the use of tape, paint stripper made it onto the walls by the cabinets and did its job, so: paint the walls! The undersides of the cabinets are refusing to release their paint to either chemical or manual persuasion, so: paint the trim! The little crevices of the windowsill are defeating my patience, so: a nice curtain! (Seriously. I'm going to keep scraping at the damn thing but I have already accepted that my fix will consist of covering it.) There is dog hair in the wood stain, so: live with dog hair in the wood stain! (There isn't much.)

Of course, this attitude may result in a situation that never ends. Friends might come over in two months and ask why there are no light fixtures and the dogs are shaved, and I will say, "THINGS KEPT HAPPENING."

So, like I said, less reading than usual, and things may continue that way for a while as I slapstick my way through further adventures in home alteration. I did read The Babes in the Wood, by Ruth Rendell, one of her Inspector Wexford mysteries. Rendell is a terrifying writer, to the extent that I have decided to only read the Wexford series out of her large oeuvre. As with most British police procedurals, they are pessimistic about humanity, but not vicious; her stand-alone books are beyond disturbing. The tipping point, for me, was Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, which features characters in the grasp of OCD and disordered eating, and has awful people doing unbelievably awful things to people who don't deserve them, and reading it makes you want to never, ever speak to another human being again. The Babes in the Wood was a perfect rainy-afternoon read, after putting in the morning's requisite amount of swearing at stubborn paint.

I am about thirty pages from the end of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Catherine Parr is generally making herself useful, being the sensible woman that she was.* Good times. Reading it concurrently with watching "The Tudors" is very odd, because that show is sometimes incredibly faithful to the historical record, including using dialogue set down at the time, and then within the same scene will decide it can just make crap up. (Apparently Henry VIII slept in Royal Boxer Shorts. You think I am making that up, but I am not. They are black silk with gold embroidered crosses, and look like something David Beckham would wear in a mildly blasphemous ad.)

In a completely random language moment, I finished watching a "Tudors" episode and headed to the bathroom to prepare for bed, musing on whether I want Cromwell to be the hero because of Hilary Mantel or because I find James Frain weirdly sexy (it's a little from column A, a little from column B), and then musing on why he's sexy given that he looks a bit like a frog, and then trying to remember what the word for resembling a frog is, you'd think I'd know it, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is my favorite Lovecraft after all, and then I glanced down at the New Yorker pile and right on top was the sci-fi fiction edition, open to the essay by China Miéville, and at the bottom of the page it read, "our batrachian hero...".

I would have whistled the "Twilight Zone" theme, but I had a toothbrush in my mouth and I can't whistle.

Up next: I have, from the library, Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and another Inspector Wexford. Should be good reading for a rainy week.

*At one point, because she schooled the king in a theological argument and he was a dick, she came within about five hours of being arrested for heresy. On learning of this, she immediately flew to his side and said, "Oh no, I was just trying to take your mind off your illness and the best way to do that was to play devil's advocate to your brilliantly reasoned argument! If I had acknowledged your superior intelligence, the discussion would have been over, you would have been in pain again, and I would have learned nothing." Smart lady. He bought it. (The officers showed up with her warrant a few hours later and he came very close to having them sent to prison. It sucked working for this guy.)