Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Guess it was Easier for her to Change her Name Than for her Whole Family to Change Theirs


The Observations
by Jane Harris was absolutely excellent. Here's the summary:

When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy’s narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.

In my opinion, the true strength of this book is its narrator. Bessy is one of the best heroines I have ever come across in literature. She's feisty, strong, opinionated, very intelligent, practical and incredibly funny. It was a joy following her in her adventures and discoveries. The cover of the hardcover edition is shocking - once again, a beheaded woman in a book where the author chose to give a voice to a female servant. Ironic. This book is very much a feminist book, and it's always refreshing when dealing with stories taking place in the 19th century. Bessy comes to a better understanding of herself and in a way, this book shows how women can deal and triumph over men's selfish desires. The language used in the book is a game unto itself - there's lots of slang, Irish, Scottish words, made up words - more than a tool, Bessy's way of expressing herself is truly art (this idea is developed when Bessy ends up creating her own bawdy songs).
The plot is solid, its characters not too numerous to allow for deep attachment. I can't really talk about the plot as such as my thoughts would be filled with spoilers. What I can say is that it's chilling and terrifying, some kind of a detective story narrated with common sense, lucidity and great comedy throughout, even in nauseating moments that have to do with Bessy's shady past.
However, I would recommend anyone who wishes to read the book to avoid any sort of review or blurb. The plot can be quickly summarized and I fear any spoiler would be a huge one. I'm sorry I had to leave Bessy, she sure was fun company!
I found some interesting interviews of Jane Harris (to read AFTER you're done with the book) here, here and here. The last link is particularly helpful as it contains a list of questions about the book, below the interview. The Observations raises so many questions about self, feminity, class, insanity, sex. The more I think about it, the more I realise how much of a real tour de force this book is.

Moving on to cinema. I'm incredibly happy with the winners of the 81st Academy Awards. Kate, Milk and Slumdog. I couldn't have hoped for more, really. They all deserve it. Here are several things. First of all, Kate's acceptance speech (it's touching that she thought of thanking Peter Jackson, who gave her her first role in the disturbing Heavenly Creatures, as well as Emma Thompson, her Sense and Sensibility co-star and one of my favourite actresses as well):

Dad, whistle or something!

Here's what is probably the best speech of the night, Dustin Lance Black's acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. Please read this article (long but well worth the time) afterwards.

I watched a movie entitled The Awful Truth, released in 1937 and directed by Leo McCarey. It stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

What a riot! I've never laughed so much watching a movie, it was beyond great. Irene Dunne absolutely deserved an Oscar for this one (she was simply nominated), she's so natural! I can't believe this isn't a more famous movie, Cary Grant is always remembered for comedies like The Philadelphia Story, which does have its merits, but is not nearly as insane as The Awful Truth. The movie was almost entirely ad-libbed and both leads wanted to walk out on it at some point because there was no script (a married couple tries to have various affairs outside of marriage, waiting for their divorce, only to realise they're really in love with each other). I'm so happy they didn't! It's got some of the greatest scenes, all hilarious, there's physical comedy and snappy, witty lines (the title of this post is one of them, Irene's character Lucy says that after watching a particularly risqué singing performance in a restaurant, the singer is the person she's talking about). I don't understand why Irene didn't lead a more successful career. I read it was because she mostly got parts in remakes of previous movies and wasn't offered anything original. Directors who just can't see talent where it is anger me to no end. Speaking of ends, the ending of the movie was perfect, and Production Code be damned. Good review here.

I didn't say anything about it on this journal for fear I would give up midseason but it's now official: I've started watching Battlestar Galactica, the 2004 reimagined series. Let's sum it up briefly. The original Battlestar Galactica was a TV show that aired in 1978-9. It only had one season. In 2003, a new reimagined series (that is, a TV show that would take the original plot, but with twists that would expand it) was launched by a three-hour miniseries. The miniseries was broadcast in 2003 and then a TV show started in 2004, beginning where the miniseries ended. Today, in February 2009, three whole seasons of this reimagined show have been broadcast. However, the fourth season was split into three: the first part (episode 1 and 2 of the fourth season) premiered at the end of 2007, in November and December. The second part (episodes 3 to 12 of the fourth season) started airing in April 2008 and ended in June 2008. The third part (episodes 13 to 22) started airing on January 16, 2009 and will end on March 20, 2009. This split was due to the writers' strike. This is important because it shows you that I've started the series in a critical moment: I've watched only the first season and in less than a month, the third and last part of the fourth and last season will have been broadcast and everybody who follows the show will know the end of Battlestar Galactica. Bottom line is: I DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED. So I either have to rush or just avoid any kind of spoilers the best way I can.

Now to the plot, it's pretty simple. The TV show takes place in space, sometime in the future. I knew absolutely nothing of the show when I started it, so this is really all you need to know. The little more you need to know to understand anything about the series is what is explained at the beginning of each episode: the Cylons (machines, robots, don't go away, it gets better) were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human (I mean, you absolutely can't tell the difference, it's half the fun). Some of them are programmed to think they are human (i.e., they don't know they're Cylons). And they have a plan (we discover in the first few seconds of the pilot that this plan is to destroy humanity).
Humans lived on twelve different planets when one day the Cylons attacked them all, destroyed everything and everyone. Some humans managed to organize and flee into a space ship. These 50,000 humans who managed to escape are the only survivors. They are now searching for Earth, the only planet that was not attacked, in order to rebuild humanity. Meanwhile, the Cylons are chasing them.
The first season was interesting enough for me to watch an episode regularly. I have never been interested in science fiction before so this was quite a turn. But Battlestar Galactica makes it so easy. There's no complicated science fiction vocabulary you have to understand (aka technobabble), the characters speak normally and what you don't understand at first you usually understand a few minutes or episodes later. For example, there's something called "to jump", which in Battlestar Galactica basically means "to teleport oneself". To be precise, it means to travel faster than light. It's useful where you're attacked by Cylons, for example. I was anxious at first when I didn't understand all that was going on but I stuck and in the end I understood better what they were talking about.
There are no aliens. Don't look for them. The only thing you'll find that resembles science fiction is a battleship in space and occasional robots (we don't see much of them). Many of the aliens we see look human, as explained in the introduction, nothing green or strange.
There are battles. But they're fun. Once your understand which is which, you'll root for the humans and wish the Cylons dead.
You don't need to know anything about the 1978-9 original series. I know nothing about it and I'm doing just fine.
Most of the twists have nothing to do with science and computers. They're your basic coups d'état, assassinations, betrayals, sex, prisoner riots.

During the first half of the season, practically nothing major happens, character development is taking place. I must say this was the part were I got close to giving up for good: I wasn't sure what the writers were trying to say, nothing seemed to happen, I was bored. There were only micro changes. I'm so glad I stuck. Retrospectively, I realise that the huge revelations and plot twists that happened during the second part of the season could only have had the impact they had with this long phase of character development. Otherwise, you just don't care. The season finale is mindblowing and totally unexpected so I would suggest everybody to go that far before deciding if they want to continue (and I can't imagine anybody not wanting to know what happens next).
This isn't all. The first season was already a good reflection on politics and what makes a state a state. Several things happen and you can see the show through this layer if you wish, it totally works. For example, since the twelve planets were democracies, they chose to keep a president, President Roslin (a woman, sorry but yesssss, a thousand times yessss). But it's a choice and one of the questions you have to ask when you're starting a new civilization from scratch is whether or not you want to keep the former political regime.
There's also something going on with religion. I can't really talk about it as we've only got glimpses of it in the first season and I still am very suspicious of what they're trying to say, but the point is the show is also exploring that area.
Finally, there's this whole cylon/human thing, which is seriously a problem. What makes somebody human? Can we really tell? Is what we are the only thing that can be remembered? Are we not what we decide to do, more than what we can do? Yes. Dumbledore to the rescue. "It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Battlestar Galactica is about that, too.
The characters are great, seriously. You care for them, they're alive. One of them (Starbuck/Kara) is one of the best I've ever met. It's one extreme situation when you think about it: you're aboard a ship which is the only home of what remains of humanity. Most likely your whole family is dead, and yet you have to go on and start a new civilization from scratch. I think the thematic is very ambitious. We got a pretty good idea of what all this leads to and implies, and I think it's going to be developed in the other seasons. Reminds me of Noah's Ark which is probably the point.

Bottom line is: it would be unfair to ignore this show just because it's labeled as science fiction. I think it's science fiction at its best: no technobabble but a deep reflection on humanity. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Boswell Sisters were a close harmony singing group in the 30s. The group, composed of Martha, Connie and Helvetia was Ella Fitzgerald's favourite. Connie sang from a wheelchair during her whole career due to polio. She then got a very successful career by herself in the 40s. I love them to death. Their music is terribly catchy and creative. They were the first vocal group to request for arrangements of classics. By the way, I need to find good jazz books.

The label Nostalgia Arts released their complete discography as a group in 5 volumes in 2000. Unfortunately, the volumes are now out-of-print, difficult to find and expensive when found. I have a gift for discovering great stuff that doesn't get a proper release. It's frustrating.