Sunday, June 21, 2009

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of soda and pretzels and cheer


I hate summer but it has to come around eventually. Since this is both the first day of summer and the first day of my holidays, I think I'll be posting much more from now on. I have tons of things to say as usual. Perhaps I'll just start with what I've been watching. As you can see on the sidebar, I am currently very busy discovering new TV shows: I had to take a break from Buffy and Angel to focus on three things: rewatching the first two seasons of Mad Men before August (when the third season airs), discovering the critically acclaimed The Wire (at long last) and watching the first two seasons of Torchwood before the third season starts airing on July 4.

I've already seen Mad Men (in fact, I started watching it when nobody was watching it, way before it had won any award), but my first viewing was bitter-sweet: I had many concerns with what the writers were saying on issues such as misogyny and racism, still I was really attracted to its aesthetics (the clothes are to die for), the show is beautiful to look at, the characters are complex and the storylines interesting and incredibly current while still being evocative. Now that I'm watching it again, I think I understand a bit more what the show is about. Mad Men is Watchmen. Hear me out! What I mean is that Mad Men focuses on superheroes and shows their dark side. Shows the true nature of the 50s narrated by the 50s themselves, not by 2009 writers writing about the 50s. It focuses just as much on the men as it does on the women. It's about a microcosm, an advertising firm that represents a whole society. I really love that what the show has to say it so current. Advertising hasn't changed, it's still all about sex, nostalgia and youth. Nostalgia for youth. Youth because of sex. It all comes back to sex. It questions conventions and the American dream through very grey characters you can never completely root for. Mad Men is challenging, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next. I really should give The Sopranos another try sometime soon since Matthew Weiner created Mad Men and wrote for The Sopranos prior to that.

The Wire is the best show you didn't watch. Hell, I didn't watch it either when it aired. Too many other shows to focus on and I've never been interested in cop shows. I should have woken up, I should have known that HBO wouldn't air a cop show, anyway. Sure, some of the characters are policemen and women, but the writers take as much time depicting the drug dealers as they do the policemen. And The Wire is more than that, it's social commentary. It's realistic, so realistic the pace takes some getting use to: investigations take months, are not always successes and there is a lot, a lot of red tape and corruption of various institutions that prevent an investigation from moving on faster. The Wire rewards its patient audience with episodes that are more documentary than fiction, actors who look like they're doing what they do in real life, excellent dialogs and charismatic characters, all shades of grey. I am reaching the end of the second season and I'm completely addicted. PLEASE give this show a chance, the praise is well-deserved, it is one of the best shows out there hands down. Caveat of "potential audience beware", though. As is the case for Deadwood, please do not give up before having seen the first 13 episodes (the first season). I promise it's worth it, and I'm sure you'll fall in love with it way before. I for one was blown away by the pilot, but you may not be because it's different and challenging - it's what TV should always be. I'm so happy I've found it and sad that the ratings were so low when it aired, because it truly says something important about society, it's an excellent portrayal that denounces what should be denounced but never preaches while doing so. "Here, that's the way things are". No wonder it's Barack Obama's favourite show.

My love for Torchwood is more difficult to explain. I have never liked Doctor Who and yet I love Torchwood, sometimes labeled "Doctor Who for adults" even though I recognize its flaws. It's far from brilliant. The storylines are often silly (the aliens in particular are far from original, clichés are numerous: time travelling, aliens who want to be human, etc) and it's the kind of show you can probably skip and live just fine without because you wouldn't miss much. And yet, and yet, and yet... I am utterly and completely in love with the characters. All of them. I care deeply about the team because everything is written so you fall for them. They're the kind of people I want to be friends with and hug all the time. It's such a touching show when it's not meant to be. I also find its take on bisexuality extremely interesting. All of the characters are bisexual, or rather pansexual (gender doesn't matter to them) and nobody talks about it, it's a given. It's the kind of parameter I would also use for one of my stories if I ever were to write one. It's the only TV show I know that depicts sexuality this way and I find it refreshing and very well done: it doesn't mean that everybody has a sexual relationship with everybody else, just that they do whatever they fancy like doing without thinking about it twice. I think Torchwood is Russell T Davies's utopia,- it's mine too. This may participate to the feeling I get about the characters being so touching: since they're so free, they also express their feelings much more and I find characters like Gwen and Tosh to be all the more moving because we see their struggles and their loves and understand completely because it's not censored. I don't really know how to explain it, I guess you just have to watch the show and see if you can find the same connection. Torchwood also questions the meaning of life and of human life and mixes it up with the most trivial and yet cute humour. I love it, it's not perfect but it's my little bubble of fictional friends.

I've been reading so many books recently, and good ones too for most of them! I can't talk about them all in detail but I strongly recommend Kristin Cashore's Graceling. It's a fantasy book that's in the YA section of the bookshop. I think nothing can top The Hunger Games for this year's winner in YA for me but Graceling is a very engrossing book. It's beautifully written, the story is original and the heroine (Katsa is a wonderful girl) and hero are really well-written, I loved them instantly. It's got everything: it's a political story, a love story, a coming-of-age story, a story about rebellion, about survival, about conventions too, a little bit. I'm looking forward to the prequel Fire.
Noel Streatfeild is one of my favourite authors so each time I buy a new book by her, I expect it to be good. Circus Shoes wasn't good, it was very good. As far as her children books are concerned, Ballet Shoes remains my favourite, with White Boots a close second but Circus Shoes is a good strong third. Her writing is repetitive but she does it so well that I really don't mind. As usual, this one follows children who have to work as artists to win money for themselves, the attention to detail is gorgeous and the way she depicts children's emotions is second to none.
I also enjoyed The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which was amusing, and March by Geraldine Brooks - I frankly loved what she did with the character, he's one of the best male characters to be found in fiction for sure.

But the real find for me was The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. The cover makes it look like a book belonging to the chick-lit genre, which annoys me because it's anything but. It's certainly one of my favourite books. I would describe it as something between I Capture the Castle, The Pursuit of Love and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - if you know me at all, you know this is high praise indeed. The story takes place in the 50s in England when one day, Penelope, a teenager desperately in love with Johnnie Ray (the singer "who breaks hearts in mono", it's in the book) meets Charlotte, a confident girl her age who will open the doors of high society for her and soon becomes her best friend. Penelope will meet tons of eccentric people, all described in an impeccable, gorgeously evocative, inventive and funny prose. Dances, teas, concerts, buses being a novelty, finding a dress to wear to a ball, falling in and out of love are all part of this charming, beautiful story that I have no trouble seeing adapted if they keep the distinctive voice, setting and intelligent humour. In the background, Elvis Presley is not yet famous but thanks to American friends, Penelope (even though her heart belongs to Johnnie) hears his first record and admits he sounds "like nobody else", Penelope's brother is smitten with him and wants to become a singer, an important producer comes to England, some family secrets are revealed, and there's magic, lots of magic. I urge you to read the first few pages on Amazon: I started to type the first page here to whet your appetite and then realised I just couldn't stop and would have had to type the first 4 for you to get the whole experience!

Let's close this post with the divine Dinah Washington. I thought about posting some of her songs the minute I knew I was going to talk about Mad Men. The pilot is called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Dinah's rendition of this song is my favourite. Such a talented singer, I love her.

They said someday you'll find
All who love are blind
Oh, when your heart's on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes


Have a beautiful summer!