Comfort Tunes

I had the flu last week. After an exceptionally busy weekend, bam, it knocked me out. Nothing dramatic – no more than a cold with benefits – but it just really dragged me down. In old books (Agatha Christie, say), they sometimes talk of people going into a depression “after a bout of influenza”; that’s not something you hear about often today, the concept that an illness can do more to you than give you a few coughs and sniffles.

So, point being, I was better by the beginning of this week, but only in a manner of speaking. I’ve still been dragging my emotional butt all week. The sunshine we had for a few days certainly helped (see Wednesday’s “Wordless” post), but then today, as per the promise of the weather forecast, the clouds fell down on us, and it started snowing again.

img_20170203_111135328So here I am, socked in at my house. I can’t even see the lake from the windows, it’s 9° below freezing, and the fine powder snow is relentlessly drifting down onto the world. And thoughts and feelings snow down onto my mind, piling up, pushing down; the ticking of the clock slicing my thoughts into slivers.

But then I reached for the CD player, and I took out the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack, the one from the 1995 movie, the score by Patrick Doyle. I put the disc into the player, pushed “Start”, and let the sound of the violins wash over me. And almost immediately, I felt better. Calmed, soothed, uplifted. The slivered thoughts reassembled themselves into a jigsaw puzzle – or perhaps they didn’t; perhaps they suddenly just didn’t matter so much. The music flowed around them, washing their jagged edges into rounded softness.

img_20170203_110932259The sounds lifted me out of this snowed-in, cold February day in 2017 North America, and in my mind I was in Austen’s (and Ang Lee’s) England, among green fields and sunshine, ladies in soft pastel gowns and gentle men in boots and greatcoats. Patrick Doyle’s musical genius never fails to move me, the half hour of the soundtrack taking me through a speed version of the film, of the story; and when the final, triumphant track “Throw the Coins” surges into its upswing, I know once again that the world can be all right, that heartbreak and darkness make way to love and sunshine.

Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said that music “soothes the savage breast”? It does. And it brings comfort to a cold, dark day. A day where now the falling snow outside is once again just cosy, the ticking of the clock a calming heartbeat to my life.

Life, the Universe, and Tunes That Comfort. What music do you reach for on those days?

Required Reading

3268My friend over on Jangled Nerves just let off a blog post on classics – based on yet another post, here, that details “16 Books Every Teenager Should Read in 2016”. So, I toddled over to that post and checked out this list of required reading. I mean, I’m not a teenager – haven’t been one in quite some time (sorry if that bursts a bubble for you) – but if there’s a list of must-reads, I want to know what it is.

And you know what? Of that list of sixteen books, I’ve read all of five, or maybe six. One (or two?) I read under duress, aka Literature Class in school, the other four I read because I loved them. And I pretty much know the Cliff Notes version of several others, which is enough to tell me that I’m not, in fact, interested in reading the full-length feature.

I actually find myself rather annoyed at the title of that original post. “16 Books EVERY Teenager SHOULD Read”. Why on earth should they? Because these are good books? Good grief, if that’s the reason, picking just sixteen is ridiculous. But what’s more, this list is highly subjective. For one, it’s quite US-centric – Gone With The Wind tops the list, but it’s one of those Cliff Notes books for me. No, I haven’t seen the movie either, because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about that story. For another, it’s a girl’s list of books. Sense and Sensibility? Jane Eyre? Fabulous books (they are, of course, on the list of four that I read for sheer pleasure*), but I can just see giving them to 16-year-old boys to read. 19th-century emo chicks mooning over romantic heartbreak – “Oh, Willoughby, Willoughby!” and “Reader, I married him…” – just kill me now. This, coupled with horrifically disturbing weirdness like Kafka’s The Trial (see “reading under duress”, above), is what’s chiefly responsible for turning many, many teenagers off books for life. Thank you, high school English class.

It’s not that I have a problem with this list of books per se – they’re great books, from what I hear. It’s not even that I disapprove of suggesting books for people to read; far from it. No, it’s the dogmatic headline, the “Thou Shalt Read This” that gets my goat. Because like every really voracious reader, I want to make up my own mind on what to read. And I think teenagers should be making up their own minds, too.

I never filled my children’s plates with food and then insisted they finish every last bite. I did (and still do) insist that they eat some vegetables with their dinner – but I don’t cook them spinach, because I know they hate it. I quite like cooked spinach, thank you very much, but if the kids would rather have it raw with salad dressing, so be it. There is no law that says “Thou Shalt Eat Thine Spinach Cooked”, nor is there one that says “Thou Shalt Read Kafka”. There are far too many good books in the world to force people to read according to a predetermined list. The ticket is to offer the veg, to suggest the book titles. I love Jane Austen – but if you don’t, why not read Sir Walter Scott instead? Ivanhoe is a darn good yarn.

Life, the Universe, and Books You Ought To Read. But only if you really want to. When you’re done all those other great books you’re reading at the moment. And the ones your friends suggested. And that one that just jumped at you from the bookstore shelf. And… Ah, never mind – just keep reading. And let me know when you hit on a good one, I’ll add it to my list of books to check out. I might get to it when I’m 80.

*PS: the other book from that list, the one I’m not sure if I’ve read or not, is Death of a Salesman – I remember being forced to read some kind of weird gloomy drama in undergrad English class; it might have been that. You can tell it made a big impression on my life. The other two I loved were, of course, The Horse and His Boy, and The Hobbit.

Goodbye, Colonel Brandon

You’ve probably heard it by now: Alan Rickman died this morning at age 69. For most people, it’ll probably mean “Goodbye, Severus Snape”, but for me, it’s “Goodbye, Colonel Brandon”. That’s the first role I ever saw him in, and the one I’ve watched most often, over and over – Sense and Sensibility is only one of my top ten favourite films. I love it so much, I’ve written grad school papers on it – including a fairly detailed analysis of Rickman’s Colonel Brandon compared to David Morrisey’s version in 2008.

Rickman was the master of the black flapping cloak – an ability he rocked as Snape, of course, striding through the halls of Hogwarts with his gown swirling out behind him like the wings of an overgrown raven. But Colonel Brandon is no slouch in that department, either. “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad,” he begs Elinor in a broken voice, convulsively clutching at the wood panelling outside the gravely ill Marianne’s bedroom (the stage directions say “He is dangerously quiet”). Elinor (no doubt thinking that the last thing she needs now is an emo going off his rocker) sends him off to get her mother. He slams out of the house (cloak swirling), flings himself on his horse, and after one last desperate glance up at Marianne’s window from under his wide-brimmed brigand’s hat digs in his spurs and rushes off, ventre à terre, cloak flapping, to find relief for his beloved. We next see him galloping at full speed across the brow of a hill, silhouetted against the evening sky, his cloak – you guessed it – “billowing out behind him” (that’s in the script, verbatim) in the most impressively romantic manner.

Rickman’s interpretation of the character (going off Emma Thompson’s script) imbued Colonel Brandon with a romanticism that simply isn’t there in Austen’s book. Andrew Davies took this interpretation even further with his script for the 2008 miniseries – David Morrisey’s Col. Brandon is not only romantic, he is heart-throbbingly heroic – but he could not have done this had it not been for the Thompson/Rickman version in 1995. Scene after scene of the 2008 version is directly cribbed from the 1995 one: Brandon as music lover struck speechless by Marianne’s piano playing; Brandon as sensitive lover bringing Marianne thoughtful gifts; Brandon, frantic with worry, rushing out into the rain storm to find a wet-through Marianne and carrying her home in his arms… None of those scenes are in the book (Seriously! I know – they’re my favourites, too…). But once Rickman had embodied a Colonel Brandon who did these things, Marianne’s lover had become a romantic hero, and the flapping cloak was de rigeur.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhI3lWxArCU]

So what could be more fitting as a tribute to the great man than this song, the scene that introduces Colonel Brandon to the film? “Weep you no more, sad fountains / Why must you flow so fast? …  Rest you then, rest, sad eyes, / Melt not in weeping / While [he] lies sleeping / Softly, now softly lies / Sleeping.”

I will miss Alan Rickman – but I’m so glad that we will always have his Colonel Brandon.

More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay

I’m still rabbit-trailing, uh, sorry, researching. And for some reason, I always seem to arrive in the early 19th century again – the time of the Regency, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm. What’s with that?

This is how the rabbit trail ran today: I was looking at the creation of porcelain or china (because that’s important for Septimus book #3, Checkmate, which I’m editing at the moment). Unlike regular clay, which you can just dig out of the ground and use more-or-less straight up, the clay body that makes up porcelain is a mixture – the recipe varies depending on what kind of china it is. Bone china, the fine English stuff invented by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century, contains a sizable proportion of actual bone (cow, for the most part, apparently), which is burned and ground up before it gets mixed with the other ingredients. Recipes for china clay were a closely guarded trade secret; in fact, when in 1712 a French Jesuit missionary transmitted the secret of how to make porcelain from China, where he was working, to Europe, it was considered one of the first instances of industrial espionage (however, some German scientists had already figured it out for themselves a couple of years earlier, establishing the porcelain manufacture in Meissen. Science beats spy work – so there!).

Now, that key “other ingredient” in porcelain is kaolin, also called, for obvious reasons, china clay. Kaolin, one of my sources informs me, is really white, and is primarily found in Malaysia and in Cornwall, England. And here’s where today’s rabbit trail comes in: my mind goes, “White deposits of mineral? In Southern England? Wait – the White Cliffs of Dover?” Back to Google I go, to find out what you probably already knew and I remembered just before Google brought it up, namely that the White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk, not kaolin clay.

Caspar_David_Friedrich's_Chalk_Cliffs_on_RügenAnd then Wikipedia told me that the ones in Dover are by no means the only chalk cliffs around Europe, and that another famous instance of white-cliff-ness occurs on the German Island of Rügen. So, of course, I had to look that up, and remembered and found the famous work by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen”, from 1818.

And there you have it: the research rabbit trail arrived in the second decade of the 19th century. Just look at that dress, and the hairstyle of the lady! In 1818, Persuasion was published – can we picture Anne Elliot in that outfit? If it wasn’t for the two gentleman in the picture obviously being civilians, it might well be showing Captain and Mrs Wentworth on their honeymoon (they took a friend along on the hike to the cliffs, okay? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, even if it is your honeymoon). Or it might be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on holiday with their sister Lotte. And when they get back to their Pension (bed-and-breakfast, or inn), they’ll have a lovely Kaffee und Kuchen (afternoon coffee & cake) off a set of Meissen porcelain.

Life, the Universe, and Rabbit Trails from China to Jane Austen. The pleasures of a writer’s life.

Prince Charming vs. Edward Ferrars

(We interrupt our current spate of information about the forthcoming release of Cat and Mouse to bring you these rants – uh, sorry, messages. Advertising will resume shortly.)
(SPOILER WARNING: this contains details of Season One of the Once Upon a Time TV series, and of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But seeing as I’m way behind the times in my viewing of OUAT, it’s all seriously old hat anyway. And if you don’t yet know the plot of S&S, you need to get a life. But don’t say you haven’t been warned!)

fairy talesSo as I mentioned the other day, I finally got around to getting Netflix and watching Once Upon a Time. As of yesterday, we made it up to episode 11, so half-way through the first season. Yes, yes, I know, you’re all way ahead of me and watched this stuff three years ago when it first came out, so you know all about it and have long had these discussions and thoughts. But just bear with me as I give you my reactions to the show as I watch it.

Just upfront, let me say that I do like this show (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t keep watching). It’s a really interesting twist on fairy tales, particularly the modern part of the story; the premise of the series is very innovative and well realised. So take what I’m about to say with a pinch of salt – it might sound like a big rant, as if I despised the show, but if I didn’t actually like it, I wouldn’t bother putting thought into it. But if I think, by definition I think critically, and not infrequently find something to criticise (which are not the same thing by any means).

So here’s one of the things I was thinking: I’m finding myself increasingly annoyed by Mary Margaret and David, aka Snow White and Prince Charming. Oh, they’re cute and all, and of course I want them to be together, and I know that it’ll come about – they are, after all, S.W. and P.C., and even someone who hadn’t written a big fat grad school paper on their story would know how it’s supposed to end. So, yes, of course their love story has to end happily, else what’s the whole point of retelling the fairy tale?

But what’s getting to me is the way they conduct their relationship. Oh, don’t give me the “It’s only a fairy tale; don’t take it so seriously” line. They’ve put these characters in a ‘realistic’ setting (for a given value of the term), made them modern people like you and me; the whole point of this series is for us to identify with them and feel as if we’re them, for the duration of the movie. So let’s just establish right off the bat that for what I’m talking about here, these characters are real. During those fifty minutes I’m watching the episode, they exist, and they need to be taken seriously.

And taking Mary Margaret and David seriously, I’m seriously shaking my head at those two. Okay, so he wakes from his coma, and deeply falls in love with the woman who’s woken him, or rather, rediscovers his love for her from a previous life. But then his wife shows up – that’s right, the woman he is married to. And he goes back to her – in fact, repeatedly chooses to go back to her (it’s one of the plot points I find tedious, his repeated decision to stick with his wife only to promptly go make sheep’s eyes at MM again – once or twice would be fine, but after about the fourth time I’ve had it with that idea). He’s got a commitment to one woman, reaffirms that commitment, has memories of his love for her – and then breaks that commitment over and over by going after the woman he has stronger feelings for. Meeting her at the coffee shop every morning at 7:15. Organizing a romantic picnic with wine and stuff for her by the bridge where they first met. Smooching her right out in the middle of Storybrooke’s Main Street (in full view of the evil eye of the witch, of course. Duh-duh-DUM!).

After watching that particular episode yesterday, I was assailed by a powerful craving for a dose of Sense and Sensibility. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like some Edward Ferrars, please (in print, Hugh Grant, or Dan Stevens, doesn’t really matter). You see, it’s the same story­ – but Edward makes a very different choice. He’s made a commitment to one woman, back in the past before he woke up from his coma (well, not really, but in another part of his life when things were very different). Now circumstances have changed, and he finds himself having powerful feelings for another woman, one who is his match, who is the woman who can make him happy, and who loves him back with the same passion – his ‘true love’, in fact. Edward and Elinor belong together; they are right for one another. But he has made a commitment to Lucy. And even though his love for her is only a memory while his feelings for Elinor are more and more powerful, even though being faithful to Lucy garners him very serious economic and personal disadvantages, he sticks it out. And that is what makes Edward into a hero.

And over here, we have James Charming, Esq. He’s made a stronger, more binding commitment to Kathryn than Edward has to Lucy (although whether Regency engagements and Post-modern marriages are about on par commitment-wise is a point worth considering). But he chucks it all because there’s those FEELINGS he simply cannot RESIST (press back of hand to forehead, strike manly chest with fist).

The Wikipedia page for Season One of the show says that “Unable to deny their love, David and Mary Margaret soon begin a secret relationship…” Unable to deny their love, my foot! Mr Princely Hero Guy, kindly take a page out of the book of a plain country gentleman, who’s so boring that generations of (ignorant) readers have considered him a bit of a wet dishrag. Prince Charming can slay dragons, but obviously he can’t keep himself under control. And Snow White is no better – she can wield a spear and kick butt with the best of them, but can’t hold a candle to a sampler-stitching, water-colour-sketching Regency lady when it comes to keeping herself from acting on her feelings – actions that seriously hurt someone else (Wikipedia again: Mary Margaret and David’s relationship “upsets Kathryn” – no, really? You don’t say).

In fact, Once Upon a Time not only teaches, but incessantly flogs, harps on, and hammers home the Marianne Fallacy: if your feelings are really strong, you cannot resist them. They sweep you away, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you are, in fact, doing something about it, resisting that rush of emotion, then your feelings must not really be strong in the first place. If you can keep yourself from falling into the arms of your girl in the middle of Main Street, then she’s probably not your True Love. That’s where the Marianne Fallacy morphs into the Disney Fairy Tale Fallacy: True Love, we all know, is the highest power there is (cue the dreamy voice of Giselle from Enchanted: “True love’s first kiss – it’s the most powerful thing in the world!!!”). So if you do have strong feelings for someone, if you have found your True Love, it is your moral obligation to pursue that relationship, no matter what the cost to you or, more importantly, anyone else. Who cares if there is a wife waiting in the wings to whom you’ve just promised to try to make this marriage work? She cannot be allowed to stand in the way of True Love.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I’m rooting for David and Mary Margaret, and want to see them together sooner rather than later – just as I would hate Sense and Sensibility if Edward and Elinor didn’t get their Happily Ever After. And for that to happen, the guy has to get away from the girl who’s wrong for him. But what gets my goat about David and Mary Margaret is that he doesn’t make an effort to get away, but pursues his True Love anyway, and she encourages him in it. Edward is faithful to Lucy while he still has a commitment to her, even though he does everything he can do honourably to get out of the engagement so he can act on his love for Elinor. David keeps telling Kathryn that he’ll try to make the marriage work, that he’s still committed to her – and then does the exact opposite. I’m sorry, I just can’t respect that – that particular hero has failed to establish himself on a proper pedestal for me.

Marianne learns the error of her ways, lets herself be persuaded out of her fallacy, and the end of the book has her patterning her values on those of Elinor and Edward. I’m not sure how much hope I hold out for David and Mary Margaret to do the same, to be honest and make a clean break with Kathryn and apologise for their treatment of her. Oh, of course they’ll wind up together properly. And maybe the next few episodes will even show them having some insight into their behaviour as less than healthy and honourable. Who knows? It’s a fairy tale; strange things are possible.

Life, the Universe, and Two Very Different Heroes. Let’s see what the next few episodes bring.