Monday, February 29, 2016

Books read in February 2016


1. Get Onboard: Walk in the Shoes of a Transit Operator by Richard Lee
2. Herbie's Game by Timothy Hallinan


1. Memory in Death
2. Haunted in Death
3. Concealed in Death
4. Born in Death

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Eddie Izzard's latest awesomeness and lunacy

Eddie Izzard is once again attempting to run 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela and raise money for Sport Relief!

Despite successfully running 43 marathons in 51 days around the UK in 2009 and raising 1.8 million pounds doing so, when he previously attempted the South Africa marathons in 2012 he almost died trying . So, naturally, he's trying again.  During the African summer.   With no days of rest.

You can follow Eddie's progress on BBC Three and Twitter and donate via Sport Relief.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How to reboot Are You Being Served?

I was very surprised to hear that they're rebooting Are You Being Served? because that show is very much a product of its time and totally out of step with modern comedic sensibilities.

But then my shower gave me an idea of how this might be carried off.

Grace Brothers a struggling department store, conveniently located in London's West End so as to create a situation where all its sales staff are struggling actors, working in the store as a day job until they get their big break.

The sales staff are established as modern, relatable people - savvy, witty, reasonably worldly, aware of irony, texting and snapchatting, dressed like regular Londoners. They're also very good at their jobs as clothing salespeople, able to serve as personal shoppers and do alterations and bra-fitting and such, but in this modern world there's simply less call for this sort of service.

Then store management hands down a new dictum: in an attempt to boost sales and draw people back into the store, they're going for nostalgia. There is now a dress code - suits for the men, brown jumpers for the ladies, and all kinds of finicky rules about who's allowed to wear what kind of hat and how many frills you're allowed to have on your blouse. Staff are ordered to address each other as Mr./Mrs./Ms. Surname, and strict scripts are introduced, such as "Mr. Humphries, are you free?" and "Are you being served, Madam?"

The staff thinks this is ridiculous, so, being actors, they decide to make it a game. They see their new dress code as costumes, and start getting some character acting practice in when dealing with customers and management.  They do their job and do it as well as possible under the circumstances, but they do so while playing over-the-top roles and having a standing wager to see who can utter the most double-entendres. It's an ongoing improv game, creating foolish, outdated characters to go with store management's foolish, outdated vision. Also the fact that they're all actors creates an opportunity for song and dance numbers as sometimes occurred in the original - someone has an audition piece, they're yes-anding the fuck out of something that happens on the floor, etc.

Even as over-the-top improve characters played ironically, it would still take quite a delicate bit of writing to have the original Are You Being Served? characters work in the 21st century.  I mean, Mr. Humphries' whole schtick is that he has stereotypically gay mannerisms, and that's supposed to be intrinsically funny in and of itself. No competent writer or performer would think of that as a viable comedic choice in the 21st century!!

But that gives me the idea (which may or may not actually be a good idea) that perhaps the actors staffing Grace Brothers are not actually good actors.  (That's why they're working a struggling department store!) And the broad characters of Are You Being Served? are a result of their imperfect acting/improv skills. For example, Miss Brahms is a creation of an American actress who thinks she's speaking with a posh English accent, but it actually comes out Cockney.  Mrs. Slocombe is an attractive middle-aged woman trying to play a young hipster character, but her bold hair colours and makeup are actually unflattering and make her look even older than she actually is. Mr. Humphries is the creation of a Michael Scott type with no sense of judgement or appropriateness, but the character goes over well with customers (who have no clue that he's meant to be a joke and simply think he's fabulous) so no one stops him.

Or maybe that's what the original Are You Being Served? was doing all along...

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Go Set a Watchman braindump

This post is a full spoiler zone for Go Set a Watchman.

1. It's quite obvious that Harper Lee did not intend this book in its current form to be published after To Kill a Mockingbird, because Henry Clinton wasn't in Mockingbird. (There's a "Henry" in Scout's class, but we know that Henry Clinton is several years older than her so he wouldn't have been in her class.)  If you already know that your child-protagonist's future love interest grew up in the neighbourhood and went to the same schools, why wouldn't you give him a quick cameo - just a named extra in a crowd scene? It's a quick and easy Sirius Black moment.

2. Another reason why it's obvious that Harper Lee did not intend this book to be published in its current form after Mockingbird is that the description of Tom Robinson's trial is different in Watchman. In Watchman, the defendant was acquitted. In Mockingbird, he was found guilty.

3. But, since Mockingbird was written second, the change in outcome of the trial supports my theory that Atticus didn't actually give Tom Robinson a full and proper defence.  Which is exactly what he explicitly says he wants to do with Calpurnia's grandson as well!

4. I don't understand why Scout went to visit Calpurnia and told her that Atticus would do everything to help her grandson when she knew full well he wouldn't.  She could have warned Calpurnia about Atticus's plans. She could have not mentioned anything about the quality of defence he'd receive from Atticus. She could have not visited Calpurnia at all.  Why did she choose instead to visit and falsely reassure?

5. In my Mockingbird post, I theorized that Scout could grow into someone who is (or is perceived to be) racist in her old age. After Watchman, I still don't feel like we know enough to argue for or against that outcome. But if I were to start collecting evidence that could be used to argue that Scout is racist, I would include that conversation with Calpurnia, along with Scout's assumption that the dialect Calpurnia speaks in the black community isn't her natural dialect while the dialect she speaks when raising her white employer's children is.

6. The most interesting story alluded to in this book isn't told at all: it's the story of the impact of the Second World War. Dill is in Italy!  If you look at it from the universe of Mockingbird, that's unimaginable!  What's he doing there? What's his life like? But in Watchman, it's just mentioned in passing and wouldn't even be mentionable if Mockingbird didn't exist.

7. (If Mockingbird had in fact been written with the intention of publishing it and then publishing Watchman, I suspect the characters of Dill and Henry would have been merged into one. Henry is or can easily be presented as enough of an outsider to fulfill the role of Dill in Mockingbird. We would then have been shown rather than told Henry's and Scout's long-standing attachment, and we'd also better grok Aunt Alexandra's objection to him as marriage material because we remember that grubby kid from Mockingbird.)

8. The other interesting story that isn't told is Scout's everyday life in New York. The book mentions (about 100 pages after I started wondering) that Scout went to college and then went to New York, where she's been living for five years.  It doesn't mention what she does for a living.  (If I had to guess a Generic Job That's Not Interesting Enough To Mention for a woman in her era and circumstances it would have been some kind of typing job, but the book specifically mentions that she can't use a typerwriter.) It doesn't mention where she lives or what her day-to-day life is like.  It doesn't get into how she found adapting to the city after growing up in such a ridiculously small town. That would be interesting!  I would totally read The Adventures of Scout in New York City! But the book doesn't even touch on it.

9. I haven't looked into whether Mockingbird has a robust fanfiction community and I'm not sure that I want to have a fanfiction relationship with this universe, but the adventures of Dill in Italy and the adventures of Scout in New York would be excellent fodder for a skilled fanfic author who is loyal to the characters and the settings. (Or, like, for Harper Lee to write more books in this universe, but I suspect that's not something she'll be doing.)

10. Overall, in reading this book, a feeling I had all too often was "I don't get it".

Often what I didn't get was, as I mentioned in my previous posts, a result of my being too far removed from the culture in which the book was written.  There are things that feel like the author thinks they're meaningful, but are meaningless to me.

One important example not mentioned in my previous posts is the racist organization to which Atticus and Henry belong, which is called a "Citizens' Council".  Scout expresses shock that such a thing exists in Maycomb, then goes to the meeting and hears all kinds of vile racist rhetoric being spewed.

The problem for me as a reader is that "Citizens' Council" sounds like some kind of municipal volunteer organization that discusses the beautification of parks or something.  I was spoiled for the racist plotline so I was able to quickly put together what was going on, but if I hadn't been I wouldn't have understood Scout's shock at the organization's existence.  Then, when she attended the meeting, I would have concluded that the council had been taken over by some Rob Ford type and that the rest of the plotline would have to do with unseating him.  Then I would have been very confused for a very long time.

Googling "Citizens' Council" is actually informative - the very first result has the information you need - but if I hadn't known about this plotline in advance, it never would have even occurred to me from my seat in 21st-century Canada to look into the name of this seemingly clearly-named and innocuous-sounding organization for an explanation of why they're spewing racist rhetoric and why Scout seemed to see that coming.

11. Another thing I often didn't get was the then-current events being referred to.  In one case, a current event was described only with the name of the state (either Mississippi or Missouri).  And, since I don't know the exact year the book is set, it's not like I can just google "What was happening in Mississippi in the 1950s?"  There's a mention of a Supreme Court decision that's fairly key, and I could only figure out what the actual decision was by including "Go Set a Watchman" as a search keyword - there wasn't enough information to get there based on the text alone. The characters are talking like everyone knows what they're talking about, and I'm missing crucial information because I live in a different country and a different century.

12. But there were also non-cultural things I didn't get. I came away from the book feeling that I hadn't understood the whole story. So what does Scout end up doing in the long run? Does she stay with Henry or does she dump him? Was Atticus racist all along or did he become racist due to recent events? If so, which of the vaguely-alluded recent events triggered it?  I also felt like the book intended to have a moral of the story, but I wasn't able to determine what it was actually intended to be.

13. I think the cultural "I don't get it"s could be addressed with very minor editing. This is a book with multi-page "As you know..." conversations about US history. Surely it wouldn't be too arduous to slip in a few keywords here and there so 21st-century readers and their international readers (both of which they knew they would have, given that the book was published in 2015 as the sequel to a famous novel) could grasp the connotations just as easily as the author's contemporaries.  Since the drink "set-up" is mentioned in an explanation from the narrator to the reader about the drinking habits of the people of Maycomb, it wouldn't be at all incongruous for the narrator to slip in a few words explaining to the reader what a "set-up" actually is. The internet tells me that Citizens' Councils are also referred to as White Citizens' Councils, so it wouldn't be at all out of place to just slip the word "White" in there in the first occurrence to give those of us who aren't up on the subject matter a hint of why Scout might be shocked about it. The impenetrable references to then-current events could be also be made clear (or, at least, googleable) with a keyword to get us started.

14. As for the aspects of the plot resolution and moral that I felt I missed, normally I would assume it's because I'm not a sophisticated enough reader.  Despite being a voracious reader I've never been especially good at Literature, so I wouldn't be surprised if I missed the kind of stuff that people write papers about.  But what's relevant in the particular case of Watchman is that I didn't feel like I'd missed anything after reading Mockingbird.  Even though I did miss some stuff, as I discovered in my reread, I came away feeling that I had grasped as much of the plot resolution and the moral as the book intended me to.  And, frankly, it's only polite to make multiple books in a series equally accessible to the same set of readers.

15. While it is the author's prerogative to write the way she wants to without spelling everything out for outsiders, I think doing so here is a missed opportunity.  Given the cultural weight of Mockingbird, Watchman was going to reach a lot of people who are far enough removed from the culture in which it was written to not get it.  And, especially in light of some of the racial weirdness in the news lately, it has the potential to be particularly educational to those of us who don't get it.