And Now for Something Completely Different: The Fault in Our Stars

I was one of those teens that read YA Lit, probably from around age eleven to fifteen. I read some “adult” novels like Stephen King in middle school, but I had friends who just skipped the YA section altogether. I didn’t, even though I barely remember anything I read at that time. I was passing out of the YA Lit world just before the YA Revolution hit. I have a special bookshelf tucked away for my favorite books when I was younger, but for now the two favorites that come to mind are Julie Ann Peters’ Define “Normal” and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. One day I’d like to post about these. But today is not that day.

I’m not connected to the world of Young Adult Literature. I’m just not. I devoured the first four Harry Potter books repeatedly and then my re-reads diminished substantially with each passing volume. When a new one was published, I would excitedly revisit the novels, read the new installment, and then stuff my Harry Potter Fan hat under the bed until the next book. I cried at the character bloodbath at the end of the seventh volume, but after a couple days I more or less forgot about Harry Potter. I came home from college one break and my friends were all obsessed with Twilight and I was like, “Why? These look awful.” I saw The Hunger Games in theaters and decided that was good enough. Even though the book is supposedly better, I felt no desire to read the novel.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is like the toast of the YA town—and my book club’s pick this month, or else I had plans to avoid it completely. Given the public’s recent obsession with YA Lit, John Green is kind of a larger literary deal. Since Harry Potter and Twilight, novels aimed at teens are the exciting things happening in the literary world. I actually tried to read Twilight for this blog when I first started out (sorry, not digging up the posts for a link right now), but it offended me on almost every level I have in addition to being as dull as watching glitter nail polish dry. I agree that John Green’s novel is much more my speed than Twilight, thought there are problems with him being hailed as the savior of all Young Adult Literature.

The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two star-crossed teenage lovers. The source of their star-crossing? They are both cancer survivors to some degree—Augustus is in remission and Hazel’s extant tumors are managed with medication. But this story isn’t your typical tearjerker: Hazel and Augustus have keen intellects with healthy helpings of cynicism and wrestle with big questions.

I feel weird admitting this because John Green has an enormous following, but I found The Fault in Our Stars pretty good. I didn’t love it. Unlike American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, and all of Gillian Flynn’s novels, I’m not completely baffled by the hype surrounding this novel, my emotional connection just wasn’t very strong. Maybe that makes me like a monster, but a lot of literature really does give me strong feelings, so I can’t say much other than it’s a case of personal opinion.

This novel is frank and courageous and honest and sometimes lovely—but if I’m going to be frank and courageous and honest, I have to admit I also found it sometimes unrealistic and overwrought. Even as someone who went through a stage where I found metaphorical resonance in my daily life (a side effect of attending a liberal arts college), reading characters in books who do the same made me roll my eyes pretty frequently. Also, for fuck’s sake with the use of caps lock in dialogue, John Green.

I cried, of course. About a quarter of the book really resonated with me on a deep level, but the majority of it I just thought was pretty good (and some of it very uneven). A lot of John Green’s characters felt like teen characters written by an adult to me, and sometimes that adult strayed into the territory of pretension. That being said, there are worse things than a bestselling YA novelist introducing his readership to big ideas and enriching their vocabulary. (Then again, Bella and Edward are both mad for Austen and the Brontës…yeesh.)

I liked this novel as an example of genres I don’t normally read: contemporary and Young Adult. Still, though, I couldn’t help but make periodic comparisons to Speak. Sometimes John Green’s characters seemed real and then they’d collapse back into two dimensions when their ponderances about the universe seemed to come from the mouths of someone who’d taken an Intro to Philosophy course. When I read Speak, on the other hand the main character’s narration might as well have stood in for my own. Melinda and I didn’t have the exact same experiences, but I related to her and her voice unendingly. She never got away from me the way Hazel and Augustus did. Is that John Green or is that old age? I’m not sure.

Now, I was a moody teenager. I raged. I was kind of scary and sometimes when I run into adults who knew me then, I’m kind of embarrassed. I couldn’t manage my own emotions very well. (Sometimes I still can’t, but now I have my own apartment and don’t have to play it out on the goddamn high school stage so not that many people know.) One time during a particular episode of emotional turmoil, one of my teachers said something like, “This really isn’t a big deal” or a “This is just high school” kind of thing. That’s kind of a shitty thing to say to someone who is in high school because at that point high school is probably their whole world.

From where I’m sitting now, though, not even that far away from high school and still riding the emotional rollercoaster with great frequency, I really can’t connect to those feelings anymore. And that, I think, is why I don’t read YA. I have a huge respect for authors that can pull it off, but I think it’s time to say it’s just not my genre.

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I LOL’d at Something Nasty in the Woodshed: Gushing Over Cold Comfort Farm

Warning: this post reveals details from the novel Cold Comfort Farm. I really can’t tell if they’re spoilers or not, but I’m thinking not really.

I wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm before watching the movie (and I did, but I’ve seriously been sitting on that post for a month and it was only missing a paragraph). It’s rather a short novel. I had trouble finding it in the US—it is available on Amazon, but it’s one of those editions with deckled edges and I prefer to avoid deckled edges if possible. And, unpopular opinion time: I don’t like Amazon. I am super picky about my book editions  so I buy a lot of used and half the time if I get the one I want in a timely manner it is not in the condition advertised. Anyway, I found a good old non-deckled Penguin Classics Edition on my trip to England. I should have begun to read it then, since we visited some of the novel’s environs (Sussex), which are heartily and hilariously mocked at every turn.

Cold Comfort Farm was written by Stella Gibbons and published in 1932. As we flew through the winding country lanes of Sussex on the Virginia Woolf Tour, I expressed to my professor a worry I might not really get Cold Comfort Farm without reading some of the authors Gibbons pokes fun at, the two most famous being Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I have read Wuthering Heights, of course, but had never heard of Mary E. Mann. My professor assured me that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any Lawrence or Hardy, and anyway Cold Comfort Farm is really poking fun at a couple of Gibbons’ contemporaries, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb, whose work seems even harder to find than Gibbons’. Both these authors as well as Gibbons were very prolific in throughout their lives, but it seems Cold Comfort Farm is the standing popular legacy of all three.

Cold Comfort Farm is the story of an educated young Londoner named Flora Poste, who finds herself orphaned and without much to live on. Flora has ambitions of being a novelist later in life, and to publish the next Persuasion—but not until she’s 53. She wants to spend the intervening years gathering material, and while doing that she wants to tidy up the lives of any country relative that will have her. She chooses to live with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, Howling, Sussex. Something happened between Flora’s father and Judith’s husband—some wrong and she’s owed some kind of rights.

Flora certainly has her work cut out for her when she arrives. The Starkadders and their ilk live in squalor on their failing farm, just accepting the terrible conditions they live in as their fate. The linchpin of the Starkadders is their matriarch, Ada Doom (who married the late Fig Starkadder). As Flora’s pragmatic modernizing begins to take hold of the Starkadders, she finds herself the target of Ada Doom’s fury.

This novel is, in short, hilarious. In fact, it really is a shame it’s hard to find Kaye-Smith and Webb in print (I think they may be available by e-book, but I don’t have an e-reader) because I’m just dying to see how badly Gibbons skewers them. The names are ridiculous (Lemony Snicket owes a great debt to Gibbons). The narration frequently shifts gears into a lofty, brooding register that goes on in great detail about the earth. I lol’d heartily and most of my annotations are “hahaha,” “LOL,” and “Never not funny.” The characters had me in stitches. Here’s just a taste of Seth, the lusty younger Starkadder son:

He laughed insolently, triumphantly. Undoing another button of his shirt he lounged out across the yard to the shed where Big Business, the bull, was imprisoned in darkness.

Laughing softly, Seth struck the door of the shed.

And as though answering the deep call of male to male, the bull uttered a loud, tortured bellow that rose undefeated through the dead sky that brooded above the farm.

Seth undid yet another button, and lounged away. (41)

I made the comment in my post on Wuthering Heights that the characters in Emily Brontë’s novel just seem to soldier on toward their own dooms, and leaving being enough doom for their children to also be doomed to lives of misery. That element is taken to extremes in Cold Comfort Farm (which may take Wuthering Heights as one of the targets of its parody).  Perhaps the most famous is Ada Doom’s repeated line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed”—an event that has traumatized her for seventy years and keeps her bedridden and prone to rather convenient bouts of madness.

Examples abound, but most of them can be summed up by saying that the Starkadders do things as they have always been done and any attempt to get over it is seen as an affront to nature. Meriam, the hired girl, has born four of Seth’s children out of wedlock, and everyone but Flora views it as something that just happens every spring. When Meriam insists birth control is “‘flying in the face of Nature,'” Flora counters that, ‘Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy'” (70).

There are some metafictional asides that fed my inner English Major (yes, there’s a separate, inner one) and reminded me of Northanger Abbey. Gibbons seems to write for English Majors, and Flora may be one of the ONLY examples of a novel heroine who reads a lot of novels and walks away without being addled by all that literature. Take this delightful quotation:

Flora did indeed know. The quotation was from Shelley’s Adonais. One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favourite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown. (104-105)

It’s funny and it’s spot-on, but it’s also a good example of how Gibbons’ narrator frequently acknowledges the preceding tradition of English literature. Austen references abound in this novel (in fact, one of Flora’s biggest changes to Cold Comfort Farm is inspired after she reads a sentence from Mansfield Park).  And, of course, Flora’s aspirations are not just to write a novel as fine as Austen, but she does the sort of social arranging of Emma. And of course, Cold Comfort Farm has a rather unforgiving narrator satirizing country society, though manners are much more scarce than in Austen.

Sometimes this acknowledgment has a rather feminist bent. Perhaps that’s not what Gibbons was aiming for, but authorial intent is dead yadda yadda yadda. I’d really like to develop this line of thinking further, actually, because some of the mentions of the female-penned novels and agricultural novels Flora reads seem to be rather satirical. But there is great reverence for Austen and also the Brontës in a strange way. One of the people Flora meets is a writer named Mr. Mybug (actually Meyerburg, but no one does). Mr. Mybug is in the process of writing a book claiming that, based on the indirect evidence of three letters, that poor, sober Branwell Brontë actually wrote all the novels his sisters took credit for, while the sisters were all drunkards, jealous of his genius. He also doesn’t believe a woman could have possibly written Wuthering Heights and asks Flora if she believes women have souls. So I’m not sure what the relationship is between Gibbons’ ribbing of the agricultural novels Flora reads (after all, she learns well how to handle Cold Comfort from them) and her deep respect for Austen and the Brontës. But there’s definitely something there and I liked that something and would love to revisit it and unpack it.

On a personal note, this novel was a great way for me to tie my year of reading together, even if I’m not done with that year of reading yet. But this year I have so far finished the three Austen novels I hadn’t read (only counting the six complete novels, mind you), and my goal of finishing the complete Brontë novels (with three left). So Gibbons felt like someone in that tradition, even if that seems to be part of her project.

Things I didn’t like were trifles: the plot is a bit rushed at the end, and there is bizarre futurism afoot. By “bizarre futurism” I mean that the Gibbons makes reference to wildly anachronistic technology and wars that never happened (particularly the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946). The rest of the novel seems to be contemporary to 1932, so these references are just jarring. Of course Gibbons didn’t know that a World War would explode within a decade either, but it gives those moments that acknowledge the temporal setting a really weird tone. Also, Mr Mybug/Meyerburg is an unfortunately anti-Semitic caricature, but truthfully I’ve heard more appalling anti-Semitism come from the mouths of people I’ve met, so it didn’t put me off 100%.

And the film adaptation is marvelous, as well. In fact, the screenwriters smooth over some of the novel’s wrinkles beautifully, but maintain very true to the novel. And the novel itself is so much fun to read: I really can’t do it enough justice here. I highly suggest everyone read Cold Comfort Farm and celebrate by watching the movie—and avoiding any woodsheds, lest they see something nasty.

Seven Period Pieces to Get You Through the Downton Drought

Warning: Contains spoilers up through the Series Three Christmas Special of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey‘s fourth season has begun across the pond, and is set to hit this side of the Atlantic in January. (Pretending, of course, there aren’t ways to find the show online before then.)

I can’t stop watching Downton Abbey, no matter how much I may want to. Most people pinpoint the start of the show’s sharp decline in quality to its portrayal of the Great War at Downton. For me, the third episode where Mr. Pamuk dies in bed with Lady Mary was kind of a stretch, but I agree Season Two was where it took a turn to truly groan-worthy. Season Three just made me mad: the cast ballooned with a bunch of forgettable characters (clearly writer/creator Julian Fellowes hasn’t seen and /or learned from Season 2 of Twin Peaks), plots completed their arcs at a rapid-fire pace, and it just wasn’t as good. Every week I would watch Downton and throw up my hands and be like, “Stop trying to pull my heart strings with your weak attempts and just make a better show and slow it the fuck down! If you add one more maid or aristocrat, I’m walking!” (I never did.)

One thing that bothers me a lot is the show’s hurray-for-jolly-old-England tone, which is as annoying as it is inconsistent. Granted, at this point more than eight years have passed on the show, and we’ve seen a fair amount of social change. But at the beginning of the show, Lord Grantham is this like eccentric dude who hires a valet with a bad leg to the complete horror of the other servants (I’m pretty sure Cora calls him “eccentric” at intervals). So Lord Grantham is like a progressive-minded dude who just loves his estate, right? Maybe it’s the War that changes him (I’ll have to re-watch, even though the thought makes me shudder), but that’s not him anymore. Somewhere a shift happened and now he’s all about propriety and fighting change. Like, Julian Fellowes can be a Tory, whatever, but the way the show engages with massive societal upheaval is so weird and it’s not done very well. They might as well give Lord Grantham a Union Jack cape. Except when it’s convenient, like when his own damn son-in-law participates in the fire-bombing of an Anglo-Irish Earl. No bigs.

And that’s another thing. Branson is an Irish Republican and the period during which Downton takes place is one of the most important historical moments in Irish history (here’s a primer to get you started). I went to Ireland just before the premiere of Downton Series Three. In preparation for my trip, I read a couple of short histories of Ireland. I’m by no means a scholar of Irish history, but Julian Fellowes barely addresses the so-called “Irish question” at all. Instead, Branson almost gets in trouble for participating in a fire-bombing, but he doesn’t, and when he sees the nobleman’s family out in the cold he feels really bad about it. I’m not saying he has to blow up Downton, but Jesus Christ, the English were killing his countrymen in the streets at that exact point in time. You think Branson might be a little conflicted marrying into the English aristocracy while his countrymen are fighting a war with the English? A gray area?! Horrors!  I’m not even saying that Branson doesn’t have to change his mind and become Lord Grantham’s BFF, but every time his radical politics come up, they end up just fading away and I’m wondering why Fellowes even bothered with the character.

Also, THEY KILLED OFF SYBIL. (I know, I know, the actress didn’t want to renew her contract, but could they have written her a better send off even if she had to die?)

Sybil was my favorite character. For one thing, Irish revolutionary chauffeurs are sexy as hell (see Entry #4 below). For another thing, Sybil was one of the few characters who live at Downton Abbey that actually engages with the wider world, particularly in the political spheres. When the War was on, Mary just angsted over getting married, and Edith helped kind of (and like drove a truck for a farmer and presided over the plot line with the worst prosthetic burn-victim makeup ever?), but Sybil learned how to boil some damn water and went to damn nursing school. If they had to kill her off, it should have at least been in a better way than “her father doesn’t want to offend the visitor by taking her to a hospital” or something. Like, it was pretty okay for the episode where Cora blamed Lord Grantham, but they reconciled pretty quickly. Again, your being a windbag contributed to the death of our youngest child? Well as long as you feel bad about it I guess it’s okay. Back to normal!

Alright, now that the rant is over, the point is this: whether you’re pining for the return of Downton or watch it on mute just to see the outfits, I’ve constructed a list of quality costume dramas to either get you through or set you free.

Before the list, I’ll note one strange omission: I haven’t seen Upstairs, Downstairs (the original or the purportedly awful remake) despite my love of upstairs-downstairs dramas.

1. If you want Downton-grade melodrama, watch The Grand

Another series about England in the 1920s, The Grand follows the lives of the staff and guests of a hotel in Machester. Like Berkeley SquareThe Grand is an urban drama, so there’s a lot less fox-hunting but a lot more intrigue. There’s also no aristocracy to speak of: John Bannerman has poured his whole life (and life-savings) into restoring his father’s pride and joy after World War I: The Grand Hotel. On the eve of its reopening, John and his wife, Sarah, are suddenly forced to ask John’s shady businessman brother, Marcus, to use his money and influence to save their hotel. Other plot lines include a maid becoming a protégé of the resident prostitute with disastrous results, the Bannermans’ son dealing with the after-effects of what he saw on the battlefield, and Marcus’s pursuit of his sister-in-law.

The Grand suffers from a similar affliction to that of Downton: a sharp decline in quality from the first to the second season. But while The Grand certainly ratchets up the drama in the second season, it’s certainly no worse than Downton Abbey. Also, be prepared for some casting changes between the two seasons: I’ll admit I never got used to them—maybe because of the decline in quality.

2. If your favorite Downton characters are the staff, watch Berkeley Square

This one-season series is everything I love about BBC Miniseries in the 1990s: a bit of melodrama, but strong enough writing to pull it off. The series follows three nannies who all work in Berkeley Square, London in 1902: the no-nonsense Matty, the struggling Hannah, and the boisterous Lydia. The series deals with the clash between Edwardian and Victorian ideas of things like masculinity, morality, and childhood.

I haven’t yet read Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs (although technically Powell was a kitchen maid, not a nanny), but if it’s anything like Berkeley Square, those women had a hard life. Beyond the generational clash of ideals, the nannies have to deal with things like being separated from their families, putting up with unwanted sexual advances from their employers, and even keeping their personal histories secret for fear that one bad reference will render them unemployable forever. Some of the plot points are a little silly, but the good outweighs the bad in this series.

3. If you think Downton was best before the Great War, watch The Shooting Party

I’ll show you below how Gosford is parent to Downton, but The Shooting Party is Downton‘s great-aunt. The movie is based on Isabel Colegate’s novel of the same name. The Penguin Modern Classics edition features an introduction by Julian Fellowes, so the similarities aren’t just coincidental. Set at a country estate in 1913, The Shooting Party is much leaner on servants than either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park. Even without much of the downstairs crowd, there’s still a palpable sense that the society these excessive Edwardians enjoy is starting to crumble at the edges.

4. If you wish Downton were bloodier, watch Boardwalk Empire

For some reason, Downton Abbey‘s version of the Roaring 20s doesn’t do it for me—they’re more like the Yawning 20s. I’m not the most knowledgeable person about interwar Britain, but I can tell you two things they didn’t have: Prohibition and a massive crime wave. Boardwalk Empire follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic County, NJ, as he moves through the underworld of organized crime. Atlantic City itself is a little small-time, but Nucky engages with hard-hitting gangsters of the time in New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Downton Abbey will have an appearance of Virginia Woolf, but Boardwalk Empire features Al Capone as a major character (the downside to this is historical spoilers). If Downton’s lack of brutal killing and nudity get you down, get thee to HBO! (There’s even a sexy Irish revolutionary chauffeur and he does not back down.)

5. If you want to see what Branson’s countrymen are going through, watch The Wind that Shakes the Barley

If you get as worked up about the veritable neutering of Branson as I do, and if you haven’t had a good cry in a while, I suggest this movie. The film follows the O’Donovan brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney), who live in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War that followed. At first, they disagree on whether or not to enter the guerilla warfare that engulfs the Irish countryside. They both join the IRA’s fight against the English, but after enduring some truly terrible things together the brothers find themselves divided again by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. There is some critical controversy over the film’s interpretation of Irish history, but as a film it’s heart-wrenching.

6. If you often roll your eyes during your Downton viewing, watch Cold Comfort Farm

Based on Stella Gibbons’s satirical novel of the same nameCold Comfort Farm is a parody of rural melodramas written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen with an education, no fortune, an abundance of country relatives, and a love of meddling. She meets a challenge in her cousins, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders are a gloomy bunch who go through ridiculous motions: their fieldhand is pushing ninety and cleans dishes with a twig, the hired girl is impregnated every spring by the lusty young son, and the farm is in terrible repair. The family prefer to toil hard toward their grim fates, under the thumb of their purportedly mad matriarch: Ada Doom, who doesn’t take kindly to the changes Flora has in mind. Ian McKellan, Stephen Fry, and Eileen Atkins support Kate Beckinsale, along with a fantastic cast of others. It’s not as uproariously funny as the novel, but it’s a great adaptation.

7. If you keeping watching Downton but wish it were just better all around, watch Gosford Park

Gosford Park is like the parent of Downton Abbey. A murder mystery set at a country estate shooting party in 1932, Gosford Park won Julian Fellowes an Oscar for best screenplay and it really deserved it. In the first season of Downton, I described the TV drama to friends as “Gosford Park before the interwar cynicism.” There are stark similarities in Maggie Smith’s playing a judge-y old aristocrat and you can see shades of Thomas Barrow in George the footman’s sneer. The humor is dry, the characters are fabulous, and things are subtle. The case includes not just Maggie Smith, but Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Helen freaking Mirren, Michael Gambon, Ryan Phillipe, Bob Balaban, and scads and scads of others. I never tire of watching these two-and-a-half hours of perfection. I frequently re-watch this film and wonder: what happened, Julian Fellowes?

Readers, what are your favorite shows/films/miniseries that take place between 1900 and 1940? What have I missed? What should I get next? It’s a long time till January…