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15 September 2018 @ 10:59 pm
I watched the first installment (of three) of The Miniaturist on PBS, which was...very pretty to look at. (I should say that I never managed to read the book, despite flipping through it once or twice. So I can't say whether my issues with the adaptation are as much of a problem in the book. And the adaptation could well get better, although the first hour is nevertheless...maybe where you want to establish interesting characters and things like that?)

I don't know why Romola Garai - who I know has more than one tone of voice, I've even heard them - is playing her entire part in a monotone forbidding drawl, as a caricature rather than an actual person, but I think my major problem stems from the premise itself: if you know that your family has a Deep Dark Secret (I managed to flip through the book just enough to discover said Secret, although I have no idea what happens after that), and a perky, inquisitive girl marries into your family, then maybe, if you want to keep that Deep Dark Secret a secret, you should be less awful to that perky, inquisitive girl, so she doesn't spend all her time wondering what the hell is wrong with you lot and trying to figure it out? I mean, just let the girl have her darn parakeet and eat some freaking marzipan* instead of intoning at her about how sugar rots the soul! Maybe don't sneer "Nobody forced you to marry him," like she knew she was going to come to a house full of utter wack jobs and should have been prepared! Like, if you know her new husband is already going to be weird as hell because of this Deep Dark Secret, the rest of you should be aggressively normal and welcoming and kind - or at least, you should maybe TRY, I mean, jeez. And then, if the majority of the characters weren't spending all of their time being squirrelly, condescending/petty**, or vaguely threatening to this young woman who has done nothing wrong (since you lot are the ones who decided that this marriage was a good idea, for reasons of your own that she knows nothing about!), then maybe they would have some personalities? And then, when Nella inevitably finds out about that Deep Dark Secret (because that is how these stories always go), then - if you'd been kind and welcoming, instead of inexplicably terrible to her - maybe she would care for you enough to want to help you keep that Secret!

Also, it's just ridiculously irresponsible to send this girl out into the world, knowing that you have weird insinuating enemies, and not to prepare that girl for their behavior. If you are in the habit of trying to keep Deep Dark Secrets, it only takes one innocent question from Nella, or one insinuating remark that she then wonders about, to bring the whole simulacrum of a normal house (ooh, symbolism!) crashing down. Which is basically what happens, of course - and maybe it would have been impossible to plug every hole in the dike (so to speak), but maybe y'all could have at least tried a little bit?

But then, I just have very little patience with Gothic nonsense. It never makes sense to me that the people who live in these Gothic mansions are like, "well, got a tragic secret up in the attic that no one new should ever find out about, guess we should invite a stranger into the house but not give her any explanation for the weird stuff that's inevitably going to happen, that seems fair and totally safe and unlikely to cause that stranger to go poking around in corners for answers we don't want her to find! Let's do that."

*Literally the only thing I know about Petronella is that she likes marzipan. (And, I guess, that she is poor enough that her family needs her to marry this wealthy randomer in Amsterdam, but that is a plot demand, not a personality trait.)

**Romola's character Marin has to order new dresses for Nella, and she orders them all too big even though she has Nella's measurements, which is the most unnecessarily petty BS with which to start this relationship that Marin is - presumably? - hoping will be beneficial for their family in the Helping to Keep Their Deep Dark Secret department. Nice way to make Nella feel totally unwelcome for no good reason, when that runs directly counter to your own interests! Just, why.

Problem 2 that may stem from the source material but is certainly present in the first installment of the miniseries: the conceit of the book is that Nella's husband buys her this huge dollhouse that she then needs to fill with furnishings from the miniaturist of the title. After the miniaturist sends Nella some creepily accurate miniatures of things inside her real house, miniatures she didn't ask for, Nella tells the miniaturist to stop sending items, but they keep coming anyway. So first, Otto the manservant acts all threatening to get Nella to stop getting miniatures, but she just TOLD YOU that she didn't ask for the stupid things anyway, so how is she supposed to stop them? Your growling at her won't do any good! But that's the bigger problem: Nella is a totally passive character; she just gets these figurines that give her details - a set of keys hidden in a drawer she didn't know about, for example - and she follows these details like a trail of breadcrumbs. She doesn't even make the choice to keep getting them! So we're just watching a girl unwrap a lot of packages. The problem with this narrative - and maybe a potential pitfall of the Gothic in general - is that it relies on our interest in the Mystery of the House to keep us engaged in the story...but if that interest falters, then you don't have any characters to back it up. The Mystery demands that all the characters in The Miniaturist are just squirrelly and secretive all the time, so I don't care about them, and since Nella is just dropped into this world, she doesn't have any meaningful relationships with the other characters and can't form them because all the others ever do is intone things like "We stand or fall together" at her (which, if true, really means that it's unconscionable to have brought her into this household for your own ends, since she'll be brought down into your ruin if the Secret gets out, without sharing in any part of that Secret). And I just don't care enough about who the miniaturist is and why (s)he knows all this stuff about the house and feels compelled to reveal it in tiny figurines, because all the characters have about as much personality as their miniature counterparts, sorry.

(I say all of this with the usual disclaimer that I certainly don't know how to create interesting characters, especially not in historical fiction where you can't even use the modern trappings to create an initial sense of recognition between the character and the reader. But other people do seem to manage it, so it is possible.)
09 September 2018 @ 10:12 am
Of course, I had to hear about this from Twitter (a Shakespeare organization I follow retweeted something from the production company), and then Google it to find this information, because PBS continues to be the worst at advertising anything it ever picks up involving Shakespeare - but anyway, series 3 (the final series) of Shakespeare Uncovered is apparently airing on PBS starting in October:

Hosts include Romola Garai, Sir Antony Sher, and Simon Russell Beale, which might go some way to making the series less frustrating when it cuts away from a performance to show the hosts just watching (you know, instead of actually LETTING US SEE THE PERFORMANCE, why even get actors to act out scenes if you're not going to show them doing so????).
05 September 2018 @ 04:29 pm
Today I learned, quite by chance, that Dilly Knox (classics scholar and cryptographer who worked on the Enigma code) was Penelope Fitzgerald's uncle. Small world.
26 August 2018 @ 01:20 am
British-made zippers bore the brand name Lightning, which had to be carefully ground off the metal pulls with a dentist’s drill.

Clothing Britain's Spies During World War II
23 August 2018 @ 05:41 pm
Rediscovering a Founding Mother - an article about Julia (and Benjamin) Rush

(via Twitter)
17 August 2018 @ 07:00 pm
Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mmhmm'


Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say "yay" and "yes."

As for "mmhmm"?

"That," he says, "is African."

(By the way, no one really seems to know how to spell "mmhmm" — we're guessing here, too.)

But it's tough to verify whether Thompson is right.
11 August 2018 @ 07:23 pm
So I stopped watching Poldark abruptly during season 2 because ROSS POLDARK IS THE WORST, but PBS is running repeats and they're showing the episode I stopped watching partway through (see, I said it was abrupt), and wow, Ross Poldark is not just the worst, but the ABSOLUTE worst.

(Also, why is everyone like, "oh hey, Ross is going to marry Elizabeth now that her husband is dead," when Ross is married??? He can't just get un-wed! What am I missing here? Their society is not big enough for people not to know, and the church is not going to be like, "oh okay, go on then." Why is everyone behaving like this is some kind of certainty? Or is the assumption that he and Elizabeth are just going to live in sin, forsaking their standing in polite society, but...that's okay somehow? What is even happening?)
04 August 2018 @ 09:00 am
The BBC miniseries of The Miniaturist now has a PBS airdate of Sunday 9/9 at 9:

Obviously I have to watch this because Romola Garai is in it (*pours one out for The Hour*), but I also feel bad because I tried to read the book and bounced off of it really hard for totally arbitrary reasons. (It had one of those prologues that actually happens after the events of the book, and I always feel like those sorts of prologues are trying to make me care about a narrative by stacking the deck: look, they always seem to be saying to me, things aren't going to be this interesting right away, you'll have to sit through some stuff, but remember me? Aren't I shiny and intriguing? Don't you wanna know how I got this way? And I'm usually like, "no? Because I don't know who any of these people are, and you can't just grandiose your way into making me care?" And then the tone of the book just after the prologue is often very different from the tone of the prologue, which was the case here, so I only got a few pages in before I just couldn't bother.)

It's a shame, because the cover is gorgeous, and I have very fond memories of walking through cities in the UK just when the book came out and seeing whole bookshop windows devoted to it. I was excited when it came out in the US, and I always meant to try it again after the prologue debacle, but I never did. (I did read Jessie Burton's second book, The Muse, which was a good way to spend the school camping trip, but it had that problem where it had two narratives taking place at different times and I found one of the narratives far more interesting than the other, unfortunately.)
...but didn't he already write this?

'Time Traveler's Wife' Drama From Steven Moffat Scores HBO Green Light
22 July 2018 @ 09:56 am
A while back, I posted about an exhibition that put Keats' copy of Paradise Lost on display. Now the Keats Library digital humanities project has launched a digital edition of the copy:


It's still very much in beta, but it's worth playing around with, if you're interested.