Category Archives: reviews

The Bailey’s Reader: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Spoiler alert: I’ll do my best to give advance warning when we get into the meaty spoilers, but will have to discuss some late twists and the ending of the story. Be forewarned!

After the first two titles in this series, in which both authors seemed determined to keep readers off balance, the first few chapters of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests read like settling onto a soft couch for an afternoon nap.  This effect was possibly magnified for a reader like me, who is perhaps overly familiar with the literature (and the PBS/BBC series which have resulted from that literature) of England between the World Wars.  We’re talking took-a-study-abroad-course-in-college-and-wrote-papers-at-Oxford-on-this-very-subject overly familiar. In addition to the familiar-to-me setting, the novel’s heroine, Frances, is instantly likeable: smart, gently sarcastic, but ultimately kind, worried about having compromised her beliefs to keep her family financially afloat in a way that isn’t entirely unfamiliar to modern audiences.

As one might guess from the title, Frances and her mother, left economically bereft by the discovery that Frances’s father had squandered the family’s money (and further complicated by the loss of Frances’s brothers in the Great War), rearrange their large family home to take in boarders.  As one might guess from Waters’ prior novels, including Tipping the Velvet, Frances is a lesbian, in a period where even those who identify as such can’t voice the word aloud, and finds herself instantly drawn to the wife of the young couple that arrives to take up residence in their upstairs.  And it is, for several lushly detailed chapters, a period romance told with twenty-first century generosity towards its main couple as they revel in their exploration of each other, Frances rediscovering a spark she thought lost to her, Lily, trapped in a too-hasty marriage brought on by a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, discovering true passion and love for the first time. As in an Edith Wharton novel, there are early signs that a spectacular crash is on the horizon; as is most often not the case in Wharton, the women are likeable enough characters (particularly Frances), that you actually fear the harm that’s coming.

And then the storm arrives, and the novel becomes something very different altogether.

(Here is the point where I put a front page break and a couple extra line breaks so as to not spoil anyone who actually plans to read this novel.)

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The Bailey’s Reader: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

Spoilers! Be forewarned!

I never felt truly comfortable reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.  O’Neill’s prose, by design, lacks the flow common to most literary fiction — it jumps uneasily from sentence to sentence, tone to tone, cavalierly tossing exquisite metaphors, sly humor, and brutally straightforward observations together in a narrative that won’t ever let the reader settle into a rhythm.  This voice turns out to belong to the main character, Nouschka, who enters the story like something out of a fairytale, getting plucked off the street on her way to enroll in a GED program (or the Canadian equivalent of a GED) and being crowned a beauty queen, all the while worrying about a mysterious Nicholas, who is sure to be displeased. That this all plays out in a seedy neighborhood in Montreal shortly before the 1995 Quebec Independence Referendum, that Nicholas turns out to be Nouschka’s twin brother, and that their parents turn out to be largely absent from their lives only adds to the feeling of not-quite-reality (their father, a Quebecois separatist folk singer, impregnated their underage mother and subsequently served jail time for the relationship; their overwhelmed mother gave them up to their paternal grandparents).

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The Bailey’s Reader: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Note: I’m incapable of writing reviews of things without spoilers. Be forewarned!

The structural conceit of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both presents a reader (and a reviewer) with a particular dilemma: two distinct halves of the same story, “Eyes” and “Camera,” which we are told at the outset can be read in either order, without losing the necessary context to understand the full story.  And yet, once reader/reviewer has chosen their starting point, there’s no going back, no unremembering how it felt to dip into the section we chose and thus seeing how differently the novel might read had we picked the opposite starting point.

It’s a particularly interesting conundrum because “Eyes,” the section I chose to read first, is a master class in how to seduce a reader, literally starting with fragments and abstracted phrases that slowly fill in — both plot details, and as structural sentences — until it resembles what we would more traditionally recognize as a story.  Told from the point of view of a Middle Ages Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, a woman who has spent most of her life masquerading as a man (del Cossa and the works in the novel are real but there’s no historical evidence for the gender-bending backstory), “Eyes” is the half of the story in which the environment is most unfamiliar — both for its setting and the fact that it is unclear, until sometime into “Camera,” how Francesco has come to be a ghost, attached somehow to an adolescent girl in what appears to be the modern day United Kingdom. (There are a few to-be-expected observations from the ghostly spirit about certain confusing aspects of modern life that veer a bit into twee territory but Smith keeps these to a minimum.)  “Camera,” told from the point of view of George (a nickname for Georgia), the teenage girl, is a far more traditional and recognizable narrative.  George isn’t even aware of the painter’s ghostly observance of her life, so we get a far more pedestrian (although beautifully written) look at a girl grieving her mother’s untimely death, exploring first love and sexuality, and sorting out the “real” world the way teenagers so often do when confronted with it.

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In Which I Am The Last Person On the Planet to Have an Opinion About Black Swan

One of my coworkers has been after me to see Black Swan for months now because she wanted my opinion on the dance double controversy. After finally getting around to watching it with SB this past week, I …kind of don’t see why it was such a big deal? The dance sequences in this movie are second only to Anne Bancroft’s in The Turning Point in terms of editing around the limitations of the actor, and none of the choreography we actually see is that difficult anyway.  During the famous fouette sequence in the Black Swan coda, shots of Portman never show her supporting foot and upper body at the same time, which makes me think she may have been doing most of them on half-pointe (and this wouldn’t have been the first ballet movie to splice together a string of fouette turns anyway, Center Stage). Portman clearly worked very hard and is completely believable doing what she’s asked to do, but she’s not really asked to do that much.  I can understand Sarah Lane being irked that her work was pretty much ignored, but one might have thought Portman was claiming to be firing off entire variations in a single take, when truthfully there’s no dance sequence in any part of the film that lasts longer than 30 seconds except for the barre exercise (during which no one dancer is a focus for more than 5 seconds at a time). Portman made me believe in Nina’s transcendent final performance almost solely with her eyes and body language, which is why the controversy is so beside the point in the first place.

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A March Madness Post (Mostly) Devoid of Actual Game Commentary

Because my family has gotten so spread out geographically of late, I set up a private group on ESPN to run our annual bracket.  My parents are currently on vacation and not near a computer regularly, so this morning I had to pester them to send me their picks so I could set up brackets for them.  I can clearly remember being about 8 years old and Dad calling me while I was sleeping over at my grandmother’s house to get my picks. (Yes, my family has had its own NCAA bracket pool since I was 8. What?) I can’t decide whether I’m more amused by the role reversal or the fact that my dad sent his picks by text message, while my mom used the Gmail app on her phone.  I don’t think it’s even been a year yet since they got the Droids.

Continuing in the technology vein, how is it that CBS is lagging behind when it comes to making their regular shows available on the internet, but has such well-functioning and elaborate interfaces for live sports?  I don’t have that much bandwidth in my apartment, but with the new computer I’ve had very little problems watching any game I want.  I did notice that whoever designed CBS’s system this year made all the controls lock up every time they cut to commercial so you can’t just flip to another game every break — but since I’ve been watching two games at once all evening (one on the laptop and one on CBS on the TV) it’s not that bad of a trade off.

The only tiny complaint I have is that the live scoreboard that displays over the video if you watch the game on the web is actually live — which means if your video starts running behind (which mine occasionally did), the scoreboard can give away what’s about to happen. At the end of the Vanderbilt-Richmond game, I resorted to making the video full screen so I could hide the scoreboard, but I could only do that if I didn’t want to talk to Radio Brother or SB over GChat.  Still, it’s a very tiny complaint that is vastly outweighed by my delight in watching the cable channel games online with no restrictions — something I can’t do with ESPN3 or during the MLB playoffs.

Now, if you’ll excuse me Michigan State has pulled within 4 and I actually have an interesting game to watch.

Review of a Preview: The Book of Mormon

Sainted Boyfriend had a moment of pop culture prescience in January, and as a result we’ve wound up with tickets to two of what are shaping up to be the hottest tickets in town. Next Thursday we have Knicks-Hornets tickets (which means I’ll be interrupting my Knicks cheering to scream “CHRIS PAUL!!!!!” every so often); this past Thursday, we were sitting in the second row for the first official preview performance of  The Book of Mormon, otherwise known as “the musical written by the South Park guys.”

I should note, I’m at best indifferent on the subject of South Park. I’ve seen only a handful of episodes in their entirety — most of what I know about the series actually comes from the Behind the Music (I think? It was about ten years ago) episode focused on Parker and Stone. So I am pretty well qualified to say that you can enjoy this show without being a South Park fan, because I definitely did.

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