September 3, 2013
Once again, television came along this summer to make life with a new baby quite bearable. For the first six weeks of Iris’s life, every day was pretty much a mad scramble to 9:00 or so when we would sit down and take turns having the baby sleep on us while we delighted in excellent TV. We particularly loved watching the BBC drama The Hour, which was stylish, gripping and a stunning example of what female characters can be when women are writing them. In tragic news, the show was cancelled after two seasons, and left on a cliff-hanger. I have been pining for Freddy Lyon ever since.
We also watched Girls, which I’d been nervous about. Somehow in all the politics and furor around the show, I’d neglected to understand that it was a comedy. Sometimes I wonder if its critics didn’t get that either. We are looking forward to watching Season 2.
And now we’ve just started watching Mad Men Season 6, having saved it for a time when our evenings were a little less chaotic. Oh, it’s so good. Season 5 was a bit of a let-down, though still pretty remarkable, as we affirmed as we re-watched it recently. (Because yes, I have basically just been watching Mad Men over and over for about 3 years now. It probably is a good thing that I finally watched another show.) But Season 6 really does seem to be a return to brilliant form.
April 3, 2013
While I never finished reading The Collected Stories of John Cheever, which has been sitting on the table before me now for more than 2 years, my literary obsession with Mad Men continues, as does my obsession with Mad Men in general. (We have spent the last while rewatching the entire series, and are now partway through Season 4. We will save Season 6 until our baby sleeps for at least an hour at a time. Basically, I do not care to acknowledge that there are any other televisions shows in the world.)
So I was overjoyed to read “The Sally Draper Poems”, written by one of my favourite poets Jennica Harper. These poems are so very good, demonstrating Harper’s sharp wit, gift for voice, and her amazing sympathy with a young girl’s perspective. I love the texture that they add to the Mad Men universe.
March 25, 2012
The ice cream shop at the top of our road has opened for the season! They remarked upon how enormous Harriet has grown, and they were kind enough to refrain from mentioning that she was also very filthy (and do note, she has since been bathed). In other local news, yesterday I went to the movies for the first time in nearly three years. We saw Friends With Kids, and I really liked it (its portrayal of breastfeeding in particular, which goes a long, long way). We also bought tickets for a train journey to Ottawa, served clafoutis to friends at brunch yesterday, started reading Tales from Moominvalley, finished watching Downton Abbey Season 1, and are having to wait for Mad Men Season 5 to come out on DVD because we do not have a TV. Which is sad, but also nice to know that my dream of continually having Mad Men before me is forever coming true.
March 8, 2012
We started watching Downton Abbey last week, and I love it, but we’re only watching it because there is not enough Mad Men in the world (and heaven knows, I’ve tried to make it go further. I’ve watched Seasons 1-3 twice, and saved season 4 for well over a year before finally watching it [and was the wait ever worth it. Season 4 was better than all the others put together]). And I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to Mad Men lately, about how I love this show and its characters like I haven’t loved another show and its characters since Beverly Hill 90210 and Dylan McKay. By which I mean that I haven’t loved anything like this since I was 14, that age of absolute longing for life and for the world, and I feel something similar for Mad Men, perhaps because of the nostalgia implicit.
But the show absolutely occupies me too– I finish an episode, and I’m thinking about it for days. We’ve measured them out so slowly too that I have much time for reflection in between. I go looking for extracurricular Mad Men too with my Mad Men reading, and random Jon Hamm google searches. (Look! Books that Made a Difference to Jon Hamm! And also Nyla Matuk has written a poem called “Don Draper”.) I could talk about these characters and their motivations forever, and their dynamics, and I do, because people like to talk about Mad Men, and when I do, conversations often reveal new levels of depth to the stories that I never even considered.
My relationship to Mad Men is so different from my relationship to any single book. See, I love books and reading with an all-consuming passion, but I don’t love television. There is only Mad Men. So that I have more than 70 books on my to-be-read stack (which is actually a shelf. Such a stack would defy physics, I think), but I’ll continue to watch Mad Men over and over again. I watch an episode of Mad Men, and wait a week for another, but with a book, I’m starting a new one before the other is even finished. I speed through my books. I relish it every time I crack open a new one. Mad Men I savour, because there is only so much Mad Men in the world, but my supply of books will never be exhausted. Which is sometimes exhausting.
And it’s something to think about. What if instead of loving books and reading, I just loved one book, and read it over and over, and got so deep inside it? Or one author? To become an expert instead of a generalist? Which is unrealistic of course, and I don’t even want to break my speedy reading habit, but it really is rare that I connect with a book as deeply as circumstances permit me to connect with this television show. (It’s also easier to connect with a television show, which comes spoon-fed and all I have to do is lie on the couch and knit). But it occurs to me that there are ways in which the joy of my book fetishising obsession and love of reading in general come at the expense of how I relate books in their specificity. And that learning from my television habits might make me a better reader.
October 10, 2011
Virginia Lee Burton’s father was an engineer, and her mother was an artist, which is probably a surprise to nobody familiar with her work. Burton’s early books (Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow) are celebrations of man’s power to harness his environment with the use of technology, Burton’s vivid illustrations investing her fascinating machines with life and personality. Even 80 years after the publication of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that steam shovel Mary-Anne appeals to young readers, and part of that timelessness is that Mary-Anne’s story of technological prowess (she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men in a week) was already about nostalgia even when the book was new. Burton’s work does not become dated, because within it she has acknowledged the passage of time. Mary-Anne was already the relic of a dying age, steam shovels being replaced by diesel-powered diggers, and Burton showed even as she glorified technology that progress did not necessarily lead to better.
But the pastoral age that Mike Mulligan… hearkens back to is a pretty curious one. Children have always loved this book because children are fascinated by machinery and learning how things work (Burton: “Children have an avid appetite for knowledge. They like to learn, provided that the subject matter is presented to them in an interesting way”), but for an adult-reader to understand Mary-Anne as the story’s heroine represents a significant departure from how we in the 21st century have come to understand our relationship to the environment. Mary-Anne who can level hills to make roads for automobiles to drive on, and dig holes to turn grassland into skyscrapers, and is powered by filthy coal– that Burton’s steam shovel continues to be a lovable storybook character is a testament to the enduring qualities of her book as a whole.
Mike Mulligan was published in 1939, and in 1942, Burton published her most celebrated book, The Little House, which won the Caldecott Award that year (whose ceremony, it is noted in Barbara Elleman’s fascinating biography Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, was attended by Lillian Smith, president of the Children’s Library Association and head of children’s services at the Toronto Public Library). And from these dates and these books’ acclaim, we can only assume that both found a place within the personal library of Sally Draper, who was born in 1955. Unlike her parents, Sally is rarely seen reading (until Season 4 when she’s spotted with a Nancy Drew), so the contents of her early library can only be inferred, but if the connections between Burton’s world and the Man Men universe are any indication, these books should be an essential part of any Mad Men reading list.
Part of the appeal of both Mike Mulligan and Mad Men is our own nostalgia, but the nostalgia already implicit within these works’ conception of modernity makes our own present ring doubly hollow. In both works, the Future is now, and the present is shining, but something essential has been irrevocably lost, and it has been too late to turn back forever now.
Modernity is symbolized by the city in Mad Men, and also in Burton’s work, no more so than in The Little House. In both works, the city is to be escaped from, its edges a pastoral idyll, though in both works, the city is creeping. In Mad Men, this is shown by suburban life’s failure to be protection enough from the vices and sordidness the city entails. Even in Arcadia (ie Ossining NY), there is infidelity, family violence, divorce, and women lock themselves in the house all day, drinking too much and smashing chairs up. The outside world is brought in every night by the dad in his hat coming home on the train, and by the television’s incessant blare.
The creeping is literalised in Burton’s The Little House, which sits contentedly on its hill as the sun goes up and down, and as the seasons change. And then the lights of the city began to seem closer, and roads appear (courtesy of that same steam shovel we know so well from Mike Mulligan, as Harriet is always delighted to point out). There are new houses, and then the buildings around the house grow higher, and a subway is dug underneath, and trams run back and forth, and eventually the house is left abandoned and unloved in the middle of an urban wasteland. (And in this book, indeed, Burton has presaged and synthesized the ideas of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).
But the book’s conclusion is as curious as is Mary-Anne’s status as hero instead of villain. The story of The Little House is resolved when a great-great grandaughter of the man who’d built the house discovers the place in its derelict state, and decides to move it back out to the countryside. Traffic is halted as the house is lifted up from its foundations and placed on a truck, then driven down a big road, then a small road, and eventually the house is settled down on a little hill much like the one it once called home (before that first hill was levelled by a steam shovel). Same apple trees and flowers, and the house can see the sky again, the sunrise in the morning, the moon shining high at night. “The stars twinkled all around her…/ A new moon was coming up…/ It was Spring…/ and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.”
The first few times I read this book as an adult, I figured the moral had something to do with white flight, and the death and death of the American city. Until I realized that Burton hadn’t presaged Carson/Jacobs so much, and then I thought about the book in the context of its own time, and Mad Men’s. The story’s point, according to Elleman’s book, is that “the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are.” It is a story of the environment with man still at its centre, and with this notion of the city as a place to move away from is an understanding that the space “away out there” is infinite, inexhaustible. (See Kathryn Davis’s Hell and the spaces at the back of medicine cabinets for razor blade disposal in the mid 20th century house– that throwing something “away” was to make it disappear.)
In “The Gold Violin” (Mad Men, Season 2), the Drapers retreat further from urban/suburban life by partaking in a rare family outing, a picnic (although they get there in a brand new Cadillac, so modernity has certainly not been left behind). At the end of the picnic (which has involved smoking while horizontal and peeing behind trees), Betty Draper picks up the picnic blanket and shakes away accumulated rubbish, letting it fall down onto the grass where she’ll leave it.
As in Burton’s The Little House, the world away out there is still ours for the taking, to be used and made noble by our relationship to it.
September 9, 2010
When I began watching Mad Men earlier this year, my assessment was similar to Karen Von Hahn’s of the show being “all style, no substance”. This was partly because I’d been biased already by the review of Mad Men Season 1 in the London Review of Books, in which the show’s chief attraction was summed up as our own superiority at watching pregnant women smoke while their children played with dry cleaner bags. Mad Men is good, because at least we get to feel like we’ve come along why, which undermines the fact that we most certainly haven’t.
I enjoyed the first few episodes of season 1, though not as much as I’d anticipated– I wondered if my expectations had been made too high. Soon I’d decided that I’d finish watching the first season, but probably not pursue it beyond that. And I’m not sure what the turning point was, but somewhere along the line not pursuing the rest of Mad Men was not remotely a possibility.
I’m now just about at the end of Season Three. I’m in no hurry to get to Season Four. Though of course I am, but you understand how tragic it would be to one day have no more Mad Men before me. Because I love Mad Men, I do. I love its style, I love when it shocks me (the lawnmower, Betty and the shotgun), I love how I am desperate to find sympathy for these characters who do nothing to deserve it, that I have so much invested in the disaster that is Don and Betty, but mostly I just really love Don Draper. In a way I have never loved anybody, except for Dylan McKay and my high school math teacher. Impossible, lustful, agonizing loves, where you’re fortunate to run into them once in a while in early morning dreams.
It’s not just that he’s good looking– Jon Hamm on 30 Rock really didn’t do it for me, which was sort of the point of that endeavour, but I don’t think we can write it all down to Hamm being such a great actor. It could very well be the suits and the haircut. Or what I’m after might be the elusive Don Draper something that makes him such a magnet on the show. How he’s unpindownable. And when he’s good, he’s not even that good, but I cling to straws– “at least he’s a better parent than Betty”, which isn’t even technically true and wouldn’t be an achievement even if it were. But when he defended Bobby, and when he cooked for Sally in the middle of the night, and when he bought Betty the necklace, and when he demanded that guy remove his hat in the elevator. That he kept Sal’s secret. Fundamentally, he’s a man of integrity.
And when he goes and does something abhorrent, which is usually, somehow I’m convinced that he’s just not himself. That perhaps what he’s really lacking, what he’s calling out for in the dark, is someone to love him properly and that someone would be me. I sometimes wonder what Don Draper could do to have me finally not forgive him. More than he’s cultivated his own self, have I merely cultivated a self for him? Is that what everybody around him has done as well? Is he the projection of our fantasies (and mine happens to be a good dad, and a kind husband)? Is the point of Don Draper that we want to believe in beautiful people? That we fling our sympathy upon them? Does his charisma come from him being fundamentally empty, and therefore a vessel for anything? Is he all style and no substance, and the entire show is this self-aware?
It’s curious though, the inconsistencies of his character. Of everybody’s character on that show, and it was one of my problems with it when I first started watching. The characters were different people in each episode, not just in a mildly interesting way, but in a way that made me wonder if the show had too many writers. I get the whole “Don Draper is an enigma” thing, but it has crossed my mind from time to time that that hole who is he might just be a clever way of badly constructing a character. And that the other characters who weren’t hatched out of nothing have no such excuse for being wildly fluctuating from one thing to another. Except Pete Campbell. I have determined he’s a psychopath.
I experience Mad Men the way I experience novels, by which I mean that there are often whole passages I don’t understand. And I love this about the show, that there’s more going on than I’m ever supposing, but sometimes I wonder if the problem is not so much that I’ve missed something as much as that that something just doesn’t make any sense. Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible, and I’m really not sure which, but it’s brilliant certainly in that I don’t care regardless.
May 27, 2010
I never understood why it didn’t work out with Aidan. My sister has tried to explain it to me, how you and Aidan didn’t have *it*, and how apparently you found *it* with another man who was never very nice to you. This all reminds me a bit of that book that came out a few months back that implored women to “settle” and defined “settling” as marrying someone who is kind, stable, and good. Undermining the value of *it*, it seems. But in your case, didn’t *it* really come down to a closet?
I liked you, Carrie Bradshaw. When I was lonely and sad, I loved that you were a Katie Girl, and it gave me courage to be myself. I know it is pathetic to get courage from HBO, but it was the turn of the century and I was a bit shallow, and so were you, but that wasn’t the whole of it either, was it? I loved your friendships, and I loved your friends. I loved your voice overs, and your laptop screen. Neither of us could have been so entirely shallow, really, because I’ve never known a shoe that wasn’t orthopedic, but I liked you, Carrie Bradshaw, still.
I liked you, though you’ve done harm. You have! The number of women I know who don’t believe it’s love unless it’s tumultuous– that’s down to you, CB. Who believe that tumult=passion. Not to mention a predilection for really expensive shoes and bags, and really expansive debt. I’m not sure that before you, these things were considered normal.
I liked you though, but I don’t think I like you anymore. I’ll never really know, because I haven’t seen your latest movie and I don’t plan to, but I saw a preview and I’m disappointed. Unsurprised, but disappointed. Because in your new movie, you appear to take a look at your life (the not-so-nice, emotionally unavailable man you married, your closet) and determine that the problem is marriage. That marriage is boring, and passion gets stale, and then you run away to become the Sheik of Araby (and here, the preview lost me).
Though I am still a bit green when it comes to marriage, that I’ve been doing it for five years is nothing to scoff at. And I’ve been pretty good at marriage, actually, right from the get-go, when I made a decision to marry a man who wasn’t an asshole. It was him, actually, who took me away from a life in which courage was HBO. So yes, in a way, it seems I required a man to save me, but he saved me from you, Carrie Bradshaw, and your fashionable post-feminism. And I’ve been pretty happy ever since, having put away the angst, the drama, the tumult, and without that baggage, I’ve gotten a lot of really good things done. If he hadn’t come along, I really do fear that I might have whiled away my twenties wearing a necklace with my name on it, and I wouldn’t even have been you because you’re a fantasy. I would have been wearing orthopedic shoes and I would have still been sad.
Marriage is wonderful, Carrie Bradshaw. It is a fine institution, and of course, it’s what you make it. And it’s not for everybody, maybe even not for you, but I resent how you deride it. I resent that the same women who’ve spent their twenties thinking it’s not love unless somebody’s throwing things are going to think that marriage should be more of the same. And that when the throwing stops, that’s boring.
Carrie Bradshaw, you’re boring. You make adolescents look mature. If you were real, I’d throw something at you, and that’s not love.
May 3, 2010
I just finished reading Megan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, which I’ll be reviewing later this week. I wanted to read Daum’s book because I adored her collection of essays My Misspent Youth when I read it last year, but also because she was writing about houses– the ones she loved, the ones she’s loathed, the ones that got away. She writes about roommates, renting, renovations and running away. About MLS obsession, unfortunate apartments, and the experience if purchasing a home of her own. I’m obsessed with this stuff, and always have been, and just so you don’t think I’m jumping on the Meghan Daum obsessed with real-estate bandwagon, I offer you the contents of the journal I kept for school in grade 1. Keep in mind that this is most of the entire book, which means that my range of subject matter was awfully limited.
I’ve always loved drawing houses. This is significant because I’ve never much loved drawing anything else, but the basic details of a house were so well within my poor artistic grasp– square windows the t-frames, a door (with maybe a window for a garnish?), obligatory chimney and triangle roof. The possibilities for variation are limitless– curtains, shubbery, smoke in the chimney, shutters, a garage, curving path from the door. I loved illustrations of houses too in the books I read, particularly those of the whole house at work with the fourth wall removed, and you could see the staircases connecting all the floors, and each room fulfilling its own specific purpose, the life going on within it. (For some reason, the most fascinating houses were those in trees– I remember Brambley Hedge, and the Berenstein Bears in particular, and how I could stare at the cross section drawings of these tree houses and actually “play” with them for hours).
Houses in television are so important– I remain obsessed with the exterior shots of houses that always preceded any 1980s/1990s’ sitcom’s return from commercial break. These houses’ interiors too, and the ways in which they didn’t match the outsides, and the rooms we rarely saw (like the Keatons’ elusive dining room), and how the Facts of Life set was as familiar to me as my own living room. How none of these houses ever had actual foyers, and how staircases and such would get moved around between seasons and we just weren’t supposed to notice. Whole TV shows based around domicles– Melrose Place! And houses as extensions of their characters– Casa Walsh, and Dylan’s house (because he lived alone), and Kelly Taylor’s ultra modern nightmare. The layout of the Salingers’ house from Party of Five is indelibly etched upon my mind, and clearly, yes, I spent my teenage years watching terrible television. But still, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at Monica’s apartment from Friends.
But it’s houses in books in particular, which I had to imagine up all by myself. How LM Montgomery wrote about houses– Lantern Hill, Silverbush, Green Gables, Ingleside, New Moon. The English houses– Thornfield Manor, Wuthering Heights, Manderlay, Wildfell Hall. The house Isabel Archer came from in America, with no windows that faced the street, and the Ramsays’ house in To the Lighthouse, Gatsby’s house, Dora Rare’s in The Birth House, Howards End (which was ALL about real estate), Rose’s childhood home in Who Do You Think You Are?, Daisy Stone Goodwill’s house in Ottawa where she raised her family in The Stone Diaries.
Unlike Meghan Daum, however, I don’t own my own home. This is partly because paying a mortgage would necessitate me having a job (heaven forbid), but also because I wouldn’t live in my house anymore. Because I really love my house. Daum writes about the struggle of learning to be at home, to live where are you rather than always looking at where to go next. She thinks ownership is necessary to achieve this, but we’ve managed it without a mortgage. The house is home, and we love it because of and in spite of. The neighbourhood, redolent with blooms at this times of year and trees overhead. The tiles in the kitchen, and the how the sun comes through the kitchen door at lunch time, and how you can only run the washer OR the dryer if you don’t want to blow a fuse, and how the sun comes into the bedroom in late afternoon, and we can see the CN Tower in the winter (though the summer hides it with trees full of leaves), and my wonderful attic bedroom (which makes me sad only because I know every bedroom I ever have after this one will be a disappointment), and the trees and the breeze that keep us cool in the summer, and the huge living room windows, and how Harriet’s door doesn’t shut, and the backwards kitchen taps, and our en-suite that doesn’t have a door, and the deck and our fire escape, and the fireplace, and the wide hallway, the squirrels in the attic and the mice under the floor. I used to think that I wanted to buy a house, but then realized what I really wanted was a new apartment, and after two years in this one, I’ve still got no urge to go.
October 6, 2009
Perhaps I spoke too soon awhile back, because the second half of Little Woman was really wonderful. Though the characters were good, they were good in ways that were true to themselves and the ways in which they strayed beforehand weren’t necessarily obvious and were interesting to read. The chapter where Meg makes jelly that doesn’t set on the day her husband brings home a dinner guest without warning was an incredibly realistic depiction of domestic dynamics. Jo’s experiences as a writer were fascinating and so true. Amy became a wonderful mass of contradictions, and the most interesting sister by the end. I really enjoyed this part of the book and am glad I followed through.
But the second half was so different from the first that I could scarcely believe that the two were published a year apart. I’d figured Alcott must have grown significantly as a writer in the interim. Or perhaps she realized her characters had wider appeal than she’d initially planned?
It’s the tone of the second half that is so very different, as though it’s growing up along with the characters. And that’s something I’ve never found in a book before, an omniscient narrator so in tune with her characters’ perspectives. In the first half of Little Women, there is little going on beneath the surface. Of course, you get the sense that Marmee is wiser than she lets on, but it’s so obvious, and the other characters know it too. But it was distinctly a children’s book, whereas the second half wasn’t.
And maybe that’s what young readers like so much about Little Women, that they begin with something quite geared towards their level but the book takes off on its own speed, and by the end the narrative is quite above them. So that it would be a book one would revisit time and again, to find out what has changed since the last time.
Note: I was so glad that Jo didn’t marry Laurie. The Professor is so lovely, however much German and old. Obviously, Jo hadn’t watched enough Sex and the City to be brainwashed into thinking enacting adolescent drama is an aspiration more worthy than mere happiness.