Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.

 

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Summer Reading and My Slacker Blogging Slump

The reading slump I noted in my last post continues. Also, it pains me to note that my last post was SIX WEEKS AGO. Without planning, strategy, or any kind of purposeful intention, I’ve basically been on a de facto hiatus from blogging. Feeling like a slacker, I’ve been on twitter only intermittently, and usually feel compelled to tweet about my slacker-ness. It’s partly about the reading slump, but only partly. I am still reading, but not as much, and in addition to reading fewer books I’m also not really keeping up with the wit and wisdom of my favorite bloggers.

photo (76)It’s not just about reading less, though, it’s also about feeling stuck and distracted and scattered. I have a review of a new-to-me HistRom author in progress and it’s been languishing since mid June, about 75% written. I have other stray thoughts for and about posts, but nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. Where I usually find myself awash in ideas and connections generated by discussions I’m following on twitter and elsewhere, recently I’ve not been doing a good job keeping up with what fellow bloggers are talking about (though I have noticed other posts and twittering about reading slumps/challenges and blogging blahs, which has helped me feel less blogger shame!).

Summertime for me is sort of a mirage, in concept if not in calendar. Summer exists as a verb in my literary imagination (as in people who “summer” on the Cape, or in Maine), and this fuels the fantasy. Even though I’m working for at least 7 of the 10 weeks, I always think this is the year that summer will be an oasis of leisure and longer days. In fact, usually ends up being just as busy as the other seasons, only in different ways.

Planning and packing and unpacking for camps and trips. The jarring temporary routine of daycamp chauffeuring in place of kids just walking themselves to school. Having to reschedule 9 out of 10 meetings at work due to conflicting vacation schedules. Long drives for summer travel softball games on weeknights. Many family birthday celebrations, including my girls’ shared birthday next Monday — only this year they have requested separate, individual tween (girls only) parties in place of our usual twin birthday bash involving a horde of kids and families.  And of course there are the outdoor housekeeping chores around the yard and garden — these are all things I genuinely LOVE about summer, but I guess I’m finally realizing that it all means more time offline, and the leisure I have to be creative is going in many directions that are outside my online world of books and writing and thinking about reading.

Last weekend we decided to take a weedy, unsightly section of the back yard, and make a fairy garden. The girls had collected and made twig furniture and other fey adornments.

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Boulder is to the left of shovel, not the minor rock on the shovel. Not a great pic but you get the idea.

We pulled up all the weeds and started digging. In the spot where I wanted to put a large-ish astilbe, I hit a rock that felt big. We always have to dig up LOTS of rocks when we plant. It’s New England. But this was a huge rock – when I finally got the hole big enough to see its edges, I realized I’d been digging for well over an hour. It was a boulder, at least 4 or 5 times as big as the shovel head.  The spot is over near the fence, so it was tricky to get leverage and there were numerous mini boulders that had to be removed before I could even get the shovel around all the edges. The time had passed unnoticed, as I was in a state of flow and absorption. Sometimes when I am working on a post, I find that same level of intense absorption, but when it doesn’t flow, I find I am no good at forcing it. Maybe I just lack the discipline for sustained regular installment blogging. I know I lack the discipline and/or skill to write regular concise book reviews (though I still harbor ambitions to get better at it!).

photo (89)But at least we did finish our fairy garden.  And the girls are literally plowing through books (Divergent, The Maze Runner (the whole trilogy), Island of the Blue Dolphins, Loki’s Wolves, Deenie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond – they are in a badass, eclectic YA reading jamboree) in spite of full-day camp programs. Just not having homework frees them up to rediscover the love of (near) binge-reading, and this alone almost makes up for my own reading slumpishness. The concept of summer reading evokes fantasies of hammocks and lazy afternoons and whiling away hours with one’s nose in a book.  When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to spend huge chunks of summer in just such ways.  But these days, not so much.

A few books I have managed to read in the last couple of months have made such an impression I’ve wanted to post about them, but somehow I haven’t had the right combination of time and attention. So these brief notes will have to suffice.

Ironically, the book I find myself thinking about most is Brigid Schulte’s OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, AND PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS THE TIME. I loved it, and I can’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book of this ilk straight through, as compelled to keep turning the pages as if I were reading a novel. What made this different and better (for me) from every other book about the role of technology on how we live, gender disparities in the professions and in household “second shift” chores, work/parenting juggling and the “mommy wars” (I basically stopped reading all these kinds of books in the wake of the big flap & backlash over Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story back in 2012, just because I got exhausted by how circular it all seemed) was Schulte’s personal story, and the breadth of her inquiry into time studies, multi-tasking and our distracted work habits, the nature of leisure, the anthropology and history of labor. In spite of the Amazon blurb and other promotional copy, the heart of this book is not just for and about parents and parenting. I started to notice more what is going on when I am focused (in “flow” – a concept Schulte explores with various experts) and when I am not. It’s not like she arrives at any earth-shattering new discovery for how to achieve a better, more manageable life, or solve intractable systemic inequities, but I found her questions, both personal and academic, made compelling reading and her concept of “time confetti” resonated with my feelings of distraction and scattered-ness.

Sometimes a multi-tasking approach to reading works OK for me, and I can be in the middle of several books at once.  I am about 80 pages in to two rather challenging novels, and I honestly don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I’m reading both at once, and in minute segments of 4 or 5 pages at a time.  Given this fickle reading behavior, I’m sure Schulte’s time and labor study experts would say it’s ridiculous I even wonder why I am feeling distracted, but … this is where I’m at.

Galvanized by an inspiring and wickedly smart conversation about reading, challenging books, and Dorothy Dunnett in particular, I finally started reading GAME OF KINGS.  For so many years I’ve heard kiss-and-tell stories about Lymond — even in the Outlander fan community there were those who swore he was hotter and smarter and more of a badass than Jamie Fraser. I never gave Dunnett a real try, though, because I was always waiting for that mythical extra-long summer vacation where I’d have days on end to lie around and read. Instead, I’m haltingly pushing through what everyone says is the rough going of the first 100 pages. I’m hanging in because, well, LYMOND.

Oddly, instead of alternating Dunnett with something “easier” like a genre romance, I’m doing the same small-bites, incremental sort of thing with THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton. Having just watched Jane Campion’s wrenching, horrific, yet oddly beautiful (incredible cast) BBC series, Top of the Lake, my interest and fascination with New Zealand’s history and its particular legacy of colonialism is renewed. Both Catton and Campion wrestle with old and new worlds, violence, toxic families, racism, and exploitation, and in some ways the isolated yet wi-fi and coffeehouse-enabled community in Top of the Lake doesn’t really seem very far from Catton’s goldrush town of Hokitika in 1866. The Luminaries is certainly a challenge – I haven’t even yet “met” all twelve of the central characters. Starting and stopping this book is more disorienting than the Dunnett, but the twist-y mysteries and keen attention to describing human frailty and foibles are keeping me engaged.

A book I picked up 10 days ago at my favorite used paperback shop turned out to be my only other “page-turner” experience in quite a while: it was Emma Donaghue’s THE SEALED LETTER. Decidedly not a romance, it’s a sharp and compulsively readable fictional treatment of a Victorian-era divorce case that scandalized the media and the public. I loved Donoghue’s Slammerkin back in 2000 (and I can’t believe that was nearly 15 years ago). The Sealed Letter demonstrates she’s still a beautiful writer, with a gift for blending history and fiction in ways that bring me back to the immersive reading experiences of earlier, pre-blogging days. The protagonists are an unlucky triad (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that no one gets the HEA, except maybe the lawyers) of flawed characters: a solid but uninspiring husband, a self-absorbed aging ingenue wife, and a friend to both who has the misfortune to get in the middle of their mess of a marriage. The friend is the most intriguing character: Miss Emily (“Fido”) Faithfull, a printing press owner, literary figure, corset-refuser, implied lesbian, and women’s movement leader. It’s a pretty riveting portrait of  the complex layers of 19th-century female friendship, with its tortured intimacies and betrayals. The cover blurb says “a deliciously wicked little romp,” and I think Donoghue managed to re-create something of the experience of being a gossip-hungry newspaper reader eagerly salivating over each day’s prurient details as the notorious divorce trial took place and was so widely and salaciously reported. I read this book fast, took it with me on a weekend trip to Vermont, and felt keen desire to know what new detail would be revealed with each chapter, even as I experienced the authenticity of Fido’s painful rollercoaster ride through disgrace and the duplicity of her beloved friends.

I don’t know when I’ll finish that next review post. I’m not going to put the blog officially on hiatus, but I’m definitely in slow-blog mode. I may not be summering in the country or at a beach somewhere, but I am enjoying the act of summer, which really still is a time set apart from the long cold months of winter here. Spending as much time as possible outdoors comes with summer in New England. I miss the flow of blogging and twitter and online conversation, but I’m happy to have these moments of digging rocks and watching the girls build fairy houses.

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