Top of the Lake

Last May I helped organize a conference in my university and after talking about our research fields I was recommended two TV shows for the crime lover in me: Top of the Lake (2013) and The Bletchley Circle (2012). One of the things that called my attention was that Top of the Lake was written and produced by Jane Campion whose movie The Piano changed something in non-sexist representation of women. So, as soon as I got home I got Top of the Lake and started watching it. Beware! This review contains some minor spoilers.

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To sum up the main premise, I would only say that detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) moves back home to New Zealand to spend time with her mom, who suffers from cancer, and ends up investigating the pregnancy and posterior disappearance of Tui, a local a 12-year old girl. These are the events that set the action in motion and, as the series progresses, new information is discovered about both Robin and Tui. I think this structure of a case taking up a whole and only season is becoming more and more fashionable because the audience get to know and become familiar with the characters. As a consequence, the detective becomes a central character so that the writers and the actors/actresses can explore a human psychology more deeply. This allows for more complex and realistic portrayals of investigators, both men and women. In Top of the Lake, Campion explores Robin’s sexuality, mind, psychology and body, something that is not so common on TV crime fiction where investigators are mere tools to solve the crimes. She is a daughter, a fiancée, a girlfriend, a detective, a friend, a native and an outisder, all at the same time. But above all, she is a woman and Campion will center on the joys and perils of this.

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Elizabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin

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Detective Robin Griffin

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Robin talking to Tui: she was the only one who understood Tui and fought for her.

But, despite this amazing main character, I had quite a few problems with the series and I have been waiting for weeks to write this review because I cannot make up my mind about it. If I ask myself: “Elena, did you enjoy the series?” I would say that I did, from a crime fiction point of view. Robin was also a masterfully written and performed main character, quite different to what we are used to see on TV nowadays. And the scenery? That was amazing! Check it for yourselves:

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Dart river valley.  Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspring National Park, NZ

However, I think I am missing something, or maybe I am trying to over-analyze a good crime TV show as a masterful, feminist and life-changing production. Along with the case we are presented with a group of women who moved to a land called “Paradise” to heal themselves from what I would broadly call the patriarchy. They are divorced, they are abandoned, they are what society would sadly call “crazy bitches/witches”. Throughout the series I fell in love with their leader, GJ (Holly Hunter), because she was androgynous, strong and opinionated. However, does a female character need to be like that to be interesting? And what about the name? GJ? As in God/Jesus because they are in Paradise and she has disciples? I am not the best at figuring out religious connections, so I will leave this to those of you who are.

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Holly Hunter as GJ talking to her disciples

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The women’s camp led by GJ

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The entrance to Paradise on Toplake

Top of the Lake also makes a great effort to explore rape, rapists and how women are affected by this crime. Robin herself was the victim of a brutal sexual crime back in her teens and now she has returned home a grown woman, a great detective, and above all, healed and in charge of her life. There is no self-pity for her, she is aware of what she went through and condemns it, but she has moved on with her life and has tried to make the best of a horrible situation. It is not very often that rape victims are presented like this on TV. I am a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU and although they made a great job at exploring rape, victims are usually presented as shocked and weak, but doing the right thing: denouncing their rapists to the police. But not here: Robin has gained back agency: it is her life and she proudly claims it after the attack.

And, finally, patriarchy, sexism, classical male values and brutality are embodied by Matt (Peter Mullan), Tui’s father. He represents everything that is wrong with how society raises men with men’s values in a classical way. I was made sick by everything he said, everything he did and every place he stood at. Campion also makes him a complex character showing how he was raised and how he has raised his two adult sons, but she never portrays them as victims.

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Matt’s sons at their typically male house

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Peter Mullan as Matt

So, I do not really know what more to say about Top of the Lake. It is a good TV show and it makes a different with women’s representation is these new productions. After the women’s representation fiasco of True Detective, I think it is great to see that women have a place on crime TV shows.  But, I do not see it as the masterpiece that everyone says it is. Both Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter gave standout performances and I do hope they are recognized for their work.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Here are some questions that helped me think and are still unanswered (spoilers):

  • Why is Robin running away from her fiancé in Sydney?
  • Why does Robin’s mother tolerate her partner’s violence against her?
  • GJ’s camp means a return to nature, a feminist idea born in 1970′s France and that, broadly speaking, associates women with nature. Why did Campion use this idea to, finally, discard it in the very last episode?
  • Related to the previous question: Why is Tui’s birth in the forest presented as positive?

Top Ten Favorite (Crime) TV Shows

 toptentuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because we are particularly fond of lists here at The Broke and the Bookish. We’d love to share our lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

I am sucker for crime fiction, in any form and that includes TV shows. I usually joke that I spend way too much watching TV, and not all of it is crime fiction, but I would say a great majority is. So, here you have my ten favourite crime TV shows. I decided to list those that have been broadcasted for a while, are easy to find and basically mean “comfort TV”.

1. Castle.- A crime fiction writer follows a strong, opinionated and super cool NYPD Homicide female detective. Is there anything not to love about this?

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2. Bones.- Love Temperance’s passion for her job. Also, I don’t think we were that familiar with forensic anthropology before we met her, were we?

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 3. CSI: NY.- My favourite on the CSI series. This is the most comfortable you can get watching crime TV shows. But, nothing works like it to relax and unplug from daily life’s worries and struggles. I can’t believe it’s no longer in the air…

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4. Rizzoli & Isles.- This may actually be my favourite on the list (or second, see number 6). A medical examiner and a Boston homicide detective work hand-in-hand to solve crimes. One is blonde, the other is brunette. One is super brainy, the other is super practical. I actually wrote my MA thesis on them.

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5. Code 37.- I just recently discovered this Belgian TV show with one of the most complex, complete and kick-ass female detectives I have ever seen. Hannah Maes has taken female detectives to yet another level.

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6. The Closer.- My another favourite show. Brenda Leigh Johnson is transferred from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Los Angeles Police Department where her Southern accent, charm and ways seem to crash with her new – all male – subordinates. But she is so good, she finds a way.

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7. Criminal MInds.- I really like this show, but after a few episodes I feel uneasy. Some of the themes are too dark and twisted, but they cases are really good and interesting.

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8. Law & Order: SVU.- The Special Victim Units centers on sexual assault and crimes. I know it sounds pretty dark, but they treat the victims with total respect and the show has helped inscribe sexual violence and the need to denounce it on TV. Good job!

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9. Crossing Jordan.- I first saw this TV show when I was 16 and I thought I would totally rock at being a medical examiner (clue: not sure, probably not). Dr. Jordan Cavannaugh moves back to Boston where she gets involved with her victims’ police investigations.

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10. Law & Order: UK.- If there was a way to make Law & Order even better, it was moving it to London. I was not familiar at all with British laws and procedures, so I was really happy to learn a bit while watching the breath-taking London landscapes.

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Feminist Sunday

feministsundays2Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

I know it’s already Sunday night, but I just discovered this poet called Hollie McNish who does spoken word. And she is so good and so amazing that I had to share a video with you all. No more words from me, just listen to her and get lost in her words…

The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair

I first encountered The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair by Jöel Dicker last August, here, in Spain. The book was being promoted as an international best-seller, a debut crime novel by an Austrian writer who had already been top of the literary charts in the rest of Europe. So, as you can imagine, I bought it. Imagine my surprise when I found a corny, deeply affected and verging-on-chauvinistic novel. I thought it was me: it was summer, I was tired, and all the likes, so I tried to keep reading. I gave up on page 80. Imagine my surprise when the English translation hit Twitter a few months back. I know myself and I know that I very much prefer reading in English than in Spanish, so, I wrote about all this to the publishers and they kindly sent me a review copy, and not only that, a signed review copy!

But the real question is, did my dislike of the book have to do with the translation?

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From Goodreads:

August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?

The answer is: the English translation was less affected than the Spanish, but in short, no. The novel still had all the features that first bugged me *. To begin with, Marcus Goldman is an egocentric, self-absorbed, too proud and self-tortured writer. The English translation did not help this and even though some may think this makes for a complex, unlikable narrator, it does not. All throughout the novel he kept reminding me of a parody of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, probably because of his obsession to write “the next great American novel”. He defines himself as “writer” first and foremost and all the other characters call him that, making it a horrible time for him even though he is fighting to be a writer once again. I thought he was also quite incoherent, but, once the novel was over and I had his name engraved in my mind – for everyone seems to know it as if “Marcus” had the same connotations as “Ernest” does for us, book lovers – I discovered that he just wanted to be the center of attention, no matter what. Also, the reader establishes a conneciton between Goldman and Dicker and it is almost impossible to evade it.

The Harry Querbert from the title is another story. He is a literature professor at a small, East coast college and he seems to have gotten Marcus from the start. Furthermore, he challenges him and is constantly trying to upset him and make him come out of his comfort zone. All that, until he is jailed for the alleged murder of Nora Kellergan, and then Harry becomes a poor, fragile, old man who is in desperate need of Marcus. His apparently amazing life on a big house by the sea, in a little town that respects him ends up being an only a façade that clever Marcus dismantles, only for Harry to tell him not to commit the same mistakes he did: Marcus should marry and not end up completely alone in life. And I will come back to the marriage issue in the next paragraph.

But what I found most unsettling was Nola Kellergan’s character. She is the 15-year old who was murdered back in 1975. I will spoil some of the supposed fun here and tell you that 33 year-old Harry had an affair with Nola. I know, Lolita is there, it is a classic and most people love it, fine. It was not the age difference what really shocked me, it was how ideal Nola was, for a retrograde 1950′s ideal of a woman. And what I found most unsettling was that such a model could – and actually does – to nowadays audiences. Nola is constantly taking care of Harry, she wants to marry him, so that she can take care of him and he can write. She says to him, “I am nothing without you” and then, she is described in her perfection as “She was discreet, invisible, omnipresent.” So, there you have it. All these years my mom’s, and my grandmothers’ generations have fought to be heard, for acknowledging that they were there, and now an international best-seller constructs the epitome of femininity and desirability as an invisible and voiceless woman. But not even the author knows how to catalogue Nora: she is described both as a child and as sexual, grown-up woman who is manipulative and uses sex – sex she does not want to have – to save her man. That is the discourse behind Nora, who also happens to be Southern and raises a lot of questions about the construction of Southern women in American (and now international) literature. Eventually, in Harry’s writer Heaven, Nora becomes what he really wanted: a character, someone who is his creation and is completely under his control. Need I say more?

So, you may be wondering why I read this. For a start, I thought it was partly duty and partly curiosity. I cannot have a crime fiction blog and do not read the latest international best seller. Or I thought it shouldn’t be so, from now on I will evaluate the impact of the novel and my choices more carefully. But, another great reason is that The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair is a page-turner in a very classical, masculine and patriarchal way. It is more the story of the relationship between Marcus and Harry, a sidekick to a great man. Disciple and pupil. Professor and student. And because it is so masculine – there are lots of boxing, sports and classically constructed men’s values and strengths  involved- the story suffers. Love interests are unambitious blonde girls, women want nothing more than to get married or help the main characters, and, finally, Goldman’s mother is the most overt representation when she tells Marcus to get married to a girl who can have a child every 9 months.

There were goo things too, and they mostly had to do with the way the novel is constructed. I read somewhere that it is a very post-modern novel and, if you take into account the structure, it really is. The chapters include Marcus’ reality plus, at least, two other levels of written fiction and I am ignoring the stories and lies characters tell to each other, because if I include them, the whole novel is a riddle. I think Dicker did an amazing job at structuring his debut novel and also at keeping the pace. There were only a few times in the 800-long page book that I lost interest, and it was not for longer than 10 pages. Dicker really wants the reader to keep reading and he does a good job at making it easy for us.

Would I recommend The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair to anyone? Yes. And why? Because all-and-clasically masculine crime fiction productions seem to be on the rise again. True Detective and Sherlock are only two other great examples of this. This new fahsion could bring us down, but I think it makes for the perfect time to ask ourselves why these productions succeed and why, even when we criticize it – guilty – we are able to read and watch them.

* Disclaimer: I was glad I did not like this novel is because I have been very, very lucky with all the review copies I have been getting and, some months ago, I thought that either I was losing it with books or I had finally discovered what I am trully passionate about. Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Thanks to everyone who keeps recommending/offering me books. You nail it 99% of the time.

 

Want to solve a crime?

I was approached yesterday by Hattie from ThinkJam to promote a new crime fiction novel called Cop Town by Karin Slaughter. I was immediately interested when I reached two words of the press release: Atlanta and 1970′s. So, I very gladly said I would love a review copy.

If you are interested in getting another copy or just feel like playing cop, DeadGood is running a competition from today to Friday where they will tweet a case and readers have to tell if it’s fact or fiction. There will be two sets of signed copies of Karin’s full backlist, as well as 30 signed proof copies of Cop Town to giveaway, but the real reason I’m writing this is that we can get to play cop for some days! They have already tweeted the first case:

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Come one, crime fiction readers! Let’s prove we would be as great detectives as we think while reading.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Classics (by women writers)

toptentuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because we are particularly fond of lists here at The Broke and the Bookish. We’d love to share our lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

I had not planned to participate on today’s Top Ten Tuesday, mainly because I forgot to check the theme. But seeing all your wonderful posts about classic literature, I thought I could do a very special post: all classic – in the most traditional way of the word – works written by women, both British and American. So, here are ten books that I have read and that I have loved, written by women who defied social expectations about what to do – write – and what to write about. I have also decided to include pictures of the authors rather than of the covers of the books, as I usually do, because I think it is important to put a face to the works. These were, above all, real women.

1. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather .- Cather wrote about what it meant to be a woman in the late 19th-century frontier. The main character in this novel, Alexandra, is a role model even for nowadays’ standards.

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2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin.- This is a classic that really changed me when I read it. The main character defies social expectations of what being a woman means vs. what it means to her.

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3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.- My grandma gave me a 1970′s edition of a Spanish translation and I immediately fell in love with the novel. However, I prefer what is classically understood as Little Women: modern editions also include a second part, Good Wives, that has a totally different tone and morality behind.

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4. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.- What if I told you this classic is probably behind modern productions such as Desperate Housewives? I love the idea of a town populated only by women where they feel comfortable and support each other.

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5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.- A beloved classic from the moment I read the first chapter, this novel has the perfect, dark and gothic atmosphere for a winter’s evening.

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6. Wüthering Heights by Emily Brontë.- Did anyone say gothic? Emily’s novel is far darker and twisted than Charlotte’s. I loved the typically Romantic story between Cathy and Heathcliff. Not to take out of the literary walls, though!

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7. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn.- Behn was the first women writer to live by the pen and her novel is a testament of her passion and her drive.

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8. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.- If there is a classic non-fiction work, written by a woman to read, this is it. Woolf has no rival defending women’s rights that – sadly – are still being fought for nowadays.

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9. The Poirot series by Agatha Christie.- Because being a crime fiction fan, I could not forget her! Death on the Nile (1937) read and perfect for a sunny evening outside.

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10. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins-Gillman.- A dark and realistic account of post-natal depression and how it has been ignored and stigmatized for centuries.

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It’s gonna be a long, hot summer

I thought the best way to write a post about the summer was with a country song in mind. The title from this post is taken by the optimistic and sunny  – can a song be sunny? – Long Hot Summer by Keith Urban and it never fails to remember me how awesome summers can be.

Things have been a little bit quiet over here because I allowed myself the luxury of spending the last 15 days of June doing whatever it felt right at the time. I am already done with my M.A and all the paperwork for my PhD until August so, basically these are the things that are making this one of the best summers in a while. I guess it has to do with a healthy combination of balancing things to do and knowing that you have a fair amount of free time and the possibility to enjoy yourself. So, there are the things that have happened, have planned to happen or just look like great ideas:

  • There are the books that I would love to read this summer although I realize that it is a pretty ambitious list.
  • I have started to do some research on crime fiction for my PhD.
  • I have taken up running and it feels amazing. The running shoes my parents bought me for my grades do help, though.
  • The puppy is teaching me go and fetch instead of the other way round. But don’t we enjoy running in the sun together!!
  • I discovered rice and soy ice-cream at a local store and I’m in awe. They taste the same diary ice cream does, but they don’t make me sick.
  • I would love to do some creative writing this summer. Let’s see how it goes.
  • There are a lot of crime TV shows that I should watch and that I’m slowly getting and watching. Right now I am living in Gant with Detective Hannah Maes and I love her (Code 37). If you have any suggestions, please let me know! I need to watch an immense amount of TV a day to remain sane.
  • I discovered this collection of free articles by Routledge via Sarah Ward and I can’t wait to read them all. Be sure to check them before December 2014.

What have you planned for this summer? :)