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Summer Ends, Real Life Begins

Oh, world, how is it possible that my summer is already over? Wasn’t it just May?

Okay, I’m whining, but the prospect of returning to school this Monday, even though I’m pretty well prepared, just isn’t my idea of fun at the moment.

I’ve definitely reached the point in my summer when I need school to start back because I’m feeling especially lazy lately. Who says it’s wrong to watch an entire season of a TV show in a day? Sometimes that’s exactly the kind of day I need to rejuvenate, but I should probably get some real work done before I deserve a day of laziness.

In my final weeks before real life resumes, I haven’t totally wasted my time. In fact, only a few hours ago I returned home from a quick road trip up to Chautauqua, NY with my mom to visit my roommate, Ryan, during the final days of his internship at the Chautauqua Institution. Our visit to Ryan wasn’t entirely selfless, though; since Ryan has interned for the Chatauquan Daily, he was able to score us free passes to a sold out event at the Institution. That event just so happened to be An Evening with Carol Burnett, a woman who doesn’t need much introduction. My mom has loved Carol Burnett for most of her life, so the opportunity to see her on stage was one we couldn’t miss. We attended a Q&A featuring classic clips from “The Carol Burnett Show,” and Mom was even lucky enough to get to ask a question (Q: If you were making your show today, who would you want to work with? A: Steve Martin, Kristen Chenoweth, and George Clooney for obvious reasons).

We had a whirlwind of a trip, particularly because we woke up this morning at 5:00 AM to get an extra early start to our drive home, but the satisfaction of seeing a TV legend was totally worth it. Here are a few photos from our time.

A lovely sunset on Chautauqua Lake

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Enjoying our tour of the grounds on a chilly evening


A failed attempt at finding an appropriately lit setting for a portrait


The incomparable Carol Burnett taking her bows  

Now, onto the sad news: like I said, this summer is breathing its last, so my time will be far less available for my own entertainment. Sigh. In my attempts to soak in as much as possible before reality sets in, I’ve done my fair share of reading and watching lately. Here’s an update on all things pop culture in my life.

Books — I’ve been a bit slower than usual with my reading projects of late, but the fact that I only have 5 more books to read before reaching my goal of 50 books in 2015 seems like something to be happy about. I just wrote my reflection on reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicidesand prior to that I worked quickly through Tim O’Brien’s war novel The Things They Carried I’m still working my way through Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the Outlander series. I still have a bit over 300 pages left, but in a book of 947 pages, that seems pretty doable. I’m looking forward to dedicating my free reading time to finishing this one before moving onto something else (if there’s any time for personal reading this semester).

Movies — I don’t have anything terribly interesting to report in my movie-watching life, though I’ve been doing plenty of it. I’m just 5 movies short of my goal to watch 100 new (to me) movies in 2015, so it won’t take me any time to finish that list. I’m still lacking in one area, though; I hope to watch 8 movies I’ve never seen from the AFI Top 100 list, but I’ve only done 3 so far this year. I plan on dedicating some of my next movies to hitting that goal.

The one movie I do have something to say about is the German indie Wetlands. Wetlands screened when I went to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, but I didn’t watch it until Wednesday. A good friend of mine saw the film while we were at Sundance, and she recommended it, but told me some of it could be embarrassing to watch with other people. I wholeheartedly agree, but I really enjoyed the film. Essentially, Wetlands tells the story of a neurotic teenager exploring her sexuality and body in disturbing, hilarious, and rather repulsive ways. This is not the kind of movie you watch with family, but I still totally recommend it (to the strong-stomached, anyway). I also thought Carla Juri was superb in the film’s starring role. If you’re will to spend a sometimes uncomfortable hour watching a funny/sweet/sad film with subtitles, Wetlands is for you.

TV — If I’m good at anything, it’s watching TV. Though I’m still keeping up with a handful of TV shows this summer, I’m anxiously awaiting the return of real TV in a few weeks (I really need more “Empire” in my life). My favorite show of the summer was Lifetime’s UnREAL,” which sadly ended a few weeks ago. If you’re looking for some high drama binge-worthy TV, devote yourself to a day of “UnREAL.” You won’t be disappointed. I’m still keeping up with MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and “Scream: The TV Series” as well as NBC’s “Hannibal” and “Hollywood Game Night.” I’m wishing I was more interested in these final episodes of “Hannibal,” but mostly I’m just hoping for a satisfying conclusion at this point.

My TV-streaming life still consists of powering through “Frasier,” of which I’m proud to say I’ve watched 206 episodes so far. I had no expectation I’d get this far before starting back to school, but I definitely expect to finish the series sometime in September. Though I’ll feel accomplished in finishing such a big series, I’ll certainly be sad to say goodbye to such a thoroughly entertaining show.

While I’ve spent most of the summer watching only “Frasier,” I added a second streaming project on a whim last week, and so far I’m pleased with my decision. On Tuesday I started season 1 of the Sundance Channel’s Rectifyvia Netflix and I’m really liking it so far. The show is dark (it tells the story of a man who’s just been released from prison after 19 years on death row and his extended family) but it’s got a good balance of drama and humor to keep it from seeming to heavy. I’ve heard and read good things about the show in the past, so I’m glad I’ve started. There are only 16 episodes of the show on Netflix since its third season just finished airing, so I expect to finish watching it all pretty quickly.

All right world, now is the moment of truth. I have to face the reality that soon my time won’t always be my own, which sadly means I won’t have so many chances to fill my life with good books and movies. What are you watching and reading in these last weeks of summer? If nothing else, I hope your lives keep you entertained.

The Virgin Suicides

Book #45: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

In short, today has been a whirlwind. I’ve been up since around 5:00 AM and drove 8 hours back home from Chautauqua, NY with my mom and roommate, Ryan, after visiting Ryan during the final days of his summer internship (after I write this, I’ll be working on an “end of summer” blog post with more details on our trip — Stay tuned!).

We arrived home about an hour ago and I’m doing my best to remain alert and productive, even if my body is saying it would rather lounge and watch Netflix for the rest of the day. Since we’re already unpacked with a load of laundry in the washer, the next thing on the to do list I could think to cross off was this, updating my blog, so here we are!

Wednesday night, as I attempted to get to bed early before our drive up to New York the next morning, I (of course) found myself unable to fall asleep, which at least gave me to opportunity to finish my last reading project of the summer: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. 

I seem to be working my way through Eugenides’s three novels in reverse order from least to most entertaining, or at least I hope that’s the case. I’ve only heard good things about his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, and though it’s on my tentative reading list for the year, I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish it before the semester starts on Monday, so I went with a shorter option. I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, last summer, and was completely underwhelmed. You can only read about the problems of rich white academics for so long, ya know?

With The Virgin Suicides, though, I felt more optimistic, mostly because I watched the film adaptation (which was Sofia Copolla’s directorial debut) in recent years and really enjoyed it. I was also vaguely curious if the movie/book would be applicable to my Manic Pixie Dream Girl thesis project, so it seemed like a worthwhile read.

I’m a little torn on whether I’d really recommend this novel. It’s written from an odd perspective; the narrator is never really identified, speaking only through a collective “we” that seems to represent the boys who grew up admiring the Lisbon girls for whom the book is named. It’s no secret that the five sisters will all commit suicide at some point before the end of the novel (hence its title), and it opens with the unsuccessful suicide attempt of the youngest Lisbon, thirteen-year-old Cecilia. I should also note here that, despite its focus on teenage suicide, The Virgin Suicides isn’t really a hugely dark or tragic book, so don’t be turned off just by the subject matter.

After reading some fifty pages of the novel, I decided to rewatch the movie because I was into the story and thought it would be fun to see it again as I was reading. This maybe wasn’t the greatest decision. I didn’t find the film as charming the second time around, and so much of its narration is verbatim from the novel that it made reading seem less urgent. I know the movie is generally well-liked, but I was bummed to realize I wasn’t as in love with it as I’d remembered.

So, should you read it? Eh. Maybe. My recommendation is this: if for some reason you’re interested in this novel and haven’t seen the big screen adaptation, go for it. If you like the novel, you’ll like the movie. If you’ve already seen the movie, make your own decision, but know that the adaptation is very faithful (apart from a slight change toward the end of the novel which relates to one of the girls’ suicides).

The Things They Carried

Book #44: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Since I’ve finished my goal of reading three of my assigned books for the upcoming semester, I’ve got a bit more time to enjoy reading of my own choice. It’s a nice feeling, but it also leaves me with a crisis of deciding what to read next.

At the end of my spring semester I had to read the short story “The Things They Carried” that opens Tim O’Brien’s novel of the same name. I loved the story, so the book has been on my short list for things to read all summer, and now finally felt like the right time.

To be honest, I’m not sure I totally get everything from this book, largely because I’m fortunate enough to be unscathed by war. Add to that the fact that I’ve also been sick while reading this and fairly drugged on Mucinex, and you’ll realize that my views of the book aren’t necessarily totally clear. Much of O’Brien’s writing is poetic and harrowing, and I totally recommend to those interested, but I also have to say that I’ll probably need to revisit this later in life to get a clearer picture of it. It’s a book that’s bound to leave me thinking.

As for how I’m spending my last days of summer freedom: I’m still working my way through Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, which at 941 pages isn’t exactly a quick read. I’ve also had to leave it unopened periodically so I make sure I’m reading what I should be reading. Hopefully I also have time to squeeze in another play or novel or something before real life resumes. Which reminds me: is it really August already?


Book #43: Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

I’m pretty proud of my reading speed in recent days.

Today I finished my third book in one week’s time. All three of these books happen to be required reading for one of my classes this semester, so the fact that I’ve gotten ahead before the semester begins is just icing on the cake.

I skipped a blog post for Book #42 on my 2015 reading list, which was Salman Rushdie’s Shame. In all honesty, I didn’t write anything about it because I don’t know what to write. I finished the book yesterday afternoon, but my thoughts on it are muddled. Shame was my first encounter with Rushdie, so I’m hoping some class discussions this fall will enlighten me on the subject.

Now to the book at hand: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (you might notice that with titles like Shame and Disgrace the readings for this class don’t exactly sound uplifting). This was also my first reading of Coetzee, and stylistically, it’s one that’s made me interested in reading more of his works.

My roommate read Disgrace in recent weeks because he’s also taking this class, and told me he had mixed feelings about it. I believe his exact words were something along the lines of “whiny white people,” which certainly isn’t ideal reading, and not the most enticing introduction when I started reading the book last night.

Ryan definitely wasn’t wrong in his assessment of the book. At first, I was a bit amused by David Lurie, the novel’s (anti-) hero. Lurie is a 52-year-old Communications professor at a university in South Africa. He’s far more interested in high brow entertainment than his mediocre students. But then Lurie becomes obsessed with a young female student, luring her into his home for an affair that she only seems to tolerate.

By chapter 2, I was already repulsed by Lurie — I even scribbled “you’re gross” in the margins on page 12. He feels entitled to the affections of his student, or perhaps any female he deems worthy of his love. I was most disgusted by the following interaction, when Lurie tries to convince the girl she must spend the night with him: “A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”

As much as I hated the sentiment in this statement, I ended up feeling more compassionate toward Lurie than I ever imagined. Lurie ends up staying with his daughter in her rural home temporarily, and the two of them fall victim to a horrendous act of violence that carries the weight of the racial tension in South Africa. Though Lurie largely remains self-obsessed, his eyes are opened a bit to the world around him and his humanity comes through by the book’s end.

The hardest part of reading this book with a terribly flawed protagonist is separating him from his creator. Ryan mentioned this to me when he read the book, saying it was hard to tell if the sentiments expressed were those of the characters or Coetzee himself. On my copy of the book, Coetzee’s image is featured on the back cover next to the blurb, so I found it especially difficult to see the character as anyone else. Maybe this was intentional, but I’d like to imagine Coetzee is a better man than his character. I guess I’ll have to do some further reading to find out.


Book #41: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Being productive is a wonderful feeling. Just moments ago, I finished reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, marking the first book I’ve read toward the upcoming semester’s reading list. I’m happy to report that I made a good decision in starting with a smart, funny, thoroughly entertaining novel.

White Teeth was already on my tentative reading list for 2015, so the fact that it ended up being an assigned text for a World Lit class I’m taking this fall worked nicely with my life plans. I went into reading White Teeth with very little knowledge of what it was about; I knew this was Smith’s first novel, took place primarily between the 1970s and 1990s in London, and was apparently funny. All good things, I suppose.

Turns out, the book is divided into four sections that shift focus among a pretty large ensemble of characters. We start with Archibald and Samad, friends since they served together in World War II, and then quickly branch out to meet their families over the course of several years. The book is full of culture clash, featuring characters of various racial, cultural, religious, and economical, and sexual backgrounds. Needless to say, this book leaves readers with a lot to think about.

Despite the complexity of the characters and story, White Teeth is an easy-to-read, funny book. Smith is able to write in a way that is eloquent and thought-provoking without ever being unapproachable. To me, this is an incredible and rare talent that makes me all the more interested in reading more of Smith’s works.


Side note: another of the things I knew related to this book before reading it was that there’s an English miniseries adaptation of the novel. I did a presentation on adaptation for a class last fall, and the book I read on the subject had lots of discussion with Smith about her perceptions of the visual adaptation of her work. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to watch it yet, but I have high hopes of doing so sometime soon.

Reading and Watching: My Summer Activities

It’s been about a month since my last all inclusive post about what pop culture I’m enjoying these days, so let me grace you with an abbreviated version of my current interests.

Movies — Mom and I are still going strong with our VHS viewing schedule this summer (though we haven’t watched anything in a few days, but I’m assuming we’ll start back tonight). We’ve covered more than half of the movies on the shelf, so I’m feeling good about our progress. In theaters, we’ve only seen four movies this summer: Spy, Inside Out, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Trainwreck. They’ve all been worthwhile experiences, though, so I can hardly ask for anything more.

Books — A few days ago I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, which was my biggest reading goal of the summer, so that felt like quite an accomplishment. After finishing that, I did a quick reread of John Green’s Paper Towns since the movie is coming out this week (you can read my comments on the book here). Now that the beginning of my semester is looming closer, I’ve started some of my school reading with Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, which I’m really enjoying so far. It’s satisfying to head back into academic territory without it feeling like a burden. Though I haven’t picked it up in more than a week, I’ve read just under half of the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Dragonfly in Amber. I made myself leave it alone until I finished The Grapes of Wrath because I’d been spending too much time on it, and since then I’ve been concentrated on other things, and keep forgetting to go back (I realize this is a silly problem to complain about). The fact that it’s there for me to read is making me happy enough at this point, so I’ll eventually reward myself for completing my school reading by heading back to something I chose for my own reading pleasure.

TV — As per usual, this is the area where I’m really succeeding these days. Summer TV can be a big bore, but I’ve got several things on my plate this year that are keeping me happy. I’m keeping up with Teen Wolf and True Detective, both of which are shows I’d watched previous to this summer. Here’s hoping True Detective ends on a strong note. I felt like it was totally overhyped the first time around, so I’m glad the rest of the world is starting to see that in season two. I’m also still watching Hannibal, which has had a fairly lame season in my opinion, but the last episode and the preview for the final three are giving me hope it’ll end strong. Side note: I cannot STAND the recasting of Mason Verger for this season (so last week’s episode was pretty satisfying for me). In my mind, he was some weird version of Jim Carrey’s The Grinch, so good riddance.

As for new summer shows, I’m totally obsessed with Lifetime’s UnREAL after I marathoned the first six episodes last Monday. It’s just the right amount of funny, campy, silly and crazy, and the performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are wonderful. Plus it stars a member of the Harry Potter cast, so I have to love it. I’m also really enjoying MTV’s Scream, another crazy campy show that’s thoroughly entertaining. My roommate and I watched all four of the Scream movies fairly recently, and the show has enough of over-the-top quality that makes the movies so fun that it’s totally worth watching. And the pop culture references are top notch, so good job, people.

Finally, I’m still making good progress with streaming Frasier, undoubtedly my biggest undertaking of 2015. With long shows like this, I often watch something else to break it up a bit, but I haven’t started anything else yet, so we’ll see what happens there. I started season one on June 3, and as of today, I’m on episode 17 of season 5, so I think that’s pretty good progress. I wasn’t sure I’d finish the whole show before the end of 2015, but that prospect is looking brighter now.

John Green’s Paper Towns and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

In honor of this week’s release of the film adaptation of John Green’s book, I decided the reward myself with a reread of Paper Towns before committing to academic reading as the semester’s beginning looms closer and closer. As it turns out, the experience has given me plenty to think about in reference to my master’s thesis project, so it was really a win-win situation.

Let’s back up a bit. I’m not sure if I’ve written about my MA thesis topic on my blog, so here’s a crash course: I’m writing about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in independent film (click the link for a quick virtual journey to Wikipedia if you don’t know the term). I read recently that John Green said he wrote Paper Towns to debunk the MPDG trope, so I was intrigued to read the book with that idea in mind.

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the book’s MPDG in question, at least in the eyes of her life-long neighbor and the book’s narrator, Quentin Jacobsen. Quentin has been hopelessly in love with Margo since childhood, so when she sneaks into his room late one night and recruits him for an evening of escapades around their hometown, he hopes that there’s a chance of romance. Until Margo vanishes the next day, that is.

Here’s the thing about John Green trying to dismantle any perceptions we have of MPDGs: I don’t think a MPDG is necessarily a bad thing for a character to be. When the term’s creator, Nathan Rabin, first mentioned it in a review of the movie Elizabethtown in 2007 (a movie that is, coincidentally, named for my hometown), he criticized the trope as representative of a specific type of male fantasy, one whose two-dimensional existence works only to help a male character have some personal revelation, and then her purpose has been served. By his definition, MPDGs are “bad,” and I whole heartedly agree that this is a false, fantastical representation of what a female can and should be on screen (if you’re looking for a good example of this, I’d point to Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, a movie I find rather repulsive).

But this version of the MPDG, in my opinion, is only the basis of the character. It is a foundational archetype, one who can exist in this capacity only, or one who can grow in complexity and depth. This second version (one I’ve been loosely calling the “MPDG 2.0” in early drafts of my thesis work) is the one I’m most interested in, because she is more than a stereotype, though she can certainly embody many of the same basic characteristics.

This is where I see Margo Roth Spiegelman fitting in. Early in the novel, Quentin sees Margo as he chooses to see her; not as a real human girl, but as a projected fantasy that he’s imagined for years. It’s only Margo’s disappearance that makes Quentin start to realize everyone has a different perception of the Margo they know. She is much more than Quentin’s imaginings ever allowed.

It becomes most clear at the book’s conclusion what Green is trying to say about MPDGs when Quentin comes to realize how “dangerous” and “treacherous” it is to think of a person as an idea. Margo sees the same thing in herself, saying she’s a “paper girl” who everyone loves because they can mold her into a different person for their own pleasure. We realize that Margo is more than Quentin imagined, because she is human and exists as something more than the fantastical daydreams of those around her.

So, after lots of thoughts that I hope are somewhat sensical, I have to say this: I think Margo is a MPDG, but she’s a good one. On the surface she’s seemingly perfect and daring and exciting, at least in Quentin’s eyes. In reality, though, she’s human, flawed and insecure like the rest of us. For this fact I thank John Green. If he keeps creating characters like Margo, a pixie grounded in reality, then I’d say young readers are in safe hands.