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.

The Grapes of Wrath

Book #39: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I finished reading my grandfather’s 1955 copy of The Grapes of Wrath around 11:00 last night, but even 10 hours later I’m feeling a bit muddled about my thoughts on the book.

This was my second Steinbeck read, having read Of Mice and Men last summer after seeing the play on Broadway. The lengths of these two books is pretty drastically different; I think my copy of Of Mice and Men is just over 100 pages, which The Grapes of Wrath is 619 pages. I’ve spent a few weeks working my way through this one, and now I don’t quite know how to feel since I finished.

Though this is obviously a well-known story, here’s a quick blurb about the book: the Joad family, left in poverty in Oklahoma in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, embark on a cross country journey to California, where they’ve heard they can find work. If only things were that easy.

The Grapes of Wrath has always been an important work in my family because my grandfather wrote his thesis on the book while in seminary in the 1950s. Though he died when I was nearly four years old, I felt a certain kinship with him in reading his own annotated copy of the book.

I imagine tonight I’ll be watching the film adaptation of this novel, which is a classic in its own way. My mom takes issue with the film’s ending, though, so we’ll also be watching a filmed version of the stage play sometime soon.

Though I have plenty of other reading to look forward to (one of the many joys in life, I’d say), it’s both satisfying and a little sad to put another American classic in my rearview.

My first Lipstickparty mag piece — check it out!

Today my first piece with Lipstickparty magazine was published online in a series called “Cool Girls Read,” which asks contributors to talk about the influential books that made them love reading. No surprise here, I wrote about Harry Potter.

Here’s the link if you’re interested in reading my piece, and make sure to check out the other cool stuff on the website!

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

Book #36: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

FINALLY!

Okay, let me explain that.

I started reading Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories in March for my Southern lit class. We were only assigned seven of the stories for the class, but I’ve enjoyed O’Connor’s writing since high school and felt motivated to read all 31 stories in the collection.

Obviously, my many other academic reading assignments and leisure reading slowed down my progress in this just a bit. I had hoped early on to read one story per day, but that wasn’t always very realistic. I’ve tried that again more recently, but I realized that reading these stories before bed made me sleepy, so I was trying to read one every morning.

None of my scheduling worked out very successfully, but I still made progress little by little.  I had no real intention of finishing the book today (I still had nearly 200 pages left as of yesterday), but we’ve been blessed with some pretty amazing weather today and my mom and I ended up on the back porch for a few hours, giving me ample time to complete the final stretch.

O’Connor is a master of the short story, but I will say that reading all her stories makes it apparent that they aren’t all great. This does make it obvious which ones are particularly well done, though, so here are a few of my favorites.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” — This was the first O’Connor story I ever read, and one of her two most popular (the other being “Good Country People”). This story has a few of O’Connor’s staples: a multi-generational family, her characteristically black humor, and a shockingly dark ending. It’s one of O’Connor’s most anthologized works for a good reason.

“Good Country People” — In my academic career, I’ve been assigned this short story four times, but it remains entertaining and jarring. With character names like Joy Hulga and Manly Pointer, how could you really be disappointed?

“The Lame Shall Enter First” — This is a long story, but one that I thought moved the quickest as a reader. It tells the story of a father, Sheppard, who takes in a delinquent, intent on saving to boy from himself. There are many lessons to be learned from the characters here.

“Revelation” — A fairly obnoxious woman gets a book thrown at her in a doctor’s office and proceeds to have a mental breakdown. Fun times are had by all.

“Parker’s Back” — A man obsessed with tattoos marries an Evangelical woman who doesn’t really care about him and attempts to please her. Things get squirrelly.

With this book (finally) in my rear view, I’m ready to kick my reading of The Grapes of Wrath into high gear. I’ve already crossed the 100-page mark, but my edition of the book is just over 600, so there’s plenty to be read. Thank God for summer.

Angels in America

Books #34 and 35: Angels in America, by Tony Kushner

Just minutes ago, I finished reading Part Two of Tony Kushner’s epic drama, Angels in America. I’m not quite sure how to feel about it, mostly because I don’t know if I even understood all of it.

Angels in America is pretty safely known as one of the must-reads in gay and lesbian literature, with good reason. Kushner takes on AIDS-riddled New York in a mythic way. The play follows the lives of several interrelated characters, two of whom are diagnosed with the disease, while the others suffer its fallout.

At this point, I think the biggest struggle I’m having is due to the fact that I’ve just read the play, not seen it. You can’t deny that plays are written to be watched, so that’s what I need to do. I’ve added the HBO miniseries adaptation of the play to my “to watch” list, and I imagine I’ll move on that soon so I can see how the visual production works

Though my thoughts overall are a bit muddled, I can say a few things with certainty. This play is absolutely essential reading for lovers of drama, or really anyone looking to understand more about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. I was discussing this with my mom the other day, but I still don’t really know how to articulate it: reading about or seeing representations of AIDS always hits me harder than other illness, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s something to do with the helplessness and despair, and the politically and socially charged nature of the disease. It taps an emotion in me that I don’t quite understand. Needless to say, I’ll be thinking on this one for some time.

June Entertainment: Binge-watching at its finest

It finally feels like summer is in full swing, and what a wonderful feeling it is.

Though my first year of grad school ended over a month ago (how is that even possible?), it took until last week for me to really feel like summer had set in. Between travels to New York and Texas and finishing up my job, I wasn’t able to decompress from the semester for a while, so I’m very glad to feel the freedom sinking in.

For me, this independence means finding as much time as I possibly can for entertainment purposes. What’s the point of having a degree in Pop Culture Studies if not to shirk all responsibilities to watch a movie, right?

Of course, I’ve still got academia to contend with this summer: I’m trying to spend a little time every day working on my Master’s thesis project, and at some point I’m going to sit down and try to really figure out the PhD programs I’m most interested in. That is a pretty ridiculous thought, but it’s reality.

In my leisure time, though, I’m still making room for plenty of pop culture goodness. Here’s an update on my reading and viewing ventures of late.

Books — Sometime in the last week or two I realized I’d only finished one book since the end of my semester, which put me into a bit of an irrational panic. Since then, I’ve done my best to kick into high gear and get some reading done, especially since I know I’ll be returning to some school-related reading soon enough. I’ve now worked through four more works: Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient ExpressJesse Andrews’s Me and Earl and the Dying GirlJudy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches (click the links for my reviews of these works). I’m moving onto Part Two of Angels in America today (look for my review of both parts soon), and I’m making myself read at least one Flannery O’Connor short story per day so I can finish her collected works that I started reading in March. Once I’ve finished Angels in America, I’m moving on to my primary reading goal for the summer: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

TV — The drought of good summer TV is both a curse and a blessing; the fact that there’s so little to watch in real time means there’s a greater opportunity for bingeing on the shows I’ve been waiting to watch for some time. Last week I finished watching the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adamswhich was beautifully acted and produced. During our (very) long car ride to and from Austin, TX, I got started on my loftiest TV goal for 2015: FrasierI’m not sure I can expect to finish all 263 episodes before the end of the year, but I’ve just started season 3, so I think I’m at least making good progress.

Yesterday, my mom and I finished season 1 of Netflix’s Bloodline, a dark and twisty drama about an insanely dysfunctional family in the Florida Keys. The cast is an all-star ensemble, but the acting from Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn is particularly superb. Here’s hoping these two are recognized when the Emmy nominations are announced next month.

Since finishing Bloodline, which we started one weekend while I was still in school, we’re finally ready to make progress on two shows that have been patiently waiting on our DVR for some time now. First up is season two of Broadchurch, which we started last night. I have high hopes for another good season. After Broadchurch, we have the PBS miniseries Wolf Hall to enjoy, which I also imagine will be a nominated show come Emmy time.

As far as current TV goes, I loved (or maybe hated, based on all those deaths) season 5 of Game of Thrones just as much as the rest of the world, and I think season 4 of Veep was the show’s best yet. I’m looking forward to the premiere of season two of True Detective this weekend, but I was very underwhelmed by the first season, so I’m trying to keep my expectations low (but this cast is making me very happy, so it’s kind of hard). The only other current shows I’m watching are Hannibal and Wayward Pines, which I’m intrigued by. I got bored with Wayward Pines after a few episodes, but last week’s revelation reinvigorated my interest. As for Hannibal, it’s still as strange as ever, but totally worth watching.

Movies — Much like my reading for the summer, I found myself feeling behind on my movie-watching earlier this week, but I’m quickly remedying that fact. Mom and I saw Spy on Monday, and I’m hoping we’ll go see Inside Out soon. The only Best Picture nominee I didn’t see in time for the Oscars this year was American Sniper, mostly because the political controversy around it made me decide to abstain. We finally watched it Wednesday night and were completely underwhelmed and surprised it garnered such acclaim. I love Bradley Cooper and think he’s terrifically talented, but there’s no way he deserved another Oscar nomination over David Oyelowo’s performance in Selma. So that was a pretty big disappointment.

My fun movie news, though, is that my mom and I have established a little movie series of our own that we’re very excited about (maybe we’re easily enthused, but oh well). We still have a collection of VHS tapes, many of which are well known movies that I’ve never seen. Yesterday, we picked out 20 that we need to watch and made a bowl with numbered slips of paper, so our goal is to draw one out every day and watch the according movie. After reminding ourselves how a VCR works, we started last night with Robert Redford’s 1992 film, A River Runs Through It, a movie I’m happy to have now seen and crossed off our list.

Now I’m off to make more progress in my quest to read and watch all the things. Happy weekend!