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2016 Reading List #61: The Girls, by Emma Cline

I’ve been interested in reading The Girls since it was featured on every summer reading list in the past months, but my skepticism about contemporary literature made me hesitant to invest. In the end, I don’t really feel better or worse off for having read The Girls. But hey, sometimes a little ambivalence is better than hatred.

The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of a young girl involved with a group meant to resemble the Manson Family of the late 1960s. Evie Boyd is entranced by several girls who live on a ranch with Russell, our Charles Manson character, and quickly tries to enmesh herself in their culture.

The story is really set in the present-day, starring adult Evie, and though we know from early on that she wasn’t involved in the murder the group is famous for, we don’t really know how she avoided it. In 1969, Evie is a girl desperate to grow up and be given attention and love, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see her agreeing to some pretty terrible things if it means earning respect from her superiors.

Though I was immediately intrigued by the framework of this novel, I was never quite dazzled by the actual thing. Cline’s novel is a strong debut, but I felt a bit removed for the entire reading experience. The novel’s concluding chapters are chilling, but those 30 pages were the only time I was truly invested. Cline’s habit of writing in sentence fragments was also bothersome to me—though, to be fair, that might have more to do with my failed ability to turn off the English-teaching part of my brain during pleasure reading.

In hindsight, I can see why others would like The Girls, but it wasn’t something I’d add to my list of favorites. At least I can know rest happily knowing I gave it a fair shot and came out none the worse.

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Managing entertainment with a full-time job

Hello, long lost blogging world. Apologies for my absence (not that I assume anyone noticed).

Life has been odd lately, mostly because I’m a person who goes to work every day and teaches people and isn’t a student anymore. These are new things and they’re nice things, but they’re also still a little strange.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed in my life, though, is my constant pursuit to watch and read as much as I possibly can in a day. So, to catch you up on my latest reading and viewing ventures, here’s a quick recap of my life lately.

Books — A few weeks ago, I reached my 2016 goal of reading 52 books, so now, I’m free to enjoy my reading just a bit more. I still have three other reading goals to accomplish: read Arthur Miller’s collected plays, read something by Jane Austen, and read something by Charles Dickens. Thankfully, I’m 5 plays away (out of 18) from checking Miller off the list, and I’m about 1/3 of the way through Sense and Sensibility. Progress! Otherwise, my roommate and I have been enjoying more read-aloud projects (we’ve done a 700+ page collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto so far), and I’ve read both Amy Schumer’s and Jessi Klein’s comedy memoirs in recent weeks.

Movies — I’ve been in a bit of a movie slump lately, mostly because my attentions have been taken up by watching all kinds of TV. Recent viewing experiences have included The Light Between Oceans and Fruitvale Station, both of which were tear-inducing in very different ways. I’m also planning to watch Straight Outta Compton today. Otherwise, I’m doing my best to keep up with all the film festival coverage and anxiously awaiting the release of La La Land and Manchester by the Sea.

TV — This is the area where I’ve been shining my brightest lately. After finishing Felicity a week or two ago, I’ve wandered through lots of viewing. I finally finished rewatching Game of Thrones, including the most recent season, I rewatched most of Rome with my mom, I sped through Netflix’s The Get Down and Amazon’s One Mississippi, and my roommate and I have just started Stranger Things. My current solo TV project is Sex and the City, which I’m slightly embarrassed to say I started watching last Tuesday, and I’m already halfway through season 4. Turns out not having homework means I have a slight struggle making myself turn the TV off.

And in exciting TV news, the Emmy awards are tonight! Here’s hoping for lots of Game of Thrones victories and unexpected wins.

What are you watching and reading these days? I’m always open to suggestions. 🙂

2016 Reading List #56: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I’ve been a terrible blogger of late, but sometimes that’s what happens when you’re a grown up with full-time employment. My lack of posting has no reflection on my consumption of pop culture, though—I’ve been reading and watching things like a pro.

And speaking of reading… Bel Canto was the second shared reading project my roommate and I have embarked upon since the school year started. We decided to read it together over the summer, and it turned out to be a lovely shared experience.

Bel Canto takes place in an unnamed South American country, where a diverse group of people have gathered for a swanky birthday celebration at the home of the vice president, only to have the party overtaken by terrorists in search of the country’s president. Despite the set-up, Bel Canto is a book with minimal violence, and the story is much more about overcoming differences than fighting with enemies.

I had a few issues with bits of the content and characterization, but the story is largely a compassionate one that pulls you in and breaks your heart by the end. I’d definitely recommend it for a quiet/sweet/sad reading experience.

And just a quick, fun tidbit: apparently my roommate and I are influential tastemakers (though we’d always assumed this anyway) because two days after we began reading, the film adaptation of Bel Canto was announced, and it’s set to star Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, and Demián Bichir. With a cast that good, here’s hoping for a satisfying movie.

2016 Reading List #51: Bayou Folk, by Kate Chopin

Because Kate Chopin is just one of the coolest ladies in literature, I jumped right into Bayou Folk, one of her two published short stories collections, just after I finished At Fault a few weeks ago. Though I read two other books and started a third in the time I was reading Bayou Folk, that doesn’t reflect on my feelings about the work. Once again, Chopin is a joy to read.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy Bayou Folk quite as much as I have Chopin’s novels, but that’s probably true of most short story collections. I really loved some, others were fine. I was interested to realize though, that Chopin operates in a way that mirrors what Faulkner is famous for—carrying characters and locations through several different works to create an interconnected network for her writing. It’s fun to jump into a world of familiar names and places and see where the new story takes you.

And since finishing Bayou Folk, I only have one book left to complete my 2016 goal! Look for a post on completing my reading goal soon.

 

2016 Reading List #50: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night, by James Runcie

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night was probably one of the most disappointing reading projects I’ve yet had in 2016.

After falling in love with Grantchester, the TV adaptation of the book series, earlier this summer, I was excited to read the books that inspired the show. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, the first book in the series, was a fun read that closely aligned with the series. After season 1, though, it’s clear the TV show took its own approach, borrowing only sparingly from the books, and I’m sad to say I’m much happier with the direction of the adaptation than the original.

I found many of Runcie’s stories to be underwhelming and sometimes boring. Runcie has a tendency to go into unnecessary detail about insignificant plot points (I don’t care at all about the rules of cricket, but there was an 8-page section devoted to this topic), so I often lost interest and tuned out from time to time. There’s also a pretty gigantic change in the love story from page to screen, and I much prefer what the TV series is doing with this storyline.

Though I already have a copy of the third book in the series, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it. I’m sad to have spent money (and time) on a series I’m likely to give up, but I’ll find more intriguing ways to spend my time reading.

2016 Reading Lis #46: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Perhaps the quickest version of this post is to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child left me feeling… conflicted.

But I can’t really just leave it there.

In anticipation of Cursed Child, my feelings waffled between trying to limit my expectations and really, really wanting to like it. And I did like it. But I didn’t love it. At all.

Here’s my biggest problem: in the scope of all things Harry Potter, nothing can match the magic of the original series. Though I preordered my copy of the play months ago from Amazon, I paid a visit to the local Barnes & Noble midnight release party because I so enjoyed them years ago. None of this experience could be the same. The anticipation I felt was more anxiety than excitement this time around. I didn’t want to read something that would mess with a perfect series.

And Cursed Child doesn’t really mess with the original series, at least in my opinion. Because I see the original seven books as sacred, I refuse to allow something new (that wasn’t even really written by J.K. Rowling) to affect that world. Cursed Child is fine—likable, funny, sweet, somber—but it’s a mere shadow of the original works.

There are many reasons for this, I think, apart from Rowling’s limited input. First, jumping from a set of long and detailed novels to a two-part play is a big leap. The play is comprised of lots and lots of minuscule scenes, and by the end it felt like a Shondaland TV show to me—every scene break had a dramatic cliffhanger that kept the pace moving ever-forward. There’s no time to live in the show’s moments, especially when the expanse of the play crosses decades of time.

Though I might feel different seeing the stage production rather than just reading it, I also felt like the magic was heavy-handed. I’m curious to know how so many of these effects are done (the play contains Polyjuicing, dementors, Time Turning, underwater stunts, Transfiguration, etc.), but it reads like someone trying to cram in as many oohs-and-ahhs as possible before the curtain falls. At its core, Cursed Child is meant to be about the difficulties Harry faces with his son, so I’d have preferred a much simpler play to tell an intimate story.

In fact, the way this difficult relationship is pushed forward is through an odd and complicated overarching plot that I found really unnecessary. For one, when we came to know Voldemort as a villain over the course of seven novels, trying to introduce and conquer a new villain in one play seems doomed to fail. And without giving anything away, I personally predicted the villain and their connection to the characters from early on. The “big reveal” isn’t exactly on par with, say, the revelations of “The Prince’s Tale.”

And speaking of the Half-Blood Prince… I may have been most disappointed by the Snape and Dumbledore cameos (done in alternate reality and via portrait, so no one is resurrected or something equally strange). Though these are two characters I love dearly, they both had beautiful final scenes in the original series, and neither of them felt at all authentic to me in the play. Their individual dialogue was clearly an imitation of the real thing, and I wish they’d remained in the past where their stories belong.

Finally, on that same note, it’s very touchy to revisit such beloved characters and try to make them what readers know them to be already. Harry felt most true in the first scenes of the play, which are just lifted from the Deathly Hallows epilogue, but otherwise, he’s a big drag and kind of bad father. Ron is a caricature of himself—sure, Ron’s always been the most light-hearted of the trio, but he’s also got substance—and Hermione is a leader without having the characteristic bossiness that makes her so endearing.

Okay, I want to stop complaining to talk a bit about the good. The Albus/Scorpius dynamic is very sweet, and I’m glad no one tried to turn it into a second-generation version of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I was very happy to see several young people—people who would’ve been too young to be original Harry Potter readers—quickly walking to the shelves when I went to a bookstore yesterday. I’m glad to know a young generation might be getting excited about the theatre and seeing that very real magic happening live.

In the end, though, I’m much more excited about the prospect of the Fantastic Beasts film adaptations for two reasons. First, J.K. Rowling really wrote the screenplay and I’d trust her with anything, and second, though we’re staying in the Wizarding World, we’ll be meeting an entirely new crop of characters and can’t be disappointed by recreations of people we already know and love.

In 2011, when the final film in the series was released, J.K. Rowling said Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home. She’s right. But for now, I think I’ll stick to those perfect books she gave us nearly a decade ago.

2016 Reading List #44: The Price, by Arthur Miller

Something I’m learning from having read nine of Arthur Miller’s plays this year: if you run into a play about two brothers with an unsettled familial past, you can pretty much bet who the author is.

The Price is another simple work by Miller, featuring only four characters and a single set. The action follows a middle-aged man who’s brought an appraiser to buy the remaining possessions of his parents, who lost their fortune during the Depression, before their home is demolished. When the protagonist’s long-absent older brother suddenly returns for the appraisal, unresolved conflicts quickly emerge.

The Price is likely a lesser-known of Miller’s works because it has many of his classic elements without being particularly groundbreaking. If you’re looking for this brother-to-brother dynamic, why go any further than the American classic that is Death of a Salesman? There’s nothing wrong with this play, it just lacks the emotional punch present in Miller’s most famous and beloved works.

Though I’ve been reading Miller’s plays in threes and this would mark the end of my latest trilogy, I’m going to knock one more out before moving on to something else because I’m curious about it. Stay tuned to see my reaction to The Creation of the World and Other Business.