Recent Reads: Seating Arrangements, Home Front, and The Girl Who Played With Fire

seating arrangements, home front, the girl who played with fire

Seating Arrangements (Maggie Shipstead): For some reason, I tend to read a ton of books like this – books where a group of over-privileged, dysfunctional white people gather at some idyllic New England setting (always on the water) for a big event (typically a wedding) that reveals just how screwed up they all are. Given that, it’s clear I like the genre – but I didn’t like this book very much. The story is told through the perspectives of various family members but especially focuses on the patriarch, Winn, who is one of the most pathetic and out-of-touch characters I’ve encountered recently. The focus on Winn ruined the book for me; had Shipstead developed some of the book’s more likeable figures instead, I think I would have enjoyed this more.

Home Front (Kristin Hannah): If you ask me, Kristin Hannah is the new Jodi Picoult – she writes books that are incredible readable, that you can’t put down, and that you still nonetheless realize are a bit heavy-handed and cliche. Home Front, about a female helicopter pilot who is deployed to Iraq, felt a bit like Army Wives to me – that is, cliched and something that would appear on Lifetime (okay, I’ve never actually seen Army Wives, but this is what I’d imagine the show is like). I admit that I did tear up at multiple points, but overall I thought the book slipped into corniness too often. I’ve also noticed that Hannah’s stories tend to feature certain recurring characteristics: broken relationships between spouses, uber-bratty teenage daughters, and letters from loved ones received after their death. This doesn’t make Hannah’s books bad, per se, but I feel like she should try for a bit more creativity rather than falling back on the same devices.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson): This book started out really slowly; I’d say the first 200 pages or so were rather uneventful. For instance: did we really need to hear so much about Lisbeth’s solo travels, particularly given that they didn’t have much relevance to the main plot line? However, once the central mystery was revealed, the story kicked into gear and the book became difficult to put down. The Girl Who Played with Fire was also fascinating in its reveal of Salander’s past, helping explain why she is the peculiar way she is. Overall, the book was uneven, but the exciting latter half made it a pretty good read.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #10-12. Look here for books #1-3, #4-6, and #7-9)

All images via Goodreads

Recent Reads: On Chesil Beach, The Art of Fielding, and The Newlyweds

It’s summertime (for grad students, at least), and that means I finally have time to read for pleasure once again, which is a glorious feeling. Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading lately:

on chesil beach, the art of fielding, the newlyweds

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): This was a strange little novel; it’s just over 200 pages and I’ve owned it for years but never managed to read it despite its brevity. The book takes place over the course of one night – the main characters’ wedding night – with flashbacks to how they met. To get through this book, you have to resign yourself to the fact that it’s not about a plot (nothing much really happens), but more about creating a sketch of the two main characters, of their emotions and quirks and inexperience. Overall, I kept getting the sense that I was supposed to find the book much more profound than I actually did. In fact, the only part that struck me as particularly thought-provoking came on the last page of the book, with this line: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.” That’s good stuff. The rest of the novel? Not so much.

The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach): At one point last summer, seemingly all of my friends were reading this book (and raving about it). Needless to say, I had high expectations going in, and this is the rare book that met them. I was a bit hesitant that this would be too much of a “baseball book” for me, but it’s not at all – yes, baseball is a huge part of the story, but the book seems to use it more as a metaphor for life in general, which I liked. The book tells the story of five people – three baseball players, the school president, and his daughter – at a small liberal arts college is Wisconsin. Harbach creates five well-defined and memorable characters, and I was totally rooting for all of them, messed up though they were. I also loved the novel’s ending, which is becoming something of a rarity for me these days; it wasn’t wrapped up perfectly neat and tidy, but the resolution was quite satisfying.

The Newlyweds (Nell Freudenberger): This novel tells the story of Amina and George, who meet online and wind up marrying, with Amina emigrating from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York to be with him. Having just taken a course on immigration law, I was distracted the entire time I was reading this novel – I kept thinking about everything I’d learned from class about citizenship and visa requirements (cough, cough, law nerd). In any case, I was initially fascinated by the strangeness of George and Amina’s relationship and by Amina’s attempts to adjust to life in the US. I finished the entire book in a day, unable to stop reading because I had to know what would happen next. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed – Amina became increasingly unlikeable, and the novel seemed largely unresolved at the end. I couldn’t help but think there was so much more story Freudenberger could have told about the fate of George and Amina’s marriage.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #7-9. Look here for books #1-3 and #4-6)

All images via Goodreads

Recent Reads: Sweet Tooth, Winter Garden, Firefly Lane

I made it one of my goals this year to read 27 books (for my 27th year…get it? So deep), and I’m currently about two books behind the pace I need to keep. However, the end of the semester is in sight (thank god), so hopefully I’m about to become a reading machine (of non-legal books) once more. Anyway, here’s a look at books four, five, and six:

sweet tooth, winter garden, firefly lane

Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan): I’ve read lots of McEwan’s work, and he has a style that I find distinct – and that I enjoy – but that I struggle to describe. Maybe it’s that, even when describing mundane events, the prose is so smooth and detailed that I can easily become engrossed in it? I’m not sure, but I do like his writing. And I liked Sweet Tooth, although the I found much of the book slow moving and I felt like many of the references to events in 1970s England were matters I couldn’t fully appreciate or understand. This book was a slow burn, but I especially liked the last chapter which, through a neat narrative trick, makes you rethink much of what came before.

Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah): This book tells the story of two daughters learning about their mother, Anya’s, past in Russia. It strongly reminded me of another book I read recently, The Storyteller, in that both novels revolve around an elderly woman telling her descendants a horrific story about surviving an atrocity during WW2 (here, the Siege of Leningrad; in The Storyteller, the Holocaust). And as with The Storyteller, I found the historical portion of the novel much more compelling than the novel’s present; even though it’s difficult to read about the conditions in Leningrad, you won’t be able to put the book down. I was ready to declare that I loved this book until I got to the very ending…there’s a “twist” that seems unnecessary. The book should have ended a few pages earlier, with the conclusion of Anya’s story and her reconciliation with her two daughters. The development that follows is ridiculous and cheapens the story’s power.

Firefly Lane (Kristin Hannah): After reading two Kristin Hannah books back-to-back, I can definitely say I liked Winter Garden much better than this one. The problem I had with Firefly Lane was that it’s a story about two best friends, and one of them is extremely unlikeable. It’s hard to enjoy a story where you find one of the main characters to be selfish, insensitive, and just annoying. This book also reminded me a lot of Judy Bloom’s Summer Sisters – two best friends, one “good” and one “bad,” and a guy who seems to love both of them at different times. However, Summer Sisters was much better executed and more compelling; this novel seems lacking in comparison. Firefly Lane is an easy read, and it’s entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it much.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #4-6. Find books #1-3 here.)

All images via Goodreads

Seeing “Once” on Broadway

once 1

This might sound cheesy, but to me, one of the most magical things in the world is seeing live performances on stage. Whether it’s a big, showy Broadway musical or a more straightforward play, there’s just something wonderful about being in a theater and seeing the actors before you onstage. It always amazes me that actors get up there and give about eight performances per week with such enthusiasm that I, in the crowd, honestly can’t tell whether it’s the 1st time or the 457th time they’ve performed their part. That’s talent and passion and dedication, and it’s awesome to see right in front of you.

I’ve been lucky enough to see lots of great musicals and plays, but I have to say that my most recent experience, seeing Once on Broadway, quite possibly tops them all. I’ve already used the word “magical” in this post, but I think it applies here again, as Once definitely has a touch of magic about it. The music is phenomenal, the performances are fantastic, and the story is poignant. An excellent combination, in my book.

My family saw the musical on Easter Sunday, catching a matinee after brunch. As we arrived at the theater and waited in line to enter, we learned a fun fact from the friendly Irishman standing in line behind us – the theater’s stage is decorated like a bar, and before the show and during intermission, the audience is welcome to come onstage, buy a drink, and listen to cast members play some music. I tried to covertly take a picture of the scene before the show (photography is prohibited at all times, but I promise I did not use flash!), but it didn’t turn out great and doesn’t capture at all how cool the atmosphere was inside the theater. Photos never really do, do they?

once 2

I knew going into this experience that the music would be wonderful, as I was familiar with the original movie upon which this is based. Nonetheless, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed hearing all the songs. It was so cool to see all the actors onstage, playing their violins and guitars and accordions and dancing little Irish jigs and just looking so happy to be playing the songs. The music is flat-out incredible, in my book. And the show itself – though sad at times – is a great story. In case you can’t tell, I cannot recommend this one enough! Go see it. Go.

This is my last post from my recent trip to New York. In case you missed them, here are the others: NYC Instagrams, The High Line, Grimaldi’s, The Brooklyn Bridge, and Lexington Brass.

Mini Movie Reviews: Zero Dark Thirty, Side Effects, and

zero dark thirty, side effects, admission

Zero Dark Thirty: This movie, about the search for Bin Laden, was fascinating and suspenseful. Like almost everything I’ve watched lately, it felt too long, possibly because there are two really compelling parts to this story: the actual search, and then the mission itself. Either of those stories on its own would have made for an interesting movie, but together they were pretty lengthy. Despite that, this movie is quite good – in large part due to Jessica Chastain, who basically stars in every movie nowadays (and not without good reason). As Maya, the CIA agent who ultimately finds Bin Laden, Chastain simultaneously portrays someone who is bad ass enough to stick to her convictions, but who also seems as confused and unsure of herself (and the methods she employs to find the truth) as any ordinary person would be. Grade: A-

Side Effects: I thought I would enjoy this movie more than I actually did; from the previews, I was hoping for some twisted-but-fascinating psychological drama. Instead, I got a movie that was mostly quiet and slow. There was nothing bad about the film per se – it’s well-acted and suggests some thought-provoking questions about modern medicine – but it just underwhelmed me. It also wasn’t too difficult to figure out what the big “twist” at the end was. I kept hoping for some cool reveal but, nope, it turned out pretty much how I suspected it might. Finally, I feel like between this movie and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve now seen Rooney Mara portray the same character twice – the vacant, vulnerable, sullen girl. I hope she does something different for her next role. Grade: B

Admission: Where Tina Fey and Paul Rudd lead, I will follow, but I wish this movie had been better than it was. Admission is pretty much your standard issue romantic comedy, and while I love me some romantic comedies, I wish it had been a bit more inventive or clever than it was. Also, Fey’s character, Portia (who works as an admissions officer at Princeton) does something toward the end of the movie that I found pretty irredeemable, and that sort of turned me off from the film. However, despite Admission’s flaws, watching Paul Rudd be adorable for 1.5 hours is well worth the price of a ticket. Grade: B+

Image Sources: 1 / 2 / 3

Recent Reads: Gone Girl, The Midwife, and The Storyteller

gone girl, midwife, storyteller

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn): This was the most addictive book I had read in a LONG time (probably since I speed-read through the Hunger Games trilogy a few years back). It’s also a deeply unsettling but meticulous psychological portrait of a marriage and two very (VERY) messed up people. And even though I was expecting some twist, was looking for the clues, was sure all was not what it seemed, when it finally happened – when the other shoe dropped midway through the book – it still shocked me and blew me away. Fantastic read.

The Midwife (Jennifer Worth): After Call the Midwife became one of my favorite television shows last fall, reading the book on which it was based was a natural next step. What’s fascinating about this book is that Worth is writing about a time that was really not so long ago – 1950s London – and yet the world she describes seems completely foreign. Reading about the job of the midwives and the impoverished yet colorful community in which they worked is totally fascinating. Worth has written two other books about her experiences as a midwife, and now I want to read those too.

The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult): Like Gone Girl, this is one of those books that you can’t put down – I was completely enthralled. The story is a gripping one; I especially found the portions of it told by Minka, a Holocaust survivor, to be the engrossing (and, though it might go without saying, the most haunting). Because it’s a Jodi Picoult novel, there was naturally a twist at the end, and because I knew it was a Jodi Picoult novel, I was anticipating the twist and actually figured it out pretty quickly. Between that predictability and between the novel’s rather abrupt ending (I wanted to find out more about what happened to Sage and Leo!), I can’t fully love this book. It was really good, but not quite great.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #1-3)

(Images via Good Reads)

Why Can’t Television Shows Just Die Gracefully?

(Stop reading if you haven’t seen last night’s episode of Downton Abbey. Seriously. Stop.)

Back when I wrote this post about Arrested Development, it occurred to me that basically every single TV show I’ve ever loved has declined in quality over the years (the exception being Arrested Development itself, likely because it only lasted three short seasons – and even then, it had the debatable Charlize Theron arc). It seems all shows follow a familiar pattern: they tend to hit their creative peak around the second season, and then it’s just one long decline into mediocrity.

By way of illustration, let’s conduct a brief survey of the trajectory of some shows I have loved over the years:

  • Friends: For sentimental reasons, this is probably my all-time favorite show, but even I can concede that running ten seasons was excessive. The peak years were seasons 2-4 (season 4, in particular, stands out because of the trivia game and Chandler in a box). After that, the show became a never-ending series of increasingly implausible contrivances to keep Ross and Rachel apart. Sure, it was nice to see them finally get together at the end, but it would’ve been nicer still if I hadn’t had to wait ten damn years for that moment.
  • Alias: Seasons 1 & 2 were brilliant: the show was smart, fast-paced, exciting, and super-addictive. Then Alias went off the deep end by having Sydney “die” and Vaughn remarry the evil Lauren. I’m actually still not fully over that one. Vaughn, how could you?!?
  • The Office: Season 2 of The Office is, quite possibly, my all time favorite season of any TV show, ever. But the show declined in quality quickly, and I quit watching altogether sometime shortly after Pam and Jim got married. Now, the show is a shell of its former self, and I’m still baffled that they thought it was a good idea to continue after Steve Carrell left.
  • Lost: Much like Alias, this had a brilliant first two seasons. Then it delved into crazy mythology and became largely incomprehensible. I watched this through until the end, but by the time everyone reunited in that damn church, I had no freaking clue how we got there or what it all meant.
  • Grey’s Anatomy: Remember when this show was a perfect blend of medical ridiculousness and gut-wrenching melodrama? Those halcyon days when Izzie cut Denny’s LVAD wire, when Christina ran out on her wedding to Burke, and when Meredith did her “pick me, choose me, love me” speech? Then do you remember the days after that, when Izzie had sex with Denny’s ghost, Izzie and George “fell in love” (as if), and Izzie performed surgery on a deer in the Seattle Grace parking lot? Come to think of it, maybe we can blame this one entirely on Katherine Heigl.

Anyway, these are just a few examples – I can think of more (Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Weeds, etc.). But all this is to say that it’s an obvious trend, and one that I know I’m not the first to point out. I get why it happens – if you’ve got a successful, money making show, I suppose any good TV executive would want to keep the money train rolling. I just wish it didn’t work that way. I wish TV shows were allowed to live out their natural creative lifespan and then die gracefully, well before we were treated to ridiculous spectacles like ghost sex on Grey’s and time jumping on Lost. Quite simply, I wish creativity trumped money. I mean, sure, I’d be bummed when an awesome show went off the air after just a few seasons, but in the long run, isn’t having a few great seasons more satisfying than watching something you once loved slowly devolve into really, really crappy television?

So, why am I talking about all this now? Well, recent developments on Downton Abbey have reinforced the idea to me. Namely, last night (or last December, if you watched it in the UK) Mary and Matthew had a baby, Matthew sped off in his fancy car to share the news with the family, and then you can guess what happened next: oopsies, he got in a car wreck, and before you know it, you’re watching the fake blood dripping down Dan Stevens’s face as a legion of Downton Abbey fans across the nation weeps. Womp womp:

dead matthew crawley

But here’s the thing: it didn’t have to play out this way. I remember, back when Downton first premiered, that there was talk of Julian Fellowes doing three seasons. Then the show’s popularity skyrocketed, and suddenly that plan went out the window. But what if it hadn’t? What if we had been treated to three well-plotted seasons, all working toward an endgame? The show might have been truly brilliant, but we’ll never know. Instead, the last two seasons have grown increasingly sloppy and haphazard, and now we have season four to look forward to, where we’ll watch the show cope with the loss of one-half of its defining couple. Plus, who knows how many more seasons we’ll have after that, and what crazy twists they’ll bring with them. (Note: This is not to say I’m above watching all of this unfold. I’m too invested now, so I’ll stick with the show to the end. Plus, even at its worst, I love Downton more than most things on TV).

I’ve read criticisms from outraged fans who actually blame Dan Stevens for leaving the show. This makes zero sense to me. In fact, I think he’s figured out something that most of the other folks involved with the production have not: that sometimes, it’s best just to call it a day. Maybe Stevens is the smart one for getting out now, while the show is still culturally relevant, as opposed to several years from now, when the magic will have worn off.

Did you watch last night’s episode of Downton? If so, what did you think of the loss of Matthew Crawley? And do you agree that it’s about time to wrap this show up?

(Image via The Daily Mirror)