long stories

I’ve been listening lately to Ann Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next?. I have to admit that this show is not at the top of my to-listen list, and that’s because it stresses me out a little, for the simple reason that the question that Bogel says “plagues every reader”–what should I read next?–does not plague me. Setting aside my purely aspirational Want to Read list on Goodreads, I have a list of books that I already own and haven’t read yet, and it’s still quite long despite the fact that I’ve been systematically attacking it since fall 2018 (when I realized it was a problem). So the podcast just gives me a bunch of titles of books that I’ll probably never read. Nevertheless, I get some pleasure out of hearing people chat about books, even ones that I’ll never read, so I keep this podcast in my rotation. If you’ve listened to the show, you know that Bogel asks each guest to name three books they love, one book that didn’t work for them, and a book they’ve been reading recently. So naturally, I’ve been thinking about which books I would name if I were a guest. The first two of the three books I love are easy: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (if she forced me to choose one, I’d go with Prisoner of Azkaban, the one that really made me fall in love with the series). I’m still mulling over what I’d choose for my third book (it feels like a high-stakes decision), but in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what makes me love a book.

I thought about this last night after I got out of the bathtub, where I had spent a relaxing half-hour reading one of my Christmas gifts from my sweet book-loving fiance: The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I am now about halfway through the book, which means I’m about halfway through the series, and it just struck me last night how much I am enjoying these books (though I don’t know if I’d use the word “love” yet. For the books, I mean. I love my fiance.). I realized that I am looking forward to long periods of time when I can sit down and read The Well of Ascension, that I can picture the setting vividly even when I’m not reading, and that I really care what happens to the characters. I know part of the reason why I’m just now getting into the story is that there were too many blow-by-blow (literally) action sequences in the first book–and I understand why this might be necessary for the first book of a fantasy series that involves a specific, unique type of magic. But I really don’t care who punched whom and when. This second book is much more about relationships, political intrigue, and human psychology. But I think another reason why I’m so into this book is that it’s long.

Well, not just long. Quantity does not supersede quality for me. But I’ve realized that I love books (and movies and TV series) that have extensive world-building, deep character development, and layered plots–and on top of all this, a sense that the story-world has been lived in, not just made up on the fly. And in order for all that to work, a writer needs space–hence, length. Most of my favorite stories–stories you’ve seen me write about on this blog–have these qualities: Downton Abbey (with its hour-long, commercial-free episodes), the Godfather films (a major time commitment I embark on only about once every other year), the novels of Charles Dickens (it’s no accident that one of Dickens’ shortest novels, Hard Times, is probably my least favorite). [I have written on this blog about Dickens’ “teeming world,” crowded with memorable people.] One of the greatest compliments I can give a story is that I’ve spent so much time inside it that I feel like the characters are my family. That’s why I cried so much when Sibyl died in season three of Downton Abbey, why the birthday party scene at the end of The Godfather Part 2 blows my mind every time I watch it, and why I’ve written fan fiction about the Weasleys going about their mundane lives after the defeat of Voldemort. However flawed they are, I want to be part of those families. I don’t know if Sanderson’s ad hoc family of thieves and kings will make it into my top tier of favorites, but their admission to that circle currently looks promising.

watching Friends

I have some good friends who are constantly quoting Friends in my presence, and I hate the sense of alienation, however small, that my lack of Friends knowledge creates, so I borrowed all the seasons on DVD from my mom, and I’m embarking on this considerable project this summer. I’m now five episodes into Season 1. I’ve seen a few episodes over the years, so the basic storyline and characters aren’t completely unfamiliar to me, but there have been some revelations–for example, I didn’t know that Rachel was the newcomer, in the pilot, into an already established group of f(F)riends, and I also was surprised by her hair, which, in the beginning, is thick and unpretentious and a little frizzy. (I like that.) There are also some sitcom conventions that I’m having to get used to again after many years of watching mockumentaries like The Office and Parks and Recreation and realist dramas like The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. For example, I have to suspend my disbelief when the main characters start having personal conversations at really loud volumes in the middle of Central Perk and acting like they’re the only people in the coffee shop. Basically, they are. The people in the background are set decorations.

It’s also weird watching Friends at my age. The show was on during my pre-adolescent and teenage years, so to the extent that I was aware of these characters (and everyone was; Friends was part of the fabric of our culture), I thought of them as old. Now, they seem startlingly young, but a lot of the issues they discuss regularly–career, relationships, wondering when you’ll ever begin feeling like an adult–are still relevant to me. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve missed the adult boat, because people of my generation are dealing with these issues for longer periods of time now, or because (and I think this is most likely) most people don’t ever stop dealing with these issues. So although there are things about Friends I find wildly far-fetched and hard to relate to, I understand why this show resonated with so many people, because, ultimately, it resonates with me too.

Expect more Friends posts–it’s going to be a long summer.

Mafia zombies at Downton Abbey

Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them.  (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie!  Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!)  In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.

I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings.  It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse.  One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute.  This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills.  Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world.  If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.

I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system.  Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are.  (And I use the word man very deliberately.)  If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have.  You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather.  (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.)  You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather.  (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!)  If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.

I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer.  (I always forget his name.)  There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone.  His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now.  Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned.  That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.

My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k).  Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute.  And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.

my favorite fictional couples that never happened

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and some of you may be feeling like your true Valentine is out there somewhere (maybe in a very specific location whose exact address or coordinates you know) and just hasn’t found his or her way to you yet.  This is kind of the way I feel about Tom Hiddleston, and I now know, since I read that article about him in GQ that came out last week, which part of London he lives in.  (Like Charles Dickens, he comes straight outta Camden.)  In honor of all of you who are feeling frustrated in love, here are a few fictional couples who never get together despite my best shipping efforts.

  1. the unnamed narrator and Frank Crawley in Rebecca.  *spoilers ahead* My book club just read this 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I described it as “creepy Downton Abbey,” so if you like stories about rich people with no jobs, and their household staff who know way too much about the family, you will probably enjoy this book.  (I also thought the writing style was beautiful, the setting haunting, and the human psychology spot-on.)  I had several theories about what was going to happen in this book, some of which were based on superficial resemblances to Jane Eyre, and all of which turned out to be wrong.  The theory that I clung to the hardest was that the narrator’s husband, Maxim, was going to either go to jail or get the death penalty for having killed his first wife, the narrator was going to realize that he never really loved her but was just using her to try to have a normal life, and she was going to end up with the longsuffering and loyal estate agent Frank Crawley, whom I pictured as the subdued and diplomatic Tom Branson of the later seasons of Downton Abbey.  It just seemed so clear to me that the narrator was much more comfortable around Frank than around her preoccupied and moody husband.  I went so far as to go back and make sure the first chapter, which occurs chronologically at the end of the story, didn’t have any proper nouns in it–“We thought she was talking about Maxim, but she could have been talking about Frank!”  I was wrong; she stuck with the wife-killer.  Poor Frank.
  2. Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.  I’ve read Markus Zusak’s remarkable Holocaust-era novel in two different book clubs, and both times some people, including myself, have stated that we wished Liesel, the book thief, and Max, the young Jewish man who hid in Liesel’s family’s basement, had gotten together at the end.  I get all the reasons why that relationship wouldn’t work: he’s older (not that much older, though); she sees him as a brother; it’s not really a book about romantic relationships, but at the same time Liesel will always carry a torch for Rudy.  I do get all that, but I can’t stand to think of Max being all alone for the rest of his life.  Liesel, we learn, marries some random guy and ends up having a bunch of grandchildren, so I’m not worried about her.  But Max is such a lonely figure throughout the book–he arrives alone; he leaves alone; he has to stay in the basement when everyone else is going to the air-raid shelter.  It breaks my heart to think he’ll have to stay that way forever.  He made you a book, Liesel.  Did your random guy do that?
  3. Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Speaking of the trope of marrying a random-guy-ex-machina, I’m sure I’m not the only Harry Potter fan who used to think it was a total copout when J.K. Rowling declared that Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, ended up marrying some guy named Rolf Scamander.  Now that I know and love Newt Scamander, I guess I’m okay with Luna marrying his grandson.  But still, like everyone else, I wanted her to get together with Neville.  And yet, there’s a part of me that also thinks Harry and Luna would have been a great couple.  I think she would have helped him not to take himself so seriously, and he would have helped her get some street cred at Hogwarts (not that Luna cares what people think of her).  They have some sweet exchanges in the books (like when Luna tells Harry about her faith that she’ll see her mother again) and the movies (like when Luna says that hanging out with Harry is “kind of like being with a friend,” and Harry says, “I am your friend, Luna”), and I think this mutual kindness and confidence could have gone somewhere romantic.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in shipping.  Meanwhile, don’t forget that chocolate goes on clearance February 15!

The best things about Downton Abbey

In honor of this coming Sunday’s stateside premier of Season 5 of my new favorite show.

1. It makes cleaning more fun, or at least more exciting.  My heart’s a lot more in making beds and dusting if I pretend I’m a housemaid (preferably a nice one with a happy story, like Gwen) or imagine that Mr. Carson will be inspecting.

2. It gives me an alternate family, co-workers, and social circle.  It’s such a fleshed-out world, crowded with characters–like a Dickens novel or the Harry Potter universe.  So if I get tired of the people I’m around, which occasionally happens, I can just go to Downton.

3. It helps me brush up on my knowledge a period of British history I’ve neglected.  Oh…they had the Roaring Twenties too?

4. It makes me appreciate my sister and my mom.  Not only because I watch the show with them, but also because they’re not Mary, Edith, or Cora.  Thank goodness.

5. It’s got some of the most crush-worthy men on television.  Good-looking, capable, smart, upwardly mobile yet humble.  If only they could all stay alive.*

*This is not a spoiler for those still catching up, because it’s extremely veiled.  Speaking of spoilers, if you’ve already seen Season 5, please be courteous and don’t write any devastating comments.