Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Top 20 Books Read (for the first time) in 2008

I read 81 books in 2008, 71 of them for the first time. Which means narrowing this down to a top 20 was pretty difficult (in fact, there are an additional five books at the end of the list. Anyway, because narrowing things down was hard enough, these are not in order of preference, but rather in order of my having read them...

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett I read this book in one sitting, the afternoon of New Year's Day. It's a cute, short read, wherein the Queen of England's yorkie runs off while she's taking it for a walk and she follows it into a book mobile that visits Buckingham Palace once a week for the kitchen staff. It's very sweet.
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually, she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless, to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer. All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett My first foray into the Discworld, but certainly not my last. I actually read 6 of the Discworld books this year, and loved them all, but decided to limit my list to just the first one, because choosing between them would be too difficult. If you haven't read Terry Pratchett, you really really should. Laugh out loud hilarity mixed with fantasy and social commentary. Delicious.

Atonement, Ian McEwan You'll notice that there are 3 different Ian McEwan novels on this list, because apparently this year I went on a bit of a binge. I actually started this book toward the end of 2007, got most of the way through it, saw the movie, and then didn't finish the book for another week or so. The first part was my favorite, and I had to drudge through the middle bit while Robbie is in France, but as a whole the book is beautifully written. I can certainly understand why Ian McEwan is often considered a man's writer, his details are sometimes almost clinically harsh, but that doesn't make the words any less lovely.
They stared at each other in confusion, unable to speak, sensing that something delicately established might slip from them. That they were old friends who had shared a childhood was now a barrier--they were embarrassed before their former selves. Their friendship had become vague and even constrained in recent years, but it was still an old habit, and to break it now in order to become strangers on intimate terms required a clarity of purpose which had temporarily deserted them. For the moment, there seemed no way out with words.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Rachel Cohn & David Levithan This is the only book I read twice this year, once in January and again right before the movie came out. It's like Before Sunrise for teenagers and very sweet.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë I did actually attempt to read this once before, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I didn't really appreciate it then, though. My mother read it again earlier this year, for the first time since she was in high school, and so I picked it up after her. Of course I loved it. The story is equal parts empowering, heartbreaking, sweet, romantic and gothic. And my mother assures me that, when I'm her age, I'll find even more to appreciate in Jane's story.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde Of course I had to follow it up with this, which was hilarious and smart and did I mention hilarious? I had read The Fourth Bear and The Big Over Easy already, so I knew that his writing was witty and intricate, but not like this! I read the rest of the series, too (except I haven't really gotten into Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, yet), and loved each book more than the last, it seems, but again, I'm only listing one.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan More Ian McEwan. Another perfect little book. I read it in a weekend, staying up late to finish it while all my roommates slept in our flat in London. I especially loved the way the last few pages spin the story out into the future and we see the paths these characters end up on.

Peter Pan, JM Barrie As you might have noticed, I had a bit of a literary love affair with the UK this year. 13 of these books are by British writers, and 13 are at least partially set in the UK (14 if you count Going Postal). This is largely because I was studying abroad in London last semester and falling desperately in love with the city and the country. I read a little more American fiction once I got back to the US, but that was hardly what I was most interested in. Peter Pan was one of the many books I purchased abroad, a £2, lime green Penguin Popular Classics copy from the Borders on Oxford Street. It's small, technically it's considered to be a children's book (though the only one I've ever seen that included the word "orgy"), and it's rife with murder and racism, but it's also maybe the sweetest book I've ever read. The language is playful and the story is wonderful. I've been fighting off the urge to read it again ever since I put it down April.
Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder. They are not really friendly to Peter, who has a mischievous way of stealing up behind them and trying to blow them out; but they are so fond of fun that they were on his side to-night, and anxious to get the grownups out of the way. So as soon as the door of 27 closed on Mr. and Mrs. Darling there was a commotion in the firmament, and the smallest of the stars in the Milky Way screamed out:

"Now, Peter!"

Saturday, Ian McEwan The third and final of the McEwan books on this list. I bought my copy at a used bookstore in Brighton, and read the book with a map of London in front of me, tracing the main character's path across the city, just blocks away from my own flat in Bloomsbury. I think it may be the first novel I've read that takes place in a post 9/11 world, which isn't to say the first book I've read to take place after September of 2001, but the first to be so sure to remind me of that fact. It was interesting to see it from the perspective of someone that wasn't American. Also interesting was the fact that the whole book takes place on a day when my parents were working their way across London to Portabello Road, Americans trying to get from one side of the Anti-War march to the other.

The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureshi The first of these books that I read for school. I took a Novels of Britain and Ireland course while I was abroad. There were only 3 of us (all girls) in the class, and I've never had so much fun doing assigned reading. Each 2 and half hour class was just a long conversation, and I always came away from it feeling like a knew so much more about literature and about Britain. This book is largely about what it's like to be half English and half Pakistani (but born and raised in London) in a post-colonialist Britain. It's hilarious, but also touching. And I wrote one kick-butt essay on the book.

Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert I made the mistake of starting this book on the way home from Europe. Of course, by the time our plane landed in Philadelphia all I wanted to do was turn around and fly to Italy for pizza in Naples. The book is, on the whole, inspirational, and not in the sappy/cheesy way. It also made me very, very hungry.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman I love Neil Gaiman. He mingles fantasy and reality so beautifully, so that you really believe that, if you looked hard enough, you might actually find the magic that permeates his books. It's the thing I've always loved about Harry Potter as well, the ability to transition between a real place (a tube stop, King's Cross Station) and somewhere that exists only in your imagination (London Below, the Leaky Cauldron).

The Hours, Michael Cunningham Mrs. Dalloway just missed this list (look for it below in the honorable mentions), but The Hours really stood out to me. It ties in with the book that inspired in so beautifully, while existing as its own story as well. And admittedly, it's a much easier read.
"As she rubs Louis's back, Clarissa thinks, Take me with you. I want a doomed love. I want streets at night, wind and rain, no one wondering where I am."

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien This is one of those books that left me totally unsettled, gave me bad dreams even--largely because I dozed off immediately after finishing it--and yet I still loved it. The writing is beautiful, and the stories are heartbreaking and sometimes funny.

Possession: A Romance, AS Byatt I don't really remember why I picked this up, but I had trouble putting it down once I had. It's a love story that literally spans centuries, and leads to another love story that's less romantic than neurotic, but still enticing. I haven't seen the movie adaptation, but I can't imagine it holds a candle to the book.
They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud's bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh I picked this up when I first saw the trailer for the new movie, because I very much love Matthew Goode, Haley Atwell and Emma Thompson. I hadn't anticipated loving the book quite so much, but the language (the sort of stylized speech of decades I wasn't alive for) drew me in and the characters (especially Sebastian) kept me reading. Of course, the movie was hardly true to it, and I haven't had a chance to watch the 1981 miniseries, yet, but it did introduce me to a new novel to love and cherish.
"What is it?"

"His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word."

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley Jane Smiley visited my school last semester, while I was abroad, and just a few weeks before I saw King Lear at the Globe. I'd never read any of her writing, but I was a little bummed about missing a visit from such a respected author. Then, this summer, I had the idea that I wanted to write some modernized version of King Lear. Of course, that was when my roommate told me it had already been done, by Jane Smiley. The book was even sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me in my To-Read pile. So I picked it up and fell in love and of course it broke my heart, but it was absolutely worth it.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers Is it a bit pretentious? Sure, but it's also a beautifully, brilliantly written book about love, loss, responsibility, and trying to get cast on The Real World. I laughed, I cried, all that good stuff.
"They are gone and I am soaring. Those motherfuckers! My head is clear and muscular and filled with blood. Something has happened. We're alive, we've won! Powerful us! They were scared. We scared them off. They feared us. We won. We told them to go away and they did. I am the president. I am the Olympics."

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell If I hadn't come to the conclusion that Sarah Vowell was stalking me, I don't know that I ever would have read this book. History? Presidential assassinations? Really? But her name started popping up everywhere, largely because I was binging on This American Life at the time, and it became clear that she was both hilarious and charming, so I picked this up at Barnes and Noble (pet peeve: there is no S at the end of Barnes and Noble, unless it's a plural--"there are two Barnes and Nobles in my area"--or possessive--"I prefer Barnes and Noble's Starbucks to the stand-alone Starbucks at my mall"--so Cashier-that-rung-me-up-the-other-day, take note!). For a book about murder and american history it's a surprisingly light, entertaining read. I picked up a copy of The Partly-Cloudly Patriot the other day and can't wait to read it.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, JK Rowling This is mostly a sentimental addition to my list, because it's Harry Potter, but it was a fun, easy read, and some of Dumbledore's commentary was deliciously biting. I've missed the Potter-verse, so it was nice to step back into it for an afternoon.
This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy's long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort's Favorite Death Eater.

Honorable Mentions

College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now by Lynn Peril - I asked for this for Christmas last year thinking I'd flip through it and read bits and pieces, but I ended up reading it cover to cover. It's a fascinating book about the evolution of the "College Girl."

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson - Another book I read for Novels of Britain and Ireland. It's the bible without women, basically, and it's both touching and funny.
I learnt that it rains when clouds collide with a high building, like a steeple, or a cathedral; the impact punctures them, and everybody underneath gets wet. This was why, in the old days, when the only tall buildings were holy, people used to say cleanliness is next to godliness. The more godly your town, the more high buildings you'd have, and the more rain you'd get.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - It was tough going at first, but I ended up really enjoying this book.
Ah dear, she remembered--it was Wednesday in Brook Street. Those kind good fellows, Richard Dalloway, Hugh Whitbread, had gone this hot day through the streets whose growl came up to her lying on the sofa. Power was hers, position, income. She had lived in the forefront of her time. She had had good friends; known the ablest men of her day. Murmuring London flowed up to her, and her hand, lying on the sofa back, curled upon some imaginary baton such as her grandfathers might have held, holding which she seemed, drowsy and heavy, to be commanding battalions marching to Canada, and those good fellows walking across London, that territory of theirs, that little bit of carpet, Mayfair.

And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if ones friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.

The Overwhelming by JT Rogers - I read this play about the genocide in Rwanda for my playwriting class, and then had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the playwright. It was an interesting play with a subject about which I knew very little.

Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff - The only book from the Children's and Adolescent Lit class I took this semester to make top 25 (though Tuck Everlasting would have been top 10 if I hadn't already read it several years ago). It's sort of a miserable little book about the Irish potato famine, but I found it charming.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Afternoon With Harry

So today was the release date for The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the book of wizarding fairy tales form JK Rowling. My copy was pre-ordered (of course) and came in the mail this morning. I spent my afternoon reading it.

It was wonderful!

The fairy tales themselves are sweet and true to the universe JK Rowling created with the book series. They're dark (as all good fairy tales are), relatively simple, and come with morals attached--morals for wizard and muggle children alike.

It's the commentary "found" in Dumbledore's office that really makes the book something worth reading; each story is followed by a little essay written approximately 18 months before Dumbledore's death. The essays are not only filled with bits of new information about the wizarding world that couldn't be squeezed into the 7 novels or the 2 Hogwarts textbooks previously released (like the existence of a school we'd never heard of, the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts--WADA), but are written with all of Dumbledore's self-assurance, silliness and occasional snark.

A few quotes:

As the emminent Wizarding philosopher Bertrand de Pensées-Profondes [Bertrand of Profound Thoughts] writes in his celebrated work A Study into the Possibility of Reversing the Actual and Metaphysical Effects of Natural Death, with Particular Regard to the Reintegration of Essence and Matter:

"Give it up, it's never gonna happen.


This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy's long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort's Favorite Death Eater.

I fully enjoyed the book, and I'm sure I'll go back to it again and again, just as I have with the novels.

Now we've just got to wait until July and the release of the Half-Blood Prince movie for our next taste of the Wizarding World.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Power of the Rewatch

Just as I love to reread, I love to rewatch. Sometimes it's the same thing several times in one week (there was a period a couple years ago where I watched the Disney Beauty and the Beast 10 times in 1 week, and my annual Thanksgiving-Christmas Love Actually period is sure to expand from my 1 viewing last weekend to at least 5), sometimes I need to take a break between viewings. It's a way to forget, or to allow my initial reaction to harden into vague impressions...easier to write over on further viewings. And when it's TV shows I'm rewatching I tend to watch whole seasons at once.

Lately I've been working my way through season 3 of The O.C. I watched the whole series through back when it was airing, and I had some pretty solid opinions of it. Seasons 1 and 4 were awesome. Season 2 was decent but far from perfect, and season 3 was the weakest link. Poor plot, poor was where the show veered so totally off course that I considered dropping it from my weekly line-up.

I've said before that when the show started it wasn't trying to be anything. There were models (90210 was mentioned often), but at the same time, The O.C. was something completely new. In season 2 the road block was that the show was trying to hard to be itself. By season 3 it was becoming One Tree Hill (one of my guilty pleasures, yes, but also some of the worst...everything on television). In season 4 The O.C. was back to attempting something brand new, and while it wasn't the same show as season was pretty awesome.

But now that I'm rewatching season 3 I'm starting to realize that it wasn't quite so bad as I remember. Even season 1 had a black pit of doom (the Oliver Period), and while I disagreed with some of the decisions that Josh Schwartz and co. made (Seth's drug phase, Sandy leading the Newport Group, Volchek, Ryan's brief return to a life of crime), it's still making me laugh and cry and everything else that I look for in good television.

This is the season where we were introduced to Taylor Townsend, who became one of my very favorite characters in season 4 and who turned me into a big Ryan fan just by association. It's the season where we got rid of Marissa (finally), and where Kaitlyn returned as a different actress, more grown-up and with her own plots.

It's not perfect TV, but it's decent, better than I remembered.

That's the nice thing of about rewatching, you can discover something you missed the first time around, when you were busy making snap judgments. I found out that Johnny wasn't really that bad (like when I found out that Veronica Mars' Piz was more awesome, less annoying), nor was Kaitlyn, who seemed terrible the first time around, only growing likeable in season 4. I had forgotten about the quality Seth/Kirsten time we got this season, and about how adorable Neil and Julie's engagement was. The one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the way the finale brings me to tears.

It's nice to find out what you missed when you weren't really paying attention (intentionally or otherwise).

Monday, November 24, 2008

JOSH takes off his laminated ID tag on a chain that hangs around his neck and hands it to DONNA.

(into phone)
Uh, yes...yes...yes.

DONNA holds the tag in her hand, trying not to show that it's the first piece of jewelry anyone's ever given her.
I'm reading television scripts again, but with the West Wing scripts instead. When I reached this quote from the second part of "In The Shadow of Two Gunmen," the season two premiere, I had to put the book down and sigh happily. This is what I meant in my last post about stage directions providing insight into characters. It's a small moment on screen, and a sweet one, that says quite a bit about Josh and Donna's relationship. This is from a flashback scene where they meet for the first time, and the rapport that made them such a popular part of the series exists already.

Here's a quote from the season two finale, "Two Cathedrals," that encompasses a much bigger moment on the show, the funeral of Dolores Landingham:

And during this we see that all of our friends are here. LEO, SAM, TOBY, C.J., DONNA, JOSH, BONNIE, GINGER, MARGARET, CAROL...with everything that's been going on, this is going to serve as a sacred 90 minutes. They obviously never had the relationship with her that Bartlet or even Leo did, but she was a friend of theirs and they worked in a foxhole and this is probably the only time they're given to come to terms that she's in that box.
One paragraph, and particularly the last sentence of it, perfectly encapsulates Mrs. Landingham's funeral. It's an admirable economy of words for a man with a reputation for being so prolific.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

TV + Books = Love

For my sister the fashionista, online shopping is about clothes. For me it’s about My wishlist (7 pages and growing) is a constant work in progress, and the (sometimes ridiculously) cheap books in the Amazon Marketplace make my life a better place.

My more recent Marketplace purchases have been script books, Buffy script books, specifically, though I did just place an order for one of the two books available for the West Wing.

For a few years I thought that I wanted to pursue a TV writing career after graduating. Now, most of the way through a playwriting class, it’s becoming very clear to me that dialogue has never been my strong suit and that I’m probably more suited for writing about television (hence the blog). But my interest in the process has not declined, which is part of the reason I wanted to read these shooting scripts.

I’ve always thought of stage directions in a very Shakespearean, straightforward way (all “they kiss” and “exit, pursued by a bear”), but that’s not at all what you get from these scripts. Character development, in-jokes and the love that a writer has for his or her characters…that’s what you get in the Buffy stage directions. And that’s what is valuable here, the way the writers see and talk about the characters outside of their dialogue.

This is not the first time that I’ve read a shooting script by Joss Whedon; there’s one for Serenity, in the official companion. I read it a few years ago, and while I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, I do remember laughing a lot, and not just at the lines that I’d heard so many times before (I saw the movie 3 times in theatres, the number limited only by the lack of opportunity in the small town where I go to school and my lack of a car at the time). Joss’s dialogue has always played with the English language in new and unique ways, and I’ve spent hours on youtube watching interviews with and speeches by him just to see what interesting sentence will emerge from his mouth next, so it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that his stage directions were as playful and word-tastic as everything else. But they were.

I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the things I enjoy reading: novels, short stories, the occasional play, but there’s a certain charm to the way TV scripts are written, at least these TV scripts, that you don’t get with other mediums. Take this, from the season 2 premiere, “When She Was Bad”:

CORDELIA walks along with a couple of Cordettes. As usual, all the talking is done by

It was a nightmare. A nightmare. They promised me we were going to St. Croix and then at the last minute, they just decide we’re gonna visit Tuscany instead. Art. Buildings. Totally beachless for a month and a half. No one has suffered as I have suffered…

It’s that blend between stage direction and dialogue, where we jump right from what Cordy’s doing to what Cordy’s saying, that I find so appealing. While it probably could be and has been done in a narrative format, I doubt that it would work in the same way.

Though general opinion has it that scripts are meant to be watched and not read, you’d never know that reading one. When Buffy’s seldom-seen father utters a half-hearted "great" in the same episode, the word “half-hearted” would probably have sufficed, but instead Joss writes, “There isn’t much GREAT! in his ‘great.’” Later, when Cordelia refers to the core Scoobies as the Three Musketeers, “brief confusion crosses the faces of our heros [sic].” While the obvious audience of any script is the viewer, these jokes, subtle and otherwise, are not here for them.

But what is maybe my favorite thing in the entire “When She Was Bad” script comes toward the end, while Buffy is doing what she does best, slaying: “Then Absalom SCREAMS, and inhuman shriek that galvanizes the vampires (BOB, JANE and NED) into action. They effectively flank our girl, and Jane and Ned rush her simultaneously.”

“Our girl.” It doesn’t seem like much, but those two words say it all when it comes to the relationship between creator and character, between actor and character, and between viewer and character. Buffy is our girl, our hero, at the center of this, our show, and referring to her as such backs it all up, connects the script’s audience (not the episode’s audience) with her that much more.

(And giving the vampires, whose names are never mentioned in dialogue, who do not even have lines, names like Bob, Jane and Ned in a show where vamps tend to get names like Absalom, Drusilla and Kakistos…well that’s just a bonus.)

If, like me, you’re interested in the TV writing process, I highly recommend Jane Espenson’s blog. She’s written for everything from Buffy to Battlestar Galactica to The O.C., and she’s kinda awesome.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Alphabeticals: C is for Chuck

I'm a week late on this one. Apologies.

So last fall Josh Schwartz (creator of The OC) entered the TV season with 2 new shows, about as different from each other as possible, but both firmly routed in The OC. The first of these shows was Gossip Girl, the second and the subject of this week's Alphabeticals, was Chuck.

Chuck is the story of a guy named Chuck (big surprises there) whose future was veered off course while at Stamford when his best friend and roommate, Bryce Larkin, framed him for cheating and got him kicked out of school. He also stole his girlfriend. Since then he's been living with his older sister, Ellie, and her boyfriend, Captain Awesome (ne Devon). He heads up the Nerd Herd (a fictional Geek Squad) at the Buy More (a fictional Best Buy) and hangs out with his friend Morgan.

Then, without any warning, he gets an e-mail from Bryce Larkin (who grew up to be a CIA agent, and turned rogue at that), an e-mail that contains a computer program called The Intersect, a series of rapid-fire images that contain massive amounts of confidential intelligence and that lodge themselves in Chuck's brain, effectively turning him into a powerful computer and a resource for the CIA and the NSA.

Of course this means that any number of people would be glad to see Chuck dead, since all he needs to do to find out whether or not they're dangerous is look at them. He's put into the hands of Sarah Walker, a CIA agent, and John Casey, an NSA agent. Sarah is his fake girlfriend, an excuse for her to hang around, and Casey moves in next door and gets a job at the Buy More with Chuck.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to figure out how to get the computer out of Chuck's brain.

It's a fun show. It's easy to see that Chuck is who Seth Cohen might have grown up to be, that is if Ryan had gotten him kicked out of school and stolen Summer away from him.

The cast is wonderful, especially Zachary Levi as Chuck. Sarah Lancaster (who you may recognize from lots of things, like Everwood or Scrubs or What About Brian) plays Ellie, whose desire to see her brother happy makes her a completely lovable character, and there is little that is not awesome about Captain Awesome. The writing is hilarious, as are the secondary characters (like the other members of the Nerd Herd, who spend their days playing Name-That-TV-Show on the Buy More TV sets).

The highlight of the show, though, is probably Chuck's less-than-subtle crush on Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), which is made all the worse by their pretend relationship, a farce that they have to keep up for the sake of Ellie and Chuck's best friend, Morgan (Joshua Gomez).

The show did not come back after the Writer's Strike last winter, choosing to hold out until the beginning of the fall season for new episodes, and if the previews currently airing on NBC are to be believed, this season is going to be even better (especially with Tony Hale guest starring this season).

Season 2 starts September 29th.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Alphabeticals: B is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The thing about packing is that you have to make choices: what to take with you, what to leave behind…it’s not easy. I learned this lesson as I was packing for a semester in London last semester, and trying to pare down my books. Once I’d weeded it down to 17 (I came home with closer to 30, and don’t ask how I fit those in my suitcase) I stared hopelessly at the massive binder that contains all of my DVDs. It was not going to fit into my suitcase, and I couldn’t cram them all back into their individual cases…those wouldn’t fit either. I dug out a couple of old CD wallets, the kind that hold 24 and 62 CDs, respectively, and started making choices.

I don’t own a whole lot of movies. I narrowed those down to the good (Before Sunrise, Pride and Prejudice), the girly (Wimbledon, Love Actually) and the geeky (Serenity). Then it came time for the TV shows.

I have an extensive collection of TV shows on DVD ranging from season 1 of Clarissa Explains it All (if you’d asked me to write about my favorite TV show when I was 9 that’s what you would have gotten), to a random smattering of Friends seasons, to the four good years of Gilmore Girls (everything pre-Logan, basically). There are the shows that never made it past season one (My So-Called Life, Firefly), and the ones that always lead to hysterical laughter (Arrested Development). And then there’s the jewel of my collection, the collector’s edition Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Complete Series. 40 discs of pure, unadulterated awesome.

I was a late-comer to the Buffy fandom; my sister and I started watching the show through 1 AM re-runs after Saturday Night Live the summer before my senior year of high school and a year after it went off the air. I don’t think it was what either of us expected…it was funny. It was smart. One of the best episodes of the entire series didn’t even have dialogue and another was a musical! And all of it born out of a relatively crappy Luke Perry movie from the early nineties.

Joss Whedon, creator/producer/writer/God, wanted to create a metaphor for high school as hell, and set the series in the fictional Sunnydale, California, in a high school that literally was hell, or situated directly over it, anyway. He also wanted his heroine to be the girl from all those slasher movies, the blonde that gets killed in the first act. Enter Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar): a pretty, popular cheerleader who could kill you with her pinky. Not that she would. Unless you had fangs and a particular aversion to sunlight.

The show combined 3 key elements, all in its title. “Buffy” – comedy, “Vampire” – horror, and “Slayer” – action. (The “the” just holds it all together.) Sometimes it went to very dark places—in the episode “the Pack,” Xander (Nicholas Brendon), along with several school bullies, is possessed by a hyena. While he’s detained by Buffy, the other students eat the principal for lunch (not the only principal to be eaten in the course of the show, either. Buffy was never afraid of a high body count). It also went for completely silly comedy—after a bad break-up in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Xander blackmails a girl in his class into casting a love spell that goes horribly, horribly awry. As every woman in Sunnydale tries to seduce and then destroy him, Buffy gets turned into a rat and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) tries to keep the women in line long enough to reverse their spells.

At its best, though, the show combined comedy with drama. In the aforementioned musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” Buffy deals with her unhappiness at being brought back to life by her friends with a backdrop of dancing demons and silly songs (Sample lyrics to “The Mustard Song”: “They got the mustard out!”). It could wrench your heart and then make you laugh through your tears.

Every season of the series focused on a theme (season four was all about friendship, and how that can be tested in college, and season seven was about loneliness and alienation), and every season had a “Big Bad” around to cause problems. Some of the best include the Mayor, a germaphobe and all-around nice guy, if only he hadn’t sold his soul in exchange for immortality, and the Trio, three extreme nerds (Buffy writers almost all say that, if they needed dialogue for the Trio, all they needed to do was stick their heads into the Writer’s Room and write down whatever conversation was going on there, hence fights about the best James Bond and the line “Scully wants me so bad.”) who decide to take over Sunnydale.

After season 3, Buffy was spun-off into Angel, a darker, though sometimes funnier, show that followed Buffy’s en-souled vampire boyfriend, Angel(us) (David Boreanaz) to Los Angeles where he starts a mystical detective agency with a half-demon, half-drunk Irishman, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), and Buffy’s best frenemy Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). Like any show, Angel had its ups and downs, and the body count was high, just as with Buffy. It was never a clone of its sister show, but they dealt with similar themes.

Buffy is what they call a cult show. It never had the highest ratings, but it had, and continues to have, a fan-base that loved it passionately. So much so that a year ago it returned, not to the screen, but to the page, as a canonical comic book written by Joss Whedon and several old writers from the show, as well as people who wrote for the early Buffy comics, and some new names as well. New issues are released every month, and they’ve contained some big surprises (literally, one of the characters is now a giant), several old faces (including a few that are supposed to be dead), and a lot of new characters. In the comics world there’s also Fray, a sort of spin-off set several centuries in the future, in a world where vampires are called “Lurks” and there hasn’t been a slayer for a very, very long time.

So you can see why the show lasted seven seasons on two networks, and why I gave up almost half of my DVD space to Buffy discs. The show was smart, funny, sad, and beautifully shot to top it all off. The acting, especially from Sarah Michelle Gellar, was always top-notch (Ashanti’s season seven guest spot aside). It was TV gold.

Friday, August 1, 2008

"What's that? A disease?" - Ronald Weasley

This morning, as I huddled beneath my comforter watching this past weekend's Comic-Con panel with the writers of The Office on (a panel you should all watch if you've got even the slightest interest in the writing process...or in watching Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak bicker adorably), a little red box of sunshine popped up in the top right corner of my screen.

It's always a joy to get an e-mail, and Gmail Notifier makes it that much more fun by adding a little dinging sound and alerting me almost instantly to said e-mail's existence. But this particular e-mail was that much greater. Why? Because it was from Amazon and it was informing me that I could pre-order this.

Now, I've been dying to read The Tales of Beedle the Bard since...well, since I read Deathly Hallows, and the desire only mounted when I found out that JK Rowling had actually written the stories, written them by hand at that, and illustrated them! But, bummer of the century, she'd only written 7 copies, to be given to friends and, in one case, auctioned by Sotheby's for a ridiculous amount of money. I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to read the book.

Which is only a part of the reason this is so exciting. After a year with the knowledge that, basically, my childhood had come to an end along with Harry's, that there would be no more Harry Potter, we were offered one tiny new glimpse of the Wizarding World when JK Rowling wrote a little prequel to the series, a peep at Sirius and James in their youth, for Waterstones. And now we've got just that little bit more. And fairy tales, at that!

Because what's better than fairy tales? Not a whole lot.

So this is the real question. Who do I convince to shell out the $100 for the fancy pants edition?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Could the Dawn Just Break Now, Please?

I've been fighting it all week, the urge to squeal like a little girl over Friday's Breaking Dawn release.

Sure, it's certain to be the number one book of the summer and every article in recent memory has compared Stephenie Meyer to (her holiness) JK Rowling, and, yes, my nineteen-year-old sister and her gaggle of equally obsessed minions have been talking about nothing else (except for, of course, the Twilight movie) for months, but the part of me that would like to retain some street cred as someone with decent taste was trying to push aside the part of me that fell hard for these books last year.

I mean, let's be honest, Stephenie Meyer is never gonna win a Pulitzer (clunky exposition is never the way to go). Edward and Jacob could probably tie for the title of boy-most-likely-to-turn-abusive-if-he-doesn't-get-his-way (that is, if they don't kill each other first). Bella is a total Mary Sue.


So, as I was scrolling through PopWatch just now, I succumbed to the urge to read just one little spoiler. And damn if I didn't pick a good one. And then it happened, that inner twelve-year-old caught hold of my consciousness and made a bee-line for my brain where she promptly started bouncing up and down. Now I've got no choice but to admit that I'm excited. I'll be there Friday night, twenty bucks clutched in my sweaty palm, rocking back and forth onto the balls of my feet, just waiting for the clock to hit 12:01 AM (while trying to block out the sound of over-caffeinated thirteen-year-olds debating Edward v. Jacob and swooning). I'll devour all 800-some pages in less than 24 hours, I'll probably cry, I will most definitely cackle with glee. And then I'll be able to move on.

Until the movie comes out, that is.

Alphabeticals: A is for Arrested Development

If you've never seen Arrested Development I'm telling you now, there is a gaping hole in your pop-cultural education. It's one of those shows that shines in every way, whether that's writing, plot development, characterization, acting, continuity...even narration. It's a show that is so perfect, so flawless, that it only ever managed a cult following (and the heaps of critical adoration that tend to accompany those things followed by cults). What it is, at its most basic, is pure brilliance in half-hour mockumentary form. Like The Office only really really not.

The basics
A family of odd-balls (GOB, the lazy older brother; Buster, the socially awkward younger brother; Lindsay, the socially conscious--so long as it's convenient--sister; Tobias, her analrapist-turned-actor husband; Maeby, their rebellious daughter; Lucille and George, the white-collar-criminal parents; George-Michael, the geeky teenager; and Michael, his father, the straight-man holding the whole family together), the Bluths, are falling apart at the seams when George gets arrested and Michael takes over the company. They all come together in a poorly constructed Model Home while Buster (sort of) grows up, George-Michael battles incestuous feelings for his cousin, no one except Maeby gets a job and Michael struggles to remain sane amidst it all. Plus, it's all narrated by Ron Howard.

Yes. That Ron Howard.

Why You Should Watch
1. The entire cast is excellent, but David Cross as the brother-in-law with acting dreams and an unclear sexual orientation is especially hilarious (an impressive feat with such stiff competition).
2. Pre-Superbad Michael Cera, baby fat and all, was just as good at the awkward pause then as he is now.
3. Cameos from James Lipton, Julia-Louis Dryfus, Scott Baio, Liza Minelli, Martin Mull, Henry Winkler, Harry Hamlin, Zach Braff, William Huang and several other random celebrities.
4. It's a show with undeniable foresight. Watch it and then rewatch it...there's foreshadowing for events in season 3 from the very beginning.
5. The best running jokes on television.

7. Mostly, though, it's a show you'll still find funny on the twelfth or two thousandth viewing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Those Lazy Hazy Not-So-Crazy Days of Summer

I'm hardly a summer person. I'm sure when I was eight I claimed it as my favorite season the same way recess was my favorite subject and dessert was my favorite meal, but the further I get from my childhood, the more I accept that the drowsy, sticky, endless boredom of summer is just not for me.

But there are two things summer will always be good for: reading and catching up on TV.

I am both a voracious reader and a voracious watcher and I often find myself torn between my two favorite hobbies. They're hardly activities that can be done simultaneously, too much plot trying to infiltrate the brain at once (and more than that, I may be the world's worst multi-tasker). The number of summer evenings I've spent trying to decide between slipping into the bathtub with a paperback and curling up under the covers with my laptop and a DVD box-set are too many to count.

In fact, so far this summer I've read twelve books and watched at least 100 episodes of TV (this might be/probably is an under-estimate). Add to that my 2-3 days a week job at a local movie theatre, sleep time (and I'm a big fan of sleep) and all the additional hours I spend checking LiveJournal, reading webcomics, Twittering and refreshing Whedonesque and...I've still got too much time on my hands.

So I've come to you, the good people of the interwebs, to share this love of all things that pop (culture wise). Television will probably predominate (I watch a lot of TV, not all of it "quality"), but books and movies and music are all a part of my cultural diet and will all play a role in this here blog.