said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Parenthood

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In one of those lengthy periods in life when I am at best misguided and at worst in the throes of  losing my mind, I decided to watch ALL six seasons of the TV show Parenthood. Widely lauded during its run, I never saw it. And I continued to slog through all the droning, annoying seasons despite being almost perpetually annoyed. I hate watched it in the same way I hate watched the dreadful Brothers and Sisters. How can networks keep making these huge-family dramas in which every possible bad thing that happens happens to just one family? (Sure, the odds are greater when the family has four or more siblings in it, as these stupid shows both do. Parenthood was worse, though, because it also delved into more than just the siblings.)

I recently read an article about how streaming services like Netflix releasing entire seasons of bingeable shows allows the viewer to gloss over the weaknesses in the overall fabric of the show and its construction. We get the whole story at once, which might not be the most technically effective way to tell episodic stories, i.e., we have a 10 or 13-hour movie in some of these series rather than an actual serial. I don’t find that this weakness is evident in made-for-streaming shows… but I do see this weakness (and this might just be personal preference) in shows like Parenthood. I noticed, for example, that in every single episode, someone says (and sometimes more than once in an episode) some variation of “we need to talk”: “We need to have a conversation”, “Can we talk?”, etc. And all they did was talk – endlessly. You would think this would interest me because I loved shows like In Treatment, in which the entire show was just talking – a therapist and his patient in an office. Nothing else. But no. That was riveting. Parenthood is just a whine-fest of misguided self-righteousness. And it is from this starting point that I definitely saw major plot and writing deficits – all smooshed together with histrionic, self-involved characters (almost all of them – not just the dude who was supposed to be the “irresponsible younger Braverman brother”).

I cringe just writing the name “Braverman” down, remembering all of Craig T. Nelson’s toasts and boasts about the greatness of the almighty Braverman family. “He can get through it because he is a Braverman.” The show spins around this ridiculous premise. (Somehow TV families, especially large ones, like to rest on this idea… that because of their size and “complexity”, they are more interesting or special than all other families….).

From the whining and constant hyper-intensity of Monica Potter’s Kristina (it’s either “everything is crap because my son has Asberger syndrome” or “I have cancer”) to the whining “I’m not good enough and am a loser” mantra of the ever-annoying Lauren Graham’s Sarah, from the bitchiness of Erika Christensen’s Julia to the endless, endless, endless crying and whining about everything courtesy of the otherwise brilliant Mae Whitman as Amber, this show is… just such shit. It’s been over for some time, and as such should probably not *still* annoy me this much, but I saw the title in a list of things I had seen and felt irritated all over again!

I want to be able to write something better about it… that is, something more descriptive, at least devoting a bit more effort to making my analysis a bit more constructive. I realize that my view is unpopular, and that I am in the minority, but there is no way to fix this pile of dung.

Jumping screens: Gilmore Girls and Southcliffe

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In no logical world would any person put the gratingly annoying but occasionally clever Gilmore Girls into the same sentence as the raw, four-part UK drama, Southcliffe. But after I force fed myself seven seasons (excruciating 22-episode seasons!) of Gilmore, I had to watch something else – something with more depth. I turned to Southcliffe, and impressive though its performances are (a whole host of good actors, such as Shirley Henderson; Rory Kinnear of Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror; Eddie Marsan of loads of good stuff, although lately he’s been in the constantly improving Ray Donovan; Anatol Yusef, who was great as Meyer Lansky in the late, great Boardwalk Empire…) its central story (told in non-linear fashion) is too dark and too close to the reality of our world, filled as it is with random gun massacres.

I’ll never be able to explain what propelled me forward with the Gilmore viewing. It was one of those “I started and can’t stop til I finish” things. I can think of no other word than “grating” to describe it. The fast-moving conversational virtues and onslaught of often rare cultural references aside, dialogue was stilted, people’s reactions over the top, behaviors usually aspirational rather than what would happen in reality and… well, it’s just annoying. A full “town” of weirdos (they were supposed to be, I guess)… but if you lived in a town as sleepy yet quirky as Stars Hollow, would you be as close knit as this? Sally Struthers and her grating, horrifying voice – that alone is enough to smash your TV! And that is just for starters. Right? Lauren Graham is someone I’ve really tried to like, but after forcing myself to watch this and Parenthood, I’m pained to say that she still annoys me. And as Rory, Alexis Bledel comes in a close second. And Melissa McCarthy… I’ve never seen the appeal because I don’t find her funny or entertaining in anything she has done, and Gilmore was no exception. My favorite part was seeing weird stuff like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach show up as a guitarist who wants to join a little high school band in the show. Or seeing a young Rami Malek, surprise star of surprise summer hit, Mr Robot, in one episode. In fact, when you go back and watch virtually any tv show from years past, especially ones that lasted as long as Gilmore did, you will be surprised by familiar faces.

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks lately, and I have focused on work and sucking these shows up obsessively. I started looking at real estate and found a place I want to buy because I feel like having a fresh start with a fresh view. But in the absence of being able to swing that, I go on… just finishing up the final episode of Southcliffe now.