TV I’ll be watching in 2019

Fleabag, season 2

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Fleabag’s first season was, in my estimation, perfect: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark, cringy comedy about a young Londoner with a terrible moral compass was laugh-out-loud funny and filled with tragedy and unexpected heart. I’ve spent the last two years recommending Fleabag to everyone I know, so I was thrilled when a second series was announced—and yet, I was also surprised, because Fleabag’s first season had such a perfect, well-rounded arc that it felt more like a miniseries than the first six episodes in a multi-season saga. For this reason, I’m a tiny bit skeptical, but also very intrigued to see where the show goes. Will Fleabag’s sister leave her terrible husband? Will Fleabag manage to redeem herself? Will Olivia Colman continue to waft around in kaftans, delivering condescending burns in dulcet tones? I certainly hope so.

Stranger Things, season 3

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I watched the first two seasons of Stranger Things mostly through my fingers, flinching at every jump scare, and I can’t wait to do precisely the same thing in season 3. That said, I was impressed by how the second season moved slightly away from the world of the Upside Down, and allowed us to spend more time exploring character development and backstory. The standalone episode in which Eleven meets other young people with psychic abilities is a prime example of this, as was Steve’s redemption arc as a protector of the younger kids, and the time given to Nancy and Jonathan’s romance.

Big Little Lies, season 2

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Like Fleabag, the first season of Big Little Lies felt complete in its own right (in this case, because it followed the arc of a novel), so I’m curious to see how the story unfolds in this new season. Meryl Streep has been cast to play the mother of the person who was murdered at the end of season 1 (see how carefully I’m avoiding spoilers here?), which suggests the season will fill in some of the details of the murder investigation; but I’m especially looking forward to seeing how the relationships between the women at the center of the story continue to develop. For me, the thing that made Big Little Lies great wasn’t whodunit suspense, but the way it created a detailed portrait of complicated friendships and marriages.

Catastrophe, season 4

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Catastrophe follows the speedy courtship and chaotic marriage of Sharon (played by Sharon Hogan) and Rob (Rob Delaney), and season 3 ended with something of a cliffhanger: following a rough patch in their marriage, Rob, a recovering alcoholic, has secretly started drinking again, and, in the final minutes of the last episode, got into a minor car crash while under the influence. Rob and Sharon’s are far from perfect, but as you watch them mess up again and again, falling short in their efforts to succeed in their careers and to be the parents and partners they want to be, you can’t help but love them.

 

End-of-year fiction roundup

I’ve been a remiss blogger these last six or seven months, which means I have a hefty backlog of books, tv shows, and films that I keep meaning to write about here. At the start of November, I took a stab at NaNoWriMo, but houseguests arrived halfway through the month and my progress petered out. Now, with two weeks to go before the New Year, I’m making a resolution write more often, and how better to begin than with a list of five favorites that I read this year—and haven’t written about yet:

Conviction by Julia Dahl
I don’t often read crime fiction, but Conviction, which follows a freelance reporter in contemporary Brooklyn working to clear the name of a young black man convicted of murder in the early 1990s, has convinced me that I should be reading more of it. Julia Dahl has crafted a true page-turner that deftly addresses weighty topics like racism, police violence, gentrification, feminism, and the gig economy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
I read Normal People straight through in two days, and then read it a second time a few weeks later. Normal People follows the friendship and romance of two characters, working-class Connell and affluent Marianne, from their final year of school in their hometown in rural Ireland, through their time at university at Trinity in Dublin. In some ways, the novel’s plot is a classic will-they-won’t-they, but issues like class and social capital are explored much more deeply here than in Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends; and for me, Rooney’s depiction of how the power dynamic between Marianne and Connell shifts over time was just as compelling as her portrayal of the tenderness these two characters feel for one another.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
As someone who thinks a lot about cultivating supportive friendships and relationships while also pursuing creative and professional fulfillment, The Woman Upstairs offered me a vision of a kind of nightmare-future that awaits those who don’t have the nerve to admit what they really want and go after it. But what a haunting and cleverly executed nightmare-future it was! Would recommend to anyone who (like me) needs an occasional reminder that self-effacing modesty isn’t charming—it’s the enemy of your own happiness.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
This YA novel was published as A Northern Light in the US, so I was already a few chapters in when I realized that I had read this book as a teen. Inspired by a real-life murder case, this feminist bildungsroman in a turn-of-the-century farming community reminded me what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old dreaming of life as a writer in the big city. It also has the most graphic depiction of childbirth that I have ever encountered in fiction—something which felt revolutionary in a novel meant for teens.

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I somehow managed to start this novel without realizing that it was a story about the Nigerian Civil War. I spent the first few chapters thinking it was going to be a coming of age story about a boy who leaves his village to work as a professor’s houseboy, or about two sisters, or about young academics falling in love; so it was all the more devastating when the war arrived and turned the lives of these characters upside down. I think what’s stuck with me most is the way Adichie not only made me love every single character but that she had the courage to show us those beloved characters doing terrible, unforgivable things in the midst of war.

Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books

Girl with Dove is an uncommon book about an unusual childhood. Growing up in a crowded, ramshackle house where grownups often behaved in ways that were difficult to understand, Sally Bayley read and re-read Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, and David Copperfield, gleaning clues she hoped would help her make sense of her world. Girl with Dove is a memoir, but because Bayley delves so deeply into her childhood imaginings, blurring the lines between fiction, family history, and memory, the book often reads like fiction.

In her short preface to Girl with Dove, Bayley writes, “All stories have backstories, at least all stories worth knowing about, and all readers want to pry into those unlit spaces. We read to get back to those dark and dusty corners, to scrape back to old patterns: the strange symbol beneath the damp plaster, the squiggles on the crumbling wall.”

As I began reading the book, I assumed that this comment was primarily self-descriptive, that Bayley was telling us why she reads, and why she read as a child. But revisiting the preface after my first read through her memoir, I began to suspect that this opening is also a reminder to the reader, a prediction that, as we read this book, we will find ourselves searching for the backstory, trying to pry into dark corners of the author’s memories.

This idea of backstories runs through Girl with Dove, both in the sense that, as a memoir, it is the backstory of the author, a bildungsroman that tells us how she became who she is, and also in that it is a book that requires us to read between the lines, looking for subtext and history, clues to what we’ve missed. Like a crime novel, Girl with Dove relies on the reader’s desire to figure things out. As we read, we both construct a narrative for ourselves and watch young Sally struggling to use familiar stories like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield to understand her family and her place within it.

Through the young Sally’s literary imaginings, Miss Marple’s village, St. Mary Mead, is transposed on top of Littlehampton, where Sally grows up; Sally’s mother, with her shiny black handbag and coiffed blonde hair, becomes Margaret Thatcher from the newspapers, or, wandering around the house in her nightgown, transforms into a ghostly woman from a Bronte novel; and the discreet, reliable doctors from Agatha Christie novels amalgamate into the doctor who Sally visits on Maltravers drive. And then there are family secrets and histories, the kinds of memories that are half your own and half other people’s, stories assembled from things you saw and heard, and things the grownups said when they thought you weren’t listening. Sally recounts the story of her grandmother Maisie’s marriage to Awful Alfred, who “made her do the washing up and cook the dinner for years”; she imagines Maisie as a young woman, working as a maid for someone like Miss Marple; she pieces together stories of Sue, her aunt, who spoke in tongues and delivered prophecies and married herself off to Christ in the front room.

Early in Girl With Dove, Bayley writes, “Miss Marple likes to deal with facts, because facts are concrete. Mum likes facts too. […] ‘You’ve got to get your facts straight, Sally. First ask, what are the facts? You’ve got to get your facts first before you can begin anything!’” But facts are elusive. Girl with Dove is constructed around a rough timeline of facts: the death of baby David, the appearance of Aunt Di upstairs, a visit from a social worker, the arrival of a small inheritance, and Sally’s decision to put herself into care. But a look closer at any one of these facts raises new questions and uncertainties: What exactly happened to David? Who was Sue? Who were the strange singing people she had once brought to the house, and where did they all go off to? Not all of these questions are answered, which some readers may find frustrating; but it’s worth considering whether a memoir with loose ends is perhaps more honest than one that reveals all and wraps up neatly.

Bayley has a vivid, distinctive voice, and I was impressed with how deftly she handled the book’s more fraught moments, portraying her family with affection and humor, even when she has clearly been hurt by them. Girl with Dove is also unique in that it is as much a meditation on how stories and memories shape one another as it is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve found it difficult to think of books that do so in a similar way. The closest comparison I can think of is Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a work of auto-fiction that plays with genre in rather different ways. Readers looking for an inventive exploration of how books shape us will not be disappointed.

‘Am I Normal Yet?’ Holly Bourne tackles love, friendship, and mental health with honesty and humor

Am I Normal Yet? Holly Bourne

After spending weeks eyeing up Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy in the bookshop where I work, I finally bought a copy of the first book in the series, Am I Normal Yet?, and I was delighted to find that it was nothing short of brilliant. Am I Normal Yet? follows 16-year-old Evie, who is learning how to manage her OCD symptoms, and who hopes that the new school year will give her a chance to finally be a “normal” teenage girl. Evie throws herself into social life, but finds that her flirtation with a guy named Guy is starting to chip away at her newfound sense of normalcy. Yet throughout the novel, her most important relationships are with her supportive, wise-beyond-her-years younger sister, and her two new best friends, Lottie and Amber. Together, Lottie, Amber, and Evie form the Spinster Club, a kind of feminist discussion group that introduces readers to concepts like the Bechdel Test and the Madonna-Whore complex.

At one of their meetings, Lottie brings up the idea of the manic pixie dream girl. “She’s like this invention in men’s imagination,” she explains, “but girls pretend they’re real.” Reading these lines, I wished that I had had these books when I was sixteen. At the time, almost every girl I knew wanted to be Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer: elusive, glamorous, carefree, with smooth hair and a wardrobe of quirky vintage dresses and heels that we magically knew how to walk in. In reality, we sat at our desks in sweatshirts and jeans, sleep-deprived and anxious over AP exam results and the tryouts for the school play. We yearned to be beautiful like Zooey Deschanel, beautiful in the way that One Direction sang about: we didn’t feel beautiful, but maybe we were. Maybe our own inability to recognize our beauty was the very thing that would make us beautiful to the boys we lusted after. Maybe we, too, could be the manic pixie dream girl. It never occurred to us that she might not be real—and that’s exactly why books like Am I Normal Yet? are so important.

As I read, I was blown away by how deftly Bourne writes about Big Issues like feminism and mental health without being heavy-handed or compromising on honesty or humor. Am I Normal Yet? shines a light on OCD and the experiences of recovery and relapse, but it also tells a relatable story about friendship and teenage romantic entanglements. As a teen, I loved to swoon over passages describing protagonists falling in love, and Am I Normal Yet? does have plenty of thrilling kisses and gazing-into-each-other’s-eyes moments; but one of the things that I admire about the book is its refusal to glorify romance or sex as the thing that will ‘fix’ you, while at the same time acknowledging how easy it is to be misled into thinking that, maybe, if the right person kisses you, you’ll feel whole again.

The next two books in the Spinster Club series—How Hard Can Love Be and What’s a Girl Gotta Do?—follow Lottie and Amber, and I’m eager to get a glimpse of the world from the perspectives of two characters I’ve already come to know and love. I’m equally excited to read Bourne’s first novel for adults, How Do You Like Me Now? when it debuts later this year.

Collateral: A Subtly Subversive Thriller

Collateral Carey Mulligan

Collateral, David Hare’s new thriller produced by the BBC, centers on the murder of a pizza delivery man, but as its name suggests, the miniseries is not just about the murder. Though the show follows the police investigation led by D.I. Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), the viewer knows the identity, if not the motive, of the killer from the first episode on. As Kip works to put the pieces together, the viewer has time not only to unpack why the crime took place but to consider what the experiences of the people involved can tell us about our society.

Though the show delivers on plot twists and suspense, it’s more nuanced than your average crime drama. In Collateral, there are no shots of the corpse in the morgue; we see the shooting, but the camera does not linger on the body. Rather, by focusing on the living, Collateral encourages viewers to explore how a crime can harm people who are merely adjacent to it.

Many of the miniseries’ central characters are women, and as they reckon with the fallout of the murder, we see them negotiating sexism in their daily lives, whether it arrives in the form of a snide but harmless comment from a male colleague, or coercive sex. Mulligan was pregnant during the show’s filming, and rather than use camera angles to obscure this fact, Hare wrote the pregnancy into the script. Hare invites us to share Kip’s shrug of annoyance when a male police officer comments on her pregnancy, but Kip herself hardly alludes to the fact that she’s pregnant—she’s too busy getting on with her job.

Hare shows how the characters’ experiences of the crime are filtered through class as well as through gender, emphasizing how the collateral damage of a crime is most severe for people whose economic situation or immigration status makes them in some way vulnerable. This is especially evident in the plot lines devoted to the sisters of the murdered delivery man (Ahd Hassan Kamel and July Namir), refugees who may soon be deported; the sole witness to the murder, a Vietnamese foreign student (Kae Alexander) who has overstayed her visa; and the manager of the pizza restaurant (Hayley Squires), a single woman caring for her dying mother in their council estate flat.

Stories like that of the sisters of the murder victim are thrown into contrast by their more affluent counterparts, reminding viewers how wealth and social status shield the innocent from incidental damage and the guilty from justice. The woman who ordered the pizza, (Billy Piper) can afford to treat the murder and the police investigation as an unwanted intrusion into her chaotic home. Her ex-husband, the local Labour MP (John Simm), makes a statement condemning hate crimes against immigrants, and his job is more or less done. And as the plot unfolds, subplots emerge that hint of government corruption and potential military involvement.

With Collateral, Hare has artfully constructed not only a gripping thriller with a Dickensian web of interconnected characters, but a thoughtful commentary on issues as diverse and complicated as sexual harassment in the workplace, the refugee crisis, immigration policy, class disparities in gentrifying London, and the consequences of UK military involvement in the Middle East. The show’s emphasis on the perspectives of women, minorities, and marginalized members of society is subtly subversive in a genre which frequently turns a voyeuristic gaze towards these kinds of characters. Smart, empathetic, and unsettling, Collateral charts a course that prestige crime dramas would do well to follow.

Short Story Renaissance: Carmen Maria Machado & Jeffrey Eugenides

For me, as for many people, reading fiction usually means reading novels. Writers have a tendency to think of short stories as “practice” for longer works; and many readers, I think, associate short stories with either high-brow literary magazines or the mid-century American fiction read in high school literature classes. However, the past few years have seen a kind of rebirth of the short story—walk into any bookstore and you’ll see recent short story collections displayed prominently, and just a few months ago Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” went viral after being published by The New Yorker.

In recent months, I’ve found myself reading more and more short fiction, too. Short story collections, I’ve found, fit the rhythm of my day nicely. I tend to read while commuting, and I can usually finish a story or two on one journey. If you don’t want to commit to a 250-page novel, a short story collection gives you the freedom of reading a story, putting down the book, and then returning to it days or weeks later.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading:

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

By the time I got my hands on a (signed!) copy of Her Body and Other Parties, I’d been eagerly awaiting the book’s release for several years. The first short story in Her Body and Other Parties, “The Husband Stitch” was originally published in Granta in October 2014, and when I read it, I sent it to my best friend in an email full of exclamation points. The story is beautifully written, haunting, and emotionally astute. Her Body and Other Parties was nominated for a National Book Award, and I’ve seen Machado compared many times to Shirley Jackson, another master of the short story form. I think characterization is, in many ways fitting—like Jackson, Machado uses elements of the supernatural to write about women and their experiences, but Machado’s writing delves much more frankly into sex and sexuality than any of Jackson’s short stories that I’ve read. In many interviews, Machado is asked about her approach to writing about sex, or if she considers her stories erotic. While sex is certainly an important element of many of Machado’s stories, I think it would be tragically reductionist to consider the collection a work of erotica. Machado never presents sex voyeuristically; the sex scenes are sometimes sexy, but they are not there to arouse the readers. Rather, the sex scenes give us a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationships. My current favorite in the collection is “Inventory,” in which a woman’s memories of past lovers give shape to a futuristic story of biological apocalypse. On my first reading of the collection, I found some stories easier to digest and understand than others. Perhaps because I’ve never watched SVU, I found it difficult to make sense of the novella Especially Heinous, which spins a ghost story out of characters and circumstances taken from the show. However, I’m certain that it will reward re-reading, and I’m looking forward to returning to the collection in months and years to come.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey EugenidesFresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

After discovering Jeffrey Eugenides during my sophomore year of college, I read The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex in a matter of months. I adored The Marriage Plot in particular, and when I picked up Fresh Complaint at the library a few weeks ago, I assumed it too was a novel. In fact, the book is a short story collection. Some were written as recently as 2017; others as early as the mid-1990s. Some of the older short stories feel more than a bit cringe-worthy given changing social mores—”Baster,” in which the narrator secretly swaps his own sperm for the sample his friend intends to use to get pregnant, is one of these. But I was touched by “Complainers,” which charts a friendship between two aging women, one of whom has dementia; and I enjoyed “Airmail,” which gave me a chance to revisit Mitchell Grammaticus, a character from The Marriage Plot, on a beach in Bali. Still, Fresh Complaint left me slightly disappointed; Eugenides might have done better to leave some of his older stories in the drawer.

Also on my list of short story collections to read:

  • Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
  • Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
  • Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay
  • The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark

 

 

End of an Era: Reading the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend The Story of a New Name Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay The Story of the Lost Child

Last night, I arrived home from work, heated up some leftover takeout curry, and finished The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The books follow Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend, Lila, from their shared childhood in a poor, Camorra-controlled neighborhood in Naples; into their teens and twenties, when Elena leaves the neighborhood, attends university and establishes herself as a scholar and writer; their thirties and forties, when they are once more living nearby in the neighborhood; and into their fifties and sixties, when their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Ferrante’s narrative accumulates details, gestures, and interpersonal histories in a way that allows her to imbue a pair of shoes or a glance between friends with devastating meaning. Near the end of the first novel, one of the Solara brothers—Lila’s enemy and one of the most powerful figures in the neighborhood—arrive at a wedding reception wearing a certain pair of shoes. I gasped aloud. Without Ferrante saying so, I knew that a terrible betrayal had taken place, and I was stunned by how deftly Ferrante had given me all of the details that I needed to be able to understand what the shoes meant.

One of the things I love about Ferrante’s writing was the way that she captured what it feels like to be simultaneously in your own mind and in a world made up of other people. We all know what it feels like to be half in a conversation and also thinking about something else: how handsome the man you’re talking to is, what your best friend would say if she were here, how secretly uncertain you are of the opinions you’re expressing.

I’ve been reading my way through the series for the last six or seven months, interspersing Ferrante’s novels with other books along the way, and I felt a sense of both completeness and emptiness as I reached the last page of The Story of the Lost Child. In a sense, the process of reading the novels seemed to mark out an era of my own life. Like the narrator Elena, who has furiously written pages and pages of text recounting her friendship with Lila, I couldn’t believe it was over.