What I’m reading: January 2021

Now that I’m officially on sabbatical, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

(Note: The following contains spoilers for A Wilderness of Error, both the TV series and the book, the podcast Morally Indefensible, the Bridgerton TV series and Russian Doll)

What I’m reading for work

All Shook Up: The Politics of Cultural Appropriation: To me, one of the more interesting and immediately relevant aspects of the role of research in fiction writing has to do with the idea of cultural appropriation. More and more, writers are being challenged to think about the ethics around writing characters who are not like themselves and whether it’s possible to do so in an authentic way based on research alone. This is a topic I have a lot of complicated and sometimes contradictory thoughts about. This article by Brian Morton is a really thoughtful consideration of what cultural appropriation is and, more importantly, what it isn’t and why both of these things are important. One of the things that annoys me most when white writers (like me) get called out for writing non-white characters is that they often defend themselves by claiming to have some special empathetic power to step into someone else’s shoes to tell their story—that they will somehow, magically “inevitably know” what’s right for a character. Morton talks about this and also talks about why what he calls “sympathetic imagination” and how trying to imagine the lives of others can be essential even if it’s not fully possible: “We can embrace a sort of cultural solipsism that holds that different groups have nothing in common, or we can understand that our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of people we’ll never know. We can deny what we owe to one another, or we can seek to retrieve the vision of a shared humanity. We can choose to believe that it’s virtuous to try to stay in our lanes, or we can choose to learn about the idea of solidarity. It’s an old idea, but for those of us concerned with freedom and equality, it’s still the best idea we have.” Really important stuff.

What I’m reading for fun

A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris: I mentioned last month that I’d been listening to a podcast called Morally Indefensible, which was a companion to a TV series about the Jeffrey MacDonal murder case called A Wilderness of Error, which was itself based(?) on a book of the same title by Errol Morris. The Jeffrey MacDonald case is a fascinating one in part because there are just so many different threads that feed into so many different understandings of what happened the night MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters were murdered. Every time you think you understand what happened, some new information comes along and blows everything up. The TV series explores a lot of those threads without taking a definite stance on what the truth might be. Morally Indefensible, which only explores one aspect of the story, seems to come down pretty hard against MacDonald (or at least to support the perspective of author Joe McGinniss, who wrote a book about the case called Fatal Vision and who believed that MacDonald was guilty). Personally, I was pretty convinced MacDonald did it (this is, after all, a central tenet of True Crime: that the husband always did it) but I was curious to read the book by Morris because I knew, based on interviews with him in the TV series, that he believes that MacDonald is not the murderer. I wanted to know why he thought that way. It turns out that book isn’t so much about arguing for MacDonald’s innocence (though there is definitely that, especially toward the end) as it is exploring Morris’s thesis that MacDonald didn’t get a fair trial any of the times that he went to court over this case. In Morris’s view, investigators pretty much decided that MacDonald did it within hours of the crime having been committed and from that point forward all evidence was considered only through the lens of proving his guilt rather than figuring out what happened. From an information literacy perspective, this is a fascinating exploration of confirmation bias and the lengths we sometimes go to in order to manipulate or ignore information that is inconvenient to our beliefs about something. It also works on a meta level because Morris himself might be a victim of his own confirmation bias (something he acknowledges early on). Either way, for all that I had kind of overdosed on information about Jeffrey MacDonald before I read this book, I couldn’t put the thing down once I started reading. Utterly, utterly fascinating and surprisingly convincing.

What I’m watching for fun

Bridgerton on Netflix: I had some time off at the holidays and the way everyone was talking about Bridgerton, it felt like required viewing at the time so I went ahead and binged it. As a reader of romance novels, I generally enjoy the “sexual tension” part of romance stories the most, when the two characters are starting to have feelings for each other but might not realize it. Unfortunately, due to the nature of romance novels, this is generally the shortest part of the story unless it’s a slow burn romance. A lot of readers are in a rush to get to the dirty parts, so it doesn’t take long for sexual tension to turn into sex, which is when the story starts to get repetitive and I usually get kind of bored. The same thing happened to me here. I really enjoyed the first two episodes of Bridgerton (the Duke’s smile when he’s dancing with Daphne is everything) but once the whole forced marriage thing started I kind of zoned out. I was also really disappointed about the big reveal at the end even though I’d figured it out at least two or three episodes before.(1) I kind of wanted the Lady Whistledown thing to stay a mystery a little longer and was hoping to see Penelope get some real romance (and a better wardrobe) first.(2) Oh well. Hopefully a future season will get to cover that second wish. If it does, I’ll definitely watch.

Russian Doll on Netflix: I decided to spend my quieter-than-usual New Year’s Eve(3) rewatching Russian Doll in its entirety for the third time in less than a year. This is a series that rewards rewatching because of all the little things you inevitably don’t catch the first time or two but also because I find that every time I watch it, I think about it differently. Like, this time the video game elements of the plot really stuck out to me because I’ve spent so much of this year stuck inside playing video games and having to learn things like DON’T KEEP GOING DOWN THE STAIRCASE BECAUSE EVERY TIME YOU DO YOU DIE. I also like to marvel at how my feelings for Alan change from the time that he’s introduced to the end of the series. (My feelings about Nadia don’t change—I love her from the start, every time.) In his first episode or two, I always kind of hate Alan (to be fair, I think you’re supposed to—at least a little). The first time I watched the series, I was actually a little dismayed when he first showed up—I thought he was going to ruin the rest of the show for me. But by the end of that first viewing, I was ready to die for Alan. Like, seriously die for him. The same thing happens every time I watch. I don’t know why or how but given that he only plays a major role in four of the eight episodes, it’s pretty amazing that the writers and the actor (Charlie Barnett, who I’ve since seen in other things and loved just as much) manage to pull off such an about-face.

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(1) The reason Lady Whistledown didn’t write about the Queen’s ball? It wasn’t a slight on the Queen—it was because she wasn’t there.

(2) PLEASE tell me she doesn’t end up with that boring Disney kid drip Collin (or Colin or whatever his name is).

(3) Ha, who am I kidding? I never go out on New Year’s Eve.

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