What I’m reading: March 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, or play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Neverending Story (both the book and the movies), the podcast Who the Hell is Hamish?, The 100 (TV series), WandaVision, and The Bridge (the HBO Max reality series).

What I’m reading for work/research

Blurbed to Death: The Implosion of American Dirt When it comes to stories like the one about what happened to American Dirt last year, I feel like the role of research in fiction writing is having a moment but no one is noticing it. Which is to say, the story of American Dirt–a controversial book about immigration by a white writer–is about a lot of things, including the systemic racism of the publishing industry and the way it privileges white voices even when it comes to stories about non-white characters. But what I find interesting about the American Dirt controversy is the questions it raises about the opportunities and limits of research when it comes to fiction. By her own account, the book’s author (Jeanine Cummins) did a great deal of research to create her story, including traveling to Mexico to conduct in-depth interviews with people who had directly relevant experience with the issues she wanted to write about. But despite this effort, her book (according to her critics) still ended up relying on stale stereotypes and was filled with inaccurate Spanish. Not only does this speak to the limits of research when it comes to authenticity, it also speaks to the different expectations of different audiences. According to this article from Vulture reflecting on the controversy one year later, American Dirt was originally marketed as a fun page-turning thriller but then an author who provided a marketing blurb for the novel compared it to the Grapes of Wrath and the strategy changed. Once they started promoting the book as a “literary masterpiece,” it drew the attention of a more discerning audience and that was when critics started calling out the lack of authenticity and research-related errors the novel contained. Like I said, there are a lot of layers to this issue and to most people questions about research are probably the least of them but to me what happened here shows why conversations about what research can and can’t do for creative writing are so important.

What I’m reading for fun

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (translated by Ralph Manheim): The Neverending Story is probably the first book that I ever loved. I first read it when I was about twelve, after watching the movie, and then immediately read it again…and again…and again. Once a year, every year, for…well, a long time. There was about a five year period where I gave these annual visitations a rest but in February 2020, I decided it was time to go back. Then the world got weird and, for the first time ever, I stopped reading NES without finishing it. This year, I decided to try again and I’m glad I did. The Neverending Story is a really hard book to describe in part because a lot of people think they already know it because they’ve seen the movies. Also because it’s a lot different from the kinds of fantasy books that are published today. For one thing, it’s a standalone story rather than a series and for another the tone of the book is more oriented toward younger readers than, say, Harry Potter was (though how much of this is due to intention and how much is due to what seems like a bit of a rough translation from the original German, I personally couldn’t say). But what I like about the book and why I keep going back to it is how deceptively elegant the story is, as well as its lack of easy answers. If you’ve only seen the movies, you know NES as the story of a lonely young boy named Bastian who literally gets pulled into the fantasy world of a book that he’s reading about a young hero named Atreyu on a quest to save that world from being consumed by a mysterious force called The Nothing. The first movie ends here but the book keeps going, showing Bastian’s adventures in the fantasy world that he’s saved. And what happens isn’t exactly happy. He’s given the ability to make wishes that then come true. Making these wishes is necessary to rebuild Fantastica (Fantasia, in the movies) but each one steals a piece of Bastian’s self until he completely forgets who he used to be and…well, basically turns evil and tries to crown himself the king of Fantastica with disastrous results. From what I remember,(1) the second movie touches on some of these story points but shifts the blame for all the bad stuff that happens to an evil witch named Xayide. In the book, things are more complicated. I mean, Xayide is there and she definitely doesn’t help the situation but the role of the Childlike Empress in all of this is kept much more ambiguous than it would be in most children’s novels. Like with any god or godlike character, there are a lot of questions about whether the Childlike Empress is herself evil or simply allows evil things to happen, only choosing to intervene when it benefits her to do so. I’ve read this book more than twenty times and every time I come away with a different answer to these questions. Maybe that’s why I keep going back.

What I’m listening to for fun

Who the Hell is Hamish?: Subscribing to the 1.5x Speed newsletter from Vulture has led me to a lot of interesting podcast discoveries lately. One of these was this Australian podcast about a con man named Hamish Watson who tricked dozens of otherwise smart people into believing he was some sort of financial wizard who could increase their savings by exponential amounts through smart investments and instead made off with millions and millions of dollars of their money. Luckily, he was eventually caught and sent to prison for his crimes (well, the ones anyone knew about). The podcast tells the story of Watson through the eyes of the people whose lives he basically ruined with some supporting analysis from psychological and financial experts. The story is an interesting and convoluted one, especially if you’re a fan of any sort of true crime, but what really struck me about the podcast was the tone in which it was told. Greg Bearup, a journalist, narrates the story and interviews his subjects with a great deal of empathy rather than going for a more sensational approach. He does sometimes stray into weird territory, as with a strange and inexplicable fixation on Watson’s apparent lack of talent in the bedroom as described by many of his romantic partners throughout the series. But his interview with “Jane,” a young woman who had an affair with Watson when she was just sixteen years old, is particularly notable for the sensitivity with which Bearup treats both his interviewee and the story she has to tell.

What I’m watching for fun

The 100 on Netflix: A few months ago I wrote that I had started watching The 100, a series I was enjoying but didn’t have high hopes for because I’d read a bunch of spoilers and knew how much everyone seemed to hate the final season (and why). I’ve now finished the series, which I never intended to do—I was pretty sure I was going to abandon it somewhere in the middle, assuming the quality took a dive—but I guess it managed to keep me watching through to the end. I would say that I generally liked the series but I also found it seriously frustrating. There are so many good characters on this show and it’s basically a unicorn in the fact that none of the lead female characters are defined by their love interests (or if they are, it doesn’t last very long). I also like that this show had the balls to go where most similar shows won’t: in those other shows, there is constant threat of apocalypse but you know it’s never actually going to happen—that the characters will figure out a way to prevent it. In this show, the apocalypse definitely happens. Twice. Also, the characters commit genocide on more than one occasion and later resort to cannibalism in the name of survival. And, arguably, you’re supposed to like them. Where this show fell down for me was that despite having these great, potentially complicated characters, it wasn’t interested in exploring who these people were beyond how they could serve the plot and/or be used as tools to explore the themes the show was concerned with. Basically, what should have been a very good character-driven show was instead a mostly mediocre plot-driven show. Like, sometimes the characters’ actions made no sense and it was clear that they were only doing what they were doing because of the plot. I’m thinking mostly of Bellamy’s whole storyline in the third season (…and pretty much every season after that). Anyway. I’m glad this show exists. I’m glad I watched it. I just felt like it could have been so much better than it was.

WandaVision on Disney+: When I first heard that the MCU was going to start doing TV series on Disney’s streaming platform, the fact that there was going to be a series about Wanda and Vision barely registered with me. I guess I was too excited about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to give it much thought(more on that series in next month’s post, probably). Also while I generally liked Wanda and Visions’s scenes in Captain America: Civil War, I didn’t find them to be so hugely compelling in this or any of the other movies that I wanted to watch a whole series about them. But then the series came out and I saw some of the conversation around it was pretty positive, so I tuned in and I liked what I saw a lot more than I expected. Which is to say, you can count me among the viewers who prefer the early episodes which mimic the aesthetics and story beats of classic sitcoms over the later more standard MCU-type episodes. The early ones especially appealed to me because right before watching WandaVision, I had just finished a rewatch of The Dick Van Dyke Show,  so it was funny seeing how closely this show had mimicked some of the sets, costumes, and general sensibility of that series. And though it was more Bewitched-oriented, I think my favorite episode was the second one with the magic show. Obviously, that schtick couldn’t last but honestly I could have watched an entire series made up entirely of more episodes like the two black and white ones. Once the shift to color and the more typical MCU stuff kicked in, I was fully on board at first, especially when Darcy from the Thor movies showed up, but eventually I got kind of…I don’t want to say bored, but the last half of the series definitely enchanted me a lot less than the first half. Though I have to say that Vision’s speech about grief being an extension of love in the second to last episode definitely got me. On the whole, I’m probably more interested in Wanda and Vision as characters now than I was before and I would definitely continue watching if they do more episodes or appear in more movies in the future. But I wish the show could have stayed in that comfort television world a little bit longer.

The Bridge on HBO Max: When it comes to reality shows, there are a surprising number of hidden gems on HBO Max, including The Great Pottery Throw Down (which is basically the Great British Bake-Off but with pottery) and this one, another British series that has elements of both Survivor and, weirdly, The Circle. The premise of the show is that a group of strangers are stranded on a remote island with nothing but some basic resources (including shelter and food that must be carefully rationed) to survive on for the next three weeks. The prize at the end is a big bag of money. The twist is that the money is on a separate remote island and in order for anyone to win it, the contestants have to work together to build an 850 foot bridge to that second island, using only the materials that have been made available to them on their island. While a few of the contestants have some relevant building or engineering experience, most of them very much do not. Instead, their job experiences range from “waitress” to “male stripper” to “fashion designer” to “graduate” (?). You would think, then, that the first move here would be to listen to the people with the relevant experience and make those people their designated leaders…but it’s not. And that’s just the first of many seemingly extraordinarily dumb decisions these people make in the six episodes that make up the series.(2) These dumb decisions are both frustrating and, it turns out, the source of most of the show’s suspense because the question of whether this group of people can actually the accomplish the task at hand is not at all a given. In fact, I suspect one “breakthrough” moment they have relatively early on was likely the result of producer interference rather than their own sudden epiphany, even though it’s not portrayed that way on screen. Like, they had to do something to give these people a fighting chance. Anyway, I’m a sucker for a reality show with good or unexpected twists and I can’t say no to the overly intense narration by James McAvoy (<3), so for me this was a good way to spend a quiet weekend.

*

(1) In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve probably seen the first Neverending Story movie dozens of times and even though it oversimplifies Atreyu’s quest a bit, it’s generally pretty accurate to the first half of the book, within the limits of what was possible with special effects in the 1980s (though I’m still not sure why Falkor the luckdragon ended up looking like a very large, furry dog–maybe they were afraid an actual dragon would scare kids?). Meanwhile, I can’t watch the second movie. Not because of the way it messes with the story but because for some reason it scared the shit out of me as a little kid and the one time I tried to go back to it as an adult, it still gave me the creeps for reasons I can’t explain. So I can’t vouch for the accuracy of my memory of what the movie is about or how it uses or doesn’t use any of the story points from the second half of the book. I’ve never seen the third movie but my understanding is that even though it uses some of the same characters from the book, it tells a completely new story.

(2) To be fair, the one person in the group with somewhat relevant experience at the beginning of the series does not exactly endear himself to anyone early on, though he’s later redeemed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s