A Murderous Comfort or Murder, Most Foul?

Over the craziness of the past eighteen months, I’ve thought a lot about what I find comforting. I’ve shared some of those answers (here, here, here and here). But one thing has emerged as unexpectedly comforting. Murder. That’s right, cold blooded murder.

image credit: tvpassport.com

During lockdown I was bored and stressed (who wasn’t?) and I started randomly watching Murder, She Wrote. It felt like a sigh. It was exactly what my brain needed. For those who have never seen it, the TV series ran from 1984-1996. It stars Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist, Jessica Fletcher. Fletcher started writing mysteries for comfort herself, as a way to distract herself following the death of her husband. Her books became instant hits, and Fletcher became a worldwide bestselling author. She remains in her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, but travels extensively. And everywhere she goes, murder seems to follow. There are actually fan theories that Jessica Fletcher was the one whodunnit all along! I mean how else are we to account for the fact that people around her just seem to drop dead?

But kidding aside, watching a few episodes of the show got me thinking, and thinking got me googling. Angela Lansbury had played Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d. The film flopped, and Lansbury was never asked to play Miss Marple again. However, it made the series producers think she’d be just right for the role of Jessica Fletcher. The two characters are very similar really. Both are older women (Fletcher is a widow and Miss Marple’s a spinster) who have a curious nature and a shrewd intelligence that helps them outwit both criminals and law enforcement officials. Both can latch on to a seemingly casual comment and use it to unravel a whole case.

image credit: agathachristie.com

That made me realize that I find Miss Marple very comforting too. So is it old lady detectives that I find soothing? Yes, but not just them. I started thinking about other mysteries I find comforting. Agatha Christie (not just Miss Marple), Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer Murders… Is it cozy mysteries that give me the comfort factor?

For those not aware, goodreads defines the genre as follows:

Cozies very rarely focus on sex, profanity or violence. The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (e.g. poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed. The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable, nosy, yet reliable character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.

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Do the books and shows I’ve mentioned count as cozies? Yes and no. In the above examples, not all the sleuths are amateur. Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher are. But Inspector Poirot is a retired police officer. Not technically “on duty” but not an amateur either. In Midsomer Murders, a British TV series based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series (which I haven’t read), the main character is the titular police detective. The setting of my comfort mysteries isn’t always a small town either. It is in Midsomer Murders, but Jessica Fletcher leaves Cabot Cove quite often. She’s solved crimes in big cities, remote islands, and everything in between. In some cases the suspects all know each other, but in some cases they don’t. They all have elements of the cozy dynamic though.

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I think most of us here can agree that murder is a very bad thing. (really, really hoping no one disagrees with that!) So why should watching a film or reading about murders being solved be soothing? Well, I think the importance lies in the being solved part of that sentence. Things on screen or on the page get pretty bad. An innocent (or not so innocent…) person(s) is murdered. People around them, usually the people the victim(s) trusted most, had reason to want them dead. Within the immediate pool of suspects and bystanders there are likely to be a number of secrets, lies and betrayals that will be uncovered. As a reader/viewer and armchair detective I don’t know who to trust. But from the first page, or the first image onscreen, I know it will all be uncovered. That’s not to say everyone will have a happy ending. But the case will be solved. I’ll know who was responsible, and why. It will make sense.

Over the last few years, I’ve felt like very few things make sense: the pandemic, civil unrest, ecological disasters… We can and should hold our lawmaker’s accountable. But we usually can’t look at any one person and say “it was all his fault.” Even in cases where there is a single perpetrator, we’re realizing that there are systems of circumstances that are involved in what they do. But a fictional mystery is comforting because it really is that simple. The killer did it. Maybe other people are culpable in some way too, or maybe not. Even if justice can’t completely be restored in these stories, something is usually set to rights at the end. There’s a sense of stability and a restoration of order.

In an article for Psychology Today, David Evans actually compares the way that murder mysteries work to the way that fairy tales work for children: “Several years ago, there was some very significant work that psychologists did, suggesting that the fairy tales children read have a very helpful effect on their emotional lives. The psychologists found that the fairy tales gave children a format that allowed them to deal with their fears and traumas and be less troubled by them.” He suggests that mysteries serve a similar function for adults. “Murder mysteries may give us hope by telling us stories that begin with evil events, but call forth the efforts of people who can rise to heroic heights and reassure us that, with great effort, evil can be overcome. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.” Leaving aside the fact that I believe that fairy tales are appropriate for all ages (see here and here for more about that), and that fairy tales serve purposes other than just comforting children, I agree with what he’s saying.

There are certainly mysteries that don’t give comfort. If I want a mystery that will soothe me, I don’t look to writers like Gillian Flynn, Tana French or Stieg Larsson (in some cases, I’ll enjoy their work for other reasons, but comfort isn’t one of them.) But it’s nice to know that if I need to be soothed I can pick up an Agatha Christie novel, or turn on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Books That Made Me Want More

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

September 28: Freebie (Come up with your own topic or do a past TTT topic that you missed or would like to do again.)

I decided to do recent books I’ve read that made me want more this week. These might be books that made me want to seek out more by the author, or other books in the genre, or learn more about a topic.

1. The Tiger Catcher by Paullina Simons – I’ve mentioned this one before. I think it stands out for me because it was such a pleasant surprise. I’ve been about 50/50 on this author’s past work, and this didn’t have great reviews, so I wasn’t expecting much. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and now I’m looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.

2. March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley – Each of the four essays in this book are written by a different contemporary author, and each focuses on a different March sister in Little Women. I don’t know what I was expecting from it really, but it made me think about some things in the book differently, and it definitely made me want to reread it soon.

3. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – This is another one that had been on my TBR for a while, but my expectations weren’t high. When I started reading it, the first chapter was beautiful, and I didn’t know if the rest of the book would live up to its promise. For the most part, it did. I’m looking forward to reading Once and Future Witches next. Harrow also has a series based on fairy tales that looks very tempting.

4. Masterpiece: America’s 50 Year Old Love Affair with British Television Drama by Nancy West – I feel kind of silly putting a book about a TV show on this list, but I’m a big fan British TV so I’ve always liked PBS’ Masterpiece! This book looks at the program’s 50 year history through major successes like “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” to adaptations (both faithful and unfaithful) of literary classics, to historical dramas, and the many detectives who have solved crimes on British TV. It also addresses criticism that the program has faced for celebrating oppressive social, racial and cultural structures. I added at least twenty shows to my watchlist while I was reading it so it counts for this list.

5. Weather by Jenny Offill – I picked this up because I saw it in the library and I remembered that some people I follow on Goodreads gave this book good reviews. I think it was just what I was in the mood for when I read it. I immediately went back to the library and picked up a copy of Offill’s Dept of Speculation, and enjoyed that too. Last Things is next on my list.

6. The Guest List by Lucy Foley- This was just a book I read in about two sittings. Nothing about it was unique or special really, but it was a fast moving mystery. The chapters were short, and most of them ended on a cliffhanger, so I was constantly thinking “just one more chapter…” Foley’s other books are now on my TBR. It also made me seek out other “locked room” mysteries.

7. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – I read this because I really liked The Durrells In Corfu, a series (on Masterpiece!) about the author and his family moving to Greece in the 1930’s. The show was based on Durrell’s Corfu trilogy of which this was the first. It was delightful and the other two are now on my TBR.

8. Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire- The October Daye series has been on my TBR for a long time. I finally got a chance to read the first one last year, and I’m looking forward to having fourteen more books to read in this series. Hopefully I’ll get to them soon!

9. Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss – This one reminded me of Theodora Goss, an author who hasn’t been on the forefront of my mind. I really liked this collection of poems and stories though, and it made me remember that I’d started Goss’ Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club trilogy and never finished it. So I definitely want to finish that one and check out some of her other work soon.

10. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler – This was another book I read and really enjoyed. It made me want to read Swyler’s other work, which so far is just one other novel, but will hopefully be more in the future!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books From Past TBRs that I’ve Read

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

This week’s topic was:

September 21: Books on My Fall 2021 To-read List

But I thought instead of making another TBR I’d revisit some old ones again and share what I’ve read. I did this a few times before (here and here) and I’m trying not to repeat books I’ve already updated on other lists:

1. How To Stop Time by Matt Haig from Books I’m Looking Forward To In 2018 – I was really excited for this one but it turned out to be just OK. That’s not bad: I was entertained as I read it, just nothing about it sticks with me a few months later.

2. Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow from Backlist TBR– I’d heard some good things about this revolutionary war set novel. Some people compared it to Gone With the Wind (I suppose because it featured a southern heiress and some romance) but the heroine of this isn’t likeable and we don’t really root for her in spite of it, like we do with Scarlett O’Hara. As a result the book fell flat for me.

3. Bird Box by Josh Malerman from Backlist TBR – I read this before watching the Netflix film. I’d heard really great things about it, so maybe my expectations were too high. I was underwhelmed by the movie too, though the books was better (as it usually is)

4. The Group by Mary McCarthy from Most Recent Additions to My TBR (Jan 2019) This was an interesting read. It was originally written in 1963 and was considered groundbreaking at the time for it’s look at women’s lives, social issues, and sexuality. What may have been shocking sixty years ago is less so now, but it’s amazing that some of the expectations of women, and the prevalence of double standards, haven’t changed. There’s also a film version, which I still haven’t seen, but it’s on my list.

5. Normal People by Sally Rooney from Most Recent Additions to My TBR (Jan 2019) I still haven’t seen the hulu series (I know, I know, I’m getting to it!) but I really enjoyed the book, with one small caveat: quotation marks. I know that writers have reasons for not including them some times, but there are also reasons that they exist in the first place! It makes for a much smoother reading experience if I don’t have to constantly figure out if something is or isn’t dialogue. But I don’t want to make it seems like I didn’t like the book, because I did!

6. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid from Most Recent Additions to My TBR – Reid tends to be a hit or miss author for me. But the books I was iffy on tend to be her earlier work. Her more recent work, including this and The Seven Husband’s of Evelyn Hugo were really enjoyable. I haven’t read her most recent, Malibu Rising, yet. I was a bit skeptical about the format of this one (interviews with the titular band) but it worked.

7. Roar by Cecilia Ahern from Most Recent Additions to My TBR– This one was a disappointment. I like most of Ahern’s novels, but this collection of short fiction didn’t really work for me. I like a couple of stories, but that’s it. Apparently my opinion is the minority though, it got great reviews and it’s going to be made into an Apple+ series.

8. The Tiger Catcher by Paullina Simons from Spring 2019 TBR – Simons is another author with whom I’ve had mixed experiences. This book got mixed reviews, so my expectations were low, which may be why I enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s the beginning of a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

9. Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald from Spring 2019 TBR – I felt like I should have liked this historical fiction with touches of fantasy. But the story didn’t really go anywhere, so this was a book where it was sort of important to like one of the two main characters. I didn’t like either of them very much.

10. The Parting Glass by Gina Maria Guadagnino from 10 Most Recent Additions to My TBR (Jan 2019) – I read a review of this (I think it was on goodreads, but I’m not sure) that said it was like Downton Abbey meets Gangs of New York. I thought that description summed it up pretty well. It was a pretty good book, but nothing that I gave too much thought to afterward.

Tag Tuesday: Books I Want To Read (But Don’t Want To Read)

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday was

September 14: Books With Numbers In the Title

But I feel like I did a list like this pretty recently (OK so it was 2 years ago, but how creative can you get with the topic really?). So I decided to do a Tag Tuesday instead. This tag was created by @jamishelves and I first discovered it on @zeezeewithbooks. I decided on this one because my home is slowly being taken over by books I want to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. Everything here has been living on my shelves for a long, long time…

A BOOK YOU FEEL THE NEED TO READ BECAUSE EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT

Actually I don’t think I have anything on mu TBR shelf that I feel like I have to read for that reason. I cheated and used my kindle for this one. I’m going with Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I keep meaning to read it, but putting it aside and reading something else instead, for one reason or another. I really, really want to read this one though, because I’ve heard great things about it.

A BOOK THAT’S REALLY LONG

I have a few really long ones on the shelf (they tend to be put off for the longest because I know they’re a big investment in terms of time) I think the longest book on my unread shelf is Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (1007 pages). I enjoyed its predecessor, The Name of the Wind, but it’s hard to dive into a book this long. Plus who knows if/when book three will come out. I’d hate to get invested more in the series and then just be waiting, and waiting, and waiting…

A BOOK YOU OWN/HAD ON YOUR TBR FOR TOO LONG

I picked up Kristin Lavransdatter Part I: The Bridal Wreath about ten years ago at a library sale, because I’d heard that this three part novel was a great read. But before I started reading, I learned that the translation that I had wasn’t the preferred one (the consensus seems to be that the Penguin Classics edition is the best), and I wasn’t sure if I should give the one I had a shot or go straight for the preferred translation. So I put it off until I decided. And now it’s been a decade.

A BOOK THAT WAS “REQUIRED” READING
(E.G., SCHOOL TEXT, REALLY POPULAR CLASSIC — SOMETHING YOU FEEL OBLIGATED TO READ)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is a book I got for two reasons. One is that it was on some list I saw, somewhere, of books every writer should read (or something along those lines). Two is that I want to appreciate nature more. I feel like I’m very caught up in the human world, and I like the idea of slowing down, meditating and philosophizing on the natural world. But while that idea appeals to me, it seems like it might be a slog to read through.

A BOOK THAT INTIMIDATES YOU

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in the Lymond Chronicles. I enjoyed the first two but with an enigmatic hero who speaks in multilingual riddles and obscure references, it can be tough going. I actually want to buy this guide before I do read it.

A BOOK THAT YOU THINK MIGHT BE SLOW

The Overstory by Richard Powers won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It got rave reviews. But it’s about trees. How exciting can that be?

A BOOK YOU NEED TO BE IN THE RIGHT MOOD FOR

I read Paullina Simons’ The Tiger Catcher in the right mood and ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected to. Now I’m waiting for the right mood to read the second in the trilogy, A Beggar’s Kingdom.

A BOOK YOU’RE UNSURE YOU WILL LIKE

I suppose I’m a little bit nervous about The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I love academic settings in books, and I love books dealing with the marriage plot in general (think Austen, Eliot) but I’ve had mixed reactions to some of the author’s past work.

Why Are Fairy Tale Retellings Popular With A YA Audience?

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I had a conversation about this recently, and it got me thinking: why are fairy tale retellings so popular with YA readers?

First of all, I know that fairy tale retellings have an audience within all age groups. Some of the retellings for very young children tend to be the sanitized Disney type stuff we all grew up with. But there are many, many exceptions to that with fairy tales from around the world, retellings with unique illustrations, and even some scary stuff that might give some little ones nightmares. By the time they enter the middle grade reading group, kids have access to a wide variety of retellings from authors like Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Anne Ursu, Vivian Vande Velde and many others.

But fairy tales have really exploded in popularity with a teen audience. Let’s just look at the variety of genres that have fairy tale retellings:

Sci-Fi

Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

A Long, Long Sleep by Anne Sheehan

Stitching Snow and Spinning Starlight by RC Lewis

Contemporary

Ashley Poston’s Once Upon A Con series

Cindy Ella, Geek Charming, Wickedly Jealous, and Little Miss Red by Robin Palmer

Alex Flinn’s Kendra Chronicles

LGBT

Ash by Malinda Lo

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Historical Fantasy

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

East by Edith Pattou

Stepsister and Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

These are just a few of many examples. And, of course, there’s plenty of crossover: books that encompass more than one of those genres. So it certainly seems like fairy tales are being aimed at teens regardless of the genres to which they gravitate. Why is that?

Well first of all, I think that fairy tales are universal. They’re made for people. That’s why we can find interesting fairy tale inspired work for all age groups. But since we’re looking specifically at teens, let’s think about it this way:

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Teens are in a liminal space. They’re between childhood and adulthood. In some ways they’re expected to handle very adult burdens and responsibilities, but they still have a lot of the needs that they had when they were younger: security, consistency, a sense of safety. Obviously the extent to which these statements are true differs from one person to another, but I’m making a broad generalization here.

Fairy tales are about liminal spaces. Think about the action of fairy tales. The main character leaves home (a safe space) and goes on some kind of a quest. They journey will take them to dangerous places (the enchanted castle, the monster’s lair) but it will also take them through transitional spaces. The real growth takes place on the journey, of course.

The way we view fairy tales is also in transition. In their older versions many tales are dark and disturbing. Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle says: “Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo.” They deal with fears and insecurities, as well as hopes and dreams. As different people have collected and compiled these stories for different reasons, they’ve made changes to suit their intended audience. In the 20th century, Disney’s animated films shaped how a lot of people saw these stories: as brightly colored, tuneful children’s tales. And they can be that. But they can also be very dark. People are starting to recognize that fairy tales are not always the friendly childhood tales that we think about. Retellings, in all forms, are starting to recognize and resurrect some of the complexity that fairy tales once had.

Yet in spite of this dark content, there is a lot of simplicity in fairy tales. Characters tend to be good or evil. They teach moral lessons. Those lessons are absolutely good for children to learn, yes. But as they venture into the world, teens are confronted (many for the first time) with ambiguity, with doubt, with ethical dilemmas. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim says:

The child needs ideas on how to put his inner house in order and, on this basis, to be able to establish an order to life in general. The child needs – and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our present history – a moral education that subtly conveys the advantages of moral conduct, not through abstract ethical concepts, but through what seems tangibly correct and, therefore, meaningful for the child.

This is just as true for teens as it is for young children, if not more so.

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But despite the clear lines between good and evil that’s typical of the form, fairy tales also have a sense of moral ambiguity to them. That’s something that starts to emerge as our thinking matures. Sometimes we do sympathize with the wicked queen who is so afraid of aging and losing the beauty that defines her, that she lashes out at her innocent step-daughter. We can also find fault with the heroes. When the prince kisses the sleeping princess (usually a stranger to him) we might not think about it much as children. But as we grow and learn and mature, that can becoming very troubling.

Therefore fairy tales have an “in betweenness” to them that makes them great for people in a transitional point of life. Goddard Blythe, a child psychologist, says: “Fairy tales are important not because they show children how life is, but because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy. Life is looming for teens even more than younger children. The transition from child to adult is more immediate, and it’s natural to have some anxiety about that. Fairy tales can act as a canvas on which that anxiety can play out. Naturally teens have a wide range of interests. Different kinds of settings and genres appeal to different people. Therefore YA fairy tale retellings are giving teens the stories they need in the styles (whatever those may be) that they enjoy.

What’s your opinion? Agree? Disagree? Have the fairy tales that appeal to you changed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood?

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors That Make Me Smile

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

September 7: Books Guaranteed to Put a Smile On Your Face

I did a similar lists here and here but I figure that people can always use a reason to smile, right? This time I decided to stick to authors rather than specific titles.

Books by Georgette Heyer– I’m slowly rationing these so that I don’t run out. They’re mostly Jane Austen-eque regency romances, but also some whodunnits. So far my favorite is probably The Reluctant Widow or These Old Shades. A Christmas Party is a good whodunnit

Books by Barbara Pym– Pym’s social comedies are influenced by Austen, but her heroine is often a spinster (and stays one) throughout the matchmaking and meddling with other peoples lives. I haven’t read all of these either but Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence and Crompton Hodnet are all worth a read. Wow, can you tell Jane Austen makes me smile? I just put two authors on my list because they remind me of her work in some way! (Austen herself was on a previous list, linked above)

Books by Sophie Kinsella – Not great literature by any stretch of the imagination I really liked the first 3ish books in her Shopaholic series but then I feel like it just went on way too long. I like some of her others though. My (Not So) Perfect Life, Can You Keep A Secret, and I’ve Got Your Number are all silly and fun.

Books by Marian Keyes – Sometimes Keyes ventures into slightly darker territory, but most of her work is light and fun. Check out Watermelon, Sushi For Beginners and The Other Side of the Story. Her essay collections, Cracks in My Foundation and Under the Duvet are also fun.

Books by Sarah Addison Allen – Her books take place in a world very recognizable to our own, and feature people with (mostly) real world problems. But there are touches of magic everywhere that take you out of the mundane. I loved Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen and The Girl Who Chased the Moon.

Books by Rainbow Rowell– I haven’t read all of her work, but I’ve liked what I’ve read. Fangirl, Attachments and Landline are all good for a smile. I know her Simon Snow series (a Fangirl tie in) is really popular, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Books by Jill Mansell- My biggest problem with these is that they all tend to blend together in my mind, so it’s hard to tell what I’ve read and what I haven’t. That’s not a criticism though. It’s nice to know exactly what you’re getting sometimes. Especially when all you want is to smile a bit. I recommend Rumor Has It, Making Your Mind Up, and An Offer You Can’t Refuse, but I could be confusing them all with other books by the same author!

Books by Eva Ibbotson– What’s nice about Ibbotson is that her books are all comforting to some extent (based on what I’ve read anyway) and she’s got something in almost any genre you could want. Many are geared for a young, or at least YA, audience, but there’s plenty for readers of all ages to enjoy. Want romance? Check out The Secret Countess. Fantasy? The Secret of Platform 13 is a good one. Adventure? Try The Journey to the River Sea.

Books by LM Montgomery– Whether you’re partial to Emily, Anne or Pat; if you like short story collections or stand alones, there’s always something to enjoy or smile about here.

Books by Cecilia Ahearn– There have been one or two by this author that I didn’t enjoy but for the most part she’s reliable for a smile. I tend to enjoy her books best when there are touches of the fantastic. I wouldn’t call it fantasy precisely, but I especially enjoyed There’s No Place Like Here, The Book of Tomorrow, and If You Could See Me Now.

I’ve Been (Starting to Think About Publishing Edition)

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  • Really enjoying Amazon’s Carnival Row. Has anyone else seen it? It’s a fantasy-mystery set in a sort of steampunk Victorian England called the Burgue, where humans and mythical creatures live side by side (though not without significant problems…) It’s definitely not perfect, but I really like it. It was renewed for a second season but production halted due to the pandemic. Then it resumed, then it stopped again. As of now there are five episodes for season two filmed, and Amazon plans to release those and then film the rest when they can. I’m hoping that’ll be soon!
  • Also really liking Netflix’s The Chair.
  • In a bit of a reading slump. For me, reading slumps don’t make me read less (nothing makes me read less!) but I enjoy it less. Probably because I’ve read several “blah” books in a row. Here’s hoping I find something good soon!
  • Getting lots of ideas for posts. I don’t know why that is, but my drafts folder is bursting. So stay tuned for more.
  • In the stage of editing hell where every word I write seems absolutely unpublishable and I start to wonder if I was crazy thinking that I could write another book.
  • Trying to make my internet presence a little more author-y (since I’m starting to work on actually publishing Frost. Ahhhhh!). I’m looking at new templates for my website, updating information, making logos… In some ways my blog/social media presence is all over the place. I know it’s supposed to be targeted to my potential audience and I should be focusing on read alikes for my blog, and similar genres in terms of film, tv, etc. But I’m not a focused person. My interests run far and wide, and I’d rather be myself online than focus and build a business. Besides you never know what will turn up in my writing someday.
  • Starting to think about getting some advance reviews for Frost. When Beautiful was published, one thing I wish I’d known is how much having advance reviews help with pre-orders and initial sales. So I definitely want to think about it for this release.
  • Wondering how on earth some authors are able to write and release several books a year! (see this post for more about that) I want to get to the point where I can do one book in two years, but it takes me four years per book to write/publish at the moment. Who knows if/when I’ll get there? I keep telling myself that’s OK: writing and publishing any books is an accomplishment! But I feel like I have a lot of stories I want to tell….
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Top Ten Tuesday: Fictional Non-Crushes

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

August 31: Fictional Crushes

I did one of these a long time ago. I started trying to think of another ten literary guys I love, but then I started thinking about the guys who are usually cited as literary crushes, who just don’t appeal to me. In most cases I still root for them and their love interests in the context of the book (though there are one or two exceptions to that as well) but they’re just not for me. Just a warning there may be some spoilers here:

Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte– His actions are villainous. I think the reason that people are attracted to him has to do with the position the novel places him in, as well as the dark, twisted world it creates. But the fact is that he’s an abusive, sadistic, murderous, narcissist. That’s a big problem for me.

Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte– The whole “sorry I forgot to tell you before our wedding that I was already married, and my insane wife is hidden in the attic” thing is just a deal breaker for me.

Laurie from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott- I don’t dislike him, but I definitely think Jo made the right call turning him down. Even at the end of the book, when he’s matured, I still feel like he’s kind of childish. That can be endearing, but it’s not what I’d choose for a partner.

Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens- Yes, his actions at the end are self sacrificing, noble and courageous. But before that he’s a drunken loser for most of the book. That’s not appealing!

Maxim DeWinter from Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier- Yes the handsome millionaire would catch my attention. But he’s emotionally closed off from the get go, and learning that he killed his first wife wouldn’t make me more attracted to him (in spite of the fact that it seems to do for his second wife…)

Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell– He’s got some major strikes against him: he manipulates Scarlett (though to be fair, she manipulates him right back), solicits prostitutes and supports the south in the Civil War.

Erik in The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux- Yes, he’s got some pluses: he’s a tortured genius with a cool underground lair. But he’s also a vandalistic, obsessive murderer.

Sherlock Holmes from the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- I was surprised to see him on several lists (I googled literary crushes for some ideas for this list). Yes he’s very smart. But he’s also overly analytical, which could be a problem in a relationship. Plus he’s a drug addict.

Meditations on “The Chair”

OK it’s not the best post title. You’d think I could do better with a show called “The Chair” but apparently, I can’t. Anyway, I did really enjoy this Netflix series recently. I’ve got a few thoughts about it floating around in my head, so I thought I’d do a review-type thingy.

I’ve always thought that in another life I might have really enjoyed being an English Lit professor. I didn’t go down that road for a number of reasons, but I think I would have loved a job where I could live in books. I could spend my days thinking about them, talking about them, and sharing them with others. I loved being a lit major at a liberal arts college for just that reason, and being a professor always seemed to me to be a way to extend that, indefinitely. In some ways, The Chair cured me of that romanticized vision! Yes, loving books is a big part of it. But another part is departmental politics, worry about enrollments and the future of the field, losing office space, IT related stress, and a bit of racism, ageism, and sexism thrown in.

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The show follows Ji-Yoon Kim, the first female chair of the English department at prestigious Pembroke University. It opens with Ji-Yoon about to assume that role for first time at the start of a new semester. She expects to face some resistance from the old guard, but she also wants to usher the department into the 21st century. She wants to build and encourage diversity. The deans are worried about enrollment in the English department (kids are going for STEM fields rather than humanities) and that’s also something she expects to confront and hopefully overcome.

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What she doesn’t expect is the face resistance to the tenure of a young, Black colleague (who would be the department’s first Black female tenured professor), a PR nightmare surrounding her friend/crush, and the egos of the elderly, long time professors. She finds herself trapped between the old guard which is largely white and male, and the demand for more diversity from students and donors. She’s also trying to be a single parent to her (adopted, a fact that her daughter brings up repeatedly) daughter Ju-Hee (aka “Ju Ju”) who is strong willed, intelligent, precocious and, well, let’s just say not always appropriate.

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The show was co-written and co-created by Amanda Peet, the actress known for TV shows like Dirty John, Brockmire, and Togetherness, as well as films including The Whole Nine Yards, Something’s Gotta Give, and Identity Thief. I did some googling when I learned this, and discovered that she’s also the the writer of the play Our Very Own Carlin McCollough and the co-author of the children’s book Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. Perhaps that’s why the show has an appearance from David Duchovny (best known from The X Files), playing himself, who I learned has degrees from Princeton and Yale in English Literature, and started a PhD at Yale though his dissertation remains unfinished. He’s also the author of four novels. He plays himself on the show and his literary cred is important to the plot. I wrote a bit a while ago about how authors and actors are similar, and this show is further proof that it’s true.

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But Hollywood fun aside, the show walks a fine line, portraying struggles that have implications for the larger world. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out where it stands in terms of those issues. Ji-Yoon’s friend/crush/”it’s complicated” is fellow English professor, widower, Bill Dobson. When Bill does a mocking Hitler salute in class (part of a discussion about fascism and absurdism) an out of context video goes viral on TikTik, and Bill is branded a Nazi in public opinion. Students protest, donors threaten to withdraw funding, and it’s Ji-Yoon’s problem. She knows that Bill isn’t a Nazi, and understands that he was giving the gesture in a mocking way. She’s also, perhaps, somewhat biased in his favor because of their friendship. But the optics are bad for the department. She encourages Bill to apologize, but when Bill’s “sorry if you were offended by my joke” doesn’t go over well, she’s in a moral quandary. Does she discipline Bill for something that she thinks was blown out of proportion for the sake of optics? Does she stand by Bill and take on responsibility for the consequences?

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I think this plotline has a dual satirical purpose. One is that Ji-Yoon, an Asian woman in a position of power, has to clean up after her white, male subordinate. Another is as a critique of so called “cancel culture.” The show makes it clear that Bill doesn’t deserve to be fired for his mistake. A bad joke? Maybe. A hate crime? Probably not. People who criticize “cancel culture” often object to white men facing consequences for their actions. In this case, Bill doesn’t deserve the consequence he faces. He’s kind of a jerk for his refusal to apologize, but other than that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. This suggests that Bill is a victim in some way, which I don’t think is intended on the show’s part. I think that there is some justification for satirizing people’s quickness to throw stones, but the show doesn’t really take the time to explore any nuance with the issue. By centering this storyline, the show has been criticized for sidelining the stories of Ji-Yoon, Yaz McKay (who is set to be the first tenured black professor in the department) and Joan Hambling (who 30 years earlier became the first female professor in the English department) That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this plot point. I did. And I think it’s central focus is interesting in a show that explores how POC are sidelined in academia. Are the creators of the show attempting to call attention to the focus on the problems of white men? Or did they fall into the trap that so many creators have before, of thinking this person’s problems are the most interesting?

Overall, the show left me with the sense that systemic change is hard and takes time. Sometimes you need to take two steps back to take one step forward. It finishes in a place that could be an ending, or it could be a springboard for another season that hopefully further explores some of these ideas.

Overall it was nice food for thought and a fun, witty look for me at the road untaken. I’m aware that it’s not always an accurate, realistic portrayal of academia, but that doesn’t really matter to me so much. It’s a comedy and things are played for humor. It also has elements of drama and some things are played for dramatic effect. That’s as it should be. Are there many “realistic” TV shows (outside of documentary)? It’s a fun, witty, sometimes thought provoking depiction of characters and plots. It makes us think about the real world, but it doesn’t have to reflect the real world 100% in order to do that.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Could Re-read For the First Time

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

August 24: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– I wish I could read this again and not know what was coming. At the same time I’m really glad I read this for the first time when I did, because my high school English class was reading Crime and Punishment at the time. There are a lot of parallels and I appreciated the enriched experience in that way. I think it would hold up well to a reread though. I just wish I could recreate that experience of finding those parallels and getting excited.

2. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– Last year I reread this with a book club and I found myself really jealous of the members who were reading it for the first time and didn’t know what twists and turns lay ahead.

3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie- The first time I read this I tried to read it as a detective and figure out whodunnit as I read. I wasn’t right, but I tried! I think I’d like the experience of reading it as more of a reader and going along with the story without trying to be two steps ahead.

4. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield– I remember staying up late into the night with this one, and feeling the thrill of surprise as the story unfolded. Those reading experiences are wonderful and rare.

5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This one had a slowly building sense of dread as I realized what was happening. At the same time I kept hoping that I’d be proven wrong. That sense of building tension without a “reveal” (rather a gradual unfolding) is not something I encounter often.

6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -I read this book for the first time while I was on a train. At one point I got to a plot twist and I literally shouted, “Holy crap!” Out loud. It’s a rare book that makes me embarrass myself on public transportation.

7. The Other by Thomas Tryon- There was one twist in this book that I felt was really obvious. Once it was revealed, I felt like I was very smart, I’d figured the book out, and it was going to be disappointing. Little did I know there were other turns ahead! I think the initial twist as a sort of misdirection, so the reader wasn’t on the lookout anymore.

8. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- This one didn’t have any huge surprises in it, but I became so invested in these characters, for better or for worse (and often it was for worse.) I was legitimately worried about them it was a wonderful and stressful experience. I think it would hold up to rereads, though, because I know what’s coming for the characters and I can focus on other things without worrying about them so much. Just a note: I’m always hesitant to recommend this one without including a content warning, because some of the content is very difficult.

9. East of Eden by John Steinbeck -I honestly think I was too young for this the first time I read it. It’s on my to be reread list, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it a second time, but I wish I was coming to it fresh.