Revisiting: The Secret History Soundtrack

secrethistoryNote: In honor of the official publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch tomorrow, I though it would be fun and fitting to re-post this soundtrack for The Secret History that I originally posted March 3, 2009.  I’ve also updated the post below to include a  link to the soundtrack in Spotify. Happy listening!

Several weeks ago I came across a post on American Bibliophile that challenged readers to create a soundtrack for their favorite books. Immediately this was something I wanted to do, but little did I realize how difficult it might be. First, which book should I pick? I have many favorite novels: Plainsong, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, The Bright Forever, Franny and Zooey, and Rabbit, Run, just to name a very few. I finally settled on The Secret History because I had certain songs I associated with that book from the very first time I read it. Still, that brought up another dilemma: What sort of soundtrack should I create? Should I stick to a certain time period (i.e., if the song wasn’t around when the book was published, should I be allowed to use it?) or to a certain mood? Should I create it as though it were a movie soundtrack or pick songs for each of the characters?

After thinking about it for well over a week, I decided to go with the mood (and songs that were around when or before the book was published), following the chronology of events in the book. Without further ado, I present for you my soundtrack for The Secret History. I hope you enjoy it! In fact, I hope you’ll join the challenge!

Updated:  I’ve created this playlist in Spotify. You can listen to it here.

“Blue Bell Knoll” – The Cocteau Twins. This song has opens with an ethereal beginning and moves into a swirling, windswept feel that grows in intensity through the end of the song. I think it fits the opening of the book, where Richard first quietly reveals Bunny’s murder and then backtracks to tell us the story of how he decided to go to Hampden College.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” (Note: This is NOT a spoiler; it’s the first sentence of the book.)

“Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first few days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

“Three to Get Ready” – Dave Brubeck Quartet. This neat little jazz number makes me think of Richard watching the other Greek students on campus, and going to visit Julian, and realizing he wants to be a part of their world (as he imagines it). This song has the feeling of dappled sunlight and late fall afternoons, where there’s still a bit of warmth in the air, and everything in the world feels like a possibility.

“And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought the better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the great flock of possibilities drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that–like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes–I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor–voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.”

“Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (‘Tragic’), D. 417: Adante” – Franz Schubert. This piece is so pretty, but it has an undertone of melancholy that befits this section. The time during fall leading up to Christmas, when Richard spends weekends with the others at Francis’s family home in the country, is the most idyllic time for Richard, but he’s already told us it’s not to last.

“It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.”

“Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off…”

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis…we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.”

“Road, River, and Rail” – The Cocteau Twins. This is one of the songs I’ve always associated with this book, mainly because the mood of the song fits so well (one good thing about The Cocteau Twins, half the time it’s impossible to know what she’s singing about, so no other meaning imposes itself on the song). Christmas break is approaching, the others are leaving, and Richard has nowhere to go, so he finds a place to stay in Hampden. This song evokes for me the feelings I think Richard has, being left behind.

“The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty.”

“I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In the dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave.”

“Shipbuilding” – Elvis Costello. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I picked this song because of the mood, and also because the whole idea of rumors and half-truths reflects the confusion Richard feels about what’s happening in his circle of friends. The ease that existed before Christmas has been replaced by a tension that cannot long be contained.

“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.”

“Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character…He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented…Now that the old trusted channel markers had, so to speak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.”

“The Pan Piper” – Miles Davis. This song has the perfect sort of eerie feeling of being in the woods in the early spring: the dark, wet trees; the damp, musty earth. Richard and the others are in the woods to execute part of their plan to kill Bunny, when he happens upon them and fate takes its course.

“The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them–green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; no bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal against the darkening sky, the heavy air.”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division/ “True Faith” – New Order. I picked these songs for the sections where Richard and his friends are waiting for Bunny to be discovered, for the truth to be revealed–and once it is revealed, for the funeral. As time passes, they grow more irritable and unsure of each other.

“After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four in the morning.”

“Phantasiestucke (Three Fantasy Pieces). Op. 73” – Robert Schumann. This longer piece works well as the group unravels further, as each person deals with the consequences of the murder.

“I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? …so much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know…I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.”

“Mother of Pearl’ – Roxy Music. If I were making this soundtrack for a movie, I would edit out the first minute and thirty seconds to get to the heart of this song, which has the feeling of a fine party that has ended, a melancholy idea of what cannot be sustained: “I’ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine/But now I see that something just out of reach growing very Holy Grail…” Many years later, Richard goes to meet with a few friends from that time, and finds it wrenching to part:

“Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.”

Top Ten Books I Was Forced to Read

I’ve been a reader for life, not unlike a lot of people. I majored in English literature as an undergraduate, completed a Master’s degree in Rhetoric, and went on to begin (but not finish) a Ph.D. in Eighteenth Century British literature. Because of that, I suppose I was “forced” to read a lot of books, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted to read them, all of them, at least at the time they were assigned. Certainly some books, after I’d gotten into them, made me feel resentful. When one has a limited amount of time and an obligation to read many, many books at once, resentment is inevitable. And that resentment is not the exclusive domain of the student–over the years I’ve heard that complaint from book bloggers who have taken on too many review copies or too many reading challenges (although, ahem, that’s certainly never happened to me, ahem).

Since I left school (long ago), all the “forcing” in terms of reading has come primarily from two sources: myself or the book club I attended for the last ten years. Those seemed like the best lists to mine for the Top Ten Books I Was Forced to Read, for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, so here goes:

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time or if you follow me on Twitter, then you know that The Secret History is one of my favorite books of all time and that I am anxiously awaiting my copy of The Goldfinch. That said, I’ve never made it past about 100 pages of The Little Friend. The thing is, I couldn’t tell you why. There’s nothing wrong with it; I just can’t seem to keep reading. But I keep trying. One of these days!

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor CoverFlannery: a Life of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch. Flannery O’Connor ranks in my top five favorite writers, so when this book came out, it went right onto my TBR list. I eventually acquired a copy and I’ve started it several times, but I keep losing interest. I had the same problem with the Raymond Carver biography I read last year. I eventually made it through that one, but I was left with the overall feeling that maybe I would rather not know all the details about a writer’s life. I’m on the fence still. While I love to read interviews with writers about their latest works or their processes, I’m not so sure I care about their parents’ lives, what kind of students they were in high school, or their various medical ailments.

The Help, Kathleen Stockett. I had to read this for book club. It was not as bad as I feared, but I honestly never would have selected this to read on my own. You can read my review here.

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult. This was another book I had to read for book club, and I actually made it all the way through the book. The thing about Picoult is, her plots and characters are predictable and cliché, but other than that I suppose she’s not hurting anyone. That said, I won’t be picking up anything else by her anytime soon.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan CoverSnowflower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See. Another book club pick, Snowflower and the Secret Fan was a book I had looked at several times on my own and then moved on to something else. I found it interesting, entertaining, and well-written, which wasn’t really a surprise because I’d seen so many favorable reviews for it. Because I enjoyed that book, I also went on to read Shanghai Girls on my own and thought it was well done.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. You guessed it: book club pick. This wasn’t a book I ever would have picked up on my own, but it turned out to be an interesting and entertaining.

Twilight, Stephenie Meyer. Yep. Book club. I read 30 pages and put it down. Thirty pages was enough. No—I take that back. Thirty pages was way, way too much. I still cannot fathom why adult women swoon over these books, or hand them over to their daughters to read.

50 Shades of Gray, E.L. James. This is kind of a cheat, because it was another book club pick but I didn’t read it. In fact, it was one of the books that drove me to quit book club altogether. If people want to think I’m a snob, that’s perfectly fine with me.

Collected Poems CoverPoetry. I do read poetry, but since I left school I have to make a concerted effort to do so. My favorite poet is Philip Larkin, and his Collected Poems is a book I do read about once a year. I also enjoy Raymond Carver’s poetry and can recommend Where Water Comes Together with Other Water.

History. I have a big stack of history books sitting on my bookshelf. I either heard about them through Nancy Pearl segments or on Fresh Air, or I read about them on this blog, which isn’t a book blog but Cely is a serious reader and when she does do book posts, she always recommends something interesting. I’m ashamed that I haven’t gotten anywhere with them, but I admit to the pull of fiction. I have an easier time picking up and putting down short stories and novels; with history, I always feel the need for a nice long stretch of time to read and absorb.

How about you: have you ever felt “forced” to read anything?

*All links and images are from Powells; they are non-affiliate links, so I make no profit at all should you click through and find something you like!

All Hail Alice Munro! All Hail the Short Story!

Unless you live under a rock or simply do not care about literature at all (why are you here, by the way?), then you probably know by now that Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. I heard the news this morning on NPR. I gave a whoop and started to cry; I was so happy to hear the news because Alice Munro is my favorite author, and I know I’m not alone!

“This is quite a wonderful thing for me. It’s a wonderful thing for the short story.”—Alice Munro

But another reason to be happy is that this is such a significant award given to a writer dedicated to the short story form. I did not know, until I started this blog and became acquainted with other book bloggers, how many readers–even readers of ‘serious’ literature–have an aversion to the short story. I’ve often wondered why that is, but the attitude is not an uncommon one, even if the reasons are singular and unique.

“Because I work in the short story form, this is a special thing, to get this recognition.” —Alice Munro

Earlier this year, an article on Gawker took American writer George Saunders to task for never having written a novel. The premise? Real writers write novels…enough playing at all this short story business. Short stories are for MFA theses. They are for dallying and tinkering with between writing real books. They are not serious literature. That story garnered quite a bit of criticism when it was published, but hopefully now we can begin to put the debate to rest (or at least lock it in a closet where we can’t hear the muffled cries of outrage).

In honor of Ms. Munro being awarded the prize, I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite short story collections.  I hope you find something you like here.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro (Favorite stories: “Post and Beam” and the title story, soon to be a movie starring Kristin Wiig. Candian actress, director, and activist Sarah Polley also made the film Away from Her, which was based on “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the last story in this collection.)

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

“Well I hope [the prize brings a new readership], and I would hope this would happen not just for me but for the short story in general, because it’s often sort of brushed off you know as something people do before they write their first novel, and I would like it to come to the fore without any strings attached sort of. It doesn’t have to be a novel.” —Alice Munro

*Alice Munro quotes from her telephone interview today with Nobel member Adam Smith. You can listen to the call in its entirety here.

**Image from The New York Times

***Updated 10/14/2013 to add link for short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” now available on The New Yorker site.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been so, so bad about reviewing what I’m reading these last few months, which is such a shame because I’ve read some terrific books this summer. A couple of these books really deserve dedicated reviews, but my memory is short and so is my time, so I decided something is better than nothing.

The Sisters Brothers CoverThe Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are Eli and Charlie Sisters. They are hired killers who work for a man called the Commodore. Narrated in first person by Eli Sisters, the story takes place during the California Gold Rush. The Commodore is sending the Sisters brothers from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a man named Herman Warm, and Eli chronicles their misadventures along the way and what happens upon their arrival. Eli is a thoughtful and compelling narrator, and the book is full of dark humor, adventure, and melancholy. In all honestly, it’s not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but in a long, long time. I’ve seen several apt comparisons of this book to True Grit, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. I have a soft-spot for Westerns, especially when the characters are as well drawn as Eli and Charlie Sisters and the tale avoids all cliches.

Even though I sometimes play a fun game in my head where I cast a book as though it were a movie, the number of books I actually WANT to see turned into a movie is almost zero. I say “almost zero” because The Sisters Brothers is one of those rare instances in which the book is perfect as a story on the page but oh my, in the right hands (I’m looking at you, Coen brothers. Everyone else: hands off!) it would make a spectacular movie. (Funnily enough, though, I didn’t find myself casting any parts.)

Lamb CoverLamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Lamb is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing book. David Lamb is a man whose world is slowly crumbling. He’s lost his father, his marriage, his job at a company he founded. Through a series of slow (and desperate) acts, he befriends and eventually abducts an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie, taking her West from her Chicago home to a farmhouse somewhere in the Rockies he claims was owned by his father. Lamb is a shallow and manipulative man in many ways, but he is no Humbert Humbert, and Tommie is no Lolita. If anything, Lamb (who tells Tommie his name is Gary) and Tommie have a chemistry born of a shared desire to be understood by and belong to someone. In many ways, Lamb’s abduction and—I guess the best word for it is education, for he wants to teach her about life but also to name plants and trees, to fish and to survive in the wilderness—of Tommie is a selfless act. He imagines her life is difficult overall, her mother neglectful, her friends cruel. He wants what is best for her, but he also wants something from her, something she is not equipped to offer. I should probably mention here that there is no overt seduction in a purely sexual sense (there are weirdly romantic overtones), but Lamb is no less disturbing for that fact. On top of that we have Nadzam’s knockout prose, which is both lyrical and sinister in all the right ways. (For example, she uses a third-person narrator who frequently refers to Lamb as “our guy,” making the reader complicit in the “hero’s story.”) The reader wants Lamb to get caught, but also on some level to get away with it so that he can, in the end, do the right thing and take Tommie home. Lamb, Nadzam’s debut, is suspenseful, itchy, and wonderfully written.

You Are One of Them CoverYou Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. The tale in this thoroughly enjoyable novel belongs to its first-person narrator, Sarah Zuckerman. A hapless young girl whose family is haunted and torn apart by the specter of an older sister who died, Sarah Zuckerman befriends her new neighbor Jenny Jones, and all-around all-American girl. For years, Sarah, whose mother is mostly agoraphobic and whose father has left for his native England, finds comfort and acceptance as part of her best friend’s family. On the cusp of adolescence and its attendant games of popularity that threaten to tear them apart, Sarah decides one day to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Premier of the USSR. Jenny also writes a letter—but hers receives an answer, and she and her family are invited to travel to the Soviet Union. Upon her return, Jenny becomes a national celebrity, appearing on talk shows and at speaking engagements for several years until she and her parents are killed en route to an engagement in Maine. Almost ten years later, Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a Russian woman who hints that Jenny might not have died in the plane crash after all. Since Jenny’s death, Sarah has helped her mother to run a foundation dedicated to her memory and has still never really come to terms with what happened, so she decides to travel to Russia to see if she can finally uncover the truth.

I expected more of a political thriller when I picked this up, but truly this is a coming-of-age story about friendship told in a charming and original way. While the book has a real mystery at its heart—what happened to Jenny?—it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.

The Virgins CoverThe Virgins, by Pamela Erens. Not unlike Sarah Zuckerman, Bruce Bennett-Jones is haunted by something in his past, this time the romantic relationship between two classmates, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, at a New England boarding school in the late 1970s. The book moves between a third-person omniscient narrator and Bennett-Jones reminiscing in first person about what he remembers or has learned about the couple over the years since graduation. In some respect, he is an active participant in the tragedy that finally befalls the young lovers near the end of the novel, and it’s clear that he still finds their relationship—and his involvement in it—both mystifying and captivating. The Virgins reminded me very much of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and not to cheat, but I think what I said in that review holds true for this novel as well: “I think we all have people from our pasts, people whom we may no longer keep in touch with or who may be gone, people we may not have ever been close to, really, in the first place, but who still hold sway over our memories, who still seem larger than life to us. It’s strange to think how people can stay trapped in our memories like insects in amber, forever frozen as who they were…” The Sense of an Ending had a certain wit about it. Bennett-Jones is more clear-eyed than that story’s narrator about who he is and his role in things, and this lack of self-deception (even if he doesn’t really understand why he acted as he did) is what lends The Virgins a much more melancholy tone.

*Full disclosure: All review copies are my own. All images from Powells; I receive no compensation for any of the provided links.

Top Ten Tuesday: Worst/Best Series Endings

Confession: I rarely get past the first book in any series, even if I enjoyed the first book immensely (see The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go). The problem is a simple one: I’m simply too distracted by other shiny new books. I forget about the second installment, even if I actually own a copy (see Catching Fire).

Instead, I decided I’d discuss television series for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. By the way, I don’t have 10 shows. I tend to give up on the few series I do watch several seasons before they end because I lose interest for one reason or another. See The Sopranos, Weeds, The Walking Dead, Glee (although, oh, sad review of tribute to Cory Monteith brings tears), etc.

Really, I’m just considering  endings of series I watched all the way through—and there aren’t many. Do I think these endings are the best? Well, maybe in some cases. The worst? Generally if I manage to finish a series, I’m so committed to the overall story that it would be difficult for me to say an ending was the worst—maybe just less likely than some other possible ending. In fact, for me the worst ending is no ending at all, so we’ll just start the list there:

Freaks and Geeks. This is a bittersweet thing, because the season ending of this show is pitch perfect. But as it was also the series ending, it sucked. What happened to Lindsay and Kim? Did Dungeons and Dragons turn Daniel into a full-fledged geek? Did any of the geeks become freaks? Where did Nick go after getting on the Groove Line?

Battlestar Galactica. It occurs to me that these endings are difficult to talk about because what if some of you haven’t seen the show? What if you’re on season three of five seasons. Grr. Well, we’re talking about endings so I guess if you’re reading this, you should expect spoilers. Now, the writers knew exactly what was going to happen with this one, because they had mostly plotted the show’s entire arc through all five seasons. I was satisfied, some things were surprising and still are, even after watching the whole thing three times. I know some people hated the ending, but as I said, once I’ve committed, I’m in for the long haul.

Big Love. Just…well…I don’t know.

Sex and the City. I loved the ending–of the show. I don’t care if I lose any of my feminist street cred for saying so. For me, the main thing was that she ended up back in New York with her friends, not that she ended up with Mr. Big. I hate the movie (the first one; I refuse to acknowledge the second one). I had all the closure I needed with the show’s finale.

The Wire (2002) PosterThe Wire. In my very unimportant opinion, the only show better than this one—and only by a hair—in the history of television is Breaking Bad. The neat thing about The Wire is how each season basically covers a different story line, without ever really losing the thread of the original story and the terrific characters developed by David Simon and team. It’s another show that has an ending that’s basically just a point at which we are no longer privy to the action, but in a mostly satisfying way, rather than THE ENDING. When a show’s creators have done such a good job with the characters that I imagine what their lives are like outside the confines of the show, this is the best way to end it, so I can all imagine they are all still out there, doing what they do.

Felicity. Back in the day I thought it should have been Noel. But recently I started re-watching it, and I see it all now. Ben.

Lost. Just file this under, I was so committed to them all and I cried. I’m not a religious or overly spiritual person, so maybe that’s actually why the idea that someone might have a difficult time moving on—to whatever—resonated a bit. But I still wish Kate had picked Sawyer, so I am not entirely satisfied.

Breaking Bad (2008) PosterBreaking Bad. I am not going to spoil this for anyone because I know some people haven’t caught up, but I loved the ending and thought it was perfectly fitting for Walter White. I didn’t think it was too tidy, because plenty of questions were left unanswered and a lot of people have some rather large looming issues. But this was Walt’s story, and his end was fitting.

I realize this list consists of mostly recent shows. The truth is, I can’t remember the endings of a lot of shows I know I loved when they were on: Moonlighting, Family Ties, Cheers, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills 90210 (don’t you judge me), Malcolm in the Middle. And Northern Exposure! Why can’t I remember how that one ended? Oh, Chris in the morning…

I’ll be interested to see how they decide to end Mad Men after this next season, which is its last. I loved the closing image this past season of Peggy in a pantsuit, going over files in Don’s office. That’s a show it will be difficult for me to part with. True Blood ends next year, and I plan to see it through even though I started to lose interest when they brought in the Lilith story line.

But the one series ending guaranteed to make me cry in the coming television season? How I Met Your Mother. I’m not all caught up on that one, but I know it’ll get to me. What a sap.

Thank goodness Boardwalk Empire just signed with HBO for another season, so no end in sight for that one, and I can still watch the show I hate to love and love to hate: Game of Thrones.

Have I left off one of your favorites? Did you hate some of mine? Anything you recommend I watch? Please share!

All images from imdb.com

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Book Turn-Offs

I liked today’s Top Ten topic at The Broke and the Bookish, so I thought I’d give it a go. Thing is, I realized, that I could go in so many directions with this list. I decided to focus on things that turn me off while I am actually reading a book even to the point where I abandon it entirely. And no, I no longer have any guilt about abandoning books with these problems.

1. Bad grammar or style. I’m always amazed at people who tell me that if the story is good, they aren’t bothered by grammatical mistakes or poor writing style. What I think they really mean is that they wouldn’t know a grammar mistake or poor style if it hit them upside the head. Otherwise, how could they go on reading? Bad grammar and poor style are the reasons I didn’t finish book one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series. I’m still puzzled as to how something can be considered essential reading when it’s so poorly written.

2. Bad metaphors/similes. Not long ago, I was reading a novel that a member of my book club had selected as our book that month, and I came across this: “She plucked the phone from the wall like an apple from a tree.” Let’s break it down, shall we? First, “pluck” is a verb that would really never make sense in association with answering a phone, even a phone mounted on a wall. Second, “pluck” is a verb that doesn’t even make sense in regards to taking an apple from a tree…I suppose one could claim poetic license. Whenever I’ve picked an apple from a tree, it hasn’t come away from its branch quite so easily. Third…what? That metaphor lends nothing to character, or story, or meaning. It’s just a writer trying to find a “writerly” way to say, “She answered the phone.” I closed the book and never looked back. (Okay, the book had other problems besides the apple phone.)

3. Actions or emotions that don’t seem true to a character. I find it jarring when I am halfway through a book and a character says or does something that doesn’t ring true. When this happens, generally the author is doing one of two things: 1. Making the character do or say something out of character because she’s putting plot ahead of character and needs to get from A to B without changing too much of what’s come before; 2. Having the character do or feel something the author himself would feel in that situation. Recently I was reading a book where the protagonist was a teenage boy whose mother had just died. Out of nowhere, the boy had thoughts about his dead mother that simply did not seem like the thoughts of a teenage boy; they seemed like the thoughts of a much older person with more perspective on life, on parenthood, and on loss of a loved one. It was the only stumble in an otherwise very good book, but it pulled me out of a poignant moment.

4. Wacky verbs. Okay, I suppose we already covered this one with “plucked,” but wacky verbs can truly ruin a scene. Recently in a book I was reading, the author used the verb trot several times early on in the novel to describe characters walking from one place to another. In these scenes, the author was setting up one of the main tensions of the book–the fact that a convicted killer is coming to live with a simple farm family while she awaits her execution–and the author had the daughters “trotting” to and fro. Picture a person trotting. Looks a bit silly, no? It lessened the tension somewhat, and not in a good way.

5 Precocious or eccentric children. When I encounter precocious children who are wiser than their years and sound like adults, I mainly think that the author doesn’t know how to write about children or from a child’s point of view. Much easier to turn child characters into tiny adults, I suppose, than to rethink the book or character, especially if the author is already too invested or far along in the writing.

6. Overwriting. Too many metaphors, too much description–the hallmarks of overwriting. I do not need to know every item in a character’s kitchen cabinet. That is not verisimilitude; it’s detail for detail’s sake. The fact a character has Heinz 57 sauce instead of A-1 doesn’t really tell me anything about the character I need to know (unless, of course, the bottle will be/has been used as a murder weapon at some point in the story). Details that don’t drive the story forward get in the way. Overwriting also almost always leads to bad metaphors, or to bad writing in general. Consider the following:

“The letter to Daniel Robbin came like an instinct, flying from her hand and sweeping across the satin-white paper like a flurry of snow, hesitating only slightly when she wrote the date…” (from The Crying Tree, by Naseem Rakha)

Letter flying from hand: bad. Satin-white paper: unnecessary description. Sweeping like a flurry of snow? Isn’t snow white? White words on white paper? Awesome! Also, the gerund phrase “hesitating only slightly…” actually modifies “letter.” A letter cannot hesitate. A writer hesitates. Where is the actor? Buried beneath the snow, perhaps?

7. Jazz hands. Some of you may think that over-writing is the same thing as jazz hands, but it is a distinct thing. Jazz hands is when a good writer wants to show how clever he or she really is. Jazz hands is the reason I’ve never read past page five of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Jazz hands is why I didn’t much like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man or Ian McEwan’s Solar.

8. Too much quirk. If I think a book might be overly quirky or twee, I stay far, far away. See #6, Precocious or eccentric children. Also see talking animals or animals in general; eccentric aunts, uncles, or grandparents; or magical book stores. Actually, this is a tough one because some terrific books have some of the things I just listed–I just try to go with my gut.

9. The Noble Savage. This doesn’t bother me in books written before, say, 1930. I mean, it does bother me, but in a different way than when I see it in recent novels set in current time. In a modern context, this is a trope that needs to die. I’m looking at you, Little Bee.

10. Too many adverbs. I’ll admit, this is one of those things I never noticed until I saw a writer mention it on one of those lists of mistakes for writers to avoid. Now I can’t un-see the adverbs. I might not quit reading a book altogether because of this one, but every unnecessary adverb is a tiny knife to my heart. (How’s that for some bad writing?)

What are your turn-offs? Um, about books. Book turn-offs only, please.

Reader’s Journal: Notorious

In the last month, by some accident of fate, I’ve read two terrific novels based on true stories about women accused of murder. Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed for murder in Iceland since 1830. Agnes, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdóttir, was convicted of murdering her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson and another man, Pêtur Jonsson. Agnes and Fridrik were condemned to death and beheaded on January 12, 1830. On appeal Sigridur received a lesser sentence and was sent to prison for life, where she died. Through two alternating narratives, Burial Rites tells the story both of Agnes’s last months living and working on the Jónsson family farm as she awaited her execution and, through her own voice, the events of her life leading up to and including the murder of Natan.

Product DetailsCartwheel, the second novel by Jennifer DuBois, is loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, the American college exchange student accused and convicted (along with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito) of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. DuBois offers us the story of Lily Hayes, who has gone to Buenos Aires, Argentina to study for a semester. The book opens with Lily’s father, Andrew, and her sister, Anna, arriving in Argentina soon after she has been placed into custody by authorities for the murder of her roommate, Katy Kellers, looping back to Lily’s arrival in Argentina and up to the time of the murder from her point of view and from the point of view of her “lover,” Sebastien LeCompte (“which sounded to Andrew like the name of a high-end suit store”).

Originally I had planned to write about each of these books separately, but I realized, after seeing that Amanda Knox will, yet again, be tried for murder beginning this week in Florence, Italy, that these stories have much in common, particularly the fact that in both cases, the notoriety of the accused has eclipsed everything else, even the victims. And in both cases, although accomplices were allegedly involved, the character of the woman in particular—Agnes and Lily/Amanda—is basically tried in a public court and found wanting. (Interestingly, although both Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder, in DuBois’s story only Lily is apprehended and eventually arrested and tried.)

In Burial Rites, Agnes says to the priest confessor charged with bringing her to God before her execution, “To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” The Jónsson family believes the stories they have heard about Agnes—that she is a violent criminal (and possibly a witch, as her lover Natan Ketilsson was also notorious in his own way for creating powerful potions to heal and to do who knows what else), capable of anything—but slowly, as they listen to her confessions to the priest, they begin to have a different understanding of her. And likewise, we begin to understand their prejudices against her come as much from what they know about Agnes herself (which is really very little) as from their own experiences.

This prejudice also happens also in Cartwheel, where the prosecutor Eduardo Campos believes he sees in Lily the same erratic character that he sees in his estranged wife Maria. Maria is an elusive mystery to Eduardo; she is whimsical and childish, but also dangerous because she holds his heart captive, and he believes he can never, ever please her. In Lily, who speaks Spanish confidently but often poorly, who is naive about certain cultural customs, and who is often overtaken by childish whimsy (as when she performs a cartwheel in an empty interrogation room, waiting for investigators to return from a break), Campos believes he sees a person who, when he sees her on video surveillance before she is picked up by authorities, “looked…harassed. Inconvenienced, If she looked anything at all.” He reads through her Facebook status and finds her wanting; he reads a piece of fiction written for a creative writing class and posted online almost as though it were a confession.

Perception and reality, public versus private selves, and the power of language are important to both stories. In both cases, even with letters and public documents and interviews and videos, we will never know what happened. In Burial Rites, as Agnes is taken from her first host family where she has been kept not even as well as a farm animal, she steps out into light after months in the darkness and sees a crowd. In that crowd, she spots a familiar face: “It was a comfort to see someone I recognized, and I smiled involuntarily. But the smile was wrong, and it unlocked the crowd’s fury.”

A cartwheel, a smile: these are not the actions of innocent women, the crowd believes. And beauty is also suspect. In Burial Rites, Lauga, the Jónsson’s youngest daughter, asks her mother Margrét “whether she thought there would be an outward hint of the evil that drives a person to murder. Evidence of the Devil: a harelip, a snaggle tooth, a birthmark; some small outer defect.” Margrét tells Lauga no, but then goes on to wonder if Agnes might not be beautiful: “It was not so hard to believe a beautiful woman capable of murder, Margrét thought. As it says in the sagas, Opt er flagð í fógru skinni. A witch often has fair skin.”

Andrew laments his daughter’s inability to dress herself “appropriately” in the heat of Buenos Aires. At a religious landmark, she has taken a picture of herself wearing a spaghetti-strapped tank top that doesn’t adequately cover her generous bosom. This picture is picked up by the media and also seen as evidence of some moral flaw by the prosecutor Campos.

Yesterday I saw a picture of Amanda Knox online—she was unsmiling, her long dark hair swept back from her face as though caught by a strong breeze—and I thought, in the next moment she might have cocked her head, turned to someone familiar, perhaps even given a smile. She is pretty either way, that much is undeniable. I don’t know when or where the picture was taken, or who she was with, but this is the image the media has chosen to present. Who is she really? We do not know.

Both stories are compelling, both stories will always present us with more questions than answers. Kent does a magnificent job of taking us to early Nineteenth century Iceland, of tying in historical research and setting a compelling scene that drives the narrative and helps us to understand Agnes all the better. If the book has a flaw, it’s that at times Kent’s writing is a bit over the top. Ravens, snow, black against white, swirling snow clouds, storms—ominous portents, we get it. (She also uses some form of the word “sour” on what seems like every other page during the first 50 pages or so, but thankfully stops.) But she has filled in the gaps of her research and created such compelling characters, not only in Agnes but in Margrét and Toti, Agnes’s priest confessor, and their story easily carries the reader away. I read all but 30 pages during a nine hour plane flight, and I might have finished had I not stopped to do things like eat and stretch my legs.

In my opinion DuBois had a bigger challenge, as the Amanda Knox story is current and ongoing. I haven’t followed it closely myself, but I can imagine someone who has might feel the need to pick apart the details. The book drags a bit when it follows the other characters, and DuBois offers up a slightly heavy-handed Hayes family history that seems meant to add weight to the story, but overall the characters are if not compelling then fully realized. But truly Lily’s story is her own, and for me she came to life as her own person. Sometimes while reading I felt an overwhelming sadness for Lily, just as I did for Agnes, because in everything she was only a person who was simply trying to be:

“She sat in bars drinking Quilmes and trying to look mysterious; she sat in cafes eating alfajors and licking powdered sugar off her fingers and not minding that she looked silly.

She would be dead one day, but she was not dead yet.”

Disclosure: I received the ebook version of Cartwheel from NetGalley. I read my copy of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.