Summer Reading

The season of summer reads is upon us. Bustle has a must-list, and last week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast featured a boisterous panel of romance novel aficionados stacked with recommendations.

There is a special quality to a summer book—well, there is a special quality to summer everything. Road trips! Light! Music in parks! But a truly excellent book devoured during the hottest months is one of life’s great pleasures.

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I get nervous and sweaty when people ask me what kind of books I like for the season. I’ve never been a genre girl: I’ll read anything on a beach, as long as it’s well written. And that’s a lame answer. What I know is that in the summertime, I want big, bright colors. Stories with straight lines, that are also thematically ambitious—about love and family and growing up, with a touch of magic and theater.

Guess what. I found them.

Young adult fiction has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past decade—earlier, if you mark Harry Potter as the beginning of its renaissance. Novelists embraced the challenge of writing for an adolescent but freaky-smart, imaginative readership that rejects condescension. Readers that enjoy fantastical worlds and believe in first loves, but are also trapped in the day-to-day drudgery of growing up.

So-called “teen fiction” is explosively popular among all ages—see The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars, the Divergent series (shout out to fellow Northwestern alum, Veronica Roth—can I borrow eleventy thousand dollars??).

These past few weeks, I’ve immersed myself in gorgeous stories and my own memories of teenage life-or-death, do-or-die, fill-your-soul and drown-your-body crushes, humiliations and freak-outs. That time my eighth grade boyfriend pointed skyward and named a pair of stars after the two of us. How my best friend and I had a knock-down, screaming fight over a Dido CD. Et cetera.

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Remember middle school? That was—literally—the worst. But also kind of the best, right? The good days were THE GREATEST DAYS, even if followed by ones filled with ultimate despair. Man, does that make for good reading and good writing.

Want a mini summer-starter book list? Here you go:

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

I’ve fallen madly in love with every one of these writers and their characters. Rowell, Nelson and Wein write with all the mad intensity of high school wallflowers. Jandy Nelson is a particular badass—to wit, an excerpt from I’ll Give You The Sun, about teenage twins who can’t live together and can’t live apart:

He reaches for my hands, takes them in his. Our eyes meet and hold, and the world starts to fall away, time does, years rolling up like rugs, until everything that’s happened unhappens, and for a moment, it’s us again, more one than two.

“Wow,” Noah whispers. “IV Jude.”

“Yeah,” I say, the enchantment of him feeding my very cells. I feel a smile sweep across my face, remembering all the light…

It’s more feeling than words, right? You know that sensation in your gut—but would probably never think to call it an IV hooked up to your loved one. A young person overcome by the poetry of a moment might, though. Nelson’s Jude, Rowell’s Cat and Wein’s Kittyhawk inherit the highest of stakes (more obviously so in Verity, the story of captured British spies in Nazi-occupied France)—but each story ends in triumph. Earned triumph—not a default happy ending.

Maybe that’s because every day you survive as a teenager is a victory. I don’t know. But I think I do—I remember it, kind of. And I’ll be reliving all that I can stand in the summer sun.

–Elise

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A Special Day

Today is a very special day. [A young but mature-sounding number of] years ago, Alison was born, and she was fabulous.

Actually, she—like me—was pretty dorky and strange. Proud to let her freak flag fly until middle school—then, unsure how to contextualize her beautiful weirdness in a sea of scary pre-teens.

Until—college! Freedom! Thick-framed hipster glasses! And of course, many years of ME IN HER LIFE.

But this is about Alison. To celebrate, I have here compiled a few of her (and my) FAVORITE things, thematically united by girl-friendship and powered by strong, feminine wonder.

We encourage you to listen, watch, subscribe and enjoy—and to send one-half of your favorite blogging dynamic duo some love on her birthday.

WOMP IT UP!

lennon and jessI have already written ecstatically about the Lennon Parham/Jessica St. Clair best friendship—which inspired the delightful comedy Playing House on USA (returning for its second season this summer). 

Parham and St. Clair recently launched WOMP IT UP!, a hilarious podcast featuring recurring characters from Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang! television show and podcast.

Join high school senior Marissa Wompler (St. Clair) and her BFF/sketchy middle-aged mentor and teacher, Ms. Listler (Parham) for hours of unending fun.

RIP Joan Rivers.

VERONICA MARS

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This was the very first show that Alison and I binge-watched together. Veronica Mars, a spunky and disconcertingly brilliant high school-aged private investigator, tackles all things dark, difficult and mysterious while navigating her own twisty adolescent feelings. Her buddy Mac—girl-computer genius—stands by her side throughout.

Often funny, super-entertaining, and available in TV, movie and –finally!—book form! Brought to you by the ridiculously awesome Rob Thomas.

TWO BOSSY DAMES

Created by sassy chicks not unlike Alison and me, Two Bossy Dames is a weekly newsletter in which, by their own description: “Margaret [librarian and pop culture critic Margaret H. Willison] and Sophie [Sophie Brookover, librarian and writer extraordinaire] boss the Internet with impeccable discernment and insouciant charm. Cultural recommendations and commentary every Friday evening. GIFs aplenty.”

Try it! If you don’t fall in love with Dames Margaret and Sophie immediately, consider us, as they might say, “highly puzzled by you.”

EXTRA HOT GREAT, FEATURING TARA ARIANO AND SARAH D. BUNTING

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A classic and immensely great pop culture podcast, conceived by the minds behind Television Without Pity and Previously.TV. Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting co-founded both sites, along with Tara’s deliriously insane hubby, David T. Cole.

Each week, an in-depth gab-fest featuring uniquely sophisticated television and film commentary. These folks know literally everything about what’s on the tube. Also, a game-time segment at the end of each episode that is often bizarre and very fun to play along with in the comfort of your mind.

BROAD CITY

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If you have not already caught this show on Comedy Central, do yourself a favor—Youtube some clips, or catch season one for free on Amazon Prime.

These girls are adorably gross and in love with each other—a must-see for twentysomethings living in cities that haven’t a clue. Alison and I cannot decide who is which—probably both of us are Abbis, if we’re being totally honest.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BUDDY!

 –Elise

Five Dollar Bill

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Balance is a good thing. Your mom thinks so, and so does your yoga instructor and your therapist. Equal parts nights in with a good book, weekend brunches with friends and awkward happy hours with strangers that you met on Hinge. Leafy greens, protein and candy bars. Right? No, I’m really asking.

I am a notoriously picky eater, and my evenings are homebody-heavy. But the balance principle does apply to my pop culture diet—if to nothing else. For every trashy beach read, there is an enormous, painfully detailed biography of an early American president that I adore. For every bloody Damages or soapy The Good Wife, there is a confectionary delight I’m watching that’s just—funny.

I did not include New Girl in my recent post about endings. The show wrapped up its fourth season a few weeks ago—and despite all the distracting emotions swirling about Mad Men and noisy love-child theories trending about Game of Thrones, I’m still thinking about the final scene of New Girl. It didn’t press the same buttons as the heady, ambiguous endings I wrote up last week—New Girl satisfies different, but equally important, intellectual and emotional needs of mine.

Like every pseudo-hipster smarty-pants girl, I’m not a huge fan of Zooey Deschanel. But New Girl isn’t about Jessica. At least, not the way that Mad Men is “about” Don Draper. New Girl is an ensemble show. It’s about a friend-group dynamic. One that is ultimately supportive, loving and heart-warming. And always. ALWAYS. Hilarious.

I laugh out loud when I watch New Girl. Like, all the time. Like, the way I laugh when I re-watch Friends—my ultimate pop culture comfort food. Nick is my Chandler (I secretly love him—because I have a not-so-secret fixer-upper complex). And Schmidt is my Ross—hands-down the funniest character, mostly because he’s unbearable. Schwimmer and Greenfield will probably never live down their fictional assholery.

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MY SANDWICH?!?

But you can’t help but root for them because they’re good people, and sometimes you just really want good things happen to nice folks.

THIS HAPPENS SO RARELY IN REAL LIFE, YOU GUYS. Why are some of my favorite girlfriends cursed with toxic relationships, constantly? Why do people get sick? Why did THAT GUY get THAT JOB, and why does THAT GIRL making so much more money than I do?!

When my mind buzzes with questions like these, an episode or two of True Detective or Breaking Bad are not. Uplifting.

Then, Chandler proposes to Monica. Or Phoebe has her triplets. Or New Girl delivers a moment like the five dollar bill. For those of you who saw the season four finale, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes a scene and a line are so perfectly crafted, genuinely delivered, and shamelessly designed to trigger all the happy feelings that it’s basically unfair. It made me cry. Alison cried too!

But so NECESSARY. Love does happen! People do grow up, even in the admittedly limited scope of a 22-minute sitcom. I am totally okay with being manipulated in this manner.

Because I need it! And it’s too easy to forget that acts of kindness and heroism are just as real as random disasters. These moments remind us that the world, while generally unfair, does redeem itself. Even Don Draper and Peggy Olson got (some of) what they (probably) wanted in Sunday’s Mad Men finale. Voilà—balance.

These shows are important to me—not because I believe that television equals life, and that my experience will fit neatly into a three-act structure with a tidy, satisfying ending. It’s important because I believe in balance. I believe in surrounding myself with art and culture and people that both challenge and comfort me. And that buried deep in my ooey gooey heart—though I HATE to admit it—I love a happy ending.

–Elise 

The End of Things

I’m here! I know—you don’t believe me! It has been a while, dear readers and dear co-blogger. A few life changes and various many-houred flights later, these are the things I have learned about myself:

I need to stop acquiring stuff immediately. Stuff is cumbersome and irritating and inconvenient and karmically unnecessary. Purge, I say!

There is virtually no amount of money I will not pay for convenience. I want professional people to sell my car and pack my things and pick my 401(k) investments for the rest of time—I cannot do it alone.

Also, how much I miss Alison.

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I missed some more things while I was traveling. Real things, but also a lot of the television shows and articles and podcasts I follow religiously in my day-to-day. And I noticed that, upon my return—binge-watching, reading and listening during any free moment I’ve got—there are a lot of endings happening right now.

Sunday’s Mad Men, “Lost Horizon”—only three more episodes left!—was one of the grimmest, most uncompromisingly real hours we have spent with these folks. The great, good Joan is taken down by the patriarchy at “fifty cents on the dollar,” while Don Draper grins madly and barrels down a road of manic self-delusion. Not pretty.

Meanwhile, two of my absolute favorite television shows ever—Justified and The Americans—came to a close. Justified is gone for good, and The Americans wrapped up its third, fantastic season.

Justified showrunner Graham Yost can’t deal in the kind of ambiguity that Mad Men’s Matty Weiner adores. The finale was satisfying and genre-appropriate–but surprising. The last scene of this guns-drawn western featured  Harlan boys Boyd and Raylan doing what they do best—acidic banter, but disarmingly poignant. They have been enemies, but they have also been brothers in the mines.

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Raylan’s final, most heroic act was not shooting down the bad guy, but a lie he told to protect Boyd and Ava for the rest of their lives.

I won’t linger on The Americans season three finale here—for a gorgeously heartfelt recap and analysis of the season, check out Andy Greenwald’s piece on Grantland.

Greenwald structures his thoughts around destructive power of honesty. How truth-telling, though “noble,” can cause more pain than a teensy little lie. Or a really big lie, in the case of undercover Soviet spies, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.

Lies that do good, and lies that do bad. To my mind, this tension characterizes all three shows and their endings. Raylan’s lie is a boon, a saving grace. The Jennings’ big confession to their daughter, Paige, will probably destroy them. The truth won’t set Don free—acknowledging his complete and constant dissatisfaction will probably kill him. At least we know Peggy’ll be all right—she knows what she’s about.

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Everybody lies. To ourselves, to our loved ones. For good reasons, or for no reason in particular. Justified, The Americans and Mad Men have never shied away from the complicated, messy humanity of their characters. Their greatest challenge is one that we face every day: do we tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth—or not?

I get these people, and I understand their choices. I will miss them. I’ve said a lot of goodbyes these past few weeks and— as in the real world—good people (with great stories) are hard to come by.

–Elise

Growing Pains

Watching GIRLS with one’s father is very strange. Particularly if much of the episode deals with the uncomfortable reality of a newly-uncloseted dad, and a twentysomething daughter trying to cope. My dad isn’t gay (I asked him, just to be sure). That’s not awkward. The tough moments are those like the recent restaurant confrontation between Hannah and her father, where she admonishes Tad for his immaturity—and in response, he dares her to produce her wallet as the bill arrives. Yeesh.

I am approaching a birthday that could well mark the end of my mid-twenties. Well, I probably have one year left before I cross into “late”—it’s kind of a judgment call. Regardless—I do not foresee a time in the next year or so when I will bring anything other than my ID (with which to order fancy drinks that I could not usually afford) to dinner with my parents. I can mock them all I want about their insistence upon arguing with Google Maps and their constant need to redecorate. The reality is, they are grown-ups. I am not. Even though the numbers tell a different story.

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This is typical of my generation. Man, do I hate talking about my generation. From what I can tell, nothing good comes of lumping oneself in with all people born within a certain span of years. As the group grows up, it is uniformly resented (I’m looking at you, Baby Boomers), and accused of self-absorption, shortsightedness and laziness. I get it: my job prospects are doomed. My children will be born onto an imploding planet. This is fate: I can’t choose when I was born, and I can’t change my (terrible) circumstances. I’m stuck—but also welcome to the digital age, so I had better move really, really fast anyway.

You’ve heard this kind of thing before. Back to GIRLS.

This past Sunday, the season four finale aired on HBO. It’s been four seasons, you ask? Yes, it has! For casual viewers like my dad, who have only seen snippets of the show (another one of his favorite moments being Hannah’s declaration to her parents, “You said it was cheaper for YOU if I was on the family plan!”), it’s easy to recap each character’s trajectory during a quick commercial break. Because the primary foursome, like myself and Alison and our similarly-aged readers, seem to be frozen in time. Things happen to them, but nothing ever seems to change.

GIRLS takes this the extreme, following four young women so totally and ludicrously immobile that nobody cares what happens to them. They are, however, amusing to watch—as overblown stand-ins for our own paralyzing anxieties.

I still like GIRLS—but have noticed recently that Lena Dunham’s world reflects less upon my own. Many friends of mine are ready to move forward. Not toward the Capital F Future (parents still treat, and help us with our taxes), but they are considering real-life career changes, cross-country moves. Graduate school. Marriage.

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So I’m starting to wonder where GIRLS can go, and how much longer I will continue to watch. Even a glimpse into the six-months-from-now future isn’t much of a hook – is a new relationship all it takes to fix the broken people? How much longer can I laugh along with characters who refuse to acknowledge reality, instead of simply being victim to it? It’s getting a little old. You know?

–Elise

Urethra!

Kimmy Schmidt For President

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No surprises: Netflix is having a busy couple of weeks. Or rather, Netflix users are having a very unproductive stretch of days.

House of Cards, season three dropped first—more than a week ago, so if you haven’t finished the season yet, don’t even bother talking to people. You have violated the most basic modern-day social contract.

On Friday, March 6th, Netflix released season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, fresh from the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock go-team of excellence.

I choose Kimmy. (I’ve obviously already watched full seasons of both.)

The very basics: Kimmy is rescued from a bunker, where she has been living for fifteen years with three other women—all “wives” to an apocalyptic doomsday preacher. She emerges a buzzing ball of optimism and decades-old cultural references. Crazy, New York-based antics (chock-full of amazing cameos) ensue.

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Not-hot takes (the show has already been covered by most major pop culture and television critics): Kimmy Schmidt is funny and friendly without the goo. Where Parks and Rec was sometimes saccharine, and Modern Family is screechy and annoying, Kimmy Schmidt is just—smart. Its dark premise is leavened by a 30 Rock sensibility and relentless gags. There are forty hilarious throwaway jokes per show.

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Meanwhile, new episodes of House of Cards are basically boring (also the consensus in the Twittersphere)—except for one terrifying “sex” scene that I really don’t want to think about anymore. With nowhere for upward-looking President Underwood to climb, the show tumbles down like a house of cards (terrible, I’m so sorry).

Actual, original things I want to say (though I too observed the previous items upon watching, I don’t think-and-type fast enough for the Internet—also, I do work, have a few hobbies and at least one friend named Alison): Kimmy is not all that naïve. As the show reminds us every once in a while, she was abused and enslaved for more than a decade—that she retains a sense of wonder is a mark of her strength and spirit, not stupidity. The girl is often confused, but never overcome.

Coming of age stories are everywhere. In many of these, experience is distorted by a simultaneous “journey of self-discovery”—kissing a boy for the first time while also trying to understand your feelings about it. Kimmy is coming of age at thirty, and filtering our insane world through her intelligent, sexually and (mostly) emotionally mature gaze. She knows she wants to kiss a boy. Go on a date. Be the center of attention on her frigging birthday (I, too, am insane about my special day). She’s spent fifteen years getting to know herself—there was nothing else to do down there! She’s not worried about it, like the rest of us are all the time.

So Kimmy is actually a lot freer—and more powerful—than Frank Underwood, sad Claire, really sad Doug and inexplicably poor hacker, Gavin. Kimmy is ready to do, throwing her whole heart and self into everything she thinks, feels and sees. With often hilarious results.

You can binge-watch season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. The show has just been renewed for a second season!

–Elise

“Nobody Tells The Whole Truth”

The first TV series Alison and I binge-watched: Veronica Mars. Then Damages, Six Feet UnderThe West Wing. Now, though we live apart, there isn’t much that at least one of us is not watching, reading about, encouraging or discouraging the other to get into.

So, when I visited Alison in Chicago a few short weeks ago and we found ourselves with a few empty hours, a problem: what to watch while we chatted, drank wine and were generally adorable together in-person? Oh hey, I heard that Andrew Jarecki’s new HBO documentary miniseries The Jinx is pretty good! Cut to the two of us ignoring each other for a full hour, terrified, enthralled and holding hands for comfort.

The Jinx follows the freaky and barely believable story of Robert Durst—wealthy since birth, young witness to his mother’s suicide, twisted and entitled as all get-out. Durst has been a high-profile suspect in three murder cases since the 1980s. As the series unfolds—a series Durst himself suggested be made, and cooperated fully to produce—it becomes clear: Durst totally killed those people, and has totally gotten away with it!

I won’t trouble you with the details of each case. Watch the series. The storytelling and primary storyteller, Robert Durst, are the draw–though he doesn’t appear on-camera until the second episode. Durst is a master manipulator, made powerful because he completely believes he is innocent. The dude is bloody, brilliant, sociopathic and deluded. He blinks constantly on-camera and contorts his arms and torso for emphasis. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He speaks in a monotone, precise and without emotion. He is mesmerizing.

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The miniseries is artful, cutting between real-life footage and interviews (many with Durst himself) and re-imaginings of events as they are described by the probable killer, friends and family of his victims, experts, lawyers and jurors. Shots linger on locations—long, dusky shots of the lake house where first wife Kathy Durst was last seen alive, and the creepy apartment where unfortunate curmudgeon Morris Black was killed and dismembered. Jarecki layers in interviews he himself conducted with the real-life Dexter, where both are beautifully lit, clean and well-dressed. The production design is formal, based in fact but slightly fantastical and always creepy. This is Durst’s world. Here, he controls all of us.

“I felt like he was speaking from the heart,” one juror admits, after she and eleven of her tragically naïve peers acquit Durst of the Black murder in 2003. WHAT HEART?! asked the rest of the world, completely flabbergasted. Sadly, I get it. Durst is almost certainly a huge murderer. But watching him talk about the “love of his life” Kathy and “best friend” Morris is compelling, if not uncomfortably impressive. I truly believe his sheer force of will could will lies into truth.

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The “happy couple,” Robert and Kathy Durst

Alison and I love soap opera-style, crazy serial-killer television in the style of The Fall, Luther, The Killing, etc. The Jinx is REAL LIFE: a troubled, sheltered young man grows into a (alleged!) maniac in need of much therapy who (allegedly!) kills a bunch of people. That’s scary enough—then add the reality of the series itself, which exists as a testament to our willingness to ignore fact because of the merest whisper of doubt.

That’s what Jarecki’s re-enactments do. The closed-door shots of houses and apartments and boats and random limbs call into question our certainty—because we can never really know what we can’t see. The picture is fractured and shadowy and spooky.

In the final minute of the fourth episode, we see a Durst-Jarecki interview break for a few minutes. Durst sips water, his mic still hot. He mumbles to himself, over and over again: “I did not knowingly and purposefully lie. I did not knowingly and purposefully lie. I made…mistakes…”

Then his lawyer walks into the frame and, in effect, tells him to shut up.

Durst’s story has lived in the public eye for many years. He’s still around—soliciting reporters and documentary-makers for the chance to speak his piece. This guy doesn’t care about setting the record straight. He cares about hearing his voice out loud, convincing himself, and making our world into the one he lives in. He could probably do it, too. So I kind of wish this series didn’t exist—but at the same time, can’t. Stop. Watching.

The Jinx airs Sunday nights on HBO, 8pm ET.

–Elise