Christmas Break Catch-All: Movies, Books, 2015.

Time acts in strange ways. Certain days can last forever, certain weekends are gone with the blink of an eye, certain months can feel like they never even happened. What always seems strangest is when time makes you feel as if you’ve lived whole lives between a point A and a point B, when in reality, that span of time only lasted two weeks.

That’s how I feel about this holiday break. I am lucky to have a job where things slow down around Christmas and the New Year, so I spent a week at home in Oregon and then spent a few days hanging out back in the city.

Before I forget them (though I’m kicking myself for not doing this even sooner because now the Oregon portion of my break seems like a long time ago), here are a few highlights from the holiday…aka a rundown of the books and movies and moments I most want to remember.

1. Me Before You

In my parents’ neighborhood, there’s a house with its own little library out front, where people can take and leave books as they please. I passed it while on a walk with my mom and sister, and I took Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a book I’d pondered buying before but held off because I was in the middle of something else. I was pages away from finishing Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this was early in my trip, so I figured I could polish off Moyes’ book in time to return it before going back to New York.

Maybe it sounds dumb, but this book became like a friend to me. I just wanted to spend time with it. Before this book, I’d read the first two Hunger Games books (sounds easy, I know, but fantasy/dystopian books are just not my cup of tea) and A People’s History of the United States, so in hindsight I realize I was probably just overjoyed to have a book I could breeze through. But it was more than just an easy read. It was a delight. Just about every night I was home, I’d stay up late and read it in the light of the Christmas tree.

I’ve had a serious crush on England for the last year and a half, so I loved opening it to find the prologue set in London and the rest in an English country town. All its characters were distinct and developed, and the central romance was sweet – obvious the whole time, but built to in a much more satisfying way than I could have anticipated. Even cynics like myself need a good love story every now and then.

2) New Movies

Since I had some time on my hands the last few days, I wanted to get a jump-start on watching some great new movies in 2015. Instead, I mostly ended up re-watching old favorites (more on that below), but I did watch two movies for the first time and quite enjoyed both: Pulp Fiction and Thank You for Smoking.

Sometimes I view movies as opportunities to understand more cultural references. It seems like I hear about Pulp Fiction a lot, so I thought I’d watch it to expand my pop-culture horizons. I think I need to watch it again and again to pick up on everything, but I love movies where you just get swept into it, where you’re not realizing it but an hour has gone by and you’ve just been enjoying the story. That’s kind of how I felt about Fargo, too. You’re not expecting it, but you’re sucked in.

And Thank You For Smoking. Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air are two of my favorite movies, but this was the first time I’d watched his debut feature. I don’t know if it’ll become one of my favorites like those other films, but I still thought it was great. Dripping with cynicism, urging its viewers to question everything, filled with the same quick, intelligent dialogue that made me love the other Reitman films.

And since awards season is right around the corner, I saw a few movies in theaters over the break, too: The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, and Whiplash (which was by far my favorite of the three).

3) Old Movies

I’ve taken the last couple days to catch up on random stuff in my life – unpacking, cleaning the kitchen, organizing storage drawers, etc. – and it’s hard to watch new movies while doing those tasks because I can’t devote my full attention to the film. So I re-watched some old favorites, most notably Good Night and Good Luck, LA Confidential (clearly there’s a David Strathairn thing going on) and Manhattan.

The first time I watched LA Confidential was on a bus back to NYC after visiting Boston for a weekend. And I liked it even then. But this time, I appreciated so much more. Like Kevin Spacey. How did I not recognize its true greatness in my first viewing? Spacey’s is my favorite in a movie filled with incredible performances.

Before I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I turned on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it almost two years ago but since then I think I have developed a better appreciation for films and a better understanding of what it is to live in New York. The beauty and intelligence of the opening sequence was apparently lost on me the first time, because I hardly remembered it. Now, I just want to sit and watch it on loop. It’s breathtaking.

Other lines I loved: Tracy joking about not knowing who Rita Hayworth was, then Isaac reprimanding her. “Of course I’m joking!” She says. “You think I’m unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.”

And Isaac describing Mary as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.”

4) 2015

It is now 2015, and I can’t say anything feels much different. Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe the years where it doesn’t feel like much will change or improve are the years when big things happen. Or maybe by saying it out loud, I’ve ruined any chance of that. There are 361 more days to find out.

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Beach Weekend

This weekend, I went to Virginia Beach with a big group of friends. What was billed as a long weekend wound up feeling more like a legitimate vacation. We left Thursday evening on a bus to Richmond. After spending Friday at my friend’s parents’ house there, we drove to Virginia Beach for the rest of the weekend.

Even after only two and a half days there, it almost felt routine. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, head for the beach. Spend all day reading, soaking up good music, deepening old friendships, creating new friendships…and working on covering up awkward tan lines from an old bathing suit.

It was a break from my New York routine that I needed more than I realized. And it was a chance to spend a whole weekend appreciating an amazing community of friends.

A few random tidbits, because I’m still on a vacation high and if I don’t write them down now, I’ll forget them:

Richmond, VA is a really cool city, especially if you’re into Civil War history. Friday evening, we drove around the city checking out notable spots. Driving down Monument Avenue, you pass incredible statues of Confederate notables like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. My personal favorite destination was the state Capitol building and this statue of George Washington, which sits outside it. So elaborate, with so many connections to various figures in early America (hey, Meriwether Lewis).

This song made it onto someone’s beach playlist and now I’m addicted to it.

On our flight back this evening (yep, we took the bus down and flew back to maximize beach time), I flipped through the Sept. 1 issue of the New Yorker and laughed so hard at this week’s fiction: “The Referees,” by Joseph O’Neill. A quick, funny read if you need one. “What does this e-mail even mean? She wants to recuse herself? Who is she, Sonia Sotomayor?”

So now I’m back in the city, unpacking and watching Silver Linings Playbook (It’s become my unofficial summer movie. I play it all the time. Just so dang good.) and thinking about how I don’t just feel refreshed after this vacation. I feel completely reset. Tomorrow morning and the week ahead will bring what it may, but I feel new. And it’ll already be Tuesday.

The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.

Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.