The Leftovers and The Leftovers

February 5, 2017

Dear Reader,

No one needs to tell you that television is good these days. Rather, I find myself needing someone to tell me what is or isn’t worth my time. We are fortunate to see this phenomenon repeated in contemporary literature, although I often find myself having to choose which form I have time for in a given day. Here, I want to talk about an intersection between the two.

Because there is so much out there in terms of thoughtful entertainment these days, you do need to know what you are getting in to with a show like The Leftovers. This is a show that requires a high level of engagement and thought. You cannot clean the house or write a paper or joke with a friend while this show is on. You also shouldn’t binge watch it, as it takes an emotional  and intellectual toll with each episode. But now that you’re forewarned that you will need to devote a good hour of brains to watching it, let me tell you why you should.

The premise is simple: on October 14, all of a sudden, 2% of the world’s population vanished without a trace. There is no explanation for this, although every level of society, government, and religion have sought one. The show does not try to find one itself, nor does it focus on the people trying to. Nor should you, for that matter. This show is not about answering that, or many other, questions. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker asserts, the show is really about grief and loss. And, more concretely, the show is about what it means to be left behind in a world that has become unrecognizable.

One of my favorite characters is Matt Jamison, a minister in the small town of Mapleton. To be a Christian minister in a post-Rapture-esque world is to be trying to provide comfort to a world that has been denied Biblical heaven. You either respond to that with despair, or by aggressively asserting that what has happened is not in fact The Rapture. He chooses the latter, spending much of the first season with the twin goals of bringing members of a despair-focused cult into a different fold and telling everyone that those taken on October 14 were not more worthy of heaven than those left behind. Both goals are motivated by the same desire: to assert that humanity, with all its ugliness, is worth holding on to. But to do this he has to dig into the often sordid humanity of each Rapture victim, or Departure in the show’s lexicon. He prints fliers about these people asserting their deeply flawed backgrounds, constantly confronting the question of whether it is better to reveal that someone’s lost loved one was a pedophile or a con man or unfaithful, or to allow people to believe that they were left behind because they were less worthy. One of the best episodes of the whole show, “No Room at the Inn” is about testing his faith in that humanity and about the extraordinary depth of potential responses we have to the ugliness around us. If you are looking to get a glimpse of the potential of the show, just watch that one.

At Boston Book Festival this past year I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on the process of bringing a book to the screen, whether small or large. The panel featured, among others, Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel. The main difference between his novel and the show, he asserted, was the level of dark humor allowed in each. The book is darker, and perhaps more funny, but the show has something that I feel the book struggled to incorporate: real hope about humanity. The novel is an enclosed space, functioning in this instance sort of like a long-form short story. There is an interiority that the novel can provide that a visual medium often has trouble conveying, and the finely drawn portraits in The Leftovers privilege the humanity Perrotta struggles to assert hope for. The show, however, has an advantage in that it can dedicate a whole hour to a character like Matt Jamison, a character merely sketched in the novel. Many people consider season two of the show to be one of the best seasons of television out there. I agree with that assertion wholeheartedly, although I do really love the first season as well. Season three is coming out in a few months so it is just the right time to get caught up on this weird, experimental, deeply ambitious show. Let me know how you find it.


A 2016 Post-Election Booklist

December 12, 2016

Dear Reader,

The truth is, I should have read these books before the election. But, I found myself (like many I know) feeling that I had plenty of time to educate myself about some of the unexpected (to me) forces influencing this election. The election would finish with my desired result and then I would sit down in my comfy yellow armchair and try to figure out why my candidate had almost lost. This was naive of me. In the spirit of trying to disperse some of my naïveté, here are some of the books I have been reading.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right- Arlie Russell Hochschildstrangers-in-their-own-landA sociologist goes down to Louisiana and, over the course of six years, interviews members of the Tea Party, future Trump voters, and victims of gross environmental pollution. Hochschild uses environmental devastation and pollution as the lens through which she examines this subset of the American right as it stands today. This book was my starting point because I was looking for a sort of outside, even clinical perspective. I didn’t want opinion, or to be reading into an echo chamber. I don’t know if I exactly achieved that goal, but I did find much in this book to stir thought and open up my understanding of how much I did not know. Although the author’s opinions are not exactly hidden in this book, she and her subjects find a way to communicate and empathize with each other, which is indeed a start.

White Trash.: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.- Nancy Isenbergba9d08a65455a2459dd21ac14b88b38d


This book mostly consists of a historical analysis of the last 400 years in America. Although that seems a rather daunting project, if you are looking for a concise primer tracing the history of class in America, this is exactly what you need. Isenberg pulls out the most relevant epochs in our history and explains how there have always been a white class of people in this country who have been overlooked, forgotten, downtrodden, and considered “trash.” She examines where this originated and asserts strongly that it has never gone away. In fact, it has likely gotten worse over the centuries. She wants to blow apart the notions that this is a country where anyone can achieve the American Dream if they work hard enough, or that we have somehow transcended class and created the first true meritocracy in the world. This book functions as a bracing reality check, and a needed one.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis- J.D. Vance
hillbilly_elegyI listened to the author read this on Audible, which I think is a good choice for a book such as this one. What I like about this memoir is that is took me away from just reading about the class divide in America and instead gave me the chance to listen to someone actually tell me their story about it. J.D. Vance has a unique personal story to tell in this book about his family, his upbringing, and the world he witnessed. The use of memoir instead of another sociological study (as useful and well done as those can be) gives this book a special poignancy and immediacy.

I’m continuing my quest to read as much as I can about some of the issues highlighted by this election. If anyone has suggestions, please send them my way.



The Wonder

October 24, 2016

Dear Reader,

The topic of anorexia has shown up recently in several contemporary novels, including The Vegetarian and White is for Witching. In each of these novels the disorder is coded as something else, and once again, in The Wonder it shows up under a mediating guise. What links the three novels is the experience of watching death come slowly. The girls in these novels are starving themselves to death and the reader joins them for every agonizing detail of their decline. 28449257
The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an expert nurse and former pupil of Florence Nightingale. She is an Englishwoman contracted to come care for an eleven year old girl in rural Ireland. Anna, the child, has been declared a local “wonder.” For the community, the story hinges upon proving the child a miracle, thus bringing glory (and tourist dollars) into their minuscule Irish hamlet. It does not take long for Lib to realize that the child is unhealthy, but even her well-trained eye is not able to spot what the reader surely will: this child is dying in front of us. Lib struggles with her desire to not only prove that the child is sneaking food somehow but also to understand why a child would be trying to turn her body into a grotesque miracle.

The unravelling of that central mystery is lent compelling force by the fact that you know from very early on that Lib and Anna are running out of time. The community around them, from the parents to the doctor to the parish priest are all wholly unhelpful, having either devoted their total faith to the veracity of the miracle or subconsciously decided that the child’s potential death is worth the answers it would bring. Lib finds one ally in a rational Dublin reporter. His appraisal of the situation (one look at the child is enough for him) is what brings Anna’s mortal danger to Lib’s full attention.

In that detail lies my only real complaint about this novel. Lib does not understand what is happening to Anna’s body, even though it really should be obvious to a trained nurse, or to any person unfettered by the blinders of Catholicism. Lib allows herself to hope the child really is a miracle, since the alternative is so grim. What is so agonizing about her indecision is the countdown any modern reader will have going from chapter one. How many more days can Lib take to figure this out before it will be too late for her to do anything at all? Will she solve the mystery only after the child’s body is damaged beyond repair? Donoghue’s skill at depicting characters in tense torment is undeniable. I was ready to tear my hair out and scream at the book as Anna dwindled away.

I read the book straight through within approximately a day, truly unable to put it down. It has immense power as a narrative, invoking a host of real-life stories like Anna’s. Donoghue manages to sketch a portrait of the trauma that would inspire a 19th century child to descend into anorexia, embracing at every turn both historical accounts and modern echoes. Lib spends the novel just trying to understand why a girl would want to starve herself to the point of death, and hoping with all she has that finding the answer will break that awful spell. It will be a familiar feeling to many.

The Doll-Master

October 18, 2016

Dear Reader,

I don’t know how to give a Joyce Carol Oates book less than five stars. I will freely admit I am eternally caught in her web. Just in time for October, JCO has released another set of disturbing short stories that you should definitely add to that shelf you have with Poe, JCO, and Helen Oyeyemi (just me?). 57802

A quick rundown of each story, in case you’d like to pick and choose:

“The Doll-Master” is the story of a young man who likes to collect what he calls “found dolls,” hiding them in his parent’s garage. As he gets older his obsession with the dolls grows deeper.

“Soldier” is the story of a young man who shoots an unarmed black man in self-defense. Or is it?

“Gun Accident: An Investigation” is about the experiences of a young girl who is involved in a violent home invasion while taking care of a beloved teacher’s house.

“Equatorial” is the story of a wife traveling with her energetic older husband in the Galapagos. She begins to suspect that he is attempting to kill her, recounting moments throughout their marriage that have led to her present danger.

“Big Momma” is about a strange family out in the woods that takes in strays, and possibly feeds them to a giant snake.

“Mystery, Inc” (my personal favorite) is about a man who owns a small empire of mystery-themed bookstores in New England. He decides he wants to acquire a new bookstore and will go to any length to get that bookstore- but is he the predator or the prey?4522

The Underground Railroad

October 16, 2016

“The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

This book is not here to encourage your incipient optimism. If you are like me, you will spend its last pages suffused with pride that this country has made such gargantuan advances towards equality and genuine goodness, when compared with the portrait of America you encounter in this novel. You will also find yourself paralyzed with fear and motivated by disgust that this country could have ever been this portrait of America. It made me feel how fragile our advances are and how vital it is to turn our feet in the right direction, never placing one toe towards that world again. cyxltn6waammdqt

It does this by following Cora, a young enslaved woman. The book is divided into multiple sections, each one either exploring a new state Cora runs to or spotlighting a specific supporting character. The first section aims to provide a historically accurate portrait of what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to risk the terrors of escape. From then, Whitehead employs his particularly well-honed talent for magical realism to elevate the novel into something extraordinary. In his conception, the Underground Railroad is made literal. Cora escapes through tunnels beneath the Southern earth on a series of makeshift trains.

Whitehead’s decision to use magical realism rather than a more strict historical realism could have been a risky one. There is so much power in the straight facts and first-person accounts of this time period. The facts are brutal and the accounts are harrowing and humbling. Why then not situate Cora within as exact a representation of slavery as possible? The question, really, is why fictionalize at all? Because, of course, so much can be accomplished by doing so. In hiding Cora in a North Carolina attic while an ethnic cleanse of all African Americans takes place outside her tiny window, Anne Frank can be evoked. Tuskegee can be foreshadowed in another section; the stop and frisk debate can be mirrored in the slave catcher’s actions. whit_978-0385537032_jkt_r1_wide-74fd28218ed06c0f4d87fa6688ce3c44c5722ee1-s900-c85The pages are heavy. They are heavy with import, of course, but they are also physically heavy. It is a beautifully made book with thick pages and elegant script. The cover art evokes both the red clay earth of Georgia and the blood that watered it, a serpentine train track running over and off the sides. I recommend you buy the hardcover because you should read it immediately, but also because there is a pleasure to holding this book in your hands. The novel plays with this pleasure and how many could never imagine experiencing it. Don’t take for granted the unbelieving pleasure Cora takes when she is gifted a brand new book; savor it.

My only advice (beyond to read this without delay) is to be prepared for what you are picking up. Every aspect of slavery was harrowing, and escaping from it is was no exception. It is a legacy we can never expect to fully escape from ourselves.