Kathleen Recommends…Great Moments in Television

“Pretty Little Liars”

When you watch a lot of television shows made for preteens with personality disorders, you stumble upon some great moments that, frankly, you wouldn’t find anywhere else. On ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” a texting-happy blackmailer will stop at nothing to torment the four main characters…not even the bounds of good taste. In one deliciously demented scene, the mysterious “A,” having just stolen from Hanna the money that Hanna’s mother unlawfully “borrowed” from an elderly client, offers to let the pretty little liar earn the cash back in an unorthodox way. “A” sends Hanna, only recently free from her hellish days as a chubby girl called “Hefty Hanna,” to a local bakery to pick up a box of smiling piggy cupcakes. If Hanna eats them all, she will get her money back. Desperate to recover the lost money, Hanna complies, giving viewers many gratuitous shots of a pretty blonde girl crying into her cupcake. It’s weird, voyeuristic, and yet terribly inspired. Each bite is a triumph of trash TV.

While its artistic merit may be in question, one thing’s for sure: you don’t see that on “The Good Wife.”

Progress Report

It’s almost the beginning of August, and I still have a thick stack of books staring me down. I haven’t been turning pages, and as a result, they’ve been turning on me. No, really — I left these words alone too long, and I think they’ve started to reproduce. Exponentially. How else would I have so much left to read?

I’ve abandoned my goal of reading Vanity Fair. Too. Damn. Long. Honestly, that’s the last time I take advice from my favorite 19th century British authors (I’m looking at you, Charlotte Brontë), who probably had waaay more time to read than I do…at least when they weren’t succumbing to tuberculosis. I’m sure it’s great and all, and I love any book that will help you scare off an attacker (and probably future boyfriends), but it always feels like too much of a commitment. Especially with my recent word infestation, I just can’t take the time to finish one book when I could be finishing two.

Ahem. I’m also bailing on The House of the Seven Gables. It turns out this is not the biography of Clark Gable and the six clones he built in his laboratory. So…yeah. I rest my case. I have started and stopped this book more than once, which makes for a rollicking game of Red Light/Green Light, but a pretty lackluster reading experience. Again, I should probably stop taking recommendations from people from the 19th century. Sorry, Herman Melville. (His response? Calling me a bunch of names, none of which was “Ishmael.”)

I’ve been keeping it pretty light, which makes for reading that is easy, but rarely very rewarding. That is, I don’t know which, if any, of the books will stay with me. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about Super Sad True Love Story, which I was somewhat disappointed with when I first read it, ironically on the Nook. Although some of it felt eerily possible, Shteyngart’s words have only recently been registering in my mind as prescient. When I’m in a particularly dismal mood, I imagine that everything he has described is already in motion. When I’m slightly sunnier, I realize that that’s still probably true.

As usual, I am disappointed with myself. The good thing is, as I’m now also a failure at setting goals, I didn’t fail at any of the goals I failed to set for myself. Sure, I’m still “a few books short of a book club” (an insult I am currently workshopping), but I’m trying. If only bad habits weren’t so hard to break. I have to know: reading The Bell Jar for the third time doesn’t get you put on a list or anything, right? Like, perfectly sane people, who aren’t about to stuff themselves with pills and crawl under their houses, do it all the time, don’t they?

…Maybe I should have stuck with William Thackeray.

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[Image courtesy the Betty White Calendar.]

Strangers in Paradise (Book 2)

The second pocket book in Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise series is more action-packed, more fanciful, and, on the whole, more complicated than his previous installment. It begins with a dream sequence (or is it?) in which Francine imagines another life for herself, one of marriage and motherhood and frumpiness—in short, a life far different from the one she is living with Katchoo. She awakens ten years younger, crammed into a tiny apartment with her best friend (and maybe more), pretty much in the same uncertain position we last saw her in. Everything seems back to normal, although Francine and Katchoo, unable to touch the 850,000 dollars in the bank, are struggling to get by. Francine gets a job working for an advertising agency and, due to a wardrobe mishap, unwittingly winds up the spokesmodel for a condom campaign; Katchoo spends her days painting, or trying to—if only David would comply with her request that he pose nude! The fun and games abruptly end, however, when Darcy Parker, Katchoo’s ex-lover and a criminal mastermind (not to mention David’s sister) reemerges, this time with her eyes on the White House.

Soon everyone is ensnared in Darcy’s various plots. David’s presence on her lush estate lures Katchoo back, and into her old ways. Francine, desperate to get in touch with her best friend, starts piecing together the widespread evidence of Darcy’s machinations. Things look bleak, with the entire political system implicated, but the book reaches a fairly quick resolution (indeed, the last hundred pages are unrelated Strangers in Paradise comics). I was disappointed that such a large, almost unwieldy, story line was resolved so quickly, but perhaps, as with the first book, this one will have its various threads revisited in later installments. Many of the ideas were good, such as Darcy’s D.U.C.K.s (Deep Underground Capability), a term which applies to those girls who infiltrated their target’s lives from the most unexpected angles. I can’t imagine that we have seen the last of this behavior, as almost everyone in this series seems to harbor a dark secret.

I also liked how this book gave even further insight into Katchoo’s previous life, which is always interesting, and certainly helps to explain even who Katchoo is in the present. My only complaint is that there is no equality in the main characters’ backstories: while we have learned plenty about why Katchoo left home and what she did while she was away, we still know relatively little about David, for example. He is a mystery to both us and the other characters. I am assuming this will be resolved in later books, so I will hold off on any criticism. Still, it would be nice just to have some straightforward flashbacks or flashforwards: I’m still confused as to whether the peek at Francine 10 years older was a dream or not.

Of course, some of these stylistic choices no doubt represent the appeal of Moore’s work. He can craft a complex narrative and employ interesting storytelling techniques, furthering the plot in endlessly inventive ways. If anything, his skills have only grown since the last book. That makes this latest book more impressive, as well as more frustrating. Particularly for someone who doesn’t read a lot of comics, it is difficult to know how to interpret the rapidly shifting frames that jump across time and space. It is often disorienting…but it is hard to know whether that disorientation is universal to everyone. As with the last book, however, I am interested in seeing these characters again. And so, I look forward to the next installment, to see where Katchoo, Francine, and David end up.

Spook

In her first book, Stiff, Mary Roach explored the secret life of corpses in a fun, slightly irreverent, and completely fascinating way. In Spook, her second book, she now tackles the afterlife, from reincarnation to soul-weighing, with equally mesmerizing results. Roach is a skeptic who is responsible enough to check her strongest objections—but not her sense of humor—at the door; she gamely plays along with mediums and other spiritualists even though it is clear that she is not predisposed to accept their methods. She wisely points out where their science is shaky, but is gracious enough to admit when they might be right. Thus her book, for all its snarky asides and skeptical posturing, is a relatively even-handed investigation into the afterlife from a scientific perspective.

From the start, Roach is intent on letting her readers know what she is all about. She is not persuaded by ghost stories or titillating anecdotes of mysterious occurrences. She is interested in facts, hard evidence, information that is not influenced by emotion or spurred by gossip. In that, ahem, spirit, Spook treats claims of reincarnation, ghostly apparitions, and communications with the dead as hearsay that must be proven true—or false—through research and experiments. Roach sets about doing this by meeting, when possible, with the people whose claims she is investigating. Despite the breezy attitude her writing might suggest, Roach is very, very thorough. This thoroughness takes her all over the world, from here in the United States to England, and even India. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts.

Other reviewers have described Roach’s books as being sort of scientific travelogues, and no doubt this quality will be a draw or a disappointment, depending on the reader. It certainly lends Spook a light-hearted air, one that may suit neophytes just fine, but could prove irksome to afterlife enthusiasts. Indeed, one’s reaction to the first few pages is a good indication of how well he or she will like the book in total—Spook is as much an expression of Roach’s personality as it is a work of research. Roach tends to favor the threads that interest her over those that will form a more comprehensive study; the result is something more akin to a really fascinating dinner conversation than a college course. Still, the information is there, and for someone looking to expand their knowledge in the most painless way possible, Spook is a great choice. While Roach is certainly not an overly credulous guide, she still reassures her readers that it’s okay to believe. It’s okay to accept something that can’t be proven—because, hey, in almost 300 pages (and a 12-page bibliography!) it also couldn’t be disproven. And, as she concludes, it’s just more fun that way.

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