Pop Picks

Pop Culture Summer Update

Posted on July 12, 2012

I haven’t done a book/film/tv post in a while and since summer is the season for trashier reading, I’ll start with George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the inspiration for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, the first of the five novels thus far completed over the last 16 years.  I’ve finished the first three of the novels, big sprawling thousand page epic fantasies.

Now I don’t read fantasy novels and never played Dungeons and Dragons.  I’m not at all averse to trashy pop culture, but the whole swords and magic and made up world thing passed me by with the exception of the Harry Potter novels.  Our daughter Hannah was a fan and we read along with her and thoroughly enjoyed both the books (great) and the movies (only okay).  But recently faced with a 14-hour flight I grabbed the longest novel I could find and someone had given me the Ice and Fireboxed set, so there I was entering into the land of Westeros and Essos, the intrigue and clashes of noble families, dragons (at least baby ones), and occasional gore. 

I’ve found the series to have many more virtues than vices and I’ve enjoyed it.  A lot.  What’s to like?  Martin is a master of pacing and plot, so it is a page turner.  Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of another character and there a LOT of characters, so if you find yourself with one of the tiresome ones, such as Catelyn and Bran Stark, you don’t have to wait long before you rejoin one of the many fabulous and complex characters such as Tyrion, Daenerys, or Arya.  The shifting viewpoint also allows us to see a compelling level of complexity within characters: good characters do pretty bad things and really vile characters are capable of grace and good – yup, just like real life.

I find other aspects of the series interesting: the number of strong, smart, and important women; the attention paid to politics and power; the wit (which I don’t associate with fantasy writing); the way the tales resonate with what I know of medieval Europe and the dynastic and religious wars of the period; and the willingness to kill off central characters.  On this last item, I mean “wow.”  He’ll kill off anyone.  But I also decided I needed a break before I set out on the last two books.  The third novel, “A Storm of Swords” felt more violent, bleaker, and less complex than the previous two.  In the meantime, the HBO series has been great fun, largely staying true to the plot, but adding more sex and casting the fantastic Peter Dinklage as Tyrian.  He steals every scene.

Also read The Art of Fielding, a first novel by Chad Harbach.  Did I say first novel?  This NY Times “Best Books of 2011” winner shows a self- assurance, confidence, and ease that belies its first novel status.  It’s yet another “baseball as metaphor for life” book and as such it is also about the big questions: love and loss, aging and youth, failure and resiliency (and even redemption of a sort), the life of the mind and the “mindlessness” of pure action (sport in this case).  I liked it more for being set on a college campus, for its play with literature, authors, and literary themes, and its sympathy for the flawed characters that populate the pages. 

My only quibble is with its explicit statements on the “Human Condition.”  The novel so artfully shows us the way our mortality shapes for good and bad the way we live that it has no need for saying it and those few moments struck me as clumsy.  Besides, that we die is a fact of life (and death, I suppose) and it is how we live with whatever time is allotted to us that interests me most.  What it means to strive for perfection, how impossible is the concept, the inability to freeze anything (ourselves, time, others,…), struggle and getting back off the mat, how to love.  Harbach is gifted in that sense, the way characters play out those small human dramas, and while this novel recalled for me Jonatahn Franzen’s Freedom, Harbach seems to actually like his characters or at least to empathize with them in a way that Franzen failed to do. Its realism feels more real to me.  It feels bigger hearted.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend The Art of Fielding.  No witches, castles, supernatural beings, or sword fights, but it at once feels like life as we live it and yet illuminating.

As a big fan of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker Man Prize winning Wolf Hall, a historical novel centering on Thomas Cromwell, I have eagerly taken up Bring Up the Bodies, her new novel and a continuation of the Cromwell story.  I’m half way through and look forward to every stolen bit of time so I can return to it.  More on this one later, but if you don’t know Mantel I urge you to start with Wolf Hall.  The woman can write!

How about movies?  I have three that I recommend:

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s new movie.  While our girls are wild for Anderson’s films (The Royal Tanenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Express), I’ve not been a huge fan.  A little too self-consciously quirky, too many oddly damaged characters.  But Moonrise Kingdom is just about perfect.  Visually, musically, and in every other way.  It is about childhood hemmed in by an unhappy adult world and the sense that innocence hangs on only precariously and for a short time, but is infinitely sweeter for it. Still quirky, but sweetly so. Go see it right away.  It makes me want to go back and give Anderson’s films another chance.

My Afternoons with Margueritte, a pretty little French film that could never have come out of Hollywood.  It has my favorite French actor, Gerard Depardieu (okay, maybe Jean Renault in The Professional is my favorite – after that I don’t know any other French actors now that I think of it), and French film treasure, 98-year-old Gisele Casadesus.  He plays a semi-literate man and she a literate, lonely old woman and they bring an effortless luminescence to their roles.  It was fun watching two pros that are just so good that they make it look easy.  It’s a film where almost nothing happens and yet lives are transformed through love, literature, and forgiveness.  It has a happy ending and is a bit schlocky and nevertheless delightful. You can find it on iTunes.

Ur….do I mention this one?  Okay, on the guilty pleasure list: Ted.  It’s off color, crass, offensive, and just so damn funny.  Especially if you are from the Boston area.  The bit on Boston girls?  Really, there’s nothing I can say here that would be appropriate.  Two words for those who have seen it: Thunder Song.  Once you hear it, it is just really hard to not to hum it.

Finally, two television series.   I loved the reality series Boston Med.  The show is back, now as New York Med (Tuesday nights at 10:00).  It is real life human drama that is just gripping.  They could skip the romantic digressions, but the medical stuff is amazing and it makes me wish I was a doctor (there are huge assumptions here that might make my high school Physics and Chemistry teachers double over in laughter).  Our other new discovery is the BBC series Sherlock, a modern treatment of the Sherlock Holmes story.  It’s available on DVD and the lead role is played by the wonderfully named Benedict Cumberbatch – you gotta watch it just for him.

Ah, the “cultural” joys of summer.  Now back to Hilary Mantel….

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