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Friday, November 26, 2010

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow's newest novel is a slight, bouncy trip through some highlights of the 20th century, viewed through the lens of two brothers, one of them blind, who barely ever leave their house on Fifth Avenue.

The blind brother, Homer, serves as narrator. And lest you think it some artistic flight of fancy that led Doctorow to name his blind character Homer, you should know that Homer and Langley Collyer are based on the real-life Collyer brothers, who were infamous New York eccentrics and hoarders. Homer begins his narration by explaining that despite losing his sight as a teenager he never felt himself to be disabled. He describes his curiousity at the rapid detrioration of his vision, going across to view the ice skaters in the park and watching the trees and then the skaters and then the ice itself faded away, until he could only hear the scratch of the skates.

The narration is conversational and enthusiastic, and reads quickly. Homer's front of optimism is welcome, because he has some sad things to tell. After his sighted brother Langley goes off to the Great War, Homer watches his parents die of the Spanish Flu. When Langley comes back he is in poor health thanks to mustard gas and has become extremely cynical about the world and the way it works.

Doctorow does a great job depicting Langley's eccentricity, convincingly rationalizing the real Langley's hoarding and other peculiarities. Doctorow's Langley collects all the daily newspapers and studies them furiously. He believes that he can develop a newspaper for all times. His Theory of Replacement states that nothing ever changes really, it just gets replaced. So the stories in his paper will always be the same, and you can just fill in the blanks yourself. "War with _ Continues", "Workers Exploited by Corporation" for some examples.

The novel takes an episodic form, with each one defined by the people the Collyer's allow into their home. The brothers are kind of heart and take in quite a few people. There is a poor piano student (Homer gives her lessons); their cook's cornet-playing grandson; a mob boss hiding out after being shot in the ear; and a gaggle of hippies who mistake the grungy Collyers for like-minded souls.

Some of these episodes are a little wearing, especially in the way they so explicitly plug into the zeitgeist. The novel tends to do that Forrest Gump thing where it scans through American history without really touching on anything and making a real statement. (Most of the events of the novel are referred to obliquely, without names or other specifics. And some late potshots at people like Nixon are especially arbitrary and unnecessary.)

The novel is strongest in it depiction of the Collyer brothers' relationship. Langley and Homer love each other dearly, but Langley's love, though, pure, is also quite destructive. His absurd beliefs that sight can be restored through diet and exercise tax Homer unnecessarily, and the constant hoarding (of newspapers, pianos, typewriters, and even a Model T in the kitchen) endangers blind Homer, who once could effortlessly walk around the house from memory.

Doctorow is fairly old, and has covered American history in much further depth, so perhaps he can and should be forgiven for its cursory appearance here. Where he shows his true skill is in the title characters, and he shows that age has not dinted what nature provided, his singular talent.

Modern Family- "Mother Tucker"

All in all a rather slight episode of Modern Family this week. Very low-key, no real interconnection between the three branches of the clan. (The one instance of mix-and-matching provided one of the comedic higlights: Claire demonstrating Mitchell's boundary issues by moving closer and closer to him.) I would not be surprised to hear that this episode was moved into this slot, since viewership was likely down to the heavy travel day/people going out and awkwardly running into their high school classmates.

Still, Modern Family almost can't help being funny, and there were still enough laughs to make "Mother Tucker" an enjoyable exerices. Phil was probably the star player tonight (witness his excellent physical comedy in continuing his phone call while taking off his girlish sweater) but the show gets a lot of mileage out of an angry Hayley. Really enjoyed the parents taking different sides, as Phil has bonded with Dylan and Claire wants her daughter dating her science tutor. Alex only had a couple of lines but killed it with the "So dumb guys go for dumb girls AND smart guys go for dumb girls?" line.

The other two storylines were kinda small in comparison. I had higher expectations for Cameron's mother, but I felt that the show didn't really do anything all that interesting with her character. The Jay and Gloria story worked a lot better. Gloria's skepticism of illness was hilarious and perfectly in character, as was Manny's overreliance on WebMD. Their hysterics when Jay turns out to have appendicitis were well done, especially Manny telling Jay that the surgery usually isn't the problem, but the anesthesia is what usually gets you. ("You're over 60, right?" he asks.)

The sentimental capper that the show seems committed to was more affecting than most. It was nice to see Phil come through for Hayley after he worsened the situation by hanging out with Dylan.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Blitzgiving"

Thoroughly enjoyed this episode, which is nice, but makes for less interesting writing, so let's do this quickly.

Even this many years into the show, the writers are still able to rewrite the characters backstory as it suits them, and do it in convincing ways. Of course we've never seen Blitz (Jorge Garcia) before: he was always gone when the good stuff happened! This is a somewhat hackneyed joke, but I think HIMYM put their own spin on it, with the Blitz nickname and the idea that the curse could be transferred.

Only Ted would think to stuff a turkey with a turkey. And only Ted would be presumptuous enough to say "home" to a New York cabbie. (Also loved the gag where Barney's cabbie is the first to realize the Blitz implications of ditching the group for a separate ride.)

Maybe I'm blinded by the fact that I find her supremely attractive, but I think Jennifer Morrison is killing it on this show. Loved the back and forth with Ted and how well she fit in with the group.

Ted's furious with his friends for hanging out with Zoe, but saves his harshest anger for Lilly, for whom he hated Renee Zellwegger for years before Lilly figured out she actually meant to hate Reese Witherspoon.

Nice job by Garcia as the cursed Blitz. He played both the downbeats and up moments very well. His "Aw, man!" was much more convincing than Ted's or Barney's.

Still not sure what this Ted-Zoe arc is going to do mother-wise, but it diverting and fun, so I'm not sure I care all that much. People do realize that this show is over once he meets the mother, right?

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

What an utterly joyless exercise. Joyless to read and, I’m hoping, joyless to write. Because if Michael Chabon, a novelist I have always respected even if I haven’t always loved his stuff, took any joy in writing this needlessly pretentious, unambitious takedown of one of the most beloved characters in all of fiction, then I don’t know if I can continue to respect his work.

The Final Solution is a novel about Sherlock Holmes, not Adolf Hitler. Except, the character is never called Sherlock Holmes, just “the old man.” This is the kind of literary technique that makes my eyes roll. Get over yourself, you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, man up and admit it already. There have been hundreds of Holmes stories published since the death of Conan Doyle, so I’m sure there were no legal complications, and I can’t think of a single valid artistic reason for doing it.

The novel is set in WWII England. The old man is an 89-year-old beekeeper and former detective of renown. He happens to be intrigued one day by a nine-year-old mute and his African gray parrot. The boy can not or will not speak and the bird repeats several series of numbers in German. Later, a man living in the same boarding house as the boy is murdered and the bird goes missing. The local police bring in the legendary detective.

Some that sounds appealing, no? No. Despite its surface oddities, befitting the traditional stories, this iteration of Holmes, perhaps understandably given his age, displays none of the talents and traits of the beloved character. Throughout the entire novel, Holmes hardly figures anything out at all, has major revelations disclosed to him voluntarily, and displays nothing of the keen observational skills so many readers enjoy.

Instead we get page after page describing the creaking of his bones. Or his hearing loss. Or how he used to work with this new cop’s grandfather. So. Freaking. What. He’s old, we get it, now let him solve the mystery. Oh, and to top it all off, the climactic events are told from the point of view of the parrot.

I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I have found every other novel of Chabon’s wanting, none more so than this. Chabon’s defense of genre fiction has always seemed admirable, but why champion a form only to debase in such a public manner.

Bottom line: avoid at all costs. Not for Sherlock fans, not for mystery fans, not for anyone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Modern Family- "Manny Get Your Gun"

The greatest strength of Modern Family is in the depth of its ensemble. Each character is strongly defined and each is capable of carrying a plot of their own. All of them can earn big laughs, but not because the characters themselves are inherently funny people, but because the writers adroitly place their characters into situations which spur humor. Sometimes the show can abuse this strength, overpopulating an episode with too many unconnected stories, making the end result too busy to be greatly enjoyed.

Such, I am glad to say, was not the case with “Manny Get Your Gun.” The episode takes shape as a frame narrative, beginning with Manny’s toast to the family at his birthday party. It was pretty great to see him cheerfully deliver his speech to his glum-looking relatives, all while wearing what I am assuming is a tailored suit. From there we traveled back in time to discover what has put each member of the Pritchett and Dunphy clans in their foul moods.

Modern Family gives us four stories this week, each symbolized by a car. Gloria’s car is stuck in the driveway since she can’t find her keys. Jay hectors her about responsibility, and considers the lesson worthwhile enough that he doesn’t tell her he found the keys in his own coat. She sees through the ruse immediately, and becomes especially scary when expressing her anger through Manny’s new BB gun (Manny incidentally, is in crisis mode as Jay inadvertently causes him to wonder if he’s not enough of a kid.). The Gloria plot, though genuinely funny, is something the show should probably ease up on, in the long run. How many times can we see Jay underestimate Gloria without it feeling a little race-based? Also, much as I love to look at Sofia Vergara, I think the plunging necklines are starting to come off as a little desperate.

Cam and Mitch are at the mall struggling to buy Manny’s present, and are running late. But Cam can’t help but stop an elderly couple with romantic problems, going so far as to carry the old lady down an up escalator. The adultery reveal was a nice touch. I was less enthusiastic about Mitchell’s flash mob, although I guess I can’t complain about it being out of character when the character himself admits it. Cam’s selfish reaction was a welcome surprise, especially since upon reflection it made perfect sense for the character. It’s nice when a show trusts its characters enough to have them do bad things, and trusts its audience enough to still find them sympathetic.

The final two cars belong to Phil and Claire, who decide to take two cars, splitting the kids between them, after an argument over which route to take to the party. I found the Phil and daughters story a little overly contrived, since it featured the “family camp” we’ve never heard of before and likely will never hear of again. But Claire and Luke’s plot, where Claire discovers Luke honestly thought his parents were splitting up and his immediate response was to go with his father, felt real and produced great comedy. Maybe Julie Bowen is just better at crying than Ty Burrell.

The sentimental capper was thankfully not a voiceover but instead the continuation of Manny’s toast, in which he realizes, thanks to the behavior of the adults, that he still has plenty of time to be a kid. It was clever, funny, and sentimental, perfect for Modern Family.

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited has a lot of strikes against it. Most glaringly, that’s a pretty nondescript title, even once you figure out what the hell Brideshead is (it’s a large English country house.) Not to be sexist but the title makes the book sound kind of feminine, even after you find out Evelyn Waugh is actually a man. (I knew that beforehand, having read and greatly enjoyed his newspaper satire Scoop a few years ago.) Then there is the book’s reputation as a “Great Catholic Novel”, whatever that means. I myself have (not surprisingly) never much enjoyed novels which extol the Church.

Perhaps most damning, the novel is about a family of idle English aristocrats. I have never been one to put up with idle rich characters. Maybe I am envious of their lack of responsibilities.

The narrator and protagonist is one Charles Ryder, who becomes entangled with Sebastian Flyte, a resident of Brideshead, during their time at Oxford. This is one of those close male friendships which literary scholars are always trying to tell you are actually gay relationships, and while I usually object to those suggestions (Huck and Jim are not gay, people) the case for Charles and Sebastian being lovers is a lot stronger than most. Sebastian is a sensitive boy who still carries a teddy bear named Aloysius around campus. Their mutual friend Anthony Blanche is definitely gay, even if Waugh, because of the times, steadfastly refuses to explicitly say so.

Charles spends several vacations with the Flytes at Brideshead, becoming close with the whole family, which ironically threatens his relationship with Sebastian, who mistrusts his relations. The Flytes are all Catholics of varying fervor. Lady Marchmain, matriarch of the family, is devout, as is her oldest son Brideshead and her youngest daughter Cordelia. Sebastian and his sister Julia are lapsed, though they can never quite rid themselves of the Church’s influence.

After Sebastian’s fall into alcoholism causes a rift between Charles and the Brideshead clan he concentrates on his successful art career, only to be drawn back into the family a decade later through a chance encounter. In the last quarter of the novel, relationships intertwine and complicate themselves, and each character is forced to confront their belief or lack thereof. Charles, as a committed non-believer, is drawn into conflicts he is ill-prepared to handle.

As the book draws to a close Waugh displays a marvelous gift for crafting tension, but the resolution left this reader feeling uneasy. Judging not as a Catholic but as a fan of literature, I couldn’t help but feel like Waugh had sold out his character in service of his faith.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Glitter"

All sitcoms utilize multiple types of jokes, requiring different levels of context. Some jokes are just wordplay and wit, funny in any situation. Insults or quips often fall into this category. Other jokes arise from the situation at hand and would be unfunny outside of that context. (I am thinking, as just one example, of exasperated reactions to absurd occurrences, which only become funny due to the delivery of the actor.) There are also jokes that require an incredibly broad understanding of the context and of the personalities of the characters involved, jokes that only people who have been constant viewers of the show will find funny. (Jokes that incredibly annoying people will use to justify their self-worth through their choice of television programs.)

A great episode will balance all these types of jokes, and probably several other types I’m not thinking of. A generally good episode, on the other hand, can get away with just one or two, as long as they make you laugh. “Glitter”, heavily promoted as the return (again) of Robin Sparkles, is a good, not great, episode.

The wordplay and wit is in top form in the scenes concerning Robin’s old Canadian children’s show, “Space Teens.” The gang takes delight in comparing the cheesy show to a pornographic film, especially since each feature “a delusional woman who thinks this is a step to future success.”

This scene features by far my biggest laugh of the night. When Barney assumes “Space Teens” is porn he launches himself toward Marshall in preparation for an epic slap. Barney had lost his bet that Robin was in porn back in “Slap Bet”, perhaps the best episode How I Met Your Mother has ever done.

The jokes in Space Teens are pretty funny, if really immature, and kind of shocking for a show on at 8pm. I know the family hour concept has been brushed aside, but I’m still surprised you can get away with jokes about “beavers” and “eight inches of wood” that shortly after dinner. I also enjoyed Robin’s defense of the show, especially the “Beaver Song” which is a song about friendship that she will not let the group mock.

The problems with “Glitter” lie in the character-based subplots. Lily and Robin “breaking up” isn’t a bad idea, dramatically, but it had no weight here because there was never a doubt that the conflict would last even into the next episode. (If you didn’t see “Robin’s old friend helps get her back with new friend” coming, you don’t watch enough TV.) The real problem with the storyline is a problem the show often has with Lily. They put her in situations by making her act horribly, thus rendering the audience unsympathetic. Here she’s going on and on about babies when she’s not even pregnant. Last week she’s hectoring Marshall about his compromises, even though it was her massive debt that compelled him to take the GNB job.

Oh, and Ted’s high-school friend Punchy shows up, mostly just to announce he’s getting married and trick (probably) viewers into thinking his wedding is the one where Ted will meet the Mother.

I’m not going to complain too much about a sitcom episode featuring character breaking out of their serious conversation to clap during organ-playing (even if said episode did expect us to believe Nicole Scherzinger could act), but if characters took a backseat to beaver jokes every week, I’d start to worry.

NBC's Thursday Night Shake-Up

If it’s not an old TV truism that the less interesting the shows on the network, the more interesting the behind-the-scenes developments at the network, well, it should be. Despite consistent last place finishes throughout the work-week (they do win Sunday nights with football) NBC is by far the most fascinating network in terms of corporate restructuring and personnel decisions. As the last place network they are forced to do things other networks won’t, and as a cash-strapped entity desperate to look profitable to their incoming corporate overlords, they have to keep their low-rated critical darlings on the air when the numbers say cancellation is in order.

The Peacock’s latest gambit is an extensive re-scheduling of nearly its entire prime-time lineup for after the New Year. Some changes are being forced upon them. (They don’t play football year round, so The Marriage Ref and a two-hour Celebrity Apprentice take its place. I’m sure they’ll pull in the same numbers as Cowboys-Packers.) Others are more experimental, such as pulling The Event for a few months, and sliding Parenthood and the two Law & Orders earlier in the week. But the most interesting tactical shift comes on Thursday night, the former home of Must See TV and current domicile of The Office and Three Shows that Narrowly Beat the CW.

Despite being burned, and scarred, by the failure of Jay Leno’s 10pm show, the network is giving comedy another shot in the crucial pre-local news hour. This time, they’re hoping that the presence of actual humor (if only until 10:30) will make the difference. 30 Rock is moving to 10pm, followed by Outsourced at 10:30. For its trouble, 30 Rock has been given an early pick-up for next season, presumably to quell fears that a disastrous dip in ratings would result in cancellation. Outsourced will be tested by the move, as it will no longer have the cushion of The Office’s relatively high (for NBC) ratings.

Moving into 30 Rock’s 8:30pm slot is a new show named Perfect Couples. The show stars Olivia Munn and is about three couples trying to figure out what makes for a successful relationship. It sounds rather ordinary to me, and its slot following Community may mean NBC isn’t terrifically confident in it either.

Saving the best news for last, Parks and Recreation takes over for Outsourced at 9:30pm. This is the slot the show was intended to have when it was first conceived as an Office-lite. The show’s ratings were abysmal at 8:30, leading it to be shelved until midseason, and it seems unlikely that it will do any better at holding The Office’s audience than Outsourced did, but it’s great just to have it back on TV.

The best news for all of these shows is that NBC is so cash-strapped it can’t afford to produce as many new pilots as the rest of the networks, so ratings would have to be especially dire to merit cancellation. That said, there are some clear winners and losers in the new lineup. Community, Perfect Couples, and Outsourced are all going to struggle. Community is a poor 8pm anchor, especially going up against CBS’ Big Bang Theory, and it is difficult to see people changing to NBC in order to give Perfect Couples a chance. Meanwhile, Outsourced and 30 Rock would seem to share very little, audience-wise, and with the 10pm hour continuing to be a cable-network/DVR zone, the new comedy is likely to suffer without the consideration given to 30 Rock in the form of an early pickup.

As for winners, obviously 30 Rock and its fans should be ecstatic that it will be back for 2011-2012 as any show with its ratings is endangered. The Office neither gains or loses anything by the moves, but they do reinforce the idea that the show is one of NBC’s disarmingly few bellwethers and is unlikely to be removed even with the departure of its lead. The biggest winner is of course Parks and Rec, which will get much higher ratings at 9:30 than it did an hour earlier, even if it does lose a lot of its lead-in.

NBC comes off as, to use one of its own titles, The Biggest Loser. Looking at the entirety of its lineup shifts, it’s clear that they have little idea what they are doing, and little faith in their ability to attract larger audiences. They actually seem to be conceding quite a few nights of the week, hamstrung by their need to save money. There is no way The Marriage Ref, Celebrity Apprentice, and The Biggest Loser should eat up so much of their schedule. The last is the most egregious example. Tuesday night is a big night of TV watching, with NCIS, Glee, and The Good Wife commanding large blocks of viewers, but NBC wastes two hours hoping America wants to watch fat people jiggle. But, as long as its failures allow Community and Parks and Rec to stay on the air, that’s all right with me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Community- "Cooperative Calligraphy"

I know I’m a little late here, but I wanted to watch this episode twice, because when my opinion clashes so strongly with critical consensus, I like to make sure my initial impressions weren’t objectively wrong. As much as I might like to report that I’m now on board with the multitudes declaring “Cooperative Calligraphy” the best Community episode ever, I maintain that the episode, while clever, is not nearly that good.

My opinion of Calligraphy was improved slightly by a second viewing, and even more so by a re-watch of last season’s “Contemporary American Poultry”, which is referenced throughout the episode, most directly in the revelation of the culprit. I enjoyed being able to spot the moment Annie’s pen was stolen on the re-watch, thanks to the internet pointing it out to me. I didn’t mind Abed constantly referring to the “bottle episode” concept, even though it seemed a little too inside baseball for me. More irksome was the reference (in the form of the name of Jeff’s cancelled date “Gwynnifer”) to creator Dan Harmon’s ongoing Twitter-feuds. (Gwynnifer is a troll who constantly berates Community’s “all-white” audience, and Harmon is a surprisingly confrontational tweeter. Just this past weekend he severely criticized Modern Family for “spoon-feeding plot points to the camera.”)

There were some laughs, definitely, and I appreciated the focus on character after so much time spent doing bigger-budget reference-heavy episodes theoretically designed to capture a bigger audience, presumably those who had encountered the show through hearing about last season’s brilliant paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”.

Well, last night I ripped through the last six episodes of Community: Season One and since that includes both “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare” I feel comfortable arguing that those two episodes work much better than “Cooperative Calligraphy.” I think the reason for this is that they were surrounded by better episodes. Last season Community was stronger week-to-week than it has been so far this season, and every episode developed characters and enriched their relationships. The mob-movie references in “Poultry” actually served as an avenue for insights into Abed’s character. Even “Modern Warfare” was really a contrivance to get the Britta-Jeff sexual tension out into the open and resolved.

Compare that to this season’s “Basic Rocket Science” and “Epidemiology”. In the former the only character note we got was Annie’s supposed sabotage in order to transfer, which was an inherently unbelievable plot and was so half-assed it was impossible to take it seriously. The show got a lot of buzz for its zombie themed Halloween episode, but only Troy and Abed were really given anything to do.

It’s still relatively early in the season, and it’s certainly possible that “Cooperative Calligraphy” is just a signal to regular viewers that the show is done casting a wide net looking to evade cancellation and is ready to get back to what it does well. I hope so, because right now I’m missing so much of what I really like about the show. I miss the classroom, the community-college specific problems, and I miss Britta, who hasn’t had a hell of a lot to do so far.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I May Have a Problem

A day after writing a blog post detailing how extensive my to-be-read pile is, I go to The Strand and buy three more books. So to update:

22. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (It's about Sherlock Holmes, not Hitler.)

23. Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow (I enjoyed Ragtime very much and mostly liked Billy Bathgate.)

24. The Best American Short Stories, 2010 (Edited by Richard Russo, one of my favorite authors. I always tell myself I should read more short stories, so I buy these anthologies and read about half of them.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Someday Pile

I'm making my way through Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which was the surprise winner last week when I asked Facebook and Twitter for book recommendations. One person recommended it and then all of a sudden other people were seconding the motion. In a way it was very convenient, considering that I already owned a copy of the novel and just hadn't got around to reading it yet. This is a fairly common occurrence for me. I love going to bookstores and browsing around, even when I'm in the middle of reading something else. Often I'll buy a book, intending to read it after the one I'm working on at the time, but something will come up, and I'll put the book on the Someday Pile.

Other times I'll buy a whole bunch of books at once, intending to read them in a row, but this never works out. This is especially true when I try to read a bunch of works by the same author consecutively. I just can't do it, and I've mostly learned that lesson.

Anyway, because this is my blog and I get to decide what to put on here, here's a list of some of the books sitting on my shelves just waiting for me to feel like it's finally the right time to get around to them.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (One of several "important" novels I felt like I should read. Actually read the first ten pages once before moving on to something more pressing. Also, knowing the ending really kills my desire to pick this one up.)

2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (My Someday Pile is not all Russian, rest assured. My Freshman Seminar professor, the great A.James McAdams, recommended that I read this novel the summer after my first year of college. I dutifully bought a copy but somehow never got to it. Incredibly small type is no help.)

3. Going After Cacciato by Tom O'Brien (Loved The Things They Carried, but haven't got to this yet.)

4. Rabbit at Rest by John Updike (Tried to read the four Rabbit novels consecutively, but ran out of gas after the third.)

5 and 6. The Anatomy Lesson and Exit Ghost by Philip Roth (Similarly tried to finish out Roth's Zuckerman novels.)

7. Until I Find You by John Irving (I thought Irving had lost his touch sometime in the '90s after I read the disastrous Son of the Circus and The Fourth Hand, but last years Last Night in Twisted River was excellent, inspiring me to pick this up. But it's 800 pages make it a hard choice to take with me on the bus to work.)

8. Crime by Irvine Welsh (Received this as a gift when I went on a job interview at W.W. Norton. Never picked it up when I didn't get the job. Did like the same author's Trainspotting.)

9. A Death in the Family by James Agee (Church book sale. American classic. Someday.)

10. Sophie's Choice by William Styron (Loved the movie, with Meryl Streep.)

11. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (Got really into New Journalism at one point, didn't last long enough to crack this open.)

12. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (This one's kind of funny. I had mentioned Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to my parents as a book I was thinking about picking up. This was fairly close to my birthday, although I was not dropping a hint my mom thought she would buy me the book, but she forgot the title. So she tried to get someone at Barnes and Noble find her the famous book with the long, weird title. This is what they came up with. I have no real interest in the book, but perhaps as a loyal son I may read it Someday.)

13. Light in August by William Faulkner (Actually read 80 or so pages before I lost this book. It turned up months later and when I tried to pick it back up realized I'd need to start over and wasn't up to it.)

14 and 15. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (Church Book Sale. Really liked The Caine Mutiny so I thought I'd get around to these someday.)

16. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (Church Book Sale. Really old copy that's falling apart, so I'm almost afraid to try and read it.)

17. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (Loved The Road and No Country for Old Men, but this it too patently Faulkner-esque for my taste. Tried the first three pages and put it down due to headache.)

18. The Promise by Chaim Potok (Loved The Chosen, but have yet to get to its sequel.)

19 and 20. Babbitt and It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Bought these while I was enjoying Arrowsmith, but when that novel started to wear on me I lost my enthusiasm for Lewis.

21+. I've got a host of "classics" that I feel like I should read, but don't really want to. These include: Jane Eyre (quit 160 pages into it), Tom Jones, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Madame Bovary.

What's on your Someday Pile, and why did it end up there?

Monday, November 8, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Natural History"

How I Met Your Mother can be a hard show to defend sometimes, especially so after the last few seasons, when its cornball sentimentality was rarely counterbalanced with an adequate number of memorable jokes and its once strong characters acted inexplicably unlike themselves. But last night’s “Natural History” was the first episode in a long time I would feel absolutely confident watching with a neophyte. A newcomer to the series would, I feel, be impressed with the episode’s writing and humor. I’m hopeful that the show can carry this momentum forward, justifying my investment in it further.

The museum setting worked in the show’s favor in multiple ways. First, the ladies looked great in their fancy attire. (Especially Jennifer Morrison, who provided ample ammunition for my continuing argument that she is just as attractive as her recent House co-star Olivia Wilde.) Second, it was great silly fun seeing Barney and Robin violate the “No Touching” rule, capped by Robin’s pun that her penguin companion couldn’t have an hors d’oeurvre because he was “stuffed.” And it was nice seeing Ted cut loose thanks to the architectural marvel that is the museum’s whisper spot.

This was a great Ted episode overall, with his reveling in the news that his activist foe is really a bored trophy wife and poking fun at the oblivious fat cats at the GNB ball. (Loved Ted’s lines to the monocle-wearer: “Good luck killing James Bond!” and “Tell me, do they cost half as much as glasses?”) And he also nailed the emotional stuff that makes HIMYM what it is, defending Zoe to her husband even after she’s caught him mocking GNB on tape, and then awkwardly assuming Zoe was inviting him to dance. It’s pretty certain Jennifer Morrison isn’t the mother, so in some sense it’s exasperating to think they might have Ted embark on another long-term non-mother relationship, but on the other hand it would be fairly bold for a show to have it’s romantic hero involved in the dissolution of someone else’s marriage. On balance, I’ll allow Jennifer Morrison to stick around, as long as they keep putting her in dresses like last night’s.

As for the other sentimental notes in “Natural History”, I enjoyed how the writers connected the museum into Marshall and Lily’s argument over his career. I also liked that the writers know the characters well enough that neither character is totally wrong or totally right. And Neil Patrick Harris showed some fine dramatic chops after the out-of-left-field resolution to his past as a museum-exhibit-toucher.

If you’d given up on How I Met Your Mother I think you should strongly consider giving last night’s episode a view on Hulu. You might recognize why you bothered with the show in the first place.