8 things I love about the TV series Dietland

There are television shows that I watch, enjoy immensely, and then forget almost immediately. Then there are shows that stay with me, that give me something to chew on for days or weeks. I think AMC’s Dietland is one of those. Certainly the book Dietland is, and the TV series is fairly faithful to the spirit if not to the denouement of the book.

I just finished the TV series recently, once it came to Hulu, and I find myself equally compelled to recommend it to friends and to qualify my recommendation. It’s not perfect. A few things that made me uneasy:  for example, the show seems to view sex workers as enemies rather than allies in the movement to end sexist oppression. Plum’s decision to go off her meds cold turkey is definitely made for TV and not made for human bodies. The show probably could have used a few more sensitivity readers to look at its treatment of race. If any of these things are dealbreakers for another viewer, I get it!

But look. Every show I’ve ever recommended, nearly every show I’ve ever loved, is fatphobic. In Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99–among the warmest and most humane sitcoms out there–fat bodies are mostly played for laughs or disgust. (Bless Retta for turning Donna’s spicy love life from a Season 1 joke to a series-long nuanced characterization, but that is an exception in a glut of cheap junk food jokes.) In other feel-good comedies like The Good Place and Jane the Virgin, fat bodies simply do not exist. Yet I still rave about these shows, recommend them, promote them–because fatphobia is just the price of admission if you want to watch TV. In that respect, it is extraordinary that TV series based on a flawed but likable obese woman even exists.

Apart from existing, Dietland does a lot of other things well too.

  1. At the beginning of the season, Plum is what fat acceptance blogs in the ‘aughts used to call a Good Fatty. She does everything that is expected of her. We see her preparing herself sad little dinners and faithfully attending the Waist Watchers meetings. We see her hating herself. Despite all her efforts, she is not losing weight–so we see her talk to doctors and Waist Watchers staff for support, but they are quick to assume that she must be doing something wrong, and have no further help to offer. It’s amazing to see this losing game depicted on television in place of the usual assumption that your body directly correlates to your habits.
  2. Even better: it becomes clear through these glimpses that the driving conflict of the series is not Plum’s body and how she cares for it, but that decades of being dehumanized by doctors, strangers, and well-meaning friends have left her divided from her own needs and wants.
  3. Plum is loved. Her mother, her best friend, and her new crew at Calliope House may not love her in exactly the way she wants or needs, but they like to spend time with Plum and want to see her thrive. I like this for two reasons. The obvious one, still revolutionary: Plum’s body is not a joke but simply part of a flawed but compelling human being who is worthy of respect and affection.
  4. Less obvious: despite her supportive crew, Plum is desperately lonely–and the show lets this be a complex matter, not easily solved by developing gratitude for her loved ones or simply trying to be body-positive. Sometimes people are just lonely, even though we’re surrounded by love!
  5. Although Plum’s body is a focal point of her loneliness and social angst, it doesn’t have to be. Other fat women on the show–from a short-lived Waist Watchers appearance by flamboyant Janice to the diverse inhabitants of Calliope House–  demonstrate confidence and self-regard. Again, it’s complex: Plum’s experience of discrimination and its effects on her mental health are real and serious. But the diversity of body attitudes suggests to Plum (and to us) that self-hatred is not inevitable.
  6. This is the aspect of the show I discuss with friends the most: in this universe (and ours), learning to love yourself is hard. Plum is smart, eloquent, and well-read: she knows the scripts of body positivity backwards and forwards, so talk therapy alone isn’t much help to her. Even the immersion tactics don’t work at first, as Plum’s mind skips ahead to what she knows the outcome is supposed to be; “I get it and it’s stupid,” she says as she undergoes a painful makeover sequence. But there’s a wide gulf between getting it and believing it, and bridging that gulf requires work. The New Baptist Method is weird and cruel and not to be tried at home; for the purposes of storytelling, though, it forces Plum to grapple with the reality behind the words that come so easily. As another savvy customer who learns by doing, I see Plum’s struggle and think about habits that help or hinder my own journey.
  7. While this show dives mostly deeply into the specific oppressions that Plum faces, it doesn’t shy away from showing how women with different kinds of privilege can (unintentionally or not) hurt one another. White feminism is, rightly, the primary culprit. Kitty Montgomery is the epitome of a privileged white woman who uses the language of resistance to promote her own financial interests, but there is a stunning moment near the end where we see soft-spoken, supportive Verena striding away with a beatific smile after destroying the lives of three black women. And Plum may be clever and loving, but she does mess up–mainly by letting her own struggle blind her to anyone else’s. I think that the way this is handled on the show makes it clear that she’s in the wrong even as it invites us to sympathize with her shame and reluctance to apologize. Resolving emotional conflict is messy and not always successful in this universe.
  8. How can I talk about Dietland without talking about Jennifer, an anonymous cell that threatens and kills men who have committed sexual assault? For most of the series, as in the book, Jennifer’s dramatic and symbolic acts of violence form a backdrop for Plum’s journey, keeping the protagonist safely removed from the vicarious thrills of a feminist revenge fantasy. What I particularly like about this is how supporting characters demonstrate a realistic range of reactions to Jennifer’s violence: inspired, titillated, worried, unconcerned, disgusted. In particular, the men on the show get irritable: even men who aren’t at risk for being targeted for sexual harassment, like Plum’s gay friend Stephen and wish-fulfillment Good Cop Dominic, get a little jumpy and defensive. We’re seeing a fair amount of that out in the world in the #metoo era, and I find it cathartic to see onscreen.

You may have noticed that nearly all of the Things I Love about Dietland are like two things in one: Plum is loved, but lonely; she’s right, but also wrong; etc. The series is at its best when it is using its striking imagery and appealingly complex characters to tease out the nuances of misogyny and fatphobia. I’m sorry to say that the thoughtful storytelling completely falls apart by the final episode, when the show attempts to transition from bildungsroman to action sequence. I see why the show put Plum in a position to see inside the Jennifer cell, but once they got her there, it’s like they didn’t know what to do with her–and they made some shallow narrative choices that make me wonder if the showrunners already knew they weren’t coming back for a second season. 

Despite that, I do want friends to watch Dietland if you’re up for it. It’s legit not going to be for everyone, but it’s a rare bird and worth discussing… as we wait to see if the upcoming series Shrill brings the “flawed but likable fat woman protagonist” count up by one.

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Reading Roundup: January 2019

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve enjoyed the author’s other books, and this one is no exception. The book mostly centers on Amy, a New York mom who grapples with feelings of uselessness as her ten-year-old son becomes more independent, her marriage seems perfunctory, and her former career as an attorney seems impossibly distant and unrewarding. The narrative dips into the lives of Amy’s friends, mostly mothers of other boys at her son’s private school, their parents, and even some surprising glimpses of the lives of Margaret Thatcher’s assistant and Rene Magritte’s wife. It is a sharply observed book, mostly humane and sympathetic even as it recognizes the privilege of certain characters and the ways many of their struggles are of their own making.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. I’ve been following Ng on Twitter because she tends to tweet beautiful and interesting things about art and books and animals. This fantasy novel reflects some of those fascinations, as well as obsessions you might call Victorian gothic. Much of the action, such as it is, takes place in an spooky castle in faeland, and it’s as still and claustrophobic as any genteel maiden’s life might be: running around the moors like Elizabeth Bennett is not an option for Catherine Helstone, as a mortal who is never completely safe in Arcadia. The experience of reading the book is like exploring a cramped antique store, so packed full of oddities you can’t really take it all in. For example, the novel told me plainly, more than once, that Arcadia was circumnavigated by wicker whales that contained oceans and swam through the earth the way regular whales swim through the sea. That imagery didn’t really sink in, though, until a faeland whale beached itself near the castle and our protagonists could look inside its mouth to see sunlight glinting through the wicker roof of its inner cavity and illuminating the improbable coastal region they found therein. This is not a complaint! If you’re in the mood for eldritch fantasy with a heaping dose of metaphysical poetry, this a book that rewards a slow read–as your eyes may frequently dart back to see if you really read what you thought you read.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. I’ve been hearing about this novel for years–it’s a popular book in discussions of food literature, since the main character Rachel is a food writer and drops in recipes throughout the story of her acrimonious divorce. I started and finished the book on a long train ride, possibly the only circumstances in which I could manage it. Though you can see the relationship between this self-deprecating narrator and the lighter, sweeter humor of When Harry Met Sally, using humor as a coping mechanism means that everyone around the narrator becomes a target for a joke too, which in turn means a number of jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and mental illness that didn’t age well.
On the other hand, I’ve had two occasions this month to quote Heartburn on capers–“Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it”–which I find untrue but nonetheless funny.

Nothing Good Can Come Of This by Kristi Coulter. It’s unusual for me to seek out a memoir or collection of essays. Even more unusual for me to seek out non-drinking narratives; I don’t even participate in Drynuary. But something drew me to this book, which turned out to be a cathartic read for a month known for broken promises and dreariness. Her writing about drinking is not preachy or prescriptive–she only ever claims to be writing about her own addiction–but her anxieties and addictions are inextricably linked to the same worries that trouble us all, from capitalist exploitation to conspicuous consumerism to bad politics, and therefore extremely Relevant To My Interests. When the author confronts the insidiousness of drinking culture, she consciously confronts the capitalist and sexist burnout that make workers, especially women, want to dull their senses. When she delves into the history of her personal wounds and wants that laid the groundwork for both her alcoholism and recovery, I appreciated the author’s deft balance of self-criticism and self-care (particularly so soon after reading the blunt-force deprecation of Heartburn). As I prepare to attend an upcoming wedding, I am indebted to the author’s conceptualization of a wedding as a novel–the sprawling Russian kind that has too many characters and subplots. A lovely prose poem called “Permission” could be a prescription for recovering from any kind of grief, with a nod to the late Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”)

Elsewhere on the Internet

Do I link myself? Very well then, I link myself. Meet your new Centuries-Old Boyfriend.

I considered adding this link to my food roundup because I associate hygge so strongly with alimentary pleasures–perhaps due in part to regular visits to Bar Hygge in Philly–but as the author points out, hygge is more about social conditions than material comforts: You don’t want hygge, you want social democracy at Jacobin.

The Good Place has not been pulling any punches this season! It goes by so quick that I need to immerse myself in recaps and reflections, and appreciated this take from gamer site Unwinnable:

The Good Place scares the crap out of me on a regular basis because of stuff like this, but I do think it’s a useful illustration of what we mean when we say all systems reflect the biases and points of view of their creators.

Appreciated this simple but persuasive take at Vox on why some of today’s best TV shows (all shows that I watch and enjoy!) centers on ordinary people trying to be their best selves, rather than the white male antihero that dominated so much of prestige television in the last two decades.

As a professional writer and editor who refers to proofreading as “proofing,” I absolutely love this Establishment listicle: ‘Great British Bake Off’ Or Feedback From My Editor? You Decide! Samples: “The layers are there…at least,” “Good idea but not executed as well as it could have been,” and “Crispy all the way through.”

I somehow missed this iron-clad criticism of lazy writing from a year ago: Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?  See also: hire sensitivity readers! Consider talking to knowledgeable people if your crucial plot points pivot on completely knowable processes!

I don’t know how I forgot to include these on the roundup last month, they are SO GOOD:

Speaking of modernism: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this entire chart, but the Mercedes de Acosta circle and H.D.-Bryher triangle appear to be spot on.

Yes, yes, this month’s roundup is a Twitterfest. But I could not publish a reading roundup without saying a word about the social media upset that rippled out from Marie Kondo’s recommendation re: books. It kept going long after we established that Kondo never said the words “Ideally, keep less than 30 books” (a paraphrase added to an image by a clergyman who actually wanted to encourage his peers to declutter). It kept going after Kondo explained that she herself prefers to keep a limited number of books but what matters is what “sparks joy” for you. The word “joy” became a lightning rod for complainers who want to showboat about their taste in Serious Literature; meanwhile, the idiom “spark joy” is an imprecise translation of a Japanese phrase which (according to Wikipedia, come on, I am not fluent in Japanese and neither are most of you) actually means to “flutter” or”palpitate.”

I’ve not watched much or read any or Kondo’s Konmari-ing, so I’m surprised to feel so strongly on the subject. But I do feel strongly about books, so if you are interested in my thoughts on the matter:

  1. No one is coming for your books. Do what you want with your books! Personally, I’m in favor of culling your books, but I myself just moved about 12 boxes of books to my new home, so I can’t judge.
  2. But, seriously, consider culling your books. Books are not inherently magical objects! They are made of organic matter that decays and cannot be kept for your entire lifetime unless you take extremely good care of them, which you are probably not doing! If you’re not reading some of your moldering books in the meantime, someone else could be. Besides, when I culled the books I was required to read for my PhD and donated the books I chose not to carry forward into my future, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my adult life.
  3. Speaking of joy: as mentioned above, it’s just an idiom. No one is suggesting that you set Dostoyevsky on fire because he doesn’t make you happy.
  4. You know perfectly well that if the English translator had chosen another approximate idiom–for example, if you were asked to sense the vibe of your books or see whether they make your heart throb–the same haters would complain. It’s the source they don’t like, not the message.
  5. Going forward, I only want to see Kondo memes that poke fun at my own sacred cows.

Memo Book, Page 1

Part of my job, as a university marketer, is to write up ads and profiles featuring students and alumni who are doing interesting work. Considering my introvert tendencies, I am surprised at how much I enjoy interviewing subjects, and although I try to keep the conversations to half an hour, we always cover so much more than what I can fit into a short profile. With a nod to Sei Shōnagon’s lists and memorandums, I keep notes and plan to occasionally post things I’ve learned that surprised me or changed how I look at something.

Trees

Planting trees is a lovely thing to do, but the first 1-3 years of a tree’s life are critical to its long-term health. During that time, it must be both protected from damage and strategically trimmed. The cosmetic mounds of dirt you often see covering the roots of ornamental saplings is actually suffocating them; the section where the roots meet the trunk should be a little exposed.

Recipe for well-being and happiness, according to positive psychology:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment

Places a rescue swimmer can helicopter you out of, if you’re stuck:

  1. Open ocean
  2. A sinking boat
  3. A cliff

Waste

What can be recycled depends less on what number appears on the carton and more on what human and machine resources your municipality has. For example, compostable cups only biodegrade if they reach a certain temperature, so they only fulfill their eco-friendly destiny if collected and sent to a composting facility. In many cities, recycling pickup will not accept pizza boxes; in Philadelphia, you can detach any non-greasy portions of a pizza box for recycling. Bottle caps are okay; plastic bags, never! Never try to recycle plastic bags. Just reuse them.

Speaking of plastic, the United States regularly ships millions of tons of it overseas to be recycled. In the past, much of this went to China; since China has banned the import of foreign waste (with good reason; processing waste produces terrible pollution) the United States is in the midst of a recycling crisis. E-waste still goes to Nigeria, where anything salvageable is reused and the rest is burned (releasing toxic chemicals into the air and soil) or dumped in enormous landfills like Olusosan.

Meet your new centuries-old boyfriend

I’m not well-read in the romance genre, so I wouldn’t say that I am familiar with romance tropes and common themes. However, I’ve been devouring fantastical fiction like it’s my job (btw, I would be happy to make this my job! Hire me to write book reviews!) and I keep bumping into this one character type over and over. He’s dazzlingly beautiful, usually: shiny hair, mesmerizing eyes, cheekbones that could cut a lesser man. He is somehow both chivalrous and distant; he has a secret, this Byronic hero, and he keeps it from you for your own good.  He’s preternaturally smart or preternaturally strong or preternaturally gifted–usually a combination of the three. The reason for this is usually because he has had a brush with magic (vampire bite or enchantment, perhaps) and a few hundred years to study the blade, or whatever. He’s your Centuries-old Boyfriend, and he keeps popping up in books I’m trying to read. Here is the example I encountered most recently, followed by a few others that came to mind as I read about him.

Matthew Clairmont in A Discovery of Witches, French templar turned revolutionary turned Oxford doctor who falls in love with a witch.
How old: about 1500 (looks 37)
Smells like: cloves, sometimes carnations
Special skills: Very fast, very strong, very sexy (the better to hypnotize prey), plus has been through grad school a few dozen times
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating and her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood! Also for complicated political reasons.

Edward Cullen in Twilight, flu victim turned repeat high school senior, possibly the archetypal Centuries-Old Boyfriend of our generation
How old: around 100 (looks 17)
Smells like: “honey-sweet” and “like lilacs and sun,” as told by the internet
Special skills: the usual vampire triple threat (v. strong, v. fast, v. sexy), plus he sparkles and reads your mind
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood!

Darayavahoush in The City of Brass, warrior daeva or djinn (depending on who you ask)
How old: more than 1400 (looks 30)
Smells like: smoke, sometimes burnt citrus
Special skills: djinn stuff, like summoning objects and making carpets fly, plus a glamour to make him especially physically attractive for djinn reasons
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: she’s feisty, clever, and [SPOILER] the enchanted scion of an ancient race
Why he pulls away from her: Distaste, initially, then for complicated political reasons.

Sarkan in Uprooted, the Dragon, unfriendly neighborhood wizard
How old: about 150 (looks… not that old, but not young either)
Smells like: I don’t believe his scent is mentioned; however, if you are an Agnieszka/Kasia shipper, please note that Kasia’s scent is extensively described!
Special skills: wizard stuff, healing and fighting
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: to be extremely fair, she is very young and also his pupil and it would have been weird if he didn’t resist her advances a little.

Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition, elfy apostate, weakest member of my party, BIG LIAR
How old: Old enough to KNOW BETTER
Smells like: thankfully not described
Special skills: hangs out in the Fade, making friends with spirits and reliving moments of historical importance; mysteriously knows where elven artifacts are hidden
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: If she’s a female elf, he is (rudely) surprised by the force of her character, as he doesn’t have an extremely high opinion of modern elves
Why he pulls away from her: He has a millennia-old axe to grind and, I don’t know, possibly a world to destroy.

The quality that announced these characters to me–that made me realize I was seeing a trope rather than a trend–isn’t simply the characters’ age and supernatural abilities themselves, but the way those qualities serve as the Swiss Army knife of plot devices. Because Your Centuries-old Boyfriend is so aged and experienced, he positions himself as more knowledgeable and capable than the mortal female protagonist. That can generate conflict or resolve it, as needed. Want some dramatic tension? He’s seen things–he knows things–and he won’t tell her. He believes he knows best what she needs to know. Want some romantic tension, with a generous dose of wish fulfillment? In spite of their great differences and his supposed superiority, he finds himself drawn to her intelligence or independence or humanity. She may find his arrogance off-putting, but it’s intoxicating to be desired by one so dazzling. Want a quick solution to a seemingly impossible problem? He picked up some handy special skills during the last great war, or whatever. Maybe he also sensed some great power within her, waiting to be unlocked (perhaps waiting for him to unlock it).

I don’t hate it. In fact, one recent example had me actively rooting for the couple and eagerly turning pages to see if they would kiss. It’s more of an honorable mention: Detective Matteo Kildaire in The Frame-up is not one thousand years old, he’s just an average guy that happens to be above-average handsome and also a good communicator (unlike most of our COBs here).  But the narrator, violet-haired comic book writer MG, repeatedly refers to him as an “adult” and marvels at his grown-up apartment and wardrobe. The disparity in how MG perceives their respective put-togetherness creates a dynamic where she both admires and resents his abilities, while her youthful vivacity tempts him to bend the rules–a dynamic that may well have been inspired by the supernatural boyfriends of yore, given the author’s love of sci-fi and fantasy books and film.

As I say, I don’t hate it–I can see how a Centuries-old Boyfriend may be read as an answer to Trinity Syndrome, which reduces an overpowered Strong Female Character to a plot device who accelerates and rewards a male protagonist’s journey from apprentice to hero.

But I don’t love it either, and I’ve had my fill for now, so please… recommend your favorite Fantasy Love Interests who don’t spend the first half of their stories broodily keeping ancient secrets and unhelpfully protecting the protagonist from herself.

Books I read and loved in 2018

Five years ago, in response to a rise in discourse about why women authors are less read and reviewed than male authors, I posted a roundup of all the books by women I read in 2013. But this blog has always been about creating a personal record for myself above all else, so I’ve kept on making lists. In 2014: books by women I read and loved. While finishing my dissertation: books I re-read and loved. After my degree, when I had more time to seek out work by queer authors and writers of color: books I read and loved. I started posting reading roundups every other month; this year, I started posting every month. It has been a year of joyful, curious pleasure-reading that flourished without the constraints of an academic schedule or a time-sucking job.

Since I’ve already recapped all the books I read in 2018, my year-end list features a few of my favorites–in haiku form, like last year.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
It’s true: I’m in love
with a funny, lyrical,
and very queer book.

Every one of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante except the first one, which I read in a previous year
What is it to grow
up, away, apart–only
to return, rework?

Three novels by Tana French throughout the year
She has a real gift
for giving a voice to jerks–
humanity, too.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A private, fragile
life, circumscribed as it is
by a sugarbowl.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Clever as a curse,
fast-paced as a flying rug,
glittering as brass.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton
What wouldn’t you do
if glamour and capital
seemed within your grasp?

Dietland, by Sarai Walker
Revenge fantasy,
feminist manifesto,
permission to be.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The science of life:
indistinct at times from magic,
messy and turgid.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle
Our greatest treasure,
love of others, is also
our greatest horror.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
With the golden boy
in love with his own genius:
his wife, sharp as knives.

Reading Roundup: December 2018

Happy entire-week-off-because-I-work-at-a-university to me! Although the month is not yet over–and although I’m likely to finish another book sometime during the interminable airport waits between flights home–I am going to post my roundup before I enter…. the liminal space between winter holidays.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Although most of the books I acquire are serendipitous–discounted or used books I come across by chance–I’ve also started keeping a phone list of new books I’ve vetted and would like to buy from brick-and-mortar stores when I have the money and opportunity. Pachinko was the first book I bought from the brand-new bookstore in my neighborhood when they opened on December 1. It’s been on my wishlist since I heard of it: although I probably wouldn’t put the author’s previous book, Free Food for Millionaires, on my year-end lists of Books I Loved, I still think about it often: Casey’s dress-like-a-column advice, her tactile pleasure in creating hats, the titular scenes of Wall Street entitlement.
I think Pachinko will impress itself on me in much the same way. Like Free Food, it invents memorable characters and tells their stories in such a way that feels organic and original even as they carry out the novel’s elegantly simple theme. When it ended, I felt cheated for a moment–I’d been with the novel’s central family for several generations at that point, and it felt like their decades of struggle should have led up to a big boss conflict, a dramatic death or triumph. But a saga that opens with the line “History has failed us, but no matter” could not have tied up its narrative with a neat bow. The dramatic deaths and triumphs are scattered throughout, and both characters and readers are left to make sense of history on their own.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. A friend brought this to my house with the intent to lend it to me. This was a bold move for two reasons. For one, I don’t take reading recommendations well–a vestige of the year I spent compiling lists and reading 150+ books, some canon-approved and some not, for my qualifying exams. No one can tell me what to read now. Also, I am absolutely dreadful at taking care of books; few escape without stains and tears from their perilous journeys in my tote bag. But this book turned out to be a quick, delightful read and I’m glad she lent it to me.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel. I coaxed a sizeable group of friends to see the recent Melissa McCarthy movie with me on a vague promise of literary crimes and vintage gay New York. Other than burying my face in my gentleman’s shoulder during any scene which endangered a cat’s life (a little too close to home!), I loved the film. Loved Lee’s pivotal friendship with the mysterious Jack Hock, loved the meticulous care with which Lee gently toasted old paper so that it appeared aged, and purchased vintage typewriters to achieve the correct typefaces for her forged letters. My friends were a little more ambivalent than I was, citing the bleakness of Lee’s self-imposed loneliness and writers’ block as well as the brutal grief of losing her cat.
Visiting New Hope for a writer’s retreat earlier in the month, I dropped into the splendid Farley’s Bookshop and picked up Lee’s memoir of her literary forgeries. It’s a frightfully slim book. Given the scarcity of the source material, the film was fairly faithful: some cats and booksellers were merged into composites for narrative simplicity, and the film made Hock present and complicit in some of Lee’s meanspirited pranks. Some of Lee’s best forgeries are reproduced in the book, along with her insights into famous writers’ idiosyncrasies of voice and type.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Not my usual link fare, but my mind was blown by this Smithsonian report on how much Confederate monuments cost taxpayers to protect and maintain.

Columbia Journalism Review, What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?

I liked Earther’s coverage of Frankenstein and Dracula back when that was my beat, and I appreciate that the author picked up that thread and looked at climate change monsters in contemporary sci-fi books and movies.

Aw yissss, scathing book reviews! I had already read Andrea Long Chu’s delicious vivisection of Jill Soloway’s She Wants It, which is excerpted here. Chu has since somewhat fallen from favor with Literary Twitter because of her divisive New York Times op-ed about her impending sex reassignment surgery. I learned a great deal from the discourse that followed it, and have nothing consequential to add to it–but I think, regardless, that Chu’s precise takedown of Soloway’s particular brand is a public service.

Typing “delicious” in the context of a scathing review reminded me of a Daniel Ortberg’s delightful “It’s Every Character You Find in an 18th-Century Period Film,” which may just be the thing that gets me to willingly subscribe to an e-newsletter for the first time in my entire life.

Be-Lipsticked Fop Man Whose Feminine Presentation Belies Vicious Misogyny

always calling upsetting stuff “delicious,” definitely the first one to say anything after a painful or terrifying silence

In my profession, short and punchy sentences are valuable and effective. In my personal writing, I tend to unwind long and rambling sentences, and a great deal of my revision process entails breaking them apart like strands of spaghetti. But I feel emboldened by this lyrical paean to the long, musical sentence. I suppose the key is to write so the reader isn’t thinking about sentences at all.

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two.

In mid-December, I spent a lovely weekend in a cozy carriage house with my best friend from college; we were there to write, but we also cooked and poured ourselves whiskey and talked for hours. In talking one morning, we rambled from Mary Shelley to the Year Without A Summer to Persuasion, a novel Jane Austen wrote when the rainy Year Without A Summer kept her indoors. I leapt up and Googled Captain Wentworth’s smoldering letter to read aloud from my phone, reveling in the language. Later that morning, a procrastinatory Twitter check rewarded me with this JSTOR Daily article on Jane Austen’s Subtly Subversive Language, which is not only a crisply insightful piece in its own right but is absolutely rife with links to other JSTOR articles about Jane Austen, in case you are looking for a rabbithole to drop into.

Just because it’s Christmas: