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The other day I heard on NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute” that, according to Nielsen, between February 2021 and February 2022, there were something like 800,000 scripted shows right now. That seems ridiculously high, though I admit I feel like I can barely keep up with all the prestige TV (and film and books) out there. I only just watch Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building (yes, I totally see the hype) and Apple TV’s Severance (definitely worth a watch–and a great commentary on work/life balance). I’ve also gotten sucked into the dark comedy/mystery of Bad Sisters (also Apple TV), which follows the Garvey sisters, who have the world’s worst brother-in-law, and their machinations to be rid of him. Of course, maybe I watch too many home makeover shows (like baseball, easy to keep on in the background and always a little narrative of hope) and cooking shows (shout out to the geeky America’s Test Kitchen, the competitive fun of Alex vs. America, and of course, the coziest of them all, the Great British Baking Show–with a new season coming to Netflix this Friday, Sept 16).
Anyway, I’m trying, but yes, too much TV. I feel the same about films: since Covid, I haven’t ventured into the movie theatre (previously, a much-loved hobby) very often, but on my summer staycation, I did check out Top Gun and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as a (no doubt bizarre) double bill. I thought both were a delight–achieving exactly what each set out to do. At home, I appreciated the complex Rashomon-like retelling in The Last Duel, based on Calvin alum Eric Jager’s book of the same name. Though necessarily violent given its setting, it is fascinating in both the story and the telling. Fascinating, too, is the multiverse Everything Everywhere All At Once. Michelle Yeoh is quite simply amazing in the film–but the film itself asks heady questions in an entertaining and provocative way.
A definite ICYMI (in case you missed it): the film Mass. Released during the pandemic, it was almost completely unremarked upon and largely unknown. But it is one of the most moving, honest films I have seen in a long time. It features mainly 4 characters: two couples who meet to talk in a church. It sounds quiet and maybe even boring, but the film is intense, the acting superb. I hesitate to say too much because the film bears being watched slowly and on its on terms without a lot of previous knowledge. But it takes on issues of grace and forgiveness and truth and suffering powerfully.
To be honest, though, I’m even more behind on books. I have piles to read–and I have not exercised very good discipline of late to not add to them. On the podcast a couple of weeks ago with Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell (thanks again, Steve, for your kind generosity of conversation), he asked me if I read “beach reads”–and my first response was a piece of cultural history, The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux. I really love books that explore history through particularity, such as a book I’m in the middle of now, River Kings, which traces the history of the Vikings through a bead discovered in England in the 1980s. It is fascinating! And I love biographies (a stack unto itself). It was lovely to see Katherine Paterson’s Stories of My Life get a re-issue from Westminster John Knox recently; it was another book that fell victim to pandemic timing. Paterson is not only a beloved children’s writer, but someone whose own life is well-worth learning from. It is a book to bring joy and encouragement. Finally, Lisa Sharon Harper’s incredible Fortune brings together Harper’s family story in the larger context of American histories (ethnic and religious)–and challenges the reader with necessary solutions. Deeply engaging, it is a book that also is a must-read, both for its narration of hard truths, but also its articulation of the requirements of restoration.
I also mentioned to Steve my love of mysteries, citing particularly Ruth Ware, who I think of as a bit of a contemporary Agatha Christie (I have Lucy Worsley’s new biography on Christie in a stack, too). Her latest, The It Girl is a fun puzzle (as are all of her books). I’m also a fan of Elly Griffiths, whose mysteries feature a bioarcheology professor, and Louise Penny, whose next Gamache mystery, World of Curiosities, comes out in late November.
Given my interest in the intersections of literature and faith, I’m curious what Emma Donoghue (most famous, probably for Room) will do in her new book, Haven, about 7th century Irish monks and their journeying to Skellig Michael. I’m also dipping into a new collection, Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology, edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas. If you are looking for an excellent introduction to poetry by Christian writers, this is the book for you. Of course, there were a few more names I hoped would show up, but really this is a full and marvelous accounting. I imagine it will be a wonderful resource for teaching but also for the general reader.
Maybe one of the reasons I’m so behind is that I read along with what I assign to my students. This semester that means a lot of 19th century (and some 20th century) British literature. I made that my excuse to add Maggie Farrell’s new book, The Marriage Portrait to the tottering tower next to my bedside, however. Farrell’s last book, Hamnet, presented a deeply moving imagining of the life and death of Shakespeare’s young son; this latest book takes Victorian poet Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and narrates the story before the Duchess comes to her spectacularly tragic end. Clearly, I needed to buy this book for professional reasons.
Embarrassingly, this is just the tip of my book iceberg. Of course, Ecclesiastes reminds us that the making of books is endless–I’ve usually read that verse as a critique, but maybe it was just descriptive of Solomon and his recognition that there is always interesting things to engage. Yes, my book FOMO is well-developed, but I’m hoping there’s virtue in pointing you towards a few things that might “delight and instruct.” In any case, it’s a great excuse to buy more books!