Trump Is a Terrible Person, and a Great Entertainer

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Clinton Middle School in Clinton

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria – RTX24QAB

Depending on what happens in Iowa in the next few hours, by the end of the night either Donald Trump will be on his way to securing the Republican nomination or his campaign will have been exposed as a fantasy floated by an over-enthusiastic media, a celebrity spectacle with no real organization or infrastructure.

Regardless of the outcome, Trump’s gift for dominating polls and media coverage over the last six months is unprecedented in recent American history. When he launched his campaign last summer by slowly descending the escalator at Trump Tower, pundits almost universally treated him as a joke whose balloon would puncture once voters began seriously vetting more serious candidates. On the contrary, his numbers have been steadily rising (with only a slight dip in mid-October) since the announcement, and polls released over the weekend suggest that his popularity among likely GOP caucus voters is as high as it’s ever been.

Depending on your point of view, this is either a triumph of the common people and billionaires against the political elite or a catastrophe that presages a new era of darkness and demagoguery in American politics.

I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. But it’s worth noting that the most perceptive and forward-thinking insights on Trump’s campaign, from the beginning, have been written by entertainers and TV critics who recognize Trump’s mastery of image and spectacle, honed by his years hosting one of America’s most popular reality shows. Much of the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is understanding that he’s selling a fantasy, in the grand American tradition of P. T. Barnum, L. Frank Baum and Aimee Semple McPherson.

Thus, regardless of whether you consider his campaign a catharsis or a crisis, his success has much to teach writers and entertainers about winning an audience and the power of wish-fulfillment.

  1. Trump knew his audience and courted them assiduously

Every time Trump made an offensive statement in this campaign, the pundit and political classes declared it the end of his presidential ambitions. It happened in his announcement speech when he said Mexico is flooding America with rapists and murderers. It happened a few weeks later when he said John McCain isn’t a war hero. It happened when he seemed to suggest that moderator Megyn Kelly was menstruating during a debate, and it happened, most pointedly, when he called for banning all Muslim immigration into the country “until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”

The critics were only wrong because they were basing their assumptions on what’s happened in every presidential race prior to this one. In a traditional campaign, any one of those statements would have torpedoed the chances of a fledgling candidate. But Trump instinctively understood that his appeal didn’t rest on the sorts of people who usually vote in primaries or elections, but in drawing out the people who feel shut out of the political process. He understood that for a certain kind of person—crucially, the kind of person he was courting—saying nasty, offensive things was a virtue, not a drawback. Trump became the principal beneficiary of a media environment where not knowing things and saying mean things makes you a hero rather than a villain.

  1. Audiences aren’t interested in “nice” people

If you understand, as Todd VanDerWerff of Vox has put it, that Trump isn’t so much a politician as a “reality TV character who’s escaped into a presidential race,” then Trump’s ability to say despicable things and get away with it, even profit from it, makes more sense. Because as much as Trump is selling an ideology, he’s selling a character—an obscenely rich, unfiltered, larger-than-life character. And audiences love it because they’re able to put themselves in the shoes of this character, to pretend that they’re the ones telling off their bosses and flouting political conventions and drinking Manhattan water from golden faucets.

Jeb Bush’s supporters have taken to wondering aloud in the vicinity of reporters why their candidate is losing when he’s such a nice guy, but Jeb’s mistake was in thinking that what audiences want is a nice guy in this election. Not coincidentally, this is also a common mistake made by aspiring writers and storytellers. Samuel Raphaelson devotes a section of his classic book The Human Nature of Playwriting to proving that viewers don’t want a “nice” character, they want a character with whom they can identify, even if that means a character who’s vengeful and petty and lazy. In his own book on storytelling, Into the Woods, John Yorke adds, “There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or … is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfillment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated.”

This is the appeal of beloved characters ranging from Odysseus to Cinderella to Spiderman to Harry Potter—relatable, seemingly normal people who also happen to be immensely gifted, or talented, or ludicrously wealthy (something most people will never be), but who are only human and sometimes use their immense gifts, talents and wealth in the services of spite, pettiness, and vengeance (something most everyone would do, if they could). Trump is following a universally recognizable character script, and he’s killing at it.

  1. A good villain is crucial to the success of any good story

The moment I began to suspect that Trump might actually have this nomination in the bag came early in the first debate. Fatefully, Megyn Kelly said, “You’ve called women you don’t like, ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’…”

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interrupted.

He said it without hesitation, without even really seeming to think about it—and the response from his largely Republican audience was deafening. They loved it. He took a question that was supposed to highlight his own personal bullying and made it about someone else. He sold a counter-narrative, and it stuck: odds are, if you even remember the first debate at all, you remember it because of that moment.

The role of scapegoating in Trump’s campaign has been widely noted. Interviews with Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that much of the candidate’s appeal rests on a narrative in which Muslims and Mexicans are running rampant in America, stealing jobs, hollowing out the middle class, and committing heinous acts of terrorism.

The morality of these appeals is, of course, horrifying, but in terms of storytelling, Trump’s instincts are sound. The late, great social theorist René Girard wrote that scapegoating appeals to the darkest instincts in our nature, uniting communities against a common threat. But crucially, his disgust at the process did not extend to the realm of literature. Girard held that scapegoating was the ritual foundation of Greek drama, and therefore of all Western literature. We go to the theater, we read stories, because we want to see certain characters demonized by an author and ultimately punished by the heroes. It’s cathartic for a storytelling audience, just as it must be for the audiences at Trump’s rallies—and for those who despise Trump, who have spent the last three or four months crafting a narrative in which he’s the second coming of Mussolini, Hitler, or the dark lord Voldemort.

Now obviously I would rather Trump have stuck to the entertainment world, where demonizing an enemy is a storytelling device and not a dangerous tool of mass manipulation, one of the dark arts of politics. But, six months into his campaign, this is where we find ourselves, and the events of the next few weeks will determine whether and how effectively his patented brand of entertainment can cross over into the political mainstream.

Why Reminders of the Holocaust Won’t Stop Evangelical Islamophobia

muslimsIt’s been a rough couple of weeks for the republic. First the Paris attacks and then the San Bernadino shooting by two Islamic radicals who had apparently pledged allegiance to ISIS created a climate of fear and hysteria unhappily reminiscent of the Red Scare of 1919. (Never mind that this appears to have been just the reaction that ISIS wanted). The governors of over a dozen states began to reconsider their policy of allowing Syrian refugees fleeing jihad to resettle in America, for fear that they might be jihadists. Violent attacks on Muslims and people who look like Muslims spiked dramatically. Leading Republican candidates contemplated allowing only Christians into the country, while celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, newly energized by hate, secured the affection of a section of the Republican base with his proposals to shut down mosques, establish a national Muslim database and stop all Muslim immigration “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

As they have since the start of his campaign in early summer, pundits predicted that these latest beyond-the-pale remarks would mark the end of Trump’s good fortune. On the contrary, they propelled him to new heights in the Republican primary: surveys revealed that 43 percent of Republicans support monitoring most American Muslims, while 73 percent agree with second-place candidate Ben Carson that under no circumstances should a Muslim be president.

I’ve been saying for a while that violence towards a group of people, up to and including genocidal acts, doesn’t occur out of thin air. It’s fostered by an atmosphere of demonization and hatred in which name-calling, bullying and slander are tolerated, eventually leading to more drastic acts of intimidation and culminating in acts of physical violence on an individual and then collective level. When a Muslim woman is nearly run off the road while leaving a mosque, when a young boy’s legs are severed by a Kansas City motorist who thinks the Quran is a disease “worse than ebola,” when thousands of Americans suddenly have memories of New Jersey Muslims cheering on 9/11, when the president of a major Christian university brags about carrying a concealed weapon to “end those Muslims” before they kill us, it’s not over-stating things to say that Muslims in this country are not safe. And the usual defenders of free speech and freedom of religion have been, with a few exceptions, all but silent on their behalf.

On Twitter, Christian pastors and writers like Brian Zahnd and Rachel Held Evans have been sounding the alarm, warning that scapegoating an entire group of people is the road to hell, the road to holocaust. Evans has been particularly vocal, reminding her followers that on the eve of the second world war, over two-thirds of Americans opposed welcoming Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. “We can stop wondering if we would have protested the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust,” she wrote on Facebook. “This is exactly how it begins.”

Unfortunately, I fear that reminders of the Holocaust, while warranted, will prove useless to the minority of Evangelical voters who support Trump and his nativist policies. The reason why has a lot to do with the reverence most Evangelicals hold towards the Jewish people—and a corresponding fear of Muslims that has been actively cultivated over the past 15 years. These two things, this reverence for Jews (or at least their idea of Jews) and fear of Muslims, are more closely connected than you might think.

When I was growing up in church, before 9/11, the European Union and new age religion were the great bogeymen which many Evangelicals believed would herald the last days and the rise of the Antichrist. After 9/11, this changed, seemingly overnight. Joel Richardson wrote a popular book, The Islamic Antichrist: The Shocking Truth about the Real Nature of the Beast, arguing that prophecies of a messianic figure in the Quran correspond perfectly with the Bible’s descriptions of the Antichrist. (Richardson became a hero on the far right and was even interviewed by Glenn Beck). Prominent charismatic prophets like Paul Cain taught that the last great evil empire would be a fusion of Soviet-style communism and radical Islam that would take over Europe. Kansas City pastor Mike Bickle repeatedly warned that the people of Israel would suffer a “second holocaust” at the hands of their Arab neighbors.

Crucially, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people is not viewed as something that has the potential to happen given the pervasive hatred of Jews in much of the Arab world. It is something that must happen because the Bible predicts it, because it is critical to God’s end-time plan to save the nation of Israel, and because Satan now fills the hearts of many Muslims just as he filled the hearts of the Germans at Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Thus the lesson that eschatologically minded Evangelicals have taken from the Holocaust is not that hating and scapegoating an entire group of people is wrong because it can lead us to become the very people who would build the death camps and send innocent victims to their graves. (It’s never occurred to many of us that we would even be capable of doing that). The lesson of the Holocaust is that hating and scapegoating the Jews is wrong. And this is precisely what Muslims throughout the world are now trying to do, which is why they must be stopped at all costs. Through violence, if necessary.

What I’m Into: November 2015 (Mysteries and Miyazaki!)

totoro2I spent the past month reflecting on my own mortality and the fact that several of my favorite current writers aren’t actually that much older than me. It was sobering to reflect upon, especially on the eve of my twenty-ninth birthday. What am I doing with my life? How would I like to be remembered? Can I become one of them? Hard questions.

 Apart from that, having (almost) finished the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, I spent November obsessively reading the Poirot novels. Towards the end of the month I spent a few days watching (almost) all the Studio Ghibli films. Here’s what I found.

Books

I read Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Murder in Mesopotamia, Hickory Dickory Dock, Hallowe’en Party, The Murder on the Links, Death in the Clouds, Lord Edgware Dies, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Sad Cypress, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Third Girl, and the first half of Cat Among the Pigeons. For the most part, the books were as good as their adaptations; when I watched a bad episode, I found that the problem was usually in the source material. As such, my favorite books in the series tend to also be my favorite episodes. (I’m currently watching them all over and making a ranked list, which I’ll post in a few days).

I started reading the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet, which is one of the most highly acclaimed series of the decade. The four books tell the story of two girls growing up in Italy, and follow them throughout their lives. They’re solidly written, packed with details and filled with illuminating psychological digressions.

Two other series I began reading are more juvenile, but still thoroughly entertaining: the Red Blazer Girls and The Penderwicks. Of these, The Penderwicks is the better of the two. It’s the best book series for young adults I’ve read in several years (the first book won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature in 2005). The story is comical but realistic, following the adventures of a family of four girls during four succeeding years. The author, Jeanne Birdsall, is extraordinarily inventive and has a knack for finding just the right character details. “Rosalind had never cared about plants,” she writes at one point. “She had wanted to for her father’s sake, but in her secret heart, a plant was just one more thing that needed feeding and coddling.” If J. K. Rowling is the modern heir to Lewis and Tolkien, then Birdsall is our Edith Nesbit.

TV
I spent a quiet and increasingly paranoid Friday watching Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle, which is narratively frustrating but impressive in the scope of its worldbuilding. Rufus Sewell (as a high-ranking American Nazi named John Smith) delights as always. ***1/2 stars.

Movies

The Castle of Cagliostro: Miyazaki’s first full-length feature film (1979) owes an obvious debt to the classic 1937 swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda. However, the profusion of clichéd tropes and cartoonish nature of the story kept me from total enjoyment. *** stars.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky: I hadn’t seen this movie since 2005 and was not prepared for how good it is. There are very few stories that are structurally perfect. The Matrix is one, and this is another. It deserves to be more widely seen. The two leads are scrappy but endearing, and the villainous commander (voiced by Mark Hamill in the English dub) is the most odious creature Miyazaki has fashioned. **** stars.

Grave of the Fireflies: Across a bomb-blasted wasteland, a child wanders. He forages for food. Sickness gnaws him. Starvation dessicates him. Death takes him. *** stars.

My Neighbor Totoro: What can you really say about this movie? It’s delightful. ***1/2 stars.

Porco Rosso: Michael Keaton voices a Han Solo-esque fighter pilot in the years between the world wars. Years ago, in a manner that is left somewhat vague, this pilot was transformed into a man-pig. Yet all the women love him, and all the men want to be him. This is actually a fairly subtle character study and one of the best depictions of mimetic rivalry ever captured on film. ***1/2

Pom Poko: I wasn’t expecting much going into this movie, but I’ll be honest: this is the best animated movie I’ve ever seen about raccoon dogs with shapeshifting testicles. When developers threaten their land, the raccoons seize the occasion of a fox wedding to shower a human city with terrifying illusions straight out of Jung’s nightmares. With its voiceover narration, intricate plot and sporadic outbursts of violence, Pom Poko occasionally obtains the feel of a Martin Scorsese film. ***1/2

Whisper of the Heart: Of course I was always going to fall in love with this movie. It’s about a young woman who discovers she has a passion for writing novels that prominently feature cats. I mean, come on. But it’s also a powerfully earnest movie about the nature of art and craftsmanship in the vein of Pixar’s Ratatouille (my favorite Pixar film). Plus, it introduces one of Studio Ghibli’s best characters, a tophat-and-monocle wearing CAT BARON named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. ****tumblr_inline_nj5cp2ctHn1qcm8eh

The Cat Returns: A followup to Whisper of the Heart that portrays the events of the novel written by the main character of that movie (the Cat Baron, who only appeared in dream sequences in the previous film, is a major character here). The Cat Returns bears the same relationship to Whisper of the Heart that Carry On does to Fangirl, yet the plot of this film recalls the wonderlands imagined by Lewis Carroll and G. K. Chesterton. It is also, easily, Studio Ghibli’s funniest movie. *** stars.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea: Miyazaki’s own variation on The Little Mermaid is at once more precious and more visually sumptuous than the Disney version. Critics angsted because Ponyo is more kid-friendly than some of Miyazaki’s previous endeavors, but there’s nothing here to inhibit adult enjoyment. ***1/2

The Secret World of Arrietty: A loose adaptation of The Borrowers, about small people living in the inner recesses of a normal-sized human home. Seldom has Studio Ghibli so fully succeeded in making the everyday world seem magical. Yet the plot, involving a doomed relationship between two mismatched people, one of whom might be dying, seems like a rehash of earlier Ghibli films. ***1/2

From Up on Poppy Hill: A story of teens growing up in Japan during the 1960s, trying to save an old clubhouse from destruction and angsting because they’re in love but they might be siblings. Disney allegedly tried unsuccessfully to keep this movie from being released in America because of the incest subplot. But it works beautifully as a period piece and coming-of-age film. ***1/2

The Wind Rises: This biopic about a real-life designer of aircraft is supposed to be Miyazaki’s last. Disappointly, it’s not among his best. The pacing is sluggish and laconic, and there’s little to keep the viewer invested in the characters. ***

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: This fairy-tale told in watercolors, about a princess from the moon who appears as a baby to a couple of peasants in a bamboo forest, is visually splendid though occasionally hard to follow. By the end, the story has become a powerful metaphor for the heartbreak of parenting. ***1/2

When Marnie Was There: Ostensibly Studio Ghibli’s last movie, this is the story of a girl sent by her parents to spend a few months in the country who discovers lights shining from an abandoned building on the other side of the marsh. There she meets a beautiful young woman, Marnie, who may or may not be a ghost. This movie is sturdily built on classic tropes and features some of the studio’s finest artwork. Breathtaking. If it really is their last film, it was a strong note to end on. ****

What about you? What did you see, read and hear this month?

TV Top Ten: 10 Favorite Episodes of Poirot

Agatha Christie's Poirot [6] Episode 4 - Dumb Witness Mystical premonitions, family inheritance and suspicious murders ruin Poirot's plans to go and watch a friend of Hastings' attempt to break the world water speed record. The Tripp sisters' supernatural warnings and Poirot's advice to change her will, fail to prevent the murder of Emily Arundel. Poirot must reflect on which member of the family poisoned the medicine. Bob, the terrier dog, is the only one who knows who the murderer really is. L-R: DAVID SUCHET as Poirot,m KATE BUFFERY as Theresa Arundel and HUGH FRASER as Captain Hastings © ITV plc (Granada International)
Over the past year Agatha Christie’s Poirot has become possibly my favorite show on television ever, besting old favorites like Breaking Bad and LOST. For whatever reason, this long-running show (1989-2013) about a Belgian detective has captured my imagination like few other shows have.

Why do I find it so appealing? I suspect for many of the same reasons I love Harry Potter. Both feature elegantly crafted mysteries set in a timeless world of trains and pubs and handsome estates and murderous intrigue. Both series grew increasingly darker and more ambiguous as their characters aged and were forced to contend with the depths of human evil and the darkness in their own hearts. The early Harry Potter books, with their whodunit structures, owe a clear debt to Agatha Christie’s novels, and the television series acknowledged this debt in its later seasons by borrowing the look and tone of the movies.

I’ve just finished my first run through the series (well, almost… I still haven’t gotten around to that final episode). But I’ll be watching the show and reading the novels on which it was based for a long time to come. For any aspiring writer of mystery novels, this series is indispensable. I loved almost every episode—and I find myself loving them even more on second viewing—so coming up with a list of my 10 favorites was especially challenging. Consider this a first attempt.

  1. The Veiled Lady (Season 2)

In its early seasons Poirot oscillated between 50-minute short story adaptations and feature-length novel adaptations. While the latter are generally more complex and rewarding, the hour-long episodes are fun to watch just to see what mad adventures Poirot and his friend Hastings get into from week to week. It’s very formulaic, and that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. In the first season the show was still developing this formula, but by the beginning of the second it had perfected it. “The Veiled Lady” is a showcase of everything that makes Poirot great, and features two of the series’ most memorable moments: Poirot and Hastings getting arrested for burglary, and a climactic scene involving a hall of statues and a cat.

  1. The Cornish Mystery (Season 2)

Possibly the quintessential Poirot episode, this was the first episode I watched where I realized the show was turning into something truly special. Poirot and Hastings take a trip via train to Cornwall, where they meet a woman who fears she’s being poisoned by her husband. “The Cornish Mystery” beautifully cements the rivalry between Poirot and Inspector Japp, the no-nonsense police inspector with whom the Belgian detective develops a competitive but enduring friendship.

  1. Hickory Dickory Dock (Season 6)

This is one of several feature-length Poirot adaptations to improve on the original novel; Christie’s plots were generally inspired but her prose was lackluster and her characterization shallow. The TV adaptation unceremoniously dispenses with several extraneous and somewhat offensive foreign characters, which makes for a tighter plot that allows the true beauty of the surprises Christie throws at us in the second half to shine all the more clearly. (Just ignore the mouse, and the choir that starts chanting anytime the mouse appears onscreen).

  1. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Season 6)

In the novels, Poirot sometimes only shows up about midway through the story once a murder has already been committed; the series invariably has him present from the very beginning, which raises questions about why death and mayhem seem to follow him wherever he goes. Christie excelled at holiday-themed stories, and in this Christmas episode Poirot is visiting a family estate when the avaricious and unloved Simeon Lee is found dead in a locked room.

  1. Death on the Nile (Season 9)

My friend Hannah and I have an ongoing debate about which is better, the more formulaic and light-hearted early seasons or the later ones (roughly seasons 9-13) with their higher production values, darker themes and more complicated plotting. While I prefer the earlier seasons as a whole, I love the plots of the later episodes, and “Death on the Nile” is a great example of why. During its first half it seems to be the story of a couple being stalked by a jealous woman, but not everything is what it seems and the final scenes, in which Poirot reveals a conspiracy most intricate, are both intellectually thrilling and emotionally poignant. Also features Emily Blunt in one of her first roles.

  1. Evil under the Sun (Season 8)

Another ingeniously plotted murder mystery set in an exotic locale, with a seemingly ordinary premise (a woman who has numerous enemies is found lying dead on a beach) that becomes more layered and disturbing with each new revelation. Like “Death on the Nile,” so much of the brilliance of this episode lies in its final 20 minutes that to say too much would ruin the surprises, and there are many.

  1. Five Little Pigs (Season 9)

The first episode of the “new” series also has the distinction of being the most gorgeous, with a flashback structure that avoids being overly complicated and a tragic history that picks up emotional weight as we see the sins and mistakes of the past casting their shadows into the present. An initially disturbing but ultimately very moving story of deceit, betrayal, violence and a single redemptive act of unbelievable courage.

  1. Murder on the Orient Express (Season 12)

One of Christie’s best-known and most beloved stories became one of the best Poirot adaptations. Poirot is traveling through Europe via the Orient Express when a certain wealthy and despised passenger is found dead in his cabin. Mysteriously, everyone on the train bears some connection to the victim. This adaptation is chilling not only because of the cold that seeps through every frame but because of the moral dilemma Poirot faces, one that ultimately breaks his spirit. Watch out for Jessica Chastain in another “before she was famous” role.

  1. Murder on the Links (Season 6)

Poirot and Hastings are summoned to the French countryside and one of the more bizarre mysteries of his career, when a man is found lying dead in a shallow grave on a golf course. Soon another man turns up dead in the same area, and a woman voluntarily confesses to murder. But everyone involved in the case is lying about something and Poirot must exercise his considerable ingenuity to find out how and why. By turns tragic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, this episode also provides an overwhelmingly moving resolution for one of the series’ most beloved characters.

  1. Peril at End House (Season 2)

The first novel to be adapted into a feature-length film is also one of the definitive Poirot adaptations, featuring an old estate in the country, a wealthy but vulnerable heiress and a series of disturbing murders. This episode is everything that makes Poirot great distilled into 90 minutes, including an ingenious method for catching forgers, one of the all-time great line readings—“You’re all so… STUPID!”—and a conclusion that sees Poirot, Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s assistant Miss Lemon eating ice cream on the beach. The way all mysteries should end.

What I’m Into: October 2015 (Mysteries!)

021-agatha-christie-s-poirot-theredlistSo this month was kind of a big month for me. I moved to a new town, became an UNCLE, and got my driver’s permit. I also accepted my destiny as a writer of mystery novels.

When I look back over my life, this really isn’t all that surprising. When I was in grade school I used to write long, LONG mystery stories loosely inspired by Walker, Texas Ranger and read them aloud to my Gifted and Talented class. In college I gained a reputation for writing Gothic mysteries with bizarre, outlandish twists (a house turns out to be alive, what??).

But I always thought of myself first and foremost as a fantasy novelist.

That began to change this year. In the series of essays I wrote to commemorate my tenth anniversary of reading Harry Potter, I realized that before they are anything else, the Potter books are elegantly constructed whodunits, Agatha Christie with hippogriffs. In January I began watching the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and inaugurated a love affair that continues to this day. And I read a great essay by Joan Lowery Nixon in which the acclaimed YA novelist argues that mystery is far and away the most beloved genre among young adults. “Teachers and librarians will tell you,” she says, “that kids who won’t read anything else will devour mysteries.”

Partly this is because we’re compelled to finish reading a book when we find characters we love in peril. Accomplished mystery writers know how to keep the pages turning, so that we sit down to read a book and find ourselves having read 200 pages without breaking a sweat. (This is why Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling novelist, having sold something like two BILLION novels).

But also (according to Nixon) because mystery stories traffic in primal emotions like “anger, hatred, resentment, loss, fury, the desperate need to be loved” that are at their most potent when we’re growing up and even the most minor event seems to herald the end of the world. (This is the same reason why certain types of music remain perennially popular among teenagers).

Reading that essay was a game-changer for me. I realized I’ve always thought like a mystery writer, I just didn’t know it. And since it seems like this is probably what I’m going to do with my life, I might as well study the craft and become really good at it.

TV Series

So this month I watched the final six seasons of Poirot, all except for the last episode (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it!) and a couple of documentaries on the making of Poirot. I’m already writing a list of my 10 favorite episodes of the series, which has obliged me to go back and revisit some of my favorites. Suffice to say, Poirot might be the gold standard for literary adaptations, and anyone who wants to write stories (in any genre) but feels intimidated by the breadth of Christie’s writing should check out the show, which is worth a whole class in plot construction.

Other shows I watched this month were Veronica Mars and The Legend of Korra. I continue to be enamored with the former and intrigued by the latter. Both are shows that aspiring novelists could benefit from watching.

Books

Having run out of Poirot episodes and not knowing what to do with my life, I picked up the books and started reading them. I read:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which moves at a brisk pace but shows more reliance on Holmes-ian methods of deduction than would appear in later books, where Poirot primarily relies upon his fine grasp of human psychology to solve crimes. Still, this book is noteworthy for deliberately making the murderer the character you MOST suspect.

Peril at End House, in which a woman claims she’s narrowly survived being murdered on three separate occasions. When Poirot comes to investigate, the woman’s cousin turns up dead. One of my favorite Poirot stories, this is a spookily good read.

Hickory Dickory Dock. This one is… not one of my favorites? But it made a good adaptation and has one particularly brilliant twist.

Hallowe’en Party, one of Christie’s later books from the 1960s when her powers were beginning to wane. Not one of her best, but has a terrific premise.

Other books I read this month:

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell. Back in 2013, Rowell wrote a novel about a girl named Cath who’s writing a fan-fiction based on the Simon Snow books, a fictional series of books based on the adventures of a boy wizard. Carry On, which came out in October, is the final book in the Simon Snow series as Rowell imagines it. It brings the Harry Potter mythos into the 2010s, imbuing it with all the warmth and relational sensitivity of Rowell’s realistic YA novels. It’s a whimsical, scary, violent, gorgeous, hilarious and disturbing book.

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. This 2011 novel by everyone’s favorite Twitter personality is a ghost mystery involving a girl at a London boarding school, so, she was clearly catering to that Boze demographic. I started reading this book at about five in the afternoon and didn’t put it down until I had finished at around midnight. It’s that good, and luckily it’s the first in a series.

What about you? What did you read, see, and listen to this month?

Belle & Sebastian: My 10 Favorite Songs from the World’s Best Band

screw the RIAA

Tonight on Twitter my friend Britta asked me to recommend some of my favorite Belle & Sebastian songs, which is a bit like asking me to name my favorite streets in London: if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves having a really long discussion.

Belle & Sebastian have been recording for 20 years now; they’ve released nine studio albums and a couple of generally excellent compilations. They’ve been my favorite band since the fall of my senior year in college. There are other bands I listen to and rave about more (Keane, The Killers, Oasis, Dry the River), but no other band that sounds the way I think my soul would sound if my soul could make music. Belle & Sebastian has never been hugely popular, but over the past couple of decades they’ve taken over the niche that was occupied by The Smiths in the 1980s and 1990s, the cultural and artistic standardbearer for sad-eyed indie kids who wear cardigans and knee-high socks and go tramping through the woods alone and sit in the windows of coffee shops reading books by Marx and Engels and wondering if love will ever find them.

At any given time my 100 favorite songs list has at least eight or ten Belle & Sebastian songs in it, which doesn’t make the task of naming my ten favorites particularly easy. In this list I’ve tried to include tracks from both halves of their career: the early years in which their music was moody and atmospheric and their lyrics often seemed to be compressing whole novels into the space of a few verses, and the later years in which they began evolving towards a more danceable, infectious pop sound.

  1. Nobody’s Empire

The best introduction to late-period Belle & Sebastian—and to their music in general, really—is the first single from their latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (January 2015). Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has called this the most personal song he’s ever written. It’s one of the few songs in which he foregoes inventing characters and imaginary situations and sings directly from his heart. Hearing him describe his experience overcoming a chronic illness in his early twenties to found the band that would save his life is a powerful and, ultimately, hopeful experience.

  1. Like Dylan in the Movies

The best songs from Belle & Sebastian’s early years all seem to be trying to capture a particular moment in words and music. Even their albums can roughly be grouped according to specific seasons. This track from their best album (If You’re Feeling Sinister, the fall album) vividly captures the feeling of walking through a city park at twilight, late in the year. It’s gorgeous and a little scary and a little sad.

  1. This Is Just a Modern Rock Song

Belle & Sebastian’s lyrics have always had a weirdly meta-fictional element to them (see also the song “Belle & Sebastian” later on this list). They like to sing songs about themselves, in a band singing songs. Probably the apotheosis of their postmodern bent is this soft, seven-minute rocker from their first compilation album, in which the various band members take turns singing about themselves and each other and the song they’re playing (“we count three, four / then we start to slow / because this song has got to stop somewhere”). It’s great.

  1. My Wandering Days Are Over

            and 06. I Could Be Dreaming

Belle & Sebastian’s first two albums are now widely regarded as two of the best indie-rock albums of the 1990s. Remarkably, they were both written and recorded in a single two-month creative burst. These two songs from their first album exemplify the rich orchestration (cello, glockenspiel, Hammond organ, etc.) and elegantly crafted, evocative lyrics of those first sessions. In the first, the band cheerfully commiserates with a friend who’s fallen on hard times (“you were doing it for businessmen on the piano, Belle / you said it was a living hell / you said you were in hell”), while in the second they contemplate murdering a sister’s abusive boyfriend.

  1. Belle & Sebastian

I can’t defend my love for this song, except to say that it’s a deeply personal song for me (and even showed up during a key scene between two people in my memoir). It’s the story of a woman named Belle who seems to own the whole world, and a miserable boy named Sebastian who pines after Belle, crashes his car, and tells his diary he’ll never be young again. But he will.

  1. Act of the Apostle 1 and 2

The Life Pursuit (2006) is the best album Belle & Sebastian has released in the twenty-first century, the perfect middle ground between their “sad bastard” phase in the late ‘90s and the shoegazing dance-rock of their last few albums. Act of the Apostle is actually two songs, both of them about a teenager struggling to navigate high school and a broken home. The second begins with one of the best keyboard intros you will hear this side of heaven.

  1. The Boy with the Arab Strap

Apart from being one of the bounciest, catchiest, clap-happiest songs Belle & Sebastian ever did, this song is a perfect example of their lyrical brilliance at its peak. “Color my life with the chaos of trouble / ‘cause anything’s better than posh isolation” became the rallying cry of a whole generation of pretentious indie kids. And how many other deliriously infectious dance songs can you think of that could get away with the word lascivious?

  1. Fox in the Snow

If You’re Feeling Sinister is so atmospheric, there are moments when it almost ceases to be an album of songs and becomes instead a collection of gorgeous images, like an impressionism exhibit in a fine arts gallery. If the effects are sometimes overly precious, they are also devastatingly effective, never more so than in this wintry, Satie-inspired ballad about lost kids trying to find their way in a cold and unforgiving world. Here the band most nearly approaches the simplicity of the early Beatles both musically and lyrically (“don’t let yourself go hungry now / don’t let yourself go cold”), in the process attaining a level of poignancy they never reached again.

  1. Waiting for the Moon to Rise

How is it that Belle & Sebastian’s weakest album gave us their best song? This is both my favorite Belle & Sebastian song and one of my three or four favorite songs of all time. The half-wistful, half-enchanted orchestration melds with Isobel Campbell’s ethereal vocals to create a dream of half-lit city streets and empty train stations and misty autumn mornings with the sun just rising over the fields on the far eastern horizon. It’s the band at their most sincere and most romantic, in awe of the indescribable beauty around them. Around all of us.

On Turning Ten (and Birthdays that Should Have Been)

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Today would have been Beth’s thirtieth birthday. We met when she was 19, a freshman at Southwestern brimming with optimism. When we celebrated her twentieth birthday ten years ago tonight, I read aloud a poem that former poet laureate Billy Collins had written on the tenth birthday of his son. Characteristically, it reminded Beth of her younger brother.

Here’s the poem again, in full. Happy birthday, Beth.

On Turning Ten
by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.