The Case for a Traumatized Anne Shirley [a guest post by Grace]

traumatized anne shirley

[Ed. note: Today’s guest post comes to you courtesy of Grace. You can follow her on twitter @grace_march, where she posts some of the cleverest tweets on the internet].

A television adaptation of Anne of Green Gables has been newly born, Anne on CBC and Anne With an E on Netflix, amidst much kerfuffle. The reigning adaptation has been, up to this point, the 1985 version, starring Megan Follows as Anne and the late Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. It was beloved by many, and many anxiously awaited the arrival of the 2017 series to see if it would be up to snuff. The general consensus amongst ardent fans/purists seems to be that it is not.

Cast-wise, Anne is smashing. Amybeth McNulty is a fine actress who resembles the Anne of the books more than Follows did. RH Thomson and Geraldine James were well-chosen as Matthew and Marilla. The set and filming are stunning. The soundtrack* is the fiddle for which Atlantic Canada is famous. No complaints there. The complaints come in with the promised edgy twist on the original tale.

Any time a book is brought to television, one has cause to fear. Make no mistake, Anne is chock-full of things that were not in the book. Rather than opting to send her to Mrs Blewett when the brooch disappears, Marilla opts to send her back to the orphanage; Anne feels threatened by the hired boy’s presence at Green Gables and treats him cruelly; our protagonist gives a crude, euphemistic sex-ed lesson to her peers; Mrs Lynde isn’t even silly**; there is clumsy, forced dialogue with Josephine Barry; most jarringly, the first appearance of Our Boy, Gilbert Blythe, does not involve slate-breaking.

That the first words her future husband speaks to her are not, “Carrots!” should rightly infuriate us all, and the switch from Blewetts’ to orphanage was unnecessary, at best (on reflection, however, it looked like meanness on Marilla’s part to choose the Blewetts’. She doesn’t know the orphanage, but she has seen Mrs Blewett and judged her unfit.). The episode titles are all quotes from Jane Eyre, as well, and while it makes sense that Anne would devour Jane Eyre, it would make more sense for the episode titles to be taken from the source material. There is no forgiving the new, slateless first meeting, but there is upset of another nature: upset about Anne being realistically portrayed as traumatized.

It is true that some lightheartedness was removed from the new adaptation; things were cast in a darker light. This is not, however, because Anne behaved as traumatized children do. It would have been possible to have written her realistically without making Mrs Lynde flint-eyed. As it is, it is important that Anne is a full character, who is, as we all are, connected to events of her past, and this series focuses more on that than either the books or the Megan Follows version. And that is a good thing. There may be value in Anne as she was written, but if the reader- or, in this case, viewer- is prevented from connecting with her, this value won’t be tapped into.

Anne is supposed to have a traumatic past, of orphanhood, abusive and neglectful foster-parents, and institutionalization. These would not slide off her shoulders as soon as she’s settled in at Green Gables, yet the books, wonderful though they are, tend to treat the first decade of her life as an unfortunate dream, and this is totally inconsistent with both Anne’s character and the other tragedies of her life.

She is understandably miserable when she rejects Gilbert in Anne of the Island, and later spends a night in agony when she believes he is dying; when Anne’s newborn daughter, Joyce, dies in Anne’s House of Dreams, her pain isn’t made light of (in fact, in the last chapter of Rainbow Valley, Anne winces at the mention of her late child, showing that years and many changes later, Joyce is still close to her heart). Matthew’s heart-attack, Marilla’s failing sight, the death of young Ruby Gillis, and the later plotline with Anne and Gilbert’s neighbour, Leslie, are quite believable (despite the fantastical nature of the latter, the injustice and then redemption pull us in, and we are there with Leslie, who has been realistically altered by outlandish circumstances). And one does not even know where to start with Walter Blythe.

Why, if these events change Anne’s life, is her own past not allowed to? Why has she been written as a traumatized child, if we’re barely permitted to approach her as such? What are we left with? Her past must be ignored, because to be affected in a true-to-life way by her environment would make her less of an Anne; as Anne is not true-to-life, those who hail from similar roots will not be able to get close to her, especially as the books progress and the Hammonds shrink further into the background.

Healing from childhood trauma, and building a new life with new people, takes time and work. Have a little mercy on the girl. It is to be expected that she would suffer flashbacks, say inappropriate things (like about men having a mouse in their front trouser pocket), be clingy, crave positive attention and affection, and be unused to decorum. She was not raised a Barry.

These things don’t make her ‘bad’ and needn’t take all the whimsy and imagination out of her. They are part of her- part of her imagination. If she were impervious to pain, and glided through life in blissful ignorance that she was unwanted and mistreated, she would not be brave or innocent or sensitive, she would be a mythical creature- yet the rest of the series would have us believe she’s human. She’s had to fight for her innocence for her entire life. Ignoring that, saying instead that she is only brave and innocent because she was, somehow, not impacted, would be disrespectful. After all, LM Montgomery, an excellent writer who clearly had an eye for the beauty of the natural world, had an unhappy life; would we say her passion for the wholesome and lovely doesn’t count because she was depressed? (Montgomery, you argue, should not be made a point of in an article about the merits of altering her creation, though no disrespect is ever meant towards the lady, but perhaps we should devote our time to another moral quandary: should it even be legal to put raisins in cinnamon buns and then not tell anyone there are raisins in the cinnamon buns?). Sufferers of gross ill-use in early life can become courageous, loving, intelligent, and capable. This is illustrated pretty well in the Harry Potter series. Harry’s trauma is constantly present, and he reacts like a real young adult would, though his story is not realistic. In Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, he struggles with rage, guilt, panic, the urge for violence***, and nightmares, which are all things that any traumatized kid may be familiar with. His missions mean having to keep secrets, break rules, and sneak around, which a person tends to become good at when they need to hide from their own family members.

There is a little of that in Anne of Green Gables, as well; for example, Anne’s need to prove herself desirable. But by the end of that first book, we don’t feel, anymore, that she understands what it’s like to be anything but a member of an idyllic household. By treating it as an unpleasant but quickly-forgotten thing, a non-issue, her entire childhood becomes less formative than any other event; crippling stress is eclipsed by finding a drowned mouse in the pantry, and cured by a taste of ice-cream.

We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have both the full, human, reachable protagonist, and the one whose worldview has been totally untouched by darkness. She only knows, after all, that pine forests are pleasanter than pig-stys because she’s been in the pig-stys, too. She used her imagination so much because it was the only way to make the world bearable, and her innocence has only been retained under lasting attack.

To get at the fullness of Anne, we need to understand her past in a way that the books and the older adaptation haven’t made available to us. Perhaps, despite its faults, the new series will succeed here.

*With the exception of ‘Ahead By a Century’ by The Tragically Hip during the (beautifully animated) opening credits.

**Can’t wait for her to be revealed as a criminal mastermind.

***Think of his temptation to attack Dumbledore. There is, of course, a magical explanation, but the emotions involved are similar.


Grace is a young prairie transplant, currently residing in the Maritimes. She enjoys reading, baking, and most things featuring Richard Ayoade. You can find her on Twitter (@grace_march) or wandering the moors, looking very impressive with windblown hair, and glancing meaningfully into the distance.   


What I’m Reading: March 2017

endeavour 12 - what i'm reading april
Because our mothers lied to us and nothing comes easily in this grim world, there are times when life presents us with impossible choices. Should I save the dying man on the beach or venture deeper into the forest to explore the mystery of this tropical island? Should I trust the foxes, who have guns, or the owls who are wise and frightening? Should I read classics or contemporary young adult novels? This month it is young adult novels.

paperfury’s blog and twitter
One of the eternal truths about twitter is that while there are millions of accounts, there are only a handful that are really worth following. Cait @paperfury is one of them, especially if you want to read more contemporary fiction but don’t know where to begin. She’s read thousands of books and has thousands more in her to-be-read pile. She reviews them on Goodreads and on her blog, which is indispensable and where she rhapsodizes about important things like building yourself a book igloo and eating large amounts of cake. Set politics aside and experience twitter as God intended it: enthusiastic ravings about books, pastries, and manor houses with spiral stairs and spinny ladders.

The Crown’s Game [Evelyn Skye]
I have made no secret of my love for War and Peace and nineteenth-century Russia generally. So when a certain ecstatic book fiend recommends a work of historical fiction set in St. Petersburg, but with magic, you can be sure I will read it. This debut novel has a whiff of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell about it, as two young enchanters compete against each other to perform increasingly elaborate acts of magic in the hopes of winning the tsar’s favor. That’s the plot, but the real reason you should read it is because it is impeccably detailed and authentically Russian in the way that only a book filled with vatrushka pastries, colorful yurts, and taverns owned by brawny Kazakh fellows can be.

A Darker Shade of Magic [V. E. Schwab]
Umberto Eco once wrote of Casablanca that it was as if all the clichés got together and staged a joyous reunion. That statement has been applied to Harry Potter and is also true of this book, the first in a trilogy, which is sort of the platonic ideal of what an epic fantasy can and should be. Do you like stories where an unsuspecting Muggle ascends a flight of stairs and encounters a dangerous man possessed of bizarre magic? Do you like chase scenes where a man and woman who have just met must flee together through a city where their own faces are staring back at them from every screen? Then you will love this book. You will read it with shining eyes and immediately demand a sequel and a movie. And you are in luck!

The Serpent King [Jeff Zentner]
“Ah,” you might say on learning that this novel, one of the most acclaimed of last year, is about snake-handling Pentecostals in the American South. “An Issues Novel.” And it’s true that some issues are addressed! But Zentner weaves his exploration of poverty and toxic religion around the lives of three likeable characters in their last years of high school: Lydia, a stylish blogger and fashion icon with a talent for manipulating people and getting her own way; Dill, whose pastor father is in prison; and Travis, a socially awkward lover of fantasy novels who carries a dragon pendant around his neck like a teenaged, American Pierre Bezukhov. My one complaint about this novel is that it is not, sometimes, much fun? Like perhaps you would prefer a more lighthearted novel by Charles Dickens or Lemony Snicket? Yet the characters will keep you reading through to the inevitably tragic denouement.

lucky fewLucky Few [Kathryn Ormsbee]
Ever since the release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood I have been whispering to myself, “Who will write the book of my heart: a contemporary young adult novel set in Austin, Texas?” It is a well-known fact that Austin is one of the greatest cities in the world, along with Edinburgh and Cabot Cove. And Kathryn Ormsbee has written that book. Sometimes you tire of reading about winter palaces and cobblestoned streets and yearn for a story set closer to home. Sometimes you want to read about Barton Springs and I-35 and idling sedans and foil-wrapped avocado tacos and the smell of gasoline on a muggy spring day. Ormsbee delivers all of that in a story about three Texas teenagers who are trying to fake a boy’s death in 23 different ways. The result is an empathetic and endlessly detailed jewel of a book that compares favorably to the best novels of John Green and Rainbow Rowell. She has another YA novel coming out this summer, Tash Hearts Tolstoy, about a young vlogger who’s obsessed with Tolstoy. Can you guess who will be FIRST IN LINE to read that book on the day it comes out? I, reader, it is I.


What I’m Reading (and Watching): February 2017


Those of us who once nursed ambitions of reading the whole internet before we died have now had to lay them aside. There is just so much of it! There are so many journalists wanting you to read their opinions. They seem to increase by the day.

Perhaps it is time we set aside our youthful notions of the internet as a place where opinions are read, and thought of it instead as a place where books are recommended. I have read several books in this year of our Lord twenty-seventeen, gentle reader. Today I share them with you.

Wildwood (Colin Meloy)
wildwood_by_colin_meloy_coverAre you familiar with The Decemberists? Those acoustic troubadours who specialize in sea shanties and murder ballads about half-starved orphans and treacherous mariners bent on revenge? It may surprise you to learn that band leader Colin Meloy is also a writer, a writer of fictions for children. Even more surprising, his books are every bit as good as his songs. This novel, the first in a series about a girl whose brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows, will delight those who enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Lemony Snicket books. If you like novels in which coyotes yip and snarl and wear French military uniforms from the nineteenth century, this is the book for you.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey)
I’m almost halfway through this slim novel by one of the acknowledged masters of mid-century murder mysteries. I think there’s supposed to be a murder, eventually? So far all the heroine has done is wander quietly around a girl’s college, nipping into the village at one point to have tea at noon. When she opens the storage closet, she finds badminton equipment and no bodies. The tea is lukewarm but unpoisoned. Every murder mystery is a delicate balance of coziness and danger; by entirely removing the murder, this one proves cozier than most.

Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens)
There are certain times in this strange, mixed-up world of ours, dear reader, when one is seized with an irresistible impulse to run out into the street singing the praises of Charles Dickens. For me those times usually coincide with the reading of one of his novels. They are all so vivid, so colorful, so fanciful, so Gothic; so full of the sort of weird imaginative details that only he seemed to come up with. I’m less than a quarter of the way through this one, but already it has provided enough of those details to delight my heart. An old sailor with a hook for a hand who replaces the hook with a knife when peeling potatoes. A brave and innocent girl who is kidnapped and whose beautiful hair is nearly chopped off by a mad old biddy. A house in Brighton where the soil is chalky and giant snails cling to the windows and doors the way a young man clings to the book he loves.

Our Chemical Hearts (Krystal Sutherland) [mild spoilers ahead]
If you think John Green’s books don’t have enough manic-pixie dream girls, then here is an ample supply. If you thought Hazel and Augustus making out inside the Anne Frank museum was a model of restraint and sobriety, then you have undoubtedly already read this novel about a girl who wanders the cemetery in her dead boyfriend’s musty clothes, occasionally making out with live boys and saying things like, “The best thing the universe ever gave us is that we’ll all be forgotten.”

… and what I’m watching
The Good Place
This NBC comedy by Michael Schur (Parks & Recreation) was pitched as a comedic version of Lost or The Twilight Zone. It portrays events in the afterlife of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) after she’s run down and killed while chasing after a bottle of margarita mix in a store parking lot. She finds herself in “The Good Place,” a colorful village inhabited by those who led saintly lives on earth. Yet she soon realizes that she doesn’t belong here, and that some kind of clerical error has saved her from eternal damnation. I watched the entire first season of this show in a single day (it’s currently available for free on NBC’s website) and I have no regrets.

endeavour-3Every so often there appears a work so perfect that even to critique it feels like a faintly blasphemous act, an intrusion on the sacred. The four Gospels, for example. The first two Killers albums. And this Inspector Morse prequel set in 1960s Oxford and starring Shaun Evans, Roger Allam, and Anton Lesser. If you like men in fedoras, cleverly orchestrated killings, and sunlight falling on ancient stone streets, then you are obligated to watch this. I formally absolve you from all your professional and family obligations until you have finished it. You have nothing else holding you back. Just watch and enjoy.

Every Song on Sam’s Town, The Killers’ Finest Album, Ranked

killersTen years ago a handsome and waifish young man named Brandon Flowers who was just trying to make his way in the world told a music magazine that he and his band had a new album coming out, and that it would be the best rock album of the last 20 years. And it was!

12. For Reasons Unknown
One of these songs was going to be the worst. That’s okay! It’s better than half the songs on Battle Born and all the songs on Day & Age, save one.

These lyrics, though. Brandon, I would not be surprised if one day you revealed that your songwriting partners staged an intervention midway through this album to stop you from writing your own lyrics, an intervention that ended badly when you declared yourself “the greatest rock-and-roll star of all time” and wrote them anyway. So we ended up with an entire verse about sitting down in a chair—in the middle of a song about aging, which must be very hard for you at 24 years old. And this gem:

“I caught my stride
I flew and flied”

Brandon, FLIED IS NOT A WORD. You are an old, 24-year-old man, you should know this. Also: is “flied” supposed to be an activity distinct from flying, or did you perhaps mean to say “flew”? Also: “FLIED.” WHY.

11. Enterlude / Exitlude
A story: back when I was a young Killers-obsessed boy living in London I was out one afternoon wandering the streets, as I was wont to do, and I wandered into a record shop. There was a song playing on the overhead speakers. Enthralled by the piano and harmonies I went over to the register and said, “Who is this band?” The owner looked at me with a curious glint and said, “Why, it’s The Killers, your favorite band.” I ended up buying Carole King’s Tapestry, but a few weeks later a friend gave me a copy of Sam’s Town and these were the eleventh best songs on it.

10. Where the White Boys Dance (UK version only)
A tale of betrayal and infidelity, a couple of awe-inspiring guitar riffs, and a chorus that raises more questions than answers (where is this mythical place? do the white boys have jobs, or do they just dance and play? are non-whites allowed there? what does any of this have to do with the aforementioned betrayal and infidelity?).

9. Bones
In which we learn that: Brandon Flowers likes to relax by going to the beach and having a good cry; that he hears dogs barking and angels whispering his name; that the ocean is “only water and sand,” but that you can hold hands there! And cry. As for the music video, my BFF said it best: “A Killers music video should take place in the Nevada desert, not in Tim Burton’s twisted imagination.”

8. Bling (Confessions of a King)
Brandon wants you to know that things really aren’t that bad. They’re not! It wasn’t his idea to make that vision quest through the desert, he just woke up here. And he is holding hands with the devil, but it’s just, like, a smart thing to do when you’re stuck in the desert with no water. The devil is basically king here, plus he loved The Killers’ first album and had been looking for a way to thank him. Brandon knows you had some concerns, but you’ll remember him when it’s over. Just shut up until then, okay.

7. My List
The rare Killers love ballad that doesn’t involve jealousy, a bungled attempt to hide a dead body, or a boyfriend who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to your ex-girlfriend that you dated for, like, a month last year.

6. Why Do I Keep Counting?
A song about Brandon praying for calm on a plane flight (he hates flying) could potentially have been a great song. What he really needs is an editor who will sit down with him, fold her neatly manicured hands in front of her and say, “What does this mean, Brandon? Why is your sugar so sweet and obtainable? Also how is this relevant? How does one pave a street with good times? Brandon.”

5. Uncle Jonny
Supposedly this song is about Brandon’s uncle Jonny who did a lot of drugs and loved rock music and was thrilled to have his name attached to a song about a cocaine addict. And it’s actually pretty funny! On an album that suffers at times from being too earnest, the sly sarcasm and subtle sneering of Hot Fuss makes a welcome return. ‘Hey Jonny, I got faith in you man, I mean it, it’s gonna be alright!’ Brandon yells, in a tone that suggests he has no faith in his uncle, and he’s going to die.

4. This River Is Wild
Time Magazine got near the heart of The Killers’ appeal when it wrote, “Brandon Flowers sings as though he’s actually in the middle of a battle, belting out emotional platitudes over explosions.” Brandon loves crescendos, and he loves building his albums to a crescendo, which is why listening to Sam’s Town sometimes feels like watching a dramatic movie where every scene is bigger and louder than the last one. “This River Is Wild” comes near the end of the album, so naturally this is peak Killers, with Brandon lamenting his struggles to be understood and accepted while the world explodes around him in a shower of guitars and glockenspiels.

3. Sam’s Town
This is the secret truth at the heart of all the Killers’ music: Brandon gets you. He knows how it feels to be a lonely teenager burning with a restless energy to be the world’s greatest rock star. He knows how it feels to be scorned by your peers and your mum who think you’ll never make it. He knows how it feels to lose Grandma Dixie and to have a brother who was born on July 4. He knows. Oh, how he knows.

2. Read My Mind
If “When You Were Young” is the Killers’ “Born to Run,” then this is their “Thunder Road,” a sweetly naïve song about young love in a small town and a man’s hunger for greatness. “What do you have left,” the song asks, “when you’ve lost your faith and she won’t return your calls?” To which the song replies: your guitar and your dreams. People may break your heart, Brandon assures us, but they’ll never break the fight inside of you.

1. When You Were Young

Youth is a magical time: a time of romance and doubt and ambition, of skies filled with flaming debris. But like all things, youth comes to an end, and this heart no longer beats like it used to, and these eyes no longer see like they used to, and all we are left with is memory and desire. Desire for the days of our youth, before we dipped our feet in the devil’s water, before the arrival of the incorrigible gentleman-caller who looks nothing like Our Lord and Savior. The Killers know your pain, aging reader. They wrote this song for you.

Where to Begin with the Music of Leonard Cohen


via Rolling Stone

Leonard Cohen, who for about fifty years was the world’s greatest lyricist, has died at the age of 82.

It’s not even the worst thing that’s happened this week, but it still hurts—as if the universe thought we hadn’t had our fill of pain and heartache. Coming at the end of a year where we’ve lost some of our best artists and songwriters, it stings even more.

Leonard never attained the fame and recognition of Bob Dylan, but he was every bit his equal as a songwriter. He wrote melancholy, sly, sad, hilarious lyrics that might as well have been poems: strip away the music and they would still retain their power to surprise and haunt you. He had an exquisite sense of irony and a way of keeping you laughing even as he gutted you with uncomfortable truths about the bleakness of living.

His musical career can be pretty neatly divided up into three periods. If you’re just discovering Leonard for the first time, here’s where I’d begin.

The Early Period
Songs of Leonard Cohen, the album that launched Cohen’s career at the age of 32, kicks off with what is arguably the best song he ever wrote, “Suzanne.” He sings of a romance that seems hallucinatory and not of this earth, but with a perfect attention to details (“tea and oranges that come all the way from China”) that keeps it from ever descending into sentimentality. Threaded through the song are dream-like images and religious metaphors—the entire second verse imagines Jesus as a drowning sailor—that would become a Cohen trademark:

“But he himself was broken long before the sky could open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

Also worth noting from this period is “Famous Blue Raincoat,” from his third album, a song written in the form of a letter to an imagined ex-lover. Listening to it, you can almost feel the chill of a cold December morning seeping in through the cracks in your Brooklyn apartment.

The Middle Period
Leonard’s later music is so different from the songs of his youth that it can sometimes feel like listening to two different singers. In the middle period (which lasted for much of the 1970s) he had shed some of his dreamy wistfulness and begun to write music that was sharp, scathing and satirical.

The best album from this period, and in my opinion the finest album he ever made, was 1979’s Recent Songs. Almost every song on this record is a gem, but “The Traitor” stands out for its savage use of irony in service of a story about doomed love and betrayal, and “The Window” for being a hauntingly beautiful poetic and theological reflection on—what exactly? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to hear lyrics like these without getting chills:

“Then lay your rose on the fire

The fire give up to the sun

The sun give over to splendor

In the arms of the high holy one

For the holy one dreams of a letter

Dreams of a letter’s death

Oh, bless the continuous stutter

Of the word being made into flesh”

Like the poetry of James Joyce or Lewis Carroll, the words almost take on a shape of their own, even apart from their intended meaning.

Later Period
If your only exposure to Leonard has been the thin baritone of his early music, the bass-voiced, synth-heavy songs of his later years may come as a shock. He wrote and recorded “Hallelujah” in 1984 with a hundred-person choir, but few would argue that this is the best recording of the song ever made. (Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright both improved the song by stripping it to its essentials).

But beginning in the 1990s Leonard put away the choirs and baroque instrumentation and wrote some of the best music of his career. My favorite album from this period is 1992’s The Future, which gifted us with “Closing Time,” “The Anthem” (probably his most-quoted song, even by people who have never heard it), and “Democracy.” Cohen’s lyrics have become wide-ranging, referential, and universal in scope and subject, the way you might think of Walt Whitman as being universal, without ever losing their sharpness. Take this verse from “Democracy”:

“It’s coming through a crack in the wall

On a visionary flood of alcohol

From the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount

Which I don’t pretend to understand at all

It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay

From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet

Democracy is coming

To the USA”

It’s all here: Leonard’s allusiveness, his sly humor, imagery that comes at you out of nowhere, his obsession with religion, his knack for playing one final joke on the listener. It may seem like an odd song to pull out of the Cohen catalogue but it exemplifies who he was and what made him a rare genius in contemporary popular music.

Seven Shows to Comfort Your Soul During a Gloomy Week

lorelaiI don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s been a rough week for a lot of people. I’ve spoken with friends who haven’t eaten or slept, which seems like the wrong approach. When the soul is anxious, it’s right and good to treat yourself to a foot massage and a whiskey-infused sweet tea slush. And a comforting show can be a balm to the soul. Here are seven shows to calm you and take your mind off our inevitable deaths:

Gilmore Girls
You’re a young, bookish person reading an essay about comforting TV, so I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending you haven’t already watched this. But let’s take a moment to appreciate its excellence. From the beginning, Gilmore Girls had a couple of things going for it: the relationship between its two leads, the sassy, weird-dancing, bad-at-relationships Lorelai and her teenage daughter, Rory; and a masterful sense of place. Stars Hollow is just about the coziest place on TV, maybe the coziest place there ever was, with its townhall meetings and its coffee and its jobless troubadour wandering the streets singing songs that are oddly relevant to the characters’ lives. You want to go back there, don’t you? Luckily you can, on Thanksgiving. (available on Netflix).

Friday Night Lights
Yeah, it’s a show about football, or whatever, and yeah, there’s some drama, but it’s the kind of drama you want in your life: the kind that involves Coach Eric Taylor looking at you gruffly with a twinkle of unspoken love, and Tami Taylor reaching for your hand over a cup of tea in her kitchen during a late-night heart-to-heart. (Why are kids always knocking on their door in the middle of the night? Do they not know that they have jobs?). Plus, it’s got some of the best depictions of beautiful west Texas and the working-class you’ll ever see on TV. (available on Hulu and Netflix).

queenThe Crown
The Crown is wonderfully dull. It moves at a snail’s pace. Whole scenes are taken up by fancy men and women in fancy clothes reciting their long titles to each other. No one (except the Queen Mum) comes out and says what they’re thinking; instead they stand there staring at each other for minutes at a time, and eventually one of them (usually Elizabeth) will twitch her mouth slightly to express anger. Have I convinced you to watch it yet? Good, because you should. (available on Netflix).

Foyle’s War
Imagine a show about a police detective living in idyllic rural Britain during the war. He uncovers evidence of corruption in the police force or at a local restaurant or wherever. He punishes the culprits by glowering at them with his sad eyes, a sadness that somehow conveys Righteousness and Justice and the Infinite Sorrows of Our Lord. It is a fate worse than prison. Also he has a spunky driver who chauffers him around and helps him crack the case. It is better than The Wire. Could such a show exist in this vale of tears? It exists. (recently taken off Netflix).

I love this show. Love everything about it: the one contestant in each episode who obviously has no idea how to cook but somehow hangs on until the third round. The judge with his gently menacing smile and glasses that seem to change color between episodes. “Chopped” delivers the illusion of drama while never threatening you in any way. It’s a remarkably soothing experience, like watching Michael Kitchen play guitar for an hour. (select episodes are available on Netflix and the Food Network’s website).

Agatha Christie’s Poirot
If I haven’t already sold you on this show, there’s no hope for you, my friend. This is the reason television was invented, so we could marvel at David Suchet’s ridiculous mustache and Arthur Hasting’s inept bumblings that accidentally solve the mystery for sixty shining episodes. I even made a ranking of every episode for you! I watched most of them twice because I care about you and want you to experience humanity’s supreme achievement. (available on Netflix).

slow-tv-trainsSlow TV: Train Ride Bergen to Oslo
Recently Netflix seems to have gathered that our tired, sad nation just needs something pleasant and soothing to put our hearts at rest, so they’ve imported a series of (weirdly popular) Norwegian shows loosely grouped under the title “Slow TV,” for those nights when you need to watch a sweater being knitted for seven hours. My personal favorite is the eight-hour train ride to Oslo (which my family refuses to watch with me), though an episode about a boat voyage around the Norwegian coast, which took three days to air in its native country, was criminally trimmed to a couple of hours when it came to Netflix.

The Election Is Over. What Now?


This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The pundits assured us it was fine. They were confident he wouldn’t win the general election, just as they had assured us he would never make it through the primaries. His path to 270 was exceedingly narrow. Hillary’s firewall would hold. The republic would be saved.

There was no need to fear.

But of course that was never true. I think it was Andrew Sullivan who said he could feel deep in his gut where this was all leading, that no matter what the polls said, there was no way the story of this year had a happy ending. Trump had been weirdly lucky, and had also been cannier and more cunning than any of his critics or opponents. Like the villain in a horror movie, his campaign had been pronounced dead again and again, only to rise again greater and more powerful than before.

I was surprised, the weekend before the election, to see a conservative columnist from the Wall Street Journal and a liberal Bernie voter from suggest that maybe his ascension was some kind of divine judgment on America. But it makes a weird kind of sense. Maybe we didn’t deserve Hillary. And maybe he’s the true face of America: cruel and bigoted and beastly and imperialistic and greedy and hateful towards women and minorities and anyone who threatens it. A billionaire celebrity who doesn’t read: how could he not be our next president?

I know there’s much that is good about us. I see it reflected in the devastated faces of millions who are mourning today: the women, minorities, and LGBTs who have just seen their last hopes eviscerated. I see it in the young mothers who are now fervently praying that the world won’t suffer permanent damage from the effects of climate change or nuclear war.

I hope we’re that lucky, or that God has mercy on us. But I’m increasingly skeptical that we’ll make it through the next four years unscathed. The alt-right is ascendant in America. Their leader has just been elected president. Jews and Muslims are afraid for their lives like never before in this country. Bigotry won. Bullying won. We know now that you can be a serial sexual abuser and it won’t stop you from reaching the highest office in the nation; but if you’re a competent, professional woman, you’re out of luck.

The awesome powers of the presidency have been placed in the hands of a vengeful and self-centered businessman with no political experience, whose sheer charisma has lured half the country into a fascist personality cult centered on hate and the worship of Trump. I sometimes feel like I escaped one cult just to watch my country become one.

I hate talking about him. I stayed silent in the month before the election because the entire country seemed to be talking about him, even his enemies, and it empowers him. I’m tired of the jokes. They’re not funny anymore, if they ever were. I want to put this year behind us and pretend it didn’t happen, pretend half my country didn’t just vote for war crimes and racial oppression and naked abuse of power. But it seems our long nightmare is just getting started.

In the fight that lies ahead there are some people who are going to need to be activists, speaking out against his abuses. But there are others who are going to be called in a different direction. We need artists and writers and poets and prophets and thinkers and intellectuals who can rekindle a sense of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in an ugly and deceitful country. We need fighters who will expose the lies of the right-wing media bubble that imprisons millions and helped bring him to power. And we need novelists and bakers and dancers and musicians to remind us what the good is, and that a nation where twenty percent of the adult population hasn’t been to a library in their adult life is neither sane nor healthy.

The only redeeming aspect of this election and its outcome is that many of us didn’t know how diseased our country was. Now we know. Today is a day of mourning. But tomorrow we have to get up and begin the long work of taking it back.

I’m Sorry to Inform You I have Rejected Your Application to Date Me


Dear Ms. Pengelly:

First I want to thank you for your patience during the last few weeks as we finished scoring your exam. It’s over now and you can relax. I hope the end of the day finds you in a big leather armchair surrounded by pillows, feasting on a slice of your favorite cake (orange-gingerbread, as I recall).

Since you applied to this position over a year ago, your commitment has been tireless and impressive. Regardless of my final decision, you’ve joined the elite rank of applicants. Over 50 percent of potential romantic interests are eliminated before the examination round, whether because of a poorly written essay or failure to disclose their complete medical history.

Second, I invite all applicants to meditate on the words of ee cummings: “nobody loses all the time.” Life is random and arbitrary, and at any given moment most of us are losing at something. Tomorrow’s victories nip at the heels of today’s defeats, and vice versa.

Still, it is with great sadness that I inform you I must reject your application to be my dating partner.

As Miriam explained to you when you started the application process, the examination is graded according to five criteria: Professionalism; Recitation and Delivery; Knowledge of Culture; Opinions; and Survival in a Harsh Environment.

With respect to the first criteria, you acquitted yourself admirably. No applicant makes it this far into the process without demonstrating a marked level of professionalism, and your choice of attire—earth tones, non-garish nail polish, a splash of body spray—served you well during the oral portion of the exam.

The pieces you chose for the Recitation and Delivery portion of the exam were similarly impressive. I won’t pretend I wasn’t flattered when you recited the entirety of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, as I believe I have been careful to mention (more than once) in your presence that it is my favorite poem.

I was equally pleased when you recited, with great vigor, the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V—although I would have preferred “Once More Unto the Breech,” the enthusiasm with which you grabbed hold of that tree limb and raised yourself into the air as you shouted, “And hold their manhoods cheap!” etc. won me over completely, and any complaints about delivery (the occasionally shrill timber of your voice, for example) feel like nitpicking.

(Though, for future reference, the correct line reading is “when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” NOT “when I am writhing,” which any self-respecting seventh-grader might have told you).

Unsurprisingly, your knowledge of culture was impressive, but it’s when we come to Opinions that your responses really begin to raise red flags:

– you mentioned liking the Beach Boys “about as well” as Pink Floyd, when the Beach Boys are demonstrably better

– your assessment of Sufjan’s early works paid scant attention to “Illinois,” his finest album to date

– you (correctly) listed Poirot among your favorite detectives, but lavished far too much praise on Ms. Lemon (when Hastings is the real glue that holds the show together).

– you cited Harry Potter as “one of the great fantasy series of our time” when it is, in fact, the greatest, bar none

– most worryingly of all, near the end of the oral portion when I asked whether you preferred cats or dogs, you broke down in tears and said, “Dogs, I guess,” when the correct answer was obviously “cats.”

Overall, it pains me to say, your conduct during the exam was exemplary. Although the interviews and tests were grueling, you never wavered in your devotion. I can’t tell you how moved I was when you woke up in that replica of Regency England—how you spent two weeks searching for another human soul—how you taught yourself to make butter and sew and store meats… and at the end of it, when your resolve was breaking down, when you didn’t think you could go on living, you took out the photo of me that you keep in your wallet and whispered, “No matter what happens, I will always love him.” And you held on to that conviction, even when you found out it was a simulation.

So it’s only with the greatest regret that I’m rejecting your application, because of the concerns mentioned.

But at least the exam is over now! You should reward yourself, maybe by going some place where the weather is warm and you can eat paella all day in the sun. And remember that if you are unhappy with the results of this exam, you are welcome to re-apply at any time.

Best wishes,

Let’s All Agree to Stop Talking about You-Know-Who


Morse could not care less about You-Know-Who.

As of today, we have only one month and one day until the US presidential election. That can seem hard to believe, especially if you buy into the theory that this year has been going on forever and all our memories of the past are fake.

I hate to say it, but in the next month the election is just going to intensify. It’s going to be the last sixteen months again, only more. Terrorists will attack and one of the candidates will congratulate himself. Ex-wives and beauty pageant contestants and small dogs will come forward to explain how that candidate mistreated them. The Christian Right will continue its long, humiliating slide into irrelevance.

And the news is going to be wall-to-wall coverage of that rascal. You’ll log onto twitter and everyone will be tweeting about him, even the folks who don’t like him. (Especially them). He’s succeeded in creating what most narcissists can only dream of: a republic where he is the sole topic of conversation, now and always, forever and ever.

What if we just stopped?

What if we all agreed, for the next month, not to talk about this man?

Not to tweet about him?

I can hear you objecting. “He’s the most dangerous candidate nominated by a major party in our lifetimes; this is about good and evil; we have to do whatever we can to stop him.”

I don’t disagree.

I just don’t think that “fighting him” and “ignoring him” are mutually exclusive.

Especially not for a man as narcissistic and thin-skinned as this one.

If no one was talking about him, what would he do? Would he wither? Would he disappear?

Or would he just explode?

Quite possibly he would. The only reason he hasn’t yet is because we haven’t tried it. We keep trying to fight him with words and attention, and that just gives him oxygen, and energy.

So let’s agree to stop talking about him. From now until the election, let’s shun him with our hearts and with our words. Let’s pretend he’s not there.

He’ll be the guy in the coffee shop sitting down next to us, waving his arms, trying to get our attention. And we’ll put in our headphones and turn up the music and read our books in peace while he slowly self-consumes with rage.

Imagine how he’ll feel when he logs onto twitter and not a single person has tweeted about him.

Imagine how much happier we’ll be, how much calmer it will be in a world where he doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it feels like we’re addicted to talking about him. But there are thousands of other things that are Not Him, each of which is more delightful and interesting. Here are a few suggestions to help you start a non-You-Know-Who-related conversation:

– Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” trilogy (Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys which is inferior but worth reading)

– hot-air balloons floating above church spires

– a goldendoodle in need of a good home

– the Blessed Virgin Mary

– a lighthouse that sells fudge and ice cream

– fox fur stoles

– sheep: do they go to heaven

– shooting jackets worn over fancy waistcoats

– cathedral parapets

– a hand-cranked sewing machine

– the 1973 film version of The Three Musketeers starring Michael York

– an empire gown made of the purest white linen

– a rusty clawfoot tub filled with perfumes and various unguents

– a boot-scraper chasing a sedan chair mounted on poles

happy tweeting!


The Real Reason So Many Christians Make Bad Art, or How I Learned to Love the World


During the past year or so I’ve become utterly engrossed in the TV series Friday Night Lights.

No one in my family expected this. I’ve never liked football; if you asked, I’m not sure I could tell you what a yard line is. (That’s a thing in football, right?). And it’s a show about rural Texas, a place I spent a good portion of my youth trying to escape.

There are no wizards or magicians, no real mysteries, and only a couple of murders (in the widely panned second season, which I’ve mostly avoided watching). In other words, none of the elements that usually draw me into a show and sustain my attention over four or five seasons.

What it does have, in spades, is detail. When she was reviewing the first season for the AV Club, Sonia Saraiya smartly noted, “The show is almost impossibly rich with detail… what makes Friday Night Lights evergreen is how detailed and authentic the production is.”

That sense of detail was what hooked me during the first season, far more than the high school drama between Tim, Jason, and Lyla, or wondering whether Jason would ever walk again. I had never seen a show that so perfectly captures what it’s like to grow up in Texas. (Among recent movies, only Boyhood comes close). Again and again the show gets it right on the smallest levels—the late-night runs to Whataburger, a fridge full of half-eaten barbecue, a screen door looking out on a back porch that’s just a single slab of concrete with a potted aloe vera plant. The writers clearly did their research. I felt like I was watching a documentary about my hometown.

Ever since I left the weird cult a few years ago I’ve had this peculiar hunger. It’s a hunger for something I didn’t have as a child, and that’s a passionate curiosity to know the names of things, to know what things are. It’s a hunger to know the world, to rub the back of my hand against it and feel its texture.

Maybe it’s a writer thing, but lately, when I read a book, it’s not enough for me to know that a tree was climbed. I want to know more about this tree: was it a cedar? An oak? An elm? Did it have fruit or nuts? Is the street on which the heroine and the giant centipede are fighting made out of stone blocks or asphalt? Because I don’t think I can be fully invested in this fight unless I know what the street is made of.

In my newfound fascination with things I started a notebook where I listed every interesting detail in the books I read and the movies I watched—a list that ran for hundreds and hundreds of pages: types of clothes; types of food; different architectural styles; dances of the Regency era; types of trees found in West Texas. Things I had never paid attention to before I joined the cult had now become the only things that could hold my attention.

When I was young, growing up in a fundamentalist church, this kind of absorption in the world was discouraged. “Love not the world, nor the things in the world,” was a verse that got thrown at me a lot (and is still thrown at me, on occasion). In the twisted interpretation of faith that my mom practiced, the world was just a coded symbol waiting to be deciphered, full of mysterious numbers and coincidences and patterns. This wasn’t a world that could be known or loved, but one that could only be decoded.

And I think that lack of engagement with the world can actually starve a child. It’s a form of spiritual malnourishment that leaves us grasping and impoverished. In one of his novels Jasper Fforde mentions how the lengthy descriptive passages in The Lord of the Rings can nourish a person spiritually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within my cult, descriptive writing was preached against as if it was some kind of sin.

But now I’m finding that description, when it’s done well, doesn’t have to be flowery or purple. Description is just another word for the naming of things as they are.

So lately as I’ve been paying attention to things and asking questions, it feels like I’m reclaiming part of myself. At heart I’ve always been a person who’s absolutely obsessed with detail, but such fascination is anathema in a religious environment where the world is a place you’re trying to escape from.

And the reason so many novels marketed to Christians fail at the most basic level is because they don’t name these things, because their authors don’t know those things, because they’ve never taken to heart the advice of Rich Mullins and learned the names of birds and plants, the names of the constellations, the difference between a tulip and a redbud.

With a few notable exceptions (Rich Mullins among them—who could forget the moonlight spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills?), Christian culture has lost the art of paying attention to things. Open one of the Left Behind books at random, for example, and notice how lovingly the authors describe their weaponry and telephones, but what scant attention they pay to anything else—the natural world, what people look like, how people actually talk. Then contrast that with someone like Flannery O’Connor, whose every line conveys an understanding of the place in which she lives and the people who live there: an intensely religious woman in one story has “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” (One gets the sense that the Catholic Flannery knew her white Southern Protestant culture better than it knew itself).

And I think what ultimately separates good writing from bad writing, and good ideologies from bad ones, is the permission to be curious, to be utterly fascinated with the beauty and the horror of the world and the million small things that make it so beautiful and horrible. I don’t want to be part of your religion if your religion has no time for gelato or prosciutto or Michelangelo. I’m not interested in your justice movement if you’re not interested in hearing me rave about velvet pelisses and candied hibiscus flowers and green bean casserole with deviled eggs.

Because in the end, the naming of things has a sacramental power. It puts us in touch with the things themselves, and things—material things, the stuff of this good earth—are signposts pointing us to God. That doesn’t mean we have to love them for that reason. But they carry the divine spark because they come from the divine hand, and if we allow ourselves permission to love things, we may eventually find ourselves falling in love with God.