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.