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A few of my favorite things

October 5, 2015
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Autumn break is getting close, so what better way to get off to an inoffensive new start than by recommending some of my favorite pop cultural things at the moment? Let’s start literary:

Pretty Girls – Karin Slaughter

For several years now, I’ve picked up the new Slaughter as soon as it comes out. Pretty Girls was one of my many summer reads, and is a strange Slaughter to recommend. It’s neither a Sara Linton (Grant County series) or Will Trent novel. The former books were Slaughter’s big break, focused on coroner/pediatrician Sara Linton, her chief of police husband Jeffrey Tolliver, and his detective protege Lena, while the latter is her current ongoing series, set mainly in Atlanta, Georgia and deals with dyslexic Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent and many different characters (tangentially) related to him. Both series have, at least in the Netherlands, a relatively rabid fanbase, which I got to witness firsthand at a reading Slaughter did in The Hague several years ago. There, many were still upset over the end to the Grant County series, even though it was some years later. 

Slaughter is known for her absolutely brutal descriptions of the most heinous crimes. She paints vivid images of women nailed to wood, people gutted, children abused. In this way, her writing is more comparable to Gillian Flynn than, say, Patricia Cornwell (if one needs to compare female crime writers at all). Pretty Girls, however, is a new level of horrific. I would argue this is mainly possible because it’s not part of a series and the reader has no previously existing attachment to any of the characters. This doesn’t mean that, like in all her novels, Slaughter quickly makes you care about even the more unlikable or unpalatable personages. But because the reader – and the writer herself – hasn’t been living with these characters for years, it must be slightly easier to see them subjected to brutal, protracted torture, both mental and physical.

So what’s Pretty Girls about? In a nutshell, what many of the books in this genre are about: missing and murdered pretty, young girls. We unravel the story of a current abduction through Claire and Lydia, whose sister went missing 20 years ago. It seems pedestrian – a story we hear on the news much too often – but this very brief plot summary cannot do justice to the full narrative. As will Flynn’s Gone Girl, however, it’s nearly impossible to give a good summary without giving away key plot points. So suffice to say that two-thirds in, I thought, “alright, I know it can’t be over yet, because there’s still a third to go, but I’ll be damned if I know where this is going” a split second before I posted “PLOT TWIST. MOTHER-EFFING- PLOT TWIST” on all my social media channels without any context.

That said, Pretty Girls is maybe not the best introduction to Slaughter. Not because it isn’t prime Slaughter: it very much is. But I’d argue that when it comes to violence, this is not just culmination, but accumulation of years of graphic description. If you’re not used to this type of violent writing, it can very much be a turn-off. And Blindsighted, Slaughter’s first novel, is both violent and gripping enough for a beginner. So maybe start there, but then quickly tear through both series and work your way up to Pretty Girls, just like Slaughter herself did.

Well, that was 500 words on books, but these days, I Netflix way more than I read (yes, I’m a disgrace to my graduate degree in Literature…):

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Based on the book series by Kerry Greenwood, MFMM (as devotees call it) follows the cases of lady detective Phryne Fisher in 1920’s/30’s Melbourne. Officially 28 years old (in the books), but played by 40+year old Australian actress Essie Davies, the Honourable Miss Fisher comes from humble beginnings, but as a direct result of the first World War comes into an enormous fortune. This does not stop her from working odd and dangerous jobs during the war, though. Upon her return to Melbourne in 1928, Miss Fisher, sexually liberated, politically liberal, and accepting of people from all walks of life, starts up her own private detective service – which causes her to regularly clash with detective inspector Jack Robinson. Fortunately, the detective inspector and Phryne have stellar on-screen chemistry. Unfortunately, he is married. And though Phryne’s sexual proclivities range from young and limber Russian ballet dances to older, stern Marxists, this is a bridge that cannot be crossed.

Or can it? Thankfully, the tension between Miss Fisher and Robinson is not the only romantic sparkle on the show. Phryne’s brave but demure (and much more reasonable than the reckless Miss Fisher) maid Dot quickly falls for policeman Hugh Collins. They’re the sweet setting off the spice of Phryne.

In addition to the relationships, the series also has a cast of desirable “characters” that’s slightly out of the ordinary: Phryne’s extraordinary wardrobe. As a jazzy woman of unlimited means, Phryne’s wardrobe contains an unlimited number of sparkly flapper dresses, sassy trousers, and fabulous headbands and hats. Because she’s able to navigate different social milieus, we see Phryne in an astounding range of different types of outfits, especially considering this is not a show with an HBO-like budget.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is available on most countries’ Netflix, at least two seasons. The most recent season aired in spring/summer 2015, so it might take a while for those rights to be acquired by Netflix around the world. Those first two seasons will get you hooked though, particularly if you’re inclined towards stories of strong but also vulnerable women who kick ass when they can, and look fabulous even when rolling out of bed.

Finally, I have a music – or should I say musical – recommendation:

Hamilton 

If you’ve been anywhere these past few months, then you’ll think my two cents on Hamilton are superfluous, and you’d be right. If, however, you’d not as deeply steeped in US (social) media, you might not be aware of this stellar new musical.

So what is it? In a nutshell, the story of “Founding Father” Alexander Hamilton (based on the biography by Ron Chernow) from his arrival in New York in 1776 (so in the midst of the American Revolution) until his death in 1800. Sound fun? What if I added that the genre is not “classical” musical, but rap, hiphop, R&B, dancehall, and much more? Sound too hip? What if I added that currently, the only white cast member is Jonathan Groff, who plays King George? Sound gimmicky?

That’s what I thought, to my shame and embarrassment. When Hamilton went from off-Broadway to Broadway this summer, to tremendous critical acclaim, I sadly thought, eh, do we have to? This sounds… too much. And I’m a musical person! I’m just not always very open to new stuff. Now, I didn’t explore much further, because I wouldn’t be able to see it anyway. But two weeks ago, the original cast recording dropped on NPR first listen, and my American friends collectively lost my minds. I held out for another week, but when I discovered the cast recording is actually the COMPLETE show, lasting 2 hours and 22 minutes, (an absolute rarity in theater world: see the Wicked cast recording, where several key songs are not recorded at all, because “it would give too much away) I decided to give it a try.

From the first notes, I was tapping my foot. By the eighth song, I was dancing alone in my living room (something I do way too little). By the second act, I was crying every other song (or so it felt). Very important point about me: I don’t cry. But I lost my cool on several occasions, and have every day since, whenever I hear certain songs – or even think about certain songs. Saturday night I was extolling the virtues of Hamilton to a friend and explained the plot development that takes place during the song “It’s Quiet Uptown.” When I tried to quote the line “Forgiveness / can you imagine” (meaning very little out of context), I choked up.

Though the second half of the second act is very feelingsy, there’s a ton of fun to be had with Hamilton. I laugh out loud (habitually, every time I hear the songs) on the regular, at lines that out of context also mean very little (“I’m a general / WHEE!” “We’re reliable with the / LADIES”), and I chuckle over King George being a hard-to-break-up-with boyfriend: “When you’re gone / I’ll go mad, / so don’t throw away this thing we had. / Cuz when push comes to shove, I will kill your friends and family to remind / you of my love. Da da da dat da dat da da da da ya da.”

Quotes, however, do not adequately convey the lyrical brilliance that is every song in this show. From the opening “Alexander Hamilton” with its staccato delivery to the hilarious follow up “Aaron Burr, Sir” to the inimitable “Satisfied” sung and rapped unbelievably … I don’t even have a word for it … by Renee Elise Goldsberry, every single line is a delight.

The one trouble with this show, in an international context, is that it does presume an audience familiar with the broad strokes of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. Of course Americans are indoctrinated with these stories (though less so with Hamilton’s) from a very early age, but the rest of us might have an awareness that ends with knowing that the American Revolution happened and that George Washington was a person. If that’s the case, no shame, but you’ll want to read up on this time period. Wikipedia should suffice, though if you’re like me and become obsessed, you might be making a grab for Chernow’s biography before long.

So if you have a free 2.5 hours (and you do need to have nothing else to do but lie on your couch/in a bathtub/chill with some mindless craftiness) and a penchant for good music, good rapping (think Nicki Minaj on Monster), good history (Chernow consulted), and lots of unexpected feelings, hurry thee to Spotify, iTunes or Apple Music and give Hamilton a whirl. If you hate it, feel free to yell at me. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be seasoning your coffee with tears while pouring a cup and listening to “Burn,” you’ll be inexplicably tearing up in the cookie aisle at the grocery store when Eliza wails during “Stay Alive <Reprise>”, and you’ll sob your heart out over an orphanage at “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” But you’ll also work out harder at the gym than ever before when “Yorktown” arrives at the moment Hercules Mulligan saves the day.

This seems enough culture to fill your autumn break with. Enjoy! And feel free to report back to me in the comments.

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