Category: Books

What I Watched: Master of None

I’ve been binge-reading thrillers lately (Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine) so I don’t have a lot to report this week. What I am dying to talk about, though, is Master of None. If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to tell you how good it is. If you haven’t … don’t wait, run and watch it. You can thank me later. You WILL thank me later.

The first season is excellent, but the second season is superb. Some of the episodes, like Thanksgiving and New York, I Love You are among the best TV I’ve ever watched. I love Denise, and Denise’s relationship with Dev. I have a not insignificant crush on Brian. I want to move into Arnold’s apartment with its books and its tiny chandelier. I am fond of and strangely invested in too many recurring characters to count. I love the way that the show builds its characters and their respective relationships; there’s continuity and a sense of growth, but none of it feels too pat, too “written for TV” if you know what I mean. It’s like a tapestry, weaving together diverse characters and stories. And the diversity is not of the token variety, either. The show doesn’t hit you over the head — “look how progressive we are, wink wink” — but it’s also unapologetic about spending time with issues and plotlines that, in different hands, would read as very “episode of the week”.

So, again, I say: watch Master of None. You will not regret it.

OK, now I want to talk about two specific things. One, when it first came out, Master of None got a lot of press for being a show that reflected the experience of immigrants’ kids (i.e. first generation Americans). I was intrigued by this because, well, I’m an immigrant and I’m of the same generation as Aziz Ansari, who co-wrote the show. The difference, I realized after I started watching, is that I am actually not a first generation Canadian. I was born overseas and came here as a teenager. So, while there are some similarities in my experiences versus those reflected in the show, there are also some key differences. Like friends who also emigrated as teens, I find that my experiences are a mix of “old country” (similar to those of my parents growing up) and “Canadian” (like my peers). So I was left wondering if my own children, who are actually first generation Canadians on both sides, will have experiences like Dev and Brian. To be honest, neither my husband nor I are strongly attached to our respective ethnic backgrounds/cultures (myself, in particular) so I don’t think there will be a significant “gap” between our kids and us as they get older.

Second, we need to talk about Francesca. I adore Francesca. I adore her in a borderline creepy way, where I simultaneously want to be her best friend … and to actually be her. She is so damn beautiful. She’s also funny and sweet, and if she is borderline Manic Dream Pasta Girl (I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t) she’s so charming that it doesn’t even matter. For what it’s worth, I don’t think she’s a good match for Dev, but I can’t blame the guy for trying. I would be trying too. Pretty much the entire Internet has fallen in love with Francesca. And most of us are now desperately googling “Italian girl style” when what we really want to know is: how can we look like Francesca? I mean, yes, actually looking like her is out of the question, but dressing like her? Projecting that same playful, polished elegance? How does one do that?

Not that I’ve thought about this way too much in the last couple of weeks (except that I have), but I think the key difference between French and Italian chic is approachability. As someone who feels like a dork a good majority of the time, the coolness factor of French style is where I’ve always felt that I fell short of that particular ideal. Italian chic seems like it might be more … achievable? Maybe? Sure, it’s about simplicity and impeccable tailoring, but there is also an element of fun. I don’t like polka dots that much personally, but maybe florals can be my polka dots? Can someone distill down the essence of Francesca’s style? I feel a wardrobe overhaul coming. This interview with the costumer designer for the show is a good start, but I need more details, dammit. More analysis. Break it down for me. Pretty prego.

And if you’re dying to talk more about the show like I am, let’s chat in the comments. I’ll throw on a SPOILER warning too, because that cliff-hanger ending … ooof. We NEED to talk.

What I Read: Thrill Me

I have to thank again the readers who reminded me of Barbara Vine recently. One of the best thrillers I read decades ago was actually Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye, and I’m not sure how the name fell off my radar in the meantime. I ordered ADAE from Amazon (it’s definitely due for a re-read), but it hasn’t arrived yet, so I have been making do with another Vine novel I found at the thrift store, The Minotaur. This is my thriller catnip: large mansion full of secrets, weird family full of secrets, innocent outsider trying to figure out all of the secrets, and, finally, murder. I loved The Minotaur up until the last 10% or so, when it became apparent that the payoff — answers to all of those tantalizing secrets — wasn’t going to be there. I was actually quite cross because, as much as I enjoyed the reading up to that point (Rendell/Vine is a master of atmosphere), I felt robbed.

In a similar vein to The Minotaur, I read The Lake House by Kate Morton. This was another thrift store purchase; I’ve been “burned” by Kate Morton in the past, so I wouldn’t have bought this otherwise. [I read The Secret Hours when it first came out to great fanfare, and I didn’t think it lived up to what the hype had promised me.] It was fine. Not amazing, but ok for a summer/beach read. There were strong shades of Atonement in this book, but I wasn’t nearly invested enough in the characters to be devastated by their personal tragedies. The book as a whole had the opposite issues as The Minotaur; the sense of atmosphere was weaker (also, Morton occasionally makes weird word choices that threw me off) and the plot was too neatly wrapped up. As pleasing as that kind of ending can be, it’s also, well, too pat. It’s like dim sum; great to eat, but you feel hungry again after a couple of hours.

Last but definitely not least, I devoured Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese O’Neill. I loved it, and would highly recommend it. The “narration” takes a bit of getting used to, but I ended up liking it for the most part; it’s like getting a history lesson from a sassy girlfriend. The tone was consistent throughout, and didn’t verge into “annoying schtick” territory for the most part. There was one weird phrase, which made me laugh; O’Neill writes: “… people tended to die more often, and younger…” I’m sure it wasn’t the intent, but I read that as people dying more than once, and I can’t un-read it now.

Otherwise, O’Neill does a solid job in going over all aspects of a (middle to upper class) woman’s personal life in the 19th century in England/America, with lots of fascinating tidbits thrown in. The main takeaway: life was, literally, stinky and far, far less romantic than BBC period dramas would have you believe. This is not news to anyone who has even a passing interest in (real, not fictional) history, but it doesn’t detract from the book, which is all about the nitty gritty, frequently too-weird-to-be-believed details. One thing to note: O’Neill quotes from a lot of advice books and articles from the time period (almost all written by men), and the suggestion seems to be that these sources reflect the Victorian Zeitgeist. I found myself questioning this as I went along. Can we really judge how regular people of a particular era lived based, not on their own recollections, but on, say, the Dear Abby columns of the day? I mean, certainly, there are lots of insights to be gleaned from that (and from things like advertisements) but how clear a picture are we getting? Victorians are fascinating because we know so much and so little about them at the same time. I think more reading on the topic is in order for me.

On to articles … here is another take on where J. Crew went wrong. I used to buy a lot of Factory stuff when the store first opened in Edmonton, but I’ve been buying less and less now that I shop primarily at thrift stores. I still spot J. Crew whenever I check out consignment stores, but rarely in thrift stores. I wonder why that is. But I digress. In my opinion, the issue comes down to price. A lot of stores are offering similar things for similar quality at much lower prices. I don’t know how J. Crew can “unwind” the clock at this point, or if it’s even possible. As the author of the article points out, there are some industry-wide seismic shifts happening, and J. Crew will probably not be the only victim.

This Racked article about the current plague of Ugly Shirts is quite funny. I love the idea of a well-executed “architectural” shirt, but this trend has been taken to grotesque extremes, as this article illustrates. And the prices — OMG! I did try on a more sedate version of Peak Shirt last weekend at Zara, and though I ultimately passed on it, I have to admit it was cute (if terribly impractical):

Zara Peak Shirt
Zara Peak Shirt

This oral history of “My Heart Will Go On” is amazing. Celine Dion is a national treasure.

Happy Friday!!

What I Read: Dictator Edition

I have a bit of a fascination with dictators. I don’t know what that says about me, honestly. If I had the time, I would happily sit through every show in A&E’s annual Hitler extravaganza. [Is that still a thing? Or did A&E dump Hitler in favour of sharks?] However, I am also oddly embarrassed of my predilection, so I rarely indulge it. I feel the same way about serial killers, which actually makes some sense since most dictators are serial killers on a grand scale. Anyway, the fact is that I know very little about dictators, save for what I’ve absorbed through osmosis from popular culture — and when it comes to this topic, North America (or its entertainment industry, I should say) is kind of obsessed with Hitler. Possibly because the West has been familiar with the details of his crimes almost from the beginning? I’m not sure.

As difficult of a read as A Night In Winter proved to be, it did prompt me to look up Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin. I knew very little, besides a thumbnail sketch, of the man. As with his biography of the Romanovs, Montefiore appears to be exhaustive in his research of Stalin. The book is thick, and dense with facts. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on Stalin’s childhood or early years in the Communist Party; Montefiore also wrote Young Stalin, which probably explains why he would not want to cover the same ground twice. Instead, the book focuses on the period from the 1930s up to Stalin’s death. This was actually the period of greatest interest to me, because I wanted to learn more about what life in Stalinist Russia had been like. The book does touch a fair bit on the main figures in Stalin’s political and personal life, which is what I was hoping for, but this came with a downside; there were a lot of people to keep track of, and some of them were too one-dimensional to be interesting. I frequently found myself wishing that, in addition to Stalin, Montefiore had focused on a smaller group of subjects — people like Svetlana Stalin, Nadya and Zhenia Alliluyeva, and Lavrenti Beria, who interested me from a psychological, rather than political perspective. I’m probably being unfair, because I’m sure the book was intended to be a political biography rather than a psychological portrait; with that said, Montefiore strikes me as a perceptive armchair psychologist, so I enjoyed the snippets of personality analyses sprinkled throughout the book.

Stalin was a long slog of a read, but I did to finish a shorter, breezier book in the meantime: If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley. I love books of this kind, like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. I thought IWCT also bore a lot of similarity to Bill Bryson’s At Home, though the latter is (in my opinion) a superior book. I enjoyed IWCT, but I also found it rather shallow. Balancing scholarship and entertainment value is not easy, but I think that authors like Bryson and Mortimer hit a better balance than Worsley in this book. Some chapters were only a few pages long, and left me longing for more information. I would recommend this book as a library loan, rather than a purchase.

On to articles … this NPR report on maternal mortality rates in the US is absolutely heartbreaking but also a tremendously important call to action. I was fortunate enough to go through two uncomplicated births, and never questioned the level of care I received — I just took it for granted. I cannot fathom being in a situation of utter vulnerability and not feeling 100% confident that I was getting the best care possible.

On a different note, this reddit thread (and the subject article) on the ethical aspects of fast fashion was another thought-provoking read. That there are systemic problems with current manufacturing practices is undeniable; but, as addressed in one of the comments, what happens to garment factory workers if those factories close down because US consumers start buying only “made in USA”? The answer seems to be to advocate for better working conditions and tighter government controls (to ensure safety, fair labour practices, etc.) in those same countries where manufacturing is a key industry now … but how can consumers be sure that they are supporting companies that rely exclusively on ethical manufacturers, thereby incentivizing the whole industry to move towards that direction? Personally, I don’t trust initiatives of companies like H&M that purport to demonstrate how ethical the retailer is being; they have too much at stake to truly be transparent. Organizations like Ecoage are great, but I am not sure that their reach is great enough – yet – to impact the average consumers, especially those on a budget. I don’t know what the answer is. Shopping secondhand, as much as possible, is one answer, which works for me but which may not work for everyone. I get discouraged by broad statements like “under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption.” There have to be more options.