Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The LRG Best Books of 2017

As we're getting close to the end of the year, those "best of" lists are beginning to pop up and I am not one to ignore the chance to celebrate some of the great reading that I've done in 2017.

True, the year is not quite finished with and there are still a number of wonderful books that I have not gotten to yet. However, mid-November is a safe enough zone,pop culture wise, that making an official list is pretty reasonable.

 After all, Goodreads is the final stretch of their Choice Awards voting(and yes, I am participating in that) as we speak,so the time is nigh. Most of my picks are novels(with one nonfiction selection) and if you haven't read any of these yet, I so strongly urge you to at some point in the near future:

BELLE OF THE BALL: Min Jin Lee's second novel,Pachinko, was a long time coming but well worth the wait as the numerous critical raves and a nomination for the National Book Award clearly show.

However, the word of mouth for this generational story of a Korean family struggling to find their place in Japanese society during and well after WWII was just as dazzling, with many readers moved by her heartfelt prose.

I was fortunate enough to meet Min Jin Lee at a BEA event many years ago, where she signed my copy of her first novel Free Food for Millionaires(a highly recommended read as well) that I brought with me in a quilted tote bag. She was charming and generous that day and from what I've seen in interviews and articles for Pachinko, she's even more gracious as a person.

With the NBA ceremonies only a day away, I wish her the best of luck and hope that her next book will arrive sooner than expected:


JOURNEYWOMEN: My next pair of picks are debut authors whose first novels may truly feel miles away from each other, yet they share the same sense of knowing that some feelings are universal.

Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk has it's title lady taking a personal stroll through memory lane in New York City on New Year's Eve in 1984, intending to head to her favorite restaurant yet finds herself making a few unexpected detours before midnight approaches.

Lillian's take on the changing times as well as looking back on her life as an independent woman well ahead of her time is thoughtful,funny and bittersweetly touching at times. It would make for a great movie(Kathy Bates would be my choice as the lead) but as it is, this subtly sincere novel is a true mental breath of fresh air.

Speaking of fresh air, The Windfall by Diksha Basu displays a dazzling array of characters in a twist on the classic comedy of manners genre set in modern day Delhi.

From Mr. and Mrs. Jha,who are overwhelmed by their newfound wealth to their son Rupak in America who is torn between two women and not doing well in school to their new neighbors the Chopras who have just as much anxiety about the Jhas as they do about them, this set of social norms is upended in a most delightful way.

This isn't all fun and games,however; a good amount of emotional drama and potential romance within the fictional framework helps to ground the story and make the characters fully three dimensional. Basu makes such a wonderful first impression with this entrancing novel that I long to see what she does next and soon,I hope!:


SINISTER SITUATIONS: The next two books on this list are inventive chillers that defy the usual tropes of their genre and then some.

To begin with, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz starts out with an editor happily reading the latest entry in a popular detective series,only to be stumped not by the story but by the lack of final chapters.

When she goes in search of them, the author turns up dead and more than one mystery is in need of solving,not just for the characters but the reader as well.

Horowitz tips his hat to Agatha Christie here, especially with the fictional detective Atticus Pund, who I wish we did have a whole slew of his crime solving adventures to read our way through.  At least we do have this clever tale to enjoy and marvel at, with all of it's properly puzzling twists and turns:



Iconic author Stephen King joined fictional forces with his son Owen to bring Sleeping Beauties to waking life and boy, what a beauty of a nightmare vision it is.

Set in a not-too-distant future, the world is quickly undone by a mysterious ailment that puts most of the female population into a deep,cocoon wrapped slumber and simply waking the ladies up is not a safe option.

With a strange woman who calls herself Eve Black and is unaffected by the outbreak known as Aurora, a small mountain town becomes the focal point for the bizarre phenomenon,with a showdown at a women's prison possibly deciding the fate of all humanity.

Mixed with pathos,dark humor and elements of fantasy, this glimpse of a brave new solo gendered world is incredibly timely and gives the well worn notion of "battle of the sexes" a terrifying stage to showcase itself on:



 HOCKEY AND HEARTBREAK: I've been reading the works of Fredrik Backman for a good portion of this year, from A Man Called Ove to My Grandmother Says to Tell You That She's Sorry and Britt-Marie Was Here.

I do have a novella of his to catch up to but for the most part, his books have been amazingly excellent reads. However, I do have to agree with the critics that his latest novel,Beartown, is next level writing.

The title refers to a dying small town whose whole identity and hope for any viable future is wrapped up in the local high school hockey team. This drive to make it into the championship game offers a way out of despair for some and a constant annoyance to others but sadly, it also allows too much leeway for misbehavior to it's young players.

When a sexual assault occurs at a victory party, most of the town is willing to overlook it in order to gain fortune and fame, not to mention being quick to blame the victim and any of her allies. Yes, it's a sad and no doubt triggering for some story but it's a sincere and well developed one that should be a beacon of emotional light to those looking for the right way to go in this all too well charted territory.


THE CAT'S MEOW: Writer and blogger Tim Hanley is one of the best chroniclers of comic book history from a female perspective out there, as his previous works about Wonder Woman and Lois Lane show.

In The Many Lives of Catwoman, he does more than trace the rise and occasional fall of Batman's feminine nemesis. Hanley calls out comic book legends such as Bob Kane and others for their exploitation of fellow artists as well as the character herself. However, her villain/antihero status is not enough to keep this princess of crime down for long.

Hanley also showcases her more positive features over the decades and happily highlights her live action incarnations(yes, the infamous Halle Berry film is given it's own chapter) as well. This is truly one stop shopping for all there is to know about the feline queen that rules Batman's world:


I hope this list gives you a few new books to pick up and I do have a few honorable mentions to name as well: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Gracia,Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson,Kevin Kwan's Rich People Problems(so excited for the Crazy Rich Asians movie due out next year!) and Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin.

This year was and still is a troubling one to get through. With any luck, signs of better things to come will show up by the end of the calendar and for me, pop culture can offer us a bit of relief as well as inspiration as to how to handle the upcoming challenges set before us.

 A new year has many good things in store for us,including books, movies and books made into movies. I know one thing for sure about 2018 and it's that I am ready like Freddy for Ready Player One:


Friday, November 10, 2017

Setting the TV table for some Thanksgiving family fun

As a fan of Thanksgiving,it's been my observation that this savory holiday tends to get fast forwarded nowadays( all the better to start up your seasonal shopping spree!) and to bring us back to enjoying this delicious occasion properly, I will be posting a few Turkey Day pop culture reminders.

To start with, Thanksgiving is a time meant to spend with family and friends,which doesn't always go off perfectly but that's what makes for a great anecdote to share at holiday gatherings for years to come! Many of our favorite TV shows do serve up a good Thanksgiving episode or two yet also offer us a look at different ways that people get together and deal with each other for this special meal,so here's a tasting menu of small screen T-Day delights:

GILMORE GIRLS: Our title ladies begin their Thanksgiving run with a visit to the Kim family, with Lane nervously watching the punch bowl as her mother scowls at relatives who abuse her furniture and cheerfully passes out plates of tofurkey. While Lorelai is hardily a tofurkey fan, she does keep up a fine tradition of bringing a little something to the dinner,even if her napkin maneuver is hard to pull off:


SUPERGIRL: Yes, even superheroines need some holiday time and while it's always fun to watch Kara cook the turkey with her heat vision(so not kidding about that), it's the family drama that brings the real flavor there.

Last season, her sister Alex and buddy James had big reveals to make at dinner but an inter-dimensional disruption cut both of those announcements short. Just as well, since the bland blathering of future boyfriend Mon-El was also nipped in the bud(so glad that he won't be back for Thanksgiving this year!),although his confusion about the holiday was further enhanced:


SNL: It's a long standing joke that Thanksgiving forces you to mingle with those particular relatives whose world views are decidedly different from yours and that a fight at the table is inevitable ,to say the least.

However, one recent Saturday Night Live skit gave us the best solution to stopping such disputes from ruining everyone's appetite. Just crank up the music of the moment and in this case, it was Adele's latest album,which allowed even the uptight aunt at the table to rock harmoniously and humorously with her niece's new boyfriend:


FRIENDS: Over the years, the Central Perk pals joyfully shared many a Turkey Day together yet there was one time that they did not.

Most of them had made other plans or good reason not to go home to their family this time out and yet Monica wound up cooking three different versions of potatoes,only to have the entire meal burned to a crisp due to a parade balloon distraction. The mood of the day went downhill from there.

However, one more look out the window caused them to rally together and full embrace the spirit of the day, even Chandler, who got to carve the cheesy main course:

 
So, no matter what the circumstances, Thanksgiving is a good time to gather around your loved ones and rejoice in the good things in your lives. Granted, counting your blessings is getting harder to do these days but it's not impossible.

Also, don't caught up in the fancy trappings of the day such as the perfect place setting and the right style of food. As one of the best episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond shows us, a Thanksgiving dinner tastes fine any time and especially in your pajamas:


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Bits of book hauls for a fall bouquet of reading

I buy books the way other people might buy shoes-somewhat practical but can quickly get into impulsive territory. Having a church rummage sale near my house doesn't make that urge any easier but I do try to shop as smartly as possible there.

My book purchases were few at the rummage sale this time out(one book, I found out later that I already had, so it will be donated during my next shelf clearance run). However, I did get a nice three-in-one deal by picking up Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, a snazzy Penguin Deluxe edition no less.

This trio of off beat noir novels have become cult classics, with City of Glass starting things off by sending a mystery writer named Quinn out on a late night odyssey through the streets of New York. That's followed up by Ghosts, with characters that have names right out of an early Tarantino script hunting each other and the finale is fittingly entitled The Locked Room.

I've heard of Paul Auster over the years but never read any of his works,they just didn't call to me. That doesn't mean I won't give this set of his most famous stories a try,bargain price or not. Maybe this is the right moment for me to see what he's all about, at least fiction wise:


Another fortunate find was The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, a novel that was a big hit in Europe a few years ago but didn't do quite as well in America(sort of like that film adaptation of Jo Nezbo's The Snowman at the box office these days).

The plot of the book is rather bookish as a successful young writer,Marcus Goldman, seeks inspiration for his next book via a visit to his former college professor of the title. Upon arriving at the seaside New Hampshire town where Quebert lives, the body of a dead girl  who had been missing for over thirty years is discovered with the professor being the prime suspect.

Despite the mixed reviews, I'm willing to give this a go. Turns out my purchase is rather timely as the book is being turned into a cable TV series for Epix, with Patrick Dempsey signed up to play Harry Quebert. Granted, I don't get that channel but this is still a good way to get introduced to this tale one way or the other:


My book bargain buying also extends to online(and Better World Books does give to charity,so more justification!) as well and yes, I really did need a new edition of Anna Karenina.

I've been doing well reading War & Peace in the Maude translation and since I've tried in the past to read AK but to no avail with the Constance Garnett version, it made sense to get the Maude edition. I did donate my older Anna Karenina before getting the new one(newish,so to speak).

My new Maude AK happens to be a movie tie-in edition, the latest big screen film starring Keira Knightley. I do like movie covers on books,plus the print size is good which is important for such a long read. I intend to read Anna Karenina as soon as I finish with W&P(yep, doing the full Tolstoy there) and who knows, I might see this film version,too:


 Also, I have a good excuse for getting The Black Moon by Winston Graham. It's the fifth book in the Poldark series,which is being featured on the new season of the PBS series(along with Four Swans, which I should really have as well). True, I'm a little behind in my Poldark reading yet I do have a plan as to how to fix that.

My Series-ous Reading challenge for 2017 will be wrapped up soon, with Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, and my reading blog goal for next year is Stephen King's The Dark Tower books.

However, that series has only seven titles(I know, there's a side story as well but sticking to the main books for this one) and for a full reading year,perhaps adding some of my Poldark TBR to this literary quest might be a good idea. Series-ous Reading 2:Electric Book-a-loo, how does that sound?

 A little corny, I know but being overwhelmed by unread books is something that most readers face and it's certainly a solution. Another round of catch-up is not too bad and it's better than being jinxed at birth by a black moon,that's for sure!:


Seriously, I do need to slow down my book buying as the holidays draw near, not to mention that I have a few library books to return soon. I'll do my best but so many sales, so many books, so little resistance to temptation....:


Monday, November 06, 2017

3 key elements that make Stranger Things 2 work like a charm

One of the few pop culture delights that my sister and I not only share but refuse to watch without the other sibling present is Netflix's Stranger Things and yes, we were fully revved up for the second season.

We saw the nine new episodes in viewings of three at a time-full on binging can make it hard on the eyes(we both wear glasses), not to mention needing some time in between to mentally digest the multiple plot lines and characters. After seeing the entire second season, my sister and I both agree that this was a great follow-up and are looking forward to what comes next.

Now, I don't intend to get into spoilers here but to go over some of my thoughts about ST2, a few minor plot details will have to be mentioned. You have been warned!

In my opinion, the second season of any show is make it or break it time; a debut can be dazzling but it's that next go-around that should cement in the solid character beats and main thematic track that both the viewers and characters are traveling on together. To that end, I have pinpointed three major elements that Stranger Things 2 needed to click together in harmony and in my opinion, succeeded brilliantly:

CONTINUITY: The story starts up a year after the events of season one and while everything feels like the typical mid-1980s small town coming of age tale, nothing is truly the same.

For one, while Nancy and Steve are still a couple(for the most part), their relationship is severely strained as Nancy still wants answers to what happened to Barb,not just for her but for Barb's grieving parents who have no idea about where their daughter went.

Mike, meanwhile, is still in mourning for Eleven(who is much closer than he thinks) and while Joyce has a new love in her life, the Byers household is not as it once was. Will remains the central focus here as he did in S1, struggling to fit in the regular world where the kids at school call him "Zombie Boy" as visions of the Upside Down frequently pop up at the worst of times.

 Granted, having Will be the designated Boy in Distress could get old fast but for the moment, it only makes sense that his otherworldly experiences would continue to haunt him. Comparisons are made by others to Will's situation to PTSD and it does make for a thoughtful metaphor here. However, Will ultimately becomes a harbinger of what's yet to come from that shadowy realm which is still being poked and prodded at by the powers that be. It's a role that he can expand on for at least another season:


NEW CHARACTERS: Being able to bring in new people is important to keeping the story lines fresh yet hopefully not too distracting. Since too many spoilers would stir up, I'm going to be very brief about the new Hawkins residents yet will expand upon one essential to our young protagonists.

 For ST2, we have Joyce's new techgeek boyfriend Bob(Sean Astin),who turns out to be very useful in a pinch, a new head of the secret lab(Paul Reiser) that has Will check in every so often, a conspiracy theory fellow(Brett Gelman) and a stepbrother and sister act.

The new girl in town is Max(Sadie Sink), plagued with a creepy controlling older stepbrother named Billy(Dacre Montgomery) and possessed of video game skills, not to mention smooth skateboarding moves. At first, the guys try to connect with her but to no avail and then later on, Max decides to team up with them,probably because no one else at school seems to bother with her.

Mike is less than thrilled with having a new girl in their group and even Eleven is not happy about that as well. Max does become a good fit, as her newbie status lets in a new perspective on the paranormal proceedings and the more strong females on board here,the merrier but Eleven may have a different take on that indeed:



DOING THE UNEXPECTED: A show like this can slip into cliches very easily and fortunately, that trope laden mine field is stepped through carefully yet it doesn't play things totally safe either.

Eleven has a major character arch midway through, seeking out her birth mother and eventually meeting up with another empowered person marked as Eight(the character's actual name is Kali and well played by Linnea Berthelsen). There's a whole episode that Eleven spends outside of Hawkins on her own and while I won't get into that too much, I must say that despite the negative feedback given to that particular episode, it's very necessary for Eleven's emotional journey and much better than a lot of folks think.

 Meanwhile, Steve, of all people, manages to surprise us by being a little more human. True, he still has a lot of jerk qualities(newcomer Billy actually manages to make him look like a sweetheart in comparison) but when asked by Dustin to help out with Upside Down business, he not only helps but tries to act responsibly to protect the kids.

Further more, Steve does a bit of mentoring with Dustin that shows some signs of growing maturity. You can have a debate about how good his advice on girls actually is but you can't deny that this odd bond has positive merits. Steve showing that he can think about someone else other than himself is a step in the right direction and while he has a long way to go, Steve might turn out to be a better person as the story continues.

 For a character to do that without special effects is pretty amazing and not to be taken for granted here:


All in all, Stranger Things 2 was an absolute pleasure to watch and I see good things ahead for the next season. Season Three should prove to be a real high point for all concerned and whether it turns into the end game of a trilogy or a next to last chapter, there is plenty of fertile fictional ground to explore.

For now, ST2 proves that this series wasn't a fad or a fluke-instead, it's the hallmark of talented writers and creative artists ready to give us more than we bargained for:



Friday, November 03, 2017

Some nominees for my Nonfiction November reading

Having just finished a month long readathon, it's understandable that  I would want to take a more leisurely approach to the rest of my literary year.

However, I've heard a lot about Nonfiction November, where the main goal is to read more factual books than my usual supply of fiction. While you can follow the challenge officially, most people seem to set up their own TBR and do their own thing here. With that in mind, I have a few books that are in the running for my personal NFN selections and maybe you might want to try one of them,too:

NOURISHED: Food writer Lia Huber chronicles her emotional journey into the world of cooking, going from a romance in Corfu where family love and home cooked meals went hand in hand to a village in Guatemala that the addition of simple vegetables to a soup brightened up everyone's day.

I've started this book already and Huber's writing is very heartfelt, bringing a vivid warmth to her descriptions of the time,place and people around her. Recipes are also included but the stories here are the main course of this memory feast.

With Thanksgiving coming up this month, this delicious memoir could provide some menu plan ideas or a tasty way to appreciate those good moments in life:


 BOOKNOTES: C-Span once had an interview show where authors of nonfiction shared their thoughts about the world as well as put in a good word for their latest book. Book Notes was hosted by C-Span co-founder Brian Lamb and this collection was the first of several that highlighted those interviews in print form.

There's a vast variety of writers on display here from historians such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin to political figures like Colin Powell and journalists ranging from Neil Sheehan to Stanley Crouch.

 The show had a good run, starting in 1989 and ending by 2004. I remember watching it from time to time back in the day and wish we had a version of Book Notes right now. Considering how the lines between fact and fiction have been blurred lately, this certainly feels like the right time to check out how the old school was able to make those distinctions very clear. Also, with knowledge under fire as it is now, the subtitle of this book "America's Finest Authors on Reading,Writing and the Power of Ideas" sounds rather timely to me:



 MY BOOKSTORE: This collection, edited by Ronald Rice, gathers together over eighty writers to talk about their favorite independent book stores and give their recommendations for good book buying from all across the country.

The list of writers ranges from best sellers like Fannie Flagg, John Grisham and Elin Hilderbrand to award winners such as Isabel Allende and memoir notables Rick Bragg and Dave Eggers.Here, they share some good stories about how these little literary shops made their reading and writing lives all the better and as a former indie bookseller myself, this sounds like a dream.

A few writers have even become indie book seller themselves, like Ann Patchett who highlights her favorite store here and perhaps took a bit of real world inspiration along with a great book or two from there:


Don't worry, I still plan on reading plenty of fiction(have a few books to catch up) but increasing my nonfiction intake feels like a fine idea. There are way more well read than me in this department,so you can find a lot of good suggestions for your own Nonfiction November list out there but do be sure to check out subjects that sincerely interest you.

On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to try something completely different yet it does help to persist with a lengthy nonfiction read if you are honestly motivated to learn more about a certain subject. Happy Nonfiction November and good reading to all and yes, to all a good read: