Media Round-up for 18/03/2018

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

the bell jarThe March theme for my ONTD reading challenge was to read a book by a female author who is considered to be influential and has had a significant influence in literature, culture and/or society.  Some of the other participants had been planning to read The Bell Jar and, since I had never read it, I thought it might be a good choice.  Unfortunately, due to the new puppy, I read the book over quite a long span of time, which I find often diminishes my enthusiasm a little bit.

I’ve always thought that The Bell Jar was a bit like The Catcher in the Rye: it’s a book that you should probably read before you reach a certain age or you won’t get the most out of it.  I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 years old, which was perfect.  I was an angry, angsty little shit and all of the talk of phonies was something I could identify with.  Having read The Bell Jar now, at 37 years old, I’m glad I didn’t read it as a teenager: there’s no way I would have or could have understood it at that time.

The Bell Jar is generally regarded as a roman a clef (a novel that depicts real life events overlaid with the facade of fiction) and depicts the decline of the protagonist’s mental health.  The events in the book are said to be similar to events in the life of Plath.  At the beginning of the novel Esther Greenwood, a 19-year-old college student, is working on an internship at a famous women’s magazine based in New York city.  Once she returns home after the internship, she receives the news that she was not accepted to a famous writing seminar.  From there, Esther’s condition takes a downward turn and we see her experiences with electroshock therapy and institutionalization.

The Bell Jar is one of those great books where it’s possible to dislike the main character and still like the book.  Esther is difficult and not particularly likeable, but there’s a great deal to admire in her rejection of the men who try to oppress her.  The writing style is fantastic: raw, simple and easy to read.  The tone of The Bell Jar is definitely dark, particularly knowing how Plath ended her own life, but I found that it was easy to identify with Esther’s experiences, even though my own struggles with depression aren’t nearly as severe.  While I wish I had been able to finish it more quickly, as I feel that the emotional weight of the novel would have hit me a bit harder, I am glad to have read The Bell Jar.

Dirty Money

dirty money netflixNetflix original series have been a bit hit-or-miss for me.  Some I love and others I don’t and, in my opinion, their offerings aren’t consistent in terms of quality.  Where they seem to be hitting it out of the park recently for me is with documentaries.  I love The Chef’s Table, Strong Island, The Keepers, Joan Didion: the Center Will Not Hold, Audrie and Daisy, and Amanda Knox.  It wasn’t as exciting as I had imagined it would be, but I even enjoyed Lady Gaga: Five Foot TwoDirty Money continues this trend of quality Netflix documentaries: it’s well-produced and fascinating.

Dirty Money has six episodes (all the episodes are all a little over an hour long).  Each episode is a different story about corporate greed and corruption.  The featured corporations/phenomena are:

  • the Volkswagen emissions scandal
  • Scott Tucker and Payday loans
  • Valeant Pharmaceuticals
  • HSBC money laundering for drug cartels
  • the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers
  • Donald Trump

All of the episodes are great, but for me the Payday loans and Valeant Pharmaceuticals episodes were the most interesting.  I had always known that payday loan companies were sketchy, but I didn’t realize how many folks out there were relying on them for day-to-day survival and how easily the companies could take advantage of that.  The Valeant Pharmaceuticals episode also showed me how insane the market can be for prescription drugs.  I’m not sure how the actions of Valeant affected Canadian customers, but I was astonished at how easy it was for them to markedly increase drug prices for consumers with so little regulation and oversight.  This is doubly interesting when considering the recent Martin Shkreli conviction: he has gone to jail only because he pissed off a bunch of rich people and not because he cheated sick folks out of life-saving medication.

If you haven’t watched Dirty Money yet, you might want to check it out soon.  There’s a lot to learn and it’s very entertaining.  I loved it.


Media Round-up for 04/03/2018

Slow Burn

slow burn watergateSlow Burn is a podcast about the Watergate scandal, which resulted in the impeachment of U. S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.  Since I first listened to Serial, I’ve become a fan of podcast miniseries that cover one topic in-depth.  I tend to be open to different types of subjects, but I do have a significant bent toward true crime.  I decided to try out Slow Burn because it appeared quite often in 2017 year end lists of best podcasts and true crime plus an important political scandal seemed like a combination that would make for a good listen.

It was a good listen, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others have.  Of course, the Watergate scandal is fascinating and all of the episodes provide interesting information and are well-produced, but I guess the podcast just felt incomplete.  As a Canadian, everything I know about Watergate comes from seeing All the President’s Men quite a few years ago and I didn’t feel like the creators provided a good overview of the basics of the scandal.  Further to that, while each episode deals with a different aspect of the scandal, I felt as though they didn’t connect together particularly well, as though there wasn’t much of a narrative through-line in Slow Burn.  It also felt a little short and like it could have been more detailed and a lot longer.

The feeling that the podcast is incomplete is problematic for me because the outlet that produces the Slow Burn (Slate) has locked a lot of extra content for the show behind a pay wall.  There are extended interviews and other content that you can access by purchasing a premium membership at Slate.  The premium content is marketed extensively in each episode of Slow Burn as “bonus content,” but it makes me wonder whether the podcast would feel more robust and complete and have a better narrative through line if I was willing to pay for it.  The second season of Slow Burn will be covering the impeachment of Bill Clinton:  interested to see if my feelings about it will be similar to the first season.

Machado de Assis – The Alienist

the alienistThe Alienist is a 100 page novella written ca. 1881 by Machado de Assis, a Brazilian author who is often touted as the father of Brazilian literature.  February’s theme in the ONTD reading challenge was to read a book by a Brazilian author and The Alienist was one of the titles suggested by several other participants.  I’m glad that I chose this book because it was a nice change from what I’ve been reading recently and it’s been forever since I last read any short fiction or novellas.

Alienist is the 19th century term for psychologist/psychiatrist.  de Assis’ novella is a satire about a doctor, Simon Bacamarte, who moves back to his small home town in Brazil to open an insane asylum called Green House.  In line with his theories regarding madness, Bacamarte begins to commit more and more residents of his hometown to Green House, leading many to wonder who is actually insane.

The Alienist is an excellent satire on early psychology/psychiatry which examines how, depending on the expert’s hypothesis regarding the symptoms or nature of psychological disorder, he can find madness in just about anyone.  As Bacamarte’s hypothesis changes, so does the population of Green House.  Initially, I thought that this book might be a bit scary or creepy (I find depictions of insane asylums to be terrifying), but it is purely satirical and, given the length of the story, doesn’t go into much detail regarding the treatment of Green House patients or the institution itself.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to just about anyone who likes short fiction.

Media Round-up for 18/02/2018

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind

shadow of the windThe Shadow of the Wind is a book for people who love books.  It takes place in Barcelona, Spain throughout the first half of the 20th century, a tumultuous time in that country’s history.  In 1945, the book’s protagonist, Daniel Sempere, is introduced by his father, a widowed used bookseller, to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Daniel is allowed to take one book from the Cemetery, as long as he promises that he will preserve the book and its story for the rest of his life.  He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by a little known author named Julian Carax.  Daniel reads the novel and is completely spellbound.  At 10 years old, he feels as though he has truly awoken to the power of the written word.  He then begins a quest to learn more about the book’s mysterious author so that he can read more of Carax’s work.  His inquiries are met with stories that someone is systematically purchasing and destroying copies of Julian Carax’s novels.  The mystery that ensues is gripping and a pure joy to read.

I adored The Shadow of the Wind.  The writing is both beautiful and easy to read, which is a rarity and even more incredible since the book has been translated from the original Spanish.  If I’d previously known nothing about the book or its author prior to reading it, I would have had no idea that it was a translation.  The characters are rich, vibrant, and easy to root for.  I have not read a novel in quite some time where I was so readily able to identify with and root for the central characters.  They became my good friends over the hours that I spent reading the book.

The mystery elements of The Shadow of the Wind are also wonderful.  The suspense runs quite high until the novel reaches its climax and the denouement, where the truth is explained from the perspective of a character that you would definitely not expect to reveal anything, is tremendously satisfying.  The Shadow of the Wind is just the right length: Zafon has not lingered on any of the plot points for too long and it doesn’t skim over any necessary details.  I would say that the only real weakness of the book is that the true villain is a little underdeveloped and, for me, his motivations weren’t particularly compelling.

If you’re a reader, you should check out the Shadow of the Wind as soon as you can.  You won’t regret it.

You Must Remember This

you must remember thisYou Must Remember This is a Hollywood history podcast written and narrated by Karina Longworth, a writer and film critic, and is probably one of the best podcasts I’ve ever listened to.  When I was sick with the virus that put me in the hospital in late October/early November it was my constant companion.  Karina Longworth’s research is impeccable and her voice and enunciation are fantastic.

The podcast generally follows a series format.  Sometimes the series will explore just one story and others will have single episodes that fit the theme of the series.  Topics that she has covered so far include:

  • Movie stars during the Second World War
  • The Hollywood Blacklist (stories of Hollywood folks who were involved in or affected by the House Un-American Activities Committee)
  • Charles Manson’s Hollywood (the most critically acclaimed series and my personal favourite)
  • Dead Blondes (or, really, tragic dead blondes)

If you’re at all interested in the Manson family (or true crime stories), the Charles Manson series is a must.  If you’re at all interested in old Hollywood or like old movies, or are looking for a way of learning more about old movies, this podcast is a phenomenal tool to learn about film history and also to get recommendations for films to watch.  Try it out sometime and let me know what you think!