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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

To read, and read anew: books to love over and over again

My second bookcase has been started!

My second bookcase has been started!

I got into a Goodreads conversation with a fellow book clubber about books that can be read over and over again, and whether or not they maintain the same magic as the first reading.

I contend that most books lose their luster after a second read, mostly because we already know the plot and the ending, but a few actually do get better after multiple reads. Kids books, for example, are wonderful to reread as an adult. So often new information is revealed, jokes are finally understood, and even seemingly tame story lines- Roald Dahl’s novels come to mind- appear darker the second read around.

So much of the magic we experience in books is created or defined simply by where are in our lives. I wrote on my Goodreads shelf “Books that Changed Me” that both American Psycho and The House of Mirth struck me so deeply based on where I was physically, and what I was going through in my life. As in the case of The House of Mirth, I was knee deep in a financial mess and therefore I identified strongly with Lily Bart’s plight, whereas had I actually been financially sound, I don’t think her story would have resonated with me in quite the same way. I did have the chance to reread the novel a few years ago, and while the characters are still beautifully and wittily written, the tone felt more melodramatic and Lily Bart a little more frivolous and stubborn to me than upon the first reading.

However, there are still some books which I have had the utmost pleasure in rereading over and over, and the magic behind the novels has increased ten-fold through the years.

Here is a shortlist of personal read again favorites:

Katherine Neville’s The Eight and The Magic Circle

The Eight, in particular, is an experience like no other. I’ve probably reread her novels (for many, MANY years there were only three. I see she has a new one that came out in 2008. Must read!) three or four times. Part historical fiction, part mystery, part high-tech intrigue, and part epic romantic adventure, these novels captivated me to no end and never lost their thrill. The only time I EVER talked to a stranger sitting next to me on an airplane was when I spotted a copy of The Eight in his seat pocket. I was desperate to find out if he was loving it as much as I had!

I happened upon a used copy of The Magic Circle in my mid-twenties, and having forgotten that I had already indeed read the novel, I voraciously dove into what I thought was an overlooked Katherine Neville. Half-way through I realized that it was a reread, but I was so engrossed that it didn’t even matter. The novel took on new meaning to me. Believe me, it is that gripping!

Part of what is great about Neville’s books is that they hold up incredibly well despite having been written more than 15 years ago. The Eight was written in the late eighties and is about a woman living in the seventies, so after a couple of rereads in the late nineties and early 2000’s you would expect the book to seem dated and irrelevant. Not so. The novels are rich and complex and with each reread I discover new aspects of the plot that I didn’t fully grasp on the first go-around. Each book is composed of characters so grounded in the fundamentals of human nature that you hardly notice the setting and background details, such as computers, transportation and fashions, which have definitely evolved over time.

Because the books are epic adventure stories in nature, it is possible to still feel the same zing of excitement with each new read. Exotic locales, simmering romance, and cloak and dagger intrigue never really go out of style. I feel almost comforted every time I reread The Eight. I know the plot and I know how the story ends, but it is the journey that I want to experience one more time.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Ok, disclaimer: I have read every Harry Potter novel at least three times with the exception of the last in the series, for obvious reasons. I mean, it’s the last one. Finito. Fin. The End, no more. I can’t seem to bring myself to close that series forever. Actually, that’s not completely true: I did reread the last chapter of the very last book a couple times, but mostly to convince myself it was truly over.

In some ways you almost have to reread these books in order to keep the story straight and re familiarize yourself with the characters and all the magic that is happening. But that is not the only reason I fell head over heels enchanted with these books enough to read again. Each volume gets funnier the more you reread. As is the case with kids books, a lot of the humor is lost on the very young. I don’t have much of an excuse; I started reading them as an adult. Still, the story got progressively more poignant and at the same time, humorous, with each new read.

Also, if you start again at the beginning of the novels and read through to the end you discover the brilliance that is J.K.’s writing. She writes each volume according to reading level, as she understands her child audience is, in fact, growing up as they read the books. By the end of the series, the writing is more mature, the characters more conflicted and nuanced, and she definitely knows that by now her audience can handle more complicated plot threads.

I’m so delighted to rediscover her writing style and great skill with each new read.

Judy Blume’s entire Young Adult catalog, in particular Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself, and Just As Long as we’re Together

My childhood is full of reading and rereading the same books again and again. I started reading Judy Blume around age 11 and continued to read her novels until my early teens, probably as late as 14. Judy Blume wrote specifically for pre-adolescent and pubescent girls, and amazingly her novels stand the test of time because they  never stray from the issues that have plagued young girls since the beginning of time: getting their period, falling for boys, and dealing with peer pressure.

Trust me, when you are 13, the above is all you care about. I must have read Are You There God? more than ten times from age 11 until 13, hoping and waiting for my “magical” girl moment. I reread this book in particular mostly for reassurance that what I was feeling was perfectly ok. If Margaret went through it, then everything will turn out for me in the end, I told myself.

The novels got better the more I read them, and they became more pertinent to my life. Also, I reread them for clarification: what I didn’t understand at age 11 became more clear at age 14. With Just As Long as We’re Together, I remember rereading the chapter where Stephanie and Rachel go to the dance because I could NOT understand what type of top Rachel was wearing that was described as “an upside down lampshade”. Since I was at that age when somewhat risqué clothing was an option for me, I was dying to copy the look. And I was also figuring out my place with my friends too. Judy Blume’s novels became a refuge and a learning ground for what would be expected of me as I turned into a teenager.

Starring Sally J. Friedman, on the other hand, was a novel where I identified so much with the main character that I read the book over and over again for simple inspiration. I have a memory of when I was first told we were taking a trip to Florida and right before we left I thought to myself ,”Now I can go meet my sister Sally”. Silly, yes, but I must have read that book at least four times before our trip. She was spunky yet shy, and had a great imagination. I not only  thought of myself like her, I wanted to actually be her.

As a lark, I reread Are You There God? as an adult. Actually, the parent’s side story is what is more clear than ever, probably because I’m reading it as someone who could now understand where they are coming from. It’s a great revelation because it made me realize that this book in particular is not necessarily just a young adult novel anymore. I think anyone with young daughters who are “reaching that tender age” could learn a lot from these books.

Mil Millington’s Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About

I love this book, and I love to reread it, for one simple reason: it’s utterly hysterical. Whenever I finish a particularly heavy book and I need a “brain break” from anything too complicated before I go to sleep at night (prime reading time), I tend to pull out this book. And I laugh every single time.

I first came in contact with the novel- known hereafter as TMGAIHAA- at a yard sale in which the seller was a former manuscript reader for a publishing house. I’m not quite sure she had any right to sell these yet-to-be- published editions (lots of typos and errors in these books, but I still count the box I found of these gems a gold mine), but TMGAIHAA was among them and as I was told, “A great read”.

A “great read” is a bit of a stretch. I haven’t read the actual published version so certain details and plot points might have ended up hammered out in the final version, but the copy I read is basically a memoir/blog entry/rambling complaint based on life with his live-in girlfriend Ursula, who is also the mother of his children, with a side-plot involving stolen goods and the Chinese. It doesn’t actually “read” per se, but rather the story moves along like a screw-ball comedy caper feature film à la “What’s Up Doc?” or even “Romancing the Story”.

And I mentioned it was funny. Not just funny- absolutely rip-roaring funny. If you ever get a chance to read Mil Millington’s website www.thingsmygirlfriendandihavearguedabout.com, you will see what I mean, and all of that stuff on the website is completely separate from the book. But you will grasp the author’s tone that is the same in the book: frenetic, chaotic, whip-smart, and completely snarky. The book never fails to give me a great chuckle when I’m in need.

This Old Show: 3 long-in-the-tooth personal favorite TV shows that I may just retire from my repertoire.

I have only ever watched a handful of TV shows from start to finish, meaning from the premiere to the series finale and never missed an episode. Most shows I start somewhere in season 1 or 2 and go from there. For the TV series’ to which I devote my half hour or hour a week, I expect a lot. Some of the following shows I have threatened to quit every so often, but then I get surprised by a certain episode and am back in love.

However, there comes a point when even the best show, a show that has provided hours and hours of enjoyment through the years, has definitely run its course. I have a feeling my faves below are not long for my continued viewing pleasure.

1. Grey’s Anatomy

Oh, Greys…I will admit there was a time in my life when this show could do absolutely no wrong. Before I had cable or a way to really tape shows, and before I even had a decent working computer to watch episodes on Hulu or ABC.com (yes, I am aware it sounds as though I lived in a cave. I practically did), watching Grey’s Anatomy on Thursday nights at 9pm was an EVENT. I  made dinner, bought a bottle of wine. Even my boyfriend at the time knew not to call me during the 9-10pm hour. More often than not, 9:59pm found me at least either teary eyed, or outwardly sobbing (I still contend this had nothing to do with the wine). Grey’s Anatomy , when it was good, it was GOOD: an all-star cast, fantastic storylines, and even wonderful and talented guest stars. In fact, while I was interning at a talent agency at the time, it was well-known that to get on Grey’s was practically an honor. I mean, remember what it did for Elizabeth Reaser’s career?

It was the most popular drama on TV for more than a few years running. And then something happened circa 7th season. The show started to drift into Soap Opera territory. It happened a little bit earlier in season 5 too, with Katherine Heigl’s truly awful “Sex with dead Denny” story line, but even then I was willing to cut the show some slack. The fabulous thing about Grey’s is that the show tends to get right back on track fairly quickly. Until recently.

What happened in Season 7 and subsequent seasons thereafter is that it started to play around with the formula. Story lines and character arcs are becoming tired. Case in point: in an effort to shake up the format, the audience was introduced to a musical episode where Callie’s character views the goings on around her from her “out of body” state following a severe car crash. I almost quit the show right then and there. It wasn’t necessarily a Jump The Shark moment, but the show ventured into a gimmicky silliness that belied the serious and truthful characters and backgrounds the series took a long time carefully establishing.

We found the doctors facing yet ANOTHER life and death scenario (probably almost every character’s 3rd or 4th brush with death) in season 8, which I admit was a great finale, however we are now back to most of the story line in subsequent episodes revolving around “coping” and “getting back into the game”, especially with Christina, and this theme has happened more than once (after Derek’s shooting is a prime example). In short, it’s becoming clear the series is having a hard time continuing the story in a plausible and believable manner that doesn’t resemble a soap opera. Even the music this season, which the show brilliantly used in previous seasons as a way to showcase new artists, has that melodramatic soap opera-y feel to it and comes on only to announce to the audience , “Ooh, here comes a sad part!” or “Oh, Weber is about to deliver a life lesson stay tuned!”

Part of this dilemma stems from the fact that most of the characters are established, right where the audience wants them. And this is a good thing in a few ways: Mere has Dere and absolutely NO fan of the show wants this pairing broken up again. Christina has Owen, and I for one will quit the show next week if Shonda Rhimes messes with Christina’s love life again. Not that I think they are great couple, but rather, Christina’s love life has always been my least favorite aspect of the show. I can’t handle another go-around of “Christina loves Owen but can’t saying anything and Owen sulks around the hospital yelling at people”. Callie and Arizona are solid, and as for the interns, well, I know there are more than a handful of fans who could care less about these newbies to the show. While these established story arcs, which have messed with and broken over the course of a couple seasons, are good news to fans it does definitely make for some uninteresting TV.

We are now two episodes away from Season 9’s finale and the future of the series is still unknown. Will it come back for season 10? Who knows at this point. Do I want it to come back? Ack…I still don’t know. To tell you the truth, I could take it or leave it. Yes, Mere is pregnant and so there is another story line that sort of hangs in the balance, but I don’t know if I necessarily care enough at this point to watch Mere and Dere cope with parenting and potential onset of Mere’s early Alzheimer’s. Bailey might get canned, but lately anyone who leaves just comes back a few episodes later. I simply don’t see where the story can possibly go for another 22-24 episodes, without it being a completely unbelievable mess.

VERDICT: Grey’s Anatomy, I think I can finally quit you.

2. Bones

I am probably not the first to admit that from a writing and structural standpoint, when you compare this show to say, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, or Grey’s Anatomy, Bones is not a good show. Part of its appeal, I think, is that it has always unabashedly remained a not great (it’s not really even in the league of great) but campy and enjoyable series.

I watched the premiere of Bones mainly out of curiosity. The series is based on books by one of my favorite crime writers, Kathy Reichs. The show is indeed nothing like the books. The very first episode of the series was an awful mess and I tuned out of the show for about half of the first season. However, as the show progressed, it became a wonderful and kooky blend of forensic science, anthropology and detective work with a lead couple who had similar chemistry to Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in “Moonlighting”. The series suddenly became very fun to watch. Sure, the plots are EXTREMELY formulaic, the setting is wholly unrealistic (I know it’s for the sake of the actors and dialogue, but no one wears masks when dealing with stinking and rotting bodies, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sexy coroner in incredibly high heels), and rarely are there any continuing story arcs, but the supporting cast and the leads formed a reliable troupe of nerdiness and style that was comforting enough to check in on week to week.

Bones has had its moments of great drama, usually revolving around a stray serial killer or two. This is when the show, which normally relies heavily on its routine  formula of someone finding the body leading to an investigation then interrogation in every episode, is gripping. The standard plot arc goes out the window and the audience is kept in suspense. The show was also brilliant in keeping the sexual tension visible, but at arms length, with its two leads. The series toyed with a Booth and Bones coupling more than a few times, delighting and teasing the audience for a couple of years. I mean, I CRIED when Bones sat in Booth’s car sobbing when she realized she missed her romance window with him. I was one of the many fans who wanted Bones to end up with Booth.

However, the show ended up giving the audience exactly what it wanted a few seasons too early. Since Bones has been renewed for another season (I’m presuming its last) next year, this makes the third season in a row we’ve had Booth and Bones together. And it’s booorrrring! The sexual tension is gone and now it’s becoming unclear as to why I tune in every week. The cases are just too formulaic and uninteresting for me to keep going. Everyone is in a great space and conflicts are few. Hodgins and Angela are still a cool couple (I loved it when they got together too, also too soon) and the potential romance between Cam and the intern is intriguing, but the show never quite delves into either character enough for the audience to care. Same goes for Sweets and Daisy.

The show may be bringing back its serial killer-gone-loose story line with Pelant for the cliffhanger this season, which I think is great because he is scary and want to see this arc wrapped up, but I don’t think this will be enough motivation for me to keep watching next season. Where exactly can Booth and Bones go at this point? Of course there is marriage, but since they are practically married it’s kind of a “yawn” and feels like an anti-climatic way to end the series.

VERDICT: Depending on what happens in the next couple episodes, I will probably not tune in for the next season.

3. How I Met Your Mother

The show’s writers actually created a brilliant series by having the series’ endgame written into the show’s premise. The fact that we knew from the very beginning of the series that Ted would be meeting the Mother by the end of the series kept the audience hooked week to week. The only question became “WHEN” would Ted finally meet the Mother. Some folks say that journey has taken way too long.

I was actually an extra in the pilot for this series. Having done several pilots the 2005-2006 season, HIMYM was the only one I’d worked on where I knew without a doubt the the show would be a hit. The series is funny, relevant, and at times extremely moving. And most importantly, the writers and cast seem to understand the pathos behind people in their 30s so perfectly and compassionately.

There really isn’t anything else like this show on TV, or maybe ever. “Friends” came close, but that show never had its characters venture too far from the inner dating circle, leading to predictable couplings. Ted’s wife, on the other hand, is OUT THERE SOMEWHERE. We know it isn’t Robin or Lily, and so the game has always been afoot from the very beginning. I found one of the episodes a few weeks ago with Future Ted telling Present Ted to “hold on, she’s out there, you will meet her soon, just wait” absolutely heartbreaking and truthful. When we are in the midst of despair and sadness, it’s so hard to imagine a future of happiness. HIMYM has always done a fantastic job of keeping the audience tuned into the present while providing only a few hints into the future and the solution to the show’s riddle.

We’ve gotten glimpses of the Mother’s ankle, leg, and side arm. We know Ted will meet her at Barney and Robin’s wedding (if there is one. We know there is a reception, but anything can happen right?) The show has annoyingly and frustratingly, yet realistically, kept us in the dark for so long it knows we can’t hold out much longer. The Mother will most likely be revealed in a couple of weeks. She HAS to be!

And here is my dilemma: after Ted meets the Mother, will anyone even WANT to tune in after that? I’m one of the few who has completely enjoyed the ride of Ted’s journey to find his soul mate. I haven’t found the series taking too long of a time to reach the endgame. Actually, I think we are at the perfect point. He sees her, they finally meet, and he just KNOWS she’s the one. I’m not exactly sure I want any more. My only real complaint of the show is that Ted’s love interests are never very interesting. This casting of the Mother has got to be strong. In some ways I almost feel sorry for the actress who plays her: talk about extreme expectations and pressure!

If the show is wearing a bit thin this season, it is because the other characters are basically established. Only  Ted’s future really hangs in the balance. You could still argue that Robin and Barney are up in the air, but for right now I think Ted’s story line is crucial. Lily and Marshall are suffering from what every TV couple suffers through once a baby is introduced. I believe it has been said by critics that once you introduce an infant onto a show, the show dies. It’s not entirely true in this case, but Lily and Marshall have no where else to truly go besides poop jokes, no sex or sleep, and the usual complaints that they can’t hang out with their friends too much. The show did do a wonderful job of finding some new foils for these two, such as Lily’s unexpected dissatisfaction with motherhood (a topic not talked about very much, but should be!) and how the other friends deal with Lily and Marshall as parents (which is such a turning point in friend relationships, by the way), but I think we’ve reached our peak with these two.

Can the show successfully fill 22 episodes next season with Ted falling in love with the woman-who-will become-the-mother, ending with what we all assume will be his wedding? My only guess as to what might make it interesting is if Robin marries Barney this season, but next season she realizes she made a mistake and it should have been Ted along (brought on by the fact that he is now happy and settled). But then again, how much more back and forth can one audience take? Look, I WANT Ted to finally be happy and I do want Robin and Barney to make it, and I for one am not quite ready to let this show go. My fear is that the last season, which we knew was coming, will be a let down of sorts and a disappointing end to what was such a promising beginning with this series.

VERDICT: I will probably stick it out through to the very end, even if it means one more season of getting to know the Mother. I still love this show with all my heart!

My 2013 Book Challenge! Who’s with me?

I spend a lot of time reading books. In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t go to bed without reading a chapter or two, or setting aside a half hour or so to sit down with a good book. I’m the type to keep a spare book in my car in case I ever find myself stranded somewhere without something to do.

Lately I’ve been spending a large amount of time thinking about my love of books. My  Goodreads blog now contains a shelf called “Books That Changed Me”, which is devoted specifically to all those moments you read a novel and it sticks to you like glue long after it’s read, for whatever reason. I LOVE writing reviews about books that I’ve read. Now that I’m fully entrenched in Goodreads, I just can’t stop talking about books.

I’m definitely going through a “sharing” phase and if I can be responsible for ONE person falling in love with a book or discovering a new favorite author based on my suggestion, I couldn’t be happier.

As my “To Read” pile on Goodreads reached 50 titles, I stopped adding to it and made a vow. I will read every single book PLUS all the books to be read in the next 6 months for my regular physical book club meeting. In all, we are talking 55 books for 2013. I’ve read 8 so far.

My To Read list is an eclectic mix made up of friend suggestions, Goodreads recommendations, books I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to it, and a few “late night” additions reminiscent of my Netflix queue: beware of drinking a couple cocktails and then getting online around 2am (there were a few weeks where we kept getting really obscure independents and “steamy foreign romance” films in the mail). My list also includes several new authors and this is why a challenge like this is great for me because I tend to get unadventurous at times when it comes to exploring unfamiliar writers.

But I am determined to read AND review all of these books. Why? Because my soul needs to be shaken and stirred and literature has the power to do that to me. And I have this absolute need to share my love of books with everyone.

I invite you to befriend me on Goodreads to share and comment, however I will also start posting reviews here as well. AND, if you have a suggestion as to what I should read next in my pile let me know!

Without further ado, here is my challenge for 2013:

TO READ

I Was Blind But Now I See James Altucher
Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea Chelsea Handler
Time and Again Jack Finney
City of Thieves David Benioff
Great Tales from English History: A Treasury of True Stories about the Extraordinary People — Knights and Knaves, Rebels and Heroes, Queens and Commoners — Who Made Britain Great Robert Lacey
The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern
The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2) Patrick Rothfuss
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) George R.R. Martin
How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking Nigella Lawson
Water Music T.C. Boyle
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant : Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone Jenni Ferrari-Adler
Where Tigers Are at Home Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Restless William Boyd
Far to Go Alison Pick
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond Denis Johnson
Bright Lights, Big City Jay McInerney
The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow
Requiem for a Dream Hubert Selby Jr.
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook Anthony Bourdain
The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945 Richard Jewell
The Raven’s Seal Andrei Baltakmens
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Therese Anne Fowler
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks Amy Stewart
Murder Below Montparnasse  (Aimee Leduc Investigations #13) Cara Black
Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut
The Alchemist Paulo Coelho
Not the End of the World Kate Atkinson
Human Croquet Kate Atkinson
Started Early, Took My Dog (Jackson Brodie, #4) Kate Atkinson
Life After Life Kate Atkinson
Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking Susan Cain
Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle Rachel Dratch
The Red House Mark Haddon
Boom! Mark Haddon
On Writing Stephen King
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd Jim Fergus
The Time Machine H.G. Wells
11/22/63 Stephen King
Le Coeur D’une Autre Tatiana de Rosnay
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Seth Grahame-Smith
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
My Mother Was Nuts Penny Marshall
Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and the Birth of Modern Art Dan Franck
Pope Joan Donna Woolfolk Cross
River of Darkness (John Madden, #1) Rennie Airth
Fraud: Essays David Rakoff
Light in August William Faulkner
The Partly Cloudy Patriot Sarah Vowell

PLUS 5 to be determined book club books.

CURRENTLY READING

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I am counting on you out there to keep me honest and motivated. I know I can do it!!

Mad Men! … or, Bad Men.

Sigh. Don and Pete have fallen back into old sexual routines. And this time it’s closer to home.

We are now two episodes into this season of Mad Men, and no one is more excited than me. I was a bit late to the Mad Men bandwagon and didn’t start watching from the beginning until the series was well into its second season. Any show about the 60s was worth watching, in my book, and since I didn’t have cable at the time I was relegated to wait for each season on my Netflix. It was well worth the wait. My first encounter with the series premiere reached near religious experience proportions: the first episode was quite possibly the most brilliant of any series I’ve ever watched.

While the show maintains its brilliance and nuance to this very day despite a long and tedious year and a half hiatus as the creators and producers hashed out deals with AMC (and the series kept its momentum, mind you, and not a small feat), lately there is a small disturbance in the Mad Men force. I will admit that this season’s premiere –  its sixth and final (gasp!)- bordered on major doom and gloom. Don Draper is going through what is quite possibly the world’s worst case of a mid-life crisis.

And I’m troubled because up until this point, no matter what marital mess Don has fallen into I’ve always stood up for the guy, or at the very least, understood his point of view. I have to say, though, that with Don’s latest fling with apartment neighbor Sylvia, I’m unable to comprehend Don’s sadness and desperation less and less. Or, rather, my tolerance level has appeared to have piqued.

There is a recent and great interview in Paste Magazine with Vincent Kartheiser talking about the evolution of Pete Campbell and the sometimes tragic double lives he and Don lead:

“I think if people don’t want [Don] to win or don’t want him to succeed, then we’re doing something wrong,” he says. “Not us, but the show in general is doing something wrong. So it’s a good thing that people are sympathetic with him; although he may commit the same types of crimes or immoral acts as other characters on the show, we need to give him a pass. We needed to because that’s the way the story’s written. If you don’t want him to win, then we’re doing something wrong.” (to read entire article: www.paste.com/issues/week-88/articles).

Here is where I take issue: I think the show may indeed be starting to do something wrong because I find myself now unable to give Don a pass. Just what is wrong, however, is still a little unclear but I think it may have to do with this latest episode’s treatment of women.

My main issue is with Megan, Don’s wife. There is simply not enough wrong with her that I can tell which would ultimately cause Don to stray. And I am not saying that Betty, wife #1, deserved to be cheated on but I will get to her in a minute. Let me put my argument another way: if Megan’s pursuit of acting and brief lapse into alcoholism (that we are aware of, sure, but seriously the problem only showed up in one, maybe two episodes last season!) due to her failure to land acting jobs, which resulted in needing Don’s help and connections to book one commercial, and Don somehow couldn’t cope with playing second fiddle to his wife’s blossoming career (a career he knew she wanted before he married her, by the way) and now feels he needs an escape hatch, then in some way this exposes more of Don’s selfishness than any failing on Megan’s part.

As for Betty, it was easier to see the trappings and events that led Don to seek a mistress outside his marriage. We as the audience got more insight into Betty’s character than we have so far with Megan. We were shown her hopes and dreams lost, her troubled childhood, her brush with therapy, her apparent disinterest with motherhood, and while there was true affection between her and Don at times, the pair just didn’t work. Both of them got what they thought they wanted- house in the suburbs, Don’s career success, a beautiful family- only to discover later on that what made them happiest was almost the opposite. Compared to Megan, Betty Draper was complicated and even though Megan has had her fair share of backstory, she is still the anti-Betty.

Which begs the question: what is Don looking for?

Megan’s main fault (as far as I can tell) is that somewhere along the way she stopped being Don’s dream woman. When they first married and Don was in his euphoric love phase, he had the perfect woman that complemented the Don Draper enigma: beautiful, sexy, whip smart, hip, young, confident, and with just a touch of that naiveté and freshness that men like Don fall for. Most importantly, she was surprising talented at advertising. If you ever had a sneaking suspicion that Don has been secretly looking for a Peggy type as life partner, you wouldn’t be wrong. Not only did Megan have a knack for advertising, she worked at the same agency and therefore spoke Don’s language. He could communicate with her on a level that he could never do with Betty or several of his other flings. Also, given that they commuted to and from the office together, any après-work activities would have been fairly difficult for Don (though knowing Don, I’m sure he could have figured it out. He is diddling the lady down the hall now you know, and is none too discreet about it either).

Her fall from Don’s grace seems to coincide with her decision to leave the advertising office for an acting career, although you could argue that it happened a bit earlier when Don realized the woman he married is not always going to like the same things he does. Remember when he didn’t want a surprise birthday party and Megan threw one anyway? Remember when he REALLY wanted her to love Orange Sherbet at the Howard Johnson’s and when she didn’t, he peeled out of the parking lot after a fight and just left her there? Both events resulted in some heavy duty screaming and carpet sex. But besides these two incidents, there hasn’t been much in the story lines to justify Don’s apparent explanation to Sylvia in last week’s episode as to why he got into the affair that he and Megan were “drifting apart”. I think Don is drifting; I’m not so sure about where Megan exactly stands.

Perhaps her new career as a woman who plays pretend subconsciously rubs Don the wrong way: he has built his whole existence on pretend and maybe it hits too close to home. Megan is only playing at a facade; Don is living it. Another point to consider is that Don doesn’t necessary like to stand in the shadows. As Megan’s career continues to grow little by little, so has her star quality. One look at Don’s face as a fan of Megan’s soap approached her for her autograph in Hawaii spoke volumes. Someone, somewhere, will eclipse Don (god knows Pete’s tried. Peggy could do it. Bob Benson is certainly an eager beaver), and who will he be then? Megan and Syliva are currently polar opposites: Sylvia the older slightly more refined dutiful housewife and Megan the younger cosmopolitan actress. With Sylvia, Don stands out. He’s the bright spot on a lonely day. Is Don drifting from Megan simply because her star power is currently burning brighter than his?

On the other end of the Bad Men spectrum is Pete. Hard to root for Pete. Even though Pete Campbell has at times expressed moments of charm and compassion (he was very competent dealing with the Miss Blankenship body disposal and was quite a comfort to Joan when Lane died), the guy remains a smarmy scuzzball for most of the time. Throughout the series he has wanted desperately to become Don Draper without ever understanding what it truly means to be Don Draper. Hell, we aren’t sure DON even knows what it means to be Don Draper, as the latest episode “The Collaborators” contends. I actually thought it would be Pete who commits suicide last season, not Lane, as he was so completely miserable in career and marriage.

Pete’s affairs, as he even admitted last season, are always a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound”. It is probably the only moment I have truly felt compassion for the man. Pete seems to be stuck in a marriage that Don left behind. He’s in the suburbs- he hates it. His wife is rich and well connected- he’s used those connections and hates himself for it. From the very beginning when they got engaged, the audience was well aware that Pete’s marriage to Trudie was doomed. She wanted the perfect picture; Pete wanted whatever resembled Don’s perfect picture. Neither matched.

So when Pete’s latest female distraction- again, like Don, a neighbor no less- shows up on the Campbell’s doorstep, bruised and battered, Trudie showed perfect grace. She KNEW what was going on but gave the woman as much care as possible, something Pete couldn’t be bothered to show. And wasn’t it fantastic when Trudie finally called Pete out?  Pete blames her for forcing him to move out of the city, and therefore he is miserable. Trudie claims she never forced him, and anyway, if he was going to have an affair, she at least expected him to be discreet. We love Trudie.

Again, here is a case of a woman who did nothing wrong other than have an expectation for her marriage. A loving husband, a nice house, a kid- she’s been honest about wanting this all along. While no marriage is perfect, and even nice people are not always a good match, it is hard to root for two men who seemingly have it all and are choosing to literally throw it all away. And for WHAT? I think if I knew I may be more forgiving, but I’m just not finding it easy to sympathize.

That there is an overall theme of prostitution (and its repercussions) revolving around all of the female characters and the men in this episode is no accident. To the subtle and seemingly innocent exchange of cash for shopping between Don and Sylvia after a recent tussle in the sheets, to Don’s recurring flashbacks of moving into a brothel with his sometime prostitute mother (or step mother- I’m not sure) to the end credit song of “Just a Gigolo”, the theme hangs in the air over its cast like a bad cloud of cigarette smoke in this latest episode: dirty and clingy and impossible to brush away. Even Pete’s blunt quip, “Can you move things along?”, to the neighbor after an afternoon tryst, had a tinge of a prostitution feel to it.

But the issue of prostitution was hit dead on in the case of Joan. The man, and Jaguar client, whom Joan had to sleep with in order to land the agency the account and her promotion shows up unexpectantly at Joan’s office door. He even goes so far to refer back to their one night together and make assumptions. Joan has always, and will always, know somewhere deep in her soul that she paid a heavy price for her success. And as most of the men in this season are learning, what appears to be a simple and innocent affair on paper- no strings attached- has an actual cost, even when there is no physical money being exchanged. As Don is coming to realize, there is no simple affair. Sylvia asks him what he wants. He answers, “I want you”. It is implied that what is not said after that statement is “nothing more”, but Sylvia isn’t so sure. She warns him to not make her fall in love him.

We are left to assume, though, that Don learned his habit of lying and treating women like common whores from his childhood experience of living in a brothel and witnessing his mother (or stepmother. If anyone knows, please comment!) “help out” with the owner/uncle through a peep-hole. But what does this really mean? Don actually shows Joan- a woman who did really prostitute herself out for the sake of the agency- more reverence than he does his own wife.

There is a sense of discontent and something akin to sheer exhaustion among the men. They aren’t sure what will make them happy, but they sure know what ISN’T . Not even another woman seems to be doing the trick. Usually Don always looks at his new mistress as a possible escape route, but I’m not sure that is what is happening with Sylvia. Is she merely a detour? A throwback to a familiar habit? When Don gets scared, Don runs. We’ve seen it before. Come to think about it, all the men of last season who seemed to be finding their stride- Don happily married, Roger Sterling finding some enlightenment through LSD, and even though Pete was doomed in his last affair with Beth at least he was with a woman he genuinely cared about- have slid back into old patterns.

As Don slumped down to the floor in front of his apartment door after returning from another rendezvous with Sylvia, he knows he’s at a crossroads. He can’t turn back, but he can’t move forward. The man simply doesn’t know what he wants. Is it the woman one floor down with no real apparent strings attached, or is it the woman beyond the doorway with every single string attached you could ever possibly imagine? Can Don ever stop lying and “stop doing this” as he said to Sylvia in the premiere as they lay in bed? It’s a recurring theme and one I’m more than a little impatient to have rectified.  And my hope is, especially since this is the last season, the bad men of Mad Men will soon find out what is they really want.

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