Latest Lists I Felt Like Writing, February 2015 Edition

The First Draft of My Top Ten Billy Joel Songs, Written After Vulture Published a Ranking of Every Song in Billy Joel’s Catalog (Which I’m Not Linking Here Because I Trust You to Find It Yourself if You Really Care)

“Laura”
“Vienna”
“Summer, Highland Falls”
“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”
“Only the Good Die Young”
“Goodnight, Saigon”
“And So It Goes”
“Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)”
“Honesty”
“Everybody Loves You Now”

Questions I Might Have Asked Nick Hornby at His Book Signing, Given More Time

“Who inspired the character of Tucker in Juliet, Naked? Cameron Crowe identified the inspiration for Russell in Almost Famous so I want you to do that now, too, although that might ruin my current visual of Tucker—basically Neil Gaiman with glasses)—so never mind, don’t tell me. I love that book, by the way. It’s my favorite novel. I mean it.”

“Do you have any idea how funny that bit you wrote about The Road in one of your Believer essays was? So funny! The funniest! I read it out loud to Scott—that’s my husband—and had to read it in fits and starts because I’d start laughing or he’d laugh over my reading. Anyway, good job on that one.”

“Is it weird to you that there are people here wearing Arsenal gear, and that they call their jerseys ‘kits’? [The author realizes that’s what they’re called.] Is it wrong of me to judge them? What is judgment, anyway? Look, to be fair to me, when I got here, one of them was directly behind me, and an employee asked if we were together, and he said, ‘Not yet.’ That was gross. I read About a Boy when I was 12, by the way. That was probably too early. You’re great!”

The Question I Actually Asked Nick Hornby

“Have you read the sequel to Death and the Penguin?” (He hasn’t, and he asked me how it was, and I said that I was hoping he had so I wouldn’t have to. The first book, as I’ve mentioned, is so, so good, and I was ready for that story to be over, kind of like how I haven’t read anything Rowling has released post-Deathly Hallows. So it goes.)

Progress on New Year’s Resolutions

Listen to Judge John Hodgman: nailed it. I haven’t heard that many, but I find them absolutely delightful.

Whine less: could be better, could be worse. I’ll keep working on that one.

Exercise more: I rowed for the first time since October today, and it was so good. I didn’t do it for very long, or for much length, but it’s very reassuring to know that my body (my knee in particular) can handle it without any pain. So, yeah, I’m feeling decent about how frequently I’m exercising, and I have actual goals in mind regarding physical fitness, so this resolution? Pretty good.

Some Things I Keep Meaning to Read, and When I Assume I Will Actually Read Them

The first two books in the Fairyland series; the five days before they’re due back at the library (I did get through a substantial chunk of the first. It’s really good!)

The first two volumes of Preacher; about three days before the Oscars since one of the people I’m watching those with lent them to me

“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, the latest book in Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series; next time my NOOK is charged all the way and there are no other books in my line of sight

Funny Girl, the book Nick Hornby was signing; as soon as I take it off the shelf, which could be tonight or tomorrow but will probably be Tuesday

Some Things You Should Read

“If Channing Tatum Were Your Boyfriend,” a piece Nicole Cliffe gifted to readers of despite being on maternity leave (The Toast)

Sarah Seltzer’s close-reading of the vocabulary used in EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (Flavorwire)

Nathan Rabin on the Ghostbusters reboot and how much it, and other reboots and re-imaginings, won’t actually ruin your childhood entertainment (The Dissolve)

This take on the anti-vaccination movement from the perspective of an autistic person by Sarah Kurchak (Medium)

Latest Lists I Felt Like Writing, January 2015 Edition

How I Would Reimagine a Few of the Movies I Watched in 2013 and 2014 (with Spoilers)

American Hustle: Shift the focus to Louis C.K.’s character almost entirely. Cut 50 percent of the scenes because maybe then the movie would make more narrative sense (doesn’t matter which scenes, just, you know, try it). Definitely leave in the part where Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) vamps around the kitchen to “Live and Let Die” but maybe extend it to 10 minutes. This means “Live and Let Die” will have to loop three times and then begin playing a fourth time for about 15 seconds. Even if this guarantees that “Live and Let Die” will be playing on a semi-permanent loop in your head (just as it is right now), these changes would still make for a better viewing experience than the original cut of American Hustle.

As an aside, I just looked up Louis C.K.’s character’s name in American Hustle because, in the time since I’ve watched it, I’ve forgotten it. Instead, I’ve come to think of that character as “the only truly sane person in this entire film aside from Carmine Polito’s [because of course I remember Jeremy Renner’s character’s name, and his hair, and his sad face] wife, and the only one who seems to understand how dreadful everyone around him is.” As it turns out, his character’s name is Stoddard Thorsen. The more you know!

Interstellar: Remove Topher Grace. That man’s presence is very distracting.

Josie & the Pussycats: Nothing. Change nothing. It is magnificent as is. (The last time I watched Josie & the Pussycats was at a summer singalong at Videology, a video rental store/bar/screening room in Billysburg, Brooklyn. The first time I watched Josie & the Pussycats was almost certainly in 2001.)

Pacific Rim: Reimagine it as a buddy comedy starring Ron Pearlman as a man who engages in senseless violence with some frequency but is actually a big ol’ softie and Charlie Day as Charlie Day but with glasses. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) should still be there. So should Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Everyone else can go, with the exception of a single kaiju. This one’s affectionately dubbed Deleteri, her tail and tongue and toes are forked, and she has a lot to tell you about her backpacking trip through western Europe last spring. Still workshopping who would voice her; Jennifer Hale is a very talented voice actress, but she seems a bit sultry for this particular role. Not that a kaiju can’t be sultry. I’m sure it has the capacity to be sultry, but not “voiced by Jennifer Hale” sultry. Wait. I got it. Sarah Vowell. She’s a great disaffected teenager in The Incredibles, so she has the potential to be an even better too-earnest, slightly judgmental kaiju. Right? Nailed it.

Real Steel: 95% less family drama, 95% more robots fighting.

Snowpiercer: After Curtis (Chris Evans) delivers his mini-monologue about eating babies, have him break the fourth wall, turning to the camera and giving it a saucy wink.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Retitle it The Wall Street Wolf because that sounds funnier. Extend the scene in which Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on Quaaludes to about 90 minutes. Remove literally everything else.

Books I’m Reading Right Now and How Much Progress I Have Made

Outlander: According to my e-reader, Outlander has 822 pages. I’m a little more of an eighth of the way through, and I’m loving it.

Bird by Bird: If you have any interest in writing but don’t care for how-to guides related to writing, then this is the writing guide for you. I never feel like Ann Lamott is giving me hard-and-fast objective advice. It’s more like there are suggestions peppered throughout her stories of her own experiences—unique, but all kinds of relatable—with the frustrations and anxieties and occasional feelings that something you’ve done is right.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: I’ve read two pages of this. It seems like fun, but that’s a pretty small sample size of pages.

1 Corinthians: I just finished Acts Friday and this was the first book that came to Scott’s mind when I asked which one I should move to next. I’ve done 1 and 2 Corinthians a couple times before, but it’s always worthwhile to have another go. I’m starting it tonight.

Really Good Names for Pets I Would Consider Using in the Future Based on Characters from Fictional Properties, Plus Which Animal They’d Best Fit

Renly (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones): a betta fish, preferably a golden one, taking into account his house sigil.

Frohike (The X-Files): a wide-eyed tabby.

15 a Day

I don’t remember if it was my idea or Mr. Zielinski’s. Maybe I borrowed his idea and shaped it to fit what I felt was achievable at the time. It doesn’t really matter where the idea came from, though. What matters is for a long time, I was doing it, and it was good for me, and I think it could be good for me again. When I was younger–and this is over a decade ago now–I challenged myself to write at least 15 lines of prose a day.

It’s likely that the bulk of that prose would be, in hindsight, pretty embarrassing. Here are just a few reasons for that.

  • I was a teenager then.
  • I wrote an excessive number of love stories. They were set in kitchens and on road trips and at playgrounds. They had a sameness about them, a theme of a boy and a girl who fall in love in rather ordinary circumstances. They usually ended with kissing. They were flowery, but they were not pretty.
  • I was enormously self absorbed. And I realize this is true for approximately 99.9% of American teenagers, but still, I don’t think I wrote about anything from an outsider’s perspective without it becoming “This is how this impacts me directly.”
  • It doesn’t do much good to look back at a time when you didn’t particularly like who you were.

And yet, the concept of writing that much daily is really appealing right now. Aside from reading and maybe riding roller coasters (maybe), I’ve never liked any other activity as much as I enjoy writing. Even if no one ever sees the words I wrote (and thankfully, the worst of the stuff was for my eyes only), it’s a healthy thing for me, jotting down thoughts on the new pharmacy tech at Walgreens or Scott’s iTunes playlist or how horrible my hands smell after cleaning the refrigerator. (And it’s bad, guys. It’s really bad.)

So I’m going to start doing that again. Sometimes, the results will show up here. It’s going to be nice to write without scrutiny, without obligation, and without rules. Teenage Christy didn’t know nearly as much as she thought she did, but she knew this was a good idea.

This Reading Wasn’t Required But I Did It Anyway

According to my Goodreads profile, which I do my best to keep current, I’ve read 30 books this year. As of next week, the number should rise to 32, which was my goal for the year. (Well, my goal as of October. Before that, it was lower. Sometimes, my reading habits get a little out of control.) Here are some selections from that list, annotated.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell. If you’re even a little bit interested in how Tommy Wiseau crafted his fascinating fiasco of a movie, then you should—nay, need to read this book. Sestero (who starred in The Room and was heavily involved in the production process) and Bissell explore Wiseau’s inner psyche as they take readers through the movie’s short but tumultuous history, and they do it in a fairly evenhanded but entertaining manner.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. I briefly quit reading books after finishing NOS4A2. The content was that disturbing to me. I don’t recommend it. Read Horns instead. The editing is better, and it’ll stick with you, but not like this guy.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. I couldn’t stop reading this book and assigned myself to the Nice Faction (I literally don’t remember what the Nice Faction is actually called, sorry). Apparently, its appeal didn’t stick, because I haven’t read the sequels. But I’m glad you probably have!

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares. Remember how magical the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was? No? Well, I assure you, it was very magical. This—a novel featuring the same characters several years down the road—is the opposite of magical. It’s like the worst kind of Muggle in book form. This book is Marge Dursley. There. I said it. You’re welcome.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. This Ukrainian novel was mentioned in one of Nick Hornby’s essay collections (essay collections I’ve read and reread and would probably reread again). It’s about a man who writes obituaries for a living and has a pet penguin that’s probably depressed. I don’t want to say more for fear of ruining it or making it sound any weirder than it already does, because yes, the premise is unusual, but the storytelling is oddly sweet and the dystopian elements (yes, they’re there) fit in nicely with the surface narrative of a man and the family he accidentally builds.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Fangirl is endlessly relatable if you, like me, dabble in the world of fanfiction and have some difficulty articulating your feelings despite writing all the ever-loving time. Rowell’s one of my favorite writers these days.

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. If you’re in any way interested in the history of scientology, this is a must-read. It’s pretty exhaustive but it’s relentlessly fascinating at the same time.

The Witches by Roald Dahl. I used to read Matilda every year. It’s one of my favorite books and features one of my favorite protagonists. I tried to read The Witches as a kid but got distracted. At 27, I can’t understand how that could possibly happen. It’s so delightfully strange and eerie and involving, and it’s every bit as good as Matilda.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I described this book—a book club pick—as a real bummer in the best possible way. That’s still the most succinct, accurate description I can give.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I put off reading the last chapter of this book for a little while because I was enjoying it so much. The narrative structure is brilliant, with characters in each chapter connected—however closely or loosely—to previously mentioned characters. It’s essentially a concept album with words instead of music. Just wonderful.

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. I have A Lot to Say about these books. I’m saving that for a blahg entry that will probably never happen.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I’ve never met a graphic memoir I didn’t love, from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to Craig Thompson’s Blankets to this. On Goodreads last month, I said Fun Home is poignant without being overly emotional. That’s a delicate balance when you’re writing about your father’s death. But Bechdel handles it beautifully.

Hawkeye: LA Woman by Matt Fraction. I’m still savoring the third volume of Hawkeye, which focuses on Kate Bishop’s misadventures in LA. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again: everyone should read this series. Really. Everyone.

The Trouble with and Triumphs of Expectations

Remember when X-Men: The Last Stand came out? The moviegoing public was generally pretty psyched, since X2: X-Men United was a remarkably solid superhero flick, with some real heft in its storytelling, a varied cast of characters, and a plot that I still get ridiculously invested in whenever I stumble across the movie on cable.

But there was reason to worry before the film was released. Brett Ratner, still best known to me for his above-average work on Red Dragon and par-for-the-course work on the Rush Hour series, took the directorial reigns from Bryan Singer. David Hayter didn’t have a screenwriting credit, and Singer had nothing to do with the story. But hey, Patrick Stewart! Ian McKellen! That guy who would later appear in Hairspray and Enchanted! (Look, I know his name, OK? I’m doing this for effect. It’s not fault they wrote Scott Summers to be a whiny jerkface. OR IS IT?) And Ratner does fine with action sequences, right? … Right?

Turns out, critics were iffy on X3 and fans hated it. X2 hints at an allegory, only getting heavy-handed in its final moments; X3 begins heavy-handed and stays that way. A handful of major players are killed off long before the film’s climax, making for fewer compelling performances. The new characters, who could be great, given their comic backstories, are just kind of there, and in general, the movie just tends to fall a bit flat.

At least, that’s what you’d think if you had high expectations. I did not, and I liked–nay, loved X3.

In retrospect, I see its flaws very clearly, but I still believe that for what it is–a superhero movie made before the Dark Knight trilogy (which essentially rewrote the DNA of any superhero movie that would follow) that’s kind of goofy and very pulpy—it’s a lot of fun to watch. The truth is that I don’t always watch movies with a critical eye. If it’s something that’s been relentlessly praised, I actively try to lower my expectations. What’s popular or historically lauded isn’t always going to click with me, which is how I justify my hatred for Crime & Punishment. On the other hand, if there’s something I want to see or read or watch at home that those whose taste I respect hate, I’ll often still give it a try, because it can’t possibly be bad as they’re saying, and even if it is, it has the potential to be a fascinating disaster. X3 is neither a critical triumph nor a fascinating disaster. It’s somewhere in between, and it serves its purpose, and that’s fine by me.

This system of lowering my expectations or forcibly opening my mind has been met with mixed results. Even with tempered expectations, I strongly disliked American Hustle, which was, from what I understand, a “good movie.” But for every American Hustle, there’s a time that I’m so, so glad I kept my expectations in check. And the last time I went to the movies was one of those times.

I didn’t expect to love Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not a movie about Hawkeye or Black Widow, so it wasn’t a Marvel property I was salivating for, and Chris Pratt, charming as he is in interviews, still didn’t strike me as the action hero sort. I decided ahead of time that if nothing else, I would enjoy it for its visuals and its soundtrack, both objectively good things. It’d be worth my time for those reasons. But it ended up being so much more than that.

There’s nothing I can say about Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t already been said. It does a bang-up job of getting its team together and throwing them into the kind of action sequences that strike a viewer as unforgettable, prison breaks and casino brawls and spaceships melding together to surround a giant spaceship in a freaking force field. It’s genuinely funny, with dialogue that’s snappy but not too clever by half. It’s terrifically performed, with Pratt turning out to be a legitimate action hero for the ages, Zoe Saldana proving again that she deserves a role in every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie ever, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper providing vocal performances no one else could have, and Dave Bautista surprising everyone who’s ever seen Mr. Nanny but not The Princess Bride with the fact that sometimes, professional wrestlers can act. (And there’s some great supporting work here, too—John C. Reilly and Michael Rooker are standouts.)

Lastly—and if you’ve been with me for a while, you know how much I care about this—it has heart. It’s not maudlin, but it’s sincere in its occasional melancholy (the talking raccoon made me cry more than once) and its moments of triumph. I would say I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night at the movie theater so much, but I do, because The Lego Movie wasn’t really that long ago. But I genuinely can’t recall watching something in the theater and feeling like I’d gotten a gift quite like I did watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

This is why I keep my expectations reasonable: for the pleasant surprises, the times when I walk out of the theater saying, “I liked that so much more than I thought I would.” Because sometimes, you end up loving something, and when is that not worth it? Never. That’s when.