Well the National Book Festival was everything I had hoped for and more. I had SUCH A GOOD TIME.
I've always liked hearing authors talk. I like to hear about their process and what events or questions inspired their books. I just love getting a peak into that world. As an adult, I've been lucky enough to hear Tony Morrison and Salman Rushdie. And when I was a kid, Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes) and Priscilla Cummings (Chadwick the Crab) visited my school, which had a profound effect on me (You mean real people write these books? And they live in my state?). Reading can sometimes feel lonely, so bringing readers and authors together helps me feel part of a shared experience.
And that's exactly how I felt yesterday at the National Book Festival in D.C. I can't even tell you how much fun it was. Let me give you a quick run down of the people I heard:
David McCullough: What a storyteller! I left this talk wanting to read everything he has written. I loved his book John Adams, and now I really want to read his one about the Wright brothers. He did an especially great job of talking about all the women that are a part of these histories and don't get the credit for the roles they played. And on that same theme, he also credited his wife extensively for helping him during his revision process. I really liked that. McCullough still writes on a manual typewriter, which is adorable, AND he talked about how important it is to read your work aloud as you're writing and editing. I must have looked like a bobblehead in the stands, I was nodding so hard in agreement with that. I caught the tail-end of Alice McDermott's talk too, and she said the exact same thing. You've got to hear the sound of the words to get them right, they're not just marks on the page. Anyway, no one writes about American history better than McCullough and I feel really lucky that I got to hear him speak.
Diana Gabaldon: So full disclosure, I've read about half of Outlander, and while it's pretty good, it just isn't my cup of tea. Despite that, I was still so excited to hear her talk and she did not disappoint. I have a lot of respect for her genre-blending. I mean, who would have thought historical fiction could be crossed with romance and science fiction! I'm sure publishers wouldn't naturally bet on that horse, so the fact that Gabaldon has been so successful at making it work is incredibly impressive to me (she's sold a massive 28 million copies of her books, on which a hit TV show has also been based), She was funny, a little naughty, and incredibly inspiring. After hearing her talk, I almost wanted to leave the festival so I could get writing. The fact that she transitioned her original career as a biology professor in academia to becoming a novelist is another thing about her story that I really admire. I mean, if she can do it, maybe I can too! Gave me hope.
Colm Toibin: Of all the talks I saw, this one was definitely the most literary. I really, really loved his novel, Brooklyn, and it was just fascinating to hear how the tiny, quiet details of his childhood in Ireland informs his work. He made a great case for making stories out of almost nothing, just the mundane, but incredibly human details of our lives. Kind of a great reminder to wake up, listen, and observe all the stories that are already taking place in your life. The hard work of putting them down on paper still remains, but they're there if you bother to notice.
Thomas Friedman: So Friedman may have been the biggest crowd-draw, but I'm actually not very familiar with his work. He's a columnist for the New York Times, and as he stated up front, he considers his job to illuminate ideas that provoke an emotional response (which sounds like high-level click bait to me, but what do I know). He gave a great, incredibly well-rehearsed presentation that was much more like a TED talk than any other speaker's (who were typically more conversational). I don't know. Friedman was kind of impressive, but it felt like he was exaggerating a lot of ideas. I didn't walk away from that talk feeling like I had learned much other than Thomas Friedman likes to make connections about globalization, climate change, Moore's law, human adaptability, and that those connections may or may not be real. He was promoting his book Thank You For Being Late, and it sounded pretty good, but also kind of suspect. I don't know, wasn't my favorite talk. Just a little too slick. Big ideas are complex and I feel like he way over-simplified everything so they would fit into his convenient unified theory.
Michael Lewis: Lewis hardly needs an introduction. If you've read or seen The Big Short, Moneyball (movie), or Liar's Poker, then you know his work. But until I saw his talk, which was actually more of an awesome conversation between him and Joel Achenbach (whom I've been reading in the Washington Post for years, so it was really cool to finally see him in the flesh), I hadn't made the connection that he had written ALL those books. Of all the talks I saw, Lewis's may have been the most downright entertaining. He made everything he said sound like the most interesting thing you've ever heard. Of all the authors yesterday, for me he was the most like David McCullough - incredibly curious people, asking all the right questions and digging to find the answers. Lewis's talk may have been my favorite of the whole day. Like McCullough's, I left wanting to read everything he had ever written.
Condoleezza Rice: I mean, CONDOLEEZZA FREAKING RICE! Look, I was never a fan of the Bush administration, but I always admired Rice, and the more I've learned about her over the years, the more impressed I get. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, smack in the middle of segregation and the Civil Rights movement (she knew some of the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing). And yet, she grew up empowered by her parents and herself to become a world-expert in Soviet and Eastern European foreign policy (she has a Ph.D. and was a professor at Stanford University). She speaks Russian, was part of both the George H. W. and W. Bush administrations as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State (America's top diplomat), and, if that wasn't enough, she's also an incredibly talented classical pianist. Her talk was about her new book, Democracy - basically what institutions are needed to make a successful system (independent courts, free press, etc.) and why it's thrived in some parts of the world and not in others. The moderator had her talk about the state of democracy (or lack thereof) in different countries and geopolitical situations, and holy shit, does the lady know her stuff. She's back teaching at Stanford, and if I could, I would definitely take her class. The only "bad" part about Rice's talk was that it was scheduled at almost the same time as Roxane Gay's, whose new book, Hunger, I really want to read. Hopefully I'll get to see her another time.
Ann Telnaes, Mike Lester, and Roz Chast: Finally, I closed out the fairly long day (I got there at 10 am and didn't leave until 7 pm) with the cartoonists panel. I'm a massive cartoon fan, in all forms of the medium, so this was a real treat for me. Ann Telnaes (of the Washington Post) and Mike Lester are editorial cartoonists on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I'm sure you would recognize Telnaes's work. I really enjoyed hearing her talk. She was such a strong, intelligent voice against Trump and his attempts to bully the free press (in ways that aren't unlike some of the warning signs Rice was discussing in her own talk). I just love her cartooning style, and had no idea that all these years I've been reading her work that it was a woman behind it. There aren't many female political cartoonists and she takes a lot of heat on the internet for it. Because how dare a woman speak up! I didn't love Mike Lester. Our politics don't agree, which isn't the end of the world, but beyond that, he just wasn't very coherent or nearly as interesting as Telnaes. I also hate his comic strip, Mike du Jour, but it was interesting to at least put a face to the name. The last talk I heard was with Roz Chast, whom I'm a big fan of (you can read my review of her graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? here). For years, I didn't really appreciate her work, and then one day it just hit me how amazing it is. She's by far my favorite New Yorker cartoonist.
The only slightly annoying part was her talk was a little ruined for me by a group of incredibly impolite teenage boys I happened to be sitting next to. The room was so packed, I couldn't change seats, and for the life of me, I don't know why they even bothered to be there. They kept getting up and down from their seats, spent 99% of the talk playing games on their cell phones (while one "helpfully" described the cartoons and jokes being projected on the screens to his companions, so I could hardly hear Chast talk). And then when someone tried to sit down in a seat in the middle of the row, and politely asked the boys if he could get past them, the kid looked up from his phone and sneered, "Can you get in on the other side?" (meaning the other side of the aisle, so he wouldn't have to be bothered to scoot his knees out of the way for the all of 2 seconds it would take for the older man to get a seat). Makes you wonder what the world is coming to. I wanted to tell that kid off, but it would only have made a bigger disruption than it already was.
Anyway, despite that last bit, the National Book Festival was amazing and I can't wait until next year. I mean, in one day I heard more authors speak than I have in my entire life up to that point. If you're a word nerd like me, the Library of Congress's National Book Festival is well worth it. If I weren't local, I would definitely plan a long weekend in D.C. around it. There's plenty to do in the city and free events like this one make it even better.
Have you ever been? If so, tell me about it in the comments! Would love to hear your experiences.
Do you watch Bojack Horseman? It's my favorite show on Netflix right now, and yes, that means I'm very late to the party, seeing as it's already done 3 seasons. But, rumor has it season 4 will be coming out in August 2017, so if you're not up to speed on this show, you have plenty of time to get caught up (and catch up you should.)
I get why it's a hard sell. It's a cartoon. It's about a rude, drug-fueled out-of work actor who just happens to be a horse named Bojack Horseman. When the show first came out a few years ago, I read the early reviews and heard that description, and while I was mildly interested (mostly because I'm a cartoon fan), I wasn't interested enough to watch. Sounded like just another show about an entitled male character. But since deciding to get divorced a few months ago, I finally had the time and inclination to see it (nothing like heartbreak to get you in the mood for Netflix).
What first drew me in was the surprising depth to the Bojack Horseman character. The show's fundamental question through each season is whether someone who is truly broken (by their parents, by their success, by their failures, by their losses) can ever be redeemed. Is Bojack beyond fixing? By outward appearances, his out-of-control drinking, drug-taking, spending, womanizing, anger, and cynicism would suggest so, but there's clearly something deeper and wholly sincere to him that makes Bojack if not likeable, at least someone you can feel compassion for.
And this depth of character isn't just limited to him; just about everyone on the show gets a similar treatment. Even the most apparently superficial character, Mr. Peanutbutter (a professional rival of Bojack's). is more complex than he seems. At first you think he's just there for a laugh, but then his story takes an interesting spin about marriage. I mean, how many TV shows feature a marriage on the rocks that slowly recovers? None, right? So you wouldn't expect a cartoon to be the one that does it. Yet it does and it works.
The second thing that drew me into the show was its bizarre universe. Animals and people live and work together, and it's not remotely commented on. For example, Bojack is a horse, his agent is a cat, his roommate is a twenty-something-year-old man, his rival is a Labrador Retriever, and his ghostwriter is a Vietnamese American woman. The show feels no need to explain this, which is great (no fucking origin stories here). All of the animal characters make for some fun visual puns and jokes, which probably only works because the character design is so top-notch (actually, it was an interview with the artist, Lisa Hanawalt, on the Imaginary Worlds podcast that got me interested in giving Bojack Horseman a shot).
And then like The Simpsons before it, part of the appeal of Bojack Horseman is that this universe is totally self-contained and self-consistent. There must be a cast of a hundred recognizable characters. Small details that happen in one episode will reappear again in later seasons For example, after Bojack steals the letter "D" from the Hollywood sign in L.A., the characters simply start referring to the area as "Hollywoo," and they unironically do this for the rest of the series. Another example is how "sexy" characters are almost always marine mammals, like orcas and dolphins. What the hell is that all about? I don't know, but the consistency of the absurdity makes it funny.
Maybe it's just me, but I love details like that. It's one of those shows I won't listen to while I'm doing something else. You need to really watch it to catch all the jokes since so much of it is visual-based, making a cartoon the perfect medium for it, since anything can be drawn into the story.
All in all, I think Bojack Horseman is an unusually good TV show. There are a few slow episodes here and there, but the overall arc of each full season is excellent. My personal favorite episode was the one that takes place underwater and is completely silent - a great nod to the old cartoons that didn't have a lick of dialogue. This seems to drive some people crazy (see all the people who didn't like Wall-E), but I love it. Let the pictures tell the story, that's the strength of cartoons.
Guess I've banged on about Bojack for long enough. I'm curious though, are you a fan? Seems like it has a cult following, but I don't know anyone in real life who watches it.
p.s. Alison Brie, who does the voice of Diane the ghostwriter in Bojack Horseman (and was Trudy in Mad Men), has another new show on Netflix, called Glow, which is about a real-life female wrestling league in the 80's. I just started it last night and I was pretty entertained. We'll see where it goes, but if you're on the fence, I think it's worth watching.
Yesterday, I had a bit of a scare with an avocado. I don't know how I could be such a moron, but I somehow managed to chop up some avocado skin into my salad. I noticed the tough texture right away as I was eating, and thought I had spit it all out, but about fifteen minutes later I started to feel my palms, the soles of my feet, my face, and neck getting really itchy.
I have to assume the reaction was to the avocado peel, since it was the only thing different in my normal salad. The itchy palms/feet thing has happened to me before, and preceded a rash of hives from some allergen I was never able to identify. So feeling the reaction again, I knew to take some Benadryl right away. Thankfully, the medicine did its job, and the itching subsided very quickly, but since it's an antihistamine, I also felt woozy and groggy for the rest of the day. That kind of messed up my writing and editing schedule, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I'd rather be alive and too tired to work properly, then dead from an allergic reaction (yes, I'm probably being dramatic here, but you know what I mean).*
Anyway, since I was too high to function, I decided I may as well relax and do something easy and fun. For whatever reason, I've been feeling very nostalgic for Final Fantasy lately (this post partially got me thinking about it again). It's my all time favorite video game series, so I decided to dig out my old copy of FF7 for the PC and play it again.
There's just something about the world-building in Final Fantasy games that I find so perfect. Whenever I play them, I'm completely transported into the universe. I think it's a combination of the artwork and the music, and the little details that carry over between games, like Chocobos, Moogles, airships, and probably also that special hybrid of science fiction and magic that the series does so well. Final Fantasy is by far my favorite fictional universe.
So yesterday, I decided to install Final Fantasy VII on my computer to get my fix. No joke, I've saved my FFVII PC game since I first bought it in 1998 (1999?). That's almost 20 years I've been carting around these CDs. They've been with me to college, three apartments in graduate school, and two apartments/houses in my post-graduate life. I don't know why I took them everywhere, since I've been pretty much way too busy to play the game since high school, but they gave me this sense of comfort. Like I could disappear back to Midgar, Gold Saucer, or Costa del Sol at any time if I wanted to.
So yesterday was going to be my big return. I sat down to install the game - but it didn't work. It just refused to function on my computer. After a little googling, I learned this was typical. The one thing I hadn't factored was that FFVII wouldn't be compatible on a computer system that was almost 20 years beyond it. I know that seems obvious, but it wasn't until that moment did I really understand that 20 physical years of my life have almost passed since I was just a kid, sitting in my parents basement, playing what would be my favorite game of all time. 20 years! Where did the time go! Turning thirty this year didn't have half the effect on me that failing to install FF7 did. It's like that time passed finally became real.
I remember this moment, back even further to 1995 when the arrival of Windows 95 made virtually all of my young computer knowledge and favorite video games (really old Kings Quest stuff) obsolete. That was a clear dividing line in my life. So it just feels strange that somehow everything changed without me noticing it, and now it's another phase of my childhood that's obsolete, but I can't even define the point when that happened. Or rather, I guess that point is now, when I realized I couldn't disappear back into Final Fantasy as easily as I had wanted. And it's funny, I don't even really want to play the game, I just want to be in it. Does that make sense?
So anyway that's when I knew my childhood was over, when FFVII became just a memory, and not some place I could escape to whenever the real world got to be a drag (that is, until I can hopefully find a software patch or an emulator, or perhaps I'll just download the soundtrack and look at some Final Fantasy concept art - that may work just as well, to be honest).
Ironically, just the other day I also had the epiphany that I finally felt like an adult, the flip-side I guess of knowing my childhood was over. This occurred when I finally admitted to myself that I really do need to blow-dry my hair every time I take a shower.
Jeeze, isn't adulthood boring?
*PSA: You should always, always have some Benadryl in your house, your purse, or your wallet. You never know when you or somebody else might start to have an allergic reaction, or worse, go into full anaphylactic shock. Having a Benadryl on hand could be the difference between life and death. The little pills are small and easy to carry. So yeah, Benadryl, get some. It's the wonder drug.
When you were a kid, were you a cartoon nut? Were you that kid that got up at 5 am in the morning to watch cartoons? Or did you watch them if they happened to be on TV, but they didn't change your life.
I was definitely in the former camp. I loved cartoons (still do, though Pixar's been disappointing me lately). I watched all kinds of stuff, ranging from the classic to the truly weird, like Ghostbusters, Denver the Last Dinosaur, Heathcliff. Darkwing Duck, and some bizarre cartoon about a purple alien with a creepy floating head sidekick. Did you know there was even a Back to the Future cartoon? Yeah, I watched that. There was no cartoon too stupid or poorly drawn for me. They all had their own merits.
So anyway, the other day I was listening to one of my favorite science fiction/fantasy podcasts, Anomaly (another great podcast by women) and they did an episode on their top 5 favorite cartoons. You can guess how excited I was to hear their picks.
And their lists were fine, not what I would have chosen, but that makes sense. Cartoons are personal. They're a snapshot of your childhood. Of course my list would be different.
I've asked myself this question before: what are my favorite cartoons? Hard to say. There are so many that I have absurdly clear memories of, that I remember enjoying, but which did I love the most?
First, maybe we should differentiate between Saturday morning cartoons and the animated shows we watch as adults.South Park and DuckTales are apples to oranges; there's no sense trying to decide which is better. The one show that's kind of a crossover for me is The Simpsons, which I watched religiously as a kid and then well into my teenage years (before I eventually decided the quality had fallen off). Also, I could devote an entire blog post to anime, so let's leave that category to itself.
For now, let's stick to the Saturday morning or after school style cartoons that were clearly targeted at kids. Off the top of my head, here's just a sample of the shows I remember liking, in no particular order:
DuckTales - Launchpad was the best. Also, I loved how they would sometimes visit Donald Duck in the Navy. Bonus points for a great theme song.
Rescue Rangers - Cheeyeeeseee!!! Also, this show had an excellent female role model in Gadget, who is criminally underrated in feminism pop culture. Also had great theme song, which I believe was written by the same people who did DuckTales.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters - So weird, loved it. In general, I loved the Stick Stickly lineup on Nickelodeon.
Classic Disney Chip and Dale cartoons - The colors! The animation! The twee little acorns!
Classic Disney Donald Duck - Again, the colors! I just love those burnt yellows, reds, and browns of the 50's and 60's.
Animaniacs - We laughed.
Batman the Animated Series - I don't need to explain why this show is awesome. I re-watched some episodes recently and it totally holds up.
Transformers - I have hazy memories, but very real feelings for this show. I was pretty little when it was on.
Rugrats - Those first few seasons were brilliant.
Doug - Sweet and pleasant. A nice way to come down from the usual frenetic cartoon pace. And who didn't love Porkchop?
Rocko's Modern Life - So weird! And faintly disturbing! And yet I loved it so much...
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Classic show. One of my earliest childhood obsessions. My babysitter's sons had ALL the action figures too, which were pretty amazing on their own.
X-Men - The extensiveness of the Phoenix saga blew my 10 year old mind. It was probably my first exposure to carton serials, which would set me up for anime later in life. Also, Gambit and Rogue 4eva. Also, hell of a theme song.
Conan the Warrior - I think this came on right before X-men, and we (my brother, babysitter's sons and I) loved it almost as much.
Gummi Bears - A bunch of bears drink gummi berry juice which makes them bounce violently through the air, helping them to either escape or beat up the bad guys. How high were the writers on this show? Regardless, it was sort of brilliant and super imaginative. I loved their underground "train" system.
Alvin and the Chipmunks - so 80's.
He-man - Again, hazy memories, but I remember loving it.
Tiny Toons (also classic Looney Toons) - Babs Bunny was the best. Also, this is the show that gave us Elmira.
Muppet Babies - ADORED this show. Loved their imaginations, especially when it put them in old movies (especially Star Wars clips).
And then there were the shows I had mixed feelings for:
Tailspin - I liked the idea of surfing on the clouds behind a pontoon cargo plain, but I disliked the Baloo character and his boss (Was her name Rebecca? Hold on, I'm going to look that up - holy shit, I was right. See what I mean about how I have this crazy skill at remembering story details?)
Woody Woodpecker - entertaining, but frenetic.
Ren and Stimpy - So weird and gross, but we couldn't stop watching it. It had this strange ability to fool adults into thinking it was appropriate for children (even my babysitter let us watch it and she was very uptight about what she let us watch on tv), but every kid knew it was deeply disturbing and we really shouldn't be watching it.
And because I'm passionate about cartoons, here's a list of the ones I really, really hated.
Scooby-Doo - So boring. Flame me all you want. I hated this show and its repetitiveness.
Jetsons/Flintstones - I hated how angry George and Fred always seemed to be. Such nasty family dynamics.
Goof Troop - Goofy creeps me out.
Inspector Gadget - The worst. I don't like shows about incompetent people. I did however want Penny's computer book.
Ok, that's not an exhaustive list, but now that I have one I can make my decision. Here we go, top five:
1. Ducktales/Donald Duck Cartoons (it's my list, I get to lump the cartoon universes if I want)
2. Rescue Rangers/Chip and Dale Cartoons
4. Batman: the Animated Series
5. Muppet Babies
Why DuckTales? Proportionally speaking, I think I enjoyed it the longest. X-men and Batman were amazing shows, but I didn't watch them for as long as DuckTales. Also, for a show about a bunch of ducks, it was pretty weird and had a fun range of story lines. Wasn't there an episode about vegetable-shaped aliens? (Yep)
In retrospect, I think my cartoon obsession is where I learned the rudiments of story-telling. Were all these shows great stories? Maybe not in an academic sense, but they certainly entertained me and pulled me in to what was happening (i.e., "losing myself" in the story, which I think is such an interesting, but hard to define idea). Enjoying myself and losing myself, that's really all it takes to make a good story.
Sometimes my parent friends complain that TV turns their kids into zombies, but what's really so bad about your kid becoming engrossed in a good story? Isn't that preferable to mindlessly clicking at some pointless cellphone game? I think you'd learn loads more from a goofy little cartoon than how many points you get on Angry Birds. But that's just my opinion.
Were you (or are you still) a cartoon lover? What's your top-five?
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro