Fun With Lists!

Friends of the blog know that sometimes I like to make lists. (See: Things to Avoid and Non-literary Characters.) I make lists in my real life too. Pros v. Cons lists, Things to Do lists, Amazon Wish Lists, and I only evaluate my “favorite” of anything in the form of a Top 5 List.

So, it should come as no surprise that I love Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a site devoted to presenting you with the best books for pretty much any occasion or reason. I particularly enjoyed the recent “Most Challenged Books of 2009” list, in which three of my favorite books appear – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (I should say that with books, I do not have a Top 5 List, but rather I break them up into multiple Top 5 lists based on genre, nostalgia, cultural relevance, etc. Yes, I have issues.)

Anyway, Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has inspired me to create a new list, but unlike the professional list-makers, I won’t be focusing so much on “the best” as I will on “my favorites.” So, I present the Top 5 Books I Find Flashlight Worthy:


1) Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft. This is a huge book. Not one to travel with or take on the subway. But it is the perfect book to curl up with under a sheet in the dark and scare the pants off yourself! H.P. Lovecraft did literary horror first, and arguably the best (funny how that usually works out, isn’t it?).

2) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Yes, it is one of my favorites, as I mentioned above, but I assure you I’m not being biased. This book still works for the purposes of this list. The creepy mystery behind Boo Radley is certainly flashlight worthy, but there are also the many layers behind the plot and characters to unravel in the dark.

3) In the Woods by Tana French. Like Mockingbird, this book has multiple layers of mystery going on. (See also: The Likeness). Not only does French offer a page-turning whodunit, but she also slowly reveals an eerie mystery within the main character.

4) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. OK, this one seems obvious, but with a combination of nostalgia and a self-explanatory title, I defy you to find me a more flashlight worthy book. If you haven’t read this since childhood, go revisit. Or, read it in a pillow fort with your own kids. I used to be convinced that the girl with the ribbon around her neck was one of my sister’s friends (because she said she was), so I can no longer think of this book without thinking of how much my childhood was traumatized by it.

5) Pretty much anything by Stephen King. Seriously. There’s a reason Joey Tribbiani keeps his copy of The Shining in the freezer.

What do you all think? As you can see, I went with mystery and horror when I think of flashlight worthy books, but I guess that doesn’t always have to be the case. What are some of your favorite books to read in the dark?

Non-Literary Characters

While this blog is generally for the literary-minded, I’ve been thinking lately about characters that are written for the screen, rather than the page. Specifically, for the small screen, because I think we’d be here until the end of time trying to pin down the greatest characters in film. Anyway, I like T.V. My appreciation for a good story and strong characters is not limited to novels; in fact, sometimes I prefer to sit down and witness some truly great television writing instead. (Likewise, sometimes I watch marathons of What Not to Wear, but that’s a story for another time.)
I don’t know if you all have been noticing this, but in recent years, the quality of T.V. shows has gone way up. Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost, The West Wing, My So-Called Life, and Firefly are (and in some unfortunate cases, were) the equivalents of literary fiction. They have depth, complexity, character development, suspense, familiarity, and they do not shy away from heightened dialogue or ideas. Also, like with a novel, you cannot start in the middle.
Speaking more specifically to the characters themselves, I’ve been trying to figure out who I think are the greatest T.V. characters of all-time. I hate coming up with “greatest” lists because everything is so subjective, so I bring you my top five favorite characters (who I secretly consider the best):
5) Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I know, this is before my time. But, in my opinion, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was way ahead of its time, so it all balances out. Without Ted Baxter, I don’t think we’d have nearly the number of lovable oafs on T.V. as there are today. Since Ted may have been responsible for Phil Dunphy (Modern Family), then for that reason alone, he must be acknowledged.
4) George Constanza, Seinfeld. My love of George ended around season six or seven when I thought he became too cartoonishly evil, but the early years of George represented a perfect combination of New York neurosis and immaturity. He’s not person you’d necessarily like in real life, but you love him from the safe distance behind the camera.
3) Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons. With The Simpsons, it’s hard to pick just one. Sure, Homer might be considered the “best,” but Milhouse, much like in his life in Springfield, is vastly underrated and under-appreciated. Inspiration for children of divorced parents and to anyone who’s ever known the pain of unrequited romance (and friendship), Milhouse just wants to be loved. And he is, by me. “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” indeed.
2) The Mayor, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Yes, he was only on for one season and he wasn’t a principal player. Choosing a “best” character from what I consider the “best” show is a bit like choosing my favorite child, but, to me, Mayor Richard Wilkins III was such an amazingly crafted character. The ultimate villain, an instrument of pure evil, and the square father figure who reminds you that good hygiene and manners never hurt anyone. Of Mr. Whedon’s many (many!) brilliant characters, I am always most impressed by The Mayor.

1) Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life. Brian, Brian, Brian. Is there a better character in the history of television? He’s the boy next door who you don’t really want to end up with the girl after all. He’s hardly the lovable nerd, but he can’t be called totally manipulative either because half the time he’s just too clueless. Brian is funny, sad, misunderstood, and real. He’s just, in a word, perfect.

 

Honorable mentions: Liz Lemon, 30 Rock and Sue Sylvester, Glee. These women may be different in personality, but they have this in common: they are strong, funny, and driven, and there need to be more women on T.V. like them.

 

I notice a theme in my most beloved characters. They are all people who are a little bit sad, a little bit hard to like, and impossible not to love. Complexity and originality are the keys of creating strong, memorable characters. How do you approach building your characters in your own work? Are there certain T.V. characters you use as inspiration?

Playing Favorites

Everyone has their favorite author, favorite book, favorite genre, or even their favorite opening line. I’m not talking about grand and often pointless debates of what is “the greatest.” I believe that a person can simultaneously recognize that his or her favorite might not necessarily be the “best” of something. (e.g., my favorite Harry Potter book is #3 while it can be argued that either #4 or #6 are “the best.”)

All that aside, I’ve been thinking about favorite paragraphs. These are the paragraphs that I just had to read over again immediately, and then again even after I’ve moved on. Here is my list, which I won’t call my “all-time” list because I never know what I might read tomorrow.

Favorite opening paragraph: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson – accomplishes everything an opening should: establishes the narrator (who happens to be my favorite type of narrator, the wise-beyond-her-years, outcast youth) while letting us in on the darkly comic story we’re in for. 

Favorite ending paragraph: “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” by Michael Chabon – like most things Chabon writes, this particular ending makes you wonder how one person can create such a brilliant group of sentences, all at one time. 

Favorite general paragraph: In which Raymond Carver describes a hideous baby in his short story, “Feathers” – if Carver didn’t have fun writing this, then I doubt he’s ever had fun in his life.

Does anyone else have favorite paragraphs? If so, please share!

Enjoy the long weekend,
Sarah