Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

I regret to inform you that “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” despite the title, is one of the most forgettable Buffy episodes. Ever. That title, in fact, might be the most Buffy thing about it, a play on a thing girls aren’t supposed to do, rewritten for a slayer’s lifestyle.

It’s not that it’s a terrible episode (you can pick your own; there are many lists online to help you) or one of the just plain egregious ones that will be truly painful to watch (“Where the Wild Things Are”). Like the random boy Buffy suddenly has a huge crush on, it’s just bland. Plain toast, not quite toasted enough. Rice with one drop of sriracha.

If you are struggling to remember this episode at all, I feel you. I had it mixed up with “Lie to Me,” which, while not stellar, has some heart, at least. (And that guy from Roswell.) “Never Kill a Boy” is a loosey-goosey take on the old “Can a woman have it all?” chestnut, roasted to a fine slayer crisp.

I know. That’s a terrible sentence. Kind of like Owen’s a terrible person for Buffy to have a crush on. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

Season 1, Episode 5, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date
Written by: Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali
Directed by: David Semel
Original airdate: Monday, March 31, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, March 31, 2017

“My calculations are precise.”
“They’re bad calculations! Bad!”

Continue reading “Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date””

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Teacher’s Pet”

I didn’t realize what a tool Xander Harris was until my third time through Buffy.

It’s weird, now, to look back and try to remember what I thought when Buffy was first on. I probably didn’t think much about Xander at all. I thought about Willow, and those inevitable, torturous one-way crush lines, where you like somebody who likes somebody else, and never any two shall so much as kiss under the bleachers. It’s all safe and it’s all terrible.

That’s what I saw when I watched Xander: all those middle- and high-school dudes who liked someone else. Someone predictable. They were dicks, though I wasn’t clever enough to know it at the time. They were sometimes naive and sometimes totally aware of unreciprocated crushes. They were sometimes too shy and sometimes too aloof. Sometimes uncertain of themselves, sometimes too cocky.

I have it in me to forgive those dickbag teens that I knew, but less so Xander, probably because those dickbag teens are no longer in my life, yet Xander is still here, in Buffy, seeming more and more grating, more and more oblivious, more and more unchanging. Does Xander ever really grow up? Does he ever address his family, his choices, his delusions?

I’m paying attention now, Harris. Let’s see how you fare once you’re out of the clutches of the hot praying mantis teacher.

Season 1, Episode 4, “Teacher’s Pet
Written by David Greenwalt
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: Monday, March 24, 1997
Rewatch date: Sunday, March 26, 2017 (Yes, I screwed up the 20-year perfection. Yes, it was inevitable.)

“Right. Wasn’t here, didn’t see it, couldn’t have stopped you.”

Continue reading “Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Teacher’s Pet””

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Teacher’s Pet”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Witch”

“This is madness. What can you have been thinking? You are the slayer! Lives depend on you!”

What’s Giles talking about?

Cheerleading.

Cheerleading is the perfect stage for an episode that, in broad strokes, is about the harm parental pressure can do—not just to one kid, but to those around her. It’s a sport that’s widely disdained as superficial and dumb (a perception that’s changing, sure, but this was the ’90s), and one done mostly by women. “Cheerleader” is common teen movie shorthand for “popular, perfect, unattainable, probably mean unless she’s the really sweet one.” You put cheerleaders in your vampire show, you’re doing it for a reason. Or several.

“Witch” is much better than I remembered. And much lonelier, too.

Season 1, Episode 3Witch
Written by Dana Reston
Directed by Stephen Cragg
Original airdate: March 17, 1997
Rewatch date: March 17, 2017

“I will still have time to fight the forces of evil, ok? I just wanna have a life. I want to do something normal. Something safe.”

Continue reading “Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Witch””

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Witch”

Elsewhere This Week

Beast and Bone: Magic From the Darkness” at Tor.com
It’s been a while since I wanted the sequel to a book as badly as I want the sequel to The Bone Witch.

Love and Empire” at Eugene Weekly
David Oyelowo for the leader of everything, but A United Kingdom is just good, not great.

Do You Hear the Magicians Sing?” at Tor.com
I’ve never seen Les Miserables and I still watched the musical number at least four times.

Elsewhere This Week

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 20 Years Later

In 1997, I was a senior in college, a fact which sometimes makes me feel like the oldest person on the internet who is still obsessed with pop culture. I lived in a tiny “two bedroom” apartment on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side—the second bedroom was roughly the size of a large closet (for which it was occasionally mistaken). Rent was the unlikely number of $1187, if memory serves; the living room could not fit an actual sofa, just a loveseat. There was no buzzer, but we were only on the second floor, so we’d just toss the keys down to whoever was downstairs. After they called us on our landline.

It was a different time. And it was a time when I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons somewhat hungover, watching whatever bad movies were on the WB or UPN. So I knew Buffy the Vampire Slayer existed, at the very least. I’d liked the movie a lot—it fell into a nice space between Heathers and The Lost Boys—but the concept seemed unlikely for a TV show. It also seemed unlikely that it would be my friend Jon who would tell me to watch it, but it was. It’s better than you’d think, he said. We were probably talking on the phone while watching TV.

Eventually, I did. But not right away. I don’t remember what the first episode I saw was, only that there was a time where the rerun I caught was always, always “Out of Mind, Out of Sight.” The first season came out on VHS and I borrowed Jon’s copies to catch up. Eventually, he gave them to me for my birthday.

1997 was a rough year. I’ve never really thought about the timing of Buffy appearing in my life; I’ve read a million pieces where people talk about finding Buffy as a teenager, and always felt like I couldn’t claim their kind of connection, since I wasn’t a teen anymore. But Buffy was a girl trying to figure out an increasingly frustrating, difficult world in which it was hard to get to class and keep your shit together, let alone succeed.

Let’s just say it resonated.

More on that, eventually, over the course of the next seven years, as I rewatch each episode 20 years after its original airdate. Each post will appear sometime in the following week.

These are not recaps, and not reviews. It’s a project. We’ll see what it becomes.

Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2: “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest
Original airdate: Monday, March 10, 1997
Rewatch: Friday, March 10, 2017

“This is not going to be pretty. We’re talking violence, strong language, adult content…”

Continue reading “Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 20 Years Later”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 20 Years Later

Read ALL the Things Plays Catch-up

Every time I start writing one of these posts, two things happen: I wonder why I thought this was a good idea in the first place, and I fight the temptation to write in a slightly twee sort of third person voice: “As Read ALL the Things is now working at a bookshop, she feels she may have even less time to devote to the admirable yet fruitless quest to read all the unread books in the house. Attention must be paid to the new books, after all.”

I am, in fact, now working in a bookshop, though I still have two weeks until I’m full-time there, and I feel, somewhat dramatically, that I ought to spend those two weeks reading books published before last month. But that sounds like a negative thing, and really I’m ridiculously excited and also sort of terrified – not of the bookshop job, but of all the things I think I’ve been avoiding doing. Working part time felt, a lot of the time, like not really settling into my life, and so it was easier than usual to put off things like looking for freelance work, or writing this half-assed blog, or starting the other blog I’m super excited about, or any number of other things. This is backwards. I realize that. I should have been using the time left over around my part-time hours to do all the things that needed doing.

The idea and the actuality are not always even funhouse reflections of each other.

But books. I’ve been ducking my head and hiding from some of the books in my teetering stuff-I-read-and-meant-to-write-about pile. Continue reading “Read ALL the Things Plays Catch-up”

Read ALL the Things Plays Catch-up

Read ALL the Things and the Accidental Hiatus

Hi, internet! It’s kind of been a while. In fact, it’s been so long that I have this urge to refer to Read ALL the Things as a neglected character: Read ALL the Things has been busy. Read ALL the Things decided to do things besides reading all the things. The things have simply been piling up around Read ALL the Things.

Back in August, I applied for a job. Actually, I applied for quite a few jobs, but this one is particularly relevant. In September, I went to Oregon for a week; when I got back, I started the job. The job involved reading some – perhaps several – books.

I got behind on the things. And when I did read the things, I got more behind on writing about them. I’m not one for resolutions, exactly – the timeframe is so nebulous! For how long must I keep my resolve? – but I did decide, in my fashion, to try to write about everything I read or see this year.

(Then I decided that TV didn’t necessarily count because no one wants to read a blog about last year’s Glee episodes, which I watch while sick. This is in present tense because I am a) still stick and b) planning to watch more Glee after I stop typing this.)

First, the plate needs clearing. This is part one of two posts about SOME of the things I read last fall.

The Magicians and The Magician King, Lev Grossman
I almost didn’t go into these books with the most open mind. My introduction to Grossman had been via that Wall Street Journal essay about plot being a dirty word, which struck me as one of the more prominently placed strawman arguments I’d seen in a while. It made me cranky. And then Grossman appeared to be The Guy Who Explains Fandom to the Masses, and frankly I kind of wished I’d thought of that job.

But then I went to a reading at Word, as I am wont to do, and Grossman read and was charming, as he, apparently, is wont to do, because he did it again next time I saw him read at Word (he also read the same piece of The Magician King, but it’s a good piece, so I’ll forgive that. This time). Enough friends had asked if I’d read The Magicians that I could no longer resist.

I loved it, and I didn’t. It’s too close and yet so far – so close to the story that I, as one of those bookish children who grew up in Narnia and Middle-Earth and read Harry Potter as an adult, feeling no shame,  could have really fallen into. I get why people love it and I’m still not one of them, and that, it turns out, is exactly where my fascination sits: Every person who loves all of the things that go into these books has a different ideal, a different perfect vision, conscious or no, of how they could be combined. Grossman’s is just a few doors down from mine. The second book gets closer because there’s more Julia, but her story’s resolution (for now?) was so unsatisfying, it put a damper on my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I’m still struggling with what doesn’t work for me: Is it that I don’t find the idea of a dangerous magical land all that unusual? Is it that the smug, brilliant kids felt like smug, brilliant kids that would never have welcomed my younger self? (Is it that something about them reminded me of the kids in Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which I adored?) Is it that Quentin was just kind of a dick?

Whatever it is, it isn’t going to keep me away from the next book. I have issues, and then I want to see what happens. It’s kind of fun.

The Apothecary, Maile Meloy
I loved Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, but didn’t expect – or know what to expect from – a YA novel from her. The Apothecary is closer to middle grade, though, and strangely overlooked in this kids’ books award season, though its sweet, old-fashioned tone probably isn’t to everyone’s taste. The story of a girl who finds herself uprooted and moved to England after her screenwriter parents wind up on the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ watch list, Meloy’s book has a nostalgic tint and is written with a gentle hand. Janie Scott hates England, but finds her way into adventure and romance, intrigue and danger, all with an innocence that’s miles away from the knowing tone of so many young narrators. I like those precocious little brats, but I like Janie, too. The Apothecary feels like something from a different era, and at times the nostalgia, the reminiscence by the older Janie who seems to be narrating the story, is a little too much, too adult, too out of place. But so much in this book is graceful and lovely; it’s the kind of thing you want to hug to your chest when you’re finished.

I wrote about a few books in last year’s Winter Reading for Eugene Weekly – Neal Stephenson’s Reamde and Cherie Priest’s Ganymede – and one, Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, for the Procrastinator’s Gift Guide, so I won’t revisit those here, despite the fact that I spent so much time on Reamde, I almost feel like it deserves several hundred more words.

To come in part two: Brian Wood’s Local, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, and more…

Read ALL the Things and the Accidental Hiatus

Read ALL the Things: What I read when I’m not reading what I’m reading

I want to post about both Torchwood and A Dance with Dragons, but I find myself not having a lot to say about either — yet. I’m still stewing. I probably just need to clean the house, and that’ll shake the thoughts free.

In the meantime, I’ve read a few things while not carrying around Dance (which I took with me into the city last night, only to sorely regret doing so while holding my bag for three hours at the Tim Kasher show. Oops). In brief, and in order:

This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record, Susannah Felts
Felts’ novel straddles the YA/coming-of-age-book-for-grownups divide nicely, never quite specifying its time setting but giving plenty of identifying detail, like mix tapes and a distinct lack of cell phones. It’s a story about the kind of kids I think of as “us,” the outsiders who looked for ways to express ourselves while struggling with playing the game of high school, where you’re only supposed to express previously approved feelings and thoughts lest you be a weirdo. A sense of place is central to the book, which takes place in Nashville in the summer, and Felts’ gentle exploration of the clash of art and affection, and the way friendship can feel indestructible and tenuous at once, feels lived-in and tactile. I picked up and put down this book, which was a gift from Toby, several times, and I’m not sure why it stuck this time, but it did, and it felt like it was taking place inside my head, a collage of memories from a teenhood that wasn’t mine.

You Must Go and Win, Alina Simone
Oh, this book. I heard about it here and there, and then I went to Simone’s book-release event at Word in large part because word was out that her “secret” special guest was Amanda Palmer. I went for AFP, sure, but I’m glad I did, because Simone was charming and funny and all the things I want but don’t always get in authors-as-readers of any kind. And her book! This goddamn book! I’ve been struggling to understand how Simone pulls off this deceptively breezy style wherein she’s completely self-deprecating and honest, but her stories never turn into pity parties, and her voice never veers into Eeyore territory. All the honesty and self-awareness dances on a broad stripe of pragmatism, even when Simone is going to be baptized by a punk monk or driving across country with a younger Palmer, who knows and says that she wants to be a certain kind of famous (goal: met). Peculiar living situations, the foibles of the recording industry, the struggle between what and who we are and what and who we think we ought to be — Simone’s stories made me want to copy down sentences and flag pages and send her postcards full of effusive admiration. I did write down one quote, posting it on Tumblr, where I store such things: “Failure only means that you haven’t thrown yourself, face-first, against the brick wall of probability enough times.”

I haven’t done it justice, really, because I finished it a month ago. But the whole thing is really about not giving up, and about finding the things that matter and experiencing and moving on from the things that don’t — and dealing with the soul-crushing doubt that comes with being uncertain about what you’re doing, what you’re supposed to be doing, and whether it matters at all. Stories like these come from a life — and forgive me, because I’m going to get a little corny — that’s well-lived. You have to pay attention, and sometimes you have to go to Siberia. But the point is, you have to go. And maybe win.

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
OK, so, I might’ve been putting off posting because of this book. Which is an excellent, fascinating book — a fact underlined by the random kid on the subway who liked the page I was reading so much that he asked if he could photograph the cover — but also a difficult book for me. My super-verbal brain struggles, sometimes, with visual art concepts, and so when McCloud’s little bespectacled avatar is explaining, from panel to panel, the place where comics sits in the art continuum, and the way the iconized characters work, and how simplifying an idea might get it into my head faster and make it more relatable … on the one hand, I get it. I totally get it. But I get it in this place in my head that refuses translation into words (which probably proves about half of McCloud’s theories, which are really more like descriptions of the way things are than “theories”). I spent the book in a state of disconcerting recognition: Yes, that! But how does it work? Abstractions, icons, subtraction and elimination, visual language and what happens in between panels — it all makes sense to me in an intuitive way, but my mind wants to translate it into words I can speak or write down.

Clearly, this isn’t working so well. McCloud takes apart the intuitive process of reading comics’ specific combination of words and pictures by using that exact combination of elements. Understanding Comics makes you understand it in order to understand the medium in which it’s working. Beautiful, really. I think this is the kind of book that’s going to turn itself into words, for me, when I next read comics. All the things I take for granted in the act of reading/experiencing comics are explained in these little squares (mostly) of black ink and white paper (mostly). You can just do it, or you can try to understand it. I always like to try both.

Read ALL the Things: What I read when I’m not reading what I’m reading

Intermission, with READY PLAYER ONE

I’m smothering myself in things I love, right now, and I’ve got this crushed-out, almost-butterflies feeling in my stomach — a feeling that’s like sparkling possibility and nervousness and I know this one; I know it really well. It eludes me, from time to time, where things and falling in love with them is concerned. I get gray and dull and faded around the edges and I like things a lot, but nothing gets past whatever it is that’s blunting the edges on things. But not right now.

(Things are not the same as people, and really, maybe I just got overwhelmed on the people side of love and slipped on the things. To have both! — the breathlessness of discovering a story or a song, and the perpetual grin of constantly discovering a person — is a wealth of riches.)

From time to time in my life, I’ve found myself comfort-playing videogames. It’s like comfort eating, but instead of food that’s sweet in its familiarity, it’s stories through which I guide a small pixelated person or elf or, um, bear with a bird in his backpack. I’ve never even beaten most of the games I comfort-play, with the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I still think is the best game ever. I don’t like boss battles and I really dislike final boss battles; I play these games for fun, for the adventure and the puzzles, and when they get too hard — when the eerie sky city in Twilight Princess gets too frustrating — I set them aside again.

But for that stretch of time, which often involves five-hour windows in which I lose track of time, I’m immersed. It’s Zelda, or it’s Mario, or it’s Banjo-Kazooie (but mostly it’s Zelda). I know, every time, what I’m doing: avoiding something. The further I wander into one of those labyrinthine caverns that may or may not have a heart piece at the end, or the longer I spend trying to collect every spider or golden bug, the more I’m avoiding something. Maybe it’s a task, or a truth, or an obligation. There’s no better place to hide from it than in the glow of the TV screen.

I did this earlier this year, putting off beginning the job application process while playing through a few levels of Banjo-Kazooie, which I hadn’t been able to play for years because I didn’t have an old TV, and N64 games look terrible on high-definition screens. Was it a waste of time? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are things I do better when I’m multitasking, but it’s a specific task; I need something to take up one part of my mind so the rest of me can relax. I drive better and I play pinball better when I’m singing along to familiar songs under my breath. (This is probably true of a lot of things, actually.) I think better when I’m in the shower. And I process semi-subconscious issues better when I’m immersed in the particular engaged/unengaged worldplay that videogames, especially a certain kind of platformer, offer.

I always know I’m avoiding something. I also know I’ll face it when I’m ready.

All of this was on my mind when I read Tom Bissell’s excellent but poorly subtitled Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Someone gave that book that subtitle with the greatest of intentions, but the truth is, Bissell’s personal, vibrant book isn’t about why video games matter in general; it’s about why they matter to him, and that’s exactly why I like it: It’s an engrossing and honest look at the way these particular kinds of stories work, and matter, in Bissell’s life. I have a lot of thoughts about that book, but that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a book that lands, with incredible timing, in the middle of what feels like a steady stream of articles about nostalgia. Ready Player One is fueled by that nostalgia, that peculiar love people of my generation have for the TV shows and lunchboxes and Matthew Broderick movies and game systems we grew up with. (Do other generations have the same thing? Probably, but I’d bet it’s different for each one, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for them.) But Cline’s book doesn’t just feed, parasite-like, off a shared affection for the cartoon characters and music videos and concept albums that provide their fans with a set of shared experienced and a specialized language (if I say I ordered a pan-galactic gargle blaster, you instantly know, if you’re One of Us, what the hell I’m talking about, right?). Cline does something much better, and something I’m having a hard time explaining.

He makes it about the love. There are competitive nerds and reclusive nerds and social nerds, and all the nerd types overlap — and not everyone with a nostalgic streak is a nerd. But part of being a nerd, or being nerdy, is loving things unabashedly and passionately. Love like that is the opposite of the irony that seeps into a different kind of nostalgia/nerd experience, where you have to laugh at yourself, not with yourself, to display your distance from whatever you’re sort of appreciating. Love is what gets scarred out of your public face when you’re a young nerd, when your enthusiasm bubbles too hot and someone sees it for the vulnerable space it is.

Ready Player One is built on one socially inept genius’s love for the stories and experiences of his childhood. Movies, video games, records, TV series — you can love them all you want, quietly and privately, and they don’t bite back. Sharing that love can be trickier. That, one character theorizes, is what led James Halliday, the inventor of the book’s immersive virtual world called the OASIS, to create an elaborate quest game that began upon his death. The winner will find an Easter egg hidden within the Oasis (and inherit Halliday’s computer-genius wealth).

Because Cline is clever, more is at stake than one man’s wealth and virtual power, though virtual power is nothing to scoff at, in this world. To be too detailed about the book would be to spoil the fun that is trying to puzzle through Halliday’s riddles, all of which involve the late-twentieth-century pop culture he loved, and most of which are downright devilish. The real world is a mess, and there’s a corporation trying to win the contest in order to privatize and monetize the Oasis, and our heroes and heroines are a bunch of nerds who go to virtual schools and hang out in virtual chat rooms and know each other through blogs and v-chats and everything else in the OASIS, which has taken over what the internet started.

Some people will hate this book. It’s quick and clever and runs at a speed that screams Make me into a screenplay!, and a couple of plot wrinkles tested even my very willing suspension of disbelief. And it’s nostalgic, kinda-sorta, but also not. All that pop culture detritus that looks like nostalgia to us is, in 2044 when the story takes place, useful knowledge. History. Cline gives a reason for knowing all the words to ’70s songs and recognizing scenes from ’80s movies. Idealistic? Indulgent? It could be, but it isn’t; it’s inventive and fun, and Cline never dwells too long in a game or a movie scene, moving right along, alternating our hero’s solo jaunts through the quest with his interactions with a handful of other “gunters” (short for egg hunters).

Ready Player One never quite reaches the emotional levels I wanted it to, but I still devoured it in two sittings, trying and failing to tear myself away. It’s as compulsively readable as those games I love are compulsively playable — the next level, the next chapter, the wanting to see what happens when you find that next dungeon, or Cline’s hero finds the next clue — and it plays on all the things that let me lose myself in a story: a quest setting; rich, relevant-to-my-interests detail; the triumph of the nerd class; a tendency to slip away from the real world into the virtual (or fictional) one and then have to tear yourself back out again. Online friendships get their due, but so does reality; knowing what was and seeing what is are both important.

I put the book down, grinned, turned on the computer, clicked play on The Joy Formidable’s The Big Roar, and realized Tim Kasher is playing tonight. I have a second job interview on Friday and I’m going to Oregon in a little over a week. I want to listen to all my favorite records, I want to see all my favorite people, and I want to write.

Don’t just read all the things. Love all the things. Sometimes I just need a reminder.

Intermission, with READY PLAYER ONE