It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.
Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.
A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.
The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.
Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.
The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.
In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.
Chris Chibnall owes James Goss a thank-you note for giving Doctor Who fans something besides the implications of the Timeless Child to focus on during (yet another) gap year in new installments.
The second installment in the Paul McGann entry of the “Time Lord Victorious” arc features the Daleks (because, of course, we can’t not have the Daleks in there somehow) and builds on the foundation provided by “He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not.” “The Enemy of My Enemy” is a bit more successful and entertaining of a story than the previous installment, though I couldn’t help but feel there was some potential overlooked here. Some of the connections to the larger story come through here — especially the weapon held by the Wrax. There are probably Easter eggs to other installments of this series that I’m either not getting because I haven’t experienced them yet or I wasn’t taking notes as I listened to/read other parts.
McGann is up to his usual standard of excellence here, proving once again that he would have been a great on-screen Doctor if he’d been given the chance. Nicholas Briggs once again gives us an impressive array of Dalek voices and he even manages to make most of them distinctive enough that this listener could tell which Dalek was speaking. I will admit that years of watching classic Who has me expecting Davros to turn up at some point, but I am thinking that’s more and more unlikely.
The story builds to a point and then ends of a cliffhanger. As the middle installment of a trilogy, a lot of what we’re getting here is moving pieces into place for the end game to come. I’m interested enough that I will listen to part three.
This afternoon at 5:30 p.m. CST, MeTV will repeat the iconic Happy Days episode, “Hollywood, Part 3.” For those of you who don’t have episode titles of Happy Days memorized, this is the opening trio of episodes from season three when the Fonz goes to Hollywood for a screen test to become the next James Dean.
Oh yeah, he also water skis and jumps over a shark.
That moments has become iconic in pop-culture history thanks to Josh Hein and his college roommates coming up with popular phrase “jump the shark” to define the moment when a piece of pop culture (mostly TV shows) peaks and begins to decline in quality. And while I may not think the “Hollywood” trilogy of episodes is the best example of Happy Days at it’s best, I’d argue that the Fonz jumping the shark wasn’t the moment the series started to decline. (It’s the moment Ron Howard left and the show elevated Scott Baio to leading man status).
I’m not alone in this feeling either — the episodes’ writer Fred Fox made the case for this as well a few years ago. The episode was also the focus of a Mental Floss post earlier this month — almost as if someone there looked at the schedule and knew this episode would be on my mind this week.
I unabashedly love Happy Days. I enjoy the repeats on MeTV and I’ve got all the seasons available for purchase on DVD. (I’m still not sure why they released all but one of the Ron Howard seasons.) And while I would never put this Hollywood trilogy up there in my top tier of episodes, I do think the trilogy and Happy Days as a whole gets a bad rap for a memorable pop-culture moment.
Kicking off season five, the Hollywood storyline is meant to lure in viewers the way the three-part story with Pinky Tuskadero did a season four. It’s built on stunt casting (Lorne Green cameos, for heaven’s sake!), lots of location filming (the cast seem to be having a fun vacation and occasionally filming), and highlighting the cast in ways the show normally didn’t (Henry Winkler apparently told producers he could water ski and they wrote it in).
But the central dynamic of the friendship of Richie and the Fonz is still in place (it gets tested here when Richie gets a movie offer and Fonzie doesn’t).
At this point, the Fonz was the central marketing feature of the show, thanks in large part to Winkler’s charm and Howard’s understanding of pop culture and entertainment.
Early on, the Fonz was a bit of a harder character with a definite edge to him. Even in season three when the show reboots a bit from a single-cam show about being a teenager in the 50s to a multi-cam show with the Fonz living over the Cunningham’s garage, the Fonz still had an edge. In “The Motorcycle,” we see that edge as everyone tries to protect Ralph from Fonzie beating up him up over a destroyed motorcycle. Or in “The Other Richie Cunningham” we see it in the Fonz’s plan to allow Richie to double date with Ralph while having Potsie stand-in for him on a blind date Howard has set up and then Fonzie’s solution when the whole thing goes sideways thanks to Potsie getting handsy.
Probably my favorite example is from “Richie Fights Back.” After being humiliated by bullies and Joanie besting his at karate, Richie turns to the Fonz for help in being “tough.” Fonzie gives him a few pointers, including acting tough and using an intimidating voice. It all comes to a head when the bullies come back to Arnold’s and Richie decides to stand up to them. When the intimidation factor doesn’t work, Richie asks Fonzie why, to which Fonzie replies that at some point you have to have to actually have a reputation to back it up.
The Fonz would slowly lose this edge in the back half of season three and much of season four. He’d become a bit more super-hero like as the show progressed, though seasons once Howard left attempt to show some character growth from the Fonz (he enters a long term relationship and wants to become a father in the final seasons).
But, the jump the shark moment isn’t quite the decline that pop-culture would have us think it is. The show would get a bit sillier as seasons went on (the gang taking on the mob and the Fonz faking his own death are not a highlight). And it’s not just the Fonz who would lose his edge as the series went along. (I’d argue that Ralph Malph’s character becomes increasingly one-note as the series goes along. If you look at him in seasons one and two, Ralph has an edge to him that just becomes Ralph is easily scared by the time Don Most departs).
So, I don’t necessarily think this is the beginning of the end for one of my favorite shows. If you’re tuning in today, there’s still a lot of good stuff left to come (among my favorites, the Fonz’s date checklist) and there’s some moments that dim the Fonz’s edge a bit more (his own song and dance in season six, for example). But I’d argue that the show’s real decline comes when Chachi is included in the opening credits. But that’s a story for another time.
For its first six seasons, Doctor Who featured call-backs to its past but hadn’t really started building any significant amount of mythology. That all changed with the introduction of the Time Lords in the last installment of “The War Games” and solidified for the next five years under the leadership of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.
The Jon Pertwee years were the time when the show began to establish precedents that would continue not only for the rest of the classic series run but are still being used and built on today. It even extends as far as when the series decided to come out of retirement that Russell T. Davies borrowed heavily from Pertwee’s first four-part serial “Spearhead from Space.”
During the wilderness years, a fellow Whovian and I were discussing what it would be like if the show came back and it was pointed out that a great monster to bring back the show wouldn’t necessarily by the Daleks or the Cybermen but the Autons. The Autons are significant in the series, appearing twice in the original series run, and the sequence of them breaking out of shop windows in episode four is one that is indelibly burned into the minds of the viewing public. But the Autons don’t have the same level of backstory, expectation, and baggage as some of the more popular foes the Doctor has squared off against. Continue reading →
Robert Holmes inherited “Return of the Cybermen” from the previous production team and hastily re-wrote it as “Revenge of the Cybermen” for Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor. If you’ve ever wondered if the original version might have been superior or inferior to “Revenge,” those questions can finally be laid to rest with the latest addition to Big Finish’s The Lost Stories line.
“Return of the Cybermen” uses most of the same building blocks as “Revenge” did — Cybermats, Cybermen, Nerva beacon used as a bomb to crash into a source of gold — but spins them in an entirely different way. Gone is the subplot involving Voga and its politics and in its place is a third-episode diversion to a lost colony of miners sitting on a stockpile of gold. “Return” eschews to the 60’s version of a Cybermen story with the metal monsters lurking around for much of the first portion of the story before finally arriving en mass to effect whatever nefarious plot they’ve cooked up this time. Each story introduces a new weakness for the Cybermen based on whatever the story decides is in abundance — in this case, it’s x-rays and gold. Continue reading →
Well, it appears that J.J. Abrams’ son Henry has inherited his father’s ability to start off a story well but has no idea how to stick the landing.
This five-issue mini-series event is a bit of a disappointment on the writing side. A new villain called Cadaverous kills Mary Jane and a bunch of other superheroes, sending Peter Parker into exile. A decade or so later, Peter is estranged from his fifteen-year-old son Ben and has left Ben in the hands of Aunt May as he travels the globe for the Bugle. But Ben is starting to have strange occurrences in his life, like sticking to walls and the ability to take out bullies with a single punch. Before you know it, Ben has discovered he’s got Spidey powers and Cadaverous is alerted that Spider-Man is back on the scene and can be used to complete whatever the hell plan it is that Cadaverous has dreamed up.
Bloodline feels like an extended mini-series based on the MCU more than the comic-book storylines surrounding Spider-Man — and that’s not a bad thing, per se. If there’s one thing Into the Spider-Verse showed us, it’s there can be multiple variations of Spider-Man without necessarily wrecking things.
But as I started out saying, the big issue here is Henry Abrams’ writing. It’s all over the place, pulling in things like Tony Stark, the Avengers, and other MCU items without necessarily thinking things through. If you’re all about a big reveal that doesn’t require much thought or internal continuity, this is the mini-series for you. However, Spider-Man has always been about something more than just big reveal after big reveal for me — it’s about investing in the character of Peter Parker — or whoever is taking up the Spider-Man mantle. And that’s where this mini-series ultimately fails. Yes, Ben Parker is Peter and MJ’s son, but beyond that, there is little or any character arc in play to give us a reason to care about. And since Peter turns into a distant father, there’s little, if any reason, to invest much in him either.
The story does try to go for a huge emotional twist in the final issue with mixed results. Again, I hadn’t invested enough in the characters to really feel anything more than a shoulder-shrug when said reveal takes place.
And the ending is all over the place. So, maybe J.J. wrote this with his son.
Putting the plot aside, the artwork for this miniseries is superbly done. I grew up reading reprints of the Steve Ditko and John Romita eras, and those will always be my favorites when it comes to Spider-Man. But the art by Sara Pichelli for this mini-series event evokes the best of Ditko and Romita. It’s colorful and easy to distinguish each character over the course of the five issues. There are a few striking panels in here that made me pause to just enjoy them before turning the page and continuing to roll my eyes at the plotline.
I’ve never read Jane Eyre, so I can’t speak to how faithful to the original Rachel Hawkin’s updated retelling, The Wife Upstairs is or isn’t. What I can speak to is that sense that this novel never quite connected with me.
Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is on the run from her past. Working as a dog-walker for the city’s elite, Jane meets Eddie Rochester. Eddie’s wife disappeared (along with her best friend) under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead.
So, of course, these two begin dating and their relationship moves rather quickly from dating to living together to engaged. Jane doesn’t want a big wedding for fear of publicity bringing unwanted questions from her past life, but her old roommate is more than willing to blackmail her to keep those pursuing her at bay. Jane works to keep one step ahead of her past, teasing readers with what it may or may not be for far longer than I had much patience for.
That really sums up my disappointment with The Wife Upstairs. It teases us for far too long (though we know a bit about what Eddie is up to early on) without giving sufficient answers to the questions raised until I’d long since lost most of my interest in Jane. I suppose if I’d cracked open a copy of Jane Eyre at some point in my life, I’d already know a lot of what is revealed in the final third of the book. But that might have ruined some of the “thrill” of discovering all this for myself.
Another issue with The Wife Upstairs is that it attempts to be a domestic suspense thriller without offering much in the way of thrills or suspense. I found myself more relieved to finally be done with the novel than satisfied with the overall reading experience once I turned the final page.
Overall, a disappointment.
I received a digital ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.