Friday, October 2, 2020

“Lake Life” and “One By One” | Lefsetz Letter

“Lake Life”

“One By One”

Highbrow or lowbrow, take your pick.

We are deep into this Korean show on Netflix, “Stranger.” Felice says it can’t be recommended, I’m on the fence. First and foremost, not only is it in Korean, it’s the densest series I’ve ever watched, at some point you just have to let it flow, hope that plot points will resurface and you will figure them out. And, it’s a commitment. Each episode is over an hour, and the first season has sixteen episodes. But foreignness appeals to me. The locations can be exotic. And within the first ten minutes of the first episode Felice said “So now you want to go to Seoul?” And that’s exactly what I’d been thinking. Supposedly Jackie O. spoke six languages, that was part of the Kennedy hype. But checking on Wikipedia right now it says only four, English, French, Spanish and Italian. And in truth, those are all kind of close, at least the last three…but Korean?

So, if I learn Korean…it’s completely separate from Japanese, never mind Chinese. And to tell you the truth I’m bad with languages, some people pick them up right away, that is not me. I always wonder if I moved somewhere whether I’d learn the language quickly or not, but it pains me to know there’s no way I wouldn’t have an accent, and locals would know and see me as the other.

And the truth is in so many locations today everybody speaks English, or at least enough people. I went skiing in France in 1971 and only the Americans spoke English. I went skiing in France in 2011 and seemingly everybody spoke English, there was no problem getting your message across, being understood. But to be able to speak in the native language? Then again, Korean’s got a wholly different alphabet, there’s a steep learning curve.

But, if you’re going to watch TV, I reinforce you should begin with “Borgen.” I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin, but I never watched “West Wing”…if it’s on network I’m hesitant. And U.S. TV is slick and too often compromised. But as good an actor as Martin Sheen might be, Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the lead character, Birgitte Nyborg, is better. She’ll smile for the camera and then do a one-eighty and go straight to a frown. And what’s great about foreign TV is the expected doesn’t happen, it doesn’t go the way you assume it will, both in the third season and in Nyborg’s relationships, but… Denmark has multiple political parties, not just two, and the key is to build a coalition and try to govern, to make the sausage, and it’s not so easy. Another thread is the media, they go inside TV and print news and you see how both have influence yet are compromised, how some outlets have agendas. And the spin doctors! If you watch “Borgen” that’s who you’ll want to be, Kasper Juul. Not that Birgitte is not savvy, but it’s Juul who crafts the specifics of the agenda, decides what can and cannot work, it’s fascinating to watch.

But bracketing streaming television shows I read books. And I was on another bad streak of mediocre books. If it’s not worth your time, or if it’s not the focus of media attention, why bother, just to show I watched/read it? But the two books linked to above, they’re really good, in their own unique ways.

“Lake Life.” It’s the story of a family on vacation in their double-wide of two decades, on a big lake. My mind pictured it as “Ozark,” but there’s no issue of crime and the only local who figures in is not dangerous at all. So, you’ve got the parents and two sons and their wives. What is everybody’s relationship? And you’ve been there. Not everybody gets along with the in-laws, certainly not in the same way.

And I’m loath to give away any plot points, because I read for plot, it’s the twists and turns, the surprises that excite me. But let me just say the kids are not winners, they’re not setting the world on fire. We always read about the winners and the losers, how about those in between?

You could compare “Lake Life” to Franzen. But without the overhanging heaviness. There’s not really a cloud in “Lake Life.” Nowhere is it said that BIG POINTS are being made. Yet, it’s these family dramas that reach me, that I’m most interested in reading. And normally I plow right through books I love, but in this case I’d stop after every chapter or two, to savor what had happened, to think about it. And the truth is about two-thirds of the way through “Lake Life” I got inspired to write something about it, and it would have been great, but it was after midnight and I hadn’t finished the book yet, what if the end didn’t satisfy as much? This happened to me with a book I recommended about the tech world/Silicon Valley, “Chaos Monkeys.” At first I was riveted, but then…you had to be interested in the subject to continue to read and enjoy, and that cut down the number of people who’d like it and I don’t want to recommend something people won’t like because it will affect my credibility, so, I don’t write until I finish, if at all.

But maybe I should change that.

You see the same thing happened with “One by One.” I was so excited but then…the person I thought did it was the one who did and the last quarter of the book just wasn’t as riveting, but before then…every night I looked forward to reading “One by One,” it’s great to have such a book in the wings, on the nightstand.

So, the muckety-mucks would call “Lake Life” literature, not that it’s hard to read, whereas “One by One” is genre, as in mystery/thriller/whodunit. People compare the author, Ruth Ware, to Agatha Christie, but I did not know that until after the fact, that’s when I do my research, otherwise it affects the reading experience, especially reviews, which tend to tell two-thirds of the plot.

I stay away from genre. And non-fiction. Not that I never read them, but oftentimes when I do I end up disappointed, certainly when I read mystery/thriller stuff, and when I read non-fiction…I’m all excited, I buy the book and then it’s a slog to finish it. Happens over and over again. Maybe I’ll explain the details sometime, but not today.

Anyway, “One by One” centers around skiing and tech/music, what’s not to like?

Not that I knew this going in. I’m just constantly trolling for stuff to read. And when I find something that is interesting, I download a sample chapter to my Kindle. And most stuff I chuck right away, the books are not readable enough, as a matter of fact, most of the vaunted literature I find unreadable, they’re about style, they’re overwritten, laden with metaphors, but that was not “One by One,” I got hooked right away, so I bought it.

I did not know it revolved around skiing. I did not know the app centered around music, those were surprises. But I read and I pictured the landscape, I had it in my mind’s eye. And that’s one great thing about reading, you can divine your own pictures. And when they make the movie, it’s almost never the same. Maybe the movie stands on its own, but it’s rarely the book.

So, you’ve got everybody in a chalet and they’re there on business and vacation and if I tell you any more, I’ll ruin it.

I had a suspicion who the culprit was right up front, and like I told you, I was right. But it wasn’t until two-thirds through the book that it truly came clear. Which had me, as well as the characters, constantly guessing.

And some of these genre books are nothing more than the plot. But in “One by One” the characters are fully defined, you think you know them and…if you’re looking for a book to take you away, that cuts like butter in these quarantined Covid times, I highly recommend “One by One.”

As for “Lake Life”…

“One by One” has 1,313 ratings on Amazon. That doesn’t mean it’s terrific, a lot of junk gets a lot of ratings, even good ones. And speaking of stars, if it has fewer than four I’m extremely hesitant, maybe I’ll go for something with three and a half, but that’s rare.

“One by One” has a solid four. As does “Lake Life. But, “Lake Life” only has 88 ratings, and it came out back in July.

This happens all the time, you read a great review and you go to Amazon and almost no one is reading the book. And almost always, that’s a bad sign. That usually means the particular reviewer resonated, but most people did not. Of course it can mean that word hasn’t spread about a book, but if you’ve gotten a review in the “New York Times”…the industry knows about it.

So I waited to finish “Lake Life” before I rendered a final judgment. And it’s not five star best of the year, but it’s really damn good. But there appears to be no word of mouth on it.

And, one of the reasons you read fiction is for the wisdom contained therein. So to close, I’m gonna quote a few lines from “Lake Life” that resonated. And as one must say in these blowback days, your mileage might vary. But it’s funny how those who complain always ended up reading the whole damn book, finishing the whole damn series…if it was that bad why didn’t they quit? Usually it turns out they didn’t dislike the work that much, but they just wanted to show me they’re equal to me and their opinion matters. Fine, but it’s always given with attitude. Hell, what do I know, I’m just another person on the planet, if I find something I think the majority of my readers will like, I call their attention to it, it’s an imperfect science.


“But this is the way of families – the inconsequential elevated to the imperative.”

Ain’t that the truth, especially on vacation, especially when the kids are out of the house and the only time you come back together is during vacation. When my father was alive, we always had a huge blowout during vacation, always!

“Except, that’s the thing about death – it reminds you you’re alive.”

I’m still messed up about Judd‘s death. But as I normalize, I realize emotionally as well as intellectually I should try not to sweat the small stuff and if I’ve got something to prove, something I want to do, not to waste time but to go for it.

“…the kind of argument art school students have when all they have to show for all the work they’ve done, so far in life, are their opinions and inflexibility.”

That’s one of the problems with arts education. It makes you feel you know something, that you’re better than the hoi polloi. But when it comes to creation, oftentimes schooling is unnecessary, at best it helps. And the uneducated start, but those with degrees are oftentimes too inhibited, yet because of that piece of paper they think they are better, and they’ll let you know it.

“People at the funeral made things worse, the way well-meaning people tend to do.”

Bingo! They’re trying their best but what you really want is to be left alone, or to talk to one or two specific people. Yet, you carry on and listen to them, interact with them, because they mean well and you don’t want to offend them yet you wonder why you’re doing this, why you’re worried about their feelings when you’re the one who is hurting.


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