The complete Breaking Bad on Blu-ray, including 55 hours of special features and a new documentary packed in a commemorative replica money barrel with an apron from the Los Pollos Hermanos fast-food chain in the show, for $199.99 from Amazon, is only for the series junkie in withdrawal. But at $15.69 the first season DVD makes a great introduction to some marvelous TV for any discriminating adult who isn’t already a fan. The acclaimed series featuring chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White is a psychologically realistic exploration of a particularly extreme mid-life crisis. But it’s also literary television that recalls the moral seriousness, intelligent artistry, and sharp edge of mid-20th-century fiction by Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor. Its themes are similar, too. Breaking Bad is an extended exploration of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. (Or at least three out of four. “Dare we hope that Walter White may be saved?” is an even more fascinating question than “Is Scobie in hell?” which Evelyn Waugh asked of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.)
Perhaps editors, like mothers, shouldn’t play favorites, but I will confess that my all-time favorite of the books I have edited is the just-published When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question, by Charlotte Hays. Her keen eye marks the telltale signs of our civilizational decline: the tattooed Chi Omega at the fancy benefit dinner, the Hollywood star with four foreclosed mansions, the popular children’s dolls that look like they should be run in on a morals charge. She uses her trademark self-deprecating Southern-belle humor to make a serious point about what we’ve lost to White Trash Normal, and how we might recover. Boxes throughout the book instruct the reader on “White Trash Money Management” and more. $17.20 on Amazon.
A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor, is a brief window into a remarkable soul. While she was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and beginning Wise Blood, O’Connor kept a spiritual journal in a marble-covered composition book. She pondered faith in an age of “intellectual quackery,” and answered Proust and D. H. Lawrence on love and sex. This book will be a treat for anyone who loves the sound of Flannery O’Connor’s voice: “What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.” $10.80 on Amazon.
Marcia Williams has adapted classic literature, folk tales, and mythology in delightful “graphic novels” — clever and physically sturdy comic books. The illustrations are colorful, comical, and full of surprising details that keep children poring over the pages. Her Tales from Shakespeare is particularly good, with the dialogue taken straight from the plays. Amazon stocks it and several other Marcia Williams graphic novels, including The Iliad and The Odyssey, for under $10 each.
— Elizabeth Kantor is an editor at Regnery Publishing and the author, most recently, of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After.
This is the year I discovered Joseph Roth and my Christmas gift to NRO readers is to pass the discovery along. I was listening to a BBC 4 app in my car during a late-night drive. I caught what literally must’ve been the last twelve sentences of a dramatization of Roth’s novel The Radetsky March. I was instantly struck by the quality of the writing and downloaded the iBook when I got home. It’s a brilliant evocation of the coming of World War I and the fall of the Austro–Hungarian empire. It’s followed by a sequel, The Emperor’s Tomb, which is also very fine. And for those who can’t get enough, as I couldn’t, there’s also What I Saw, a collection of the journalism Roth wrote while he was watching the Weimar Republic give way to Nazism.
The Austro-Hungarian Jew Roth started out as such a true-believing lefty that he wrote his journalism under the name Red Roth. But when he saw that a socialist paradise did not follow the fall of his homeland, he grew homesick for the good things that had gone before. He understood the injustices of the class system, and yet also understood that the multi-racial monarchy had been far more tolerant than what was to come after, and he learned painfully that Western tradition is often all that stands between mankind and barbarity. Too bad every generation seems to have to learn this anew!
If you haven’t read them, treat yourself this Christmas or Hanukkah to The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. I’m hoping to find Roth’s novel of Jewish life — Job — “under the tree.”
— Andrew Klavan’s latest thriller for young adults is Nightmare City.