Thanks to my project-loving husband, I now have a literal ‘currently reading shelf.’ He was feeling antsy, and desperate for a project for which no materials would need to be purchased. Thankfully we had 3 little wood crates left over from the shoe-storage solution he built a year ago. From them he made a lovely little shelf that perfectly tucks in the corner of the kitchen, next to where I usually sit at the table. In the shelves I have all the books I want to try and get through this year, and stacked on top are all the ones I’m actively reading.
The stack is a bit chaotic, because I have a hard time keeping it to two or three books at a time.
So right now I am reading:
Pensees, by Blaise Pascal (I don’t know how to add the accent on the second e…): I was reading this a while ago, and lost my copy, got another copy, then stopped 90 pages in, then long after, found the old copy. Now I’m finishing it up. A lot of scattered thoughts on faith, God, and reason, by one of history’s great scientists.
Al-Fitna, by Kanan Makiya: I started this one a few months ago, but kind of took a break on it. Fiction set in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, with the hanging of Saddam as a thematic center. It’s in Arabic, so it will be a slower read for me, but I like it so far.
Iraqi Society: A Psycho-sociological Analysis of What Happened and What’s Happening, by Qassem Hussein Saleh: A collection of essays about Iraqi social experience, culture, and the like. I’m over halfway through this one. It’s also in Arabic, though, so again…more of a bit-by-bit read for me.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles: A story of a Count sequestered in a hotel in Moscow in 1922, and various goings-on therein. My mom read it and enjoyed it immensely, so I decided to give it a go.
Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, by Martin Sugarman: This book is for research. Understandably, there are a lot of books about World War 2, and a lot about the Holocaust, but comparatively few about Jewish military contributions in particular, from those who were free citizens in Europe, or from countries where there was comparatively less prejudice against Jews. This is chock-full of broad history and individual stories.
The Tragedy of the Assyrian Minority in Iraq, by R.S. Stafford: Also a research book, but an odd duck of one. It’s written by a British officer, and it was written in the 1930s not long after the Simele massacre in which many Assyrians were killed and driven out by the Iraqi Army. The thing is, there’s a mix of interesting history and information in here but it is from a decidedly British Colonialist lens, so everything has to be taken with that in mind. There is compassion here, but also condescension, so it just has to be taken as what it is: a historical document rooted in a certain time and perspective.
So looking at this list makes me feel like I need to balance this out with some more fun and fiction. Its quite a serious list, which I did not do on purpose. I have some nice SFF books on my literal ‘to-read’ shelf, so those will be prioritized when one of the above is finished.
I have The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Shadowscale by Rachel Hartman, and Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn. And a few historical fictions and one contemporary fiction. Any of those will do to balance it out!
Ah, the “Crew.” Think The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. Or Firefly. Ocean’s 11. Take your pick. I know there are a few more recent fantasy-type novels which feature this trope. The rag-tag band. A motley crew. A found family of misfits. So on and so forth.
This trope is very hit-or-miss for me and I think this stands to reason: you either like the crew…or you don’t. Since this trope deals heavily in multiple character dynamics, it requires a certain finesse to pull off. Because you’re usually dealing with a bigger roster of main characters, there’s that many more ways it can go wrong.
When it doesn’t Work
-This one’s pretty obvious. If all you have are underdeveloped characters, the whole thing will fall flat, no matter how awesome the heist (’cause it is usually a heist). This most commonly manifests as the “one-trait folly.” Each character is provided with one defining trait–“the mean one,” “the quiet one,” “the one who is in love with his weapon”–and we get constant call-backs to that one thing, but NOTHING ELSE. It starts to feel like everyone should just be wearing a name-tag with that one trait on it. Rarely does a book or a movie go quite that flat in characterization, but if you have to remind yourself who’s who when the action is flurrying, something got missed.
-when half the “crew” seems tacked-on. This is when there are 3 or 4 characters the author actually cares about, but that hardly constitutes a full crew, so they throw in another 4 or 5…but they just feel like excess baggage. All their banter feels awkward and forced, and they constantly have to pop their head in just to remind us that they’re there. Maybe this “excess” person is technically the best codebreaker…but for some reason it’s always one of the 3 or 4 main protagonists that end up doing everything anyway, leaving extra guy with nothing to do but nod as his expertise is made irrelevant.
-When a central romance dominates to the point that it creates unnatural character dynamics. Everything is reorganized, shoved, blunted, shifted for the romance. Unless it is literally a Romance novel (and sometimes even then!) this can ruin a thing. This is not an indictment against romance itself, mind you.
Simply take the example of some Classic Romantic Comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, The Philadelphia Story) and then attempt to find a truly enduring Romantic Comedy from the last 10 years. Not too many, right? I have tried to analyze this phenomenon of the lack of really high quality Romantic Comedies in recent years, and I have identified two or three factors, one of which is side characters. The side characters in the older movies were really vivid. They were present, involved, hilarious, and enriching. They had their own insights and ideas. They existed not only to prove that the world consisted of more than these two central people, but that real relationships outside the romance itself matter and are a vital part of life.
If the whole structure of the crew is built awkwardly and inexplicably around a central romance, it ruins the family-feeling of the crew, demotes the remaining characters to window-dressing, and makes the romance itself boring because it’s all one channel, all the time.
-Too many Han Solos. Han Solo is awesome. I love Han Solo. But not everybody can be Han Solo. We need diversity of personality. This is a subtle temptation, because crews are usually doing capers or heists or whatever, and that usually implies roguish personalities. But if EVERYBODY is Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, it’s boring.
Truth told, I haven’t actually seen this particular flaw very much. We recognize pretty quick that a crew begs diversity of personality.
And on that note:
When it Does Work/Why We Love It
-Diversity of personality. The wide range of interesting characters gives everyone someone to identify with–at least to some degree–or root for. Well done, the crew story offers a dazzling feast of characters and we get to watch them grow, act, and develop right before our eyes.
-Surface simplification, with hidden depths. This acts as a counter to the one-trait problem. Yes, at first, we have “The mean one,” “The weapons expert,” “The scholar,” and “The one we know nothing about.” We basically get character cards to start, and then we slowly get to discover what they are outside their area of expertise. Nuance unfolds. Every new tidbit about their background or personality becomes a delicious morsel.
-Character dynamics. The way those two banter, the way he acts like a brother to her, the way she holds back around him, the way he plays it close to the chest with that other guy, almost as if he doesn’t trust him. Once we are invested, every single drop of dialogue from our favorite characters becomes a thrill. Subtle nods make us feel welcomed into the found family, and silences speak loudly. If the character dynamics are good, we don’t even care what the heist is! It’s just a medium for interaction between people we have come to love.
-HOWEVER, there usually is a fun objective, heist, goal, whatever. And we like that too, because we like to see everything come together, everyone’s strengths utilized, and the close bond they have compensates for their individual weaknesses.
-Sometimes the crew has been together for a long time, sometimes they are brought together before our eyes. It can be really enjoyable to watch the transition from “I’m just in it for the money” to “You are my brother and I will die for you!” I see this one done badly a lot. One minute the crew was gathered and everyone was passing out name tags along with areas of expertise, and after a mild run-in with a low level goon, somebody says “we’re a family now.”
If you don’t show your work, that isn’t going to fly.
On the other hand, if the crew has been together for a long time, it can be a joy to catch subtle hints of past experiences, of all the little things we don’t yet know about what brought them together.
The “Crew” trope feeds our love for variety, for family, for adventure, for a shared goal. It stokes a desire for intimate friendships where, at a word or a glance, one knows exactly what is going on in the others’ head, or exactly what to do, where to go, how to execute. We love to see everything (or, more importantly, everyone) come together just so. And since “Crew” stories nearly always have heists, they are often just plain fun. Puzzleboxes made of people for us to try and figure out.