If there's one thing the pandemic has shown us, for those fortunate enough to have the opportunity, it's that we are in the golden age of media. Between books, music, movies, games... the supply is endless. Compounded by the high-stakes competition between streaming services, the push to bring quality entertainment to the masses is purely on fire. And we reap the benefits. While there are always shows, books, and the like we constantly return to (I should be an honorary cast member of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the amount of new material thrust into the world is remarkable. In books alone the number is staggering. According to a UNESCO study (data from 2013) it is estimated that 2.2 million books are published world wide. It goes on to break down that number by country and by self/traditional publishing but holy shit, right? If you can't find something you love in that pool then, well, I don't know what to tell you. If you are looking for something new to read, here's a few suggestions from my favorite books so far this year.
Current recommendations all said and done, here's one more in a slightly different light: I'm thrilled to say I've had a short story accepted into Redwood-Press's horror anthology: The Lost Librarian's Grave. The story, Valhalla is a Lie, follows a trio of mercenaries as they make their way from Buffalo to Boston while being hunted by Valkyries. Little bit of Norse-inspired horror before Halloween. Can't go wrong there. I'm excited to see other acceptances roll in and the project taking off. More to come as it becomes available.
Until next time, cheers and all the best. Stay safe and well!
I'd like to say that I'm a consistent reader. *Like to say*. Unfortunately, because I have the attention span of a toddler looking at jangling keys in someone's hand, my personal reading periods are more of intense spurts rather than a consistent trend. That being said, hell it's been a great start to the year. I've managed, somehow, to slam down seven books so far this year. Part of the reason being I've shifted away from podcasts and back into audiobooks. Again, the attention span of ADD coke head who was slipped a not-so-small hit of meth... Right, anyway, carry on. In the spirit of the Halloween Horror marathon, let's strap in for some one-sentence reviews.
0/5 = did not finish
1/5 = didn't like
2/5 = meh
3/5 = pretty good - would recommend with a disclaimer
4/5 = really good - would definitely recommend - no disclaimers
5/5 = book hangover. don't talk to me for a few days
And that's the books so far! A couple other pieces I'd like to highlight that don't fall into the full blown novel or collection category. First, I'd like to highlight After Dinner Conversation, a monthly short story magazine that inspects the intersection of philosophy and ethics in often tragic settings and narratives. Browse their site, read something, and maybe spark a conversation or two.
Speaking of short stories... I feel compelled to highlight one in particular: Halloween by Marian Crotty. Originally published in Crazyhorse and then reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2020, this piece follows the summer fling of a high-school student and a college kid who's home for the summer. The emotion in the piece is real. It's visceral. And it's goddamn good.
Till next time folks. Be well.
Fucks you up.
Everyone talks about the romanticized notion that great art comes from tortured souls. It’s an idea that’s existed since Plato, and has been examined through several scientific studies. The results? Mixed. But I’m not interested in whether or not to produce truly good art across any of the endless mediums that exist in this ever-evolving world, someone has to be plagued by deep emotional or physical turmoil. I want the after effect: what truly good art (a subjective determination) does to us.
Most review columns, including ones I’ve written, follow a pretty generic formula of examination and analysis. This then leads to either recommendation or suggested avoidance. These ratings normally place the piece in question on a scalable table, usually running from 1 – 5 or 1 – 10 or something along those lines. When we watch or read or experience something, we usually know right away where on this scale the experience will land. Sometimes, maybe not.
When I review something, I always look at two big umbrella questions: how did I feel while I was experiencing it? And how did I feel about it in the time that followed? Sometimes I’ll burn through a book in a day because it was such a good read, but then forget the details only a day or two later because it didn’t stick with me. Despite how good it was, and how much I enjoyed it at the time, there was no lasting effect (Feed; Mira Grant). Other times, a book will be eh while I’m reading it, but afterwards it lingers. I start thinking about lines or scenes when I'm done reading it (Last Night in Nuuk; Niviaq Korneliussen). Art in either of these areas usually garners a 4 on those review scales we talked about. Maybe, if the reviewer is feeling generous, a five (or if they’re feeling the opposite – a three).
Then there’s the stuff that you truly enjoy while you’re experiencing it and are still talking about for a few days after. These are the five-star reviews. (Fight Club (the movie); Milkman, Anna Burns; Control (PS4)). This is the stuff we look for, the good art. Now again, good is subjective, especially in the realm of entertainment. Good books to you probably suck for me, and vice versa. I once mentioned Requiem for a Dream in a meeting and a director looked at me with her lip curled and asked how I could ever like something like that. But that’s the beauty of there being so much out there. There’s some for you and him and her and me and them.
So, we all look for the five-star stuff that’ll make for a great weekend on the couch reading with whiskey or wine and the dogs at our feet, or provide for a perfect movie night with popcorn and boxed candy we bought at the grocery store to make it feel like we're at the cinema.
But what about the better stuff?
The trouble with finding the truly great art, the art that fucks us up afterward, is we never know it’s going to happen until it does. It could be while we’re watching it or right after or even a few days later when it creeps back into our subconscious and we realize we’ve been existing in this odd haze of going through the motions but our minds have been completely elsewhere. Everything outside the world we just left is simply kind of muted.
I consider myself lucky; I’ll usually have this happen maybe three or four times a year – sometimes less, sometimes more. It’s never frequent enough to reduce the impact, and rarely so distant from one another that I’m afraid it won’t happen again. It’s come from video games (The Last of Us Part I & II), books (Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro), and movies (Burn, Burn, Burn). Most recently, it happened with a show: Undone.
Undone is an animated comedy-drama series created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and starring Rosa Salazar. It follows Alma (Salazar) after she gets into a nearly fatal car accident. Through the accident and its aftermath, Undone, explores the idea of reality through Alma’s new relationship with time and how she uses this to try and find out how her father really died.
The show is done through a style of animation called rotoscoping, where animators trace over motion picture footage to produce realistic action. It’s trippy to say the least, and takes a little bit of getting used to, but after half-an episode, the characters seem realer than most of the ones on non-animated shows.
I don’t want to go too far into Undone’s story (I actually do, but I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone because it should be experienced as blindly as possible), but the creators and writers of this show should be commended for the way they handled certain topics, and the way they ended the season. Alma’s story is tragic and yet hopeful at the same time. And I think it’s this balance that the creators strike—similar balances seen in The Last of Us series, and other great art like Fleabag—that acts as the sledge hammer shattering our state of mind. Because let’s face it, all of our lives are tragic in some way or another. Whether it’s incessant, periodic, self-inflicted, circumstantial or random, tragedy is there. But it’s also the hopefulness that we look for. Hopeful that the storm will pass, the waves will calm, and the clouds will part. Calm seas may not make skilled sailors, but we can all appreciate safe harbor every now and then.
I strongly recommend Undone. And, while I can feel the fog starting to lift, it was great to find that all-enveloping experience again, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I hope every one of you finds the same.
So, pretty much like everyone else who has access to streaming services, I tend to spend more time browsing trailers and adding things to my list than I do actually watching things on my list. I know - first world problems and also a bit of ADD with some inability to choose? Fear of commitment maybe?
Anyways, armchair psychological diagnoses aside, since my partner and I are both into horror movies and the fall/October motif, we decided to upend the never-ending selection process by throwing the titles of the movies we want to watch into a random selector website (I know, revolutionary right?) and have the program decide what we're going to watch, thus eliminating the all too common occurrence of one of us (her) falling asleep before the other (me) can pick something out. We managed six, and while the handful of movies we watched ranged from decent to pretty good, there's still nothing as horrifying as watching 'The Strangers' for the first time in theaters. I've yet to re-experience that fear. Maybe next year. In the meantime, here's some one sentence reviews that will maybe persuade you to watch something new. Or, at the very least, add something else to your own ever-growing list.
0/5 = did not finish
1/5 = finished while doing something else
2/5 = decent
3/5 = will mention during happy hour
4/5 = still thinking about it a few days later.
5/5 = watch it. Now.
Happy Halloween. Oh, and also... make sure you vote!
I recently finished reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (full disclosure I have not read Lolita which was, per the author, a significant influence on this book) and, for lack of better words, was pretty unsettled by what I had just read. Needless to say, that was the point of the book. For anyone who hasn't read it, Vanessa follows the vastly inappropriate relationship between a fifteen year old boarding school student and her much older English teacher. The novel took place over two time periods, consecutively telling the story as it happened and through Vanessa's 'adult' eyes as the long term ramifications of what she went through continued to manifest in different ways.
About a week or so later, I threw on the horror movie The Hunt, which was a gory, satirical look at the left vs right, globalist vs nationalist rifts that we see permeating both social media and our society. Two things real quick: I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunt (recognizing it for the over-the-top satire that it was), and also that, while it might have been categorized as horror, it was more of a modern day splatterpunk dark comedy. That being said, the amplification of these cultural wars along with violence that is unfortunately not reserved to fiction and entertainment was also... a little unsettling.
So, because I had nothing better to do, I started thinking about the different genre-bending concepts we see across media. Is all horror unsettling? You could argue so: things that jump out at you unsettle your psyche and make you scream; slow burn dreadful there's someone behind you unsettle your nerves because you know, just know, something awful is going to happen; and the Halloween franchise is unsettling because, I mean if you're constantly running, and Michael Myers is only walking... how the hell does he catch up to you every. single. time?
I think, throughout all of media, we are seeing a further blurring of lines between different genres. Not saying this hasn't happened forever, but we're seeing more of a mainstream recognition of it. One of the biggest that comes to mind would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: a speculative, end-of-the-world literary work. And I hope we continue to see more of this kind of work. Work that approaches questions and situations through kaleidoscope eyes.
Bringing this rambling conversation back to the line between unsettling and horror, I think one might lead into the other. Horror, in and of itself, is unsettling in some way. But not all unsettling topics are truly horrifying (though it's safe to say that adult-child sexual relationships are not only unsettling and disgusting, but completely horrifying in their own right. And the amount of trauma that they put on victims is, again, horrifying). There are numerous organizations that work to assist victims of this kind of reprehensible behavior, and I urge you to support them in anyway you can.
So, at the end of the day, if you want to feel irked and uneasy, read some unsettling works. If you want to be horrified, read some unsettling works that push you into something truly scary. Or, if you wanna laugh, watch some dark comedy bloodbaths. It is October after all.