Recommended Books, Books Read, Misc.
These are memorable books, film, podcasts, whatnot that I read, heard, watched in this, the Year of Our Galactic Mustache 2019.
- Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James ︎ Lord Jeebus. Easily my favorite book of 2019. I have a hard time trying to explain why this book hit me so hard. I think the sheer imagination behind it is compulsive and addictive. James brocades African myth into contemporary fantasy topos so creatively and violently. There’s a character called Smoke Girl, who is exactly what her name says, a wispy smoky thing. Another character, a boy, is just a ball and rolls around. There are these demon...things that are brought into existence when/if blood is launched toward a ceiling. They are instantaneous, savage, nearly indestructible, and make me afraid of bleeding indoors. Then there are these doors that are randomly placed throughout the world, which are one way. One takes you to a different geological spot in the world, and you can’t go back. None of this explains the plot, which is a journey, pure and simple. A rag-tag team of anti-heroes come together to save a boy, ostensibly. But that’s a bit of a red herring. The book is in the telling. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Come for the voice, stay for the voice, leave with fucked up memories.
- Come Closer by Sara Gran ︎ Easily the scariest book I’ve read in a long time. A quick book, but long-lasting, like a shot of rat poison after ice cream. Gran gives no quarter. The books starts with the main character turning in an important report to her boss and immediately getting called back in because it’s covered in insults and slurs. From there, the odd intrusions into her life from stray dogs, weird noises in her house, and a dark woman in her dreams only ramps up to 13. Her marriage is on the precipice, as is her soul. Which is more important?
- Print Run Podcast by Laura Zats & Erik Hane ︎ A book podcast run by the agents/founders of Headwater Lit. Agency. Lots of great in-depth discussions about publishing, editing, querying, etc. Through their Patreon they offer extra episodes where they read listener queries and first pages, breaking down where an agent or editor would stop reading. Lots of granular advice here--the kind that many places are loathe or are afraid to reveal--and it’s dead funny, to boot. “Say hello, Laura.”
- Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt ︎ Friend writer! I’ve known AG for a long-ass time. She’s a syntactical and lexical wizard. I remember first reading her back in our MFA-days and thinking, “I do not have the bones or neurons to appropriately map these stories.” And yet--I was wrong. The stories are deeply funny and steer toward the ordinarily absurd. Her debut, Hard Mouth, came out this past summer with Counterpoint and was everything I thought it could be and more. I underlined so many lines in the first 40 pp. and then afterward just kept notes on the craft of the fucken thing. E.g. “I tried to talk to people. I mean, I didn’t try” or “I was working on the idea of being alive” or “Daytime was for other people.” These are all on one page! The rundown: Denny works in a lab as an assistant where tests are run on fruit flies. Alienated from society but desperate for a connection, she fails to make friends or lovers. With a father dying of cancer, she decides to flee humanity and society and head to the wilderness. She buys the furthest cabin in the woods and begins to rough it. What happens from there is The Great Outdoors meets David Lynch. And dig that menacing cover art...
- Here Is What You Do by Chris Dennis ︎ Friend writer! Same thing here! Chris is a talent ne plus ultra. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as I have when I’m around him and listening to him talk or reading his stories. They do what the best George Saunders do, bounce from bathos to pathos in one sentence. The opener title story is worth the price of admission alone, but please give yourself over to “Nettles” right afterward. A couple buys a slaughterhouse and kindness is birthed from the visceral gleam of marital hatred. “This is a Galaxy” is about Turkish immigrants, sexuality, and the distance between fathers and sons that’s only collapsed in a tragic way until after death. I cannot categorize Chris’s stories because they, like any solid and transformative art, defy categorization. And if you want a taster to how his universe revolves, read this stunner essay about drug addiction, poverty, and rural Illinois in The Paris Review.
- The Void directed by Stephen Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie︎I’m the kind of person who constantly googles “books that are like John Carpenter movies” or “films influenced by John Carpenter” or “music that sounds like John Carpenter” and so on. This movie comes pretty god-damned close. Tentacles, siege mentality, cults, an empty hospital with one doctor or two on staff, an isolated cop, and a dark-ass synth score. It has an ending twist to rival Mandy (see below). It’s well-paced, claustrophobic, and wrenches up tension in each scene. One can’t ask for more in a horror movie. Also! All the most of the core effects are done without the help of CGI. I cannot express how key it is to have horror films that don’t indulge in CGI. Karo syrup and red food dye, please. Foam & rubber prosthetics, please.
- Halloween III: Season of the Witch directed by Tommy Lee Wallace︎ I’m not going to try and synopsize the plot here, only to say that the kernel of the story hunkers inside a plot to kill children on Halloween by making them wear special pumpkin, ghost, & witch masks sold by the Silver Shamrock Company, because at 9PM, the TV will emit a particular occult signal powered by a megalith from Stonehenge and activate the masks. I mean, c’mon. It’s the only movie in this series not to include Michael Myers, and I think it’s better for that. Carpenter came back to do the soundtrack with Alan Howarth, and it’s magnificent. Synthy, dark, 80s juice-milk for your nostalgia tubes. Drink it up!
- Backlisted Podcast by John Mitchinson & Andy Miller ︎ The duo who hosts this hour-long gem are both former booksellers and professionals in the book world, and Miller is an author. The premise of the podcast is to rehabilitate books that are long overdo for appropriate appreciation. So, works like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, David Seabrook’s All the Devils Are Here, or Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets. They’re often, or always, accompanied on their journeys with a guest who’s more than able to elucidate the work under the scope. I learned about many of my reads from this podcast. And about #12 below, which isn’t old or prose, but still. NB: Andy Miller is obsessed with Anita Brookner & I would pay any sum of money to have Mitchinson read to me over the phone.
- “Yesteryear” Star Trek: The Animated Series ︎ This episode was written by the inimitable D.C. Fontana, who just recently died. The premise is that Spock has to travel back in time to save himself from dying. He poses as a distant cousin of Sarek to get close to the younger Spock. It’s a sophisticated and sad episode. The art direction is amazing, as is the music. For anyone who thinks that a Star Trek cartoon is necessarily childish, please reconsider. “Yesteryear” had me welling up in the eyes toward the end where older Spock has to teach younger Spock about death through the loss of a family pet. Needless to say, I was watching this with my 3 yo who made it known that he was bored. Children know nothing.
- Mandy directed by Panos Cosmatos ︎ I’m only going to say three things about this film. a) It winds romance, cult horror, and revenge into a suicidally-encrusted cocaine summoning that soaks in the 80s nostalgia through a pitch-perfect fantasy lens b) the Jóhann Jóhannsson score is about as lurking horror as one can get and c) Nicholas Cage had to go full Method acting as himself in order to rightly switch this character on. Oh, and the most terrifying thing in this film is a commercial for mac and cheese whose mascot is the Cheese Goblin. Enjoy your piss-dribbling nightmares!
- The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns ︎ Full disclosure: I wept at the end of this novel. Comyns is some kind of unrecognized genius. Many will point you toward her most famous novel, The Vet’s Daughter, which is a solid novel. But The Juniper Tree was so excellently plotted, paced, and grooved. All of her novels are short--under 200 pp. And I think this is their boon. They waste nothing in their delivery. The plot of this book is about a woman who’s parents treat her like junk. She decides to work in an antiques shop and, against the odds, falls in love. Children are a part of the package deal. Tenderness and tragedy ensue. If you know anything about the Grimm fairy tale of “The Juniper Tree” then you’ll have some inkling of what may follow. Sharp, harrowing, unflinchingly true to how people treat one another like dirt without a second thought.
- Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson ︎ A very new collection of poetry that won the Forward Prize in England. I heard Andy Miller read the poem “Hide and Seek” on the Backlisted podcast and nearly had a heart attack on my walk. Not out in the U.S. yet but is for order on Amazon UK.
- Summer of 84 directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, & Yoann-Karl Whissell ︎ A smart, stylish thriller focusing on the usual rag tag group of teenagers squaring off against a serial killer. I kept thinking it was like The ‘Burbs but with teens and dark as fukk. The soundtrack by Le Matos is also a synth-heavy pixelated fur coat that burns like TAB.
- The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley ︎ As has been pointed out, like, a lot, this book opens with a killer (quite famous) first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” From here we learn about the narrator and his looking-backward into his youth when he operated as a go-between for two star-crossed lovers, as it were. Another book that ends in tragedy. What doesn’t? I think what I most admired about this book was the way young grief, confusion, and the eager radar for disingenuousness work. There’s an age, likely considered the “tweens,” where life is manageable yet doesn’t unfurl itself to you. You’re still under the banner of your parents. And yet one can steal and abscond moments here and there that will forever--unwittingly--shape who we are as adults. The throw-away childhood is the brick and mortar of adulthood. Both a nightmare and a lie at the same time.
- Re-Animator directed by Stuart Gordon ︎ In what has to be the complete fucking opposite of the above book, Gordon’s loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West--Reanimator” is a generous goldmine of imagination goo thirsty to fry your silly circuits. Jeffrey Coombs (one of my favorite actors in Deep Space Nine--so versatile!) is the main character, a rogue resident doctor/student who’s discovered a method for re-animating dead tissue. Of course, it’s not that simple. A few things here: god bless Barbara Crampton, who has to have had the most awkward female role in the history of cinema. Also, there’s a scene where two grown men hunt a zombie cat in a basement and the cat steals the show. Finally--Herbert West is desperate to stabilize a decapitated head, so he uses a spike that’s used in diners to stack receipts. Coombs is all mood, man. Another unsung actor. (He was the key in Gordon’s From Beyond, too. A rival film to this, easily.) Here’s my only question--HOW DID THEY MAKE THE RE-ANIMATING GOO LUMINESCENT?