Book – I think it’s impossible to overstate the influence that Ursula K. Le Guin had on modern literature. She wrote books that broke open ideas of what science fiction could be, and she did it so well, with such grace and compassion and beauty, that people couldn’t keep dismissing it as “just” science fiction any more. The daughter of legendary anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, she understood on a bone-deep level the ways that our culture and society shape us, and she used that understanding to dream of better worlds, and the problems that those worlds had, and possible solutions to those problems. She was a champion of women and minority writers in science fiction, a fierce believer that the future can only be better if it includes all of us. And every time you thought she was done, she came out with something new.
After her death in January I returned to her book of poetry to remember her. If her novels are complex webs of character, plot, ideas, and language, her poems are beads of dew on that spiderweb, delicately magnifying her skill and her brilliance. Oh, and they’re gorgeous, too. If you don’t have time to re-read The Dispossessed (although you should, it gets better every year), you’d do worse than to pick up a poem or two.
Movie – After coming home so-late-it’s-early and hungover one too many times, Gloria’s boyfriend kicks her out of their New York apartment, and since she’s also out of work, she has no choice but to move back to her parents’ empty house in the town where she grew up. She gets a job tending bar for a guy she knew when they were kids, and shortly after, everyone is glued to the news, watching footage of the giant monster that mysteriously appeared in Seoul, South Korea, tromped through downtown, and disappeared again. When it happens again, Gloria recognizes something in its gestures — and realizes that she is in control of the monster. Sharing her revelation with her new-old friends, however, has unexpected and momentous consequences.
I saw a trailer for this movie that made it look like “rom-com plus Godzilla,” which meant that of course I had to see it, but it turns out it’s even better than that – Gloria’s growth and development does not revolve around her finding the right guy to date. She’s dealing with alcohol problems, an unhealthy relationship with her boss, and mysteriously wielding an unusual amount of supernatural power. It’s an unusual genre mash-up, but if you like stories about women taking control of their lives and also giant monsters, you’ll love it as much as I did.
Book – If you are a person who lives on the Internet, you probably know who Zoë Quinn is – or at least you know the movement that sprung up after her ex-boyfriend posted a long, defamatory screed about her online, and then grew into an online harassment machine. Even if you don’t, though, you’ve seen some of its effects in the rise of online hatred, the never-ending stream of YouTube-star scandals, and the recent death of a man in Kansas by “swatting” – the practice of calling in a fake report to a police department that will result in a SWAT team being sent out.
Quinn’s book is part memoir, part guide to this environment of a new kind of harassment, one that disproportionately targets women, people of color, and other minorities, and which police and the legal system are woefully unprepared to cope with. She describes how she survived the initial onslaught, and the barrage of harassment and privacy violations she continues to struggle with, and how she founded an organization to help other victims do the same. She also offers some valuable information on how to protect yourself from a similar harassment campaign (without “just getting offline”). But even if you’re not concerned about attacks from the Internet, this is a valuable book to read. Internet culture is a part of our culture now, and we all should be aware of the ways it can go horribly wrong. (Also, Quinn has a great sense of humor. Seriously, just read the chapter titles.)
Movie – Ever wondered if vampires ever get into petty fights with other vampires? If they sometimes forget how old they are? If they establish moral guidelines for who they’ll eat and who they won’t? If they ever hold things up in front of a mirror to giggle at their own lack of reflection? All these questions (and more!) are answered in What We Do In the Shadows, a hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires (and a few werewolves) living in modern-day New Zealand. It feels very much like a BBC documentary-of-the-week – not especially polished, without much of a plot or narrative angle, but deeply, deeply hilarious, and you kind of wish it were narrated by Richard Atenborough.
Now that director (and star) Taika Waititi is the man behind the best-reviewed Marvel movie since the original Iron Man, you owe it to yourself to see this utterly delightful movie. (Which just had a sequel announced!) Next on my list is The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his 2016 rural-Australia adventure starring Sam Neill.
Book – Janet Moodie is an appeals attorney, specializing in death penalty appeals, but since her husband’s suicide she hasn’t worked a death penalty case. That is, until a colleague calls her with an interesting case: Andy Hardy, who was convicted along with his brother of the murder of two women. Andy got the death penalty; his brother got life without parole. And after meeting Andy, that doesn’t seem right. The prosecution argued that Andy was the mastermind behind the crimes, but he’s socially passive, heavily dependent on his mother and tested as intellectually disabled as a child. This is good news for the appeal, but what does it mean about what really happened to those women?
This is by far the most laid-back legal procedural (I certainly can’t call it a thriller) that I’ve ever read. Robertson is a practicing attorney, and she’s written a book about what dramatic legal discoveries are actually like: slow, drawn-out revelations put together piece by piece that usually don’t have dramatic consequences. Despite the high stakes (serial murder! death penalty appeals!), I found this a very soothing read, an enjoyable example of watching someone do a difficult job well, even if the results aren’t Hollywood-worthy.
Book – Hygge, the Danish concept of coziness and wintery happiness, is all the rage right now, but the Danes don’t have the market cornered on winter bliss. Winter is a wonderful time for all kinds of making things – making presents, baking treats, crafting warm and cozy things out of yarn. (Is there anything better than a nice skein of yarn and a hot cup of tea on a snowy afternoon?) In this book, Emily Mitchell offers a range of crafts and activities suitable for the long, cold winter months, including tasty recipes and lovely crochet patterns. Her projects span the whole of winter, from the late days of fall when you can collect freshly-fallen leaves to preserve, to the earliest parts of spring when the first bulbs begin to sprout. Rather than getting depressed about the end of summer, get excited for winter with this wonderful book of ideas.
Movie – It’s Thanksgiving, and all the girls are going home from their rural boarding school — all the girls, that is, except for Rose, who wants a chance to talk to her boyfriend before meeting her parents, and Kat, whose parents are dead. Fenced in by snow and isolation, things begin to go slowly but inescapably wrong within the near-empty school. Meanwhile, Joan is hitching a ride in the direction of the school with a kindly married couple. If they have any idea what’s waiting for them at the school, they show no signs of it, but they won’t be pleased at what they find.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow-burn kind of horror movie, the kind where the eerie wrongness creeps up behind you so slowly you hardly know it’s there. If you’re in the market for thrills, look elsewhere, but if you want to become completely terrified of the thick blanket of snow that traps you indoors with whoever — and whatever — is inside with you, this movie directed by the son of Anthony Perkins, made famous by his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will be just your cup of tea.
Book – It’s hard to find a good true crime book about murderous women. There’s a way in which female killers are often treated less seriously than male killers, as though their femininity makes them somehow cute or trivial even though they’ve killed people. From the title, I was expecting Lady Killers to be something like that. I was pleasantly surprised when what I got instead was a chronicle of the way the contemporary media, and then history, treats women murderers. There are some big names in here (Countess Bathory, obviously; the Bloody Benders) but also a few I’d never heard of, and some I only knew a little about. They aren’t just stories from America and the UK, either – we’ve got murderers here from Egypt, Hungary, Russia, and Ireland. In each story, Telfer picks apart the ways these women are dehumanized (many of them were described as animalistic) or their crimes minimized by making them sexy (bathing in the blood of virgins!) or purely mercenary (killing one husband for the insurance money is one thing, but five?). And then, once they’ve been executed or died in prison, we forget all about them. Aileen Wurnos is far from the first female serial killer, but that was exactly what she was called in the press. In the end, Telfer’s thesis is simple: women are people, and sometimes people are horrible. Fans of Harold Schechter and Skip Hollandsworth should enjoy this very much.
Book – Tananarive Due is the hidden secret of modern horror fiction. Sick of sparkly vampires? Bored with ghosts? Tired of the same old gothic secrets and bloody horrors and frankly offended by the level of sexual assault? You need to be reading Tananarive Due. One of the luminaries of the Afrofuturism movement (speculative fiction with a focus on Africa and the African diaspora), Due’s characters are gut-wrenchingly real, and her stories, even when horrific, are mesmerizing.
Take, for instance, “The Knowing,” the story of a ten-year-old boy and his mother who knows the date everyone she meets will die. Or “Free Jim’s Mine,” a classic deal-with-the-devil story told from the point of view of a relative, rather than the one who makes the deal, who is trying to escape via the Underground Railroad. Or the title story, “Ghost Summer,” an award-winning novella that expertly brings together backyard ghosts and the ghosts of history and family, all from the viewpoint of young ghost hunter Davie Stephens, who just wanted to be YouTube-famous and got way more than he bargained for. Even readers who aren’t big horror fans would enjoy her work, I think – it’s not graphic, but powerfully emotional, in sometimes heartbreaking but always insightful ways.
Book – Colombia, 1979. Italian movie director Ugo Velluto has packed up his crew and moved them to the Amazon to shoot a new kind of horror movie entirely on location, starring young unknown actors and featuring ambitious special effects. Our nameless narrator, the male lead, is so desperate for a paying job he agrees to go straight from his screen test to the airport. In Colombia, he finds a chaotic production in progress: a crew used to working only on soundstages, actors who’ve never seen the full script, special effects being built during the filming of the scenes they’re meant to be used in, and a director who might be a little bit crazy. And outside of the production, things are worse, as drug cartels ply their trade and guerilla revolutionaries work toward the violent overthrow of a corrupt government.
We Eat Our Own is based on the true story of the film Cannibal Holocaust – trumpeted as the “most controversial movie ever made” – which was filmed in the Amazon in the late 70s under a shroud of secrecy; due to the realism of the effects and the clever marketing strategy of the film, director Ruggero Deodato was actually put on trial for the murder of his actors. Debut author Kea Wilson dives into the setting with gusto, drawing detailed portraits of individuals, a film production, and a country in the midst of becoming something new, a process that is more than a little bloody for all of them. This is a tense and atmospheric (but still frequently funny) novel that won’t be for everyone – but I loved it.