Book – It’s rough living in this world with a body. It seems like there’s always someone to tell you that you’re doing it wrong – your body is too big, too small, too brown, too different, too much. And a lot of advice for dealing with this becomes yet another burden to carry: you must love your body, or you’re letting down the side. You must be beautiful in your own mind, or you are giving in. Sonja Renee Taylor offers a refreshingly different set of strategies, a series of questions and suggestions to put all those demands in context. Who is asking this of you? What do they gain by asking you to do this work? And how can you love yourself – not just your body, but your whole self – in spite of it all?
I’m very picky about self-help books. I’m not interested in anything that suggests there is one simple solution to a large and complex problem (which is, of course, what most self-help books are trying to sell). Taylor does offer just one solution, but it’s far from a simple one – learn how to love yourself in defiance of everything in the world that tells you that you are unlovable. She offers a range of tools for beginning that work, but never suggests that she has the only answers, only that she has answers that have worked for her and for others in the past. There’s a lot to digest in this short book – less than 120 pages – but it’s all very, very worthwhile.
Book – A call center routes calls to the afterlife. A bereaved daughter writes to her recently deceased father about her missing mother. A girl puts on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappears into the mountain. A society of symbiotes living and working inside their mother begins to crumble. Told in beautiful, spare prose, Jagannath is a remarkable collection of short stories from Swedish writer Karen Tidbeck.
Tidbeck translates her own work, and there’s a lovely essay in the back of the book about how the process of composition and translation differs between languages. But if you didn’t know these were translations, you’d never guess. The pictures these stories draw are so vivid, so crisp and clear, you feel you could walk right into them – even the strangest of stories, like those about the ever-increasing aunts who grow their successors inside their own hearts. If you’re only familiar with Nordic literature from the dark thrillers that have become so popular in recent years, give this collection a try.
Book – The Villarcas are tied to Rawblood, their estate in the Devon countryside. If they stay away from it too long, they sicken and die. But if they stay home, they are tormented by her, a curse of the Villarca bloodline, the ghost of a tortured young woman who tortures the residents of Rawblood in turn. At the turn of the twentieth century, young Iris Villarca is determined to find a way out from under the curse. Decades earlier, her father does his best to push his lover away to keep them both safe. In Italy, Iris’s grandmother finds herself strangely drawn to – and repulsed by – a Spanish expatriate. In the end, the curse ties them all together.
The Girl from Rawblood is a classically Gothic novel with all the trimmings: a huge empty house, a ghost, a family curse, a series of mysterious and unread letters. (And, unfortunately, quite a lot of that peculiarly English racism against European foreigners.) Pulling the Gothic all the way into 1918 is a particularly nice touch: while I liked the history of the family, Iris’s story, wrapped up in World War I, was by far the most fascinating. If you like your ghost stories equal parts frightening and heartbreaking, this is the book for you.
TV Series – David Haller knows what his problem is. He has schizophrenia. He’s doing much better in the institution, but it’s a pretty boring life, until Sydney shows up. She doesn’t like to be touched, doesn’t like people getting to close to her at all. Soon she and David fall in love. But on the day Sydney leaves the institution, something explosive and incomprehensible happens — something that makes it clear that David’s problem isn’t schizophrenia, it’s that he’s a mutant with superpowers, and he’s going to have to learn to control them before someone else does it for him.
Legion is a terrifically artistic TV show based on a character from the X-Men comics. While it’s produced by Marvel Studios and connected to the current X-Men movie franchise, you don’t have to have seen anything else to understand it — the characters are probably more confused than you are. The first couple of episodes use a very non-linear structure to put you in David’s head: it takes a long time to figure out when now is and exactly what that means. But it’s a terrific ride getting there, and unlike some shows that pay more attention to their aesthetics than their story, it’s never frustrating or too hard to follow. Legion packs a lot of story into an eight-episode season, and it’s tremendously binge-worthy.
Season Two of Legion just finished airing on FX this summer, and the show has already been renewed for a third season.
Book – Before the modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, before mass production and manufacturing, most everything humans did was a matter of craft (or, to use the archaic spelling, Craeft) – a combination of skill, thriftiness, ingenuity, and necessity. In this book, Alexander Langlands explores some of the components of craeft from historic England, reflecting on the skills and resources involved and the way all the various components of the landscape interact with one another.
Langlands had my dream job: he was an experimental archaeologist, using the tools and techniques of history to better understand the way the past worked. He was clearly in this job by temperament as much as anything, because throughout this book he displays a remarkable curiosity about not just the individual components of historic life but the whole system of the thing: the way one skill led into another, one craft creating byproducts that in turn become the core structural elements of another. He calls this kind of systemic, interdependent thinking “craeftiness,” a mode of relating to the world that abhors waste the way nature abhors a vacuum, finding a clever, economical use for every scrap, and making every expenditure of energy do at least two jobs.
This isn’t your ordinary history book; in fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything to compare it to. It’s deeply personal, each chapter (focusing on a different craft, from haymaking to basket-weaving to wall and barrow building) exploring Langlands’ own experience with the skill as well as his archaeological knowledge of its history. It’s profoundly location-based, as suits a book about the way pre-industrial people lived. And, crucially, it’s not nostalgic or romanticizing of the past: Langlands is well aware of how hard all this work is, having done much of it himself, albeit without life-or-death consequences. What he’s explaining is not just these individual skills that have been lost in the wake of cheap petroleum-based energy, but a way of thinking that was lost along with them, one which might become necessary in the near future, as petroleum-based energy becomes not so cheap.
Book – When she was six years old, Lauren’s mother was murdered, her father arrested for the crime. Lauren’s brother Alex has always been convinced that their father is innocent, but Lauren doesn’t buy it. She remembers seeing something – she’s not sure what, but it was bad – and she trusts her memory. But when Alex disappears during a tour in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders, Lauren is forced to come to grips with her memories, her father, and her family’s history. Meanwhile, a pregnant young woman has left her boyfriend, hoping to reunite with her best friend — but she, too, has childhood memories that have yet to be resolved.
I enjoyed this psychological thriller about the unreliability of childhood memories. The characters are not always sympathetic, but they’re well-drawn and intriguing. This isn’t really a fast-paced thriller; the story moves from one point to another in the abrupt staccato way of memories itself. While the point of view shifts can be a little disorienting to start with, the whole story weaves itself together in the end in a most satisfying way.
Books – A rogue SecUnit is one of the most terrifying things imaginable: a part-living, mostly-machine entity designed for security applications, without a working governor module, free to kill and destroy at will, and unstoppable by human agency.
The narrator of All Systems Red is technically a rogue SecUnit. It hacked its governor module, but instead of going on a murderous rampage, mostly it keeps doing its job and watches media in its downtime. (It particularly enjoys Sanctuary Moon.) That is, until a neighboring science mission goes dark and the humans SecUnit has been assigned to protect are threatened. SecUnit (who also calls itself Murderbot, although never out loud) doesn’t particularly like interacting with humans, but it doesn’t want them to die. After all, if all the humans died, who would make the media?
The Murderbot Diaries are short science-fiction thrillers, full of corporate espionage and underhanded dealings, but the real joy of them is watching Murderbot try to figure out how to be a person – because despite its continued insistence that it’s a bot, it’s one of the most intensely relateable characters I’ve ever met. (After all, who doesn’t want to spend long, boring shifts at work watching TV?) It struggles with human interaction, interactions with other bots, and how to handle personal responsibility, all while staying far enough under the radar to avoid being captured and reprogrammed. Artificial Condition follows Murderbot’s attempt to understand it’s own past (and its reluctant friendship with a science research transport). The series continues with Rogue Protocol in August and Exit Strategy in October.
Book – Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s so bad, so unbelievable, so outrageous, that it goes straight past unwatchable and becomes compelling. In 2003, that movie was The Room, written, directed, produced by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. The Room is so uniquely, outrageously bad – and not just bad but also deeply, deeply weird – that you can’t help but wonder about the guy who made it. Fortunately, Wiseau’s co-star, co-producer, and best friend Greg Sestero has written a memoir about his friendship with Tommy and the filming of The Room, and while it doesn’t exactly shed any light on who Tommy Wiseau is or why he felt compelled to make this weirdly compelling, illogical relationship drama of a movie, it’s a delightful trainwreck of a story.
You can now experience The Disaster Artist in a variety of formats – there’s the original book, the audiobook as read by Greg Sestero, and the film starring James Franco as Tommy Wiseau. While Franco’s Tommy Wiseau impression is impressive, if you really want to experience the full range of weirdness, I recommend the audiobook. Even if you’ve never seen The Room – and I can’t in good conscience recommend that you do – this is a wild ride through one of the most implausible Hollywood productions of our time.
Books – I’ve said before that I don’t particularly care for cozy mysteries, but that’s not really true. When summer hits, when it’s too hot to think and I miss those lazy student summers when I didn’t have to do anything, when I wish for a simpler life than the one I have now, I reach for the Cadfael Chronicles.
Technically they’re mystery novels – usually someone dies, sometimes something is stolen, and Brother Cadfael, who was a Crusader before he became a monk, solves the mystery. He also gets the besotted young people together, or at least removes any impediments to their marriage; acts as godfather to his best friend’s son; trains apprentices to work in his gardens; and makes silent disparaging remarks about Brother Jerome, who desperately wants to be better than everyone else. Like modern cozies, the Cadfael series is about wish fulfillment, but instead of the dream of owning a bakery or a tea shop, it’s the dream of living a quiet, well-regulated life in a monastery.
Peters chose an interesting historical period for the series, too – the Anarchy, a civil war in England and Normandy in the mid-twelfth century resulting from a crisis of succession. It’s pretty obscure, as history goes, which puts most of us in the same position as the characters, unsure about what’s going to happen next and exactly how the war is going. But the war is a background feature, for the most part, compared to the small details of medieval life – not just in the cloister, but in the surrounding town.
Comic Strips – Do you still pull all the blankets tight around you at night to keep the monsters out? Does a comment someone made years ago still haunt you at inopportune moments? Have you ever wondered exactly why your pets are so good to you (is it because you’re dying and they know it)? We all have a few irrational fears, and it’s surprisingly fun to read about other people’s, even if you run headlong into a few of your own at the same time.
The Creeps is a collection of Krause’s Internet project “Deep Dark Fears,” in which he solicits fears and paranoias from his audience and illustrates them. It’s weirdly compelling reading, seeing what other people are afraid of, what horrifying thoughts cross their minds at perfectly innocent moments. You’re bound to find something in here that makes you cringe, something that makes you laugh, and something that makes you nod your head in sympathetic understanding.