Halloween Watch: “What We Do in the Shadows”

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What the what?  What We Do In the Shadows didn’t win the Bram Stoker Award?  Seriously?

I hope this fawning blog post is some small comfort to all those involved with the film.

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To be fair, technically the Bram Stoker award is for a written screenplay, not just a really cool, original, and funny idea.  If there was an award for that, this movie would win.

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What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about four vampires in Wellington, New Zealand.  As one of them explains, not all vampires like to live in spooky old castles.  Some prefer a flatting situation with other vampires in small countries like New Zealand.  There’s a loose plot, involving the lead-up to a big vampire social event, but mostly the movie is a documentary film crew following the vampires around as they go about their business, eventually including an accidental new recruit.  And a pack of werewolves.  And a nemesis simply called The Beast.

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It’s hilarious and charming, and looks fantastic–the vampires’ flat is kind of shabby and old and filled with antiques.  The characters are wonderful.  The flatmates include Viago, an uptight 18th century dandy; Vladislav, a vampire since the Middle Ages who once had a thing for torture; Deacon, the “young bad boy of the group” at 183; and Peytr, a Nosferatu-type who is 8,000 years old and rarely leaves the basement.

Really, this is the cutest vampire comedy you will ever watch.  Every bit of blood and every horror trope is played for laughs. Give it a try at this year’s Halloween party!

You can watch the first couple of minutes on YouTube for a sense of the style and humor!

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September Staff Picks

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Wear-1

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.  This apocalyptic novel is set nearly a thousand years ago.  It’s 1066 and the Normans have invaded England, and a Norman king sits on the throne.  A man named Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon, sees not only his village and family destroyed, but his entire way of life–his language, his gods, and his kings.  And he’s willing to fight for them.  Kingsnorth wrote this in what he calls a “shadow-tongue,” evocative of Old English.  It’s a compelling piece of historical fiction, based on the actual uprisings (and reprisals) that occurred after the Norman Conquest.
–Marie

Mrs. Roberto by Van Reid
This is the fourth book in Reid’s The Moosepath League series (the first is Cordelia Underwood, so begin with that one). The series transports the reader to a simpler and innocent time during the 1890s in Maine, telling the adventures of a trio of naive, bumbling gentleman who set up their own gentleman’s club (the Moosepath League) and make Tobias Walton their leader ( a person they have just met).
In this installment, the three comrades set out on a quest to save a woman who they think is in danger due to one of the gentlemen finding her card in his coat pocket.  They run across the rooftops, sleep out in the open with hobos and assist in putting out a fire while they attempt to find the elusive Mrs. Roberto.  Meanwhile, their leader and his valet are on a farm attempting to cure a melancholy pig.
–Mary

There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by psychologist Kelsey Crowe and illustrator Emily McDowell
This little book is for everyone paralyzed by the prospect of saying something to someone suffering a serious loss—and that’s most of us, isn’t it?
–Diane

On Living by Kelly Egan
Hospice chaplain Kelly Egan’s On Living recounts visits with the dying and their loved ones, sharing tender encounters and even her mistakes.
–Diane

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life is by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter
Zitter, who practices both pulmonary/critical care and palliative care at UC San Francisco’s hospital. Her double-barreled approach to patient care equips Zitter to both do everything possible to save terminally ill patients and do everything possible to help terminally ill patients reject overly medicalized treatments for their illness. This is a tough book, but anyone who loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal will want to have a look at Extreme Measures.
–Diane

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s fans will find themselves once again in that charming Quebecois village of Three Pines, where this time Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must confront an evil that threatens the entire province. Penny’s still got it!
–Diane

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Tells of two Catholic sisters from Ireland who settle in Boston in the 1940s and of the secret that drives them apart.  This is traditional storytelling done well.
–Diane

 

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

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Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Not Working” by Lisa Owens

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Not WorkingI agree wholeheartedly with the marketing on this one–Not Working by Lisa Owens is very much reminiscent of the classic Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Where Bridget is a thirty-something in the late 1990’s, Not Working has its feet firmly planted in the 2010’s.

As long-time readers of this blog know, Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my favorite books of all time.  Honestly, I want nothing more than to write a compare/contrast essay in finest middle-school fashion about these novels.

Where Bridget Jones drinks Chardonnay and eats cheese, Claire Flannery downs Prosecco by the bottle and main-lines wasabi peas.  Bridget Jones has Mark Darcy, who loves her just as she is, and Claire Flannery has her neurosurgeon boyfriend who puts up with her for some reason.

More than anything, there’s a definite shift in neuroses.  Bridget was considered a freak in 1997 for being over thirty and unmarried–this was the entire focus.  By 2016 it’s totally normal to be together for seven years or more and never think of getting married–you’re a freak if you haven’t found something “meaningful” to do with your working life.

That’s our set-up for Not Working.  Claire Flannery has quit her job to follow her passion.  The only problem is that she has no idea what that is.  So she spends her days in that Chekhovian fug of having so much of nothing to do that it’s overwhelming.  Throw in some family misunderstandings, young workers who are making more than she ever dreamed of, a long-term boyfriend who might be having an affair, and day-to-day musings, and you’ve got a funny, entertaining novel with an upbeat and promising ending.

Claire is a fun character, but not always entirely sympathetic.  The tone is conversational and sardonic, and veers into absurdity every so often.  She is a completely self-absorbed young woman, one that expects everything in life to fall into her lap.  Sometimes, like other characters in the book, you get a little tired of her. Which I think might be the point.  Even Claire gets tired of Claire after a while–of being unable to find a focus, of how she lashes out at people, of how much she drinks, of how life isn’t quite what she expected.

I’ll go ahead and say this because I am of Claire’s generation: Millennials, by and large, have trouble with growing up.  The adult world stinks and we all know it, you don’t get a job at the plant and stay there 40 years anymore, and we use nostalgia as a coping mechanism.  Claire behaves and drinks and just generally conducts herself as if she were still 21, much to the chagrin of a lot of people around her.  It all rings scarily true, which is where the cringe-humor comes from.

Owens really creates a wonderful voice here, and her observations about daily life and relationships are spot-on and insightful.  And always funny, even when they get a bit dark.  I spent a lot of time making comparisons with Bridget Jones, but Claire Flannery is a great creation on her own–the satiric, drunken, ultimately hopeful voice of white upper-middle-class quarter-life crisis.

Just like Bridget’s obsessive calorie counting and weight maintenance, a lot of this stuff is funny ’cause it’s true.  And you know it’s true, fellow college-educated, middle-class 30-year-olds.  You know it’s true.

The format reminded me a lot of Helen Ellis’s brilliant American Housewife: Stories.  A couple stories in that collection started out as tweets.  If you haven’t checked out her American Housewife Twitter yet, do.  Here’s the link.

And Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.  You might like that one, too.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” by Mona Awad

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13 waysWhen I put down 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I felt like Mona Awad had exposed something deep and true and uncomfortable.  By turns when reading I was amused, disgusted, pitying.

The book is a series of interconnected stories about Elizabeth, a woman on a quest to lose weight.  We follow her from her teenage years up through her twenties, getting snapshots of where she is on her journey.  She’s never happy with herself, always afraid to have her picture taken, always obsessing over every morsel consumed or piece of clothing worn.  When she does start to lose weight, she still can’t see anything but a fat girl.

Through black humor, sometimes surreal descriptive power, and biting nastiness, Awad examines women’s relationships with their bodies.  I completely agree with the blurb, which says, in part:

Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking.

I think Elizabeth comes off as “lovably difficult” because of her obsession with her body image.  Most women will get it–get precisely where she’s coming from, why she’s so worried and angry and compulsive and mean, constantly judging herself and other women.  Even if this doesn’t reflect everyone’s personal experience completely, we can all understand it at least in part.  The twisted relationship with food and enjoyment, the competition and joylessness, the never feeling quite good enough.  Most people will find something that rings true.

Most of the stories are told through Elizabeth’s eyes, her view of herself and her struggle with weight and her perception of herself.  She even goes so far as to constantly change the name she’d like to be called (Lizzie, Beth, Liz, etc.).  But even when the point of view is from those close to Elizabeth, mostly men, the focus is squarely on her body and how they perceive it, how it does or doesn’t measure up in their eyes.  Elizabeth as person inside that body barely even registers.  And that is pretty  heartbreaking.

Not an easy read, but one with lots going on and really fantastic use of language.  Awad strikes a deep chord, and does it with humor and incisiveness.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #11 & #12

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That’s right!  The year is swiftly getting away from me, and I need to hurry to catch up.  So here’s a two-fer!

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett fulfills challenge points 11 and 12: it contains a lion (does Greebo count?), a witch, or a wardrobe, and it’s a book I started but never finished.  Though it’s so much fun and such a great story, and features my very favorite Discworld characters, I can’t imagine why I set it aside.

Witches Abroad

For those who don’t know, the Discworld is a world very much like ours.  It’s on the very edge of unreality, a giant disc balanced on the backs of four elephants who in turn stand on the back of a great turtle.   Stories matter a great deal, Death is a frequent visitor, and you can always spot the Australian.

Witches Abroad is a story about stories.  Also about mirrors.  And fairy godmothers and witches. And fairy tales and magic and power and right and wrong and good and evil.  It’s funny and quick and bursting with Big Ideas and vivid characters.

It’s hard to describe the plot of a Terry Pratchett book.  It’s like trying to describe all the bits of some intricately engineered German engine.  The big storyline is that the three witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat, must go to the kingdom of Genua to stop a young woman from marrying a prince.  There’s a fairy godmother in charge there who is twisting reality to suit stories…and that’s not so good.

Pratchett’s style is extremely dialogue-heavy, and yet somehow even with only a sentence (sometimes just a word or two!) of description, there’s depth and atmosphere and an incredibly vivid picture.

Savvy readers in on the joke get the most out of the Discworld books.  Those keyed in to satirical parallels will, too.   In this particular book, the references are to stories and fairy tales.  Cinderella is the primary one, but many many others make appearances.  I especially love Granny Weatherwax, so I enjoyed the fact that this is, in many ways, her story.  The brief scene of her in the maze of mirrors says all you need to know about her character.  The scenes of Granny being a grumpy tourist are gold as well.

If you enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work and somehow have never tried Terry Pratchett, do pick up a Discworld book.  You can also find an annotated list of Terry Pratchett Readalikes here.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #22

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Reading Challlenge Item 22: A book with pictures! The new collection of Shirley Jackson’s work has delightful pictures–namely, little stick-figure cartoons drawn by the author.

Let Me Tell You

They're all like this.  Love the hair especially.

One of Jackon’s sketches, found in the linked New Yorker article.  They’re all like this. Love the hair especially.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer.  She gave us the classic short story The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948.  Jackson also wrote the famous tale of ghosts and madness, The Haunting of Hill House, as well as my personal favorite, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Much of Jackson’s work deals with paranoia and disconnect.  She also loved a good twist or surprise ending.  Jackson’s writings have a Gothic sensibility–dark and uneasy, sometimes dealing with secrets and buried crimes, unsure footing all the way through for the characters and the reader.  The Lottery, about a small-town with a strange ritual, is a bit on the rare side for how shocking it is.  Most of the time, Jackson prefers to go for suggestion, and for creepiness and oddities occurring just outside your field of vision.

Something I learned by reading this collection is that Jackson also had the ability to be hilarious. In addition to her darker and more twisty pieces, she also wrote many articles about her children and being a housewife. Life Among the Savages is a good collection of these.  All the time Jackson was writing, she was also raising four kids and taking care of a huge old farmhouse in Vermont.  Her pieces about family dinners, doing the dishes, and the mystery of who left the hose on the front lawn to freeze are all sweet, very funny, and very entertaining.  Also easy to relate to if you too spend a lot of time washing dishes while drafting stories in your head.

Shirley Jackson with her children

Shirley Jackson with her children in 1956, photographed by Erich Hartmann.

Let Me Tell You also includes a few of Jackson’s lectures about being a writer, and it’s great fun to read about the way she worked and also the way she viewed her fiction.  The glimpse into her process is enlightening–I especially liked the anecdote about how she came up with The Lottery while taking one of her kids on a walk around the neighborhood.  I also really loved how a sense of good-natured intelligence and a cozy sort of weird streak shine through in some of her pieces.

While this might not be the best introduction to Jackson’s work, if you’re already a fan you’ll find a lot to like.  If you are new to her and want to dip in a toe, start with The Lottery and Other Stories.

–Marie