January Favorites

In December I finally subscribed to Austin Kleon’s newsletter. Each Friday he sends a list of 10 things he’s into. Considering that my weekend starts on Friday, that’s excellent reading for the weekend. So, in honor of Kleon and his famous Steal Like An Artist, I’m going to steal from this artist.

I’ll start with the thing that made me start this list:

Austin Kleon’s newsletter and blog. If you don’t follow this guy, you should. He’s great on all his social media platforms, balancing work life and personal life. He also has the most photogenic family ever.

Other Internet Media Things

A few weeks ago Marie Kondo’s second book on organizing came out. Of course, I sell this book (it’s a bestseller), but as an archivist (someone who focuses on collecting) I dislike its emphasis on present-feeling emotions. That’s why I’m glad counterculture exists. In “The Tao of Trash” and “Sifting: Technology, Trash, & Digging for Memories” the New England Media & Memory Coalition examine the arbitrariness of “value.”… Sort of like the arbitrariness of “sparking joy.”

Books

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee crafts a heart-wrenching tale of three women, all American expatriates living in Hong Kong. Mercy, in her mid-twenties and without a job or direction; Hilary, struck between the two tidal forces of her husband’s midlife crisis and affair, and the stalled adoption of a child; and Margaret, mother of three who literally loses her youngest child on while on a short trip to Seoul. As a chronic list-maker, I’m creating a brand new personal reading list just to put this book at the top: Fiction – The Complex Inner Lives of Women. (I just don’t know where this list will live just yet.) Lee puts into words what would be otherwis unmentionable. It’s beautiful and harrowing and foreign and familiar.

Movies & Television

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). I’m not sure why it took me so long to come to this film, but this is what I want horror to become. This Persian-language American horror film takes place in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City (its name implies the seedy underworld that it depicts). The film’s director, Ana Lily Amirpour, describes it as “the first Iranian vampire Western.” The plot follows Arash, a hard-working young man; Hossein, Arash’s heroin-addicted father; Saeed, a pimp and drug pusher; Atti, a prostitute working for Saeed; The Girl, a music-obsessed loner who stalks those she finds on the streets late at night; and a cat. I especially love the visual of the chador replacing the traditional “Dracula” cape. I have a new favorite fictional vampire. Skateboarding into the night.

The X-Files. People who know me are surprised to discover that I didn’t watch the X-Files when it aired in the 1990s. My parents weren’t into it, so we didn’t watch it. So when a friend (whose taste is impeccable) began live-tweeting her adult re-watch of the series, and I noticed that Hulu Plus has all 9 seasons, I decided to check it out. I’m about midway through season 5 as of publishing this post. If you follow me on Twitter at all, you know that I think Mulder is silly, Krycek is annoying, Scully a goddess, and Assistant Director Skinner is…well, let’s just say I’m into it.  #janwatchesxfiles on Twitter.

Bookstagrams

Last year, suspenders83 took photos of every book she read. To keep things interesting, she scoured second-hand bookshops to find the most unique book jackets and covers out there. This year, she is hand-drawing each cover in her book journal. This is such a cool way to creatively engage with the book-as-object.

readasaurus_rex includes a lot of older fantasy and young adult books in her reading. I love seeing the tattered covers of books that took me to far of places when I was younger being given new life on new social networking platforms.

Food

Maangchi’s Korean Lettuce Salad 상추겉절이 is spicy and delicious and so easy to make. Try not to get sucked into a YouTube hole of Maangchi’s cooking videos.

BookPeople’s In-Store Displays

My favorite book store is always doing something for the community. Black Lives Matter and David Bowie’s Favorite books are two displays that are deeply meaningful to us. (I worked on one of these.)

Finally

The return of the Boston Yeti. I am now, and forever will be Texas’s biggest Boston Yeti fan.

 

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Squirmy! Wormy! Shock!

A book review of The Troop: A Novel of Terror by Nick Cutter

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I’m inadvertently developing a tradition: I tend to straddle the old and new years with a horror story. Last year around this time, I dove into Nick Cutter’s atmospheric horror novel The Deep–a chilling tale of mysterious forces that operate at extreme pressures in the world’s uncharted depths. This year I camped out with The Troop. While The Deep is a penetrating, almost Lovecraftian tale of the unknown (specifically the machinations of the unknown) that asks, “what’s out there?,” The Troop has a different flavor of horror: it utilises conventions established by the likes of Stephen King and William Golding cut with Cronenberg-esque body horror–all while asking, “what do we do to each other?”

One of the conventions well-established by King (and a slew of 1980s horror films) is the group of pre-adolescent boys in various stages of social and emotional maturity–the “coming of age” story gone horribly, horribly off-trail. Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads his troop of 14-year-old boys to isolated Falstaff Island for their annual weekend overnight camping trip. When an obviously ill stranger stumbles into camp, Tim, the small town’s only doctor, sends the boys on a walkabout while he assesses the new unknown element. The boys wander aimlessly, playing “would you rather” and taking digs at one another, while the adult nearby faces off against an unstoppable force. (When King calls this, “old school horror at it’s best,” we can guess whose stories he’s referencing.) Before long, the boys have no choice but to lock their Scoutmaster in a closet, leaving the boys to their own scouting survival skills, but also to their own imaginations and fears.

Cutter gives the reader much more information than the boys get. We know the nature of the infection (mutated hydatid worms) and the source (an escaped human test subject) and the outcome (a sole survivor leaves the island). This information is delivered to the reader in after-the-fact documents: newspaper articles, courtroom examination transcripts, lab notes, and academic conference papers–all things that children (especially these children) don’t read. The outbreak story itself happens in real-time. Cutter’s omniscient narrator gives equal attention to each troop member–to the point where it is possible that any one of them (with a couple of exceptions) can become that sole survivor. Another convention that Cutter plays with is the horror-story-as-morality-tale. An author will direct a reader’s moral compass by the order and manner in which characters die (or survive). But when one character says, “bad things happen to good people, and bad people die happy in their beds,” the reader believes that the worst of them may survive. When another uses his survival skills to help his fellow scouts even though they don’t treat him kindly, the reader believes that the best of them may survive. Ultimately, the identity of the sole survivor is credible, but it takes a skilled writer to make us postulate that if situations skewed a different way only slightly, the entire outcome could have been different.

In the midst of all that death, there are moments of life that solidify the boys’ innocence and humanity. I found the most touching of which to involve a sea turtle. Two of the boys, hungry and frightened (a formula for desperation), catch and attempt to eat a sea turtle. They see just how fervently life clings to life. While devastating to the characters themselves, the reader is offered hope that children can be bearers of a wise innocence–especially when this scene follows that of a third boy as he remembers torturing a kitten for pleasure.

Yes, the humanity is poignant, but it is so because the horror is so unrelentingly brutal. It is probably not a good idea to read The Troop while eating (definitely not while eating a pasta dinner). The descriptions are so vivid the reader sees–and sometimes smells (thanks, Nick Cutter, for that addition for your readers who have acute olfactory sensitivity or disorders of olfaction) what is in front of the characters. Considering that the infected are described as having a “sickly sweet” smell, you would do as well to keep these covers closed until after dessert.

Recommended if you like Stephen King’s The Stand, or the serious parts of David Wong’s John Dies At The End.

Self derision taken to extremes…in a children’s song. Kids are weird.