Thursday, March 31, 2011
What: You open your eyes and remember nothing. Not where you are, or when it is . . . or who you are. The Face of a Stranger begins when a man wakes up from a coma with no memory. By alternately keeping quiet and bluffing, he begins to learn about himself without revealing the extent of his amnesia. William Monk returns to work as a police detective in Victorian London as he continues to investigate the mystery of his own past and identity. Author Anne Perry skillfully traces how Monk objectively dislikes what he learns about himself but cannot easily change it. Not all new chances at life are Scrooge's Christmas morning.
Comparable to: If you fancy historical mysteries, you are in luck; Perry is a master of them. In addition to the Inspector Monk series, she writes about another Victorian detective, Thomas Pitt, and his wife, Charlotte. She also has a WWII-era series.
Representative quote: "A tailor. So that was where his money went --- vain beggar. He must take a look through his wardrobe and see what his taste was. Expensive, according to the bill in his hand. A policeman who wanted to look like a gentleman!"
You might not like it if: You are not a fan of historical details.
How to get it: Perry is a popular author, and her books are widely available.
Connection to previous Wreckage: This connection is a bit of a stretch, but it's too fascinating not to include. The film Heavenly Creatures tells the true story of a sensational murder in 1954 committed by two girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. Author Anne Perry is Juliet Hulme.
In the 1994 film, Pauline Parker was played by Melanie Lynskey, who has a significant role in Away We Go (Rec. #83). Juliet Hulme (a.k.a. Anne Perry) was the first film role of a young actress named Kate Winslet.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
What: During the writers' strike of 2007-2008, Joss Whedon decided to demonstrate that "original online content" doesn't have to mean cats flushing toilets. So, he rounded up some people from past projects (Felicia Day, Nathan Fillion), some family members (sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, brothers Jed and Zach), and one child-star-turned-Broadway-pro-turned-sitcom-star (Neil Patrick Harris*), and they put on a show. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a villain's origin story. Dr. Horrible ("I have a Ph.D. in horribleness") is torn by two ambitions: to join the Evil League of Evil and to win the heart of Penny ("She works with the homeless and doesn't eat meat"). The warring desires converge when Dr. Horrible's nemesis, Captain Hammer ("corporate tool"), shows an interest in Penny.
Comparable to: It is Whedon through and through, with the humor, the distinct characters, the smart writing, and the surprisingly high stakes. As he did with the lauded "Once More, With Feeling" episode of Buffy, Whedon uses a musical framework to heighten emotional impact (with very pretty songs) even as his hyper-articulate characters work out their chaotic thoughts (with very clever lyrics).
Representative quote: "Destroying the status quo because the status is not quo. The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it."
You might not like if it: I think that a lot of people like at least one of the following things: musicals, Nathan Fillion, superheroes, Felicia Day, snarkiness, Joss Whedon, the strategic use of the word "balls," Neil Patrick Harris, equestrian super-villains. If you hate all of those things, then possibly, maybe, there's a chance you won't like this.
How to get it: Dr. Horrible is divided into three 15-minute acts (that's a total of 45 minutes for those keeping track). The DVD triples your viewing time because it has two full-length commentaries. One is an actual commentary, and the other is effectively a bonus musical. The excellent songs in Commentary! The Musical include "Better Than Neil" and "Nobody's Asian in the Movies."
*If you were Harris's HIMYM co-star Alyson Hannigan, an ex-Whedonite herself, wouldn't you be pissed that Whedon gave Doogie a lead role?
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
What: Craig Seligman, who is himself a successful critic, examines the lives and work of two (in)famous critics, Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Seligman clearly admires both of them, although he has more personal affection for Kael. In Sontag & Kael, the dichotomy of their critical approaches (Sontag is intellectually rigorous and austere; Kael is passionate and argumentative) actually serves to highlight why both women were pioneers in modern criticism. In different ways, they each changed the way we think --- and talk --- about the world.
Comparable to: Read some Pauline Kael. Read some Susan Sontag. Mash them together and tie it up with a third articulate, perceptive voice. That's basically this book.
Representative quote: "Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror." [Susan Sontag, post-9/11]
You might not like it if: You're just looking for some movie recommendations.
How to get it: It's in print, but not (yet) Kindle-able. A very good, short book for commuting via public transit! You will be able to sit and nod sagely on the train.
Monday, March 28, 2011
What: One of the best things about a gigantic banquet of a novel like Our Mutual Friend is that Charles Dickens gives us dozens of characters and storylines to bite into. If a particular set of characters doesn't grab you, no matter; a different group will be along in a few pages. Further, in Our Mutual Friend, almost all of the main characters either change in a fundamental way or are revealed to be something other than what they've appeared to be. Our hero, after all, ends up being a man with three identities.
Comparable to: Our Mutual Friend is in the same Dickens vein as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. They have multiple divergent tails to a story, but somehow tie up at the end in a very satisfying way. Also, each of those novels has a central unifying backdrop. In Bleak House, it's the High Court of Chancery. In the Little Dorrit, it's the poor house. In Our Mutual Friend, it's the Thames, which runs through everyone's lives in one way or another.
Representative quote: "So . . . wishing you well in the way you go, we now conclude with the observation that perhaps you'll go it."
You might not like it if: The book is roughly 900 pages long, and you reject that on a very fundamental level.
How to get it: So many ways. You should not have trouble finding this one. Also, I recommend watching the excellent 1998 miniseries in conjunction with your reading. It will be so much easier to keep track of all the characters if you can picture Anna Friel, Steven Mackintosh, Paul McGann, Keeley Hawes, Timothy Spall, David Morrissey, etc.
Connection to previous Wreckage: Dickens was a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell's work, such as the novel Mary Barton (Rec. #57).
Sunday, March 27, 2011
What: In the novel Thank You for Smoking, author Christopher Buckley sends up the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco comes personified in the form of Nick Naylor, our smarmy antihero. The book was published in 1994, but it was ten years before it became a movie. It's a bit alarming that they didn't have to change much to keep it relevant. Luckily, the satire is funny enough to keep you from succumbing to despair over the fact that we need a satire for this sort of thing in the first place.
Comparable to: A handsome, smooth-talking, sell-anything-to-anyone antihero with questionable motives and morals? It might ring some Mad Men bells for you.
Representative quote: "Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan."
You might not like it if: It comes across as trite and/or glib to you.
How to get it: It is in print and also Kindle-able. Also, after you read the book, I recommend seeing the 2005 movie adaptation, if for no other reason than Rob Lowe's brief but memorable performance (which, in retrospect, really seems like an audition piece for his current role on Parks and Recreation).
Saturday, March 26, 2011
What: It's a Freudian screwball comedy! How can you resist that? You can't. OK, you want more? In Barcelona, 1913, Alma and her brother-in-law embark on a Sherlock-style investigation to figure out why her psychiatrist husband has run off, leaving her alone and very pregnant. Their only clue? The case studies of four of his patients. Also, there is hypnosis, cross-dressing, and a final tango. It is wicked fun.
Comparable to: A little bit Amelie, a little bit Preston Sturges, a little bit whodunnit. (If you've read any of my other posts, you can't possibly be surprised that I like it.)
You might not like it if: Mutton. Chops. Mutton chops!
How to get it: The English translation of the title, Unconscious, is a bit vague, so be careful in your search. It might help to search using the original Spanish title, Inconscientes. It might also help to know that the film is from 2004. Also, please, be prepared to spend a significant amount of time coveting and/or marveling at the gorgeous hair of the lead actress. It is amazing.
[P.S. We are now officially back on schedule for one recommendation per day.]
What: Winston Churchill suffered from severe bouts of depression, which he called his "black dog." In Mr. Chartwell, author Rebecca Hunt presents the figurative black dog as an actual black dog (he prefers to be called "Black Pat") who divides his time between Churchill and Esther Hammerhans, a young woman with whom he's lodging. Many reviews of this debut novel praise Hunt for the originality of her concept and her perceptive handling of depression. I was also impressed with Hunt's deft and delicate presentation of the small cues that make social interaction possible [see quote].
Comparable to: Hunt's narrative voice reminds me a bit of Alan Bennett and Max Beerbohm (at different times).
Representative quote: "He made a welcoming sound over a mouthful of flapjack and shut his newspaper. He did the universally understood spin of his hand to show he couldn't understand why it was taking him so long to swallow. It was the spin that said, 'I'm bored of chewing; I can't believe I'm still chewing.'"
You might not like it if: You're a bit put off by Hunt's descriptions of Black Pat, which can be . . . vivid.
How to get it: Not only is this book in print, it's even quite a recent publication. So, you could actually go into a bookstore that sells new books and expect to see this on the shelf. (Also available at libraries, or for your Kindle.)
Friday, March 25, 2011
What: Broadly speaking, Crewe Train counts as a comedy of manners. More accurately, though, it's a comedy against manners. Newly orphaned Denham Dobie, a somewhat awkward young woman who's used to running wild in Spain, goes to live with her high-society relatives in London. Denham is blunt, straightforward, and utterly confounded by her new life. Her new life is pretty confounded by her, too.
Comparable to: Cold Comfort Farm, in reverse.
Representative quote: "Anyhow, she thought, I shall give up going to parties and things. I'll go to parties or have a baby, but I won't do both." [Denham reflects on the up side to her pregnancy.]
You might not like it if: You balk at author Rose Macaulay's dedication, which is, "To the philistines, the barbarians, the unsociable, and those who do not care to take any trouble."
How to get it: Sorry, but I seem to be on a run of suggesting books that are out of print. Like this one. Libraries and used bookstores are wonderful things!
Connection to previous Wreckage: I love this book, and I also love its reverse, Cold Comfort Farm (Rec. #34).
Thursday, March 24, 2011
What: I really expected to be annoyed by this movie. But it did not annoy me! In fact, I really like it (hence the recommendation). Burt and Verona, who are expecting their first child, embark on a trip across the U.S., visiting friends and family as they try to find a place to settle down. Away We Go walks some tricky lines successfully. The funnier (but less subtle) segments end before they become annoying, and the tone of the film is sincere without becoming too twee. The cast (including Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal) is amazing, with a particularly noteworthy performance from Maya Rudolph as Verona. Why did we not give her all the awards? All of them.
Comparable to: I have seen it compared to (500) Days of Summer and Garden State, but I did not particularly like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State. So.
Representative quote: "Do you promise that if I die some embarrassing and boring death that you're going to tell our daughter that her father was killed by Russian soldiers in this intense hand-to-hand combat in an attempt to save the lives of 850 Chechnyan orphans?"
You might not like it if: You actually wanted it to be more hipster-y and more twee. Or I may have altered your expectations to such an extent that you're expecting no hipster-y, no twee. So, fair warning: It is a little hipster-y.
How to get it: Pretty easily available from the usual sources. Note: It actually is a good movie to watch with your parents/children (as applicable), but you should maybe pretend that it starts when Burt and Verona are driving to Burt's parents' house. That opening scene would be very uncomfortable to watch in mixed generational company.
What: First of all, Crossing California has absolutely nothing to do with a road trip through the Golden State. (Look at the cover. They are wearing coats.) Adam Langer's novel is about the smart adolescent children of three families living in a specific Chicago neighborhood that is bisected by California Avenue. From November 1979 through January 1981, we follow the lives of the very studious and idealistic Jill Wasserstrom; her best friend, Muley Wills; her older sister, Michelle; Michelle's would-be boyfriend, Larry Rovner, who's also a would-be Jewish rock star; and Larry's sister, Lana. We also get a vivid, fully realized picture of Chicago circa 1980.
Representative quote: "In 1970, when the Beatles officially announced their breakup, Larry Rovner was only eight, and he didn't understand why they couldn't just work out their differences. But now, as he sat in his basement bedroom and practice facility with his bass player, Arik Levine, waiting vainly for the other members of Rovner! to arrive, it all made sense."
You might not like it if: Somehow, you don't end up caring about any of the characters at all. That's unlikely, but possible, I suppose.
How to get it: You can download it for your Kindle. Or, especially if you live anywhere near the Chicago area, you should be able to find it in a used bookstore.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
What: In this British sketch series, comedian Catherine Tate transforms herself into a bunch of recurring characters. The most popular ones are sullen schoolgirl Lauren ("Am I bovvered?") and irascible Nan ("[expletive] cackle [expletive]"). My personal favorites include: the posh family who are constantly thrown into a tizzy by daily life; a woman who goads a reluctant co-worker into making impossible guesses; and a happy couple who find everyday situations hilarious. You'll just have to trust me that they're much funnier than the descriptions. Plus, Tate gets bonus points for using a Kirsty MacColl song for her opening credits.
Comparable to: Tracey Ullman. Or a one-woman Saturday Night Live.
Representative quote: [OK, really, just go to YouTube. Here's a clip of the annoying co-worker. Here's a whole collection of clips with the posh family. Here's the easily amused couple. Here's a nice starter clip for Lauren Cooper. And here's Nan.]
You might not like it if: You should be able to judge for yourself after you watch a few clips.
How to get it: All three series of the show are available to watch instantly on Netflix.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
What: You might know Edward Gorey from his "Gashlycrumb Tinies" ("N is for Nigel, who died of ennui"), or from the opening titles of PBS's Mystery! series, or from the somewhat inappropriately gothic greeting cards you've received from me. Gorey's art and wit are distinctly macabre and stylized, with a touch of elegant violence. His work seems vaguely Victorian and British, but Gorey was born in Chicago and started creating his own books in the middle of the twentieth century. In this collection of interviews with Gorey, you'll learn about his varied (and sometimes unexpected) interests, including: cats, French symbolist poetry, yard sales, George Balanchine, soap operas, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Also, there are pictures.
Representative quote: "What is your motto?" "O the of it all."
You might not like it if: You're not familiar with Gorey's work and you don't really want to become familiar with Gorey's work, so reading interviews with him seems kind of pointless.
How to get it: You might have trouble finding it new, but you could find it used. Or look at your library (it might be either in the fine arts section or with the biographies).
Connection to previous Wreckage: The Salmon of Doubt (Rec. #4) is another posthumous collection of words from a beloved twentieth-century author who's something of a cult figure (Douglas Adams). (Adams actually is British.)
Monday, March 21, 2011
What: Penelope Fitzgerald's slim novel The Gate of Angels is set in Cambridge University in 1912. It involves: the coming prominence of physics, a cycling accident, London nurses, Daisy and Fred, debating societies, women's suffrage, theories of chaos, and eccentric dons. Not bad for a book that's fewer than 200 pages long.
Comparable to: Jeanette Winterson also has a tendency to pack a lot into a small space, but Fitzgerald's style is much more along the lines of Muriel Spark.
Representative quote: "Professor Flowerdew, with his melancholy smile, had told him that he could not hold out any great hopes for the future of the material universe. On the other hand, he had spoken very highly of Fred."
You might not like it if: You don't like reading about the coming prominence of physics, cycling accidents, London nurses, Daisy-and-Freds, debating societies, women's suffrage, theories of chaos, or eccentric dons.
How to get it: The physical book ways (stores, libraries).
Connections to previous Wreckage: Jeanette Winterson's The Passion (Rec. #66) is similarly brief. Muriel Spark's novels (of which Loitering with Intent, Rec. #13, is one) have certain tonal similarities.
What: Once you realize that Shadow of a Doubt is a collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder, the whole film clicks into place. It's the story of two Charlies: Uncle Charlie Oakley, who's a vague sort of success out in the world, and Charlotte "Young Charlie" Newton, his niece and namesake. Young Charlie is frustrated with the confines of her family's small-town life, then her adored Uncle Charlie comes to town. As she slowly discovers another side of her uncle, the film slyly highlights the hundreds of small darknesses that creep into even the most idyllic settings.
Comparable to: As if a Hitchcock killer wandered onstage during a production of Our Town.
Representative quote: "We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me, and I'm talking about killing him."
You might not like it if: You like your Hitchcock heroines blonde. You might be interested to know, however, that Hitchcock often said this was his favorite film. (It's my favorite Hitchcock film, too.)
How to get it: As of this posting, it's not available to watch instantly on Netflix, but it is available via Amazon instant video. Or you can get it from a library. Or just buy it! (Did I mention this is Hume Cronyn's first movie? You'll want one viewing just to focus on his scenes as the neighbor.)
Sorry we lost a few days there, folks. (I do not remember much about Saturday at all, honestly. I think someone brought me saltines? Thanks! Also, I do not recommend getting food poisoning. Tell your friends it is even less fun than it sounds.)
I'll be doubling up on some posts over the next few days. By the end of the week, we should be back on schedule.
I'll be doubling up on some posts over the next few days. By the end of the week, we should be back on schedule.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
What: The concept of Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same is pretty awesome. Little plastic chickens are placed in intricate dioramas that are humorously captioned. The execution is awesome-er because creator/author Sloane Tanen is very funny, whether the tableaus involve shopping, airport shuttles, Cinderella, or, erm, what appears to be a lost scene from one of the Saw movies.
Comparable to: OK, yes, this is a novelty book, so, you know, Cake Wrecks, Awkward Family Photos, Regretsy, etc. Except this didn't start as a blog.
Representative quote: "The prince's perverse fantasies were beginning to take their toll on Cinderella. Oh well, back to Barneys." [Don't you want to see the diorama that goes with that caption?]
You might not like it if: You have a chicken phobia.
How to get it: Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same makes a great gift. (For that matter, so do Tanen's follow-up books: Going for the Bronze and Hatched.) Plus, if you buy it for a friend, you can read it for yourself before you wrap it. Also, you can buy prints of Sloane Tanen's work through her website.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
What: David Rakoff seems like the kind of person you'd like to have for a friend. He's grumbly enough to make you feel bracingly sunny in comparison. He's clever but not lofty. He can be quite cutting, but often toward himself, and always in a very funny way. And in this collection of essays, he endures many absurdities of contemporary life so we don't have to. His experiences (and essay topics) include foraging for wild edibles in Prospect Park, participating in an all-night scavenger hunt, working as a cabana boy in a South Beach hotel, having a consultation with a plastic surgeon, and standing in the crowd outside the Today show.
Comparable to: David Rakoff is often lumped together with that other David, David Sedaris, but Rakoff is (dare I say it?) funnier.
Representative quote: "It's a lucky thing the metal content of glitter glue does not set security wands to beeping. Otherwise the line stretching halfway down Forty-eighth Street would move even more slowly."
You might not like it if: You are not in the mood for highly subjective first-person essays, no matter how funny they are.
How to get it: Look! Kindle people! This has a Kindle edition! Also available at bookstores, libraries, etc.
Connections to previous Wreckage: Rakoff actually hits on a few of the same subjects that Adam Gopnik did in Paris to the Moon, which was Rec. #39. (Different tone, though.) Also, Rakoff himself has cameo appearances in Sarah Vowell's Take the Cannoli (Rec. #32).
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
What: Lucy Pym, a renowned psychologist, comes as a guest lecturer to a small college and soon finds herself embroiled in the day-to-day dramas and grievances of the students' lives. Miss Pym Disposes is known as one of the classic mystery novels from Golden Age-era author Josephine Tey, but the "mystery" part doesn't actually kick in until two-thirds of the way through the book. The in-depth character study becomes crucial, however, as the delayed suspense rests all of its significant weight on a single, fateful decision.
Comparable to: Like Ngaio Marsh, Tey is an excellent writer, period. Some of her characters just happen to be murderers. Also, Miss Pym Disposes is a good, early-ish example of psychological suspense --- there's a reason Lucy Pym lectures on psychology.
Representative quote: "Very well, Miss Pym, I give you Dakers. But I remind you that it is their last term, this. And so everything is e-norrrmously exaggerated. Everyone is just the least little bit insane. No, it is true, I promise you."
You might not like it if: Character studies do not interest you.
How to get it: Sorry, Kindle owners, no edition for you (yet). But it is in print, and while you're looking at Tey's books online or on the shelf, you might as well also pick up a copy of Brat Farrar, my favorite of her novels. (We'll get to that later.) Also, you can read a good chunk of the beginning of the book through Google Books.
Connection to previous Wreckage: Ngaio Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman was Rec. #37.
Monday, March 14, 2011
What: The French film Micmacs contains some of my favorite things: A band of misfits banding together, a caper in the name of a progressive cause, and gorgeous shots by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. With his latest film, the director of Amelie gives us the story of Bazil, whose life has been all but ruined by two big companies that manufacture weapons. He and his aforementioned band of misfits concoct a complicated revenge scheme against their little corner of the military-industrial complex. Or, as Amelie would say, they have a stratagem.
Comparable to: Like Buster Keaton had a bunch of eccentric friends who liked to tinker with junk. But very beautiful.
Representative quote: "I'm Bazil." "I know. You have a slug in your brain box. I know a family who'll adopt you."
You might not like it if: Too much whimsy makes your brain box ache.
How to get it: Watch instantly on Amazon, or watch on disc in most other ways.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
What: When the Messenger Is Hot is Elizabeth Crane's debut collection of short (some of them very short) stories. Most of them are written in the first person, and many of them come across as extra-chatty monologues.
Comparable to: Erika Krouse, with some of the confessional zeal of Alan Bennett's characters in Talking Heads.
Representative quote: "Someone finally took a picture of me I don't hate and since I was wearing a red shirt I thought it would be the perfect holiday card. I made fifty copies and put a special nondenominational greeting on there (Hey, Happy Holidays! I thought the Hey gave it a personal touch) and sent them out. Then I started to get some cards back with some peculiar responses like, Good for you!, even though I hadn't written any news worth praising on that particular card and then I finally got an e-mail from someone who said she hoped she'd caught me before I sent too many out because she didn't want me to embarrass myself and I looked at the card again to see if I was exposed in some way or if the printers said, Hey, Merry Christmas!, by accident. But the card was just right, and so I e-mailed her back and said I didn't understand what she meant and she e-mailed back that most people who send photos like that also have husbands or babies in the photo. I e-mailed her back again and said that I am not most people." ["Good for You!"]
You might not like it if: You just read that story and didn't like it.
How to get it: I think it's out of print, but you can buy it used or get it from your library.
Connection to previous Wreckage: When the Messenger Is Hot got a blurb from Kate Atkinson! We love Kate Atkinson (Rec. #3 and Rec. #69).
Saturday, March 12, 2011
What: The list of living authors whose books I will always read is a very short one, but David Mitchell makes the cut. He's an impressively versatile writer, and he excels in multi-perspective, layered narratives, such as his intricate puzzle-box of a novel, Cloud Atlas. With Black Swan Green, his fourth book, Mitchell simplifies everything, as if to prove that he's not all about fancy footwork and narrative sleight-of-hand. The stripped-down, straightforward novel tells the story of Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old boy in an English village in 1982. No flashbacks; no complex matryoshka-doll structure; no sweeping, multi-national settings; no tricks. Without the overarching structural flourishes, Mitchell's equal dexterity on a sentence level gets center stage.
Comparable to: I'd compare it to other coming-of-age stories, but, really, I haven't come across another book that succeeds in making a thirteen-year-old boy so human and likable.
Representative quote: "I cleaned my teeth without mercy. Mum and Dad can be as ratty or sarcastic or angry as they want to be, but if I ever show a flicker of being pissed off then they act like I've murdered babies . . . Kids can never complain about unfairness 'cause everyone knows kids always complain about that."
You might not like it if: You want all of David Mitchell's books to be like Cloud Atlas.
How to get it: So I guess some of you first check to see if something is available for your Kindle? Well, this is. Also, your local bookstore may or may not have it, but I'm sure your library system will.
Friday, March 11, 2011
What: Sweet, mild-mannered Sissi is a nurse at a psychiatric institution. She has no family to speak of and a very limited life outside of her job. One day, she's caught in a terrible road accident and almost dies. She's saved by Bodo, a taciturn thief/ex-soldier who is tortured by a mysterious past. The description sounds Gothic, but the movie itself is not. It's dreamlike, in the sense that scenes of kinetic frenzy (car chase, bank robbery, murder attempt) punctuate scenes of beautiful, floaty unreality.
Comparable to: It's the same writer/director and star as Run, Lola, Run, so, yes, like that. But with less running. And no one is named Lola.
You might not like it if: It's too dreamily improbable for you. Also, it's in German, so if you don't speak the language and you don't like reading subtitles . . .
How to get it: Rent, borrow, or buy. Also note: Writer/director Tom Tykwer is involved in the film adaptation of David Mitchell's adored-and-assumed-to-be-unfilmable novel Cloud Atlas, and don't you want to have an opinion about that?
Thursday, March 10, 2011
What: In early 2010, the New York Times reported that an Italian reprint of the novel Auntie Mame had become a surprise bestseller. Why? Maybe it's the economic parallels with our time, as the titular Manhattan socialite crashes with the Great Depression, but comes out triumphant on the other side. Possibly it's the effervescent humor of Patrick Dennis's writing. (The New York Times doubts that this is the reason. The article's author implies that Italians are, for the most part, humorless.) Most likely, it has something to do with Mame's ineffable panache and irresistible, progressive charm.
Comparable to: Mame Dennis has more in common with Graham Greene's Aunt Augusta than with P.G. Wodehouse's Aunt Agatha or Aunt Dahlia.
Representative quote: "Auntie Mame was on her best behavior and pirouetted prettily from one to the next, talking about the Japanese beetle, a difficult mashie shot, elm blight, country day schools, the servant problem, and --- until I caught her eye --- the wisdom of legalizing prostitution."
You might not like it if: Eccentric aunts aren't your style.
How to get it: Downloadable, borrowable, and in print (in English, in Italian, and in many other languages, too).
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
What: In the midst of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there's a small road accident that leads to a frightening case of road rage. Events in One Good Turn spiral from there, taking into their scope a successful novelist, the wife of a corrupt real estate tycoon, a washed-up comic, a police detective, a mysterious Russian woman, and ex-PI Jackson Brodie. This is not one mystery --- it's several intersecting mysteries. With one extremely well-executed payoff.
Comparable to: Like Deborah Crombie, Atkinson has a knack for picking up peripheral characters and placing them full-on in the dangerous trajectory of her story. Some of them don't make it to the end of this book, but some of them get carried on through to the next.
Representative quote: "Even Martin had wondered at first if it was another show --- a faux-impromptu piece intended either to shock or to reveal our immunity to being shocked because we lived in a global media community where we had become passive voyeurs of violence (and so on). That was the line of thought running through the detached, intellectual part of his brain. His primitive brain, on the other hand, was thinking, Oh fuck, this is horrible, really horrible, please make the bad man go away."
You might not like it if: You don't want to keep track of the different mysteries. You want one mystery, with one plot.
How to get it: Please look at the picture at the top of this post and take a moment to appreciate the wonderful title/cover pairing of this edition (2006 U.S. hardcover). Don't you want that?
Connection to previous Wreckage: Atkinson introduced Jackson Brodie to the world in Case Histories, which was Rec. #3.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
What: Like most avid readers, I've toyed with the idea of owning a bookstore. Like Bernard Black, the bookstore owner played by Dylan Moran, I see that the downside to this is, clearly, dealing with the annoying people who interrupt your reading because they want to buy some books. Bernard deals with this by being an openly hostile malcontent who drinks and smokes while loudly and elaborately insulting people. It's very funny. Black Books also features Bill Bailey as Bernard's hapless but sweet assistant and Tamsin Grieg as their hapless and usually bored friend Fran.
Comparable to: Other misanthropic British comedies, plus the surrealistic-adventure-time plots of Spaced.
Customer: Look, there's no other way to say this, but I didn't come in here to be insulted.
Bernard: Well, I didn't ask for the job of insulting you. In another life, we could have been brothers. Running a small, quirky taverna in Sicily. Maybe we would have married the local twins instead of wasting each other's time here in this dump. But it was not to be. So hop it.
You might not like it if: You have no pent-up aggression that can be released through the cathartic exercise of watching Bernard insult people.
How to get it: You can get the complete set, which includes all three seasons, or you can occasionally switch it up with something where people are nice to each other and don't drink much.
Connection to previous Wreckage: I said Rec. #31: Don't Point That Thing at Me was like someone let Dylan Moran loose in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Now you have a visual for that.
Monday, March 7, 2011
What: Armistead Maupin has been writing his stories about Mary Ann Singleton, Michael (Mouse) Tolliver, and San Francisco for more than three decades. The tales are arch and winking, but earnest at heart, and they start here, when Mary Ann arrives in San Francisco in 1976. Even if you roll your eyes at Mary Ann's naiveté, raise your eyebrows at Brian's shameless promiscuity, and sigh at Mouse's misguided search for love, you'll still follow their intersecting stories avidly. Where this volume ends is actually kind of arbitrary, and you might find yourself barreling straight (ha) through to More Tales of the City . . . and then on through the six (so far) installments after that.
Comparable to: Actually, it's rather Dickensian, with perspectives that shift among a large cast of characters, and events so startlingly dramatic they toe the line between tragedy and farce. (It's also pretty soapy.)
Representative quote: "Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time. She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her mood ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland."
You might not like it if: It keeps you up too late because you just have to read one more bite-sized chapter. Also, it makes you want to move to San Francisco, which is prohibitively expensive for you.
How to get it: I couldn't find an image for it, but if you can, pick up the same 1978 Harper & Row edition I have. The cover (front and back) is a map of San Francisco, marked with key locations from the book. Also, please note that Tales of the City was adapted, almost seamlessly, into a miniseries in 1993. Part of its success comes from the stellar cast, which includes Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Thomas Gibson, and Paul Gross.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
What: I'll be honest; this book is pretty trippy. On the surface, it focuses on two people: Henri, who is Napoleon's chef, and Villanelle, who is (among other things) a Venetian gondolier's daughter. Through them, the reader is introduced to the worlds of croupiers, pickpockets, Napoleon's army, and an island of madmen. It is a story about the often selfish nature of love, but it is not a love story. I don't know how she does it, but Jeanette Winterson manages to make this short, sometimes harsh, novel feel positively lush.
Comparable to: It's a somewhat dizzying blend of magical realism, history, fairy tale, and modernism. It's a bit Thomas Pynchon, a bit Woolf's Orlando, a bit Angela Carter.
Representative quote: "In spite of what the monks say, you can meet God without getting up early."
You might not like it if: You want your historical fiction to be more historical and less fictional.
How to get it: Kindle download, brick-and-mortar store, online store, library.
Comparable to: If you long for lush surrealism in a moving picture format, I'd like to direct your attention to Rec. #49: The Fall. (Note that The Passion and The Fall have similar, deceptively simple, titles. For balance.)
Saturday, March 5, 2011
What: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a comedy about the consequences of anonymous sex that was hugely successful when it came out in 1944, despite many concerns from the Hays Office. Trudy Kockenlocker is a small-town girl determined to send the boys off to war with a smile and, whoops!, ends up pregnant and unsure who the father is. It's written and directed by Preston Sturges, so of course it's a farce! The film is full of expert pratfalls and snappy dialogue. Plus, look for Diana Lynn in a killer performance as Trudy's savvy younger sister.
Comparable to: Your best beloved screwball comedies.
Representative quote: "It's airtight, it's foolproof, it's almost legal!"
Bonus representative quote: "But he gave his name as Ratzkywatzky!" "He was trying to say Jones. He stuttered!"
You might not like it if: You've just stopped believing that I might know what I'm talking about.
How to get it: Available on DVD from the source of your choosing.
Connection to previous Wreckage: Need more screwball comedy? Luckily, there's Rec. #17: The Palm Beach Story, which is also by Preston Sturges.
Friday, March 4, 2011
What: The "death" foretold in the title is the murder of Santiago Nasar. No one really wants him to die --- not even his killers --- but he does. There are no twists, no last-minute reprieves, no break from the slow inevitability. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a small, beautiful book about the small things that make up a life and the small things that can end one.
Comparable to: Other South American surrealism, except this isn't really all that surrealistic. It is South American, though.
Representative quote: "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit."
You might not like it if: You really, really don't want Santiago Nasar to die at the end.
How to get it: Widely available. Excellent choice for those commuting on public transport. First of all, it makes you look all serious and stuff. Also, it's very short (somewhere between 125 and 150 pages, depending on the edition), so: 1) Easy to carry, and 2) You'll probably finish it in less than a week.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
What: The subtitle of Margaret Visser's book is "The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners." In her explanations for why we eat the ways we do, Visser crosses countries, cultures, and centuries. Open to a random page, and you could learn about elementary school lunch swapping culture, or French social fortresses in the eighteenth century, or how a Sherpa host organizes a dinner party via child messengers, or the social rules governing eating on airplanes. If you've ever taken (or wanted to take) a social anthropology class, you'll be interested. It starts with some thoughts on cannibalism!
Comparable to: A lot of the books I read in college for Anthropology classes.
Representative quote: "The main rules about eating are simple: If you do not eat you die; and no matter how large your dinner, you will soon be hungry again. [...] We have to keep eating, so we make eating the occasion for insisting on other things as well --- concepts and feelings which are vital for our well-being, but many of them complex, difficult to analyze or understand, and definitely not so easy to concentrate on as food is when we are hungry."
You might not like it if: You are nervous that Visser might have something to say about the special way you eat cheese.
How to get it: I suggest getting it from a library first to see whether you dig Visser's tone. If you do, it's a good book to have on hand so you can bring it out during dinner parties. We talk and write and think about food so much, and this is a great way to get a broader perspective.
Connection to previous Wreckage: If you'd like to further the kind of college education you wish you'd had, Rec. #28: Opening Skinner's Box will get you some psychology credits.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
What: High school noir at its high school noir-iest. There's a loner trying to solve a mystery, a femme fatale, highly stylized dialogue, characters with names like Tangles and The Brain, a missing girlfriend, and an underground crime ring. Also there is a scene with a table lamp in a van! It is maybe my favorite part! Because there is a table lamp in a van!
Comparable to: Oh, you know, all those other highly stylized high school noir films.
Representative quote: "Maybe I'll just sit here and bleed at you."
You might not like it if: It is too stylized, too high school, too noir.
How to get it: Available most places, but here's a suggestion: Turn on the closed captioning or subtitles*. These characters are high schoolers, which means they can be mumblers. You won't want to miss what they're saying.
Connection to previous Wreckage: Want more noir? Check out Rec. #47: I Married a Dead Man.
* Something you should know about me: My hearing is fine, but I watch everything with closed captioning turned on. I've done this since middle school. I don't like missing words.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
What: Twin adolescent girls, recently orphaned and shunned by their remaining relatives, find themselves en route from England to the United States in 1916. One of Elizabeth von Arnim's greatest strengths as a writer is deliberate, insightful, witty character development, and she works her usual magic with Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas. They may be twins who finish each other's thoughts, but they're also two distinct, vibrant individuals.
Comparable to: A combo of Angela Thirkell and E.M. Delafield, but fewer characters than Thirkell and more points of view than Delafield. There's also a strong thread of Vita Sackville-West-ishness.
Representative quote: "Uncle Arthur was the husband of Aunt Alice. He didn't like foreigners, and said so. He had never liked them and had always said so."
You might not like it if: You think twins are inherently creepy, and not in a good way.
How to get it: You can download it for free from Amazon. As in, you could do that right now.
Connection to previous Wreckage: I mentioned Angela Thirkell in the "Comparable to" section above. Her novel Summer Half was Rec. #40.