Hello, nice people. The (almost) Daily Wreck is going to be on hiatus for the next week.
If you'd like to use this opportunity to catch up with recommendations you've missed, you might find the post "Let's Review, Redux" handy. It has links to the first 100 recommendations, organized by media.
What: Kate Atkinson's second novel, Human Croquet, is told from the point of view of Isobel Fairfax. She has just turned sixteen, and she lives with her bad-tempered aunt, her stunted brother, her sporadically present father, her father's very dim new wife, and the inescapable loss of her missing mother. Coming-of-age is one thing, but Isobel also occasionally gets caught in time pockets to the late 16th century, where parallel events are occurring.
Comparable to: In some ways quite similar to Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery.
Representative quote: "I awake from an unpleasant dream in which I found myself walking up a hill, a Jack-less Jill, to fill a bucket of water from a well at the top. As we know, trips to the well are fraught with the danger of alien kidnapping, so my dreaming self was quite relieved to find it still existed when it got to the top."
You might not like it if: You get muddled by the switches from reality to surreality and you don't think the muddled feeling is at all pleasant.
How to get it: Buy it or borrow it from your library.
What: P.G. Wodehouse is, of course, best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories. There are also the Blandings Castle stories, and the Psmith stories, and the Monty Bodkin stories, and the Earl of Ickenham stories, and several stand-alone stories about various young men who bumble along being good sports and eventually win the day. Here, finally, we have a young woman who gets to bumble along being a good sport and eventually winning the day. It starts when she's arrested for getting into a fight over a parrot, and it only gets better from there.
Comparable to: It's P.G. Wodehouse. That is basically its own genre.
Representative quote: "Jill reached the scene of the battle, and, stopping, eyed Henry with a baleful glare. We, who have seen Henry in his calmer moments and know him for the good fellow he was, are aware that he was more sinned against than sinning. If there is any spirit of justice in us, we are pro-Henry."
You might not like it if: You are inexplicably not pro-Henry. Or maybe you find it impossible to read a Wodehouse book that does not feature Reginald Jeeves.
How to get it: Overlook Press does it again with a great edition (see above).
What: Two London-based hitmen are in Belgium, awaiting further instructions after a job. Ken (Brendan Gleesan), the old pro, is starting to rethink his life. Ray (Colin Farrell), the newbie, is a loose cannon and really, really hates Bruges. Ralph Fiennes plays Harry, their boss, and proves that he can be a scary bad guy even when he's not noseless. Much shooting, much swearing, much exquisitely crafted dialogue from writer/director Martin McDonagh.
Comparable to: It's the kind of movie Guy Ritchie wishes he made, but with a definite Princess and the Warrior-esque vibe about it.
Representative quote: "Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges." [Sorry, Mom. There really aren't any lines that don't include some variation of the word "fuck."]
You might not like it if: You're my mom. I don't think my mom would like this.
How to get it: Hmm, wow. It is actually quite cheap on Amazon right now. Also, if you like this, you should try to see one of Martin McDonagh's acclaimed plays.
What:Just an Ordinary Day, a collection of previously unpublished and/or uncollected stories by Shirley Jackson, is a master class in writing psychological horror. Jackson takes great pleasure in slamming together the mundanely domestic and the unsettlingly surreal (or the mundanely surreal and the unsettlingly domestic) to see which explodes first.
Comparable to: The comedic stories (both domestic and surreal) have an Angela Thirkell tone. The dark stories (both domestic and surreal) are dry and disturbing, perhaps even more so than her most famous works --- the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the much-anthologized story "The Lottery."
Representative quote: "He was still smoking a little, but otherwise he seemed quite a charming young man. The horns were barely noticeable, and he was wearing pointed patent leather shoes that covered his cloven hoofs." --- "The Smoking Room"
You might not like it if: You don't like starting a story without knowing whether it's going to make you laugh or freak you out. (The titles are no help in this regard, by the way.)
How to get it: It's easy enough to find some sort of collection of Shirley Jackson stories, but this one really is a nice mix of genres, if you like that sort of thing as much as I do. It's also Kindle-able.
What: Albert Campion, the very intelligent and highly skilled amateur detective, is so good at slipping into other roles that most of the world is convinced he's every bit as vacuous as he appears. This appearance of affable stupidity comes in very handy when he's being his cleverest. Sweet Danger opens with Campion knee-deep in an investigation that requires him to masquerade at different times as minor royalty, a woman, and an author. As you do. And, of course, his real name is not actually Albert Campion . . .
Comparable to: Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen both are in it for the fun and thrills, and their creators' novels reflect that playfulness.
Representative quote: "The man really was amazingly like a duck."
You might not like it if: Your mind reels when you learn that our hero's butler/valet/bodyguard is named Magersfontein Lugg.
How to get it: First of all, you have several different title options. At different times, this novel has been published as Sweet Danger, Kingdom of Death, and The Fear Sign.
Bonus fun fact for Whovians: Several of the Campion stories were adapted for a BBC television series starring Peter Davison. This is the Peter Davison who also played the Doctor in the early '80s. He is also the future father-in-law of David Tennant.
What: Mike Nichols directed Emma Thompson in this adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Not a bad pedigree, and the film deserves every superlative people throw at it. Wit follows English professor Vivian Bearing as she struggles with ovarian cancer while clinging tenaciously to her specialty, the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Given the subject matter, Wit really does live up to its name. Don't get me wrong, though --- you may laugh at times, but this is not a comedy. It is gut-wrenching.
Comparable to:Angels in America is another gut-wrenching HBO adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It also features Emma Thompson.
Representative quote: "My next line is supposed to be something like this: 'It is such a relief to get back to my room after those infernal tests.' This is hardly true. It would be a relief to be a cheerleader on her way to Daytona Beach for spring break. To get back to my room after those infernal tests is just the next thing that happens."
You might not like it if: You are not currently in the mood to have your guts wrenched.
How to get it: Rent it, buy it, borrow it. I also highly recommend reading the play by Margaret Edson.
What: You can keep your ninth grade required Salinger reading. I'll take the Glass family stories over The Catcher in the Rye any day, and the short story/novella combo of Franny and Zooey is the best. The two youngest Glass children, both in their twenties, are going through mild psychological crises that they are taking very seriously. Like Holden Caulfield, the siblings see a phony everywhere they look. Franny and Zooey are more articulate about it, though.
Comparable to: Wes Anderson pretty explicitly modeled the Tenenbaums on the Glass family, so it might be a nice touch to listen to the The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack as you read this book.
Representative quote: "Franny was among the first of the girls to get off the train, from a car at the far, northern end of the platform. Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into the air was the whole truth."
You might not like it if: Reading Salinger again feels like high school to you.
How to get it: With Salinger's cult status, and such a finite amount of his writing available, you shouldn't have trouble finding this book. If you've read his other Glass family stories (particularly "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"), you'll have a fuller picture of the background here, but it's not necessary.
What: The books in Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicholson series are:
1) Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging
2) On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (original title: It's OK, I'm Wearing Really Big Knickers)
3) Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas
4) Dancing in My Nuddy Pants
5) Away Laughing on a Fast Camel (original title: And That's When It Fell Off in My Hand)
6) Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers
7) Startled By His Furry Shorts
8) Love Is a Many Trousered Thing (original title: Luuurve Is a Many Trousered Thing)
9) Stop in the Name of Pants
10) Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?
From the titles, a few things should already be clear: Georgia Nicholson is a teenager. Georgia Nicholson is British. Georgia Nicholson is a bit of a goofy smart-arse. Rennison does an excellent job of showing the dual nature of the teenage monster --- half angsty self-involvement coupled with utter exasperation at anything parental; half daffy inside jokes and raucous laughter at anything approaching a double entendre.
Comparable to: Early on, she was marketed as a young Bridget Jones, but Georgia is more appealingly self-confident. The books are rather more like a British, lower-income-bracket, non-Austen-based Clueless.
Representative quote: "I can already feel myself getting fed up with boys and I haven't had anything to do with them yet."
Bonus representative quote: "Still not speaking to Jas, but things have gone horribly wrong in that she is not speaking to me either. I don't know how this happened as I was supposed to be in charge."
You might not like it if: You can't decipher the jargon of Georgia's world. On any given page, for example, you might come across the following: Stalag 14, Wet Lindsay, the Stiff Dylans, Operation Elastic Band, the Bummer Twins, Nauseating P. Green, and lunchpack berets.
How to get it: All ten books are in print, some of them are Kindle-able, and some of them are available on audio. If you have the chance to hear Louise Rennison read one of her own books, take that chance. She is properly hilarious (and incidentally sounds a bit like Frances O'Connor).
What:The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, is actually two films in one. The first tells the story of two con artists, father and daughter, who set out to swindle a gullible millionaire. Then the daughter falls for the mark. This doesn't end well . . . which leads us to the second half --- the revenge part. Con artist Jean reinvents herself as Lady Eve Sidwich and, quite simply, brings the hapless Charles Pike to his knees.
Comparable to: It's written and directed by Preston Sturges, so it's a fast, sexy, witty romp like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and The Palm Beach Story.
Representative quote: "I need him like the ax needs the turkey."
You might not like it if: You're unnerved by the stop-a-clock scowl of Muggsy, Charles Pike's suspicious valet.
How to get it: Watch it instantly, or borrow it from your library, or buy it and watch it over and over until you have the best speeches memorized.
What: Frederick Reiken's intricate web of a novel, Day for Night, is every bit as beautiful as that cover. We start with a woman, her boyfriend, and his son swimming with manatees. We end with some semi-coherent journal entries from a Nazi in exile. Some of the stops along the way are: a psychologist who archives her friend's dreams, researchers at an animal preserve in Israel, a gifted high schooler who's not sure how to rebel, a coma patient who gets kidnapped, an elderly man finding love and losing it, and two FBI agents on the trail of an enigmatic woman. Amazingly, the connections among them are not contrived or cutesy. On the contrary; they make the world of the novel seem bright and big and scary and lovely.
Comparable to: Reiken makes connections here just as David Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas --- across continents and times, but very naturally. There's also a slight whiff of early Tom Robbins around the edges.
Representative quote: "You may get scared sometimes because you fail to understand that what is scared is not you. It's the story. The story looks for a way to travel. The story is afraid you will let it go."
You might not like it if: You are hoping for a neat and tidy resolution. Connections are made on top of connections, layers are added to layers, and although we see where many of the threads of the story lead, not everything is tied in a bow at the end.
How to get it: It's new enough that you should be able to find it in most bookstores. It's also Kindle-able.
What: The television series Slings and Arrows charts three seasons in the life of a Shakespearean theater festival. The show does not even pretend that it is not really about the Stratford Festival of Canada*. Each season of the series uses one main play as its framework, as well as its locus for certain thematic threads. We begin, of course, with Hamlet.
The new artistic director of the New Burbage Festival, Geoffrey Tennant**, gave a shattering performance as Hamlet there seven years ago . . . which drove him first to a psychiatric facility and then to fringe theater. Now he's returned to the New Burbage Festival in the middle of a season that centers around a production of Hamlet. Darkly comic hijinks ensue.
Comparable to: Similar to Sports Night in that it's a clever look at the backstage lives of very articulate people. But it's more Canadian.
Representative quote: "Darren, everybody cries when they get stabbed. There's no shame in that."
You might not like it if: You get distracted looking for Dave Foley because that is your Pavlovian response to seeing anyone from Kids in the Hall. (Mark McKinney is one of the creators of Slings and Arrows and also has a pivotal role in the series.)
How to get it: You can watch it instantly on Netflix or Amazon. If you'd like to know what you're heading into, in season 2 we get Macbeth and we end with King Lear in season 3. The creators planned ahead for the show to be a three-season series, so there's a very carefully planned story arc.
*If you've been to Canada's Stratford Festival (maybe with me?), you will probably recognize several of the actors in the show.
**Geoffrey Tennant is played by Paul Gross. I actually saw Paul Gross as Hamlet in a production at Stratford. Unlike Geoffrey Tennant, Paul Gross did not jump into Ophelia's grave. Nor, to my knowledge, did he have to be committed after his performance.
What: The subtitle of Susan Orlean's The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup is "My Encounters with Extraordinary People." Among the extraordinary people Orlean profiles are: a "typical" ten-year-old boy, a female matador, Hawaiian surfer girls, designer Bill Blass, and a taxi driver who's also an Ashanti king. For each essay, Orlean's opening hooks are irresistibly hook-y (see Representative Quotes below), but it's the sense that she is genuinely interested in her subjects that keeps you reading.
Comparable to: Orlean writes with a distinctive New Yorker style, so it's easy to see similarities between her writing and that of other New Yorker writers like Adam Gopnik.
Representative quote: "Of all the guys who are standing around bus shelters in Manhattan dressed in nothing but their underpants, Marky Mark is undeniably the most polite."
Bonus representative quote: "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale."
You might not like it if: You just don't care for Orlean's style.
How to get it: Look for that bright yellow cover online, in bookstores, or at your library. Also Kindle-able.
What: Don't you want to be mildly obsessed with an eccentric, vaguely bohemian British family as they're on the brink of WWII? Of course you do. The movie My Family and Other Animals is as good a place to start as any. It's based on the memoir by naturalist Gerald Durrell about his family's five years living on the Greek island of Corfu, where he develops his passion for wildlife. His siblings, however, are more concerned with their own interests --- writing, shooting, and heartbreaking, respectively.
Comparable to: Like getting sucked into all those Mitford stories, but without the dreadful connections to Nazi sympathizers. And with the sense of humor and adventurous spirit of Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame.
Representative quote: "They're just like us, aren't they --- families. I want to know how they all work. Imagine if they weren't there?"
You might not like it if: You get all fluttery at the sight of Matthew Goode (who plays the eldest sibling, Lawrence) looking all handsome, and you feel this is unseemly.
How to get it: As I said, this is a good entryway into the Durrell family. There was also a television series made from Gerald's book in the 1980s. And the book itself, plus its sequels: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. And once you start looking into Gerald's siblings (Lawrence, Leslie, Margo), you pretty quickly run into The Alexandria Quartet, Henry Miller and Anais Nin, suicides, expatriation, South Africa, and zoos.
What: Disguised as a nun, a woman named Magdalena kidnaps a priest at gunpoint. As they travel by motorcycle across Europe, she makes her extended, unrepentant confession.
Comparable to: It's funnier than you might think, though most of the humor is very deadpan. Like, Harold and Maude deadpan.
Representative quote: "The Frisian was of the opinion that you couldn't trust people, you had to distance yourself, keep as much space between you and them as possible. That should have made me stop and think, that and the fact that when I met him he was lying in a coffin with a skull on his chest."
You might not like it if: You derive no enjoyment whatsoever from picturing a priest being held captive in the sidecar of a motorcycle.
How to get it: I read the English translation, not the original German text. If neither of those languages strike your fancy, I believe Lilian Faschinger's novel is also available in 15 others.
What: I had been expecting this musical satire of the cult classic 1936 propaganda film to be full of cheesy, campy goodness. What a nice surprise to find that it is also genuinely clever! The actors --- including Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Ana Gasteyer, Alan Cumming, and Steven Weber --- are clearly having fun. You probably will, too.
Comparable to: Kind of Little Shop of Horrors-ish. Except with marijuana instead of carnivorous plants.
Representative quote: "There's blood on my hands, and mud on my name. My id threw a party and everyone came. My innocence ravished, my virtue devoured, I can't count the strangers with whom I have showered!"
Bonus representative quote: [in church] "The wafers now don’t taste so great. They won’t transubstantiate."
You might not like it if: You're afraid that this is a gateway musical and that after you try it you'll soon be hitting harder stuff, like Kander and Ebb. Maybe even a spot of Sondheim.
How to get it: Rent it or buy it. Singing along is encouraged.
What: Erika Krouse's collection of stories reveals a fondness for Mae West, a preference for sharp wit, and a deep heart of cynicism. Each of the thirteen stories in Come Up and See Me Sometime begins with a quote from Mae West, and proceeds to slide through some complicated lives with remarkable ease.
Comparable to: Many reviewers compare Erika Krouse to Lorrie Moore.
Representative quote: "Shiny clothes help. Men are like crows --- they like to pick up bright things, take them back to their nests, and poke at them with their beaks."
You might not like it if: You need more sugar for the bitterness to go down. Krouse offers a fair amount of spice, but very little sweetness.
What: Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White in 1859. The nice thing about early mystery novels like this is that the authors aren't so self-conscious about trying to give readers some new twist on suspense. Collins was able to be one of the first to mix fresh elements --- an amateur detective, multiple narrative voices --- with the sinister counts, insane asylums, and secret societies of Gothic fiction.
Comparable to: A bit like someone smooshed a Dickens novel with Northanger Abbey, and then put Oliver Rathbone (a barrister from Anne Perry's William Monk series) in charge of getting to the bottom of things.
Representative quote: "Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service."
You might not like it if: Sinister counts, insane asylums, and secret societies are too lurid for your tastes.
How to get it: It's borrowable, Kindle-able, and buy-able. There's also a 1998 BBC adaptation starring Justine Waddell, Andrew Lincoln, and Tara Fitzgerald.
What:Family Plot (1976) was Alfred Hitchcock's last film. Strictly speaking, it's not, you know, good. (Or at least, not the kind of good you expect from Hitchcock.) But, when approached with the right mindset, it is thoroughly enjoyable. The director pits two pairs of baddies against each other. The "good" bad guys are petty grifters, running small cons as a fake medium and a fake lawyer. The "bad" bad guys run their game on a much bigger scale: jewel theft, kidnapping, and murder. The search for a missing heir causes the somewhat hapless con artists to stumble into the path of the more dangerous pair.
Comparable to: Hitchcock said he wanted this film to feel like a mystery thriller as directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Representative quote: "Smells fishy to me." "Well, even fish smells good when you're starving to death."
You might not like it if: You want to keep your Hitchcock pure.
How to get it: You can watch it instantly on Netflix and Amazon.
What:Parks and Recreation, a smart and character-driven comedy,has been my favorite television show this year.* This (sadly abbreviated) season opened with the now-internet-infamous Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, but for me things really gelled with episode 2, "Flu Season." There's nothing like illness to reveal character, and all the characters in this episode are perfect concentrated versions of themselves. Leslie overachieves, Ron eats a meat tornado, Tom schmoozes and smarms, April is bitter and sullen, Chris is unhealthily health-obsessed, Ann is rational in a slightly frazzled way, and Andy is genially incompetent.
As for the cast changes . . . I was sorry to see Mark (Paul Schneider) go last season, but wow, welcome to Ben (Adam Scott) and Chris (Rob Lowe)! (There are few things funnier in life than watching a glassy-eyed Rob Lowe stare in the mirror while sternly telling himself, "Stop. Pooping.")
You might not like it if: To steal a line from a recent episode, "I guess some people object to powerful depictions of awesome ladies." [in reference to a centaur painting, of course]
How to get it: It airs on Thursday nights, and you can watch the five most recent episodes on Hulu. The season finale is May 19, so you have two full weeks to catch up.
*Sorry, all the shows that don't center on the amazing Leslie Knope. You are working from a distinct disadvantage. I cannot overemphasize how great it is to see a female character who's good at her job, is respected for being good at her job, and isn't regarded as soulless/conniving/trying to fill a baby-shaped hole in her life. It's also pretty great that she identifies as a feminist without it being portrayed as an aggressive fringe position.
What: This volume collects Elaine Equi's poems from more than two decades. The poems are, delightfully, mostly focused on the consumption of popular culture. This, and their witty tone, means they are rocky fun.
Comparable to: Heaven help us, one reviewer described Equi's work as "sassy." Don't do that.
Representative quote: "History/ makes/ many bad movies."
You might not like it if: You look to poetry for contemplations of nature. Not much nature here.
How to get it: In print; buying online might be your best bet.
What: The novel A Few Corrections has a pretty neat premise. The book opens with the obituary of Wesley Sultan, a Michigan salesman. Each subsequent chapter begins with the obituary edited to correct statements that the mysterious narrator has revealed to be untrue, or at least incomplete. By the end of the novel, the short summary of Wesley Sultan's life is very marked up indeed.
Comparable to:Publishers Weekly compares Brad Leithauser's writing to that of John O'Hara, and The New Yorker says the book is like something by Theodore Dreiser. Take your pick.
Representative quote: "On this April Fools' Day the streets are animate and graceful and Wesley is seventeen. He's a dapper young man whose lean face and compact squared shoulders make him look taller than he is. You might judge him to be six feet tall --- the height which, throughout his adult life, he claimed to be. He is actually five ten and a half."
You might not like it if: You aren't drawn in by Leithauser's supporting characters, including Conrad, Wesley's brother; Adelle, his sister; and (my favorite) Sally, his ex-wife.
How to get it: It's in print and also Kindle-able.
What: Presidential scandal prompts a spin doctor to hire a movie producer to manufacture a fake war between the U.S. and Albania, thereby distracting the media. Wag the Dog is directed by Barry Levinson, written by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, and stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, plus it has the additional advantage (?) of basically predicting the future from waaay back in 1997. (I remember when this film seemed like an hour and a half of comedic hyperbole. Sigh.) I dare you to watch the entire film without wincing at least once.
Comparable to: Same kind of "the way we live in media now" satire as Thank You for Smoking.
Representative quote: "What difference does it make if it's true? If it's a story and it breaks, they're gonna run with it."
You might not like it if: You think satire is all well and good, but this makes you want to shut yourself in your room and cry for a couple of days. Maybe the presence of Willie Nelson will cheer you up, though.
How to get it: You can watch it instantly on Amazon, borrow it from your library, or rent it.