Literature

Robert Bloch and Inside Psycho

Last week brought the final episode of the six part podcast series Inside Psycho. I had been stockpiling them since the first episode released and then listened to them all over a few days’ time. I am so happy that I did, because this series sure was wonderful!

Psycho is a particular favorite of mine. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve seen it, and if I’m flipping through channels on TV and it’s playing, I will sit there and watch the rest of it. I love it for so many reasons: Hitchcock, film making/cinematography, creepy and weird, Anthony Perkins is pretty perfect.

With all that said, I must admit, I was a little apprehensive of Inside Psycho. So much has been written and made of the 1960 film, I wasn’t sure if there was anything to add. Would this podcast be more for the neophyte and offer nothing new? I was certainly wrong and delighted about that.

The first episode, of course, talked about noted Wisconsin weirdo Ed Gein, who was the inspiration behind Norman Bates in the book Psycho, written by Robert Bloch. Episode 2, however, revealed so much. Notably, I was unaware that the young Robert Bloch frequently corresponded with HP Lovecraft, the latter who encouraged Bloch’s writing and creativity. The letters have been collected in a book.

All six episodes were stellar. The production itself was an engaging amalgam of documentary-style, radio drama, and a little horror, thrown in for good measure. Yes, of course, there were aspects of the story’s history that I was well aware, but details, for example, like the film making process was more than appreciated. Psycho was innovative in its craft and film making. There was also a particularly humorous account about how the rating censors couldn’t agree if there actually was nudity in the shower sequence.

Also, can you guess another horrifying sight that the censors thought obscene? The shot of the toilet in the bathroom. The idea of showing a toilet in a film or television show was greatly verboten. THE HORROR!

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Dead lady? Yes. Flushing toilet? GOD FORBID!

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FORTITUDE: Recommended Reading

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All is right in the world once again. Personal favorite television show Fortitude is back for its second season in the US (totally jealous of UK fans who got to watch the new season a few months back). I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t get to continue the complete insanity that is Fortitude as the network that co-produced and broadcasted it stateside when under in the fall.

It returned on Friday! For those who don’t know anything about it, you can watch both seasons on Amazon; I’ve also include the season 1 trailer at the end. We would have to sit here for a while for me to explain what exactly is going on, but briefly, a quiet Arctic Norwegian village is disturbed when a series of brutal death/murders pop up…and that is only the beginning.

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This show ticks so many boxes for me: a chilly, remote climate, difficult characters, mysterious thrills, happenings, and crimes. But it is so much more. It captures the strangeness of it all: prehistoric mammoths, parasites, sketchy Russians, death by polar bear, ghost murder, shamans, Dennis Quaid, British people pretending to be Norwegian, reindeer scientists, the list could go on…

I am also a fan of books that take place in cold places. It is very rare that you will find me reading or writing anything that has a tropical locale. Here are a few reading suggestions for fans of Fortitude or general ice terror.

The Terror is inspired by the ill-fated trip of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, two ships that were tasked with finding a way through the Norwest Passage. However, in The Terror men are not only devoured by disease and starvation, but an unknown monstrous creature stalking them from out on the ice. I’ve read recently that this book will be adapted into a television series. For history buffs, the once lost Terror was found last year and a video of it was filmed by the Arctic Research Foundation.

The North Water is brutal and captivating. Moments can be so visceral and intense in this novel, and it was one of my favorites of this past year. I am baffled by the fact that it was not moved from the long list to the short list for the Man Booker Prize. I am a complete evangelist for it and I think everyone should read it (don’t get put off by the human murder, bear murder, and venereal disease). Two men are aboard a harpooner: one a medic, the other a murder and then a horrendous discovery is found.

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History delves in to both animal cannibalism and human. I generally stay away from deep dive cannibalism (unsurprisingly, I find it disturbing), but this book offers a lot on interesting animal behavior, including misconceptions (re: praying mantis and pet hamsters). It also, of course, explores the fiasco that was the Donner Party. Spoiler alert: Men are much quicker to starve to death than women.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Edgar Allan Poe’s only known finished novel. The writing can be a bit stiff, but it’s worth a read as 1. it’s short and 2. it was influential to other nautical works that came after (Moby-DickAn Antarctic Mystery). It’s has all of the makings of a nineteenth century nautical misadventure: calamity, mutiny, people eating, a dog, an enigmatic snow monster.

Has anyone else watched Fortitude? Appreciate the chilly thriller genre? Here’s the aforementioned trailer for season 1.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Bell Jar

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This is a bit of cheat, as it is an entire first paragraph and then some. I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in many years, but I was required to read the first chapter this week for an unrelated project. It was so striking and I forgot how Plath immediately sets up so many aspects of the novel, including Esther’s life in New York City along with foreshadowing what is to come. The writing of the first chapter grabs you immediately and Esther is so well-defined.

There were many marvelous lines in the first chapter alone, but I loved the simpleness of this line when Esther is out with her friend: “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.”

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

On Being Annoyed at Donna Leon

I am annoyed at a writer I have never read and have only heard of in the past days as I randomly listened to past episodes of The Guardian Books Podcast (“Writing crime with Donna Leon, Duncan Campbell and Barry Forshaw” from May 2016.)

Overall, the episode, including Donna Leon’s segment, was highly interesting. My annoyance didn’t come until later when she was asked why her novels weren’t translated into Italian. But before I continue, let me first add, the long-running series of detective novels by Donna Leon are set in Italy and feature an Italian police commissioner (and I assume, many other Italian characters). Leon writes in English but has lived in Italy for many years, and the novels have been translated into other languages as well–just not Italian.

It’s not as if the Italians are not interested in them, but it comes down to the strange vanity of the author herself. She insists that they not be translated and the absurd reasoning is quoted all over the internet.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested — the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day[.]

From a 2003 interview

I find this whole notion to be ridiculous. Unless you are Stephen King or JK Rowling, no one is spotting you 3 or 4 times a day.

Unlike some other European countries, English is not widespread in Italy and I deduce that her avoidance to have them translated into Italian alleviates the possibility that she would be critiqued by Italians. That she might be called out for aspects of her series that she wish to be hidden in the cloak of unreadability for an Italian audience.

Granted, yes, this is all speculation on my part as someone who hasn’t read a Donna Leon book. But still I became incredibly annoyed as she kept on insisting. As an avid reader, I often get bummed when an international book I’m interested in is not available in English or if an author has one book translated but not anymore from their oeuvre.

Some light Googling led me to a quote in The Independent,

“There’s the risk of falling into stereotypes, and Leon, despite the bonhomie of her Commissario Brunetti, is not exempt. It’s not for nothing that she doesn’t want her books translated into Italian,” wrote prominent Italian reviewer Ranieri Polese. 

I made the mistake of reading further into the aforementioned 2003 interview, and her answers to various questions carried on in the annoying vein. Perhaps, I am concentrating on minutiae, but really Donna Leon was very annoying.

 

1984 & The Hate Week

This morning, I pulled out my copy of 1984. The one I read for junior year English class in high school. I turned to the first page and saw my markups. Hate week. That’s what this has felt like but sadly for more than a week. 

Malice by Keigo Higashino

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I don’t often get the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and pick a book randomly off the shelf to buy. There are two reasons: 1) My own doing as I am either directly targeting a library book, used book sale, or online shop for a specific title and 2) retail books are quite pricey. But I went in with the mission of selecting a book on a whim. The first book I tried was a Swedish thriller with solid writing but uninspired plot and then the second attempt was Malice by Keigo Higashino.

I haven’t read a ton of Japanese literature, especially anything contemporary, but this whet my appetite to continue down a Japanese rabbit hole.

The novel touches on a character element that I really enjoy and that is the unreliable narrator. Also, Keigo Higashino clearly has been influenced by a personal favorite unreliable narrator story of mine, “In a Grove,” by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Malice is a locked room sort of mystery with a famous and accomplished author being found murdered in his home office. The front door to the house is locked and the two people, his wife and friend, both have solid alibis even though they are most likely suitable suspects. The novel alternates between the narratives of the aforementioned friend and the detective working the case. The murderer is fingered early on, but the mystery is focused more on the why and how.

The book is layered and with each new section, something is pulled away and revealed, but the new information also frustrates the case as sometimes what the detective finds out muddles what is already known. I also say Malice is like “In a Grove” as there is a testimonial aspect to the plot with people beyond the friend and detective testifying, so to speak.

My experience with Japanese literature is limited, but by the few examples I’ve read, the writing is not heavy. A reader feels as if every word is chosen for a reason and with Malice, the narrative didn’t feel clunky like many procedurals can appear. Of course, there is a constraint when an unclear mystery is presented, but I didn’t feel as if the gears were grinding and often crime novels can read very fabricated (I sometimes cringe at the bad writing).

Even if you are not one for crime or detective novels, I would still recommend this to you. I get a bit bored with this tired characterization of detectives as being grumpy, chain smoking loners who always jog in hooded sweatshirts at night. The detective in Malice is a former middle school geography teacher. Also, even though this book published in the US in 2014, it originally came out in the mid-1990s in Japan and the reference and reliability of a fax machine is delightfully antiquated. It is ann interesting thought to consider how storytelling must change as technology changes as well.

Has anyone else read books by Keigo Higashino? It appears that he is quite prolific and popular in Japan. I must admit, I reached out for this book while gazing through the shelf looking for Patricia Highsmith books when I saw this cover. The description and the fact that he’s been nominated for Edgar Awards piqued my interest.

A Couple of Bookish Apps for Literature Lovers

I found these two literature loving apps recently. I wanted to try them out for a little bit before sharing my thoughts (I don’t use my phone for more than telephoning, twittering, audiobooking, and spotifying, so there was a near possibility I would lose interest).

Serial Reader

This app’s mission is to help you read those classics you always wanted to crack, but the idea of dedicating huge swaths of time to conquering Moby-Dick is a hard one to overcome (although, I am an evangelical for the greatness of this novel and now that US publishers insist all novels be 500 pages, this great beast is not so monstrous anymore).

You choose which book or books you are interested in reading and everyday the app delivers a short nugget of the text. Each section is called a serial and besides easily digesting these 9-13 minute sections, the experience is akin to the way readers used to experience fiction when books were serialized in magazines.

Serial Reader is free, but there is a premium version with a few nifty extra features. Once I read through my first book, I’m sure I’ll ante up the $2.99, if anything as a donation to the creator. The app itself is stable, easy to figure out, and crisp. I really appreciate the lack of fuss.

I’m currently reading The Castle of Otranto, which is perfect for serialization. It is an overwrought, glorified soap opera of a novel and receiving daily short chunks is making the reading experience even more engrossing. I can also see Serial Reader’s advantage with texts that have more difficult language; it allows the reader to focus on a portion instead of being overwhelmed by several hundred pages.

COMPLETELY RECOMMEND


 

Litsy

It would be reductive to define Litsy as Goodreads meets Tumblr. Although, it does crib general ideas from both platforms. I love Goodreads, I find it very useful to keep track of what I’m reading and how long it takes to finish a book. Occasionally, I appreciate its algorithmic recommendations. With Tumblr, I am less enthused. I still don’t understand its appeal and consider it a sewer.

So, going in to Litsy I was skeptical because of the latter.

Its user base is not nearly as large as Goodreads, but still has a plentiful base, which includes both individuals and well-known publishing houses. The snippet sharing that is common on Tumblr is far more enjoyable on Litsy. Many of the users have interesting and helpful thoughts about books and for this, the app succeeds at being a venue for finding new reads.

It’s not entirely easy to find new users to follow and can be a little clumsy when it comes to user interaction, but overall, an enjoyable bit of literature love. In the very least, it’s a suitable time waster and it is filled with content that far exceeds the ephemera that makes up Tumblr. It’s not a super-platform like Goodreads, but this isn’t really the intention. It does, however, serve as another place for readers to find recommendations for books that might otherwise elude Goodreads’ algorithm. Also, because the user base is smaller, it’s easier to tame the reviews for a book that would otherwise have thousands on Goodreads.

(It’s free and brought to you by the people behind the Out of Print clothing company.)

RECOMMEND

 

 

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Back in October, I saw a short one minute long trailer for a new mini-series coming to HBO. Whoever created it was spot on. I was hooked. I had that feeling that marketers shoot for: I need this in my life now. The trailer ended with the note that the series is based on a book. When I looked it up, based on the cover, it appeared very much in the “chick lit” genre and perhaps, out of my normal reading purview. But this year, I decided that I was reading outside of my normal zone and in doing so, it has paid off. Especially for this book.

I also found it surprising that Stephen King, of all people, blurbed the book. His brief sentiment is exactly right. Big Little Lies was a dark, mysterious, funny, adroit novel. It was contemporary commercial fiction at its best.

Somehow Liane Moriarty has written a literary thriller that centers around the parents and children of a kindergarten class in suburban Australia. Immediately, a reader can see why Stephen King liked it. There are flash forwards to police interrogations, hinting at a crime that has taken place at a school function. It was reminiscent of the structure of King’s great first novel Carrie.

I often don’t read commercial fiction, because simply, the writing is tedious and abysmal (I imagine myself typing this with my nose in the air), but I unabashedly loved this. I also really recommend this book as a way to get back into using your brain. I’ve heard from many people that the past weeks have been hard and doing anything constructive, even reading or watching television, has been extremely difficult….

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While reading this book, I kept thinking that we are in a heyday of excellent crime novels written by women. I generally prefer the types that don’t feature a detective as the main character and are not part of a series. For example, I’ve enjoyed the imperfect Ruth Ware novels and some of Laura Lippman books are decent, but I still maintain the queen bee to be Megan Abbott (I reviewed her 2014 novel The Fever). Over the summer, she was interviewed on Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast, where she made a case that women writers have made a space for themselves within the genre. Abbott, I say, is an expert at “girl voice” and it’s so enjoyable reading. (aside- if I had the reading time, I would love to delve into Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

On the most recent episode of the NYT Book Review podcast, Pamela Paul talks about her recent pleasure read, All Things Cease to Appear, which she described as a literary thriller. I’ve downloaded the audiobook hoping to start soon.

One aspect of these type of books that I usually enjoy is the closeness to the characters and plot. Attention to writing on the sentence level is very important to me (this year, I’ve begun reading James Lasdun, whose books are thin and mysterious, and the writing is so enviable). I’ve never been drawn to hysterical realism, these big books that are more ambitious than anything else. They seem more concern with their “bigness.”

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But back to this HBO series. It’s developed by David E. Kelley, so I’m hoping he carries over the humor and dark, sharp dialogue and narrative. The book takes place in a beach community in Australia, but the series looks as if it has been transplanted to the craggy and beautiful Monterrey, California. Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the series, also serves as a producer and if you look at her past and upcoming projects, she is very interested in developing films and TV shows from books by women authors.

Last week, HBO released a slightly longer trailer, which shows a little more of the characters and plot. You can watch it on YouTube here, but below is the original one that I watched that got me intrigued (kudos again to the trailer designer!).

The Ghosts of Winter

Ghost stories are grand any time of year, but they’re particularly alluring during the wintry months. Days are darker and shorter, colder and crisper. Our eyes start to close more easily in winter. This is the perfect time for tales of hauntings and ghouls.

The Dead of Winter This is a children’s book that the algorithmic gods of Goodreads thought I would be interested in and those gods were right. I don’t normally have a chance to read children’s literature and when I do, my adult-reader-brain has trouble squaring the lightweight plots and writing. True, this novel will feel breezy to a grownup, but it was still really enjoyable to read a children’s book that was well-written and clearly influenced by Gothic literature. Of course, we will see the moving parts of this ghost story, but hopefully children will get chills while reading of this haunted house.

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof You know you have a good roommate when he or she buys you books and an even better one when they gift you books about ghosts. This gem was sent by an excellent past roommate one Christmas and I can’t recommend it enough for the avid reader. It’s non-fiction that will appeal to both lovers of fiction and non-fiction, alike. Roger Clarke is a witty and astute writer, and he humorously serves up historical ghost stories and reasonings. Clarke is a believer, but he is extremely skeptical.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places You might be quick to lump this title and the aforementioned Ghosts together, but besides the umbrella theme of ghosts and haunting, they are very different. The writing here is a little more “academic,” for lack of a better term (but still pop enough for a general audience). American readers, certainly, will be familiar with a bunch of what’s being investigated (American History, is in the subtitle, of course), but Colin Dickey does bring in new info. For example, he proffers an aspect of the Salem witch hysteria that is lesser known: land disputes. Families were in business dealings and disagreements with each other over properties, and certain people were fingered as witches when they weren’t playing nice with the others.

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What are you reading during these wintry months? Any ghost stories in your pile?

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Potpourri for $200, Alex

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A grey, opaque endless skyline seems about right.

Like most, these past days have been a mixture of anxiety, stress, anger, and shame (and some more words; please insert your favorites). Besides our electoral PTSD we’re all dealing with from the past year and a half, the onslaught of the rapid and flawed news cycle can make anyone’s heart explode.

Hyperbole aside, it’s been rough days. For the time being, I’m generally staying away from the news, letting my eyes scroll over my newsfeed. Somehow I’ve become more tolerant of inane articles about technology (read: Wired). These briefly distracted me from the racists and bigots who are being given powerful positions and platforms.

For a while, consuming books and television felt hollow and frustrating, writing useless. I have no doubt that others feel or have felt this way recently. So, I leave you with internet potpourri for a momentary mental health break.