September Miscellany

It’s that time again for my Monthly Miscellany where I round up all the cultural highlights of the previous few weeks. September has been a strange one – I feel like I have hit a wall in terms of lockdown and am really struggling with the lack of normality. It is what it is though and it’s just a matter of keeping going and hoping for the best.

This month’s non 746 reading has featured three really excellent recent novels.

Machine by Susan Steinberg

Machine is set in the wealthy enclave of an out-of-town American resort and focuses on a group of young people across a single summer. Ostensibly narrated by one nameless girl, she recounts the night that a local girl drowned in dubious circumstances and tries to grapple with the breakdown of her parents’ marriage.

Machine is a stylistic triumph; written in short propulsive sentences, using the semi-colon instead of full stops, driving points home with repetition and slipping from a singular to a collective voice. The narrator slips into the collective ‘we’ voice, aligning herself with the dead girl and wondering if she, unlike her counterpart, can be saved as she puts herself in dangerous situations and vies for the attention of boys and her philandering, and often cruel, father.

one night, we were on the dock, and there she was, holding a shoe in each hand; my father says she wasn’t bright; and she wasn’t, if you think of bright as top of your class; but if you think of bright, instead, as light; she was laughing out her words; something about some guys acting wild on the jetty; I could see her remember how wild they were; I could see her through the guys’ eyes, my father’s eyes; that night, I became her shadow, and she never even knew.

How much you enjoy Machine might depend on whether you want to read about the problems of a rich, white American girl who seemingly has it all, but I enjoyed this rush of a novel, with its dream-like meditations on privilege and power. It astutely explores how we can become trapped in one defining moment of time and is very sharp on the gendered violence that underpins teenage life.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

I am starting to come to the conclusion that Sarah Moss is one of the smartest and most interesting people writing today. She has followed up the stunning Ghost Wall with Summerwater, which is set on one day in a Scottish holiday park, where the rain is beating incessantly on the roofs of the holiday cabins and a range of families are trying to pass the time.The story is told from a variety of points of view and bristles with unresolved tension until its explosive ending.

Sarah Moss is incredibly good at different narrative voices, expertly depicting the internal monologues of these different people. She is especially good at capturing adolescents without ever falling into cliché. She has an empathy with her characters that brings them vividly to life and makes the reader care about them in just a few short pages.

Tension abounds in Summerwater, fleeting moments of danger and concern filling the pages, yet when that danger erupts it comes suddenly and from somewhere unexpected, taking us by surprise, just as it would in real life.

I received a copy of Summerwater from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Viral by Matthew Sperling

I very much enjoyed Viral which is set in the world of internet start-ups in Berlin and is excellent at depicting and then sending up the intrinsic shallowness at the heart of the ‘influencer’ industry. Ned and Alice are CEO’s of The Thing Factory – a digital start-up that is beginning to take off – as they attract potential investors and land a big deal with Red Bull.

Problems arise when an app they have created which ‘uber-ises sex work’ attracts the unwanted attention of a dangerous gang and their business and their lives are suddenly in danger. Viral starts out as a sharp and often very funny satire of internet start-ups then veers into thriller territory. It is not always believable and the ending is a little tidy for my liking, but the slick pacing, sharp characterisation and keen eye for parody make it a very entertaining read.

I received a copy of Viral from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

It’s been a mixed bag for films this month and to be honest, we have mainly been watching reruns of Masterchef from 2016 on Netflix in a bid to switch off in the evenings!

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

This film was such a disappointment for me. I adored Iain Read’s book and was so looking forward to this. Charlie Kaufman directing, the charismatic Jessie Buckley in the lead, a trailer to die for and added David Thewlis meant that my expectations were very high indeed.

I enjoyed some aspects of the film. The performances (particularly Buckley and Jesse Plemons) were uniformly excellent and the film looked gorgeous. Thewlis and Toni Colette were suitably creepy and amusing as the parents and there were a couple of creepy moments.

BUT… if I’m honest, it was dull and poorly paced. I found my mind wandering during the long sections where the couple were talking in the car, despite these passages being lifted directly from the book. And then there was the ending.

The ending of the book was a tight, frightening denouement that had been building throughout the previous pages. Kaufman decided to scrap that ending and insert his own, which was wonderfully surreal but made absolutely no sense at all. I’ve read interviews and articles with him where he explains the choices he made, and that’s fine, but seriously, if I have to spend fifteen minutes reading an article that explains a film (based on a book I have read) then I don’t think that ending is very good.

On a plus note? Jessie Buckley is a total star.

The Social Dilemma

Ironically, social media platforms are currently awash with people talking about how frightening Netflix’s new documentary The Social Dilemma is. And it’s true, it’s a scary watch. The Social Dilemma interviews some of the most important players from the biggest social media companies to present a compelling and blunt account of what the business models of said companies are doing to our mental wellbeing and to the wellbeing of our society.

Not all of the material here was new to me, but it was a sobering documentary, not least for how adamant these people – who have shaped our online lives – were that their children would have no access to anything online. And it is always worthwhile to be reminded that if you are using an platform online for free, then you, and your data, are the product.

I could do without the Netflix habit of including dramatic reconstructions within their documentaries, I don’t think they always work, but this was timely, terrifying and eye-opening.

It’s been a great month for new music and I am particularly loving the new albums from Fleet Foxes, Tim Heidecker and Bonny Horse Lightman.

I also got the opportunity to review two new albums for No More Workhorse. Susanna released a lush, epic album of songs based on the poems of Charles Baudelaire called Baudelaire and Piano and the wonderful Ed Harcourt released a stunning new album of instrumental music Monochrome to Colour that is just gorgeous. Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Have you been reading/ watching/ listening to anything interesting this month? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Miscellany

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

43 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Great post. I agree with you re “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”. It was one of my most anticipated films of 2020 and it turned out to be such a disappointing experience. I don’t know what Kaufman was thinking. “Dull” barely describes this mess of a film. I thought it was also rather pretentious – it appeared that way to me – though, of course, the intentions were very good.


  2. Love the cover of Viral… I’m waiting for my reserve copy of Summerwater to come up at the library. I’ve only read one by Moss (Tidal Zone) and although the plot didn’t do much for me, I enjoyed the style.
    The Social Dilemma – eek! Like you, there were no real surprises it was more the way that the people interviewed were so succinct and articulate about what scared them (and the fact that they didn’t let their own kids, or themselves, on social media!).


  3. Interesting post. I’ve not seen or ready any of these but I have had Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall on my TBR for some time, now I’ll have to add Summerwater as it sounds interesting.

    The documentary sounds as creepy as I think social media is and can be. If you’re looking for another documentary to watch, not so creepy but rather hopeful, I’d recommend Kiss the Ground.

    Thanks for sharing!!!


  4. I keep hearing such good things about that Sarah Moss novel. It does sound interesting. I have been reading things mainly that take me away from the here and now. I need that.
    Not sure I want to watch The Social Dilemma, too much realism at the moment. I have been enjoying the remake of All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5, and The Teacher a Polish drama on All 4 part of the Walter Presents series of dramas.


  5. I came to the comments to say Diana from Thoughts on Papyrus shared disappointing thoughts with me about the I’m Thinking of Ending Things adaption – and then I saw the first comment! Since I have not yet watched it myself (but am obsessed with the book), I am shocked to learn from your post that the ending was changed…WHAT?! I can’t think of much to say other than that. I can usually appreciate when directors and writers put their own style or ideas into an adaptation, but this adaptation needed to stay completely true to the book—for someone who hasn’t seen it I have a lot of thoughts about this. 😆
    On a lighter note, I am pleased to read your thoughts on Machine – I’ve seen a handful of other positive reviews, especially for the writing style, so I think it’s a worthy addition to my TBR.


  6. I’ve put the Moss on a list for next summer (getting organised is my new theme!) and I might still watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but with your caveat in mind may be it won’t be so disappointing, it’s miserable when things like that happen.


  7. Viral has been popping up in my Twitter feed for a while now, making an impression with that cover, but your is the first review I’ve read of it. Definitely sounds like one for my list. I’m so glad you loved Summerwater, too.


  8. Looking forward to Summerwater, but have to wait a while for the paperback. It always seems cold in a Sarah Moss book, I was surprised to see the word Summer in the title, but after reading more I am already feeling wintry. The premise reminds me of a holiday in York one August where we had to ask for an electric heater in the room and had to keep it on all night.


  9. That’s disappointing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things – I was excited to read the book with the film to follow. Oh well, I’ll still read the book!
    I watched Social Dilemma with my daughter – it really was scary. But I have to say, its message is also starting to fade away… I shouldn’t let it.
    All three books sound good, but especially the Sarah Moss. I’m really hoping to read Ghost Wall soon. Really! 🙂


  10. I’ve only read one of Sarah Moss’ books, but I agree with your assessment of her talent. Unlike you, though I thought the take on Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things was quite interesting. It did feel long at times, but I enjoyed seeing how the scenes were constructed (and the aspects of them that align with the ending but seems just like weird slippage until you’ve seen the whole thing). The performances were all so great–the parents LOL! Social Dilemma reminded me of the documentaries about industrial and GMO farming, where the farmers will not feed the products of their crops to their families. The dramatizations didn’t really suit me either, but the little girl and her ears did get under my skin nonetheless. *chuckles* The documentary “Whatever Happened to Nina Simone” was an outstanding film for me in September and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings has been a tour de force in my stack for several weeks now (nearly done).


  11. I’ve been mixing Sarah Moss up with an entirely different author of whose work I read one book and decided I loathed it. Now that I’ve sorted out the mistake I shall be putting Moss onto my wishlist.
    I was toying with the idea of watching Social Dilemma but based on your comments I’ll skip it, it doesn’t seem to say anything we don’t already know.
    Our viewing has been Great British Bakeoff though based on the first two episodes I’m not convinced I want to watch any more. It’s become ludicrous. We also watched series 1 of Young Wallender (very disappointing) and an American series “Suits” about a law firm – pretty good if you suspend your disbelief about how quickly cases come to court…


    • I was thinking of giving Young Wallender a go as I loved the novels, but maybe not. My daughter is obsessed with baking at the moment so we might watch GBBO on All4 but we’ll see. Might be better to go back to some of the earlier seasons I think.


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