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