It’s that time again for my Monthly Miscellany where I round up all the cultural highlights of the previous few weeks. If I thought September was a strange month, October has been worse. I’m back to working from home and my work is closed and a general sense of uncertainty pervades everything. It is what it is though and it’s just a matter of keeping going and hoping for the best.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
I was a little disappointed with The Haunting of Alma Fielding, which started out well, but I felt failed to deliver. The book explores the real life case of Alma Fielding, a seemingly ordinary housewife in 1930s London, who was plagued by a poltergeist in her home. She comes to the attention of Nandor Fodor, chief research officer for the International Institute for Psychical Research who studies Alma and comes to realise that the ghostly happenings that are assailing her might have a more human explanation.
As an exploraton of the rise of spiritualism in the years after the war, the book is a fascinating cultural insight into the psyche of a war-torn society, but I felt the book lagged in it’s continuous descriptions of Alma’s performances. The fact that it is clear from the start that Alma is a fake means that there is little at stake here, beyond an examination of why she might have put herself in such a position.
Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester
Reality and Other Stories is a collection where it is evident that the writer is having a lot of fun. I very much enjoyed these very modern ghost stories featuring haunted audiobooks, hellish reality TV shows and a rather terrifying selfie-stick. There is a real air of Black Mirror to this collection, but Lanchester applies a dry humour to proceedings that lightens the reading experience.
The most sucessful story for me was the bizarre Kafka-esque ‘Which of These Would You Like?’ where a death row prisoner starts every morning choosing the style of hood and noose to be used in his execution and the really creepy ‘Cold Call’ which takes the pressures of caring for an elderly, sick relative to terrifying extremes. Highly recommended.
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Do you ever end up reading a book and think how on earth did I ever think I might like this? I did not get on with The Troop at all. I always finish books, but came close to ditching this one. The premise is great. A scoutmaster takes four of his 14 year old scouts on a camping trip to a remote island off the coast of Canada. On their first night, a gaunt, starving man appears at the door of their shack. They decide to try and look after him, but are plunged into a nightmare when they realise he is infected by a giant, deadly parasitic worm. Yes, you read that right. A killer worm.
Some of The Troop was interesting – the main story is intercut with testimony from the resulting enquiry into what happened on the island and this works to drop hints as to what has and will happen. However, the characters are all stock cliches (the jock, the dork, the psycho)and the book descends into endless descriptions of really unpleasant body horror. Add to that a completely nonsensical ending and it is a big no from me.
It came as no surprise to me that I loved this documentary which explores the world of rare and antiquarian booksellers, mainly in New York. This style of bookselling is beset with problems – aging booksellers and the easy ability to find rare books on the internet – but the documentary also explores how these sellers are adapting, and the new, younger sellers entering the business.
Narrated by Parker Posey, The Booksellers doesn’t have any big dramatic moments and can be slow, but it’s a real love letter to the power of books and the importance we bestow upon them. On top of that there is a star turn from the brilliant Fran Lebowitz, who bemoans lending a book to Daivd Bowie that she never got back and rails “You know what they used to call independent bookstores? Bookstores!”
The Devil All the Time
Choosing movies on Netflix can be a bit hit or miss I find, no matter who is in the cast, so we took a chance on The Devil All the Time (mainly because I’m a sucker for American gothic!) and were quite pleasantly surprised. Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, and narrated by him, the film follows a cast of loosely connected characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. Set in the wonderfully named Knockemstiff, the film is dark and bleak with a dim view of human kind. It features some fantastic performances, particularly from Tom Holland, who is better known as Spiderman, the wonderfully sleazy Jason Clarke and the charismatic Riley Keough.
An often unpleasant tale of the perils of blind faith and the duplicitous nature of powerful people, it also features a highly touted turn from Robert Pattinson as a less than holy preacher. He didn’t convince me I’m afraid, but overall this is a gripping, if bleak piece of work.
I am a massive fan of Park Chan-wook’s films with Oldboy and his Vengeance trilogy being some of my all time favourite movies. Quite why The Handmaiden passed me by on its release three years ago is beyond me, particularly given that it is also a loose adaptation of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
A sumptuous erotic thriller, The Handmaiden is set in 1930s Korea where a young girl has been hired as a maid for a Japanese heiress who lives on a secluded sprawling estate. The maid has been planted there by the unscrupulous Count, who aims to marry the heiress, claim her inheritance and have her committed to a mental institution. But when the maid and her mistress develop a sexual relationship, nothing quite goes to plan.
The Handmaiden is, hands down, the best film I’ve seen this year. And I’ve seen Parasite. It is beautifully crafted and shot, with stunning performances and a plot that trips up the viewer in the most audacious of ways, right up to the thrilling ending. An absolutely magnificent piece of film-making.
Time Heidecker is an American actor and comedian, most recently seen in horror hit Us, playing the husband of Elisabeth Moss. He’s also a really gifted musician and his new album Fear of Death is a sunshine-soaked, 70s-tinged thing of joy!
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!