And just like that another month has passed and the despite the heatwave temperatures we’ve been experiencing here in Ireland, the end of summer is now in sight.
Here’s a round-up of the books, films and music that have been entertaining me this month.
In news that will surprise no one, the reason I may be falling behind with my 20 Books of Summer challenge, could be related to the fact that this month I read FOUR other books which weren’t on my list. This is so typical of me. I’ve also reviewed two other books for Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month which weren’t on my list so at this rate I could be finished the challenge by now if I didn’t get so distracted by shiny new books….
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
Filthy Animals is a series of linked stories – some linked more than others – that mainly explore the need to make connections. Six of these eleven of the stories feature Lionel, a young man recently discharged from hospital following a suicide attempt. At a party, he meets a couple – Charles and Sophie – who are both dance students and he is drawn to them both. When he begins a sexual relationship with Charles and becomes drawn into their fraught relationship, he is forced to face up to what it is that he needs in his life.
The other stories rely less on these recurring characters but echo each other in theme. He explores themes of rejection, attempted connection and self-acceptance, all shot through with a violent undertone. This is particularly evident in As Though That Were Love where two men navigate their on-again off-again relationship and in the shocking title story, which explores the point at which anger and desire meet. Taylor writes incredibly well about young men, and the difficulty of them trying to find their place in a world that has such defined ideas about what men should be.
The most striking story Mass is a quiet masterpiece, which details the emotional impact of a difficult medical diagnosis on a young dancer. It’s a delicate story that doesn’t rely on any moments of high drama and highlights Taylor’s insight into human emotions and relationships.
The Harpy by Megan Hunter
I was quite impressed by this novel which is a dark fairy-tale about adultery. Narrator Lucy is bored, stifled by the responsibilities of motherhood and spending day after day at home tending to the needs of her two boys and her husband, but her dull, steady life is thrown into disarray when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. In an attempt to keep their family together, the couple come up with an arrangement: Lucy can have her revenge on adulterous Jake by hurting him three times, in the manner of her choosing.
Italicised interludes told from the perspective of the eponymous harpy that Lucy appears to transform adds to a creeping sense of dread and paranoia and the feeling that, by the time the three acts of revenge have been carried out, something terrible may happen. As each punishment grows harsher, Lucy becomes less contrite. The harpy seems to be taking over her mind as the narration grows more unhinged and fragmented. Indeed, what is most striking about the narrative is how it charts Lucy’s psychological and physical journey towards the realisation of the magnitude of her husband’s betrayal.
The Harpy appears to question the correlation between emotional and physical violence and whether or not one can justify the other. While I like ambiguity in a novel, I did feel that the ending was a little too vague and inconsequential, but that didn’t impede by overall enjoyment. This is a striking portrait of a disintegrating marriage, and possibly a disintegrating mind, which is elevated by being both rooted in the mundanity of the everyday while transcending it with the references to classic mythology.
An Imagined City: Belfast Soulscapes by Gerald Dawe
I also encountered the extent to which the past is never really lost sight of but lives on in those stories we are told by our elders, and which we, in turn, make our own and hand on. Like guidelines. Points of reference. Hints about what the future might hold.
He is the author of nine collections of poetry spanning a career of over 40 years. His first poetry collection was Sheltering Places (Blackstaff, 1978) and his most recent was The Last Peacock (2019) while his Selected Poems was published in 2012.
His new book An Imagined City: Belfast Soulscapes is the third and final volume of his Northern Chronicles trilogy, following on from the critically acclaimed In Another World: Van Morrison & Belfast and Looking Through You. An Imagined City is a memoir that explores his early life in Belfast, and celebrates some of the local writers whose early work had such an influential part in nudging him in the direction of writing. This new book completes a fascinating and rich portrait of the celebrated poet’s tangled and ever-evolving relationship with his native city and includes chapters on Brian Moore, Padraic Fiacc and Seamus Heaney and is written in a wonderfully wry and lyrical style.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
In a recent Guardian interview, Jean Hanff Korelitz said “I wanted to be a literary novelist. But I had realised that I liked plot.” Not only does she like plot, but she is damn good at it. The author of the book that the HBO smash The Undoing was based on, has created an entertaining thriller about plagiarism in the publishing industry.
The novelist-protagonist is Jacob Finch Bonner, once a New York Times New & Noteworthy author, but now teaching a third-rate creative writing course at Ripley University and unable to get another book published. He encounters a boorish student called Evan Parker, who claims to have a storyline that cannot fail, and when he hears it Jake can’t help but agree. A few years later, when Jake learns that Parker has died without having published his novel, Jake uses the plot of Parker’s story to write his own book ‘Crib’, which becomes a literary sensation a la Gone Girl. His moment in the literary spotlight is shadowed when he receives an email from someone calling themselves “TalentedTom” – one of many nods to Patricia Highsmith – saying simply: “You are a thief.” Can Jacob find out who TalentedTom is and how much he knows before his career is pulled out from under him?
The Plot is a knowledgeable and entertaining journey through the literary world and Korelitz clearly knows that world inside out. Referencing James Frey, Jonathan Franzen and Gillian Flynn the book is sharp on the importance of bookish social media on sales and on reputation. The central question of plagiarism is also given an interesting twist. Jacob only stole a plot, he wrote his own book so how fair is it to call him a thief?
Korelitz also includes chapters from Jacob’s book Crib within The Plot and at first I didn’t think this particularly worked, but as the book goes on and reality and plot become intertwined, it reveals itself to be an incredibly clever and necessary device. Highly enjoyable.
Kindred is billed as a British Get Out, and while I don’t think it’s a nuanced as that film, it is an interesting exploration of pregnancy, dependency and generational responsibility.
Charlotte has discovered that she is pregnant and is in two minds about what to do. Her partner Ben is more positive, and even happier is Ben’s mother Margaret, since the new baby is the sole prospect for extending the family bloodline and inheriting the family estate. She takes less well to the news that Charlotte and Ben plan on emigrating to Australia once the baby is born.
An accident takes Ben out of the picture and leaves Charlotte at home with Margaret and Thomas, her nice but inconsequential stepson. The house is an oppressive gothic country pile: vastly empty, with decaying décor and suitably creepy taxidermy. Every time Charlotte tries to leave, she’s told to rest. When she wants to see a doctor, it is the family doctor who is brought to the house and when she tries to go home, she is told that Margaret has sold Ben’s flat, effectively making her a prisoner.
What follows is a relatively by-the-book thriller, elevated by strong performances by the three leads. Hints at a history of mental illness in Charlotte’s past bring an intriguing sense of ambiguity to proceedings and the fact that she is black (although not alluded to directly in the film) raises interesting questions about the white establishment taking whatever they want for their own purposes. But Fiona Shaw is doing the heavy lifting here, presenting Margaret as both a selfish, heartless matriarch and as a woman who wants to right the wrongs of her own past. Kindred might not be wholly satisfying but it is an interesting gothic thriller nonetheless.
I watched nearly all the Best Picture nominated films from the Oscars this year, but to my mind, Another Round is head and shoulders above all of them.
In a career-best performance, Mads Mikkelsen is Martin, a bored, indifferent high-school teacher who, like his closest colleagues, is trapped in the slow grind of a midlife crisis. Inspired by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s suggestion that the human body has an inbuilt alcohol deficiency, Martin and three close friends embark on a reckless experiment: to see if daytime drinking can help them become better versions of themselves, and to learn to enjoy life again.
The experiment starts well and the men find themselves more articulate, enthusiastic and spontaneous. They become better teachers, happier in their jobs and in themselves. But inevitably, as their tolerance grows and they up their alcohol intake, they begin a slow slide into self-destruction.
Another Round is a mischievous and often joyous movie, shot through with an undeniable sadness as these men grapple with lost chances and the difficulty of making new starts. Director Thomas Vinterberg has created a nuanced look at the perils of drinking and gifts the audience with one of the best endings I have seen in the cinema in a long time.
We started off watching this for the kids and ended up loving it more than they did! I’m not overly keen on these prequels that seek to find some past trauma to excuse the behaviour of well-established cultural villains, but Cruella is a treat from start to stylish finish.
Emma Stone has the time of her life in this live-action film about the rebellious early days of one of cinema’s most notoriously fashionable villains, the legendary Cruella de Vil. Set during the 1970s punk rock revolution in London, the story follows Cruella’s early days as a grafter and aspiring fashion designer called Estella and her transformation into the revenge driven Cruella, nemesis of the fashion legend Baroness von Hellman, played with delicious relish by Emma Thompson.
The film is enormous fun from start to finish, with sumptuous costumes and a sparkling soundtrack. It suffers a little from forgetting the Dalmatians that inspired Cruella in the first place and side-stepping around the thorny issue of killing animals for their skin. It could also be paced better, particularly to hold the attention of younger children, but at the end of the day, thanks to those two Emma’s, it is tremendously good fun.
I’ve been a fan of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto for a long time and was sorry to read earlier in the year that he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. Creatively the diagnosis hasn’t stopped him and he has written the soundtrack to Minamata. Based on the book by the same name, Minamata follows war photographer Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) as he travels Japan documenting the devastating effect of mercury poisoning among coastal communities.
Sakamoto released the piano theme from the soundtrack this month and it is just stunning.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!