This week I’m recommending Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, which is a bit of a dystopia and a bit of a post-apocalypse and a bit of magical realism and is the latest book I’ve read set in the American Southwest. In the near future, drought has rendered the Southwestern United States nearly uninhabitable. A mountain-high sea dune called the Amargosa has spread over large portions of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Most people have evacuated, but some remain in Los Angeles, living off rationed soda and scavenging from abandoned homes of millionaires. Ray and Luz are two of them, but when they take a two-year-old girl, they realize they need to give her a better life. They set out on a treacherous crossing of the desert, where they encounter a cult-like group surviving at the edges of the great dune sea.
Reading has slowed down, although I have one new recommendation to post shortly. I reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin with my son, which I think was a bit too old for him, but I still love it.
I also reread Dracula on audio. I last read Dracula as a pre-teen or youngish teen. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the book: it was a large hardcover, text printed in columns, with deep blue and black illustrations. I wonder what happened to it. My current edition is also lovely, from Penguin Classics. I have to admit that I’m amazed at what my younger self read all the way to the end. Of course, back then we didn’t have video games, tablets, DVDs (or even VCRs), or personal computers. We had three television stations. (I’m making it sound like the way-back old days, but truthfully, I am not that old–things have changed a lot!) There wasn’t much to do but read, and I was game for just about anything.
Does it hold up? It’s a trifle bloated, more than a trifle sexist, very purple at times, a touch anticlimactic, but still has so many wonderfully scary parts. What can top Dracula crawling headfirst down the wall of his castle? So I’d say yes, it holds up. There’d be no vampires without him.
I finished an interesting ghost story by an Icelandic author: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It’s fun exploring a familiar genre from a new point of view. I’m following it up with a vampire story, Let Me In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. A lot of snow and desolate places in my reading right now.
New acquisitions! I treated myself to several collections focusing on specific genres.
Here’s a roundup of great writing found on the Internet in recent days…
- If you are squee-ing over the return of The X-Files like I am: The Nostalgic Science Fiction of The X-Files (Joshua Rothman @ The New Yorker)
- This Is the Hollowed-Out World that Outrage Culture Has Created (Ryan Holiday @ Observer)
- How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off (Adam Grant @ New York Times)
- Fighting ‘Erasure’ (Parul Sehgal @ New York Times Magazine)
- The White Man Pathology: Inside the Fandom of Sanders and Trump (Stephen Marche @ The Guardian)
- The Case of the Missing Perpetrator (Rebecca Solnit @ Literary Hub)
I remember when I used to love to go to the movies. I went almost every weekend, because I could find a movie I wanted to see every weekend. I was often surprised by something entirely new: Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, American Beauty.
It seems those days are passed. I can no longer get to the movie theater as often as I used to–one of the downsides of being a parent–but even when I have the opportunity, I rarely find something I’d like to watch. Even watching movies at home, with all the choices available to me now, is a chore. With rare exceptions, movies are no longer surprising. They are safe, and I feel like I’ve seen all those explosions, heard all those jokes, before.
I thought I might turn to movies I watched long ago to see if they still hold up. First up: American Beauty (primarily because it is streaming on Netflix). Remember this?
Fifteen years later, I have a very different take on this film. Move on if you haven’t seen the movie because I’m about to spoil it big time.
Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty is the prototypical man-boy in Lester Burnham, isn’t he? He quits his job to work in a fast food restaurant, masturbate, smoke dope, lift weights, buy a muscle car, and mack on a teenage girl.
But on a rewatch, it occurred to me that maybe this movie is much more subversive than I originally thought. The events of the film are presented through Burnham’s distorted, thoroughly unreliable point of view (he is the narrator). It is only in the last few minutes of his life that Burnham sees how wrong he has been about pretty much everything. His wife is not a nagging shrew but is only unhappy because her partner has turned into unsupportive dead weight, another child for her to raise. His daughter is not a bitch but a damaged child searching in vain for a father. His daughter’s friend is not the nymphet Lolita of his fantasies but just a naive young girl and his fantasies are basically about child rape. And the kid next door who he so romanticizes, his “hero,” is actually just a skeevy drug dealer and quite possibly a sociopath who no sane dad would want dating his daughter.
In fact, Lester is killed by another version of a man-boy, the character played by Chris Cooper, who has refused his whole life to grow up and admit to the truth about himself or about the world. When that truth finally hits him in the face, he reacts in the most immature way possible, with gun violence.
All those people who watch this movie and admire Lester Burnham and want to be like him are actually part of the joke. Because Lester Burnham is thoroughly unadmirable, in every possible way, and his scant redemption comes far too late. I think what the movie’s real message is that yes, there is a lot that is soulless and twisted about modern society, but regressing to man-boyhood is not the way to deal with it.
Well, maybe I’m projecting, but that’s what we do with art. I just still want to like this movie.
This week I’m recommending Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr. This was the latest in my kick of reading fiction set in the Southwest. Indeed, I only picked it up because I thought it was set in Nevada (it’s actually set in the Sierra Nevada mountains). I could definitely keep on with this theme until I run out of selections. Sense of place is really important in Southwestern fiction, and I am loving that aspect of these reads.
Lost Canyon concerns four Los Angelinos–Gwen, a black youth counselor; Oscar, a Hispanic realtor; and Todd, wealthy white lawyer–who go for a four-day hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains, led by Tracy, their thrill-seeking, Japanese-American female trainer. I mention race because it is important to this story, and Revoyr spends some time setting up the back stories of the three hikers, jumping into each of their heads. Despite the idyllic natural setting, the tension begins to build before they even start hiking, as they first stop at a strange country store and then are told by the park ranger that their chosen trail has been closed due to a wildfire in the area. Egged on by Tracy, they decide to take the ranger’s suggestion and hike a little-known trail outside of the park, for which their only guide is a decades-old, hand-drawn map. After one nice day hiking, they take a wrong turn, and events get terrifying fast. As the suspense picks up, so does the pace, making this a very quick read.