December 2022: Books, Movies, TV & Podcasts

A few notes on the below:

  1. These opinions are mine and only mine. 
  2. It is okay for us to have different opinions. No one is right or wrong, just different. 
  3. Do not compare yourself to others.

Here’s everything I read, watched, and listened to during the month of December. 

Reading

One’s Company by Ashley Hutson

Upon reading the description, I thought it sounded like an amalgamation of everything I love about a book–an unusual plot taken to a new height, a beautifully flawed main character, and a debut novelist. I was hopeful, I was excited, but unfortunately I was disappointed. The writing was good, but the story was lackluster. 

For me, this was a book that took everything I normally want out of a reading experience and pushed it a little too far. I kept putting it down then returning to it for a month, trying to read a few more pages to see if something hooked me, but in the end I was bored. 

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

It’s filled with red herrings and characters that aren’t particularly interesting, but redeemed by a compelling enough plot. The suspense was just okay–it’s by no means an edge-of-your-seat reading experience. 

The book does a good job of setting the scene with a group of frenemies, revealing bits of history that are intended to make the reader think any one of them could be the murderer. It felt like each character who got a more in-depth narrative was fighting for the spotlight, which was disorienting at times. In the end, there are four or five main POVs while the rest felt like filler roles. 

All the suspicious backstories set nearly every character up to be a red herring. By two-thirds through the book, I guessed who the culprit was although I did not guess the extent of their deception. I enjoyed that we’re trying to figure out who was murdered and who did the murdering. I’d consider reading Foley’s later crime fiction. 

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

I first read “Cat Person” when it was originally published in the New Yorker several years ago. Upon my initial read, I was swept away. The writing is accessible, it flows, it’s easy to fall into  the narrative and feel connected with the narrator. 

Reading “Cat Person” for the first time was an experience that resonated deeply with me in my early 20s, but less so now. Every character Roupenian creates has a strong voice. They are careful and diligent observers of their world. I loved reading their perspectives and felt awed by Roupenian’s descriptions. 

I think it’s hard to write a short story collection where each story is a winner. Here, some felt like filler stories and they just had to take the L. 

The first few stories had me rapt, less so on the next few. I arrived at “Cat Person” to find that it was still good, but didn’t sweep me off my feet like it did all those years ago. By the time I reached the last couple stories, I was ready to step away from the collection and move on. 

Still, I would consider reading more from Roupenian. 

Stories I like the best included:
“Bad Boy”, “Look at Your Game, Girl”, “The Night Runner”, and “Cat Person”.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

The winner of the 2022 Man Booker Award. 

I usually do pretty well with the Man Booker finalists and recipients. Seven Moons follows Maali Almeida as he navigates the afterlife trying to figure out how he died within seven moons. The writing is whimsical and poignant, painting a clear picture of the political and social dynamics of Sri Lanka. The reading experience felt reminiscent of reading Salman Rushdie, which I adored. 

The narrative is disorienting at first, and I think this has been the biggest complaint I’ve read about this book. Just stick with it. As the reader, it’s unclear where we are and exactly what’s happening. I think this plays into the narrative as a disoriented Maali is trying to navigate the afterlife and figure out how he died. Once readers get their bearings, the story cruises through the political underbelly of Sri Lanka at the time and meets snarky characters in the afterlife who help give the story its humorous charm. Maali is also a sarcastic, observant narrator who doesn’t hold back on his assessments of his world. 

I do think the story was a bit longer than it needed to be, however, it was still effective. 

Little Eyes by Samantha Schweblin 

It took me some time to get into Little Eyes. I think it was a result of several different POVs with characters scattered across the globe. Some had similar names and I was having trouble tracking all their narratives. But let’s back up. 

Little Eyes follows, aforementioned, characters from around the world as they welcome robot stuffed animals called kentukis into their homes. Kentukis have wheels to get around and cameras for eyes. They’re connected to an anonymous global server, meaning someone from Argentina could be watching the life of someone in Germany. Kentuki dwellers live voyeuristically through the lives of their keepers. The novel traces the intricacies of such a technology, everything from blackmail to kidnapping to providing company to lonely souls. It’s creepy and subtle and wonderful. Schweblin asks all the right questions when discussing privacy and technology then lets her character’s experiences answer them. She explores how technology can connect people while juxtaposing it against the risks of a deeply connected world. The book is just the right length, at around 250 pages. Overall, pretty good. 

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer 

If you’re looking for a story laden with baroque language, this one’s for you. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies follows Lia as she navigates learning her cancer has returned and spread throughout her body. We get POVs from her husband, daughter, and mother as well as flashbacks. Cancer is personified and also gets a perspective, which was an interesting take. The relationships between characters, notably the female characters, were exquisitely flawed and filled with love, making them realistically complex. 

I love a beautifully written, poetic narrative as much as the next person. However, I think using such flowery language runs the risk of the story getting lost in the words. I’m not certain some of the more poetic language and how it was structured served the story. We should also stop publishing books with deckle edges. It makes turning the page shockingly difficult. 

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman

This book… this book caught me off guard. Simplistic in its language, but profound in the topics it discusses with utterly compelling characters. It’s tense and suspenseful without there being a single action scene. We follow forty women who are trapped in a cage. They have no memory of how they got there, but remember their lives before arriving in the cage. The narrator is much younger than all the other women and has spent her entire life in the cage. At the end of the first chapter, an alarm sounds and the women break free into an unrecognizable world. They aren’t certain if it’s Earth or not, but they appear to be the only ones alive. The rest of the book follows the woman as they discover and handle this new world and the realizations that come with it. 

It’s a short and shocking read. I was stunned by how much I loved this book. The writing is simple, but powerful. I felt deeply connected to these women and their fates. Couldn’t recommend this one enough. 

Pieces from The Paris Review Fall 2022

Poetry

“Legacy” by Diane Seuss

“In Defense of Passive Voice” by Debora Lidov

“There Is a Word or Several, Must Be” by Kathleen Spivack

Fiction

“Do You Belong to Anybody?” by Maya Binyam 

Excerpt: “Some people like to measure other people’s suffering, such that they could declare it to be ‘enough’ or ‘too much’. But even once such a declaration was made, there was no guarantee the individual wouldn’t go on to feel more of it.”

“The Education of Mrs. R” by Kathrine Dunn

Movies

The Fisher King

While listening to an interview with Jeff Bridges, I realized The Big Lebowski is the only movie I’ve seen with him. I decided it was time to watch more of his movies, so I started with The Fisher King, also starring Robin Williams. This was a movie from the 90s, but the plot hit close to home to modern America. A hot-shot radio talk show host blames himself for a horrible tragedy and three years later sees a chance to repent when he meets a victim of his crime.

As expected, both Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams performed exquisitely. The story was well-executed with moments of sincerity and humor to both devastate and relieve viewers. It wasn’t my favorite movie from either of these actors, but it was still worth the watch. 

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio 

I wanted to love this movie through and through. Everything I’ve seen by del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley, etc.) has been exquisite. All the reviews I read about his version of Pinocchio said it was well done, but was trying to accomplish too much in the span of two hours. I have to agree–the movie bit off more than it could reasonably chew and I felt like I was being jolted between scenes. 

It was a classic del Toro narrative, which I did enjoy. It had subtle humor, charming characters, and darker tones woven throughout. The narrative was backdropped with war and fascism, and didn’t try to shy away from the traumas and tragedies that come from war. It rewards the viewer who is keeping an eye out for subtle gestures, likely strategically placed by del Toro, that provide commentary on the time period. 

The original Pinnocchio is a dark story, a detail that Disney retellings always seem to forego. I was thrilled to hear that del Toro was doing his own retelling of the story. I trusted he wouldn’t shy from darker themes present in the original. He took a refreshingly original approach, even if that meant taking some liberties.

I will continue to watch anything del Toro creates. He’s just too good not to. 

Punch Drunk Love

In 2002 language, our main character (played by Adam Sandler), has social anxiety that dictates how he navigates his world. I think today, Barry would be given a slightly more nuanced diagnosis. Throughout the movie, he has increasingly frequent violent outbursts, takes the world around him literally, and struggles to connect with the people in his life. Even his own siblings can’t seem to understand why he is so “weird”. 

It’s quirky and not for everyone. It’s blunt, if not slightly naive, without being insincere. There are several layers to the story, but I think it works to demonstrate how the world feels to Barry–the noise, conversations, and chaos. I put off watching this movie for a long time because it’s Sandler playing a character not normally in his repertoire. However, he seems to pull it off mostly. 

The Fabelmans 

This loosely autobiographical picture from Steven Spielberg follows a young boy, Sam, as he discovers and fosters his love for movie making. It was exceptional, but I honestly didn’t expect anything less. The characters were each fully fleshed out and the relationships between them were compelling. I adored the family dynamic–it showcased the complexities of their family as well as how much love is present. There was humor, tragedy, drama and romance all rolled up into one exceptional film. It’s well worth the watch. 

Spencer

Kristin Stewart was perfectly cast for this role. The film is a merging of psychological thriller and biopic. It follows Princess Diana, portrayed by Stewart, as she handles the three days over Christmas right after she learns her husband has been having an affair. She is debating whether to leave the family while her mental health crumbles. Stewart expertly plays a Diana struggling with an eating disorder, feeling like an outcast, and warring over whether leaving is in her best interest. You can’t help but feel pity for what Stewart’s character is dealing with. The tension only grows over the course of the film through both external and internal forces. 

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery 

If you suspend your disbelief, Glass Onion is a good time. It was a surprisingly long movie for a murder mystery, but remained engaging and compelling throughout. None of the characters were particularly charming, so don’t expect a character-driven story. The plot’s twists and turns successfully kept me on my toes and interested, even if the dialogue was a little cringe at times. 

LOTR (extended editions): Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, Return of the King

Every single one of these movies is a gem. Watch the extended editions if you have some hours of your life to spare. It will be well worth your time. 

Television

Wednesday

Let me be clear, this is not the best of the movies and televisions created around the Addams Family. As a lover of the Addams Family movies and a kid who grew up watching the original television series, I was both interested in and terrified of this Wednesday-focused reboot. Arguably, she’s one of the most beloved characters in the Addams Family world, and a TV series directed by Tim Burton meant my hopes were high.

The first half of episode one was too cringy. Once the nostalgia high was gone, all that was left was bad writing. The writing felt like it was trying too hard to be like the original series and it did not stick the landing. Mentions of social media, blogging, and high school drama made it feel like the show was trying too hard to connect with a younger audience. It bounced around like the episode was trying to cram too much into too small a space and lacked the ambiance that I grew up loving from the Addams Family. However, the end of the episode suddenly introduced more stakes and better writing, so I kept watching. 

The writing has improved. Was the first episode a fluke? There are still cringe-worthy moments, but I was interested enough to finish watching the season. I would not have continued watching the show wasn’t it in the Addams Family world. 

Podcasts

Lolita Podcast

I’ve always had a mixed relationship with Nabokov’s novel and how it’s been adapted in mainstream modern media. So imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon a podcast covering exactly that topic. 

Lolita from iHeartPodcasts delves into the story from a critical and social lens to examine how the themes have been repurposed throughout history. 

I’ve listened to four episodes, but I was hooked after the first.

Ooo, I love it. 

The host speaks with Nabokov scholars and details the different stances those familiar with the story have taken on its topics. 

Very, very well done. Highly recommend it. 

Listen here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/lolita-podcast/id1536839859

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