What’s love got to do with it?

Modern Romance ★★★★
by Aziz Ansari
Penguin Press, 2015

modern_romanceI’ve been so behind on my reviewing these days, but I had so much fun with this one I wanted to make sure I didn’t let it fall through the dark cracks into the swirling abyss where my non-reviewed books go.

I’m a huge fan of Ansari. I think he’s cute as a button and funny as goddamn hell. I watched him in Parks & Rec, his most recent Netflix original Master of None (which I highly recommend), and thoroughly enjoy his stand-up concerts. He’s not at the same level as Louis CK or Patton Oswalt, but he’s also a lot younger than these gentlemen who have been honing their dark and brilliant comedy for decades now.

Modern Romance is not your typical “comedian writes a book” fare. It’s not a memoir, or a book filled with ruminations on the life of a comedian. It’s a thinky piece, backed up by real sociological research, with pie charts and everything! Ansari’s approach to breaking down the ins and outs of dating and hooking up and settling down in the 21st century is as intriguing and compelling as it is infectious and informative. I loved every minute of it. The layout is light and breezy, and super accessible without distilling and dumbing down the subject matter too much as to be insulting to its audience. Ansari wants to make you laugh, make no mistake, but he’s also very earnest in his desire to tell you what he’s learned.

And can I just say I find all of it utterly FASCINATING. I’m addicted to “meet cute” stories (even though I would never consider myself a romantic, and have an averse reaction to rom-com movies — that make me break out in hives). But how people meet and when they decide “to put a ring on it” (or not) can always get my attention. I have to check myself from being perpetually nosy all of the time, getting the “deets” on all this stuff from my friends, both of the online and the in real life variety.

For me, this book is too short. With its laudable success my hope is that Ansari will be compelled to pen a follow-up, because if there’s one thesis that comes chiming out loud and clear here, it’s that the 21st century dating world is changing fast, at warp speed, impacting how we communicate with one another, form bonds and friendships, and take that scary running leap into “the big commitment”. A lot of the current research being done is showing that the bonds we form online, platonic or otherwise, can no longer be dismissed so easily as superficial and suffering by comparison to those we forge “IRL” (in real life). I do believe most of us on this site would concur that social media has opened up a “brave new world” that’s not just brighter and more vibrant, but has proven increasingly successful in bringing colorful people into our lives that we otherwise would not have known existed, friendships that we now rely upon and cherish.

And that “modern romance” is blooming out of those virtual connections should really be coming as no surprise to anyone.

Ansari does an excellent job of pointing out the pros and cons of modern romance in the 21st century in all its tech’d out, geeked out splendor. We now have more choice than ever before, all at our fingertips with the click of a button or the swipe of a screen, but that landslide of choices might also be paralyzing some of us into making any choice at all. Our standards and expectations for a lifelong partnership might have been raised to exceptionally high, unreasonable levels too. With all that choice at our fingertips, why would we settle for anything less than AMAZING? That perfect “soul mate” who is going to fulfill every single one of our needs every day for the rest of our days. Pfft, people you know this: that person does not exist.

But it’s not all bad news. Technology has not ruined romance for us living in the 21st century. In fact, for many of us, especially women — things have improved vastly. Not because of the tech component, but because women are no longer expected to settle down as early as possible. We can invest in our careers now, and date more and live life as a single, learning about ourselves and the things that are going to make us happy if we do decide to pair off.

There are many areas (due to space constraints) that this book by necessity leaves unaddressed or goes light on, and Ansari is very good about pointing those out at the beginning. One thing missing for me is a breakdown of dating from an extrovert versus introvert point of view. I think our current technology has been an absolute miracle and felicia_daymarvel to introverts who struggle to put themselves out there in the real world of bars and supermarkets and church basements, but are absolutely charming and brave and socially high functioning on the interwebs. It’s been an essential transition for that half of the human population to discover their “tribe” and connect in meaningful ways to people it would have been extremely unlikely they would have ever met IRL.

(and it’s here I’m going to put a plug in for Felicia Day’s memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet who also describes this “social revolution” for introverts in a way that resonated with me completely).

So in case it isn’t obvious by now, I loved this book and I think everyone should read it, young/old, guy/girl, married/single. While it’s easy to despair of the human race, and we know there are too many assholes and unforgivable idiots and sneaky jerkfaces running around out there, human behaviour and why we do the shit we do is still endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? I think so.

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My Favorite Movie Endings of All Time

the_end_small_2Just recently a friend and I had an animated discussion about our favorite movie endings. It turned out to be so much fun that I thought I’d compile my picks into a blog post.

Neither one of us is a rabid cinephile or film critic; we just love movies. So our respective lists turned out to be hodge-podges of personal favorites and guilty pleasures (as opposed to a more sober, hypercritical assemblage of undisputed “classics”). Sorry no Casablanca, Chinatown or Citizen Kane here. That’s not to say that I don’t take the movies on my list seriously; I take them very seriously. I love them all. Especially their endings.

BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

(more…)

Noir classic still thrills and chills

The Killer Inside Me ★★★★★
Jim Thompson
With an introduction by Stephen King
Mulholland Books, 2014 (1952)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

I tip my hat and pretend I don’t hear
grinning like a half-wit from ear to ear
I can think of a thousand ways to say hello
so I start through ’em all, and go real slow.
They listen hard, and act like they care.
How can they be so completely unaware
of the truth the answer is always denied me
So I introduce them to the killer inside me.
(MC 900 Ft. Jesus, The Killer Inside Me)

*****

First of all, a warning: if you happen to pick up the edition I did that includes an introductory essay from Stephen King, make sure you read it after you finish the book. Goddamn it, either the entire principal of *spoiler* completely flies over this man’s head, or he just loves being a bastard about these things. After 2014’s Twitter controversy where he spoiled a major death for fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it — he just doesn’t care!!!

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

And he does it here too, spoiling a MAJOR scene from Thompson’s classic noir novel. Thanks a lot, Uncle Stevie!!! I don’t care that the book was published in 1952 — it’s not the same as revealing the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks or that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho! And it’s especially not the same as revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in Act 5. Now you’re just being an asshole, asshole!

Anyway, all wrath and chagrin aside, Uncle Stevie gives great introduction (heh) and this essay is particularly inspired dealing as it does with Jim Thompson, his mark on dark literature, and the enduring legacy of his psychopathic, unassuming small town Deputy Sheriff, Lou Ford.

Told in the first-person, The Killer Inside Me is as close as you’re ever going to want to get to the inner thoughts and irrepressible urges of a psycho killer. The most chilling part? On the outside, Lou Ford is a regular, down home good ol’ boy, with charm and even some wit. But underneath his methodically constructed facade lurks a steel-trap mind and inexplicable violent compulsions. First published in 1952, I can only imagine the impact this book would have had on its original audience. Even to this jaded 21st century reader The Killer Inside Me still holds within its ruthless prose the power to shock and unsettle.

Original cover, 1952

Original cover, 1952

And despite Ford’s obvious dark passenger — his “sickness” — you still find yourself rooting for the guy (that is when you’re not screaming at characters to run for their fucking lives far, far away from the crazy man). It made me consider who I’d take my chances with in a locked room — Lou Ford or Annie Wilkes? ::shudder:: There’s a Sophie’s Choice I’m glad I never have to make.

Without Jim Thompson — and especially without Lou Ford — I can only believe ‘country noir’ would not be what it is today. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash all owe a debt to Thompson. And as readers, so do we.

A major work from Stephen King (in the key of E)

Revival ★★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2014

revivalThis is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
-Revival

The three true ages of man are youth, middle age, and how the fuck did I get old so soon?
-Revival

****

What the hell do you read next after you finish a book like this!?

While not a full on frontal assault horror novel in the tradition of The Shining or Pet Sematary, Revival definitely ranks as one of the darkest, most unsettling books King has written in a long time. It’s a slow burn that touches on a lot of themes we’ve come to expect from King in his golden years — family, nostalgia, grief and loss. King turned 67 this year and he seems to have reached a point in his life where the “big questions” about what it all means Alfie, and where we all end up are weighing heavy on his mind and heart. It’s inevitable, right? I turned 40 this year, and I know those questions have already started to weigh on me.

This is one of those books I want to peel back layer by layer and dig down deep into its beating heart. King has moved past penning coming-of-age novels to now tackling what happens when we get old. What do our relationships look like to friends, lovers, siblings, parents when we start to lose hair where we want it, and gain it where we don’t? What does a life of regret look like? What does redemption look like?

Stephen King

Stephen King

There is this exploration in Revival in a luxurious, patient way that could only be written by an author of King’s maturity and discipline. It’s been a humbling, emotional experience for me as a Constant Reader to watch how this man’s work and art have aged with him, have reached places only possible because he’s lived this long to keep telling the tales.

I get frustrated sometimes with certain fans (with hearts in the right place) who still want King to be churning out the kind of books he was writing in the 80’s. Some of the best stuff the man has written happened in that decade. No doubt. He was a writing machine. With young kids and a coke habit to boot. But he’s not that man anymore. Decades have come and gone and the writing should be changing to reflect that. Not just the style, but the contents. What King cares about, what he’s come to realize and believe to be true, these are some of the passions that he injects into his writing now. There is a self-awareness and self-reflection that just wasn’t apparent in his earlier novels. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just different, with different rewards to be found and had.

The first three-quarters of this book represent some of the most literary writing King has done over the span of his incredibly long (and hopefully even longer) prolific career. Yes it feels familiar — there is the small Maine town and the coming-of-age elements of young children navigating a threatening and perilous world. But the writing is so rich this time, lyrical even. The doom is laying on the horizon, you can almost glimpse it, but you don’t really know where it’s going to come from. Or when.

One of the things I’ve loved about King over the years is his profound ability to assemble a world and characters that are so very, very normal. They are us. They are him. They are who we know and love. And the world they populate is normal too. Small town USA. Baseball games, apple pie. Rock and roll on the radio. But into this normal world creeps something slimy and sinister. While ordinary life of first loves, car accidents, weddings, births and tinnitus march ever onward, the sinister stays hidden in the shadows, watching and waiting to make its move. It’s all so very fucking normal, until it isn’t.

It’s the rat trap waiting in the dark hole that you just had to stick your hand into. *SNAP*

The last quarter of this book is the snap! and it’s either going to work for you or not. King has written a beautiful dedication (he often does) paying his respects to all those legendary writers of the dark who helped “build his house”. In the pages of Revival the long shadow of their influence live and breathe in Charles Jacobs’ obsession with electricity and his unnatural lifelong quest for answers and revelation. The Bible says: seek and ye shall find. But we must be prepared for the unraveling of the mystery and realize that we are just as likely to fall to our knees in horror as wonder.

It’s waiting for you in The Deep

The Deep ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Gallery Books, Jan 2015

thedeepcutter

Save your last breath to scream.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of horror and the older I get, it seems to me the harder it’s getting to scare me and to get my hands on the good stuff. One positive thing about this sad development is that it’s forced me to venture out into other genres and try new things and find new loves. My first love however — my one true love — will always remain horror. It’s in my DNA (literally probably because my parents were huge fans of things going bump in the night). I was weaned on the stuff, and on the stuff I shall die.

Why am I rambling thus? For a fan with such an unquenchable appetite for these matters, discovering newcomer Nick Cutter is the equivalent of venturing to the end of the rainbow and having a leprechaun hand you over his pot of gold. I’m so gobsmacked and excited by my good fortune (our good fortune) that I’m still in a bit of a dizzy fangirl spin. The only thing that could make this any better would be if this discovery heralded an ushering in of a whole new Golden Age for horror the likes of which not seen since the ’80s. Yes? Please? C’mon now!

Well, whatever the case, Nick Cutter is doing his part penning two terrifying tales in two years, written to make grown women scream and grown men wet their pants. He’s got the horror cred down; you don’t have to read him too closely to see that he too was weaned on the stuff and inside his writer’s heart beats the heart of a horror geek.

Reading The Deep I was put through quite the mental and emotional ringer. Between its covers some of my most vulnerable pulse points of fear were ruthlessly exploited. I was reminded of Sphere, The Thing, Event Horizon, and Alien. There’s body horror that’s going to remind you of early Cronenberg. And just when things start to feel familiar and you think you have a handle on it all, Cutter veers the story off into an angle of Weird that’s psychologically trippy and very Lovecraftian in execution. And while this story is going to remind you of a lot of other things, it is still going to shock you and lay you down and have its way with you.

Nick Cutter is a pseudonym for a talented author who can write a mean literary novel and win prizes for them. But I’m selfish and insatiable. Now that he’s ventured over to the dark side I want him to stay here and to play here forever, and ever and ever. Yeah, I’m a smitten kitten alright.

*Look for The Deep coming in January 2015 from Gallery Books*

A free copy was provided through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Check out my review of Nick Cutter’s not-to-be missed debut fright fest — The Troop.
I also shared a Q&A with the author. Check it out here.
Follow @TheNickCutter on Twitter and Goodreads.

What’s in the box?!

Bird Box ★★★★
Josh Malerman
Ecco, 2014

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

4.5 stars

bird boxWhoah. This is some really good shit. Color me very impressed. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it totally delivered on tension and suspense, a palpable dread, and a suffocating sense of doom.

Just as a launching off point I’m going to throw two pop culture references at you that I couldn’t stop thinking about while reading this book. The first is the music video “Just” by Radiohead. Remember that’s the one where there’s this guy who just lies down in the street for no apparent reason and when this other guy starts screaming for a reason why he’s done this and when the man finally tells him, everyone who is in earshot lies down too, as if whatever he’s said is just too huge and overwhelming for the mind to process that the only human response is to collapse.

The second reference I’m going to throw at you is a Twilight Zone episode from the ’80s called “Need to Know” where everyone starts going insane in this small town and it’s eventually discovered that the source of the problem is not a physical disease, but an idea, a single short phrase, that is being passed from person to person by word of mouth. That horrible phrase is nothing more or less than the purpose and meaning of existence; the moral of the story being — Knowledge we are not ready to receive will drive us mad.

I freaking love that Radiohead video and I was twelve years old when I saw that Twilight Zone episode and it scared the crap out of me (which is Trudi speak for I loved it). So in a lot of ways I was already primed to love this book where a mysterious pandemic plague is causing the “infected” to go on homicidal killing sprees before killing themselves. In the escalating chaos and confusion, the source of the infection is identified as having seen something the human mind cannot fathom, a creature that is so beyond our comprehension we are literally driven mad by it. But who is to know for sure, since no one has survived to confirm what it is that they saw.

Your only defence is to close your eyes, and keep them closed.

Humans hide in houses behind windows that are painted, covered with blankets or boarded up. They dare not venture outside for water or food unless they are blindfolded. If you thought surviving the end of days was tough with all of your faculties and sight, try doing it completely blind and feeling hunted and watched the entire time.

I love survival stories of all kinds: but an apocalypse scenario where the group must survive together is my favorite. And it’s done so well here, I really can’t stress that enough. The way the tension builds gradually as the unknowable threat outside the doors of the safe house becomes more menacing and tangible. How so much is implied rather than relying on big gushy scenes of gore and explicit violence. How the daily trek to the well blindfolded to get fresh water becomes an exercise in exquisite pulse-pounding suspense to unnerve the most steely-nerved of all readers.

Did you hear that? Sssshhhhh. I think it came from behind you. Whatever you do, don’t open your eyes.

Readers who have a perpetual desire for answers and reasons may find the lack of explanation here troubling. I didn’t. I was okay that we really don’t know what the hell is going on and can only guess (and imagine our worst fears). If something like this ever goes down for real we’ll be just as much in the dark as the characters in Bird Box discovering we are as much at the mercy of our ignorance and fear of the unknown as anything that may or may not be hunting us.

One is the loneliest number

The Martian ★★★★
Andy Weir
Crown, 2014

 

This whole book left me stupid happy and deliriously impressed and I spent most of my time declaring:

Jesse would have loved Mark Watney. I love Mark Watney. He’s super smart but not just in a poindexter nerd alert bookish kind of way. Watney’s got some serious problem solving skills; he’s McGyver in a space suit. Give this guy a toothpick, some tinfoil and a ziplock bag and he’ll build you an airplane. But don’t forget the duct tape. Duct tape is awesome and I will be putting in a supply of it in order to survive the zombie apocalypse.

the martianWatney is also a funny, the glass is half-full kind of guy who gets repeatedly knocked on his ass but finds a way to get right back up again. And who doesn’t love a fighter?

The Martian is being referred to as Cast Away in space and that’s pretty accurate as those things go. It’s definitely an adventure survival story (my favorite kind), and just like Tom Hanks, Watney finds himself stranded and completely alone. The only difference is rather than washing up on a deserted island with a plethora of unopened FedEx packages, Watney finds himself abandoned on Mars with….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

There’s a lot of geeked out science descriptions, but I found most of it to be pretty accessible, even to a softcore sci-fi gal like myself. There’s a real balance and warmth to the story as Watney battles with the unforgiving Mars environment that wants to kill him every time he turns around. It’s thrilling and edge of your seat stuff with lots of laughs built in to break the inexorable tension.

Add author Andy Weir to the growing list of self-published authors who have successfully transitioned to a traditional publishing house. And there will be a movie, and I’m betting it’s going to be freaking epic.

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