As October draws to an end, it’s difficult to imagine what form Halloween will take in this era of social distancing (and a tad difficult to focus on such festivities with Election Day looming), which might be why we’re forgoing our usual brand of holiday-themed staff picks. But that doesn’t mean we’re lacking in reading and viewing material to recommend this month—far from it!—so without further ado:
Corinne Leong, Intern: I knew Luca Guadagnino’s new miniseries was for me the moment the main character began to wax lyrical about Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds while lying in a skiff in the middle of an Italian marsh.
If you’re looking for a show that will transport you away from next month’s Potentially Cataclysmic Event, I’m afraid We Are Who We Are may not be that. It is, however, a much more whimsical and bucolic universe in which to brace for the imminent future. Set on an American military base in the Italian countryside during the 2016 presidential election, We Are Who We Are is a coming-of-age miniseries suffused with the beauty of adolescence. It is an ambitious, meditative show, repeatedly tackling topics like queerness, religion, masculinity, and literature. The show centers around the tenuous friendship between 14-year-old Fraser, a spoiled and temperamental New York City import, and his classmate Caitlin. The two share an uncommon intimacy despite their differences. They push each other relentlessly towards their authentic selves, often to dangerous and transformative consequences.
Director Luca Guadagnino, perhaps best known for his work on the film Call Me By Your Name, is a master in capturing the ephemeral, the impassioned, and the erotic. His work in this show is highly stylized—certain scenes dizzying, certain frames held for an unsettling length of time—but every moment feels ripe with intention and introspection. Everything from the show’s sun-soaked color scheme to its breezy instrumental soundtrack intoxicates. It is a revelation to watch Guadagnino’s vision of youth and self-discovery unfold. This October especially, it is a joy to lose oneself in the passion and optimism that Fraser and Caitlin embody in their own fraught year.
Nessa Ordukhani, Intern: On days when I’m stuck inside the house feeling the dull ache of monotony, it’s customary to plop into bed and watch a movie. However, recently, it seems that every moment means being stuck in the house. The unusual current circumstances have created longer days and a growing restlessness; luckily, I’ve found I can always sink into a marathon of classic Eighties movies. Thanks to screenwriter and director John Hughes, we were given movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. But as phenomenal as these movies are, perhaps none of them truly holds a candle to the pinnacle of all feel-good-coming-of-age Eighties movies: The Breakfast Club.
Always get the last word.
Updates and special offers straight to your inbox.
Keep up with the latest from ZYZZYVA by subscribing to our newsletter.
Not only is The Breakfast Club a fun, witty, and heart-wrenching story about youth and growing up that is enjoyable no matter how old you are, but I’d argue it has also never been more relevant than it is now. Focusing on Bender, Andrew, Claire, Allison, and Brian, it is a film about being stuck in one place with a very small group of people. Sound familiar? Like us, the characters are thrown into an isolated and lonely environment, but as they spend more time with each other, their perspectives begin to shift. Through the lens of their boredom and rebellious sentiment, the film captures so much of what it’s like to be young and aching, and how to make the most of a bad situation. While they may start the day in grumpy silence and petty disagreement, the unlikely group’s day slowly turns into an experience of growth and bonding.
Strangely, I find something uplifting in watching these kids struggle out of their boredom. Whether they’re dancing wildly around the library, singing in the hallways, lashing out against the despotic Vice Principal, or just having a meaningful conversation, the characters in The Breakfast Club show that no matter where you are—or how bored you are—you can always have fun (…even if it means messing with the bull and getting the horns). It’s a film that resonates with me; after watching it, I can’t help but shake the undeniable desire to do something, even if it’s just at home. So this quarantine, I’d encourage a viewing of The Breakfast Club. I guarantee you’ll fall in love with these characters, and afterward you might just be inspired to make the most of where you are.
Cade Johnson, Intern: Nilüfer Yanya’s record Miss Universe came out more than a year and a half ago; I listened to it for hours on end in the Spring of 2019 but hadn’t revisited it until recently. The album, through which Yanya’s star quality gleams, takes on subjects like modern relationships and vulnerability. Woven throughout the musical tracks are recordings from a fictional Wellness Hotline called “WWAY HEALTH™” that transform self-care into a sort of futuristic automated subscription service with a pre-recorded guide: “To continue, please choose from one of the following descriptions:/ I felt an abnormal discomfort from the light/…I often feel alone and a deep paranoia/ I often search for validation in others.” It’s an odd, smart, and often funny way to explore how technology and our relationship to ourselves intersect in the digital age.
The cleverness in the clinical prose of the “WWAY HEALTH™” tracks also balances the emotional weight of Yanya’s music. Standout songs include “In Your Head,” “Tears,” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.” Yanya’s lyricism is often vague and nebulous, which is not to say that it is weak, but rather expansive in a way that makes the record worthy of the title Miss Universe. The generic configuring of rock and pop carried through these tracks grounds and fortifies the record, injecting Yanya’s unguardedly honest lyricism with an iron pulse, and Yanya’s voice gives the impression of something that is at times raw and at others immaculately polished.
Ahead of her announced LP release in December, Yanya released a song called “Crash” about a week ago. To say I’m excited is an understatement.
Colton Alstatt, Intern: As election day approaches, I am rereading Jenny Offill’s Weather, released in a pre-pandemic 2020. The novel, while set in 2016, suddenly feels topical again, being concerned as it is with climate catastrophe, burgeoning neofascism, and nationwide finance troubles. It is a masochistic read and, admittedly, a sadistic recommendation, but not without purpose. Weather mimics the feeling of life today using a remarkable vignette form, where, in a series of one-page episodes, America’s large-scale problems agglutinate with the speaker’s manifold personal troubles—the second hand’s procession, a brother’s drug addiction, a perfunctory love, an anxious motherhood—“falling and accumulating without notice” until someone “spot[s] how big the pile is.” I can hardly believe that it is no longer May. But things have stacked up, and everything feels different than it did five months ago.
Novels, by recreating a distinct feeling, can assure a reader that they are not the only one who feels this way, and it is comforting to feel less alone. They can also remind us of our choice in handling these feelings. Whereas the speaker, confronted with her enormous, indistinct mass of problems, thinks apocalyptically—of “Old people in big cities, afraid of the sky”—for me, remembering her exhaustion is motivation enough to stay energized. Over months that felt like weeks, America’s 2020 “problem pile” grew rapidly. In empathizing with Weather’s narrator from 2016, we can note how our own piles have grown, long before they bury us.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Some of my favorite bookstores in Oakland, such as East Bay Booksellers and Walden Books, are beginning to open their doors again for socially distanced shoppers; that’s where I picked up The 33 1/3 B-Sides, published last year by Bloomsbury Academic and a suitable companion read to my obsessive music listening as of late. Music buffs are likely familiar with the 33 1/3 series: pocket-sized booklets devoted to an author or journalist performing a ‘deep dive’ on some of the most iconic albums in pop history, from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and beyond. B-Sides is decidedly not pocket-sized, however, and rounds up a bevy of previous series contributors to write about the albums they feel personify the concept of the B-Side—albums that might be criminally obscure, unfairly maligned, or just plain misunderstood.
While the LPs discussed sometimes (intentionally) stretch the definition of a B-Side, such as Sinead O’Connor’s Platinum-selling breakthrough I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, they also include the undeniably niche—you’re more hardcore than me if you already count yourself a fan of the ‘punk rock gone country’ act The Range Rats, or the otherworldly English folk of Shirley and Dolly Collins—and each writer makes a compassionate case for their record of choice. The brief nature of the book’s chapters (sometimes only two pages or so) lends the book a mixtape quality, and keeps it feeling fresh with every turn of the page, but it also made me wish some of these authors had more space to wax poetic—and I swear I’m not just saying that because I think the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1998 effort Adore deserves another several hundred words spilled in its defense.
For instance, Dan LeRoy absolutely needs to write a full-length book about Green Gartside, the reclusive pop savant behind Eighties hitmakers Scritti Politti, a subject which he is clearly knowledgable and passionate about. Other highlights include Matt LeMay chronicling his Guided By Voices fandom and retroactively apologizing to frontman Robert Pollard for a snarky Pitchfork review he wrote as a teenager (if only more keyboard warriors would experience a similar crisis of conscience); Bruce Easton remembering the night in 1974 when he booked a still up-and-coming musician named Bruce Springsteen to play a show near his college campus in upstate New York; and Susan Fast exploring the expressions of female sexuality on Candy-O, the slightly less popular follow-up to The Cars’ self-titled debut.
To be honest, I don’t think it was until I finished The 33 1/3 B-Sides that I realized just why I enjoyed the collection so much. As with any anthology, not every contributor’s style (or taste in music) will be to one’s liking; but the book creates the impression that you might just discover a new favorite album within its dense Table of Contents, which, along with the writers’s palpable enthusiasm for their subject matter, recaptured some of the feeling I used to get while scouring the musty aisles of my beloved music stores (like Wazoo Records and Encore Records in Ann Arbor), back in the era before streaming services put every album a mere mouse-click away, for better or for ill.
Laura Cogan, Editor: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk has been described as a literary thriller, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. But it may be misleading, for a novel that is exquisitely poetic and steeped in Blake; in any case, Tokarczuk’s eccentric first person narration casts an utterly captivating spell, careening from weather, astrology, and theories of the Soul, to technology, ageism, and the importance of words and names. Our narrator (Janina) detests her first name and refuses to answer to it; indeed, she sets about undoing the violence she sees in naming by giving everyone she knows her own, private name—one which she feels captures their essence as she sees it. One might ask how she can be certain her naming is fair (and, characteristically, she has a theory about that: “I believe each of us sees the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names as the number of people with whom we interact.”)—but the greater point is that everything everywhere is a matter of justice to her. This makes her something worse than eccentric old woman (though it’s clear that much of the world sees that as bad enough)—it also makes her a major inconvenience for those she challenges. That’s just one reason to love this singular voice. And here’s another: amid her many, thoroughly entertaining opinions and discursions (some of which are quite funny), the most serious, urgent, and deeply held of her concerns is care for animals. But her empathy becomes an almost unbearable, frantic suffering when she cannot prevent abuse of the wildlife or domesticated animals whose lives she sees as equal in value to those of humans. Tocarczuk convincingly renders Janina’s sense that all this abuse, hunting, and fur-farming creates an environment of cruelty that degrades and poisons every person and institution it touches—as well as her tormented helplessness to change anything. “Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine,” a typically patronizing male character tells her. Tocarczuk asks timely and timeless questions about how to live ethically, balancing how much we care about all the world’s ills against what we can actually justify doing to fight them. She weaves the humorous, the absurd, the heart-breaking, and the sublime together in a contemplative narrative draped elegantly across the form of a mystery. I suppose I could also point out that October is the perfect time to read a book that waltzes with the trope of the wicked witch living (mostly) alone in the woods—but truly there’s no bad time to read this one.