We hope our readers have a safe and peaceful Thanksgiving this year; and just in case you’re in need of some light reading after a heavy meal, we’ve got you covered with a bevy of content in this month’s Staff Recommends. So let’s get cracking:
Corinne Leong, Intern: Late November in Vermont: the trees are free of leaves, the skies grey with incoming winter. Richard Papen, a transfer student from a rural town in Central California, has begun studying Classics at Hampden College alongside a cohort of enigmatic and seemingly superior characters.
I’ve always associated Donna Tartt with her more recent Pulitzer-winning release, The Goldfinch, but her debut novel The Secret History absolutely astounded me. The opening line is a stunner: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” And the momentum rarely slows from there. A character-driven inverted mystery novel, The Secret History is a genuine page-turner, lacking in neither quality of prose nor richness of plot. The ensemble is memorable: self-effacing narrator Richard, gregarious albeit prejudiced Bunny, stoic and impenetrable Henry, worldly Francis, twins Charles and Camilla. Somehow, Tartt manages to plot a believable trajectory from studying the minutiae of the Greek language to murder. Her precise prose fuels an unrelenting drama and urgency that characterizes the novel from beginning to end.
There is huge aesthetic satisfaction to be extracted from reading about this handful of young, alluring Classicists and all of their depraved undertakings as they sashay around snowy New England in dark turtlenecks and long wool coats. Their universe was one I—against my better judgment, given the murder and all—yearned to be a part of. As fall comes to an end, grab some Homer, don your best winter coat, and join the students of Hampden in confronting their passions and misdeeds. Tartt’s stunning work will reward you for it.
Nessa Ordukhani, Intern: For a short period of time, it seemed as though Dune by Frank Herbert might be losing its relevance. In the wake of Star Trek reboots and new Star Wars movies, people tended to forget about Dune, the grandfather of modern science fiction. And yet, the novel still stands as the inspiration for some of the most popular sci-fi works that followed.
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Originally published in 1965, the novel was a sensation, tying for the Hugo Award and going on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 1984, the first film adaptation of Dune was released to a very controversial reception. Now, decades later, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is taking on the behemoth and making his own adaptation of the book, accompanied by the music of Hans Zimmer and an incredibly famous cast.
While the film’s premiere date has been delayed by the pandemic, chances are it will be coming out in late 2021. With this release on the horizon, I knew I had to read the book. Set on the desert planet Arrakis, home of the age-defying spice “melange,” the book follows Paul Atreides, the heir of the Atreides clan whose family is sent to Arrakis to govern the planet. The novel details Paul’s coming-of-age on this strange and dangerous planet as he grows into power and learns about his destiny. Herbert’s novel is an incredibly powerful testament to world-building: he weaves together a universe of politics, environmentalism, religion, and mysticism so vivid that the sands of Arrakis themselves are palpable.
One of the most unique aspects of the novel is that much of the fictional language developed in the book was inspired by Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages. In addition, the religion and spirituality are inspired by Islamic mysticism, and the desert setting of the planet reflects the deserts of the Middle East. Written in the Sixties, the novel also contains several allegorical references to the petroleum industries of Middle Eastern countries.
Consequently, the clearly Middle Eastern influences bringing up many questions about representation in the film versions of Dune. The 1984 adaptation is largely cited as incredibly whitewashed and has been condemned as such by modern viewers. As a person of Middle Eastern origins myself, I have been on the edge of my seat wondering how the new film will navigate representation, especially during a time when representation is so closely monitored. Unfortunately, looking at the cast list, there doesn’t appear to be a single Middle Eastern actor in sight, so my hopes are not terribly high. The cast is composed almost entirely of white and a few black actors. I won’t make judgments until I see the full film itself, but so far, the lack representation feels like a slap in the face, especially considering how little conversation has been brought up about it. The novel Dune itself is incredibly gripping, fascinating, and influential, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. As I anticipate the release of the new film, I would recommend the novel to anyone interested in seeing the film, so you can make judgments about both the book and the movie.
Cade Johnson, Intern: In my review of horror stories collection Tiny Nightmares last week, I mentioned that horror is a genre I hold near and dear. A ghost story that takes place in a picturesque Tudor Gothic-style mansion engulfed in fog can be chicken soup for the soul, especially during the wintertime. The Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor is a touching story of one such ghost-ridden English estate. The show takes place in the 80’s in the countryside, where Danielle “Dani” Clayton, a former schoolteacher, has taken up a job as a governess to two orphaned children. Dani, who seems to be running from something in her past, settles into her new role, and soon begins to witness strange apparitions haunting the property.
Although a familiar premise, this series transcends convention with its heartfelt and sympathetic character studies. Its clever use of flashback and non-sequential narrative structure, while at times somewhat disorienting, makes a compelling case for its uniqueness within the genre and worthy of revisiting after an initial watch. Additionally, the story contains queer plotlines and explores queer themes that deepen this show’s complicated exploration of memory, fear, and haunting. While keeping up with the series (from the creators of Netflix’s previous hit The Haunting of Hill House) is a bit of a challenge due to its tricky chronology, it offers a heartening payoff.
Colton Alstatt, Intern: This month, in two related events, I read Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes and uninstalled TikTok. Schweblin’s novel imagines a new tech fad: the kentuki, a pet-shaped robot controlled by some human, somewhere in the world. A “keeper” buys the robot, which is inhabited by a “dweller,” a person possessing a kentuki access code. Though the idea of an always-watching human unnerves some keepers, others are able to forget and forge a charming pet-owner relationship that would be impossible if two-way communication were possible.
The keeper-dweller relationship is a convincing reenactment of the roles we are accustomed to in digital spaces: bipartite parasocial relationships (i.e. influencer/influencee) in which a performer produces intimate content, and a viewer forms a one-way emotional connection unknown to the performer. Dwellers become emotionally attached and for good reason. In addition to seeing that beloved performer, kentukis allow dwellers to fantasize about a different life—in the brilliant snow, humble slums, or country clubs—than their own, until, in a piecewise process, it becomes their own; like the mimetic dialectic of social media platforms, kentukis replicate, then distort, what real-life socializing is, eventually producing an experience that feels somehow above life itself. Little Eyes is a fantastic allegory for these same nuances we see in online culture and much more, so rich is it with contemporary insight. I am not claiming that reading Little Eyes will cure you of any digital addiction you may have picked up over quarantine. I will probably be back on TikTok at some point, but I will be more aware of how I interact with content and content-producers. Plus, seeing an experience you have lived (or are living) be rendered in a literary context gives meaning to it, and I think meaning is something that these odd months are starved for.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: The same month we’re launching our Los Angeles Issue, I happened to rewatch one of my favorite films about the region, which is one of those perfect coincidences I just had to write about. The movie in question is Sofia Coppola’s minimalist masterpiece from 2010, Somewhere. A box office failure in its time, Somewhere has the reputation of being Coppola’s most ‘difficult’ film, and indeed there are several sequences which willingly give themselves over to repetition—Stephen Dorff’s character driving his black Ferrari in the desert, Elle Fanning’s character performing in an empty ice skating rink, Dorff watching two pole dancers do their routine to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” yet more driving—but my recent viewing underscored how a film this pleasurable and well-executed hardly deserves the label ‘difficult.’
The story follows Dorff as a burnt out, middle-aged Movie Star with a capital “M” (an obvious stand-in for a Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt type), hunkered down for an extended stay at L.A.’s famous Chateau Marmont hotel. Dorff’s lifestyle of casual debauchery and drug-addled comedown is up-ended by the arrival of his 11 year-old daughter (Fanning), who has the unenviable task of looking after a father who can’t be expected to look after himself. Anyone hoping for a tearful bond to be forged between parent and child will be sorely disappointed by Somewhere—as ever, Sofia Coppola’s lens remains cool and neutral, and the film is all the better for it. Coppola depicts Dorff’s hedonism unsparingly, but she doesn’t pass judgment; her approach is something more akin to the fascinated documentarian. And now that Somewhere is ten years old, the movie serves as a snapshot of a particular time and place in our culture: whether it’s Elle Fanning ice skating to Gwen Stefani’s Top 40 hit “Cool,” characters frequently playing Wii Sports and Guitar Hero, or even a Movie Star having as much cultural cache as Dorff enjoys here, a notion which feels somewhat antiquated in an era when celebrities are often born on social media platforms rather than cinema screens.
Despite the story’s Hollywood trappings, Somewhere avoids many of the cliches about Los Angeles and the movie industry. There’s very little in the way of glamour in Dorff’s life; one realizes being a big name actor remains, at the end of the day, a job, and while Dorff is certainly catered to, he must put in the hours: sitting patiently while make-up artists take a mold of his face, answering inane questions at press junkets, attending awards shows in countries where you don’t even speak the language. Somewhere is one of my favorite L.A. movies precisely because it’s not about the glamour—it’s about loneliness, traffic, and making your own mac & cheese.