Tag Archives: shirley jackson

Books to Recommend to Anyone

I struggle with giving recommendations of any kind – movies, music, games, TV shows, and books especially. I worry that my taste is so niche that no one else will like what I like – or worse, that my recommendation will reflect some bizarre personality trait that will forever change that person’s perception of what I’m all about. So when you find me giving an emphatic recommendation, when I’m begging you to experience something, it’s because I believe so strongly that it isn’t just for weirdos like me.

It definitely helps to know the other person’s tastes. I thought that the movie Your Name was so beautiful and moving that I want everyone else to see it, too, and have a nice therapeutic cry, but I also understand that a lot of people are not about that weeaboo life. That’s totally fine; in fact, it’s probably for the best. Personally, I’m offended when someone recommends any young adult-genre books to me or any movie where violence and gore are featured prominently. Y’all gotta know by now that those are not part of my brand.

So when I say I would recommend these books to anyone, I mean that I would include no less than the following people: my family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, Bible study group, strangers, significant others, and people whose opinions of me I genuinely care about. It should come as little surprise that the majority of these picks were also recommended to me by friends and family – the people who know me best.

In no particular order:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

An extremely useful book with a very lousy title. It would be more accurate to call it Common Sense for Dealing With People. It contains gentle reminders that other people are just like you and want to be treated with dignity and respect. Wild, right? But sometimes we do need those reminders, especially when we hit social roadblocks. Recommended to me by my mentor.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

An entertaining romp through New England history. This is worth listening to on audiobook – Sarah Vowell has a very distinct voice. I am partial to this particular book of hers because I’m from the region, but I think it is enjoyable for anyone interested in learning about our country’s earliest days. I also really liked her book Unfamiliar Fishes about Hawaii’s history and its “acquisition” (very dramatic air quotes) by the United States. Recommended to me by a close friend.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2011)

Usually I’d feel a little uncomfortable recommending books exceeding 500 pages, but these two stories made huge impressions on me. Both are translated works by non-American authors and both are multi-generational family sagas – the first about the Korean experience in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan, and the second about sailors from the Danish town of Marstal. I read Pachinko when it started receiving a lot of critical acclaim, and I picked up We, the Drowned completely on a whim (actually because of the very good cover art).

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (1957)

Shirley Jackson is best known for her spooky stuff. People read “The Lottery” in high school to scare them out of being judgmental little terrors, and now that The Haunting of Hill House has a Netflix remake, Shirley Jackson is probably more popular than ever (at least, since she first published “The Lottery” and got flamed for it). A lot of folks don’t know that she has written humor, too, centering around her family life with her husband and children. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are those rare books that made me laugh out loud. Shirley Jackson is masterful at calling attention to small, seemingly mundane details – only this time, it’s for the sake of humor rather than horror. I’m on a quest to read everything Shirley has written, and if you don’t have a taste for horror, this is a book anyone can and will enjoy.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (2013)

I picked this up at the small, dusty library at one of our deployment sites. Where better? As I worked my way through this book, I had a hard time containing my emotions – especially when reading in public. This investigative account of Iraq war veterans readjusting to civilian life will be challenging to read if you, too, have served, but it is so important that stories like these – true, tough, sobering stories – become part of our American collective social consciousness. So many people live their lives completely unaffected by our many wars churning overseas; they have to know what it’s like for the people who come home from them.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)

An English nurse is sent to a small Irish town to observe a child, hailed as a miracle from heaven, who claims she can subsist entirely without food or water. Is the child telling the truth? If not, to what lengths will she go to maintain the lie? This story, based loosely on true events, demonstrates the careful balance between scientific skepticism and human empathy. It poses a tremendous moral question about the limits of personal autonomy. Recommended by a book podcast, and read it almost entirely in one sitting.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)

This is a little closer to the “weirder” end of the spectrum given the subject matter one of the principle characters is obsessed with, but this is a short and important story about identity and belonging amidst intense social pressure to be different. The main character finds herself falling behind other people her age, socially – she only works part-time and has no interest in dating or starting a family. She is completely fine with it until the people around her make feel like something is wrong with her for being happy with what she has. There is something wrong with her, but not in the way that everyone thinks. Recommended by a ton of book reviewers toward the end of 2018.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2011)

Oh yes, you know I’m on this bullshit right now!

Despite being very interested in cleanliness and organization, I put off reading this book for ages. I was afraid of being browbeaten into minimalism, shamed for wanting to surround myself with all of my worldly possessions. But, at the start of this year, Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix was released, and she got wildly popular – and also widely condemned. I read her book not with the intention of implementing her method into my life, but to get educated on her ideas so I, too, could participate in The Discourse™. Unfortunately for me, Kondo is such a sweet and charming person, and her ideas about keeping only the belongings which bring you the most joy seem so fundamentally true and useful, that I couldn’t find much wrong with her system. In fact, I discovered that her critics were deliberately or mistakenly misconstruing Kondo’s principles. I am in the process of tidying my house right now.

Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling

Obviously. Yes. Of course.

I am astonished that I am meeting grown adults who never experienced the Harry Potter stories. But what if the appeal wears off with age? Are the books still enjoyable as an adult? I started re-reading them a few months ago and, yes, these books are absolutely still a delight. So if you’re late to the Hogwarts Express and worried that it won’t appeal to you anymore, fear not: these stories are just as magical now as they were decades ago. JK Rowling is an incredible storyteller. Her ongoing murder-mystery novels (the Cormoran Strike series) are also very, very good, but I know that genre is pretty niche and not for everyone.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

If I were to write a book, I would want to write one just like Jon Krakauer.

This is an account of Chris McCandless, a young man who hitchhiked his way up to Alaska to live alone in the wilderness – and how he died. This is, I think, the only book recommended to me by my brother, who has way more interesting hobbies than reading. It appealed immediately not only to my love of investigative journalism, but also my heart’s deepest desire, which is to live in complete solitude in nature. This story shows clearly the dangerous line between idealism and cold, hard reality, and it is something I will never forget. Jon Krakauer is a truly gifted writer.


The most fascinating thing about this list is that none of my most favorite authors or books are on it. These books are so important to me that recommending them to someone else makes me feel intolerably vulnerable. Having someone reject them would feel like they are also rejecting me. It’s hard not to take it personally when it is your most favorite thing. These books reflect who I am.

But I am going to be brave. Here are some of those books, just in case:
Cryptonomicon or Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Mélusine by Sarah Monette
Saga (comic series) by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Likeness by Tana French
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

I hope some of these books will strike you as interesting. Please feel free to recommend your favorite books to me! I am always happy to read the things that you think are important or left an impression on you.

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2017

2017 is over. We did it, everyone! Good job!

2017

EVENTS
In January, I did a practice parachute jump in air crew school that didn’t go so well. Something felt wrong, but I wasn’t in pain, so I pressed on until the adrenaline wore off. I was shocked when the x-rays showed two fractures because, though my foot was swollen as hell and I couldn’t put any pressure down, it didn’t hurt at all. This is a sharp contrast to when, at a different school in May, I felt back pain so severe that I thought my kidneys were failing. Despite the pain, the ER said there was nothing wrong: a pinched nerve, maybe? They gave me a shot and I slept it off. It spooked me pretty bad that I could experience sudden, intense pain for no reason.

I bought my first car. It is a 2013 Hyundai Accent and it spirited me across the country from Florida to Washington, seeing some amazing stuff along the way. Maybe I should have been nervous, driving so far all on my own, but I wasn’t, even when situations might have called for trepidation. I’m glad I did it; this solo road trip was the highlight of my year. It showed me that there is so much of America that I haven’t seen yet.

The Patriots won Super Bowl SBLI in one of the most exciting games of all time. I will never shut up about it and I’m not sorry.

I completed some of the most challenging training of my life, forcing me to face a lot of fears. Someone once told me that you either have a good time or a good story. Some of it was good times. Almost all of it makes good stories.

I moved to Hawaii. Thanks, Navy, for letting me spend a few years in paradise. I’m going to make the most of it.

I went on my first aircrew deployment. They call them “dets” but I have a compulsive need to be contrary in the most pointless and petty ways imaginable. Anyway, I’m still out here, and it has confirmed two suspicions: that the aircrew life is offensively easy, and that I still want to get out of the Navy. I was afraid that I was going to fall in love with this stuff and struggle with the temptation to reenlist.

RESOLUTIONS
To write a blog post every month. I did it! I’m going to continue this goal. It has demonstrated to me the value in simply putting something out there, especially if it’s not perfectly polished. Usually, my attitude when submitting a new blog post is: here’s a new piece of trash for the garbage heap! But once in a while, I’ll scroll back through what I’ve written and it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was at the time. Some of it is even okay!

To get back to (arbitrary weight). I made this goal before I broke my foot literally in the first week of the year. Then I moved from Florida to Washington to Hawaii. I am, of course, making excuses, but this was not the year for stability. The hardest part about staying committed to any body-related goal is that I’m more or less fine with how I look. My body is okay. It always has been okay. It is really hard to maintain a weight-loss goal when it’s not motivated, to some extent, by self-hatred. Is this what getting older is like? Just accepting your fleshy meat prison the way it is? That said, I haven’t given up completely. I still have to fit in to uniforms for another 34 months and I will not buy more!

Read as many books as last year. 32 last year, 48 this year. My TBR list grows faster than I can chip away at it. I’d like to be better and braver about quitting books that don’t grab my attention, but I have a hard time leaving them unfinished. This is ironic for someone who, at the moment, has 15 unfinished blog posts in the queue. (Soon, 14.)

I wanted to stop swearing. What was once edgy and is now so commonplace that it defeats the point. Cursing has evolved into verbal laziness; sailors substitute swears in place of any word at all, making the things they say ironically, unintentionally bland. Conversely, the recent rise of ironic wholesomeness and the use of creative non-swears packs a much more interesting punch. I like saying things in funny and, hopefully, memorable ways. So if I’m going to swear, it had better be a necessary component of the idea. Otherwise, I’m going to try to find a more accurate word.

I haven’t thought of any new resolutions for 2018. These are all okay, besides the weight loss one, so I guess I’ll just keep on with this sort of thing.

FAVORITES
MUSIC: I WAS BORN by Hanson
I finished a write up about another artist a few weeks ago. I let it simmer. When I came back to this post, though, I realized what I really wanted to talk about was Hanson. Yes, MMMBop Hanson, from our childhoods. Remember them?

I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Hanson fan specifically, but I am almost certain that you have heard a Hanson song, enjoyed it, and had no idea who you were listening to. They are like that: every few years, Hanson steps back into our cultural consciousness, releases a top 40 banger, and humbly fades away.

Hanson released a two-disk, 26-track greatest hits album a few months ago: “Middle of Everywhere,” which I bought immediately after watching them perform on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert (it’s worth a watch). What amazed me the most was not how much they had grown or changed across more than two decades of making music together, but how much they had stayed the same. Not only do the older songs hold up over time – MMMBop was 20 years old in 2017, and it still has its youthful sing-a-long charm and positive, hopeful message – but Hanson has maintained their essence over their entire lives. How many of us figure out our artist niche as children? These guys did. In the NPR concert, when they play “This Time Around,” I found myself remembering the all the words, despite not having heard it in two decades. Hanson is like that: subtle, memorable, enduring.

There is something about Hanson that is quintessential to American pop, a slice of our music culture at its best: pure, upbeat, hand-clapping tunes with joyful harmonies that only siblings could pull off. Hanson makes good music, then and now. They deserve a lot more attention than they get.

I want to see the sights unseen
I want the extraordinary
Everybody’s waking to the same clock
I could never be another chip off the block

Runners-ups:
“GONE” by ionnalee
“Echo in the Hills” by Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt (2014, but listened to it a lot this year)
“New Rules” by Dua Lipa

MOVIES/TV: TERRACE HOUSE: ALOHA STATE
Terrace House is seriously underappreciated.

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It is a reality TV show in which six young people – three guys, three girls – live together in a house, and everything they do is filmed. Think MTV’s Real World, but not quite so 90s and much more Japanese. The biggest difference is the tremendous, echoing absence of the kind of drama we have come to associate with American reality TV. Much of Terrace House is, as a friend put it, “delightfully mundane.” We watch them go to work and school. We watch them cook and clean together. We get to see their outings to beautiful places. Sometimes they fall in love. The best part about the show, though, is the extremely Japanese tradition of having a crew of commentators routinely interrupt the program to discuss what had happened and what they expect will happen next. They are hilarious; I can’t believe the US hasn’t adopted this practice yet.

When drama does happen –  well, first of all, it is incredibly low-key, since the Japanese are traditionally not super confrontational. But the tensions and arguments that do arise are emotional rollercoasters because they are entirely organic and authentic, not contrived by producers behind the scenes. When things get tough, you realize that these are real people with real lives and real feelings. You become invested in them and their happiness. You share in those quiet frustrations and awkward conversations because they are so deeply relatable. Terrace House captures the entirety of real lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes it so great, though, is how it shows that life is mostly good.

Aloha State – the first iteration of Terrace House to be filmed outside of Japan – was released on Netflix (worldwide) in late January, when my foot was broken and my own fate regarding living in Hawaii was up in the air. The second part was released shortly before I high-tailed it out of Pensacola, fully healed and confident that I was inching my way closer to the Aloha State. The third part came out when I was in Washington, only one school away from completing that wretched pipeline. Finally, the last part came out when I had arrived in Hawaii; I finished the last episode on the day I signed the lease to my apartment. I made it. So, yeah, this pick is a little sentimental, but it’s a good show and it gave me hope that I would make it to Hawaii someday.

Runners-up:
Get Out
The Last Jedi
My Brother, My Brother and Me
The Great British Bake-Off
Brooklyn Nine-Nine

BOOK: PRIESTDADDY by Patricia Lockwood
Boy, is it hard to pick just one, but it seems right to pick something that was published in 2017.

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Priestdaddy is a memoir about the author moving back in with her parents after her husband’s health troubles render them financially unstable. Her dad, somehow a Catholic priest, is a caricature of a man, especially a conservative man. Lockwood describes her childhood and adult interactions with her family in the most delightful, tender, earnest ways possible, but also with an edge of smarmy, self-aware standoffishness that I imagine must come naturally when writing about one’s family as though they were specimens under a microscope.

Seriously, though, Lockwood writes like a dream. She makes me want to write a book just like this one. It is the only book I read this year that made me laugh out loud like a maniac – multiple times. It is so, so funny – a perfect memoir.

Another reason why I chose Priestdaddy as my book of the year – and, argh, looking at the runners-up below, it was a tough choice – is that I could give this book to almost anyone and I know they will enjoy it. Lockwood’s family, despite being somewhat unusual, is described with such a familiarity that I think anyone can see their families in hers. It shows that you can be different from the people you love, and who love you, and still be important to one another.

If you read only one book this year, it should be this one.

Runners-up:
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2006)

GAME: LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD
zelda

I’ll be honest: I struggle to maintain interest in video games lately. I’ll play for an hour, tops, then be ready to do something else. This is a huge departure from years ago, when I would block off entire segments of my day to play MMORPGs and online FPSs. My entire college experience consisted of having nervous breakdowns over my courseload and evading depression in the forgiving arms of World of Warcraft. Probably less destructive than alcoholism, but definitely more embarrassing. Anyway, all of this to say that it was a surprise to find myself sinking many, many hours into a game again.

I have some discussion of the plot here, but I don’t think anything constitutes a spoiler. If you haven’t finished the game yet and don’t want any preconceptions, skip it. Otherwise, you’re probably in the clear.

A criticism that I often hear about BOTW is the lack of story. We have come to expect video games to be so cutscene-heavy that they are primarily movies and secondarily interactive. In BOTW, there is as much plot as one is willing to find. The “lack of story” criticism misses the point: Link wakes up completely devoid of memory. The story is revealed mostly through found objects, locations, and conversations – things that jog Link’s memory. The entire plot of the game is figuring out what went wrong a century ago so he and Zelda can make it right.

(And this game’s version of Zelda is so human, so unforgettable – a young princess with a destiny so important that she’s deeply insecure about her ability to fulfill it. Early memories show her as abrasive and arrogant, distrustful of Link and resentful of his presence, lashing out because she’s so afraid that she’s not good enough. I’ll admit that I got a little emotional watching Zelda’s anguish over her failure to accomplish what had been set out for her, especially as the fate of Hyrule rested on her shoulders.)

Here are some more accurate criticisms of BOTW: controlling the camera is extremely annoying, especially in battle; the world is so vast and full of things to discover that it is basically impossible to fully complete (at the time of this writing, I’ve finished the main story and am working on the DLCs, and I’m barely 25% of the way done!); the Blood Moon cutscenes are frustrating and intrusive and sometimes unskippable; the final boss fight was easy and a little underwhelming (though I didn’t play it on Master Mode).

And here are some more good things about BOTW: the secondary characters, especially the Champions and their descendants, are wonderful; the game is fun to play even if you’re just exploring the open world, and it feels like there is always something to find or do; the game design and music are so, so beautiful; Link’s ability to climb on and over anything (an unbelievably important but underappreciated development for this franchise) makes the world feel completely open to the player; the impermanence of weapons feels authentic and realistic; the physics of the game are extremely good and allow the players to find creative and unusual solutions to puzzles.

BOTW is the best game I’ve played in a long time. It has completely revived the somewhat stale, predictable “The Legend of Zelda” games in a really exciting way. I’ve put more than 100 hours into it, and I still have a long way to go. I’m okay with that.

tldr: Link is my son and I love him very much.

Runners-up:
PUBG
Bury me, my Love
Super Mario Odyssey

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