Obsessions #13: Oh Lydia, You’re Tárible
Everything I've been reading, watching and listening to this fall
This is Obsessions, a newsletter-within-a-newsletter highlighting everything I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and generally obsessing over for the past few months.
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What I’ve Been Reading
Making Love with the Land by Joshua Whitehead
Making Love with the Land was one of my most eagerly anticipated books of 2022. I’ve been a huge fan of Whitehead since I read his novel Jonny Appleseed, which I attended the Ottawa launch for all the way back in 2018. How’s THAT for niche Canadian literary street cred?!
The collection is made up of ten essays that ponder language, pain and bodies, with each one hitting even harder than the last. The highlight of the collection for me was "Me, The Joshua Tree," a letter to his ex-lover that had me ugly-crying. Whitehead writes in such an intimate, poetic and vulnerable way that's truly like nothing else. I haven't felt this moved by a book in a long time and am so grateful Whitehead shared it with the world.
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
Speaking of hotly anticipated follow-ups, Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage is her first book published following the success of her 2018 novel Severance (which I wrote about in this newsletter previously). This collection of short stories dabbles in surrealism while also exploring real-life themes like intimate partner violence and divorce.
However, the way Ma plays with form is truly the most impressive aspect of the collection, with the standout “Peking Duck” turning conventional short story logic completely on its head. While quite different from Severance, Bliss Montage is very impressive in its own way and definitely worth adding to your TBR pile.
Acting Class by Nick Drnaso
No one is making graphic novels quite like Nick Drnaso. This Chicago-based cartoonist has previously published Beverly and Sabrina, the latter of which was the first graphic novel longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Both works explore themes of alienation in the modern era, which are heightened by his minimalist, uncanny valley illustration style.
Acting Class continues in this vein, focusing on ten strangers who sign up for free acting classes at a community centre. I read this graphic novel in a feverish two-hour haze and even when my stomach was lurching, I couldn’t put it down. I also really loved this article by Alexander Tanner which compared it to The Rehearsal, although there are spoilers for both, so click at your own discretion.
It Came From The Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror by Joe Vallese
Just in time for the end of spooky season comes It Came From The Closet, an anthology of personal essays written by queer writers about horror films. A wide range of LGBTQ+ perspectives cover a wide range of scary movies, from Hitchcock to Hereditary.
Although anthologies are always a mixed bag, this one was especially well-done with a lot of unique readings of horror films both famous and not. I particularly enjoyed the essays by Jen Corrigan on Jaws, Addie Tsai on Dead Ringers and Steffan Triplett on Us. Still, my favourite was Carmen Maria Machado on Jennifer’s Body, which you can read online here. It features this extremely excellent footnote, which I can’t stop thinking about:
“As long as compulsory heteronormativity exists, queer people will pass through bisexuality at some point, however briefly. Some tear through it on a speedboat, heading for a more monosexual harbor, others circle, content, drinking aperitifs in the sun.”
What I’ve Been Watching
This was the third year in a row that my boyfriend and I tried to watch a scary movie each day in October. The thing that always strikes me the most about watching so much of a single genre in such a condensed amount of time is that you’ll get a lot of stinkers, but you’ll also stumble upon some real gems.
Some beloved movies I’d never seen before were The Omen and the original Wicker Man. Both are well-crafted ‘70s classics exploring themes of Christianity that I absolutely adored. Truly, nothing hits an ex-Catholic quite like religious horror!
Some of the trashier flicks I enjoyed were 1988’s cult slasher Night Of The Demons, 2009’s female manipulator-core Orphan and 1986’s critically loathed Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which honestly has some pretty astute commentary about gender politics and the Vietnam War?!
Awards season is around the corner and movie theatres are filled with Oscar bait, including many follow-ups by prestigious directors. There are some really excellent films playing right now and I would highly recommend going to your local indie to check one out, even if you’re not a big film buff.
One of my favourite recent releases is Triangle of Sadness, the latest film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ӧstlund. Focusing on models/influencers Carl and Yaya, the movie is a poignant satire on the excesses of wealth in late-stage capitalism. Although a bit long in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the film is a well-done examination of the power dynamics of class and will be extremely satisfying to any viewer who’s worked in customer service.
However, nothing has blown me away as much lately as much as Todd Field’s TÁR. Propelled by what might be the best Cate Blanchett performance ever, the film follows the unraveling of Lydia Tár, an internationally acclaimed composer. While I feel like Triangle of Sadness slightly dumbs down its themes at times, TÁR doesn’t give a fuck if you can’t keep up. From the moment it begins, it’s a demanding film experience that requires your full attention with an ending that made my head spin.
Ink Master (Season 14)
Returning for the first time since 2020, the latest season of tattoo competition show Ink Master features old faces many fans of the show will recognize, although I have never met anyone who actually watches this show besides me.
Listen: Ink Master is compulsively watchable. There are REAL people there getting REAL tattoos. They DON’T fix them afterward if they run out of time or fuck up. That, of course, is saved for the spin-off series, Ink Master: Redemption.
Ink Master’s stakes are pretty high, especially considering the fact that the contestants always try to intentionally fuck around by giving certain designs to artists who don’t normally work in that style. Is the drama manufactured? Yes. Is the judging inconsistent? Yes. Will I watch every season of this show that is ever produced for the rest of time? Yes.
What I’ve Been Listening To
Alvvays - Blue Rev
I’ll admit it: I was not a huge Alvvays fan before this album, brushing them off as inoffensive indie CanCon. But it only took me listening to a minute of “Lottery Noises” for me to change my mind and think, “Damn, is this GOOD?!”
The third album from the Toronto-based band is a swirling sonic treat. I’m really taken by how exquisitely layered the record sounds, combined with their signature pop melodies. There are tons of swelling guitars and synths that unexpectedly appear halfway through a song, a happy surprise that adds a lot of texture to the album.
Underneath the upbeat shoegaze-y production is a real feeling of sadness conveyed in frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocal delivery and lyrics, a juxtaposition I like to call the “New Order effect.” I already have tickets to see them on tour in March and just know I will cry my little eyes out!
Decoder Ring/McGruff the Crime Dog - Smart Kids Album
Ending this newsletter is perhaps one of the most random obsessions I’ve been struck by in years. While I’ve been a big fan of cultural mysteries podcast Decoder Ring for years, their recent two-part episode on McGruff the Crime Dog’s Smart Kids Album sent me down an Internet hole I cannot get out of.
The episodes detail the inception of McGruff the Crime Dog, a trenchcoat-wearing puppet mascot created in the 1980s to fight the war on drugs. They focus specifically on the 1986 album Smart Kids, a 27-minute cassette of synth-pop anti-drug propaganda disseminated in schools.
This album is one of the wildest things I have ever heard. Ten tracks of “Just Say NO!” micro-pop songs voiced by an unhinged-sounding puppet dog. Most of the songs are named after the substances they’re about, which is why half the tracks are titled things like “Inhalants” and “Alcohol.”
I know you probably want to hear what these songs sound like, but I must warn you: These are some of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard in my life. I first heard the chorus of “Crack & Cocaine” over a month ago and it has been replaying in my brain every second since. Listen at your own risk! (And yes, the album has been covered by a straight edge hardcore punk band.)