Jake: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
What it is: In Matt Ruff’s latest novel, an extended family of African American’s living in 1950s Chicago stumble across the spooky side of America. Atticus Turner and his uncle George Berry love genre fiction. They stay up late at night talking Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, much to the disapproval of Atticus’s father and George’s half-brother Montrose, who claims (rather accurately) that his family is celebrating the work of racists. But when Montrose disappears and leaves a trail leading to the definitely-not-haunted Ardham, Massachusetts (only one letter different from Lovecraft’s famous Arkham), their obsession with genre literature may be the key to saving the family.
Why it’s great: This book works on an incredible number of levels. The story itself is a series of interconnected vignettes that deal with different staples of early 20th century pulp fiction. There’s the creepy old New England manor, the haunted Chicago townhouse, the museum heist in pursuit of an eldritch grimoire, the pulpy science fiction portal to another world, and many others. All of these stories are narrated by a different member of the Turner/Berry family, and each chapter feels like a completely different sub-genre of pulp fiction. The connective tissue is in the themes and the characters. Instead of ignoring the racism inherent in Lovecraft’s stories, or acknowledging it and moving on, or lampshading it with a wink and a nervous chuckle, racism is the theme of the book, without any subtlety, which works entirely in Lovecraft Country’s favor. From the opening scenes of Atticus being unnecessarily hassled by sub-literate police officer, to the Amish-like cult of Ardham, the story never lets you forget that these characters are living in Jim Crow America. But somehow, miraculously (or diabolically depending on your disposition), the stories are fun. Atticus and his family are certified badasses, and seeing them work together with love and compassion and steely eyes and backbones of titanium is a special treat. It’s always great when a story forces you to think, but lets you have a good time doing it.
Nora: Shameless (US)
What it is: The 2011 U.S. version of a UK show from 2004. I generally don’t like U.S. versions of U.K. shows. I have a longstanding grouchiness knowing what kind of excellent folk have ideas for original TV Shows, and am generally frustrated by the idea that we couldn’t just watch the UK version. U.S. adaptations stink of money-making, and I heard enough about Skins and The Inbetweeners to stay far away. I tried to watch the UK version years ago, at which point I realized that it’s really hard to understand Manchester accents. When I heard about the U.S. Shameless, I thought I’d give it a try. It’s an ensemble kind of show, focused on the family of one Frank Gallagher, played by William H. Macy, an alcoholic deadbeat who only ever shows up to pass out on the floor of his low-income Chicago property. Oldest sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum) holds the family together as they navigate misadventure after misadventure.
Why you should watch it: Full disclosure, I’m only a couple of episodes in, and I hear it’s about to get a bit darker. However, so far the show has done a great job of treating darker material, not lightly, but with a sort of bemused detachment that doesn’t gloss over the scumminess of the characters and their situation, but looks for the ironies and humanity in them. As soon as they’re feeling too much sympathy the show throws in a punch, a kidnapping, maybe a to remind you how dysfunctional they are. I don’t know who did the branding, because the promo images are far more idiotic than the writing, and I am really enjoying the acting. There’s William H. Macy, who is worth it on his own, but Emmy Rossum, usually victim of my personal brand of irrational actress dislike, is enjoyable to watch, and easily the most sympathetic character (maybe too much so…I’d like to see an edge other than “party girl” on her). At the very least it’s motivating me to put on the closed captioning and delve into the original.