The Young, the Psycho, the War-torn, the Aging, & the Beachy | What We’re Reading & Watching

LJ and School Library Journal staffers contemplate mortality, parse a prequel, witness war and its effects on “normal” people, and escape to Nantucket this week in “What We’re Reading & Watching.”

BatesMotelMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
“Sometimes we all go a little mad. Haven’t you?” No, that’s not me going off the deep end as the latest magazine deadline looms—it’s a quote from one of my favorite films, Psycho. And speaking of Psycho, I’ve been watching the fifth and final season of Bates Motel, an A&E TV series that imagines the years before Norman Bates truly went mad and ended up slashing up poor Marion Crane in the shower.

Set during the present, Bates Motel is less a prequel in the classic sense and more a reimagining—almost fan fiction. Whereas with his remake, director Gus Van Sant faithfully re-created every scene of Hitchcock’s original, the creators of Bates Motel have taken various elements of the movie and shaken them up for a distorted but ultimately compelling take on now iconic characters. This version begins with a 17-year-old Norman moving to White Pine Bay, OR, with his mother, Norma, after the death of his father. Norman and his mother are certainly a little closer than most mothers and sons, but the oddest elements of the show come not from their intense bond but from the town itself—White Pine Bay has a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe to it. There’s gang warfare, a sex trafficking ring, and murder, murder, murder (at least two per season!).

What holds my interest, even when the TV show goes off the deep end at times, is the strong relationship between Norma and Norman, played, respectively by the lovely Vera Farmiga (who’s no stranger to bringing up bizarre kids—she played the mother of Bad Seed characters in Joshua and the Orphan) and Freddie Highmore (yup, the sweet little boy from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Over the years, the show has delved into these two characters’ psychology, attempting to explain some of the family dysfunction. We eventually learn that Norman’s older half brother, Dylan, is the product of a nonconsensual incestuous relationship between Norma and her older brother, Caleb, and that Norman developed an especially close rapport with his mother as a result of the abuse Norma endured at the hands of Norman’s late father. Both Highmore and Farmiga excel at humanizing their characters without glossing over their flaws. Highmore is especially intriguing as he goes from gawky and downright endearing to brooding, with just a hint of menace—he’s mastered the unnerving stare that Anthony Perkins perfected in Psycho.

There are plenty of nods to the original film, such as Norma doing everything she can to stop the town from erecting the bypass that would drive business away from the Bates Motel in Psycho, and Norman developing his love of taxidermy, but the writers have had free rein to make the series their own—and boy have they. This latest season hews very closely to the film: we finally meet Marion Crane (in this iteration, she’s played by Rihanna), who’s having an affair with a married Sam Loomis. Sam’s wife, who works in the hardware store, has been flirting with Norman (no, this isn’t Peyton Place meets Psycho!). In the most recent episode that I’ve seen, Marion has just pulled up to the Bates Motel with $400,000 in cash, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

LastNightViperKate DiGirolomo, SELF-e Community Coordinator
It was 2001 when I first saw Stand by Me and only learned that River Phoenix was dead after eagerly running to the computer to see what he’d grown up to look like. I suppose it’s strange to mourn an actor so many years after their death, but it felt all too real to my 14-year-old self, and I spent the rest of that summer burning through his filmography in devastated tribute. Fast way forward to a week ago, when I caught a glimpse of his face on a book a fellow commuter was reading. After a bit of subtle investigation, I ordered Gavin Edwards’s Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind (Dey St: HarperCollins) when I got home. Edwards has pulled research from every available source to piece together who River was, why he was, and how he ended up dying on the street outside a nightclub. His haunting introduction dropped my stomach in the same way being unexpectedly met with River’s date-of-death as a teenager did, and I’ve been ruminating on something his then-girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, said: “It was completely shattering. It was hard to conceive of your mortality at that age. It’s really strange now, to think that I’m not 23, and he’ll always be 23.”

 

Feud.JackieH.MamacitaLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Usually I’m all over suspense, thriller, and mystery titles, but my most recent reads have left me cold—or just indifferent. I pegged the murderers pretty quickly in two of them and grew exasperated at the attempts to make a small-town-with-secrets murder story more literary in a third. Time for a palate cleanser, but what? I haven’t figured that out yet, but I did enjoy watching the final episode of Ryan Murphy’s creative miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan. If Jessica Lange does not get an Emmy Award for her performance as Joan Crawford, I might have to picket the organization’s offices, wherever they are. And same for Jackie Hoffman, scene-stealer extraordinaire, who played Crawford’s inscrutable German maid, Mamacita. The amount of talent in this small-screen extravaganza was vast, and while some of the plot points were a little duh-worthy, overall it was good TV. Now to find a new reading jag, or miniseries jag. Anybody seen Bosch?

HanKang.HumanActsLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I recently finished Han Kang’s Human Acts (Hogarth: Crown), which was beautiful and harrowing. Both the writing and translation (by Deborah Smith) are lovely, which serves to hammer home the way violence—maybe especially when it’s political in origin—has implications for years and generations afterward. The book is a series of narratives of ordinary people caught up in the student uprising and military massacre in Guangju, South Korea, in May 1980, beginning with one 15-year-old boy and spiraling outward, including an arresting author epilog. It’s not an easy or comfortable read—a lot of it is very violent, encompassing human acts ranging from torture to the tender washing and dressing of anonymous dead bodies—but it’s a strong and I think necessary one.

Not only does this novel provide a window into an event that happened nearly 40 years ago, which was given pretty short shrift in American news, as well as make a horrific historical event more real, it also reminds us that this is what can happen to ordinary people living ordinary lives in an unstable and militaristic regime… and shouldn’t that sound at least a little familiar to all of us in 2017? In one of the later chapters, “The Factory Girl,” as events in Guangju ramp up—the rise of a militaristic leader to fill the power void left by an assassinated president, the institutionalization of media censorship and misinformation, and the violent arrests of protesters—the young narrator says:

Through the newspapers, you witnessed the seemingly inexorable rise of Chun Doo-hwan, the young general who had been the former president’s favorite. You could practically see him in your mind’s eye, riding into Seoul on a tank as in a Roman triumph, swiftly appropriating the highest position in the central government. Goose bumps rose on your arms and neck. Frightening things are going to happen. The middle-aged tailor used to tease you: “You’re cozying up with that newspaper like it’s your new beau, Miss Lim. What a thing it is to be  young, and be able to read such fine print without glasses.”

And man, that gave me a full-body shiver. A flicker of a reminder to all of us who have thought the same thing in the past three months, which I imagine is most of us. Pay attention.

Thayer.Secrets.SummerHenrietta Verma, WWR/WWW emerita
I just read Nancy Thayer’s Secrets in Summer (Ballantine). You can’t go wrong with Thayer for a bit of escapism, which I am more than in the market for lately. She doesn’t write anything unexpected—family and romance drama on Nantucket is her bread and butter—and sometimes that’s perfect. This book features a professionally realistic (hallelujah!) children’s librarian who lives happily alone in her inherited island home, which is a peaceful idyll until her obnoxious ex-husband happens to rent the house next door. There’s boyfriend and kid drama, too, all adding up to an easy, enjoyable read. Thayer fans will eat this up; it’s also a fine read-alike for those who relish Maeve Binchy’s novels.

 

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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench

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