Discover more from Mohnish's Discovery
The Books and Movies to Start Off 2022 With a Bang
Or at least a muted melancholic appreciation for life's misfortunes. Either one works.
Hope you’re well, hope your family’s alive, and hope the dog is jumping up and down.
Because it’s 2022, it’s a new year, and that means it time for poorly designed stock images, new year’s resolutions, and a newsletter’s that about twenty-six days hopelessly too late.
But—hey—there’s some good news (scroll down for book recommendations if you’re impatient):
I got COVID at the beginning of the year but now I’m better.
I’d love to hear from you—so reply to this email if you want to say hi!
Third—I’ve got some absolutely killer book and movie recommendations.
In fact, this edition—more than most—I’m excited about because some of these books changed the course of my year.
Before that though—
One more thing (scroll past this to get to the book and movie recommendations)—
I think everyone is wounded.
Just in different degrees, in different ways, and to different respects.
And I don’t think there’s any exceptions, frankly.
We’re all on the spectrum—we all have human inside of us, and being human means having a fundamental vulnerability to be hurt, and to hold onto that hurt.
(Oh Jesus Christ Mohnish, way to change the tone on us)
What this means (and there’s a much more complicated, nuanced discussion of what this is):
There’s parts of ourselves that hold onto hurt.
There’s other parts of ourselves that protect that part from being felt, so they compensate in some other way, usually with ill-suited behavior (i.e. if your feelings were hurt routinely in P.E. class, you have a part of you that plays hours of video games to not feel that pain)
The variations are endless, and everyone has an idiosyncratic mix of hurts and compensations that’s unique to them.
But there’s software in the background of our minds. It’s running the code—you are in the matrix—and the first step to seeing it, is to look.
The way you talk. The way you brush things off. The way you relate to your girlfriend. The way you intellectualize everything. Your habits. The way you relate in fights. The way you watch TV to relax for a few hours. The reason you don’t like this, but you like that, but you think you like this.
All of it is is informed by a chain of experience, and it’s realizing this truth, I think, that’s at the heart of becoming a healthy person in the 21st century.
It’s one of the most useful things to know about the psyche—and it’s the doorway that leads to a certain kind of mini-liberation of the mind.
But before I bore you to absolute death—
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
The book that launched a publishing bidding war.
Jesus Goddamn Christ—I could talk about this book forever, but a few things to note:
I’m gonna showcase the first few sentences here, so you get a flavor of the book.
Before I do that, I need to tell you a mini-anecdote.
I finished the book at 1 or 2 or 12 o’clock (basically: late) and I had this feeling—this feeling wash over me.
My partner was asleep, I was on the floor of the living room and I had this very pointed feeling—I had to talk to someone. I had to talk to someone about this book or else I was going to discombobulate, so I immediately texted my buddy Kevin.
But the best part about all of this was that feeling of finishing something, putting it down, and thinking:
“Jesus, I can’t keep this to myself, I have to tell someone about this.”
Here’s the first few sentences of the book:
“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. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.”
That’s good writing. In fact, it’s stellar writing, and Tartt (I immediately picked up The Goldfinch afterwards, finished it, now onto The Little Friend) actually caused a bidding-war among publishers when the book (this is her first) was being optioned off.
A bidding war. In my head, what I’m imagining is very furious telephone calls sometime in the early 1990’s, people losing their collective fucking minds over getting the rights.
And it’s that good. The book—from a technical perspective—does a few things absurdly well, and it’s the reason the book is so, so, so, so good it’s almost mind-numbing.
First, it’s not just the writing—the psychological precision of the characters is deep.
I recently saw Spider-Man: No Way Home (I loved it, go see it), and I’ve been a Spider-Man fan since childhood. But what’s different about novels like this, and movies like that, is that there is a depth of psychological nuance that is just very, very hard to find nowadays.
Meaning—you read these characters, you hear them talk, the way they describe their inner life, and all of a sudden, they feel as real as yourself.
Characters, on some level, can feel flimsy. They’re like one-dimensional puppet-shows.
You put your hand in front of the projector screen, you make your fingers do a thing, and then all of a sudden, your hand vaguely looks like a dog.
But here, the writing and psychology of the characters is so real, so imagined in all of it’s twists and nuances, that it feels like you’re reading—or living—a biography of someone actually deal with the consequences of a terrible crime (the murder of the aforementioned “Bunny”) and it feels so real it is almost too much. It’s this sense of gravity, this psychological reality, that grounds the book, and another thing—
The details. Tartt command of details pops the book into a life of it’s own. Real life is defined by it’s details, and when details (small, even imagined, but weird, quirky) come into the fore, it has the flavor of reality. Take two sentences, for example:
Jane walked up the street and into the store.
Jane walked past Broadway Ave and went into the corner deli, Big Joe’s, which always smelled like Taco Bell sauce, for some reason.
The second sentence feels more real simply because of the detail—and the oddity of it—and Tartt is a master (if, to be fair, an overdoer) of detail. She adds it in—from the character talking about their Greek classes, to the architecture, to the aesthetics (think dark academia), to the ways Richard Papen (our protagonist) works things out in his mind, the subtle ways that people move and go about the world.
And the last thing I’d like to talk about is the immersion. I think immersion works on a few levels:
You read a book and you’re into it, but it’s just that.
You read a book and you feel like you can smell the paint on the wall and feel the heartbeat of the characters and you’re in the room with them.
Psychological precision + detail + many other elements I’m not talking about here, add up to a complete immersive quality that Tartt—I think—has mastered, making her (and kill me for saying this) one of the great contemporary masters of the 21st century. Her command of prose forces the reader to be inside of the room, and the room you’re in is one of slow-boil suspense, which is: you know the crime. You know what happens. You know who’s murdered. So now you’re just strung along, trying to put the pieces together of—how does it happen? How does Richard get tangled up with his friends in a murder-plot?
In an 1992 interview with Charlie Rose, Tartt says (edited lightly):
“I love Alfred Hitchcock, and I read something he said—he said: ‘suspense doesn’t come from having a bomb thrown from nowhere at the hero. Suspense comes from having two people sitting, talking at a table—there’s a bomb ticking underneath the table—and the audience sees it, but the characters don’t, and that’s what suspense is.’
And I don’t know. In a funny way, that was what made me want to write this sort of novel.”
A Life of Adventure and Delight, by Akhil Sharma
Honesty so brutally tender, you’ll almost flinch.
A bird flying in the meadow; weightless, whizzing through.
All of a sudden, the storm is grey, the clouds are full, and a bolt of lightning eviscerates the bird.
This is how I’d describe Akhil Sharma’s writing.
Sharma, from an interview in the Nashville Review:
“When I was a child I used to cry when I finished a book because I would never see these characters again. I did this for good books and bad—for novelizations of movies such as Swiss Family Robinson and for the actual Robinson Crusoe. All these books, good and bad, shaped me. What they gave me was a sense of what I wanted a book to do, be as real as life and to matter more than life.”
Akhil is, to be blunt, one of the best living writers today, and he is—in some respects—the opposite of Donna Tartt.
Where Tartt inundates you with prose and description, Akhil is economical, fast—his prose is the bird in the meadow, passing through like a lovely blur.
But what’s best about Sharma—what I love him most for—is that he is the best writer I’ve ever encountered who really nails sadness—the depth of it, the strangeness of it, the feeling of being cast about and the world moving on without you in some strange way that feels almost unreal and incomprehensible.
From a technical perspective, I think it’s because there’s a sense of resignation in the prose itself—a resignated (read: unsentimental) narrator contemplating the devastating realities of their life, in detail both small and large, equals a very, very powerful effect on the reader, because when the narrator has this ‘resigned’ quality, it makes the actual devastation so much more real—and even more profound.
There’s a beautiful and quiet devastation that trademarks these characters in and throughout their lives. Cosmopolitan—the first short story in the collection—was my personal favorite, but each story is successively different and yet, personified by this metaphor:
Bird flies. Bird is wounded. Bird has to live.
And yet—before I scare you off to this book—what Sharma does (which is what I think is so fucking skillful) is that he makes this devastation quietly beautiful.
For some reason, devastation in real life just sucks. Seeing it honored, though, within the prism of fiction, makes it beautiful.
It’s strange, narrative alchemy (I have a personal theory on this) but it’s the quiet beauty that I think is a result of the prose being so spare and quick and light and fast, the prose having a nice, lovely evenness to it, an “unsentimentally” that cuts right to the heart.
“Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep, in love with my husband. I did not know then, lying in bed and looking out the window at the line of gray clouds, that my love would last only a few hours and that I would never again care for Rajinder with the same urgency - never again in the five homes we would share and through the two daughters and one son we would also share, though unevenly and with great bitterness. I did not know this then, suddenly awake and only twenty-six, with a husband not much older, nor did I know that the memory of the coming hours would periodically overwhelm me throughout my life.”
The second best book I read last year, right after Sharma’s Family Life.
Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín
There is a tension in life, and the tension goes like this—
In real life, you’re a person. Authentic. True. You have a sense (or glimmers) of who you really are.
But then there’s part of us that’s maybe insecure, or maybe wants something (i.e. generally wants something to paper over the insecurity), and then—all of a sudden—we make friends with people who don’t quite fit us, try to go to spaces and places and do things that don’t quite match who we are, and we try, essentially, to be people we aren’t.
This tension defines Pablo Larraín’s masterpiece, Spencer—which I absolutely fucking adored, and was the best film I saw last year (even with the fact that Dune existed last year).
I loved, loved, loved this film, and a few things that really make this film work:
This philosophical tension is given real, emotional weight. You feel the subjectivity of the Princess of Wales being in a place, a role, and a house that doesn’t jibe with who she is.
This quality—not being comfortable in the place one is in—is exemplified to perfection by Kirsten Stewart. There was something my sister said off-hand on a phone call, and I didn’t check to verify, but it was something like (paraphrasing) “I think Kirsten Stewart never entirely felt comfortable in the Hollywood system, so she kind of channeled that energy into the film.” No idea if that’s true—so fact check me—but, if it is, completely checks out.
Kirsten Stewart actually disappears and Houdini’s out of the picture. The only person here is Princess Diana.
One point I love to talk about—and one of the things I talked about with my girlfriend walking outside the theater in Portland—is that history has (as the movie Jackie says nearly verbatim) a way of being dead to us.
Like a meaningless collection of facts.
History does matter—it’s a subject that encapsulates the swath of human behavior (of civilizations, patterns, people, movements, etc.) and it’s that swath that’s not only intrinsically fun to learn about, but also gives us more context into who we are, where we’re going, and how we ended up here. Rich lessons in human nature are found in history.
That being said: I get it. History can be boring. That’s why Pablo Larraín is doing a fucking public service here—he’s subjectifying history in the best of ways, giving it real emotional weight through the lens of Princess Diana’s very emotional experience.
Outside of whether or not this film gets you interested in history (and I’m not really sure if that’s the aim here), the film is good just as a film, and a simple portrait of the Princess trying to fit in where she can’t, and dealing with those repercussions.
It’s that human theme, I think, that I just loved—because you can relate to it. We all can.
Deeply profound, moving, and incredibly subjective (literally the closest shots of Kirsten Stewart’s face you’ll ever encounter), Spencer’s awesome. Go check it out.
Quickfire is books, movies—blazing hot one-sentence-ish (not really) recommendations so fast you can’t even think.
Ted Lasso — Most people didn’t get to see their friends this year—or the year before that (or the year before that). Ted Lasso is the gap, the fill-in team, and it’s like the most the most lovable, wonderful, fun friends you’ve never quite had, who all have to deal with the trials and tribulations of running a football club. When it’s over, there’s a genuine emptiness—your friends are gone, and you don’t get to hang out with them anymore.
There Will Be Blood — A movie that’s just a swell portrait of hatred. Uncanny work by Daniel Day-Lewis—I mean, literally mind-blowing.
The Matrix — In 1999, I didn’t see the Matrix in theaters because I was approximately three feet tall, and five years old. I just rewatched the first one and it is so good. One of the movies that changed my life.
The Goldfinch — This book is so long you could take the physical version of it and beat someone to death, but it’s a ride, it’s by Donna Tartt, and I loved it.
That’s all for now folks!
Again—if you liked it, I’d love to hear from you (just reply to this email).
And of course, the best compliment you can pay a writer is recommending it to someone else. If you found this useful, sharing helps!
Thanks for reading—until next time,