Must Do’s: What we like this week

Brits are obsessed with homicide in "The Invention of Murder," and survivalists get "Naked and Afraid" on an island

Topics: Our Picks, Our Picks: Books, Our Picks: Movies, What to Read, The Listener, literature, Film, TV, Critics, Criticism, entertainment news, Crime, Homicide, Murder, naked and afraid, Drug Wars, Tampa,

Must Do’s: What we like this week (Credit: Discovery Channel)

BOOKS

In “The Invention of Murder,” Judith Flanders recounts the rise of true crime and homicide in popular British culture during the 19th century to become one of the most popular genres in modern history. From theater to literature and beyond, Flanders’ follows famous detectives and criminals, and the endless media circus surrounding their crimes, in an account that is “endlessly absorbing,” writes Laura Miller:

“The Invention of Murder” does not argue a major or provocative thesis; instead it’s a panorama of strange and interesting information, such as the fact that in 1810, only 15 people were convicted of murder (out of a population of 10 million) in all of England and Wales. (That’s a little more than 5 percent of the per-capita murder rate of the U.S. in 2007.) When someone was murdered in Britain, even in a scenario we might consider relatively unremarkable — such as a confirmed criminal offing one of his confederates — it was a big deal. The first such case Flanders covers in depth was the 1823 killing of William Weare, a professional gambler, by John Thurtell, another gambler and sometime prizefight promoter (reportedly crooked). Thurtell, with a friend, lured Weare out to the country and shot him, in the belief that he carried 2,000 pounds in savings on his person. (In truth, Weare had only 15 pounds.) The two men stuffed Weare’s body in a sack and dumped it in a pond, moving it to another pond a bit later.

When challenged with narrating a book about pedophilia, the speaker will often subtly extricate themselves from the story, writes Kyle Minor. This is not the case in Alissa Nutting’s debut novel “Tampa,” where the author shies not from voicing the cold, first-person narrative of her female protagonist, a predatory teacher intent on seducing her high-school students:

But the porny language isn’t appropriated unthinkingly, or solely to titillate. This isn’t a pedophiliac “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Instead, Nutting is up to two rather sophisticated things. “Tampa” is a satire, and like the best of satires, it has a deadly seriousness at its center. The default mindset of contemporary American culture goes like this: When we think of pedophiles, we think of men, and when we think of beautiful women having sex with adolescent boys, the cultural norm might be to think: way to go, buddy! So Nutting pushes the interior life of her narrator past the point at which the reader might sympathize. Her great and exaggerated cold want makes it all but impossible to avoid seeing the ugliness and exploitation at its center.

At the same time, because Nutting is so good at writing the sexual stuff in a titillating manner, the reader must reckon with the possibility that reading about this particular variety of predation is at the same time turning the reader on — a thing that seems less likely for readers of all genders and sexual orientations if the story were following, instead, the sexual exploitation of an adolescent girl by an adult man.

MOVIES

Pick of the week: China's dark and dirty

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The Chinese film, “Drug War,” may have all the shootouts and tense surveillance scenes of a typical action movie, writes Andrew O’Hehir, but this dark new production from Hong Kong director Johnnie To differs from its American counterparts in a number of noticeable ways:

No American remake is likely to duplicate To’s relentless forward momentum or his refusal to waste time on the jokey character byplay Hollywood audiences are used to. Maybe it can simulate this movie’s noirish blend of stoicism and fatalism – qualities arguably borrowed from classic American crime cinema in the first place – but there’s no way in hell it will end on the same chord of cataclysmic, even nihilistic violence To strikes in “Drug War.” All this daring and initiative and skullduggery, on the part of cops and criminals alike, leads to the same destination. In fact, “Drug War” comes about as close to social criticism as a mainstream Chinese filmmaker can go in the contemporary climate, engaging issues like the death penalty (routinely handed out to mid-level drug dealers), police misconduct and official corruption. Some critics who follow the Chinese film world have even suggested that To took this assignment partly to see how much he could get away with. He gets a wider berth than others might, I’m guessing, partly because he’s a big name from Hong Kong, and partly because he’s making a thriller and disavows any specific political agenda.

TELEVISION

You should be watching

The Discovery Channel’s ”Naked and Afraid” is more than just sunburned men in speedos and women in skimpy sundresses pairing up with strangers to survive on an Island. It’s also a surprisingly “heartwarming” and humorous look at relationships, as most reality TV shows are, writes Charlotte Shane:

Under these circumstances, and given the strong personalities the show (and probably survivalism as a hobby) attracts, it can be hard not to see “Naked and Afraid” as a battle of the sexes. “I’m trying to tread lightly, and respect you as a man,” the impressively capable Alison says to relatively helpless Jonathan, “but you’re condescending towards me.” “Condescending?” he barks out. “You’re crazy!” “I hope he doesn’t expect me to be a good little housewife,” hunter Kellie says of her uber-masculine partner, EJ, in advance of their meeting. Gender stereotypes are front and center in the minds of the participants in a much more durable way than is their own nakedness, which is prescient. Expectations about what roles each person should play are so deeply ingrained that they regularly come up in each participant’s monologue, if not in conversation with each other. “Women aren’t natural hunters,” Shane tells his partner, Kim, one night while they share the dinner he killed. “They’re pussies.”

Liz Fields is an Australian freelance journalist based in New York who has previously scribbled for Slate, ABC News, Sydney Morning Herald and more. Follow her on Twitter @lianzifields

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