Spies, Racists and Stalkers: This Month's Pop Culture Playlist

Jessica Zafra breaks down all the books she's read and every movie and TV show she's watched so far in 2019.


Transcription by Kate Atkinson

A new novel by Kate Atkinson is reason to cancel all appointments, turn off the phone and stay in bed reading the book in your pajamas. Coming after what may be her finest novels, Life After Life and A God In Ruins (though you can make a case for her Jackson Brodie detective novels), Transcription has a high bar to clear, and it wisely does not attempt this. This spy novel set in World War II has a throwaway quality, almost as if the author were talking to herself. The naïve 18-year-old heroine Juliet is warned about trusting coincidences, which pile up as the story careens to an end. But it is wonderfully entertaining, even if it is now mixed up in my head with another novel with a female spy, Restless by William Boyd. 

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

Yes, I’m still on my Central European reading list. For this I blame the New York Review of Books reissues of almost-forgotten works, which hypnotized me with their solid-colored spines and beautiful covers. Hrabal, Krudy, Szabo, Prus…so I went to Central Europe and wrote a travel book. Please buy it.


Once and Forever by Kenji Miyazawa

Odd fables the length of an elevator ride that will haunt you for days.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I imagine the prompt was: If you could learn the exact date of your death, would you? The four Gold siblings of New York got the dates when they were kids. This is what happened next.



The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos

Well Lanthimos is on a roll. A reminder that the world has always been run by the mean and petty, but it somehow muddles on.

BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee

Brilliant. Meta on meta on meta, but the cruelest twist is reality.

Zama by Lucia Martel

I think of it as a sequel to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. A Spanish colonial official in Paraguay waits for his transfer to Spain. And waits. And waits. 

Green Book by Peter Farrelly

It’s a reverse-Driving Miss Daisy, with Viggo Mortensen in his first Oscar-nominated role that does not include full-frontal nudity.

RBG (documentary) by Betsy West and Julie Cohen

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at Harvard Law School, one of just two women in her class, she was asked to explain why she was taking a slot that should’ve gone to a man. Grrrrr. Good thing she had a supportive husband, also a lawyer, who was not threatened by her.

The Old Man and the Gun by David Lowery

Robert Redford, in what is supposedly his last film role, as an old ex-con who really just loves robbing banks. Tom Waits is his cohort, so I feel they should’ve hopped a freight train after each job. 

Recommended Videos

Vice by Adam McKay

Christian Bale has to stop gaining and losing ridiculous amounts of weight for his roles. This method is also known as “I really want an Oscar” (He already has one, Supporting). Is the role of Dick Cheney meaty enough to risk damaging his health? No, and I speak as one who loved McKay’s previous movie, The Big Short. Amy Adams is her usual brilliant self, and I fear she will still not get that Oscar. (She should’ve won for Arrival, and she wasn’t even nominated.)

Bad Times at the El Royale by Drew Goddard

A clever exercise, maybe too clever, with characters reminiscent of Charles Manson, Darlene Love, Phil Spector and other 60s figures. Chris Hemsworth, with his snaky hips, really wants to be in a dance movie. It’s like The Hateful Eight where everyone is bathed and clean-shaven. 

Red Sparrow by Francis Lawrence

Trashy spy thrillers are good palate cleansers.

Close by Vicky Jewson

A ludicrous script and laughable dialogue, but effective action scenes and Noomi Rapace, always a credible badass, whether she is stapling her stomach shut in Prometheus or guarding a spoiled heiress in this one. 

Leap Year by Anand Tucker (2010)

How is it possible to make a romantic comedy with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode in which everything falls flat? Ask the director of this stinker. I only watched it because after A Discovery of Witches I wanted more Matthew Goode.

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook (2013)

Undercooked but a visually arresting Hitchcock homage with the aforementioned Goode as the uncle who turns up after the father’s sudden death. He’s even called Charlie, like in Shadow of a Doubt. Now I have to rewatch Shadow of a Doubt.


Bitter Melon by H.P. Mendoza

A sharp, well-observed film by the Fil-American writer of the musical Colma. What starts out as a comedy about a Fil-Am family reunion in Oakland at Christmas takes a dark turn as the siblings confront the reality of abuse, domestic violence, misogyny, and trauma. The most disturbing thing about the family in Bitter Melon is how typical they are.

American Made by Doug Liman

Tom Cruise on a plane, based on a bizarre true-life CIA plot.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Marielle Heller

I saw a lot of movies in January, and this is the one that gut-punched me. Based on the autobiography of Lee Israel, a writer who couldn’t get a book deal, who ended up forging letters by famous writers. Her fake letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward sounded so authentic, they fooled everyone. Melissa McCarthy is genius as the hard-drinking, caustic Israel, and Richard E. Grant is delightful as her only friend. I think of this as the horror version of my life, down to the cat. When she takes her ailing cat to the vet, who refuses treatment unless she pays her outstanding bill, it nearly killed me. Her loneliness is an almost physical pain. You think the writing life is romantic? Watch this.



The ABC Murders (3 episodes)

John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot in a Brexit-era reimagining of the Agatha Christie novel that futzes with Poirot’s history, displeasing the fans. I like the Agatha Christie TV series of the 80s and 90s because terrible things happen, but order is restored in the end, and everyone is polite and lives in a nice house. The adaptations of recent years take a different approach, i.e. bleak and depressing.


Pose (8 episodes)

Have you seen Paris Is Burning? Pose is Ryan Murphy’s ode to the New York ballroom culture of the late 1980s, where voguing was born, shade was thrown, and the perpetual outcasts competed at “passing.” It’s really about trans and gay people, disowned by their biological families, coming together to form their own families. 

Pop, Pride and Prejudice (documentary)

How musicians like Jimmy Somerville, Erasure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and George Michael helped break down the closet doors.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

What a concept! It doesn’t always work, but what a concept! Fine, they didn’t invent the format, but they adapted it successfully for the screen. Frumious, as we say in Jabberwocky.

A Discovery of Witches

Based on Deborah Harkness’s trilogy, it’s part-Harry Potter and part-Twilight, and the main reason to watch it is Matthew Goode as a vampire. It’s very silly, but every time he’s onscreen you can imagine a better TV series.


I watched the first episode, in which handsome, articulate bookstore manager Penn Badgeley is revealed to be a stalker and a murderer, and I thought, “Uh-oh, the viewers are going to fall for the bad man.” And they did.


Jessica Zafra’s latest book Twisted Travels: Rambles in Central Europe is available at Fully Booked stores,, and

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