Thursday, July 31, 2014

The saga endeth

I have finished reading Ian Doescher's William Shakespeare's Star Wars and I approve. The Jedi Doth Return has a lot of charm and is brimming with wit. There are, perhaps, too many soliloquies but I suppose that's to be expected when you're wrapping up a series and getting all of the characters' houses in order.

Darth Vader is wonderful: I really like the way Doescher frames his conflict and sets him up as a sympathetic character. Doescher does a much better job of communicating Vader's motivations and Anakin's faults and strengths than Lucas ever did.

Leia and Han are adorable, 3PO and R2 are a delightful comic foil for the rest of the cast, and - shockingly - the Ewoks are charming. There's a note in the afterword about the trouble that Doesher had with their language and his exhaustion with the cuddly beasts but he did a great job of solving those problems in a way that made them admirable and cute at the same time.

Luke is something of a blank in this novel but I suppose that's the part of the hero - he doesn't have to have his own personality, he just has to be something for your personality to reflect from. I did find myself wishing that there was a little more to Luke, but there was enough substance in everyone else to make up for it.

     - Alli

Doescher, Ian. William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Jedi Doth Return. Quirk Books.
     Philadelphia: Pennsylvania. 2014.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Red walks into a swamp...

I'm waiting for someone to realize that comic book books don't work and comic book movies only work well once in a blue moon. I think I'm probably going to be waiting for quite a while.

Emerald Hell is by no means bad (though I did get pretty irked by the repetition of the words "emerald hell" throughout the book) but it's totally superfluous. It's got the exact same structure as every other HB book I've read but, because those books were comic books, it doesn't look anywhere near as cool.

The vocabulary is fitting for a book written for a comic-reading audience, the characters do everything that you expect them to, and there's a lot of really shitty dialogue. This is a middling novel but it would make a pretty awesome comic so I'm just a little confused as to why we have a novel of this story instead of a comic.

I know art is hard. I know doing pages is hard. I know that it takes a TON of effort to make a comic book and that effort rests heavily on the shoulders of an artist who might not be up to it - but it takes a ton of effort to write a novel too and so I sort of feel like this was a wasted effort. It's got everything that makes HB awesome - all of Hellboy's personality and quirks, weird witches in the woods, a spooky formerly-human bad guy - except for the kickass visuals and the kickass visuals are why I read Hellboy comics instead of watching Inspector Gadget. Without the image of Red coming in and breaking things and looking grim and stomping on skulls a Hellboy story and an Inspector Gadget cartoon are the same thing - shaking the mystery tree until clues fall out. Sure Piccirilli tells us that HB is kicking ass but it's not the same thing as seeing him kick ass, which is the entire point of reading comics.

Piccirilli, Tom. Emerald Hell. Dark Horse Books. New York: New York. 2008.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Keys to the Kingdom

Like Lisey's Story, Duma Key is a tale of losing something precious and finding something horrible. It's also an excursion into stunning visions of beauty.

People like to talk about the way King builds characters and settings an awful lot, and it's true - most of King's characters, even his most minor characters, are typically round and dynamic; the towns that King builds are eerily present as you read his novels. But none of that really stands up to the way he gives you his eyes.

Duma Key has a great story and lots of interesting people and takes place on a spooky Key off the coast of Florida, but most of all the novel paints pictures for you. There's very little in it that you'd be fuzzy on if you were pressed to draw it - everything from the Bride of the Godfather's shoes to a chain of rainbow-colored frogs to anger-management dolls is described in vivid and disturbing detail, raising the highlights and shadows to the brilliant contrast of a sunset over the water.

The novel as a whole is pretty damned solid - not as firm and frightening as The Stand or The Shining, perhaps - but the real triumph of the story is in the seeing. Duma Key makes its gifts and its nightmares clear to the reader and you're trapped within its feral beauty for better or for worse.

Largely it's for better. I don't think Duma Key is anyone's favorite King work, but it's well worth reading if only because it will drive you to create. Art is a gift, and the gift is hungry - this is what King passes on, more than anything else, with Duma Key.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Duma Key. Scribner. New York: New York. 2008.


It's only on this most recent reading of Lisey's Story that I'm beginning to realize how much of Stephen King's post-2000 fiction is more about loss than it is about horror or darkness.

Don't get me wrong, the darkness loves him and he still dances well with it, but we're not really seeing darker halves or werewolves or vampires in King stories nowadays - we're seeing people nearly destroyed by the loss of a loved one, or a timeframe, or a job, or a limb and trying to struggle back to the light and dragging us with them.

This feeling kept booming through me when I was reading 11/22/63 - Jake's loss of Sadie is very thoroughly expressed and totally heartrending - but it really rolled to the forefront of my mind while following Little Lisey through the pages as she loses one person after another and suffers and suffers and suffers for it.

I'm not the sanest booby in the hatch and I'm well aware that I have dependency issues so maybe I shouldn't read books like this, but it's not going to stop me. Lisey's Story makes magic out of mourning: it breathes in the sweet small jokes and touches that fill up a good relationship and exhales them as poison when the sun goes down.

In the afterword King reminds his readers that he's a writer of fiction and not to think that Lisey is supposed to be an analogue of Tabitha King, and I don't believe she is. But I do believe that King loves his wife, maybe a little harder than is healthy, and revels in that love. Only someone deeply in love can fear loss and communicate that jagged, mourning word "alone" as well as King does in Lisey's Story.

So kiss your baby ... babyluv and try not to dance too much in the darkness.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Lisey's Story. Scribner. New York: New York. 2006.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

An extremely odd tourist guide

I'm not big on tourist guides - they never seem to have the information that you really want to know - by my Mother-in-law gave me this book for my birthday a couple of years ago, and my husband and I are planning to move to Washington so I figured I'd give it a read.

Washington reaffirmed my dislike of tourist guides but wasn't wholly useless. There's a fair amount of interesting historical information, and some minimal discussion of useful geography, along with a fair number of decent maps.

It's the other stuff that drives me crazy. Sure, there were a bunch of helpful phone numbers for reservations at the Space Needle or a winery tour on the eastern side of the state, but there are also a whole lot of authorial idiosyncrasies that I just can't get behind.

One of those is the incredibly strange language surrounding Spokane in the book. There's a lot of longing and whimsy in the writing but I know people who have seen Spokane and they all describe it as "not quite a pit". That doesn't mesh with Doerper's description as "one of the most beautiful cities on the west coast," neither does this picture:

In which you can see that most of the buildings are either from the school of 80s Skyscraper Ugly or Turn-of-the-century Brick-and-Smokestack. Though the bridge is pretty nice, as are the mountains and trees - but pretty scenery does not a pretty city make. There's also a truly strange interlude in the discussion of farmland around Spokane in which an unnamed, mangled farmer and his wife hope that someone will want to keep up the way of life that took the man's arm - the story is dropped in there apropos of nothing and never explained further. Is this Doerper and his wife? His parents? Someone he interviewed? A depressing folktale sprung from a depressing region? Spokane's crime rate is almost double the national average (and all crimes except for assault and arson have gone up since Washington was written so have fun with those murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries, and general theft), the city has only 201 more police officers than they do sex offenders (385 and 184) and the four most common businesses are UPS stores, FedEx, Nike stores, and Starbucks which suggests to me that most people who are in Spokane want to ship their stuff away from it, strap on some running shoes, front-load on caffeine, and get the fuck out of Dodge.

But Doerper's delight with this (clearly shitty) city isn't even in my top-two most irritating things in the book.

Number two irritating thing: Shouldn't you say SOMETHING about Twin Peaks when you're writing a book about tourism to Washington? He mentions Northern Exposure once, but not the show that spawned a 22-year history of festival attendance every summer. It's a bizarre omission, especially since several of the show's stars are from some of the cities listed in the book.

Number one irritating thing: There's no mention of Twin Peaks, very little attention is paid to some of the more populous areas of the state, and he doesn't feel the need to talk about the ABSOLUTELY BITCHIN' Sci-Fi museum underneath the Space Needle, but Doerper made sure to set aside about twenty pages for a chapter called "Heavenly Oysters." Again: nothing is said about Kirkland, Redmond, or Lake Stevens as a ski resort, but there are 20 pages about fucking oysters. When they should be shucked, how you should cook them, photos of the different varieties, and an amazingly patronizing little lecture about how it's totally okay to pair seafood with a red as long as you're daring and know a shitload about oysters.

So I guess if you want to go to Washington, go to fucking Washington and ask people who live there what's around town and fun to do. Don't read a guide book that has its head so far up its ass that the Author was allowed to present 20 pages about shellfish instead of spending that time talking about children's museums or (actually very important to visitors) traffic laws.

     - Alli

Doerper, John. Washington. Fodor's. New York: New York. 2008.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Doggy Talk

Our dog Puzzles (please see the photo above and note that she is the cutest little doggy in the whole world) came home with us in November. When she did my mother-in-law picked up a couple of basic puppy books from the Barnes & Noble discount bin so we could have the background we were looking for because all of us were pretty well out of practice with puppy ownership.

I caught on fast - I was the most recent dog owner - and everyone else in the house did too, but I'm the only one who bothered to read the puppy books anyway. Heather Dunphy's The Secret Language of Dogs has been my night-table between-books book since Christmas and I've only just now gotten around to finishing it.

This is a very, VERY good basic guide to understanding your dog. It's quite simple and is broken up into easy-to-read chapters with lots of tips in the sidebars and great photos. It's about canine body language, pack behavior, and how to make sure you and your pooch are on the same page when you're trying to communicate. There's a brilliant little chapter about the four basic commands dog owners generally want to teach (sit, down, stay, and come) that will be very helpful for first-time trainers. My favorite part was an excellent selection of games to play with your dog - everything from basic fetch for the attention-deficit dog to hide-and-seek for a curious canine.

If you haven't had dogs before, or if you are introducing children to dogs for the first time, this is a great way to get a handle on how to effectively communicate with your pooch: what your tone of voice means to them, what they're trying to say when they bark, grow, or yawn at you, and how to align intentions between two species.

     - Alli

Dunphy, Heather. The Secret Language of Dogs: The body language of furry bodies. Metro Books.
     New York: New York. 2011.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The past harmonizes

I don't know much about Kennedy. I suppose that makes baby boomers feel about as distant from me as I feel from the kids born after 2001 - there's a gulf between the people who lived through major events and those who just heard the story later. For the people who lived it, it isn't just a story. It's your life.

That made reading 11/22/63 an interesting experience: King does a great job of helping you to live in those places that you haven't been. He colors the buildings and flavors the food and drowns you in a fog of foreign smoke until you start to accept the way that the characters are thinking and acting as something less alien than it was before you open the book.

I guess it's probably different, like everything is, when you've lived through it. But the Kennedy assassination brought forth a wealth of literature and national introspection, while academics are still saying that American literature hasn't recovered from 9/11. I don't know if I agree with that or not, but I suspect it may be at least partially true. We can write about old wounds, but we don't know how to write about pain we still feel. Not as a nation anyway. This is something that King alludes to in his afterword - he initially tried to write this book in the seventies but the wound was still to raw.

When I first read 11/22/63 I stayed up all night reading it (in spite of having to go to work the next day), something that I hadn't done in a long time. This time I didn't quite stay up all night (I think it's my third reading) but I stayed up late and let it eat up my spare hours for a couple of days.

King's 1958 is intoxicating and grotesque. He props up the mythical structure of the time, the nifty fifties that so many people seem to think they'd want to live in, and rips it down with the realities of the time - the racism, the misogyny, the resignation to living under an atomic shadow. It's a place you'd want to visit, not one where anybody sane would want to live.

11/22/63 is also the novel that houses one of my favorite King characters, Sadie Dunhill, who is wonderful and strong and scared all at the same time. Sadie is well worth reading, as is Jake/George, and really, King's 1958 shouldn't be missed.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. Scribner. New York: New York. 2011.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A book with a split personality

I first read It on October 27th, 2000 - I had checked it out of my high school library the Friday before Halloween thinking that I'd have a good creepy story to read before trick-or-treating. Things didn't exactly work out the way that I'd planned because I got the book home from school at about 3pm and proceeded to read in a sweaty panic until 10 the next morning. My book didn't last me quite 'till Halloween but it did give me the scare that I was looking for.

I've read the book a few times now - my first copy got destroyed in a flood, which is a little creepy considering the content of the book - and I usually like it. Sometimes It pisses me off but usually I feel pretty good about the story and the characters and the pacing.

This time I was a little confused by the construction. Since I've read the book eight or ten times, and since it's got a non-chronological structure I knew which bits of the story were coming but I couldn't quite tell when and so I ended up spending at least the first six hundred pages waiting for the book to get started and the last four hundred pages not really being ready for it to end.

Most of the story takes place in 1958 with only little bits happening in 1985 but both times are a detriment to each other (or felt like it on this read-through). The 1958 story is pure and bright and sweet and horrifying and it gets muddied by the more realistic monsters of suicide and abusive husbands who haunt the characters in their middle age. Each character has a story that I'd be interested in reading on its own and so sometimes it's a bit frustrating to have to ignore that character for two hundred pages while you're paying attention to someone else.

It was written during King's Drugs and Alcohol period and the book reflects, in some ways, the mind of its author. It's a little jumbled at times, really messy occasionally, frequently unspeakably dark, but puts on a good face for people stopping by to visit. It's only the people who have dug too deep that really seem to see the problems.

Maybe King isn't the kind of author you're supposed to read and re-read and re-re-read time and again but I can't help it. I don't dig through theses stories looking for mistakes (though sometimes they're there) - I read through these stories because I love them and I want to live them again and shiver in the dark with all of my friends.

I didn't have a great read-through of It this time, I felt like these people who worked so hard got shafted in the end. But next time I read It I'll probably feel different - I'll probably think that forgetting is a gift and memory is suicide and every hero is happiest if he doesn't have to focus on his heroism.

But I do know there will be a next time. There always is. Because I'm one of those, the ones who obsess and dig and always scamper back to the light showing the pretty things they found in the dark. So thank you, Stephen King,
     - A Constant Reader

King, Stephen. It. Signet. New York: New York. 1980.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


A couple of years ago Seven Psychopaths was released in theaters. It was advertised as a silly heist movie but it was actually a meta-commentary about the writing process and how stories are formed. I saw it with my parents and, while we were surprised, we seemed to be the only people in the theater who were happy that the movie wasn't as advertised.

Zeitgeist reminds me strongly of the film: it's a narrative about narratives that folds in on itself and explodes into unexpected plot lines.

It's full of delightfully plausible implausibilites, atomic-age mysteries, and magic. Of the Sterling novels I've read this week it also has the strongest and most interesting characters - almost everyone in the story is somebody you want to know more about but you're only give exactly the amount of background information you really need to move on with the plot. The book is well-written with a wonderfully delicate touch that leaves a lot up to the reader.

There is some great lampooning of literary cliches as well as cultural cliche - in fact, the book may mostly BE about cliche and what it says about us. How much of any era is defined by it's tired metaphors and worn-out images? What combination of ephemeral fads coalesces together into something we retroactively call that era's zeitgeist? And how do you escape it instead of letting yourself get bogged down by it.

Zeitgeist is a fun book, a fast book, a good book, and (somewhat surprisingly) a meaningful book. I'm sure a lot of people looked at the neon cover and the name of the author and the flashbulb-bright buzzwords that litter the text and brushed it off as just another sci-fi/fantasy pulp but there's a lot more to it.

Maybe that explains the odd history of ownership of this particular copy, which came to me via and before that spent time at a Goodwill Store in 2011, The Phoenix Public Library in 2001, and was apparently (according to the blue ball-point pen inscription) purchased from the library (perhaps due to low circulation because it's in great shape) by Shirley for Dave as a Christmas present in 2002. I'm glad to have it now and I'm glad it's passed through so many hands before falling into mine.

     - Alli

Sterling, Bruce. Zeitgeist. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 2000.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I think this wants to be several stories

The first thing I ever read by Bruce Sterling was his collaboration with William Gibson, The Difference Engine. While The Difference Engine is sort of a novel it's really composed of a series of vignettes of varying length and I think that might have worked for The Artificial Kid as well. Arti and his world of combat artistry are cool but they're more of a backdrop for the stories of other characters than they are a setting. Unfortunately it seems like there's a lot missing from the novel as a whole - I found myself a lot more interested in other characters and other places than the central parts of the novel.

I can't really tell if that miasma of characters and stories was intentional or not, which I'll admit bothers me. There's a lot of really cool shit going on but most of it is outside of the purview of the story - there's a revolution going on and lots of big, angry fights while we're stuck on a smelly, dangerous island; all the action is related to Arti instead of acted by him - he's supposed to be this incredible badass fighter but all we ever see him do is throw an academic out the window, lose a fight to four other guys, knock out unsuspecting people, and do lots of drugs. Everything we read is filtered through him and he never really does much and Arti is not only somewhat repugnant as a filter, he's also a dirty lens - it would be a lot more interesting to hear things from the perspective of Moses Moses, to whom the entire world is new and confusing.

I just don't think the book as a whole hangs together that well. There are maybe five really good stories here that would have been great as part of a collection but are kind of boring as the central matter of a novel. The language is solid, though, and the writing isn't offensively cliched so it's not like you shouldn't read the book - but you're well justified if you read it and wish that it gave you a little more.

     - Alli

Sterling, Bruce. The Artificial Kid. Wired. San Francisco: California. 1997. (1980)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Conflicted nostalgia

Fiction writers don't seem to know what to do with 9/11.

Hell, nobody knows what to do with 9/11, the big bang that so profoundly changed our world, but it really seems like authors got a raw deal. It's obviously something that needs to be commented on, it's clearly important, but it seems like you can't write about it without being jingoistic or railing on conspiracy theories.

Bruce Sterling's novel The Zenith Angle is a book about the tech fallout of 9/11 combined with the bursting bubble of the dot-com boom. Parts of it are incredibly creepy because they seem to so zealously agree with the big bad awfuls that have come after the towers fall and other parts of it seem hyper-aware and resigned to mourning and coping with a paranoid, info-ravenous government.

I'm really not quite sure how to feel about it.

There's a lot of cool tech stuff going on, some of it is even plausible, but it's all a backdrop to the kinds of paranoia and action that are making our world such an icky place to be right now. It's hard to like the main character and it's impossible to like the people he's working for in the light of things like Wikileaks and the Snowden/NSA reveal.

The book was written in 2004 and I'm not sure the novel even knows what it's saying: clearly there's a good deal of hope for technology over martyrs, and just as clearly there's distrust of government bureaucracy, but both of those things are a little disconcerting to reflect on with the eyes of 2014 when technology is being used to observe its users by a government that has largely ditched bureaucracy in favor of small teams of competent people who don't give a shit about privacy rights.

So I just don't know. The book is well written and tells an interesting story that falls apart a little at the end, but it seems hopelessly innocent and dangerously naive looking at it a decade after it was published.

     - Alli

Sterling, Bruce. The Zenith Angle. Del Rey. New York: New York. 2004.

Comic book movies always skip the cool stuff

Last weekend I watched the second half of Iron Man and all of Iron Man 2. I'm not a huge fan of many Marvel properties - I dig Spider-Man sometimes and I've had a soft spot for Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk for a while now, but I really hate Thor and have no interest in Cap and the whole Avengers thing is just boring to me (much the same way that the JLA is boring to me, so DC isn't off the hook their either - super-groups and super-collabs almost always suck).

What I like about Iron Man is that Tony Stark has some fucking problems. Tony is a straight-up alcoholic, he's sometimes conniving, and he usually puts the people he cares about in really shitty situations - which is why I've been kind of bummed out by the movies. Movie Tony Stark is an alcoholic only when it plays well with viewers, so he freaks out at parties and is drinking on road trips instead of being an active danger to those around him which is a much more interesting source of conflict. And sure, they pay some lip-service to the idea that Tony fucks up Pepper's day on a regular basis but he always kisses and makes up with Roadie and Happy. (Also I'm only just now realizing it but Tony Stark is the only normally named human in the Tony Stark sphere of influence).

So the movies are big, fun, explosion extravaganzas and Robert Downey Junior really is the best possible choice for the role, but I feel like we're missing out on a lot of good content by going with big explosive stories instead of, say, Iron Man struggling against his inner demons or that one time his suit became intelligent, went crazy, and kidnapped him.

I know Hollywood doesn't think that introspection will sell with the comic crowd but I'd like to point out THAT'S WHAT WE'RE ALL ABOUT. We LOVE it when Peter Parker hates himself, we think Batman's tortured isolation is catnip, and we really only like Superman when Supes realizes what a colossal tool he is. There's a REASON that Wolverine is our favorite X-Man and that reason is that he's the only one who consistently realizes that his life SUCKS.

Neither movie is actually bad, and both of them have at least a little bit of the "rich superhero actually has a crappy life" thing going on for them. They're rowdy and fun to watch and I have no real problem with either Iron Man or Iron Man 2 - they just aren't the movies that I really want to see.

     - Alli

How others see us

There are a few things in my life that other people have told me I have to experience because they're "so you." When I was in high school one of those things was the TV show Daria - all through ninth and tenth grade I'd had people tell me "you are so Daria" or "you sound just like Daria" or "stop ripping off Daria." I never saw the show until after my senior year and was perplexed - yes, I guess I do have a lot in common with Daria but am I really that cynical? Is my voice that monotonous? Is that how other people see me? The other thing that people kept insisting I needed to do was read The Perks of Being a Wallflower because I was clearly Charlie to them, and when I finally got around to reading the book a year ago I had to admit that they were, in some ways, right - I was precocious and bright in high school, I was antisocial and occasionally unexpectedly violent, I was introverted and weird. But being Charlie isn't a good thing - Charlie is a broken, extremely damaged human being and again I had to ask "Is this how other people see me?"

I'm trying to get over giving a shit what other people think of me but it does pull me up short when a friend compares me to some fictional character: you want to take it as a compliment but it's really hard to and it makes you reexamine yourself as well as your friendship.

I've enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower both times that I read it: Charlie's voice is sad and hopeful and bright and reads realistically. The world can be stunningly beautiful through Charlie's eyes and the friendships that he has are lovely and delicate things. But, if you're the kind of person who has heard "you're so Charlie" it might be a bit of a painful read for you, especially if you really ARE similar to Charlie. And that's the bitch of the thing - Charlie's life in high school actually has more going for it than mine did. So, overall, it's a good read but maybe a bit depressing if you're even a little bit broken.

     - Alli

Chbosky Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Gallery Books. New York: New York. 1999.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

It's nice to be excited about the radio

My sister gave me Of Monsters and Men's My Head is an Animal for Christmas; I'd been hearing Little Talks on the radio for maybe two years at that point and had decided that the song absolutely kicked ass. Their other singles, Mountain Sound and My Head is an Animal, hadn't impressed me nearly as much but at least solidified my belief that OMAM had a defined sound and that I liked it.

I finally got around to listening to the whole album yesterday and I remain impressed. I don't know exactly what the hell is going on in pop music these days but I am aware that there's a bizarre electro-folk movement going on and I've got to say I approve. My Head is an Animal is folk music if folk musicians had access to affordable mixing and unusual instruments.

The Icelandic group recorded the album at Studio Sryland and, while I don't read Icelandic well enough to really tell, it looks like the studio did them a good service; it seems like their various studios are all pretty large and may be the reason for the big, glassy, echoing, ethereal sound of the album. The music is technically sweet but also otherworldly and soothing - it makes sense that these are songs about the sea and magical animals and adventurous love because they sound like they're supposed to be. It's a great combination of lyrics, composition, and sound that comes together to make a wonderful album that takes you away from wherever you are.

A fun note here: one of the only reasons that I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last December is because of the heavy use of My Head is an Animal in the promos and the movie - it's exactly the right music to match up with a quest for yourself through wide open spaces and strange adventures.

Thumbs up, A Plus, and right on - Of Monsters and Men made a really strong debut album with My Head is an Animal and I'm really looking forward to whatever they put out next. I'll be listening for it and I bet I'll be happy when I hear it.

     - Alli

Everyone wants to be Elizabeth, right?

     - Alli

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dreaming of a worse tomorrow

The first time I read Rant I borrowed my friend's copy and didn't give it back to her for six months. Eventually I returned the novel so that I wouldn't have yet another stolen book in my collection and bought my own copy.

I run hot and cold on Palahniuk. Fight Club is one of the best books that I've ever read but Survivor leaves a lot to be desired. Invisible Monsters is pretty damn entertaining but Snuff is dull at best. One thing that I do consistently like across his body of work is the way that Palahnuik crafts new worlds that are hard to see at first. Almost all of his stories sound like they take place in our universe in the beginning, but by the end of the text you know that you're looking at some version of our world gone wrong in subtle and terrifying ways.

Rant is an excellent example of this quiet world-making and it's also my favorite Palahniuk book. Everyone in it is interesting, it's complicated and fun to pick apart, it's pop art and literature all rolled into one package, and it features a background universe that I would kind of want to live in if it wasn't in the middle of a nightmarishly plausible epidemic.

Maybe that's why, as much as I like WWZ, Rant is the better "oral history" I've read this week - zombies are impossible and so freaking out about them doesn't make much sense; the Plague that Rant brings out into his world is the sort of thing I wouldn't be surprised to hear reported on the news tomorrow.

If not for, you know, all the time travel and stuff.

     - Alli

Palahniuk, Chuck. Rant: an Oral Biography of Buster Casey. Doubleday. New York:
     New York. 2007.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fascinating in spite of the subject matter

I've written before about how I used to be a huge fan of zombie fiction but did the hipster thing and got over it when it got too popular. As such it's been a while since I've read World War Z but I should have remembered how much I like that particular book.

WWZ is my ideal zombie story; it examines how the disease was spread, how people reacted, and how they rebuilt after the primary threat was gone. It's full of little stories all contributing to a bigger story and the "oral history" construction helps. I don't think a really good zombie story can be told from a single point of view because if that's how you do it you're cutting out the rest of the world to focus on a single person and zombies are scary because of their reach. You don't worry about a horde of zombies harrowing a single house on your block, you worry about a horde of zombies harrowing the entire globe and so far no one but Max Brooks has really captured that.

There's a lot of humor in the novel and I think that helps too - how can you be serious about some bizarre quasi-magical viral threat? But the serious parts of the book are VERY serious and handle important issues: the social contract, racism, the nuclear threat, and the fact that in any serious disaster you sometimes have to sacrifice the few for the benefit of many.

I don't agree with a lot of the ideas espoused in the novel but I do find myself consistently entertained when reading it and thoughtful after. I live in Southern California where zombies are a useful metaphor for the destruction an earthquake could do and I try to think accordingly - I don't have to be prepared to fight off the undead, but I do have to know how to function if there's no running water or if the freeways are closed for weeks. I guess that's not exactly the kind of escapism that most people go in for when they read or watch zombies, but it's useful enough for me.

     - Alli

Brooks, Max. World War Z. Three Rivers Press. 2006.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Stirring and soaring, as it should be

I like the How to Train Your Dragon series way more than I ever thought I would. The films are beautiful and full of good messages - they're one of the better options for children's fare out there in the wide world of cinema. My sister was the first person to convince me to watch the original movie and I'm glad that she did because I found it immensely entertaining and well worth my time.

A couple weeks ago I went to see The Signal with my husband. The night after we had seen it some friends asked if we wanted to see it again - my husband was interested but I decided that I'd be the strange lady alone in the kid's movie instead. I had a great time watching HTTYD2 and walked out to meet up with my friends and my husband still humming the main theme and announced on the way home that I thought I wanted to get the soundtrack.

We ended up at WalMart (it's just the sort of thing that we do on Friday nights) and my friend pulled a copy of HTTYD2 soundtrack out of a discount music bin. I couldn't quite justify buying the soundtrack for myself but I did get it as a present for my sister and ripped it to my computer before wrapping it up.

The music is delightful - it's moving and exciting and John Powell did a really wonderful job of crafting themes for scenes that wove together to make a sonic texture for the film as a whole.

The best (or at least my favorite) track is "For the Dancing and the Dreaming," the only song in the American release movie that isn't a modern piece meant to run over the credits. It's a song for lovers and adventurers, it sounds beautiful and traditional while still having a modern edge to it. And it makes me cry every time I listen to it. It's the kind of song I want to memorize and sing as a lullaby to my children some day and if you can make music that touches people that intimately you've accomplished something quite impressive, so hats off to John Powell.

     - Alli

Powell, John. Music from the motion picture How to Train Your Dragon 2.
     Relativity Music Group. 2014.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

100 Posts and Happy 4th of July

In November 2013 I decided to start a blog for use as a book journal; its scope has grown to include a lot more than just books. Today I'm publishing my 100th post about books, movies, music, podcasts, and comics, and wishing you all a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Blasphemous rumors

The Metamorphoses of Ovid is one of those books that you're supposed to have read if you're really into Shakespeare. Both of my Shakespeare professors in college brought it up multiple times in class and The Riverside Shakespeare mentions Ovid's stories hundreds of times in the footnotes because the Bard makes heavy use of Metamorphoses when crafting allusions, especially when describing people who have been brought to a wretched state by fate or bad luck.

The fables in the 15 books of The Metamorphoses are full of stories and characters that modern readers will be at least passingly familiar with: we encounter all those gods mentioned in Disney's Hercules, we run into Icarus and Adonis and Achilles, Ulysses is present in some of the tales, and several of the stories have a structure that is familiar in folklore from all sorts of places. But while there is a lot of the familiar in the fables there is more of the bizarre: men who become gods because they ate grass and jumped into the sea or were tumbled from their chariots, women tearing a musician to shreds for not honoring their god, and Jove being just the worst asshole ever.

The theme of "the gods are assholes" is pretty much constant in the stories - they will sometimes transform someone as a favor but they do it more frequently as a punishment. There are a whole lot of stories of women being "ravished" (read: raped) by gods and then turned into trees or rocks or beasts as punishment (or a sick kind of solace) for giving up their chastity. One story tells of a woman who tries, unsuccessfully, to fight off Neptune's advances; after he's finished with her he offers her a gift for being such a good unwilling lay and she asks to be turned into a man so this will never happen to her again. If that's the way your gods behave and is part of the moral structure of your society then I can see why your empire failed and why Julius Caesar's friends wanted to stab him to death in the Senate.

The translation that I read is also full of at least two kinds of pandering that makes this a less-than-fantastic source; first, Ovid is writing to please Augustus Caesar and so there's a lot of Venus worship going on that's mixed with a nauseating helping of Augustus worship in the final fable; second, this is a Victorian translation and much of the language has been tempered and dulled until it seems pretty clear that the nastier aspects of the stories have been softened for the sensibilities of a nineteenth century audience, which is a little horrifying when you realize that the stories are pretty nasty anyway.

The Victorian aspect shows up most strongly in the footnotes and explanations after each fable, which I strongly recommend skipping. Some of it is interesting history but a lot of it is time spent discussing heathen authors and trying to anachronistically apply Christianity to the tales. Skipping the pompous thoughts of the translating scholar does a pretty good job of making this a much faster and more pleasant (though still occasionally tedious) read.

     - Alli

Ovidius Naso, Publius. Translated by Henry T. Riley. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. George Bell & Sons.
     Covent Garden: London. 1893.
Books I-VII

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

With pop culture comes great responsibility

I’m a small person who can only change small things, but 
that’s what it takes, because if enough small people change 
enough small things, eventually it will look like a big change, 
and that’s what we need. - Daniel O'Brien

In 2007 Daniel O'Brien wrote a novel called The Bartender and posted it for free online. On June 27th he announced his decision to remove the novel from publication. His reasons for taking it down are explained on his blog.

The novel is very impressive for several reasons: it's coherent and funny, it was written by a very young author and published online for the sheer joy of writing and sharing, and (maybe most importantly) it's told from the perspective of a hero who is aware that he's an idiot. The story is also flawed in several ways - it's not really so much a story as it is a grownup version of kids playing cops and robbers with all of the problems that entails.

The Bartender is adorable and inappropriate at the same time. It feels like the plot of a drawing on the back of a seventh-grade boy's notebook and, based on what O'Brien has said about the book, that's pretty much exactly what it is. The enthusiasm for the story and the palpable admiration of the author for his friends are the adorable parts. The inappropriate parts are the reasons that O'Brien has decided to take the novel down - the ideas that violence is the best solution to most problems and that women are meant to be used or not to be trusted.

I think O'Brien is making the right choice in taking The Bartender down, but I'm glad I got to read it before it disappeared.

O'Brien's decision to pull his book is based on the realization that he, as a creator of pop culture, has the power to either improve the world or to make it worse; his choice to take down this violent and misogynistic book is his acceptance of that power and his attempt to help the world be a better place.

I think that O'Brien is doing something important here and I want to take a moment to recognize that. Americans often spend more time with pop culture than they do with their families and so we should give a shit about what goes into our pop culture. O'Brien is just a little guy in entertainment - he's not a bigshot director, he's not a highly-paid actor, he doesn't have a five book contract with Simon & Schuster, but he is an entertainer and he's making a conscientious decision about what kind of an entertainer he wants to be and what he wants to put into the world and that's fantastic.

     - Alli

O'Brien, Daniel. The Bartender. (now defunct). 2007.