Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Creature Feature

It's been a while since I cackled hysterically through almost an entire novel, but it's an experience worth having and I strongly recommend it. Double Feature was riotous and fun - I had a great time reading it and know I'll be reading it again in the future. The story is great, I loved the breakneck pace and page-turning language. There was at least one night when I stayed up way too late reading while trying to get to a good stopping point and just not being able too because I wanted to keep going more than I wanted to stop.

There aren't actually that many books that I can't walk away from on a first reading - I tend to be able to abandon most novels chapter by chapter and come or go with them as I please, but not Double Feature. I had trouble closing it to return to work after lunch. I had trouble shutting the covers so I could remember to eat or sleep. Sam's obsessions and Booth's history were riveting to me, especially in the first act, and kept me flipping pages and wanting more and more to read.

If there's any failure in the book, any flaw, it's that things end so neatly and seem so fantastically great, but considering that the whole story is an examination of the importance of fiction as a means of escape I don't consider this a problem. There's nothing wrong with a book having a happy ending, nothing wrong with feeling hope as you close out a story.

Double Feature is Owen King's first novel, and it's a much more impressive achievement than his bumbling main character's attempt at an opening move. The book is moving, raucous, somber, silly, and contemplative by turns but it's never not entertaining and it never makes itself too presentable and polished for the reader. There's a soothing messiness in the language and the plot that's too comforting to be accidental and makes me very excited to read King's next effort.

     - Alli

King, Owen. Double Feature. Scribner. New York: New York. 2014. (2013).

Stand on principles

My terrible habit of stealing books (from hotel libraries where they're covered in dust, from coffee shops where they're languishing unread in favor of a copy of Candyland missing half the pieces, from well-intentioned friends who lent me a book that I forgot about and then rediscovered as one of my favorite books) may be an outgrowth of my much better habit of accidentally giving books away. I lend books out to friends and then either forget completely that I used to own the book or just don't want to pressure someone into returning something they may not have read yet. That's how I lost the first three books of The Baroque Cycle - I let a friend borrow them and couldn't bring myself to ask for them back.

A similar thing happened to my copy of the complete/uncut copy of The Stand - I bought it to read on my honeymoon, finished it, lent it to the friend whose house I was staying at, and have never had the heart to ask for it back. I got married in 2011 so I figured I had to let it go and buy a new copy - no great loss, that two people who like the book get to read it more frequently.

I first read a tattered copy of The Stand that my high school library eventually threw out, allowing me to rescue it from the recycling bin. It was a really early paperback, maybe '81 or '82 so it was the shortened version. I reread it probably ten times before I realized there was an even longer version available. The uncut edition is WONDERFUL and I actually have trouble imagining reading the edited version again because I don't think I'd enjoy it so much without the wealth of details that washed in with the republication.

Let's get this out of the way: a lot of people hate this book. Most of the people who seem to detest it either can't get around the changes from the '79 edition OR they would have hated either version for being too long and tedious or too "preachy". Spoilers out there for those who dropped they book because it was preachy - you're idiots. Any universe that King writes is not one that is home to a just and loving god. Good and evil is NEVER black and white in a King story. For the people who couldn't hang with the length or the number of characters or whatever, go back and try again. Please. Parts of the story can get a little slow, sure, but a book isn't a shot of cheap tequila; it's more like a glass of wine - savor it, even if it doesn't taste great at first, to see what it's made of.

So anyway, a lot of people don't like this book but I do. I like the depths to which the characters are examined and the depravity that examination yields; I like that I like the bad guys more than I like the good guys - the bad guys are, with a few exceptions, better written and more interesting. This is one of those things that I'm talking about when I say good and evil isn't black and white in King's universe: he's the one who wrote these horrible people to be more accessible, more fun to read, and more sympathetic and human than the characters on the "right" side of the conflict. I like that even the characters who are "good" aren't all always good - sending Tom as a spy is enough to prove that they're more self-interested than saintly.

I'm also one of those fans who switched - I can't read the older version anymore, the complete and uncut edition of The Stand has too much going for it that I adore. Greater depth to the characters is fantastic and all, but I think my favorite part of the new edition is The Kid. He's dark and gross and hilarious, don't tell me, I'll tell you. The best part of either edition is, of course, Kojack. It's hard not to like a dog in any sort of context, but it's impossible not to love a dog who's another plague survivor trying to bring back a world where he feels safe.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition. Random House. New York: New York.
     1990. (1979).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Rockin' back inside your heart

I have been on a self-imposed break with Twin Peaks for two years. I love the series, I want to watch it all the time, and if I don't stop myself I let it consume me and I do actually watch it all the time; neglecting friends, family, my dog, reading, sleep, and food to watch and rewatch the show. I've allowed myself to rewatch the series this week and think I should make it an annual thing. The series is short, with only 30 episodes, and a good way to not go mad with boredom over a long weekend.

That being said, I guess it might be better to be bored than to be obsessed but I don't think anyone can have anything other than those two emotional reactions to Twin Peaks. It is bizarre and brilliant and banal and vapid and sexy and so much fun to get sucked into.

The first, shorter, season is clearly superior and avoided many of the goofy side-story traps that bogged down the second season. The first season is clean and sharp, as slick as Agent Cooper's hairstyle and as rough as Leo Johnson's living room. I love that there are creases in the story and you can see so well how some things were planned and filled out while other things were never meant to be explained.

The second season isn't terrible but there are two things about it that I strongly dislike and, sadly, they make up much of the airtime: James' incredibly dull and predictable interlude with the Marshes and everything having to do with Windom Earle.

People say that finding out who killed Laura Palmer is what killed the series, I think that the revelation of Earle did a lot more to put a stake in the show's heart. Earle's actions and character are out of step with the tone the show tried so hard to establish during the first season and the first half of the second season and everything he touches suffers from it. He is too screechingly evil while being too prosaic to fit into the woods around Twin Peaks; if he were less evil he'd fit in okay with the town, if he were more supernatural or more strange he'd fit in okay with the Black Lodge. It's the combination of him showing "the evil that men do" while not being anything more than a power-hungry man that makes him so frustrating to watch. He even makes Dale look bad - if this is what Cooper's so afraid of maybe he's not all that good at his job.

But the Marshes and Earle aren't enough to ruin the series for me. There are still enough little idiosyncrasies that I can make a home out of the niches they cut into the world. Andy's head injuries, Nadine's reversion to high school, Cooper's non sequiturs, and all that coffee makes it a place that I want to go back to again and again. And it doesn't hurt that the show was filmed in a real place that I want to go back to again and again - the visuals are beautiful and it always makes my heart hurt and long for cherry pie.

     - Alli

Better than expected, worse than it could be

I have a friend who is tremendously irritated by Guardians of the Galaxy. He doesn't like Starlord and he thinks that damseling Gamora is bullshit. I didn't see nearly as much of a problem with the way Gamora was presented as I saw with Tauriel in The Hobbit so I guess I was sort of vaccinated against those kinds of tropes and it added a lot to my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I was pretty turned off by the tearjerker beginning and by the cockfighting scene, but overall I was fairly amused.

Groot, Drax, and Rocket are all wonderful characters who I want to see more of. Watching the relationship between Groot and Rocket was the best part of the film for me (other than the hilarious soundtrack) but I also got a kick out of most of the action sequences and space battles.

I am left with a lot of questions about the morality of this universe as well as some frustration with MacGuffins, but overall I laughed a lot and was able to suspend most of my disbelief. This is one of the better Marvel Studios films that I've seen and I'd be interested in seeing a sequel that might take some more risks and focus a little more on character development than on explosions.

And, in spite of the fact that I didn't like his character much, I was very favorably impressed by Chris Pratt's acting - I'd not seen any of his work beyond Parks & Recreation and seeing him fill out a lead role was a unique experience: I liked that he was funny and brash and more round an unexpectedly deep than a typical action star. Marvel Studios characters tend to have two modes, awesome and tragic, that they switch between with little warning or really even differentiation between those modes beyond music cues, so having a lead who was foolish and funny and strong and stupid was quite refreshing.

     - Alli

Monday, January 5, 2015

Beautiful confusion

After reading Horns I got interested in reading more of Joe Hill's work. The book was upsetting and charming and a haunting and original take on the old man-or-monster trope. 20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short fiction that is full of much of the same appeal - originality, charm, horror, and good old down-home nastiness. I was shocked by how much this book pleased me, by the way it courts the reader into rolling their eyes one moment and then gasping in surprise the next. The stories here are heady and whole and I desperately want there to be more. Thankfully I've got another Hill book to follow up with that I'll probably get to next week. Until then, here's a look at the sorts of stories he tells:

"Best New Horror" is creepy and gross and seems to stink off the pages, horrifying you by talking about horror and sharing stories without telling them.

"20th Century Ghost" isn't really a ghost story, it's a love story about a dead girl who wanted to know what happened next. There's no shock, no screamer moment, just a gradual movement to what you know is right.

"Pop Art" made me cry and confused the hell out of me and got me to completely buy in to the absurd concept at the heart of the story. It's a lovely, sad little tale about breakable people and strong friendships. It also, shockingly, made me tolerate Comic Sans for a few pages - something I'd never have predicted.

"You will hear the locust sing" was brutally shocking. Like Kafka if Kafka had a much meaner sense of humor and grew up with greasers. Derivative of two shockingly different genres and delightfully rough-and-tumble.

"Abraham's Boys" was spooky and gloomy and rich with atmosphere. The story seemed to be a bit of a stretch but the frame it was stretched around was lovely.

"Better than Home" is fucked up and sad and confusing and messy - it's wonderful, and a lovely portrait of a somewhat unusual father-son relationship.

"The Black Phone" reminds me of a horror story turned on its head, where the ghosts aren't the things to be afraid of, where you might want to join their ranks. It's a lot like Horns in its treatment of the supernatural, but written for a different audience in a different voice.

"In the Rundown" overflows with tension and frustration and is maddeningly tantalizing. I'm so frustrated that there isn't more to this story but I wouldn't want more because that would ruin it.

"The Cape" is perfect and grim. It's a story that I've wanted to read for years, never knowing that I wanted it.

"Last Breath" seemed less realized than some of the other stories, but I'm pretty sure the spareness is intentional and the hush rushing through the pages is supposed to be the most haunting part.

"The Widow's Breakfast" is one of those "one of these things is not like the others" stories - it doesn't fit in the collection but makes itself at home and at hope nonetheless. It's a nice, if tragic, break in the onslaught of the wonderful and weird.

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is a snapshot of the lives of extras and humans wounded by their own dreams and egos. It's sweet and simple.

I don't understand at all what's going on in "My Father's Mask" but I like it. It's full of strange colors and jagged dreams and leaves a bitter grime behind.

Holy shit. "Voluntary Committal" is make-believe mixed uneasily with fire. It hurt my brain and sped up my pulse and gave me nightmares. It is fantastic.

     - Alli

Hill, Joe. 20th Century Ghosts. William Morrow. New York: New York. 2008. (2005).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Critical voices and cherry pie

Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks is a comforting book for me - it serves as a very good reminder that I'm not the only one who gets dangerously obsessed and over-analytical about pop culture.

I've had this book for more than a year now but have had a hard time making myself read it; literary criticism is frequently dry and more frequently useless and for a while I just couldn't get into the collection. When I did I was sorely tempted to play a game for the rest of my life that involved never looking up either "hermeneutics" or "semiotic" simply because of how frequently the words got tossed out in these essays, but I just lost that game to myself and I'm satisfied that they're both the sort of four-dollar words that are useful only in identifying people who don't really have that much to say.

That's not to say that all of these essays were bad, or that there's no value in examining pop culture, but I do think this book has inspired me to go back and re-write all my college essays in a clearer, shorter, less bullshitty format.

"Introduction: The Semiotics of Cobbler - Twin Peaks' Interpretive Community" by David Lavery
Lavery makes the case for Twin Peaks as a cult phenomenon based on the definition of cult as ordered by Umberto Eco and discusses the series as a same-kind-of-different Soap Opera. 

"Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks" by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Rosenbaum examines what he considers to be the artistic devolution of David Lynch with Twin Peaks as the culmination of bad taste and watered-down art.

"The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What happened to/on Twin Peaks" by Marc Dolan
Dolan does a very good job of picking apart exactly what kind of TV show Twin Peaks was and why this led to its downfall - network representations and audience expectations converged with a changing narrative style to create a perfect storm of perfectly predictable failure.

"'Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?':, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery" by Henry Jenkins
Jenkins describes his experience with usenet group reactions to Twin Peaks as well as the fascinating early analysis of the show documented in the groups. He explores the investment of contributors to the show and their pernicious relationship with Lynch and Frost as intentionally screwball creators. *The unintentionally hilarious first three pages of this essay are a wonderful time capsule of an era when an academic would have to explain what things like email and the internet are to their audience, and made reading the entire collection totally worthwhile for me*

"Family Romance, Family Violence, and the Fantastic in Twin Peaks" by Diane Stevenson
Stevenson gets bonus points for excluding a colon from her title, but also for making a compelling argument about Lynch's evolving presentation of family violence and child abuse in his films and the role that society allows family violence to have in its fiction.

"'Disturbing the Guests with this Racket:' Music and Twin Peaks" by Kathryn Kalinak
Kalinak's essay is wonderfully original and unexpected - she takes a look at Angelo Badalamenti's bizarre score and explores its unique and disconcerting use of exhausted musical cues to undermine the reality of the show and create the strange world that obsessed so many viewers.

"The Canonization of Laura Palmer" by Christy Desmet
Desmet attempts to find Laura's place on the Madonna/Whore sliding score and argues that Laura is built to break down the trope while existing in a fictional universe that relies heavily on the stereotyping of women.

"Lynching Women: a Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks" by Diana Hume George
Hume George skewers Twin Peaks as an attempted-subversive work that ends up reinforcing the ideals and strictures of the patriarchy. I'm inclined to argue with her but I guess that's an entry for another day.

"Double Talk in Twin Peaks" by Alice Kuzniar
Kuzniar explores puns based on sense words in this essay. I'm not really sure why, though she comes to the general conclusion that the sight/sound puns contribute to insidious sexism. A funny essay, but rampantly incohearent.

"Infinite Games: The Decentralization of Detection in Twin Peaks" by Angela Hague
Hague makes a fascinating study of detective tropes in this essay and attempts to place Dale Cooper as outside the scale of traditional detectives, showing that he is neither wholly intuitive nor rational but comfortable in a blending and blurring of traditional fictional detection.

"Desire Under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of Reality in Twin Peaks" by Martha Nochimson
Nochimson explores the atypical maleness of Cooper and why his non-standard comfort with emotions and intuition both makes him vulnerable to the darkness in the woods and a brilliant avatar for the town.

"The Dis-Order of Things in Twin Peaks" by J.P. Telotte
Telotte has a hell of a lot of sign-siginfier going on here that is both obvious and a bit of a fucking reach. There's nothing inherently wrong with a lot of the arguments, but why make them?

"Postmodernism and Television: Speaking of Twin Peaks" by Jimmie L. Reeves, Elizabeth Brent, Richard Campbell, Herb Eagle, Jennifer Jenkins, Marc C. Rogers, Lisa Saaf, and Nabeel Zuberi
Fuck all of these people. An edited transcript of a several-hours-long conversation that can't come to terms about what is or isn't postmodernism and whether or not Twin Peaks does or doesn't fit that not-definition isn't a critical essay worthy of publication, it's a perfect example of why engineering majors make fun of the humanities department. Congratulations: for anyone who's been searching for the origin of the irony conversation that hipsters are so wrapped up in, I've found it. This piece was so bad that the fact of its publication makes me embarrassed to have a degree in English Lit.

     - Alli

Ed. Lavery, David. Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Wayne State University Press. Detroit: Michigan. 1995.