28 May 2015

The Tempest Challenge: Catching up on my reading

Hello all! You’ll excuse me if I seem a little out of it today—it’s been a long, long week. Slammed at work, sick kid, wife attending BEA with all the concomitant schedule-related higgledy-piggledy that implies. All of it has cost me sleep and left me loopy. Also, higgledy-piggledy is an awesome hyphenate that should be used more often. But I digress. Suffice to say that I didn’t get much sleep last night and my brain is all sorta WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE(crashes into pillow)ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. So this oughta be fun.

Onward:

I’m now several weeks into K. Tempest Bradford’s reading challenge, wherein if you’ll recall Tempest challenged people to spend a year reading authors other than cis white male ones. Since I had a look at my bookshelves and confirmed that, yep, it’s pretty pale and male there, I thought it would be a more than worthwhile endeavor. I had actually already been trying to expand my reading horizons in my own small way, but this way I am holding myself to a specific baseline and not falling back on familiar habits because they’re, well, familiar. I figure the pale males will still be around for me to read next year. They’re reliable like that. Though they are hard to pick out against a snowbank.

. . . WHAT.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been reading the last several weeks, and my reactions to same:



The True Game, by Sheri Tepper—This is an omnibus collection of Tepper’s “Peter trilogy” from her True Game series: King’s Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, and Wizard’s Eleven. I enjoyed these quite a bit, thought the second book bogged down and went in what I felt was a couple of odd directions. Of the three my favorite book was the first. It had a lovely otherworldly atmosphere to it, and Peter’s narrative voice matched this very well. It had the feel of true terra incognita, and I felt like I was feeling my way in the world right along with Peter. The later books did not achieve this as well, partly because Peter was more confident and assured, and partly because Tepper herself seemed to be hedging her bets a bit more in the second and third books. In all honesty by the time I got to the third book the series was being carried by Tepper’s strong characterization of Peter and his supporting cast. The story itself had by then become basic good-vs.-evil stuff, with the ambiguities of the first volume largely given a pass in favor of Big Moments and a clever if obvious love story where Everyone But Peter Sees It Happening. And the second book, while it has a lot to offer, sort of swallows itself up with its own weirdness while providing backstory for the world Peter and co. live in. Overall I enjoyed these quite a bit, though I will admit to hitting diminishing returns by the time I got to Wizard’s Eleven. Ursula Vernon mentioned to me on Twitter that her favorites in the series are the Jinian Footseer novels, so I will seek those out to see how I like them at a later date.





Next up was Dendera, a translation of a novel by the Japanese author Yuya Sato. This was a grim, enthralling tale about a society of old women discarded by their former village and sent to die at the top of the nearby mountain once they reach a certain age so as not to be a burden. Some of the women break this cycle, choosing to continue their lives on the other side of the mountain rather than accept death and move on to whatever paradise awaits (if any). Eventually they begin to rescue other women sent to the mountain, not always with consent, and the story centers around the last woman rescued in this wise. Complicating matters are a plot to attack their former home, a mysterious plague in their midst, and most dangerous of all, a marauding bear. Sato weaves this into a compelling, if decidedly bloody novel, that features strong characters, taut action, and very visual prose. If the novel has one fault it lies in its excessive anthropomorphization of the bear, but this is forgivable in light of the work as a whole. It occurred to me as I was reading it that if Cormac McCarthy was going to write a novel about elderly Japanese women, this would be it. I don't know how to put it any better than that. 





And now we come to my most recent read: Daniel José Older's Half-Resurrection Blues. And . . . wow. Wow. I can't even begin to tell you how excellent this book is. H-RB is the story of Carlos Delacruz, an "in-betweener"--someone who is half dead and half alive. Carlos works for the New York Council of the Dead as a supernatural troubleshooter and blunt instrument, and he's very good at his job. One winter night Carlos is called upon to eliminate the troublesome Trevor--and for the first time Carlos realizes he's not alone in the world. Trevor is an in-betweener too, and their brief, violent encounter tumbles Delacruz into a dark shadow world of sorcerers, demonic imps, and the most beautiful woman he has ever known. All of this coming together will threaten the line between the living and the dead. And if you think that sounds pretty cool, let me tell you that you don't know the half of it. I said this on Twitter last week and I'll say it again: Reading Half-Resurrection Blues is like taking a master class in the art of the novel. Everything--the characters, the plot, the moments big and small--are deft and keenly observed. There are scenes in here that made me grin, just grin with delight, as I was reading them, and higher praise than that I cannot offer. The prose pops and fizzes across the page, equal parts Walter Mosely and Nuyorican poetry and driving soca beat, and holy shit is it good. Like the food from the bodega around the corner that's your neighborhood's best kept secret is good. I'm not much for urban fantasy because so much of it is of a piece, but I enjoyed the hell out of this book, mostly because Older has put such a distinctive, personal stamp on the genre, and given his novel a genuine sense of place. His Brooklyn is Brooklyn, and his love for it shows. Older has a new book coming out at the end of June, a YA book called Shadowshaper, and I am seriously looking forward to that one as well. I cannot recommend Older's work highly enough.

And here, right here, is why the Tempest Challenge ought to be taken: Had I not done so I might never have encountered Older's work, or might never have taken a chance on it if I had. But I did, and so doing I found an author whose work I will immediately go out and buy more of. That, my friends, is a rare gift to a reader. I have been taking the Tempest Challenge for just a few short weeks, and already it has borne major dividends. I can't wait to see what's next. Because coming down the pike are Kate Elliott, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, Oscar Hijuelos, Maria Dhavana Headley, Wesley Chu, Walter Mosely, Ilana C. Meyer, and oooohhh hell yes I can't wait!

But first, I need a frickin' nap. 

Remain In Light!


12 March 2015

Between the falling angel and the rising ape: Thoughts on Terry Pratchett

First of all: Context.

I don't know that this is going to make any sense. I don't know that this is going to be anything but word salad. But there is so much welled up in me right now, boiling and melting and freezing and raging and crying, that I have to let it out. To keep it in would be insane. To try to write it out would be, perhaps, equally insane. But here I am nevertheless.

I am not the best person to tell you what Terry Pratchett was like. That would probably be Neil Gaiman, or Terry's daughter Rihanna, both of whom are writers better at the craft than my pale imaginings will ever make me. All I can tell you is what Terry Pratchett did for me.

Terry Pratchett made me better.

Terry's books found me in my early 30s, and what they found was an angry, cynical, bitter ball of a man. They took that man and made him laugh, and made him see that there is hope, that love is worthwhile, that faith can be a fiction and still be necessary, that there is someone out there for each and every one of us, and that even a dragon needs a good shag once in a while. And they did not do this by being syrupy affirmations of the goodness of humankind; no. That would be the easy way, and I would not have responded to that.

They did it the hard way. They did it the hard way by being hard. By acknowledging the cynicism, the bitterness, the anger, not denying them--and then using them to confound themselves, by showing their characters putting aside the bitterness, overcoming the anger, moving past the cynicism, and rising above to become the better people they always could have been. And that is the mark of genius.

Think about it. The man humanized Death, for God's sakes, and made him a relatable, understandable, beloved character. That takes a level of talent that is beyond my ken to describe.

It was Terry who showed me--or maybe just reminded me, which is just as good--that men and women could rise above their baser selves, be more like unto the angels we like to imagine ourselves as being--closer to that point where the falling angel meets the rising ape, to use Terry's beautiful, indelible phrase. It was Terry who showed me (or reminded me) that you could be angry all you wanted--it was what you did with that anger that counted. It was Terry who reminded me (or showed me) that as unpleasant as human beings can be, there are always particles of joy and hope and caring tucked away inside us all, and that it is our job to nudge those particles together and turn them into something more.

I never laughed harder than I did when reading Terry. I never cried for more reason than I did when reading Terry Pratchett. I never felt angrier than I did when Terry was angry in one of his books. And I never left one of his books feeling cheated or let down.

And Terry made me better. He made a lot of us, better I think. And that is why losing him now, as we have, hurts so much. Because we need him now, more than ever. To help us be better. To find the falling angel within us, to give wings to us poor little apes, trying so hard to rise above. To make us laugh. To help us cry. To give us joy.

And now he's gone, to whatever reward awaits a genius who touched millions. And those millions are left behind wondering what is next.

Well, I'll tell you.

We do what Terry would have wanted us to do.

We keep rising.

Goodbye Terry. We'll see you when we get there. We send our love and our smiles with you as a last, nourishing gift as you cross that long, black desert with your good friend the Reaper Man.

Thank you, Sir. Thank you.

07 March 2015

The Challenge, Week 1: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love walnuts with teeth

So: it’s been a week since I agreed to take up K. Tempest Bradford’s challenge to spend a year reading books by people other than white cis males. So far I have read one book, and now cats and dogs are living together, two headed calves are being born to three headed chickens, hands are writing MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN on the walls wherever I go and no, none of that is really happening. Actually, I’ve been a little gassy but that’s about it, and I’m pretty sure that has more to do with my calorie count than with someone else’s word count. 

Though to hear some people tell it, I am worse than a Nazi for reading a book outside the normal white male hetero milieu. Tempest tweeted Thursday morning that someone had accused her of running an Inquisition. Which, aside from being fucking hilarious, is further evidence that Some People Are Ignorant And Do Not Know What Words Mean. Tempest is, I assure you, not running any sort of Inquisition. I know this because neither I nor anyone else has been issued one of those sweet-ass red uniforms. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have anywhere to wear the damn thing.


Our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear!
Plus an almost fanatical devotion to the fire hydrant!


But I digress. Onward:

So: last week into this I read Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon. Ursula is someone I've been aware of for years, via her art and her comic Digger. I knew she was writing prose now, but hadn't had a chance to read any of it because I am a) lazy, b) lazy, and c) lazy. But by a delightful coincidence my wife acquired a review copy of Vernon's upcoming kid-lit book, and I jumped at the chance to read something by someone I've always wanted to read. 

Without divulging too much since it is still an upcoming novel, Castle Hangnail is a delightful confection of a novel about a young witch who wants to take possession of an ancient castle. It is fun, funny, wastes neither a moment nor a breath on extraneous business not related to the story, and has just enough darkness to keep things interesting and add real stakes, without it being too scary for the kiddos. The characters are a delight--including a goldfish you may recognize if you are at all familiar with Ursula's art--and I blasted through the book with a grin on my face. So. Much. Fun. 

Next up are Sherri Tepper's True Game trilogy, followed by some Walter Mosely and Octavia Butler. After that, I have some more ideas. So much to read, so little time!


24 February 2015

Challenge: ACCEPTED

Hey hey, wassup, lawn thyme no sea, que pasta, whatevs, okey dokey. Long and the short of it: Been writing, working, and living. Blogging, not so much.

And now for something completely different.





. . . noooo no no, not that. That’s what we do for fun on Saturdays. 

I was thinking more of this:





See, writer/critic and internet friend K. Tempest Bradford has recently issued a challenge to all and sundry: try reading books written by anyone but white cis males for a year. It’s really simple—that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to empty your bookshelves of the hetero-anglo-male-written titles that are already there. You don’t have to line up and register for a WHITE READER card that you need to carry around; as a matter of fact, you don’t even need to tell anyone you’re doing it. So, yeah, it’s pretty simple and pretty innocuous, and really not all that hard to do if you have a look around bookstores and libraries in your area.

Howeverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, he said, drawing out the end of the word for effect, because Tempest is Black, and Female, and opinionated, and confident of her opinions, her rather simple suggestion has met with some slight resistance from certain quarters.


Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say resistance from certain quarters? I meant hilariously point-missing butthurt from internet goobers who apparently couldn’t find their assholes with both hands and a flashlight at high noon.


I like this one. It immediately accuses Tempest of something she never even came close to suggesting. The sheer amount of pearl-clutchery per square inch it takes to generate enough force to jump to that conclusion could conceivably fuel several trips to Mars. Which means we need to get one invented in order to save our beleaguered space program. Quick, someone put up a Misdirected Outrage Converter Kickstarter!

[waits a minute for the latecomers to figure out the acronym, moves on]

However, I came not to give internet hotfoots, but to point out, once again, that what Tempest is suggesting is really easy to do. All it takes is a little conscious forethought, some judicious shopping, and oh, I don’t know, maybe a list of potential candidates. The way these people above and their noticeably pale cohort are reacting, you’d think Tempest had advocated nothing less than blowing up all white people, forever and ever. Which would be seriously difficult as we have all the really heavy explosives.


(THAT’S A JOKE, SON! I’M TOO FAST FOR YA! I KEEP 
PITCHIN ‘EM AND YOU KEEP MISSIN’ EM! 
YOU GOTTA KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL! 
EYE! BALL! EYEBALL! ALMOST HAD A JOKE, SON!
… nice kid, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.)

My point, and yes indeed I have one for once, is that this challenge of Tempest’s is so uncomplicated that even a simpleton such as myself should have little to no problem figuring out the logistics. So to Tempest I say: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. BRING IT. The more, the merrier. I get lots of cool new stuff to read. Plus, I get to re-read all my Walter Mosely, Octavia Butler, and Ralph Ellison. Win-win.

And to the butthurt white people crying into their copies of The Bell Curve, I say, in the words of a commercial that was old when I was a kid: Tryyyyy it, you’ll liiiiike it! Seriously, what have you got to lose, except maybe your ingrained prejudices and preconceived notions? The potential gains are so, so much greater.

As Saul Bellow once said, reading widens human experience. And that is exactly what Tempest is suggesting we do here. Read more, not less. Read wider, not narrower. Experience the new instead of coasting on the familiar.

Why on earth would you deny yourself that?

Now if you don’t mind, I have some reading to get caught up on. I’ll be reporting back here occasionally on my findings.


Remain In Light!




Please note that comments for this post have been turned off. I really don't have time to moderate. You know, that whole writing, working, living thing. 

09 January 2015

In which I emerge from behind the curtain to whisper in your ear

Hey all--just stopping by in the midst of plotting and being sick to let you know that my wife, Stephanie Whelan, children's librarian par excellence and curator of the excellent blog Views From the Tesseract, is in Publisher's weekly this week! She was part of a panel about the future of children's science fiction moderated by blogger and fellow librarian Betsy Bird, and, well, check it out, why don't you?

Okay, back to coughing up a lung. Whee!


30 October 2014

True Believers: how Marvel/Disney just 'faced DC/Warners. Again.

So I was chatting with a friend Tuesday night and this came up:

“Is it me,” she wrote, “or is there a lot more glee over Phase 3 than DC’s announcement?”

“Not just you,” I replied. And then I referenced this:


For those of you who live under rocks yet somehow have wifi connections for those rocks, some context: two weeks ago, DC/Warner announced a slate of movies based on their mutually owned superhero properties in a shareholder meeting:

2015: Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
2016: Suicide Squad
2017: Wonder Woman, Justice League
 2018: The Flash, Aquaman
2019: Shazam, Justice league sequel
2020: Cyborg, Green Lantern


 The slate made the news and the response was . . . positive but muted. “Oh, hey, pretty cool. Hope they can pull that off.”

 On Tuesday, Marvel did this:



And the response was: “HOLY SHIT YES AAAAGGGHHHHHH”--after which many towels were needed.

Not even kidding here. Twitter (which I was on at the time) practically exploded under my feet. The geek/comic/film press exploded with speculation on casting, and with pictures of Chadwick Boseman on stage with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. There was even a hilarious Civil War fakeout. There was a teaser for Infinity War. With Thanos. Wearing the Gauntlet.

 As someone said yesterday on io9: There are no more mics, they have all been dropped. And yeah, it made the DC/Warner announcement look pretty anemic by comparison. There are a lot of reasons for this, some obvious, some less so. Here’s a few:

The Marvel characters are cinematic in a way the majority of DC characters don’t seem to be. You wouldn’t think this is so, but it is. Within a few years of launching its modern line, Marvel started doing some seriously epic, seriously cinematic stuff: Galactus. The Inhumans. The Kree-Skrull stuff. Kang the Conqueror. The Savage Land. Thanos. Whereas the most epic stuff DC was doing for a while was when Starro would show up and the JLA would have to fight it off, or if you got a good juicy multi-parter in Legion of Super-Heroes feature. Now, this is not to say that the DC heroes can’t be cinematic; Nolan proved that with his Bat trilogy, though he fell into the diminishing returns arena with the third film (a fault of the script, not the character). Burton’s Batman movies were decent movies, though maybe not very good Batman stories. Donner’s Superman was a conditional success--a story of a god come down to earth who then essentially stops a shady land deal while altering history because his girlfriend was needlessly fridged by Mario Puzo and a small cadre of screenwriters (and if you think I’m being uncharitable towards the Donner film, ask me what I think about Dick Lester's Superman II sometime). The Green Lantern movie should have been a cinematic home run, but the effects were crap, and the script sucked syphilitic hyena balls. Man of Steel had some great moments and a decent amount of gravitas, but it was also saddled with what I like to call Zack Snyder’s Asymptomatic Superman.



Which, while debatably cool to watch, is not the Superman I grew up with. And maybe that’s part of the problem: character development.

Marvel has developed its characters smartly, and stayed largely true to them in the movies--something DC has not always done, as per Asymptomatic Superman in Snyder’s film. Of course, DC hasn’t always been great about that anyway. It jettisoned or reinvented most of its Golden Age roster during the 1950s in an attempt to boost sales. Even before then, DC developed its heroes more or less by throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick. One of the best elements of the Superman mythos, Kryptonite, actually came from the radio series, for instance (to be fair, it was based on a Siegel/Shuster comic script that had been languishing, but still). It didn’t exist in the comics until DC retconned it in. Batman used to shoot people, for fuck’s sake, until someone intimated to Bob Kane that maaayyyybe a man who lost his parents in a back alley shooting maaayyyybe shouldn’t be waving a pistol around. And this comes full circle into Burton’s films, which has someone named Batman blowing criminals up with the rocket launcher in his car. DC/Warner’s problem is that they are trying to take idealized, idealistic Golden/Silver age characters and "update" them for modern audiences and it's just shit. They’ve proven over and over that they simply don’t get the characters, or worse, that they only see them as a means to an end, that end being money. Thus we have the characters being bashed and battered into shapes they should never take in the name of “grim and mature storytelling” aimed at “modern sensibilities.”*

Meanwhile, Marvel has made a few superficial changes to its characters--Thor’s Asgard, for instance--but the core of those characters remain the same. They didn’t fuck with the basic models like DC seems to want to do. And you’ll notice Marvel is making money hand over fist. DC has Zack Snyder’s problematic-if-profitable vision of heroism, and a modicum of goodwill left over from Nolan’s Bat-films that they are rapidly using up on stunt casting and kitchen sink sequels.



And while I’m on that subject . . . One thing Marvel really has going for it is what I call an integrity of continuity, an interconnectedness that the DC characters lack. By this I mean a couple of things, each related to the other. First is actual continuity, that is the ongoing events of a comic having a consequential and/or lingering effect further down the line in that character’s adventures. As an example, the events in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” had long-lasting effects further down the line for the Enterprise crew fifteen years later. Closer to the subject at hand, events in one Marvel book tend to have a ripple effect, cascading outward until more than one book, and more than one character is affected (for instance, any good Galactus story). Secondary to this and dependent on it is the idea that the Marvel Universe is a shared one. Meaning characters can (and do) know of and know each other and can (and do) appear in each other’s books. This leads to integrity of continiuity, and as a result of it the Marvel Universe hangs together remarkably well, with a few stinkers like the Spider-Clone saga (OH GOD JUST DON’T ASK ALL RIGHT) being the exception that proves the rule.

DC has nowhere near that level of continuity-integrity. The golden age stories frequently had nothing to do with each other, and often outright contradicted each other, especially when it came to defining the limits of Superman’s powers--more of that throwing shit against the wall to see what would stick. And in the main the DC heroes never guested in each other’s books. (The early intercompany team book, Justice Society of America, actually had a rule that heroes would leave the team after getting their own eponymous title). Aside from the occasional guest shot, World’s Finest (which took 71 issues before it started to feature Batman/Robin and Superman in stories together as well as on the cover), and eventually Justice League of America, the DC characters had little to no interaction with one another. Until Marvel’s success in the 60s and 70s forced their hand and started them on that road as well.

The reason this is important is that this continuity-integrity has allowed Marvel to put its phases together out of pre-existing parts. Marvel can put these characters together and make them work because they already know intimately what makes them work together. Whatever relatively minor change have been wrought on the heroes in the MCU, the things that make them work together are the same. Because of this, and because Marvel has been extremely canny in landing top notch writers, directors and actors for its films, they were able to get the framework in place for Phase 1 relatively painlessly. The helped them ease into Phase 2 as well, not without missteps, but finishing out in incredibly self-confident and assured fashion.



Which leads me, naturally, to this:

Marvel movies are a shitload of fun to watch. They are brimming with confidence, everyone seems like they’re having a hell of a good time, and are putting some pretty superior entertainment up on the screen, where that confidence and sense of fun is evident in every frame. For all the collateral damage and angsting and epic storylines, there is also a sense of humor and, more importantly, a sense of wonder. Compare this with Man of Steel or the Nolan Bat-films, which are so dour they should be running a farm in Vermont somewhere. I loved The Dark Knight, but when I went to see it in the theater I felt like I was being bludgeoned with AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH. When I saw The Avengers? I wanted to jump out of my seat at the end and fuckin' dance. That’s huge.

Finally, Marvel has a MASSIVE head start on planning. They have been at this for years now. The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, the year my son was born. My son is now in the first grade. I’ve gone through at least eight pairs of shoes and two couches in that time (to be fair, one of them was a really shitty couch). Meanwhile, Marvel has been carefully building their universe from movie to movie, working in setups for later plots in sequel movies, and in more than one case setting up entire other movies. Now, with Phase 3 on the horizon, Marvel is in the catbird seat. Meanwhile, DC is having to come up with what feels like excuses to get their heroes on the same screen together, and is straining credibility in so doing. I honestly believe DC had no intention whatsoever of doing a JLA movie until Man of Steel hit it big, at which point they grabbed David Goyer and started throwing heroes at the shit wall. And now Marvel is encroaching on the TV territory that has been DC’s for years, and spreading into the VOD market, where DC has no presence whatsoever. It’s pretty clear Marvel has been for at least the last two or three years regularly catching the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee used to call them) with their pants down.

Note the differences: the number of sequels in Marvel’s slate versus the complete lack thereof in DC’s. (To be fair, DC’s slate is largely about establishing its shared universe--but even so, Marvel made sure that they planned for multiple movies with their characters to keep them at the front of the moviegoing psyche between Avengers flicks.) Note that the movie Flash is going to be a different actor than the one currently portraying him on TV, which doesn’t really make sense and further exacerbates the lack of integral continuity in DC’s stuff. Note Jason Momoa’s generic, ambiguous no-land nationality Aquaman versus Boseman playing the fucking King of an African country. Note the fact that Marvel already has logo designs for their titles. Finally: note that Marvel has release dates all picked out for these movies. Now I know this is the movie business and release dates change, but still: Marvel has been pretty reliable about putting their movies out when they say they will. So to come out and say “Yeah, we’re doing this on May Blank, and this on November Blink,” is a huge indication that Marvel is a lot farther along on its planning than anyone thought. Whereas DC is a lot more vague: we have years, but not dates, heroes but not titles.

And interestingly: no Batman. Which says something about their confidence in Ben Affleck.



So yeah, Marvel just completely ‘faced DC on the movie slate front. Whether Marvel can now pull this off is the question. However given that they have done at least yeoman’s service on their movies so far--and gone above and beyond the call on several of them--I am pretty confident that they will follow through. DC? Who knows. They’re a dark horse at this point. I’d like to think they can make something of this slate of theirs . . . but given their extremely uneven track record so far, I highly doubt they will.




*...A note on this, and on Zack Snyder, and on the damage Alan Moore inadvertently did to DC heroes. Zack Snyder’s cachet rises largely from his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. I still haven’t seen 300 (I have no desire at this point in my life to be exposed to more of Frank MIller’s post-Dark Knight psychosis), but I have seen Watchmen and I can tell you that for every thing Snyder did right, or at least competently, he screwed up two more. Like so many creators in the post-Watchmen era (including Frank MIller), he included all the gritty, bone-crunching violence--but none of the deep-seated psychological motivations behind it that Moore so carefully laid in. Similarly his take on Superman has none of the Golden Age optimism that defined the character. Snyder learned the words but he still couldn’t sing the tune, and the result in both cases is the prototypical sound and fury, signifying nothing. I don’t blame Alan Moore for this per se, but it’s easy to see the toxic effect his works have had by being so badly misinterpreted by other creators with little of his talent and none of his ability.

23 September 2014

I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back at me to see me lookin' back at you


So yesterday was the first time I’ve posted here since May--and just for shits ’n’ giggles I had a look at my blog stats this morning. According to Blogger I’ve had about 110 page views in the last day--not bad, considering. What interested me more, however, was the fact that I had 1,118 views last month . . . and I didn’t post anything last month.

Either Blogger is fudging my clickthroughs or there are a lot of really easily amused people out there.

I do get a fairly regular flow here, though. My most clicked on posts currently are (not unexpectedly given the time of year) my Banned Books Week posts, which seem to get me a lot of traffic from students doing papers, especially the entry about Maus, which always seems to get a lot of activity.

Overall my most-viewed posts are, aside from my Banned Books Week post on Maus, more recent posts, as you can see from my sidebar on the right. My open apology to Seanan McGuire has been #2 for a while now, and deservedly so because that should be seen more.

But the post of mine that has gotten the most clicks is the one about David Gerrold and the War Against the Chtorr’s vaporware status. Interestingly it’s about #5 on the Google search page for the series, so that may have an effect. Also, for whatever reason, it’s the one post of mine that has the most comments. I’ve left the comments open on it for all this time for that very reason--every time I think it’s dead, someone else will drop a remark in the comments. Just happened again last week. (Another interesting thing to note is that while a portion of the commenters think Gerrold is just being lazy, and other dislike Gerrold because of his politics, only one or two of them disagreed with me--and even they did so by refusing to address my points but instead by brickbatting me directly, which is always a good time. The general consensus seems to be: Yeah, Gerrold needs to shit or get off the pot with these damned books. And a lot of us would just rather he got off the pot at this point.

That digression aside, I’m going to make an effort to be here more regularly, as the novel work is slow enough that I can manage to divert some energy here without losing momentum. Anythign to keep me writing, and to keep me visible. Who knows, I may even have some more flash fic here in the future if the mood strikes me. We’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks for nosing around even when I’m not here. It’s appreciated.

22 September 2014

Driving alone to a movie show: 15 films

My friend Diana Baxter did one of those “list 15 movies that stay with you, and why” things on Facebook the other week. There’s been that cyclical thing going around, you know how it is, where all these viral listicles launch themselves into your social media and breed like half-rabid rabbits (but which half?), and you wind up doing at least one because you’d feel like you got left out of all the fun if you didn’t, and besides your thoughts are important and MUST BE HEARD even if nobody listens (and hey, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, do you hear the sound of one Ewok with the clap, uh, clapping?).

I was going to do the book list and then realized I could NEVER confine myself to just ten. Then the fifteen films list came along courtesy of Diana and I thought hey, I could make something out of that. I could make a hat, or a broach, or*SLAPS SELF IN FACE*--sorry. Too much coffee.

Anyway, I decided to make a blog post out of it. So: in the spirit of Diana’s list, 15 movies that are always with me:

  1. Singin’ In the Rain--The king, the champion, the ne plus ultra of the American musical. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds (with some memorable support from the hilarious Jean Hagen) swing this one hard, and knock it out of the damned park. Of special note: O’Connor’s bravura performance in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” O’Connor and Kelly’s dazzling footwork in “Moses Supposes,” Kelly virtually FLOATING in the air during the “Broadway Melody” segment (see YouTube link below)--and of course the title song, which is everything pure and good and wonderful in the world, distilled into five minutes or so of joyous dancing. Also, Cyd Charisse’s freakin’ legs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWBOfsXsDA

  2. Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut--Where to start with this move. What a feast for the eyes, from start to finish. The indelible images are what stick with me here: The unicorn dream. The ravishing flying car sequence. Zhora’s death. The first visit to Bryant’s house. Priss in makeup, followed by her horrifying demise. Sean Young, framed in smoke and shadow. And oh my god, Rutger Hauer. And at the last: “It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?”

  3. Ran--Of all the Kurosawa movies I have seen (and that’s almost all of them), this one is a standout among standouts. Kurosawa’s version of King Lear, filtered through a medieval Japanese lens, spins an epic tale that spirals down and down into tragedy after tragedy. And the last shot will stay with you a long, long time. 

  4. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey--No, I’m not kidding. As much fun and as funny as the first movie was, this criminally underrated sequel tops it in numerous ways. There is constant proto-metahumor, the hilarious/delirious multiple-negative-heinous and air guitar running gags, the show-stealing performance by Bill Sadler as the sadsack Grim Reaper. . . and that’s just for starters. Throw in a great cameo by Faith No More’s Jim Martin (“What a shithead!”), an awesome cameo by Primus, a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Taj Mahal, an unexpected and note-perfect parody of Bergman (daring, considering this is basically a sci-fi teen comedy), and an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any step along the way, and you have a real winner. Yeah, it bogs down in plot devices at the end--but even then it manages to redeem itself with a delightful and-then-this-happened credits sequence. This is a movie with serious brass downstairs, that starts off fairly tame and then veers farther and farther into the most delightful weirdness imaginable. And I’m sorry to be spending so much time on this, but this is one of my all time favorite films, ever. So thppfffffttt.

  5. Paper Moon--Ryan O’Neal was never going to be the greatest actor in the world. But he was a damn sight better than people give him credit for being, especially when he was serving as a foil for someone. In this case he was an ideal foil for his daughter in Peter Bogdanovich’s winning Depression-era comedy-drama. By turns charming, harrowing, scary, and heartbreaking, this movie deserves to be seen more often. 
     
  6. The Maltese Falcon--It was the first movie John Huston ever directed, and the first movie Sidney Greenstreet ever acted in. It put Humphrey Bogart’s career on a new trajectory. It featured long tracking shots and low-angle shots that had rarely been used in cinema before. It featured what is probably the best Macguffin ever to be used in film. It even had Walter Huston in an unbilled cameo. This is one of those perfect films I can watch over and over again: for the performances, for the direction, for the set design, for the costumes, for Mary Astor, for Peter Lorre, for Greenstreet, for Bogie, for God’s sake watch this damn movie.

  7. Apocalypse Now--I could have gone for one of the two Godfather movies (SHUT UP THERE ARE ONLY TWO, TWO DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME), or The Conversation, or even Finian’s Rainbow (no, seriously check out the credits) but the Coppola film that stays with me, the one I return to more than any other, is this one: his big, sprawling, hallucinatory transference of Josef Conrad to the jungles of Cambodia. From start to finish this film, as episodic as it is, as big and sloppy as it is, as pretentious as it can be (and that is very), is greater than the sum of its parts, filled end to end with incredible scenes and sumptuous images, and utterly unforgettable.

  8. Wall-E--I could have picked several Pixar movies to go here--Brave, The Incredibles, any of the Toy Story movies (but probably the third one if I had to pick one), Up just on the basis of the first fifteen minutes alone--but this is the one that has a permanent place in my heart. Not because of the environmental message, or the anti-conglomerate message, or because of its sly (and not so sly) criticism of human foibles. The reason Wall-E holds that spot is because it is one of the best damn love stories I have ever seen. In fact the movie is all about love--about reaching out from loneliness, self-imposed and otherwise, to touch someone or something, and to in return have it touch you back, and by the act creating something so unshakably deep and living and true as to last beyond the eons. That Pixar couched this in the story of a slightly addled robot garbageman who goes to space and brings humanity back to an abandoned Earth makes it all the more remarkable an achievement. One of the best movies of the last ten years.

  9. The Last Unicorn--Another kind of love story, this one a love letter to the stories we grew up with. Rankin Bass’s superior adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (from a screenplay by the man himself) is one of those movies you sit down to watch expecting a trifle--and finish having enjoyed a three course meal instead. The film is not perfect--Schmendrick’s secondary plot is cut, some of the subtext and some of Beagle’s proto-meta-awareness throughline is lost, and the duet between Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow is maybe one step above cringeworthy. But these are minor things, and in some ways Beagle’s script flenses the book down even further to its truest essence: a fairy tale about fairy tale people who know they’re in a fairy tale, and what they do with it. Memorable for many reasons, most of all because of Molly Grue’s confrontation with the Unicorn--a strong scene in the book that, in the hands of the animators and Molly’s voice actor, becomes one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever see. 

  10. Forbidden Planet--This movie. This damn movie. It probably shouldn’t be on this list. I probably shouldn’t like it as much as I do. It has so many problems. It is sexist. The plot has numerous holes. The characters are mostly ciphers and/or cardboard cutouts. It uses Freudian psychology to express a Jungian concept. The soundtrack is simply fucking annoying. THE ROBOT GETS DRUNK. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. It’s The Tempest! In space! With Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon! And Anne Francis! And special effects that seem positively charming by today’s standards, but which at the time were the most awesome thing anyone had ever seen. And the frankly amazing matte work, which still dazzles today. And this sequence in particular, which makes up for any number of drunken robots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYFr3UyVpRA

  11. Away We Go--It received mixed reviews when it came out and it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes--it does have a certain I’m-judging-you-from-my-perfect-bubble tone in the first and second acts that can be very off-putting. But the exquisitely written third act (basically starting around the time the scene shifts to Canada at Chris Messina & Melanie Lynskey’s house) puts all that aside and shakes John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph’s characters down to their foundations, causing them to question first their assumptions about others, and then their assumptions about each other, and finally their assumptions about themselves. The final scenes are as wonderful as any I’ve seen in four decades of going to movies. Throw in some excellent acting from the principal cast (especially Messina and Lynskey, who are the astonishing pivot on which the movie makes its unexpected turn), and a simply lovely score featuring the work of Alexei Murdoch, and you have a wonderful little film that will surprise you into caring more about it than you think you will. 

  12. Schindler’s List--I know it’s not “hip” in certain critical quarters to enjoy Spielberg movies, especially his “prestige” pictures (Jonathan Rosenbaum, I’m casting a massive stinkeye at you), but honestly. Seriously. I defy you to watch this film and remain unmoved. Even Rosenbaum admits he was unable to do so. There is no cynical, licensing driven profit motive here, and while there is some emotional manipulation going on, it’s in the service of the story and of charcacter motivation, so it has a purpose beyond pulling at heartstrings. What we have in Schindler’s List most of all is a document, driven by equal parts sorrow, anger, and gratitude. The sorrow is in every scene, a deeply felt, powerful and overwhelming loss; those of us who have not experienced  the Holocaust can only begin to guess at its depth. The anger, as well, is in every scene--and for much the same reason. The gratitude? It comes to the fore in Spielberg’s powerful ending. I did not cry in the theater when Liam Neeson’s Schindler wept at how much more he could have done. But when I saw the real life Schindler Jews come up the hill and place their stones on his grave, I wept openly. And if that’s not hip enough for you, then screw it. One of the best movies ever made. 

  13. Brazil--Roger Ebert committed one of the few genuine flubs of his career by giving Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus a two star review, calling it senseless and hard to follow. (He seemed to have a thing about Gilliam--his review of The Fisher King was similarly lacking in patience and far too literal for that movie’s symbolic nature). Couldn’t agree less. Brazil is a marvelous tapestry of madness, equal parts Orwell, Huxley, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison--with maybe a little Vonnegut thrown in for good measure. Jonathan Pryce shines in this madhouse tale of a midlevel clerk, prone to flights of fancy, who gets caught up in the machinery of the totalitarian civilization he himself is a cog in, and slowly comes apart at the seams trying to change . . . anything. Featuring Bob Hoskins as a vicious repairman, Michael Palin cast brilliantly against type as a smiling torturer, and Robert DeNiro in one of the best cameos in movies. Do yourself a favor and watch the uncut version.

  14. Duck Soup--”Remember men, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did!” It’s probably not an exaggeration to say it’s impossible to measure the effect The Marx Brothers had on the film industry, and on comedy itself, over the course of their careers...and beyond. Case in point: Duck Soup, the brothers’ last movie as a quartet, and unquestionably the craziest thing they ever committed to film. Barring a few establishing shots and sadly, Zeppo, there is not a moment in this movie that is devoid of laughs. Everything--Chico’s madcap malaprops, Harpo’s zaniness, Groucho’s armor-piercing one-liners--is spot on and fierce, waiting around every corner to tickle the bejaysus out of you. And of course there’s this crowning moment, one of the funniest things EVER committed to film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKTT-sy0aLg

  15. Pan’s Labyrinth--I have saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I have seen all the movies on this list multiple times except for one--this one. Yet it has stayed with me and in many ways haunted me since the moment I walked out of the theater. For another thing, it is one of the few fantasy films I have ever seen that understands what fairy tales really are, takes that knowledge and runs with it, and makes itself into something more than mere escapism. As my friend Ilana wrote on her blog, “The horrors [Ofelia] faces in her fantasy world are mirrored in the real world, and one could even posit that the atmosphere of torture and blood that pervades the lair of the underground monster is something she has sensed in the house of the Captain, without quite understanding what it was. The tasks that Ofelia must complete in order to become a princess, chosen and special, mirror her real-life struggle from childhood to maturity in a world where childhood innocence has been torn to shreds.” This is a haunting, beautifully photographed and sensitively acted film, that never once takes the easy path or fails to ask the harder questions. And at the end, you are not left wondering so much as you are left thinking. Seven years later, I’m still thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth. And that is nothing to scoff at.

And that’s my list. What are some of your favorites? Share them below. Or not. I’m gonna go rest my fingers.

02 May 2014

Going dark-ish for a bit

Hey all: This week I started working on a long-form writing project (yes, a novel) that is probably going to be taking up a lot of my time for the foreseeable future. I will try to post here when I can, but between work, family, and writing I don't know how much I will be able to do. I have a few posts I want to make--I owe Jeff VanderMeer a post about Annihiliation that I've been putting off until I can read the book again, for instance--and I would like to do some more music blogging as well. But right now my thoughts are filled with the story I'm working on, and until I can get a bit more of that down "on paper" (or more realistically, the thumb drive I'm carrying it around on--and yes, I have it backed up elsewhere), I'm likely to be scarce around here.

Oh, by the way--I was talking about The Wheel of Time in my last post. Shame on you if you thought otherwise.  ;)