Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Reading List: Recently Finished and Up Next

Here's what I've been burying my nose in these days, and what I am looking forward to starting. I've been on a pretty heavy fiction & graphic novel bender these days, which you might see reflected in the list that follows. As always, I'd love to hear suggestions if you have any.


Recently Finished

  • Friends Like Us, Lauren Fox
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
  • The Sandman, Neil Gaiman
  • Blankets, Craig Thompson
  • The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Recently Started
  • Fables, Bill Willingham
  • Paddle Your Own Canoe, Nick Offerman
Up Next
  • The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
  • Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
  • Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
  • As You Wish, Cary Elwes
  • The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
  • Yes Please, Amy Poehler
  • The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  • A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
  • The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  • Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham
  • Not My Father's Son, Alan Cumming
  • The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Well, uhm, there it is. I recently completed something of a fantasy kick to combat the drudgery of job applications (Gaiman), plus a novel about relationships, as I am so utterly single (Fox), and a graphic memoir, for which I do not have a snarky reason (Thompson). At present I have a novel, something Graphic, and a celebrity memoir. I hope they're good. Then I'll push on to whatever's next, ideally over tea after long work days. 

Have you read any of these? Something else need to be added to this list? Taken off? Let me know.

Review-ish: Friends Like Us



I'm not quite sure how I stumbled across this book, but am very glad I did. In moments of procrastination I like to wander the aisles of my digital library on Overdrive and look for something new to read. Sure, most of the hot titles have long wait lists, and if I had any money I'd probably lose patience and buy book after book to clog up what little space I have on my iPad. But Overdrive is free! And if you're creative and/or patient enough, there is are mountains of free content in which to lose yourself. Go, now. You know adding things to wish lists is the best way to waste time, so just poke about for what you want to read. Or, start where I did, with Pop Culture Happy Hour's reading list from last fall (I'll post my own current list shortly).

So, Friends Like Us. Does the cover imply a triangle? Well there is one. The narrator, Willa, is an illustrator in her mid-twenties who lives with her best friend, Jane, whom many mistake for her sister—twin, even. Jane begins dating an old high school friend of Willa's, and the book begins investigating notions of friendship, and how relationships shift, mutate, and end. It's a fun book, especially if you're in the mood to slip into someone else's shoes and walk around a bit.

Willa is a sympathetic narrator at times, less sympathetic at others, as we all are, and this ability to imagine the ways we rationalize selfishness, sometimes unknowingly, creates an incredibly human novel.

Another thing I found noteworthy about this book is its alternate cover, which definitely markets the book to a different audience. I wonder which version other's would pick up. Does the illustrated cover imply plucky, literary sensibilities while the other is more mass-market? Does the former push the triangular friendship with this other pushing the third-wheel issues of one's disappearance when friends start dating?

Friends Like Us is not going to give you a headache, and you should be able to get through its 250 pages pretty quick, especially as you read away these last weeks of winter.

But don't take my word for it...


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Harry Potter: The Unlikely Christmas Classic

How did this happen? Christmas only comes up for a few seconds each movie, and is pretty much entirely left from the later movies. So, from where does the drive to watch hours and hours of that whiney, mediocre magician? Is it nostalgia for the books, which took more time for the holidays? Is it the snow and wintry imagery of those Hogsmeade visits? Maybe, but, in addition to those bits, the main pull is something much more obvious: magic.

Christmas is about magic and suspension of disbelief, not religion or determining the politically correct version of "Happy Holidays" to use in polite conversation. Magic. Childlike exuberance. Unfettered joy. These are the central elements of this month, despite the fact that everyone could probably be a better Harry Potter than Harry Potter.

Put away your grumpy politics and sarcasm for a week or two and believe in some magic. Smile, laugh, and stop pretending you're more clever than the rest of the planet. Maybe some of that humility will spill over into the new year.

Merry, Merry Christmas, all. I wish you the very best.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Stop Winking at Me: On Involution and Art

I have not been able to finish the latest season of Arrested Development.

Still reading? Good. Maybe you agree with me. I want to talk a little bit about television, movies, and books that evoke an eye-roll. Writer Glen Weldon, in his role as panelist for NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, speaks on involution in art; he defines it as "turning in on itself. Going up its own butt—its own narrative butt." "Self confidence becomes self regard," he says, listing Joyce as the clearest literary example. I took an entire class on Joyce at one point, and outside Dubliners, I can't stand the man. Anything that seems too into itself makes my skin crawl.

For that Joyce course, my final paper was twelve pages on one single chapter from Ulysses: Nausicaa. And I have to say, by the end I did want to write twelve pages on every chapter in the book, but come one now, really? That's the only way for me to understand what's going on? David Foster Wallace once wrote that reading should be hard work, and I agree, for the most part... balance in life and all that (I'll let you know when I get past the second chapter of Infinite Jest).

Perhaps this has to do with the years I've spent studying creative writing. Conceit existed through my undergrad, in the way all fledgling writers think themselves kings of craft and creativity, but by graduation most of us had simmered down a bit. I had moved from fiction to nonfiction in the understanding that studying and writing the truth might allow me to one day support myself. In that shift I also came to realize how infinitely more complicated the world of nonfiction is than fiction and poetry (of course that's not necessarily true, but it's where my passion lies, so I'm right). By the time I finished grad school, I wasn't sure many writers were capable of humility. One semester, half the program took a course on "The Sublime" and it was all anyone could talk about. This was around the time I just wanted to squeal about the upcoming Avengers movie. My effervescent joy was met with many an arched eyebrow and upturned nose. In my final year I took a Rushdie class. Here's a bit of advice: Shakespeare is the only writer allowed to have his own class. If anyone tells you otherwise, be very, very sure you love the work before signing up. Rushdie, like Joyce, is very excited by how clever they can be.



No. Please, stop. You've ruined it.
So, what instances of this do we see in film and television? For one, Arrested Development, season 4, ruined just about every wonderful joke they had. Someone threw subtlety out the window along the way and everything became a reference to the previous seasons. I gave up around the point JOB was to marry Ann under the gigantic "Her?" altar. The best part of Arrested was how quiet the running gags could be, you might miss them even after multiple viewings. I also argue the shifting perspective messed with the tone, but that's neither here nor there.

This is why I am terrified of someone reviving Firefly. Leave it alone. It's perfect, and the premature cancellation evokes a longing that adds to the magic. And that magic cannot be recreated.

The 9th Doctor is not impressed
My absolute favorite show has has even fallen prey to this involution. That 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special was so far up its own ass, I wasn't sure I'd ever find my way out. There was so much self-referential fan service in that episode, the whole thing lost sight of itself. How dare they empty the emotion from David Tennant's final line, "I don't want to go." Thank God Peter Capaldi showed up to take care of things. For a show about traveling through time and space, I sure need it to be down to earth... See what I did there?

Why write about this now, you ask?

Could this show take itself more seriously?
You must know, deep down, what has driven me here. Gotham. I sat through the series premiere. No more. Though I do feel obliged to watch the second episode for this writing, there's no way I'd stand it. Now, Gotham is only at fault in its decision to follow Nolan's work to its inevitable end. Nolan is a director I find so excited by his own genius that he nearly ruined Batman. They're trying their hardest to ruin Batman, but Batman will outlast. Batman is stronger than shoddy writers and directors. At this point, I should know to stick to graphic novels and video games wherever Batman is concerned. Those mediums allow for a requisite brutality impossible in television and blockbuster cinema. Gotham is just one big easter-egg hunt as far as I can tell.

Inception is a movie that literally collapses in on itself. There is no reason for three Hobbit movies; I'm looking at you, made-up orcs, Radagast, and foreshadowing. All I wanted was a treasure hunt. I mean, imagine if Guillermo del Toro directed the thing with Ron Perlman as Beorn. It would have been more fun than farcical.

The Avengers knew what it was, and succeeded. It did, at times, try a bit hard to be that which it was, like a caricature of itself. Some of its -ness could have been reigned in by the likes of Mark Ruffalo's subdued performance as Bruce Banner, but that excess exhibited by snarky, ostentatious dialogue was corrected in subsequent Marvel films. It's still there in the banter between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Winter Soldier, and everything about Guardians of the Galaxy, but refined, dialed-in.

Not too long ago, a friend asked me, "Do you think True Detective is funny, or is that just me being a sick bastard? I mean, nihilism is just so cute."
"Occasionally, yeah," I said, " it goes way over the top at times."
He said, "Gotta love excessive earnestness. More people need to read and watch Oscar Wilde."

What's on your list? If I'm in the wrong mood, even Game of Thrones becomes ridiculous, and I love that show. Where do you draw the line? When is it too much?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Just Let Yourself Enjoy Spider-Man 2: A Review/Essay on This Film's Successes Within the Context of its Genre


The movie is fun. It's fun! Can't we just let it be fun? There's a fine line in analyzing pop-culture between respecting the Art of the thing, whatever it is, and remembering the inherent levity of flashy, explody, building-smashy entertainment. I mean, I've seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier twice, and I still don't quite understand what happened.

Spider-Man has always been the super hero I identified with most. Sure, I wanted adamantium claws and the corresponding facial hair, but how useful would that really be? And if I'm honest with myself, I'm no Logan. Despite the fact that spiders creep the heck out of me, Spider-Man is a champion of the bookish-folk. He's a goof—always joking, to himself, for the most part, and wiry. He teaches us to laugh at ourselves, laugh at the small stuff, and laugh at the big stuff. Spider-Man is the little guy, which is why I think it makes an odd sense that he's separated (at Sony) from the rest of the Marvel group (Disney).

So, since this new Spider-Man movie has come out, reviews have been popping up all over the place, like here for Forbes (by Mark Hughes, who I think nails it), here for Wired, here for NYT and here's the ever-surly Christopher Orr's take, for The Atlantic. And I suggest you give all of them a look, they'll teach you a lot about how movie reviews are supposed to sound. The best way I can describe it is like trying to describe something while standing very, very far away. Like, you had the thing in your hands, but then hid it and ran a mile before stopping to talk about it... maybe this piece will sound the same. I wonder why critics seem, by and large, so crotchety. If I keep writing about movies, will I end up the same way? If I am crotchety while using clever, review-y jargon, does that make it better? Granted, I got pretty crabby about Terrence Malick, twice, but in a fun, funny way, right? So that makes me better, yes...

But yeah, there were a few things that this movie got me thinking about. 1) I will always be a little grumpy about the fact that every super hero movie is not rated 'R', and, by recognizing that, be okay with it, 2) The claustrophobia of villainy in superhero movies (does it ever work? How (not)?), and 3) a spoiler-laden end beat on how some bold choices made by this movie in the third act might be changing the stakes for this film genre. You know what? Scratch that. I won't go beyond saying "I think some bold choices made by the filmmakers change the stakes for this film genre."

It doesn't even have to be the thirteen-year-old in us that enjoys this film. There is a little boy in the movie who is saved by Spidey (and doesn't go bonkers, like the villain) and shows up again later to face-off against a baddie while we wait for Spider-Man to get there. That's the kid. That's the kid going to see this movie, not guys in their late twenties like me who still want to swing from rooftops and climb buildings and hear Spider-Man let loose an "Oh Shit!" whenever he's about to get clocked. This movie does a fine job in audience recognition. They know it's a kids movie, but also have to try and make the rest of us love it as well. It's hard to do! I suggest anyone in college, or (especially) beyond, use their imagination when watching this movie. Fill in the blanks. For me, Spider-Man says, "Shit!" a whole lot. I think that's what the "Spidey-Sense" is, so I make the switch in my brain.

Moving on. Be warned, I get a bit more specific concerning the plot here. The wretched Spider-Man 3 had three villains, and so does this. It seems a common consensus that the last thirty minutes of The Dark Knight were a bit of a stretch, like Nolan should have just let Two-Face kill a couple cops then disappear until the next movie, where could have by then organized his own crime syndicate. The Avengers was equally crowded, though more by heroes than Villains. Yes, Whedon new what he was doing, but since he let the audience watch the heroes battle each other, which is what everyone wanted, Loki felt more like a nuisance than actual threat. But back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and how this claustrophobia of villainy is an inherent part of comic-book adaptations, especially Spider-Man.

Let's face it. All of these movies, however original the screenplay, are adaptations of graphic novels, and just as adaptations of traditional novels must play by their source material's rules, so must this genre. reviewers have derided the "Tangled Mess of Plotlines," how "utterly wasted Giamatti" was as Rhino bookending the film, and how Osborn's Green Goblin was shoehorned into the final act. Sure, Harry Osborn was an empty device used to move plot; he was absolutely no match for Spider-Man, and also detracted from the weight of Electro's place as super villain. But this is the world of Spider-Man, and comics. There's always something going on. Someone, somewhere is doing something they shouldn't and the hero has to stop them.  Think of the Arkham games, especially Arkham City. Batman has to, in the span of one night, take down virtually every single villain he's ever known. This is the nature of pretty much every superhero universe. Marc Webb did with Rhino what Christopher Nolan should have with Two-Face, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, was fun, shiny, sufficiently acrobatic and sentimental, all while delivering a movie appropriate for children that appeals to adults.

Final Note: Shout out to "Paranoia," the Electro theme. It kicks so much ass, and even manages to complicate and develop the character.