Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This is the second time I”ve read The Drowning Girl, my first reread among the eight Kiernan books I’ve read. Her hallmark is mashing any and all genres, primarily the dark, bleak ones, into unique works of art. The strongest influence (evident across all the work I’ve read) is Lovecraft. But she’s also seems to be heavily influenced by the Modernists in some books, the Postmodernists in others, Lewis Carrol, William Blake, Herman Melville, 40’s noir, Le Carre, the splatterpunk subgenre of horror and so on. I’m sure I’m missing a lot. She focuses less on plot than on mood, prose, and aesthetics, though she plots well given that stance. Her prose is consistently excellent. Her work often veers closer to erotica than my taste and comfort usually allow for. She is incredibly upfront about depression and mental illness; often uncomfortably so (one of the things I most love about her work). Hers is a dark vision of the world. People are cruel, but every once in a while people can be good as well. She does not flinch from portraying incredibly gruesome acts. It’s a world where depression wins sometimes. I have to offer so many content warnings to various people when discussing her work, that it seems like I’m waving people off. I’m not, unless one of the content warnings lands for you. But she is the author among my favorites who unsettles me most and who I have the hardest time figuring out to whom to recommend her. But she is solidly among my favorites. Her books and their atmosphere

This book wrecked me this time through. It is narrated in the first person from the perspective of India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, an artist who suffers from severe mental illness. She meets a woman on the side of the road, Eva Canning, who in one telling of the story (and there are at least three here) is a mermaid or siren; in another she is a werewolf; in the third she is a victim of a suicide cult that worshiped a sea goddess. In all versions, Eva wrecks Imp’s relationship with her girlfriend. Things spin out of control from there.

Hauntings, the appearance of ghosts and other apparitions are presented as possibly (probably?) being memes in the Dawkins sense of the word; ideas that propagate themselves almost like earworms or songs that get stuck in your head (one of the best explanations of the word meme used in this sense I’ve heard). In the world of the story certain types of mental illness can make people more susceptible to these memes. There is a distinction drawn between the factual and the true. Finally Kiernan uses a quantum metaphor makes it possible that the various versions of the story, drawn from myth, memes themselves, can all be true; particle and wave. This is a horror novel about a woman assaulted by a werewolf, lured by a siren and who, while suffering from mental illness, has enough awareness to realize that she doesn’t know exactly what is happening, all of those narratives are possible. The prose plays into that structure as well. When Imp goes off her meds, the prose gets much more jumpy and deliberately disjointed. This is a perfectly structured novel.

And it is incredibly entertaining and affecting. My own anxiety and depression have never reached the heights of the narrator here, but I have experienced enough of it that this resonated very strongly. I appreciate that it ends as hopefully as a story this dark can. It doesn’t flinch, but it offers a path. You get the sense that Kinbote wrote Pale Fire almost as a suicide note; The Drowning Girl is more in the vein of Walker Percy’s idea of an ex-suicide. Someone who has stared down the barrel, knows that’s an option and chooses to keep going, at least for now.

It’s a legitimately great novel.

Canon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Slade House by David Mitchell

I’ve been a David Mitchell fan since I first read Cloud Atlas in 2009. That book is brilliantly structured, exciting and moving. I subsequently read the next three books he published, the best being The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which is sorely in need of reread. That book had the first appearance of a character named Marinus. Marinus was a major figure in his next novel, a fantasy called The Bone Clocks, and in Slade House, a very effective horror novel.

I heard an interview with Mitchell (also including Neil Gaiman, with whom Mitchell seems to be in a well deserved mutual admiration society), in which he said his natural length for a piece of writing was novella length. This is evident in Cloud Atlas which is structured as a series of nested novellas. The Bone Clocks uses a similar technique, except that the novellas are placed linearly and each represents a decade in the life of the protagonist. I think this structure is one of the reasons I love Mitchell’s work; grouping related stories that reflect on each other into a whole (a la Fifth Head of Cerberus or City of Saints and Madmen) is one of my favorite modes of fiction. Mitchell is adept at capturing a wide variety of voices and this structure allows him to put that to good use in a single volume.

Slade House is a house that shouldn’t exist; it was destroyed during the war. But every nine years it (and its inhabitants) show up to claim another victim. Each chapter, save the last, is essentially a novella told first person from the perspective of the victim. I won’t summarize past that, to avoid spoilers. I will say that each character is well realized, and the book is effectively eerie. Given the array of genres Mitchell has written in the past, it should not be a surprise that he can do horror as well.

I really like that Mitchell is building a body of work that shares a world and shares characters between seemingly unrelated books. Cloud Atlas is the only one I’ve read multiple times, and it and Jacob de Zoet are still the best if memory serves. I’m hoping to get to the only two of his novels I haven’t previously read, number9dream and Ghostwritten by the end of the year and to revisit De Zoet and Bone Clocks next year. Slade House sits comfortably on the shelf with those, and reminded me how much I enjoy Mitchell’s work.

Highly Recommended.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Best Movies of the Decade (First Draft)

Here's my first stab at making a top ten movies of the decade list (and of course I could only narrow
it down to eleven). I will likely revise later this year:


1) The Lighthouse
2) Calvary
3) Annihilation
4) The Witch
5) Mad Max Fury Road
6) Winter’s Bone
7) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
8) Night Moves
9) Hail Ceasar
10) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
11) Arrival


Here are the runners up, or rather the other movies I considered, in alphabetical order, and on
another day one of the top 11 might slip and be replaced by one of these:


Bad Times at the El Royale
Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Bernie
Blade Runner 2049
Boyhood
Black Panther
Cloud Atlas
Coco
Crimson Peak
Death of Stalin
Destroyer
Ex Machina
Faces Places
First Reformed
Get Out
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Her
Hereditary
Inherent Vice
The Invitation
Lady Bird
Leave No Trace
Life of Crime
The Lure
Mission Impossible Fallout
Moonlight
Noah
Only Lovers Left Alive
Phantom Thread
The Social Network
Spiderman Into the Spiderverse
Thor: Ragnorak
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri
Three Identical Strangers
Tree of Life
Weiner
What We Do In the Shadows

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

Kelly Link has become a favorite over the past few years. I had read an odd anthologized story here and there, but I really was sold when I found a used copy of Magic for Beginners in 2015. The title story of that collection is perfect as were several of the others. Her blend of believable relationships, out there fantasy/scifi/magical realist/absurdist ideas and the excellent prose make for indelible reading experiences. Most of her stories create a world as well-realized as any novel.

This collection opens with a strong one-two punch. The Summer People is a fairy tale grounded in the reality of impoverished rural life and being stuck in a job you hate. It’s about betrayal and escape and relationships. The ending is very sad, but there is a whimsy to it and a determination that keeps it from being too grim. The second is about an actor who is typecast as a vampire and his lost relationship with an old costar. I won’t summarize further, but it is very funny, scary and pulls the rug out at just the right moment and in just the right way.

“The Lesson” from later in the collection is perfect. A gay couple who have hired someone to be a surrogate mother go to an old friend’s wedding as complications arise in the pregnancy. There is a wishing well on the island. On this framework Link builds an eerie and fully realized story about choices and fate and love and contentment and fear. Granted I was sitting down as I read it, but I was frozen in place for some time after reading it.

I could keep pointing to standouts, but there were only two stories that didn’t work for me on the first pass. Link, though, is a writer who has earned a second look and rewards rereading, so I will withhold judgment until I read the collection again. Which I will. I wanted to add one of Link’s collections to my read every year list.* But now, having read all four, I can’t decide which one, so I will likely rotate between them. I can’t recommend her stories highly enough.

Canon-Worthy.


* Currently comprised of Pale Fire by Nabokov, Moby Dick by Melville, Wild Seed by Butler, Prater Violet by Isherwood and moving forward, Peace and Fifth Head of Cerberus by Wolfe, Holy the Firm by Dillard and Middlemarch by Eliot. This could do with some pruning, and there likely will be at some point (The Moviegoer, Till We Have Faces and Godric used to be on the list), but I’m not willing to let go of any of the current batch go at the moment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud (and Wounds (2019) directed by Babak Anvari)

I saw Nathan Ballingrud on a panel at the North Carolina Literary Festival in 2014 and picked up his first book, North American Lake Monsters, on the spot. It is an amazing collection of literary horror stories, and is due a reread. I picked up a standalone copy of this novella (also collected in his new book Wounds) a year or two ago and haven’t gotten around to it yet. They’ve adapted it into a movie, Wounds (on HULU), so I thought I’d read the book before watching.

The novella is excellent. Will, a bartender at a hole in the wall bar in New Orleans finds a phone left behind by some college students. The students (who were underage) ran off after a brutal fight involving a man who lives in the apartment above the bar. Will starts to get texts from the phone depicting some type of gory ritual and gets drawn into some dark places. The strength of the book is the combination of the supernatural and Will’s descent. He is revealed to be an utterly empty person. One of my favorite types of stories is a person realizing that they are not good, or at least having all the information needed for that realization even if they continue to lie to themselves. This fits that bill.

The movie is a very faithful adaptation. If anything it makes things a little more clear. At first I thought that it over-explained, but I think that I was just anticipating what would happen because I had just read the novella. The texts on the found phone give a little more information, and a couple things that are implied in the book are outright stated in the film (though I suspect I might not have caught them had I not just finished the book). The movie’s strongest scene is the final one. It captures the horror of the book very well.

The Visible Filth- Highly Recommended
Wounds- Recommended
(heavy content warning for both)

I would also like to put in a plug for North American Lake Monsters. It’s very very good.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

I really loved this when I read it six years ago, but I didn’t remember it very well. After reading Didion’s excellent novel Play It As It Lays earlier this year, as well as my streak of reading books of essays lately, I wanted to reread it. As with any collection, the pieces are not equally good, but overall this is a great collection. The prose is perfect. As in Play It As It Lays, she takes a dim view of human nature. These pieces are brutal at times. But they are also tinged with a sadness that is part depression and part wistfulness that things don’t have to be the way they are. It never goes saccharine, but if there is an unsentimental version of nostalgia, this approaches it as nearly as any other book I’ve read.

The book is divided into three sections: Lifestyles In The Golden Land consists of pieces about Californians and profiles of some famous people, and closes with the title essay, an account of her journalistic visit to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. This last deserves its reputation as a sort of nail in the coffin of the liberal dream of the sixties. There is a sense, as she frames it, that even the people she talked to seemed to know that the era was flaming out. The other pieces in this section both demonstrate California’s appeal and show its emptiness and venality. Her profile on the reclusive Howard Hughes had some real insight into how we lie to ourselves and especially to others about what we actually want. The gap between self and self perception is well on display here. I’ve heard some people say she takes a condescending view towards her subjects, but I disagree with that assessment. I think she sees them through her bleak (almost nihilistic) worldview. If she finds her subjects suspect, she finds herself equally so.

The second section, called Personals, contained the essays that resonated with me most; On Self Respect and On Morality. I read both several times, and while I’m not entirely sure the extent to which I agree with her, they made me pause and reckon with them. In Self Respect, Didion says that, like Jordan Baker from Great Gatsby, we have to have the courage of our mistakes; that there is a cost to standing up for yourself. I know that my personality is such that I often will not stand up for myself, so this was a bracing, challenging thought. If this sounds like self-help, it’s a bleak form of it, and to paraphrase Sara Gran, you have to take help where you can get it. In On Morality, Didion talks about distrusting the casual use of the word immoral, especially when taken out of a specific context. She never quite says there is no morality, but she does think there is a heavy dose of cant in our discussion of it. People who have done evil things often do them because they were following their consciences, and so we could stand to be at least a little skeptical of our own. I will be returning to these essays often, I think.

In this second section there is also an essay on Hollywood called I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind. She had clearly thought a lot about the “studio system” that gets blamed for so many bad movies, and is very critical of the response to it from the burgeoning New Hollywood and from imported Art House Cinema. It is very easy to laugh along with her assessment of self important message movies, but I think she was maybe a little too harsh. Dr. Strangelove, for instance, wasn’t nearly as empty as she describes it. She was dismissive of Bergman as well. That said, I haven’t seen a lot of the movies she discussed, so I’ll not comment beyond saying that I also get frustrated with message movies, even if I more or less agree with the message.

In the final section she talks about California, and in the final essay about her sojourn in New York. I’ve never been to California or New York, so I can’t confirm her vision of either, but the writing does seem very rooted in those places. Her evocation of Sacramento was particularly good, or at least seemed so to me.

Overall, this is an excellent, bleak collection. She resembles Orwell very little, but she does one thing I do like, that he did as well. As best I can tell she is some stripe of left of center, but she does not let that descend into utopianism. She criticizes where criticism is needed. I appreciate that.


Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Movie Roundup 10/19/19 (Oculus, Too Funny to Fail, Annhilation, Joker, The Thing, Tigers are Not Afraid, Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh, The Seduction of Mimi)

Oculus (2014) directed by Mike Flanagan- This was my first Mike Flanagan movie, and it was way better than I expected. I picked it up from the bargain bin a couple years ago because I’m a mild fan of Dr. Who and Battlestar and Karen Gillen and Katee Sackoff are main characters in this. Sackhoff’s role takes place about 15 or so years before the main action. She is the mother of Gillen’s character, and the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband who is apparently possessed by a ghost who lives in a mirror. Gillen’s character is scarred by this, as is her brother. When the latter gets out of a psychiatric ward she has tracked down the mirror and coerces him into facing the ghost with her. The way the past and present begin to weave into each other and the grim ending are the main selling points here. This is a solid horror movie, atmospheric and extremely well constructed.  Recommended.

Too Funny To Fail (2017) directed by Josh Greenbaum- I didn’t see The Dana Carvey Show when it first came out, but a decade or so later I got the dvds and thought they were hilarious; particularly Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food (featuring Carell and Colbert many years before they were famous), Germans Who Say Nice Things and Grandma the Clown (maybe the bleakest sketch I’ve ever laughed at). This is a decent documentary about the creation of the show. There is one scene, when the characters are reacting to an advertisement for Home Improvement, their lead in, that is as funny as anything in the show. These are two of the most mismatched shows imaginable, and the reaction of the interviewees is priceless. Recommended if you liked the show.

Annihilation (2018) directed by Alex Garland - This is probably still my favorite movie of 2018. It’s based on a novel by one of my favorite authors, Jeff Vandermeer. The mysterious Area X is covered by something called “the Shimmer” of unknown origin that is slowly expanding. All teams that have gone in have disappeared never to return, save one soldier, the husband of Natalie Portman’s character. She joins an all female team of scientists and security personnel who go into the space. This is scific horror at its best. Just beautiful and disturbing. The ending is reminiscent of 2001 or Solaris. This is a great weird tale, and I will be watching it many more times. Canon.

Joker (2019) directed by Todd Phillips- I was very mixed on this. Despite my attempts to avoid it, I heard a lot of chatter about it beforehand (mostly in bad faith from people who hadn’t seen it yet). As I watched it, I couldn’t shake the discourse. I’m looking forward to seeing it a year or two from now with some distance. As is, I can say that Phoenix is very good (no surprise there), though I still prefer Ledger’s performance. There are some really good moments; I particularly liked the scenes with De Niro. It seems to be aimed both at the types of angry loners who write manifestos and the eat the rich crowd. I think it wants to portray society as it is, but the message is muddled. I’m not much for message movies, but this seems to be trying to send one. It seems unsure of what that message actually is. There are a couple of fakeouts in which scenes are discovered to be his hallucinations, which makes the ending of the film ambiguous in an annoying rather than thought provoking way. Right now I’m hovering between Pass and Recommended, but I’m mostly going to withhold judgement for a year or so.

The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter- I had seen this several times, but never on the big screen before. This is a horror masterpiece that manages to be both creeping terror and a gorefest. Seeing it on the big screen was a great experience. Canon.

Tigers are Not Afraid (2017) directed by Issa L√≥pez- This is a beautiful and gut wrenching movie in the tradition of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone. A group of orphans in Mexico have to figure out how to live on the streets as they run from ghosts and the vicious gang that murdered their parents. It’s a toss-up which is more frightening. The balance between terror and pathos is perfect, with periodic moments of joy. This is definitely worth tracking down. Highly Recommended.

Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh: I really like comedians who talk openly about their depression and anxiety (Chris Gethard and Maria Bamford are masters of this). I’ve always thought Gulman was a master craftsman, and in this special he applies that craft to hellish depression he went through over the past few years. I’m glad he’s still around, and I’m grateful that he chronicled this here. All that makes it sound like it isn’t funny, but it is. Highly Recommended.

The Seduction of Mimi (1972) directed by Lina Wertmuller- For the first 30 minutes or so of this, I thought they were framing Mimi as a Being There or Forrest Gump type witness to history type character. I was wrong about that. Rather, it is a searing portrait of a fragile male ego. From the internal context of the film, it is also a satire on Italian society of the time. I don't know enough about Italy during the period to speak to how accurate that aspect is, though I'm willing to grant that business, crime and church had significant overlap. What I did recognize as a truth was a guy feigning an ideology to meet women; you see this a lot in the church as well. In the end, Mimi is a completely unsupportable character, but the film is largely an indictment of him, and by extension, Italian society (though, as I said, I don't have the context to parse that critique).
The film is beautifully shot, especially the foggy atmosphere of the first 30 minutes. This was my first Wertmuller and will definitely not be my last. Recommended.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers

I’ve been a huge Tim Powers fan since I first read Last Call in 2008 (I’ve read that novel four more times since then). Whenever I try to talk people into reading that novel (which has been often), I start by telling them a Steven Wright joke: “Last night I stayed up late playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and eight people died.” I tell them to imagine that expanded into one of the tensest fantasy/horror thrillers they’ve ever read. That’s a reductionist view. It’s not just poker (or rather a game called Assumption) with tarot cards for incredibly high stakes, though it certainly is that. It’s also about the fisher king mythos transferred to California via jungian archetypes and Catholic sacraments. It’s about alcoholism. It’s about the founding and mythical underpinning of Las Vegas. It’s about probability. It’s about curing cancer. It’s a literalization of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.  It’s about daddy issues. It’s about so many things that shouldn’t work together in one story. The plot concerns people jockeying to take the role of Fisher King from the current king who stole it from Bugsy Siegel. I’ve read nearly all of his novels over the years and they always contain so many ideas that it seems that they can’t possibly work, but they always do. Earthquake Weather is a sequel to Last Call, but it is also a sequel to Expiration Date. This latter has an equally complicated mythology, largely centered around the practice of eating ghosts to extend one’s life, chasing down the ghost of Thomas Edison who has possessed a boy, and seeking absolution.

Powers’ mythologies are complicated, to the point that in less disciplined hands, all the disparate elements could easily fall apart into an incomprehensible mess. He pulls it off every time, for my money (I’ve now read all of his novels, save his first two). In Earthquake Weather, he ups the difficulty level by finding a way to mesh two of those mythologies seamlessly into another great thriller. He plays fair too. Without retconning he makes it work. Powers is known for meticulous research. His novels take historical events as backdrop and plot. He doesn’t change details. He fills in the unknown elements with the fantastic, sometimes blurring into horror. Here he’s done the same with both actual history (one subplot deals with a particular breed of insect that was actually plaguing California vineyards around the time the book is set), and the fictional history recorded in the previous books. Last Call is among my 20 or so favorite books. I found Expiration Date somewhat less convincing, mainly due to the motivations of a couple of the characters. (That’s not to say I didn’t really love the book; I did). Earthquake Weather comes very close to the heights of Last Call. It’s an incredible work of supernatural fiction, and I have an extra level of appreciation for it because of degree of difficulty in combining the mythologies of Last Call and Expiration Date. That said, I think it would be very difficult to follow for someone who hadn’t read both those books. I won’t try to summarize the plot beyond saying that it involves the death of the man who won the mantle of Fisher King in Last Call and the attempts of characters from both novels and some new players trying to bring him back (or oppose that attempt). Arky Mavranos and Kootie Parganas are two indelible characters, and I appreciated having them working together in the same novel.

Powers does not concern himself with pushing an ideology in his work; he’s from the school of “write the book, and the ideology will take care of itself,” a stance I appreciate. That said, my quibbles with the books, especially Expiration Date, have mainly to do with motivations. I’m fully on board with a work examining people’s guilt and their coming to terms with that guilt and trying to find a way to atone. Sometimes, though, I feel like the specific things that some of the characters feel most guilty about are either slightly different than what I would say they should, or at least the way the guilt is expressed makes me question it a little. I chalk this up to my not sharing Powers’ Catholic faith.

But that’s a quibble. The books are not in any way didactic. Powers’ prose is excellent and straightforward. He has (probably) the most thought out plot mechanics of any writer I’m familiar with. As complicated as his mythologies are, if you pay attention as you read you will be able to understand them. He evokes the mythic as well as anyone I know. I differ with him ideologically, but I find that no reason in that to deny myself some of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

Highly Recommended (but not before reading Last Call and Expiration Date).

Sunday, October 13, 2019

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

This is my ninth Stephen King novel. I’ve stuck mostly to ones that are considered among his best, and that has worked well, as I’ve really liked all of them save one. Even among that well respected group, this is one of the best of his I’ve read. Someone in an online book group compared it favorably to IT, and I think that’s apt. In this, he manages to capture a wide array of characters and the life of a small town being pulled down by an evil force, but do it in half the pages. I did like IT (save for that infamous scene near the end), but I love the relative concision here.

The story is essentially that of a Dracula-esque figure moving to a small Maine town and bringing it slowly under his thrall, and the small band of people who oppose him. A moderately successful writer comes back to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he spent a few years in childhood, hoping to write a blockbuster horror novel about the Marsten House, site of a murder infamous in town history and gossip that has haunted his dreams since he moved away. He falls in love with a local woman. A priest, an aging english teacher and a young boy obsessed with movie monsters form his primary allies as more and more of the townspeople are killed or turned into vampires.

King is often called a modern Dickens; that is a prolific popular writer whose work will, in the minds of some, continue to be read long after the Roths, Wallaces, Franzens and the like are largely forgotten. (I love that King takes a shot at Phillip Roth early on as the writer character says, concerning his second or third book and the mixed and negative reviews it received: “Plot was out, masturbation was in.” That line had me in stitches). I don’t like to predict things like that, but I do think the Dickens comparison is apt in at least one sense; King, like Dickens, is very good at giving minor characters a sense of reality. There are so many characters in this book that I confuse many of them mere days after finishing the book. That being said, when a character becomes a vampire, you get a real sense that it was a person whose life ended, not just one dimensional monster fodder. It makes it more horrible when they are killed or turned.

In the preface, King says this is his favorite of his early books, despite, to his mind, it showing him to be a “man of his time.” I take this to mean that he regrets some of the language his characters use, particularly in regards to women. He’s not wrong. It’s a term usually applied to dead authors; it’s interesting for an author to have a long enough career to be able to bestow that title upon himself. I like the self awareness. I don’t know how that stuff would play to other people, but it works for me. King doesn’t tie himself in knots to make it clear a character is not one of the good guys; he trusts the reader to figure that out. There are a couple of abusive husbands here, whose portrayal is nearly as horror-laden as the vampires.

Overall, I think this really works. Given the volume of his output, I doubt I will try to go completist with King, but I will certainly read many more of his books. This is an excellent straightforward vampire novel with emotional heft. After all the variations on vampire stories, it is nice to find a more straightforward one that really works.

Recommended.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The aspect I’ve most enjoyed about Donna Tartt’s novels is the high-low split; the way she structures her novels as “literary” while maintaining a real pulp energy. I need to reread The Secret History, but if memory serves it felt like a decadent 80’s college coming of age story by way of seedy crime movies. Similarly, The Goldfinch read like Dickens doing the same. Clearly those are reductive descriptions; Tartt forges her own distinct voice out of these disparate elements. It is a voice tailor made for my tastes. Many of my favorite authors (Gene Wolfe, Kelly Link, Caitlin Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, Elizabeth Hand) do a similar thing on the boundary of pretentious literary fiction and scifi/fantasy/horror. After reading this, the last of her published novels I hadn’t read before, Tartt has to be in that favorite authors conversation.

Harriet Dufresne’s brother was murdered the year she was born and the killer was never found. This has wrecked her family. When she is 12, in the 70’s, she gets obsessed with the idea of solving her brother’s murder and becomes convinced that one of his classmates, Danny Ratliff, is guilty. The narration is omniscient third person, but most often inhabits the perspective of Harriet or Danny. Harriet presents like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird lost in a Denis Johnson crime novel or the world of the show Justified. She is precocious and unyielding, and like Scout she’s presented with adult problems before she is emotionally ready for them. But Tartt takes her to far darker places, and makes her more culpable in the story’s crimes, both personal and systemic. I found her story and that of her family convincing from the beginning. It took a little longer with the Ratliff clan, who lie somewhere between Faulkner’s Snopes and Leonard’s Crowes. As the novel progressed, I was more on board.

Tartt’s is treading into Flannery O’Connor territory here, and doesn’t suffer too much for the comparison. She handles themes of racism similarly; all of her characters have prejudices of one stripe or another and some are openly racist. Like O’Connor, she doesn’t bother to tell you this is bad, trusting the reader to know. Harriet, being a southern relatively well off and sheltered white child doesn’t grasp the full picture of race in the South, but is deeply unsettled by the beginnings of her understanding. I’d be interested in other perspectives, but to my mind, she pulls this aspect of the novel off.

Tartt’s prose is elegant without being showy. Her characterization is strong. Unlike many other pretentious literary writers, she’s not afraid of plot. She is never didactic, and is often funny. The Little Friend is haunted by the past without being nostalgic, unblinking about its character’s faults without being cruel, is deeply sad and very funny. I will certainly read this again. Now that I’ve read all her work, I think The Goldfinch is my favorite (though I should really reread The Secret History to make sure). That said, all three are excellent, and well worth the time.

Highly Recommended. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens

Orwell has a complicated legacy. He was a democratic socialist who fought against faciscm in the Spanish Civil War. Yet he was fiercely anti-Stalinist before most leftists in the west. He saw first-hand how Stalinists tried to purge the communist resistance of non-Stalinists in Spain while the fight against facism was still going on. This was disputed by many on the left, but later confirmed. This illustrates his reputational issues on the left. The right has in some ways adopted him, understandable on cultural grounds, but he was clearly of the left politically.

Hitchens wades through nearly a century of reactions to Orwell in an attempt, largely successful, to show both why Orwell has had such a mixed legacy and to argue that his voice should not be set aside for that reason. Orwell, Hitchens says, was on the right side of the arguments against the three great evils of his day, Facism, Stalinism and Imperialism. This is a difficult trick to pull off; often fighting one of those would place a person beside one of the others. I appreciate that Hitchens doesn’t make him some paragon, though. Orwell is clearly conflicted at times. In the essay Shooting an Elephant, it is easy to see both Orwell’s disdain for Empire, and the ingrained prejudice he has about the ‘natives’. Orwell recognizes this in himself; Empire is bad for both the subjected people and those of the empire. He himself is a prime example of this.

Hitchens makes a strong case that the left of Orwell’s time misjudged him in deliberate bad faith, committed as they were to defending Stalin long past the time that was justifiable. He’s nearly as successful in demonstrating why the Right is misguided in claiming him as one of their own. In doing so, he does admit that culturally speaking (especially with regards to homosexuality) he does fit there somewhat, though politically he was far removed from them. Hitchens is not a voice I give too much credence to on Feminism, but he does a decent job of cataloging feminist reaction to him over the years. Both authors have a fraught relationship in that area.

Orwell was constitutionally incapable of not saying what he actually thought, and Hitchens uses that tendency as a blunt instrument against what he sees as the intellectual dishonesty of postmodern critical theory in a later chapter. I don’t know that theory well enough to say for sure, but this ventures into the area in which the book is as much about Hitchens as Orwell. Both authors see themselves as against cant wherever it can be found, an admirable trait. In this case I would largely agree that critical theory does contain much bullshit. But the observation that uncertainty is warranted is a valid one. Hitchens admits to this in the text, but tends toward a type of dogmatism that I find offputting. This is my third Hitchens book, after his memoir and his book against Kissenger. The latter convinced me that the idea of Kissinger being a war criminal is not leftist exaggeration. Hitchens can turn a phrase and I really love aspects of his writing. His absolute certainty that religion is always evil is troubling. I agree with him that the postmodernists are wrong about the nonexistence of capital T truth, but that does not mean that one can fully understand truth, or that certainty on religious issues is attainable (an issue I have with many Evangelicals as well).

Where I find myself agreeing with Hitchens most is on a relatively minor issue; Orwell’s attitude toward WH Auden. Auden is my favorite poet (on the days that distinction doesn’t belong to Yeats or Robinson Jeffers), and Orwell dismissed him out of hand. Hitchens posits that this was likely partially wrapped up in Orwell’s feelings on homosexuality, which, after reading some of the essays rings true.

This is a “warts and all” examination of Orwell’s work. I read a collection of Orwell’s essays before this and Hitchens does an excellent job of expressing what was great in Orwell’s work while being relatively honest about his shortcomings. He occasionally overstates himself in Orwell’s defense. I do like this approach to historical authors, though. It’s important not to hand wave away problematic aspects of beloved writers because we value aspects of their writing. It is equally important, though, to contextualize the work, and think about what is valuable in them. Here you can almost hear Hitchens begging some future writer to do the same for him. Like Orwell, he is a leftist who has a checkered reception with the left. One might quibble about particulars, but Hitchens succeeds, to my mind, demonstrating why Orwell is an important voice, and giving voice to some of my misgivings about him. I can’t help but hear Hitchens’ voice in the subtext saying, “Me too!”

Recommended, though I'd recommend reading some of Orwell's essays first.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Movie Roundup 10/5 (Heist, Constantine, Starman, Between Two Ferns: The Movie, Equilibrium, Ad Astra, Obvious Child, Leave No Trace, Transporter 2, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Lure, The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing)

Here's a roundup of recently watched films:

Heist (2001) directed by David Mamet - This is an extraordinarily good take on the heist/con genre. I’ve seen several Mamet movies, House of Games, Homicide, State and Main and a couple he wrote but didn’t direct, Glengary Glen Ross and Wag the Dog. I don’t remember the last well enough to comment, but the others have masterful plotting and dialog. This proved no exception. Good dialog is one of the things I like most in movies. Like his other films, this takes a very dim view of human nature; everyone betrays and people are mostly greedy and bad. Hard to argue, bleak as it seems. Highly Recommended.

Constantine (2005) directed by Francis Lawrence - I’m glad I saw this before reading any of the source material. I’d come across John Constantine in The Sandman and Swamp Thing graphic novels, but hadn’t read any Hellblazer until a week or two after watching this. Without the weight of expectations based on its source, I think this is a really great horror fantasy about a wizard who fights both angels and demons. Highly Recommended.

Starman (1984) directed by John Carpenter - It took me a while to get past Jeff Bridges stilted delivery, but was charmed once I did. Not at all what I expected out of a Carpenter film. Recommended.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019) directed by Scott Aukerman - I was mostly mixed on this until I saw the outtakes at the end. The plot is fairly thin; a road movie in which Galifinakis has to interview a certain number of celebrities to earn a talk show. It’s a mostly entertaining excuse to string together a bunch of clips of the show. Always glad to see Lauren Lapkus in something. The more I've thought about it and gone back and watched clips, the more I like it. Recommended.

Equilibrium (2002) directed by Kurt Wimmer - A post-Matrix take on Brave New World type material. It has its moments, but largely falls flat. Pass.

Ad Astra (2019) directed by James Gray - This was fantastic. A heart of darkness trip into space to deal with both daddy issues and the felt absence of God. A handful of great action scenes, otherwise a slow ramp of tension mostly hinging on how well you like Brad Pitt’s performance in the lead. That performance completely worked for me, as did the movie. Top 5 of 2019 at this point, easily. Highly Recommended.

Obvious Child (2014) directed by Gillian Robespierre - I haven’t seen this since it was in the theater. It’s a feminist take on the raunchy romantic comedy. It centers around an abortion. An abortion comedy would be a hard sell with a less charming lead than Jenny Slate. This holds up well 5 years later. Recommended.

Leave No Trace (2018) directed by Debra Granik - I've long been a fan of Granik’s rural noir Winter's Bone, but somehow I didn’t see this last year. It is captivating. It somehow was and was not what I expected. An ex-soldier with some level of PTSD is illegally living a survivalist life in a state park with his teenage daughter. They are discovered, put into housing and then leave. It has an ending I didn't see coming, but was the only appropriate one. Two fully realized characters, with impeccable performances. This is a masterpiece. I still give the edge to Winter's Bone between the two films I've seen of hers, but both are nearly perfect. Canon-Worthy.

Transporter 2 (2005) directed by  Louis Leterrier - This is a ridiculous sequel to a ridiculous movie. I’ve been on a bit of Jason Statham kick lately. This is as big and dumb as any of them. Well before The Fast and Furious movies started jumping cars from building to building, Transporter 2 did it. The CGI is much older looking, but The Transporter also has a scene in which Statham jumps and barrel rolls his car to use a hook on a chain to scrape a bomb off the bottom of the vehicle. The bad guys lack only mustaches to twirl; they are a sexed up Boris and Natasha. Cartoonishly evil. It’s really dumb fun. Recommended.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) directed by Wes Craven - Somehow I never saw this until it screened at a retro horror event a nearby theater is doing this month. I expected a generic slasher, but it was more of a horror fantasy (though one that has slasher elements to it). I had always assumed this was more salacious than it actually is. It is a very good horror movie, and I’m glad that the first time I saw it was on the big screen. Recommended.

The Lure (2015) directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska - This is a lurid feminist take on the Little Mermaid Story by way of a punk/disco horror musical. Two mermaid sisters come to shore and join a band that plays in really seedy nightclubs. One of them falls in love with a human, and the story plays out like the fairy tale; but a desanitized version that puts all the unsavory subtext back in. It is gory. It feels a little exploitative, but it is largely about exploitation, so that’s no knock on it. It’s visually stunning and has so much energy. Highly Recommended (with a very heavy content warning).

The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (2006) directed by Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck: I’ve never listened to the Dixie Chicks much beyond their hits. I did remember the controversy surrounding their comments about the Iraq War, though, and when I saw an online discussion of this documentary I watched it. It’s a fascinating mix between damage control and their decision to stand by their remarks. Human motivation is always complex; it is rare that something happens for only one reason. It is also rare to see work that admits this. I didn't expect to find that tension in a Dixie Chicks documentary, but it is there. Recommended.