Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) directed by Quentin Tarantino (with spoilers)

I’m almost always at odds with myself about Quentin Tarantino’s movies. With the exception of Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown (both unmitigated delights in my book) I’m almost always queasy about them at the same time that I am undeniably into them. Hateful Eight and Death Proof are the ones that I’m most down on, though a rewatch of either could shift that position. Josh Larsen said, in a discussion of Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs on a recent episode of Filmspotting, "I think that [Mr Blonde cutting of a policeman’s ear while dancing to Stealer’s Wheel] was probably our first indication that being a Tarantino fan was going to be a very morally murky proposition." I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a fan, but I don’t always feel great about that fact. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no different in that regard, while being very different from his previous work in some ways.

As much as the title is an homage to Sergio Leone, it’s also a statement that the film is essentially a fairy tale. It’s going to give you QT’s take on the proverbial Hollywood ending. The bulk of the time is spent with DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Pitt’s Cliff Booth, a fading TV cowboy and his stunt double/gofer sidekick. Dalton is neighbors with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, at the time the hottest director in Hollywood. The Manson Family drifts around the perimeter of the movie, as does Sharon Tate. The movie is mostly a hangout film with Dalton and Booth.

DiCaprio turns my favorite performance of his. An actor playing a bad actor is a tough thing, and he pulls it off. There’s a scene in the middle opposite a child actor he’s playing against in the pilot of a western that is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while.  Robbie is fantastic as Tate. If one were to complain that she has few spoken lines, I could see that as a valid complaint. My read on it is that it is an homage to a person who had a great career ahead of her and a genuine wish that she hadn’t been killed. Given Tarantino’s reputation for dialogue, it could also be an attempt to write a character without that strength. Pitt is fantastic as well, though his character is really a terrible guy.

Like the best fairy tales, it’s got a dark subtext. Pitt is no longer an active stunt man because he reputedly killed his wife and is a jackass on set. On the set of Green Hornet he gets knocked down by Bruce Lee and then throws him into a car. This has been seen as disrespectful to Lee, and I can see that from one angle. Given QT’s love for Lee, though, I think a likelier intent is to show how the old hollywood is on the way out, and Bruce Lee represents the future. As the older more conservative Hollywood is fading, the new Hollywood is taking over. Dalton and Booth aren’t the only one’s on the way out. They represent the old guard.

The ending, in which the Manson family attacks Dalton and Booth instead of Tate, et al, and are brutally murdered themselves is both thrilling and way too much. Imagine a world in which Tate and her friends survive. Maybe Polanski doesn’t commit the sex crime he’s in exile over. Dalton and Booth seem to get a second lease on work life. The knowledge that Tate died in real life, and the old guard Pitt and DiCaprio represent are definitively on the way out undercuts the happiness. As does the violence done to the Manson girls. The Manson family is hardly a sympathetic group. Them dying instead of Tate and her friends is preferable. Still the absolute brutality of their deaths is overwhelming. If QT didn’t have a reputation for portraying joyful violence against women it might play a little differently. Cliff Booth is not supposed to be a good person. But Pitt and DiCaprio are charisma machines and their (especially Pitt’s) effortless cool makes them seem better.

But that’s the point, the dark subtext. Hollywood endings are bullshit. The rest of the Manson family is still out there. Another attack could happen. Dalton and Booth’s Hollywood is going away. The loss of that old Hollywood is sad in some ways. It’s rare that saying a director is having it both ways is a good thing, but in this case I think it is. The film is an elegy to old hollywood and a sincere wish that things turned out differently. But it is well aware that that is not the case. I personally found the climactic violence stomach churning, but it does underline the point that this is a Hollywood ending, and that Hollywood endings are pure fantasy. Despite having to avert my eyes during the climatic violence the second time I saw it, I absolutely loved the movie. It’s only behind Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown for me. Those are his two masterpieces. With more thought and viewings I could come to see this as the third.

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

The Man Who Bridged the Mist, a novella that is available as a standalone or the excellent collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, was my favorite fiction that I read for the first time in 2016. I’ve thought about it at least every other month in the interim despite not rereading it until now. As I’m continuing my read/reread of Lovecraftian fiction, I wanted to return to this now that I've read more actual Lovecraft. This has Lovecraftian elements, but is its own entity; it’s also better than anything I’ve read by the old guy yet.

It’s a fantasy in an alternate world that does have some overlap with Lovecraft. But in that world Johnson weaves a story that is partly David McCullough feat of engineering story and partly a love story. Lovecraft was fond of vast onyx castles and the like, but he never dwelled on the experience of building one. It certainly doesn’t appear to have occurred to him to write a love story. These genres mix surprisingly well.

The nation in this world is divided by a mist river that corrodes most materials except for metals, certain woods and ropes made from the skins of the fish that swim in it. The mist is denser than water and caustic. Deep under the river of mist live the Big Ones, largely unseen but deadly creatures. The mist can only be crossed on light skiffs, and the passage is dangerous. An engineer is brought there to build a bridge across the river.

In excellent prose, Johnson tells a story that is wise about the ways that all technological advances shape society and its effects on individuals. What happens to the skiff pilots when the bridge is finished? Is connecting the two halves of the kingdom a good thing? It seems likely, but is it worth the cost? There is a real understanding of the satisfaction of a job well done, that is counterbalanced by a real understanding that every advance is a leaving of something else, for good and ill. There is a real understanding of economics. The love story pays off in a believable way; emotional but not naive about the future. It evokes that sense of divine discontent that Kenneth Graham talked about in The Wind and the Willows*; a childlike awe without being childish. It is a perfect story all round.


*In addition to this and the River of Bees collection, if you grew up on Wind in the Willows, Johnson's sequel to that The River Bank is also excellent!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke

This is my fifth James Lee Burke novel, and the second featuring Hackberry Holland. After reading the first two of each series, I think I like Hackberry Holland more than Burke’s signature character Dave Robicheaux. In Lay Down My Sword and Shield, the first Holland book, Hackberry is a dissolute lawyer and would-be politician, running for senator in Texas. He is an alcoholic, a frequenter of bordellos and has a fraught relationship with his wife, who is the one who really wants him in politics. As he begins to see the pressures that corporate forces place on him even as he is running and his alcoholism begins to come to a head he has a crisis of conscience and throws it all away to help a union group.

Rain Gods happens 30 years later, more or less. Holland is now an aging local sheriff and a widower (from his second wife). In his county Pete Flores, a young veteran, gets involved with some criminals and finds himself complicit in human trafficking and murder. Holland and others get drawn into the investigation. The main antagonist is Preacher Jack Collins. He is a singular villain. Early on I pictured him as a twist Anton Chigurh type; implacable, inscrutable and seemingly inevitable. But rather than seeing himself as an avatar of blind chance, Collins sees himself as God’s instrument. He also has an odd crisis of conscience which Chigurh never has.

Burke frames his books as moral quandaries. He has profound insights into aspects of human behavior. The need to be a good person, or the inability to see oneself as good is a constant theme in the books I’ve read so far. One thing I love about his work is that the moral microscope is trained as much or more on the protagonists of the stories than the antagonists. This is an impulse that I don’t often see. Morality in the twitter age seems to be something for other people; pointing out others moral failings puts the speaker in the clear. The prosecutor rather than the defendant. Not that people don’t need calling out much of the time; that is an important task. It would just be nice to see some self reflection as well. That is to say, I appreciate Burke’s willingness to wrestle with the question of what makes me good, not just what would make you good, even as I don't 100% agree with his answers to those questions. Not that he doesn’t rail against injustice; he very much does. He’s just refreshingly willing to implicate himself, and by extension the reader, as well. The frustrating thing is that he is nuanced at times, and absolute in others. I found myself nodding at most of it and raising my eyebrow at others.

The writing style, as always with Burke, is unimpeachable. He has a great descriptive voice and a good ear for dialog. Since I compared Preacher Jack Collins to Anton Chigurh (product of having recently reread No Country For Old Men), I might as well say that I like Burke on a sentence to sentence level much more than Cormac McCarthy (an author who I really love). On the book to book level, I probably still prefer McCarthy, but the margin isn’t wide.

Highly Recommended.

Sad addendum: While I was reading this book, I learned of the death of my friend Keith Morgan who introduced me to the work of James Lee Burke, among other writers. He was one of my favorite people to talk books with. We hadn’t spoken in a while, and now we’ll never argue Hackberry Holland vs. Dave Robicheaux. The world is poorer without him.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Dagon by Fred Chappell

When I first read this in 2013, I was fairly familiar with the Southern Gothic genre. Flannery O’Connor was and still is one of my favorite writers. I had also tried and failed to like Faulkner (I’m still willing to give him another go at some point). I had read all of Cormac McCarthy’s early non-Western novels which I liked, though not so well as his later work. I’d read the odd book here and there by others who worked in a similar vein. So the Southern Gothic parts of this were recognizable, despite the exaggeration and grotesquery that attends the genre. Even though I’d already started reading authors who to some extent or another are influenced by Lovecraft, I was insufficiently familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos to make much sense of that side of things. I knew I had read something disturbing and good, but couldn’t say too much past that. It was particularly strange given the Chappell novels I read previously were in a picturesque folklore Appalachian vein. Very funny, very moving and very good, but they in no way prepared me for this. The only similarity I could see was the high quality of the prose. Returning to the book now, having recently read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and even more recently more fiction by Lovecraft himself, I had a better sense of that genre and as a result enjoyed the novel much more this time around. The two genres blend disturbingly well.

Peter Leland, a scholarly Methodist minister, inherits an old family home and moves in with his wife for an extended sabbatical. He is working on a book about the relation between the ancient worship of the Philistine god Dagon and modern obsession with sexuality that pervaded culture (for context the book was published in 1968). Walking around in it he begins to become obsessed with the place and with the papers of his grandfather (or great-grandfather) who seemed to be involved in a pagan religion of some kind; the reader of Lovecraft will recognize it as some splinter of the Cthulhu cult. It becomes likely that the Biblical Dagon and the lovecraftian Dagon are the same entity. He and his wife encounter a family that live on his land. They claim to have done so for generations. There is something off about them; the reader of Lovecraft will recognize that they seem to come from a similar lineage to the fish people in Shadow over Innsmouth. Peter begins to become obsessed with the daughter of that family. From there the Southern Gothic and Lovecraftian tropes mix in fascinating ways as Peter loses his grip on reality, does horrible things and has horrible things done to him.

This is a brilliantly conceived, well executed, and extremely disturbing story that I suspect will stick with me much longer this time.

Highly Recommended.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand had been on my radar for years as an author whose books I saw in bookstores and had a vague idea that she was considered good. I finally got around to her this year and now I’m kicking myself for not having started sooner. This is the third of her novels I’ve read tand is as good in its way as the other two. All signs point to Hand being able to write just about anything. Wylding Hall is a folk horror fairy tale structured as an oral history. Generation Loss is a gothic punk rock take on the horror thriller. This is a straightforward fantasy.  She’s three for three in my book.

It begins as Sweeney Cassidy begins her first semester at the prestigious University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine, a sort of Ivy League school with ties to the Benandanti, a patriarchal society of wizards which has existed for centuries and is to the Illuminati what the Illuminati is to everyone else. It emerges that they are in an eons long struggle to keep an older matriarchal goddess worshiping religion suppressed. In an early class she meets Oliver and Angelica, scions of old families that are legacies at the school, and unwittingly the product of centuries of angling for a final confrontation between the two religious forces. They are supposed to fall in love. Sweeney falls for both of them and they for her and that throws a wrench in the works. I don’t want to spoil too much of the rest of it other than to say it doesn’t play out exactly as I expected, but plays out perfectly. Such a narrative begs for political readings, and they are there. But it never gets preachy.

The prose is excellent as I’ve come to expect from Hand. There is a little necessary place setting near the beginning, but it is not heavy handed. Once the ball is rolling the book moves quickly, despite its length. I love the structure of the book. Where a lot of novelists might have placed the final showdown and gone for a more obvious climax/hammering of the books themes it basically finishes the setup of the novel, and what could have been just a better version of The Magicians becomes something of a completely different order.

At this point, I think Generation Loss is still my favorite of the three Hand novels I’ve read so far, but all are of the type that rewards rereading, so that could change. This is an amazing book that I look forward to revisiting in a year or two after reading more of Hand’s work.


Friday, July 19, 2019

The Mist by Stephen King

This is my eighth Stephen King book. I’ve at least enjoyed all of them (except for The Green Mile) and really loved Misery, The Shining and a few of the stories in Everything’s Eventual. I’d add this novella to that list.

Having finally read more than a couple of Lovecraft’s works, I’m planning on rereading Lovecraft influenced stuff I’ve read in the past and try out some new to me works. This is the latter, and it really  works. As great as something epic like IT can be in moments, I like King at this length (150 pages). This felt like the crisp hour long thriller like the Hitch Hiker next to something that is really good but bloated, like Infinity War.

The novella opens with a terrible storm that damages several houses. An illustrator, his son and his neighbor with whom he quarrels go into town for supplies. Before they leave they see a mysterious mist crawling across the lake. The mist catches up to them in town, and they are trapped in a crowded grocery store. People who walk into the mist get snatched away. The tension ratchets up nicely, and it ends with a little more hope that Lovecraft would have done, I think. But there are the gigantic lovecraftian things dimly seen in addition to the smaller monsters that add that awe-filled creeping terror that is my favorite kind of horror.

Highly Recommended

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Call of Cthuhlu and Other Dark Tales by HP Lovecraft (Barnes and Noble Edition)

So many of the books and authors I’ve read over the years have been influenced by HP Lovecraft, and yet I’ve read very little of his work before. Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Fred Chappell (yes that Fred Chappell). The novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson a mix of Lovecraftian horror with David McCullough style feats of engineering storytelling was my favorite fiction of the year in 2016. This was my entree into the recent surge of Lovecraft reimaginings as his books went into the public domain and people began to push back against his racism and attitude toward women. Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the excellent Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle all fall into this category. Then I discovered a writer who quickly jumped to my top 10 or 15 list, Caitlin R Kiernan.

I started with her Agents of Dreamland last year, which is very much a part of that resurgence of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve since read seven more of her books and nearly all of it relates back to Lovecraft in some way. I still prefer her to him, but as I read this collection I understood her work much better. Reading this collection was worth it for that alone.

I know that I read At the Mouth of Madness a few years ago, and last year I read The Horror at Red Hook so that I could better understand Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Red Hook from the perspective of a black man. I think that I probably read another story or so of his back before I started keeping a record of my reading in 2002, but I can’t be sure. Lovecraft’s influence is so pervasive that I could recognize it when I saw it. Reading these stories, though, I realized where my understanding was off regarding him. First I didn’t realize how much of a materialist he was. There are rites and ancient gods, yes, but they are all from outer space or other dimensions. I also realized how right people are when they point out that he was racist and xenophobic even by the standards of his time. That’s impossible to hand wave away, but it doesn’t mean his work is not worth reading. It is very much worth reading, even if I much prefer those he influenced.

The standout stories in this were the title story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Colour Out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Dreams in the Witch House. I will likely read all of those again.* The gradual build of tension, dread and madness as people search out knowledge that they should never have is one of my favorite approaches to storytelling. Cults try to raise ancient alien gods. There is something out there watching us, but it is not benevolent. Mankind is so small in the cosmos, and the existential horror of a materialist worldview is used to great effect. More than anything else, the mood of a Lovecraft story is what I enjoy most about it.

I finally get why he is so beloved and so reviled at the same time. I plan to read another collection of his work sometime soon, but also to read and reread some things he influenced. I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s The Mist. I also look forward to rereading The Man Who Bridged the Mist and The Ballad of Black Tom now that I have more context. I’m glad I read this.

Recommended (some stories highly so).
*There are others like Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family to which I will likely never return.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Heaven's Prisoners by James Lee Burke

I have a coworker who grew up in Iberia Parish LA, the setting for many of James Lee Burke’s novels. He told me that last year after I read three of Burke’s novels with great enjoyment. When I mentioned I was reading another of Burke’s books, he said, “He’s got a thing about the wives of the main character getting murdered.” That’s a fair criticism, I think. It definitely happened in this one. I’m always fenced about that trope. On the one hand, there’s not much that could make someone angrier than the murder of a loved one. On the other hand, the characters often seem to be just there to die to make the guy angry enough to drive the plot. In this case I think Dave Robicheaux’s wife is better drawn than just that, but I can see how that trope could put some people off the book. That and a suspiciously high percentage of the women in the book want to sleep with him (all three of the adult female characters who have more than a passing speaking line at least try). That’s a valid criticism of the book, but could equally apply to much of the crime genre in general. The book has a lot to offer though.

Burke is a master stylist. He has a real eye for description and an ear for dialog. These combine to give a real sense of place to his books. The cliche that the author makes you feel like you were there could have been coined for him. Burke obviously loves Louisiana and has observed it closely. I’d put his prose up there with just about anyone, and it made me want to finally visit New Orleans or LA in a way that I haven’t experienced since the novels of Walker Percy or Confederacy of Dunces.

Dave Robicheaux is a fully realized character. He is not a good person, but he knows that. He has a real need to be told that he is good, and that there is a difference between him and the criminals and corrupt officials he encounters. He actually tries to be better. He has a nuanced view of where he stands in Louisiana society as a white man and accounts for that. A recovering alcoholic, he is equally aware of what he describes as barely restrained animal that threatens to destroy him. He cannot let well enough alone. The action of the novel begins when a plane smuggling immigrants into America crashes into the river in which he’s fishing. He manages to rescue an immigrant child, which puts him on the radar of the DEA, Immigration officials and the local criminal underworld, including a childhood rival of his. There are several points at which different actions on his part could have saved people. But his anger will not let him do that. The struggle with that knowledge is the basis for a lot of the book’s emotional resonance.

I would recommend this book for the prose alone. That being said, I would recommend any of the three books I read by him last year over this: Lay Down My Sword and Shield, The Lost Get Back Boogie (nominated for the Pulitzer, if that means anything to you) and the first Robicheaux book, The Neon Rain. I’m not sure if I will eventually try to read all of his books, but I’m glad that there are so many more. I’m planning on reading Rain Gods, the sequel to Lay Down My Sword and Shield relatively soon, and it will very likely not be the last.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

“Bleak is beautiful”

I've had good reading luck in the past few years. Last year I found Sara Gran, Caitlin Kiernan, George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke. The year before that was Christopher Isherwood. The year before that was Lavie Tidhar. And so on. So far this year it is Jill Lepore and now Elizabeth Hand.

At the suggestion of someone in a Facebook group earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Wylding Hall, which was a great short folk horror novel. It was structured as an oral history of the recording of a seminal (but fictional) folk album at a remote rented mansion, and the disappearance of one of the main songwriters that happened after the recording. It was a very good novel, and I wanted to read more by her.

I chose Generation Loss because the description reminded me of the Claire Dewitt books by Sara Gran. That’s not an entirely bad comparison. An ex-punk who is now in middle age? Check. Depression? Check. Stealing meds from friends’ and acquaintances’ medicine cabinets? Check. Bleakness? Check. But those are surface similarities. Claire Dewitt is on a quasi-mystical mystery quest. Cass Neary is on a journey to the bleak center of existence and wants to turn that into art, despite her attraction to nihilism. They are two of my favorite narrators/characters I’ve discovered in recent years. I would give a slight edge to Dewitt at this point, but that could change when I get to the sequels and/or reread this.

There’s a quasi-autobiographical aspect to this. Like Neary, Hand dropped out of school when she saw Patti Smith (IIRC, unidentified in the book) and essentially joined the punk movement. Neary’s art is photography rather than weird fiction, but that impulse is there. Given how well she describes the process of photography (The novel takes its title from the process by which each set of photographs taken from negatives loses quality), I’d bet Hand has taken good photos herself. I also suspect that they’ve experienced similar trauma based on how well it’s portrayed in the book, but I don’t want to say that for sure. Neary becomes briefly famous in the late 70’s or early 80’s for a series of photos of dead people, herself and early punk icons. Now that she’s seemingly flamed out at life and is reaching middle age, she is given an assignment to go photograph and interview another aging player in the outsider art photograph world who lives on an isolated island off of the coast of Maine. She is reluctant but needs the money. As Neary enters the world of the residents of the island she is drawn into some real darkness. I won’t summarize any further to avoid spoilers, but it is bleak, beautiful and brutal.

Hand came to prominence writing SF/Fantasy stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Even though there’s not much in the way of the supernatural here, Hand creates an atmosphere that feels surreal and fantastical. She’s as bleak as anything in McCarthy or Ellroy (both of whom I like very much), but she’s more open to talking about the process of creating meaning through art than they are (though they certainly practice it). That kept it from tipping into full nihilism, at least as far as I can understand the novel on my first reading. This is a book I will return to after I’ve read more of her work. I’ve had a good reading year, but this got to me in a way that puts it among the best books I’ve read for the first time this year, and is a contender for the best in that category.*

Canon-Worthy (heavy content warning)

*The other contenders as of this writing are The Peripheral by William Gibson, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, or Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Best of Caitlin Kiernan, and Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez aren’t far behind.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

In Defense of Sanity by GK Chesterton

Chesterton is an infuriating writer. Everyone who likes him has qualifications. Borges counted him among his favorite writers, but is reported to have said it was a shame he became Catholic. John Piper (a writer I have no use for) said that Orthodoxy was great and “a few chance misstatements” about protestantism shouldn’t put anyone off of reading it. Annie Dillard quotes him, but presumably, given her (to use her term) spiritual promiscuity, wouldn’t agree with his dogmatism. The same is likely true of Alan Watts, known for introducing many in the West to Buddhism, but gave a memorable lecture on Chesterton.  As best I can tell, Neil Gaiman is some stripe of atheist, but he liked Chesterton enough to make him a character in Sandman. All of that to say that I am in interesting company when I say that I disagree with well over half of what he says, but find him absolutely delightful to read. This compilation of 67 essays puts what I love in his work and what troubles me about it on display.

He is one of the most quotable writers ever. From Orthodoxy: "It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't." From the essay The Diabolist: "An Imperialist is worse than a pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary." From the essay The Furrows: “There are some very clever people who cannot enjoy the joy unless they understand it. There are other and even cleverer people who say they lose the joy the moment they do understand it. Thank God I was never clever, and could always enjoy things whether I understood them or whether I didn't. I can enjoy the orthodox Tory, though I could never understand him. I can also enjoy the orthodox liberal, though I understand him all too well." From On Original Sin: "Man has scattered his own vices as well as virtues very arbitrarily among the animals, and there may be no more reason to accuse the peacock of pride than to accuse the pelican of charity."

Chesterton was a self proclaimed medievalist who resented progress. His definition of progress was broad enough that it seemed at times he was against everything (capitalism, feminism, socialism, imperialism, birth control (he HATED birth control), etc). Just about anyone could find something to object to in this book. He is vicious towards capitalism "...and what were the theories? Perhaps the best and broadest of them was a most monstrous and mythical superstition of Adam Smith; a theological theory that providence had so made the world that men might be happy through their selfishness; or, in other words, that God would overrule everything for good, if only men could succeed in being sufficiently bad. The intellectuals of this epoch taught definitely and dogmatically that if only men would buy and sell freely, lend or borrow freely, sweat or sack freely, and in practice steal or swindle freely, humanity would be happy. The Common Man soon found out how happy; in the Slums where they left him and in the Slump to which they led him." In the next paragraph he slams socialism.  He dedicated several essays to complaining about feminism.

In his essay on Mary Queen of Scots, he said "It is always well to leave a very wide margin of agnosticism in history, because all sorts of new things may be discovered." That agnosticism is rarely on display in his work. He was incredibly certain for someone who revelled so in paradox. His point was that if you don’t think your opinion is right, it’s not really your opinion. That is true to a certain extent, but what if you’re wrong? My tendency is to say, like Montaigne, “what do I know?” Chesterton would have thought that cowardly. I’m comfortable with that. On those points on which I agree with him, though, no one says it better.

The biggest attraction to his work, is the fundamental sense of wonder with which he approaches the world. The stories we tell ourselves about the world can fundamentally change how we feel and live. Otherwise placebos wouldn’t work. That’s not to accuse him of the power of positive thinking claptrap. Or to say that storytelling can conquer every malady. But there is something to be said for his approach, which is to mere optimism what Moby Dick is to a fishing anecdote.

I will come back to many of these essays again. I will never reread others. I often found myself laughing out loud, almost dropping the book and applauding one sentence then scowling, ready to throw it across the room at the next. A frustrating book, but an incredibly satisfying reading experience.

Recommended (with the caveat that I disagree with most of what he says)

Monday, July 8, 2019

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I’ve called this my favorite of McCarthy’s novels for some time now. With this reread I’ve adjusted that a bit. I would have to revisit Blood Meridian, Sutree and the Border Trilogy before I stick to that. This reread, my fifth time through the book, was prompted by a rewatch of the movie, which in turn was prompted by The Rewatchables podcast which covered it recently. The film is one of the best adaptations of any work I’ve seen. The Coens’ sensibility melds with McCarthy’s perfectly. The additions and, more often, cuts they made to the material in the book were perfect. I’m not entirely sure I prefer the book to the film.

The book is perhaps the most straightforward articulation of McCarthy’s themes. Primary among those, to my eye anyway, is that the world is not what you want it to be. The world is. It is brutal, implacable and will eventually kill you. Any beauty in it is in the negative space left around the words. McCarthy is intent on puncturing any comforting mythology. As in many of his books that impulse is mostly aimed at the myth of the American West. While Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy may be a fuller exploration of that theme, No Country’s succinctness argues in its favor. It is a straight crime novel/western and nearly all ornamentation has been removed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the main antagonist, Anton Chigurh. He is a dimestore version of the Judge from Blood Meridian, but is no less a force. He represents, among other things, the implacability, the inevitability and the randomness of death. It is hard to separate the book’s character from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of him in the film, but he is no less intimidating for that. Llewelyn Moss and Ed Tom Bell represent humanity’s helplessness in the face of what’s coming, which as the man says, you can’t stop.

McCarthy, to steal Annie Dillard’s analogy, pays more attention to the skull than the canary perched on it, and certainly doesn’t talk about the shaft of light that illuminates it. His is a nearly fully dark world, and, consequently, an incomplete one. Still, no one captures the skull or the darkness around it quite like he does. His work is bleak, and as such isn’t for everyone, but I love it.


Sunday, July 7, 2019

New Addition to Rating Scale

I've been using Canon-Worthy too much for things that I do really highly recommend, but don't feel as strongly as the term implies. So I'm adding a Highly Recommended to allow for that. I will likely go back at some point soon and make adjustments.

The adjusted scale is as follows:

Canon- An essential work for me.

Canon-Worthy- Really great.

Highly Recommended- I would enthusiastically recommend it, but it isn't quite Canon-Worthy

Recommended- I would recommend it to at least some people, perhaps with caveats.

Pass- I don't recommend it.

Hard Pass- I actively advise not seeing it.

Midsommar (2019) directed by Ari Aster

As a fan of both the original version of The Wicker Man and of Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary, I went into this with high hopes. They were mostly realized.

Hereditary is one of the most profoundly disturbing things I’ve ever seen. It takes a disintegrating and grieving family and creates a weird tale on par with almost any others. It’s behind only Annihilation and The Witch for recent great horror movies for me. Midsommar is more focused on gaslighting and an awful dating relationship, but there is family trauma in the first few scenes. Like Hereditary, it doesn’t look away or flinch from when the gruesome parts hit.

I expected more variation on the Wicker Man themes of a remote cult that is joyous even as they commit heinous acts. That being said, even if it is a version of that story, it is a very good version of this story. As in the Wicker Man someone from the outside is brought into the society, and only gradually realize what is happening. Midsommar takes its time building the tension (some might think too much time) before everything becomes explicit, though there is enough foreshadowing that you get the gist.

Between the insights into gaslighting, the beautiful camerawork/set design, the humor (you don’t have to squint too hard to see a twisted romantic comedy here), the excellent tension build and the best final shot I’ve seen recently, I’d recommend this highly with a strong content warning (it is extremely gruesome).

Highly Recommended.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Incendiaries by RO Kwon

I decided to read this after reading an interview an online friend did with Kwon in which they barely talked about the book beyond using it as a launching pad for a discussion of her own loss of faith. I’m glad I did. It is an intense book.

There are two main characters: Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, who meet in college and fall in love. Will is a poor former evangelist who has lost his faith. Phoebe is the daughter of immigrants, from a split home and is wealthy. The action of the book comes as John Leal, a half Korean cult leader who is not entirely what he seems meet Phoebe and draws her into his orbit. The prose is good, and the story moves along well in first person narration alternately from Phoebe and Will, with third person bits from Leal’s perspective mixed in.

The book is very much of its time in that it deals head on with abortion and campus rape. I suspect that these aspects of the book, along with the fascinating cult angle are what propelled it to such popularity. They aren’t just issues, though they threaten to be. Phoebe’s journey from a fairly straightforward partier who struggles with her grades to cult member makes is tough to read in some ways, but is believable.

But what I loved about the book is how well it portrays the grief of losing faith. In the interview that made me pick up the book, Kwon said that she wanted to capture that experience. She succeeded. In Will’s words, “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation a flight from guilt, rules. But what I couldn't forget was the joy I'd known loving him.” I can personally attest that while some may experience it as only freedom, that others experience it as grief. This book captured that in a way I haven’t seen in fiction before. Will’s actions were driven by grief, but Kwon doesn’t let him off the hook; he is still culpable.

It is a bleak book in some ways. No one gets redemption. Not in a heavy handed way. Not even in a “unreliable narrator hides, but really reveals what he did way” either. I really appreciate that Kwon handled some very sensitive subject manner without being overly sensational.

Highly Recommended

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Medium Cool (1969) directed by Haskell Wexler

Medium Cool opens on Robert Forster’s cameraman character and his sound guy getting a shot of a car wreck then going back to their car and calling in the police. This sets the themes of the movie; what is the responsibility of a media member to intervene in the stories they cover? To what extent does the media create news via narrative as opposed to covering the facts? Set around the 1968 Democratic convention, and, famously, mixing narrative film elements with actual footage from the convention (you see a young Jesse Jackson in one shot) it tries to illustrate the tumult of that time.

I’m no expert on either the French New Wave or the New Hollywood, but I’ve seen enough to know this was an example of the latter modelling itself on the former. Wexler highlights the French New Wave connection by having Forster light up a cigarette under a poster of Jean Paul Belmondo smoking. He wears a suit and a fedora much of the time.

In an attempt to show the contrast between the culture and the counterculture, there is a plotline involving a single mother whose husband is either fighting in Viet Nam or has been killed there, depending on who is telling the truth. Her son is obsessed with homing pigeons. The flashbacks to WVA and the accent work (particularly on the part of the son) lean toward unbelievability. But the film is strong enough to overcome that.

While the film does meander a bit, it has much more to say, and says it in a more convincing way than its spiritual cousins like Easy Rider or A Safe Place. Its part fiction part documentary feel (though the documentary is mainly just the setting) really gives it a lot of energy and an authenticity those films can’t keep up with. It implicates the viewer in ways those films don’t.

Wexler is primarily known as a cinematographer, and it shows. There is real craftsmanship on display. Certain images will linger with me. The child’s father, in a flashback, indoctrinating him on how to treat women as they walk through a meadow, a shot of hundreds of homing pigeons being released, the child returning home and beating on window calling for his mother.

The film will linger with me as well. I suspect it will only improve on rewatching.

Highly Recommended.