Saturday, August 31, 2019

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This is a tough read. In terse well written prose, Didion lays out the story of a woman going through some incredibly traumatic things. It begins with first person accounts of three of the main players, in which it is revealed that Maria, an actress and the main point of view character in the rest of the book, is grieving her daughter who was in some sort of an accident and is in a semi-vegetative state in hospital, is depressed verging on nihilist, and her husband believes her to have killed the husband of one of the other characters.

Maria (Mar-eye-a) is an actress married to a fairly prominent director. The action mostly takes place in LA and Las Vegas before the death of the character Maria’s husband thinks she killed. The book gets progressively more depressed. It feels like a repudiation of the hope of the liberal 60’s. I like bleak books. Existentialism appeals to me. I try not to cross over into nihilism. The line between the two to me in literature lies in the ability of the characters to create meaning rather than just enduring. Maria is decidedly the latter. I guess there is a little hope in that ability to endure, to play it as it lays to use the title and central metaphor of the book. Still it is a tough read.

That is not to say that I think the book is bad. The guy who wrote the introduction made a big deal about how people to whom he’s recommended the book talk about how unlikeable the main characters are. That is accurate. But it is a remarkably well crafted book that is unflinchingly honest about depression and for that reason alone I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t put off by that description. It makes me want to go back and reread the only other Didion I’ve read, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays. I don’t remember it well, but remember enjoying it. I will likely read this again, as it seems like the type of book that rewards it.


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Wise Children by Angela Carter

This is my third Angela Carter book. I read Nights at the Circus last year.  It was delightful and weird. I read The Bloody Chamber 8 years ago and only have sense memories about the Redbeard story. It’s overdue for a reread. I really want to watch the film Carter helped adapt from it, In the Company of Wolves, but I want to refresh my memory first. I do remember really enjoying it at the time. That said, I don’t remember having as strong a reaction to either as to this one.

Wise Children is  just a great book. It’s narrated by a woman, Dora Chance,  looking back at her life on her and her twin sister Nora’s 75th birthday. Which also happens to be her father and his twin’s 100th birthday. Their biological father was a Shakespearean actor. He didn’t acknowledge them. Their uncle claimed them as his children. The uncle was the actual father of the twin girls that Dora and Nora’s father actually claimed. Those are not the least twisted branches on the family tree.*

The story is a sweeping, hilarious, decadent coming of age story with more than a little touch of magical realism. Dora’s voice is perfect. She chronicles the history of her family and her life on and after the stage. It’s a generational story, but at around 230 pages it is a lean and perfect staging of that story.  It is a comedy, but as Dora says late in the novel, “Comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else.” There’s an undercurrent of sadness that keeps the more absurd and decadent elements grounded.

I don’t know what else to say about it other than go read it. It's near perfect. Probably the best novel I've read for the first time this year.

Canon Worthy

*  I’m uncomfortable with and don’t know what to make of the incest theme. It didn’t ruin the book for me at all, but it is uncomfortable. Consider this a content warning.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Movie Roundup

I’ve been watching a ton of movies lately and haven’t taken the time to write about them, so here’s a little bit of a round up in more or less reverse order:

Ready or Not (2019) directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett- This was a really fun horror/thriller/dark comedy about a woman who marries into a gaming dynasty only to find that she has to play a life threatening game of hide and seek. It’s a little gory, completely compelling and very funny. Samara Weaving is amazing in it. Andie McDowell turns in her most convincing performance. Highly Recommended.

LA Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson- This is one of my all time top ten movies. I will write more about it the next time I watch it. Suffice it to say, it is Canon, and one of the best crime noir movies ever.

A Vigilante (2018) directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson- Olivia Wilde stars as a woman who, after going through trauma herself goes on the road to help other women (and in one memorable instance, two children) out of abusive situations. This is a pretty good and very violent movie. Not sure if it would be cathartic to someone who had gone through that kind of trauma. I suspect so, but it is unflinching. Recommended.

Sword of Trust- (2019) directed by Lynn Shelton- This is weird but good one. Marc Maron plays a pawn shop owner. A woman inherits a sword that her grandfather claims proves the South won the Civil War. She, her partner, Marc Maron’s character and his employee then try to con some conspiracy theorists. There is a lot of effective broad comedy, and some pivots into genuine pathos. The transitions between the two can be rough at times, but both are effective. It falls a little into the syndrome of all the southerners being dumb and the outsiders being intelligent. I loved it, flaws and all, though. Maron’s performance is incredible. Highly Recommended.

Short Cuts (1993) directed by Robert Altman- I’m a little mixed on Robert Altman. I hated MASH. Thought it was incredibly mean spirited. I loved McCabe and Mrs Miller, an obvious antecedent to my favorite TV show Deadwood. I remember liking Gosford Park and Nashville when I saw them, but it’s been long enough that I can’t really comment without rewatching them at some point. Short Cuts is somehow both repellent and compelling. I’m leaning closer to compelling with more thought. Recommended (with a little hesitation).

Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious- I had only seen Hobbs and Shaw and Fast Five before. I decided to go back and rewatch as the franchise is having its poptimist critical moment. Way too much macho posturing for my taste, but otherwise, these are really fun action movies. I’m not even a car guy and I enjoyed these. Recommended.

Wendy and Lucy (2008) directed by Kelly Reichardt- I saved this as my last Reichardt film because I feared that it would veer into misery porn. Fortunately it didn’t. It is an incredibly sad film, though. It taps into economic anxiety by examining one person’s experience (Wendy, played by Michelle Williams) as she goes, with her dog, to try to find a lucrative summer job in Alaska. It’s as slowly paced as Reichardt’s other work, and absolutely devastating. Highly Recommended.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (2019) directed by Benjamin Berman- This is either a moving documentary about a dying comedy magician screwing with a documentarian, or an attempt at Andy Kaufman-esque provocation. Either way, I came out liking the Amazing Johnathan a little more. If I knew how much of it was staged, I could get a better bead on it. Still, it’s very entertaining, and is on Hulu. Recommended.

The Bigamist (1953) directed by Ida Lupino- This was a very good melodrama about a travelling salesman who marries two women and how he gets caught. I didn’t like it as well as Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, but it is definitely worth seeing. Recommended.

Death at a Funeral (2007) directed by Frank Oz- As Ebert said in his review of the remake, this is largely in poor taste. I cringed several times during the movie. But it is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Worth watching for Alan Tudyk’s performance and the second eulogy scene alone. Highly Recommended.

Mur Murs (1981) directed by Agnes Varda- Varda is a master. Her Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond are both masterpieces. This works as a sort of companion piece to the other film I’ve seen by her; 2017’s Faces, Places. This one is an examination of a sector of the art world I’ve never encountered before; mural paintings in late-70s/early-80s LA. It’s a fascinating documentary. I'm looking forward to seeing more of her work. Recommended

River of Grass (1994) directed by Kelly Reichardt- Reichardt’s debut film takes a little while to get going. The first 30 minutes or so is a blending of the slow cinema that she mastered later with Terrance Malick style voice over to mixed effect. Once the story kicks in, it becomes a very good crime/dark comedy/slow thriller. I like her later work better, but this was an excellent first feature. Recommended.

Certain Women (2016) directed by Kelly Reichardt- I really loved the first section of this, and was then distracted as I expected the other two sections to intertwine with each other more. Once I realized that it was more of an anthology film of very loosely connected stories and thought about it in those terms, I liked it more. I look forward to watching it again with that in mind. Highly Recommended.

Go (1999) directed by Doug Liman- This is one of the best “in the Tarantino mode” 90s films that came out post Pulp Fiction. It’s got a couple cringey moments, but on the whole is an excellent criminals in over their head movie. I will watch this many more times, I’m sure. Highly Recommended.

Howard the Duck (1986) directed by Willard Huyck- This is wild. I can get why it didn’t hit at the time. It’s deeply weird and way sleazier than I expected. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy watching it. Strange, but not as horrifically bad as its reputation would suggest. It’s no masterpiece, but it is a ton of fun. Recommended.

The Farewell (2019) directed by Lulu Wang- This was a great tearjerker of a movie without being manipulative. That’s a fine line to walk, and it does it perfectly. Awkwafina is great in the lead role of a young Chinese woman raised in America who is close to her grandmother who still lives in China. The grandmother is diagnosed with cancer, and the family decides to keep the diagnosis from her. Awkwafina’s character has a hard time accepting this. In turns funny and moving, this is one of my favorite movies of 2019 so far. Highly Recommended.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) directed by Sophie Fiennes- This is essentially an hour and a half lecture by Slavoj Žižek about the dangers of ideology, using examples from films. As he is using a particular film scene in the lecture, he is staged in a set that resembles the scene. It’s a clever way to stage a lecture, and the subject is important. I’d be lying, though if I said it didn’t really drag at moments. Low Recommendation, or Pass.

Dagon (2001) directed by Stuart Gordan- This is one of the most actually horrifying horror movies I’ve seen. The mood and setting are just perfect. It’s based on Shadow Over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft. It’s very gory; in a couple points it was well beyond my comfort zone for content in movies. That said, horror should horrify. This does the trick. Recommended (with a very heavy content warning).

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019) directed by David Leitch- Leitch was the director of the excellent Atomic Blonde, and co-director of the original John Wick. If you say he’s directing an action movie with The Rock and Jason Statham, I’m automatically in. What I wasn’t prepared for was (despite her great performance in the latest Mission Impossible) was Vanessa Kirby stealing the show. This is big dumb fun of the first order. I can see why some folks might be put off by it, but I enjoyed it greatly for what it was. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark is my fourth Elizabeth Hand and a sequel to Generation Loss. They both feature Cass Neary, a burned out former punk and transgressive art photographer. Without getting into spoilers Generation Loss, people are angry that Neary published a picture that she took in that novel. The aftermath of Generation Loss’s events left her in even more dire financial straits than she was at the beginning of the first novel. So when a collector of dark photographs contacts her to get her to authenticate pictures by another famous photographer in Helsinki, she goes. An old flame of sorts also saw the pictures and reaches out. He lives in Iceland. She goes to see him after authenticating the photos. Then people start dying.

The world these characters inhabit rides the line between transgressive art (of both photography and musical varieties) and truly reprehensible stuff. The photos Neary authenticates could be crime scene photos, or could be the still versions of snuff. I didn’t think it was possible, but this may have out-bleaked and out-darked the previous book. I was somewhat braced for it after the other, which may have lessened the impact. I prefer the first book, but both my impression of their relative bleakness and which I prefer might change upon rereading. I don’t read enough Nordic Noir to know how much overlap this has with that genre. I’ve only read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; this is a much better book that that one.

Elizabeth Hand is the author discovery of the year for me. Generation Loss is probably my favorite of the four I’ve read so far. But all are excellent. (The other two are Wylding Hall and Waking the Moon.)

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

I am a compulsive rereader. I have a list of books I read every year. Its membership changes every now and then. The Moviegoer, Till We Have Faces and Godric are no longer on it, and Wild Seed, Prater Violet, Peace and Fifth Head of Cerberus have joined it. Pale Fire and Moby Dick remain in place. Of the sixty six books I’ve read this year, I’d read 26 of them before. Certainly the books I’ve read multiple times are the ones that really sink into the mulch of my mind. Walton refers to the first reread as a completion of reading the book, and that really resonated with me. To say a book feels like it could have been written for you is a cliche. Experiences like mine with What Makes This Book So Great are the source of that cliche. A book about rereading books. What could be more in my wheelhouse?

A couple years ago I read Walton’s excellent Among Others, winner of the Hugo and the Nebula, and, though I’m not sure what it was competing against, it definitely was worthy of both. It’s a fantasy novel where the fantasy could be actually faerie magic, or the fantasy in which a troubled person escapes into books, and applies those tropes to bring order to what is happening to her. It is beautiful and unflinching. And due a reread. The narrator of the book seems to have read nearly all the SF of the previous decades. She loves Le Guin AND Heinlein. And apparently, so does Walton.

This is a collection of lightly edited blog posts Jo Walton wrote for about the books (and series!) she’s rereading. She reads at a pace I find daunting. I generally end up at around 100 -120 books a year. Based on the dates of the posts and her descriptions of her reading habits she’s probably around 400 a year. This would be an unbelievable pace, except that I’ve read a lot of the books she covers, and she has incredible insight into them. (And the fact that I have a couple of friends who read that fast.) My tastes run bleaker than hers, and I like several other genres as much as I do SF, but the addiction to books and the sense that she’s more of an enthusiast than a critic really made me identify with her.

During the period she wrote these essays she read Nova by Samuel Delaney twice. That’s a great book, as is Babel 17 which she also covers. Both are due rereads, and I think she pushed me over the top into finally reading his Dhalgren. It was a little tough getting through 40 pages on a series I hadn’t read, but her love for Lois McMaster Bujold may have pushed me into reading her. She points out how Bujold and William Gibson came out at the same time, but Gibson gets all the critical attention, despite Bujold’s multiple Hugos. She talked about Butler’s Kindred, Stephenson’s Anathem, Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (all of which I love) and a lot of books I haven’t read. This is a great collection. I don’t know if I’d reread the whole thing, but I will be referring to it often for suggestions and to see if I agree with the books she loves when I get around to them.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran

Zen Existentialism? Punk Rock Middle Aged Nancy Drew? Spiritual Self Help for F--- ups? Bleak Stoner/Slacker Noir Comedy? A Study in Uncertainty? It’s hard to sum up the genre or even the tone of Gran’s Dewitt books; they veer from teen detective overconfidence, to almost slapstick comedy, to genuine insight, to existentialism/ borderline nihilism, to some level of spiritual hope, to stoner haze often on the same page. It’s a mix that would seem unlikely to work, but the result is a series of books I will continue to reread for years to come.

When I first read all of Gran’s work last year, I thought that this was probably my favorite. Now that I’ve reread all three Dewitt books, I think I’m leaning towards The City of the Dead. But it’s not by a long distance. Like the other two in the series, Infinite Blacktop moves between  three different time periods in Claire Dewitt’s life, and various corresponding cases. The first strand is Claire’s attempt to find out who attempted to murder her at the end of Bohemian Highway. The second her resolving a cold case about a dead artist. The third re-raises the longer arc of the series of her trying to find her missing friend and fellow detective from her teenage detective days, specifically by trying to figure out who was behind Cynthia Silverton comics that, along with Detecion by Jaques Silette (one of Gran’s best creations), drove them to the odd form of detection they practice. This search happens alongside her search for her attacker, but is supplemented with flashbacks to her teenage years. These strands merge in a very satisfying way. But these books are not about plot. Dewitt’s voice, so funny, moving, bleak and insightful, is the main draw here. That and the understanding/acknowledgement of the bleakness and uncertainty of the world, yet the willingness to try to chart a way through it.

If this were the final Claire Dewitt book, it would be a good stopping place. I loved Gran’s other work, and I’d particularly like to see another horror novel along the lines of Come Closer. Dewitt is a character that has really stuck with me, though,  and I really want more books featuring her. I’m looking forward to revisiting Gran’s other books, but she would be among my favorite writers on the basis of these three alone.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin

I read the first volume in Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, last year. I thought it was very near perfect and fully deserved it’s Hugo award, an honor both its sequels had already garnered by the time I started the series. I read so much epic fantasy around 1999-2001 that I burned out on the genre and read very little of it for a few years (abetted by an ill-conceived period in which I only read pretentious literary fiction; a genre I still love, but I got really snooty for a while there). This isn’t exactly epic fantasy, though it certainly has aspects of that; it’s set far in the future after a geological catastrophe. There are constant earthquakes and volcanoes. All life exists near the equator.

The structure of the first book, three strands that show different aspects of the world (I won’t spoil how they come together) allowed Jemisin to create a believable post-tectonic catastrophe world, which feels like science fiction. The characters on that world read like fantasy; there are origenes, people who have evolved the ability to control to an extent the seismic activity around them; Guardians who have been engineered to be able to block the power of Origenes because they scare everyone else; Stone People, who present as living statues. Every so often the world goes through a Fifth Season in which seismic activity makes the world nearly unliveable for some number of years. The season that hits in this series promises (at least through two volumes) to last 10,000 years; the worst yet. Because of their ability to modify seismic activity, Origenes are vital in trying to prevent fifth seasons. Also because of their power, specifically what they can do when they get out of control, they are feared and hated. There is a fairly strict caste system in this world; Origenes exist somewhat out of that and, when discovered, are shunted into a special academy where they can be controlled and monitored. It’s really a fascinating world. It really allows Jemisin to explore class and racial themes in a very powerful way, without being preachy. Yet the message gets across.

The first book opens with a powerful Origene deliberately causing the onset of a Fifth Season. In the first book Essun, a powerful Origene in hiding goes out into the now crumbling world in search of her daughter, Nassun. In The Obelisk Gate, she has found shelter in a com (community) that is more friendly to Origenes. The other strand of the story deals with her daughter coming into her own power as an Origene. There is a network of giant obelisks orbiting the Earth that are a key to their power and the future of the world.

I won’t say much more, because I do really recommend reading these. The prose is excellent; it seems to have cured me of my longstanding bias against second person narration. The story is engaging the whole way through. The themes of race, gender and control are searing and moving. The books are smart and compelling. If you like alternate world/ far future scifi/fantasy at all, I highly recommend these. Looking forward to the third volume once I get through some other books. I'm not sure what they were up against, but I'm glad both won the Hugo.

The Fifth Season (read last year): Canon-Worthy
The Obelisk Gate- Highly Recommended

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

I’ll start by saying Wild Seed is one of my favorite books; I reread it once a year. It’s the first Butler book I read, and it is not a bad place to start. Certainly if I thought I could only convince someone to read one Butler book, it would be this one.

It is the first book of Butler's Patternmaster series chronologically. It was written after the later books in the series, though. It could be read as a standalone. But the brilliance of what she pulled off here can only be fully grasped in the context of the later books. Her first published novel, Patternmaster, was a far future dystopia in which three groups of people existed: a web (pattern) of connected psychics controlled by the strongest of those (the Patternmaster), mutes (regular humans with no psychic ability), and Clayarks (centaurish bearers of a disease that will turn mutes or psychics into Clayarks). It is easily the weakest of the series. That’s not to say it’s not good. It is. In the prequels, though, she reverse engineered what it would have taken to get to that dystopia and those books are ingenious. Each is a different genre. Mind of My Mind establishes the origin of the pattern in 1980’s California. It’s a near future scifi with some elements of a mainstream approach to character. It’s very good. Clay’s Ark, which talks about how the Clayark virus hit earth combines pandemic disease from outer space thriller and home invasion horror against a sort of Mad Max background. It’s great. She always plays fair and doesn’t change anything about implied by Patternmaster. Each book ends with a bittersweet bleak ending. But the knowledge of what they are setting up gives them a harder edge than they would have in isolation.

Then came Wild Seed, the best of the series. It reads like a literary fantasy novel beginning in Africa and travelling to antebellum slave-holding America. It feels like folklore, like myth with elements of superhero comics and slave narratives. By this point Butler’s prose was flawless. She was really in control of her themes of slavery, gender and the power dynamics that come from those. But she is never didactic here (the main flaw of her more famous Parable of the Sower, in my mind). These themes all emerge from the story. That story pits two long lived people against each other in a variety of capacities. The dominant one is master/slave. The backdrop of that power struggle is pure scifi; a centuries long genetics experiment.

Anyanwu is 300 years old at the beginning of the story. She’s a shapechanger and can heal herself. She presents as an old woman to reduce the scrutiny and fear of her people, who revere her as a healer and fear her as a witch. Doro is unbelievably ancient. When he dies he jumps to the nearest body and lives through them. Over the centuries, he has cultivated people who have abilities trying to create a species of psychics; he has bred them like cattle, and unsurprisingly is drawn into the slave trade. He is originally from Africa, but is making America the center of his efforts. He manages to coerce Anyanwu into his fold; she is the only person he’s discovered over the years who has the potential to be as long-lived as he. He threatens, cajoles, seduces. He sees people as valuable seed, values them for their potential to forward his genetic goals and kills them when they rebel or go crazy. She sees them as people, values them as family and attempts to heal them. She is “wild seed.” Her genetic mutations happened outside of his control.

Their long struggle forms the narrative of the novel, and it is a great one. I’ve only got a couple more Butler novels before I’ve read them all. She is among my favorite writers, and to my mind, this is her greatest book. Beautiful and brutal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Thursday, August 8, 2019

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson

I’m closing in on being a William Gibson completist. After this I’ve only got 4 books left; the Bridge Trilogy and the short story collection Burning Chrome. I started in an odd spot for a person of my age. I didn’t read Neuromancer and its sequels in their 80s and 90s heydey. I began with Pattern Recognition in 2010. Despite its contemporary setting, that book and its sequels are structured as science fiction novels, despite all the technology being more or less available at the time of publication. It turned out to be a great starting place.

Periodically over the years I would watch YouTube videos of him lecturing or in conversation and found that he was a fascinating and insightful thinker outside of his fiction as well. Often in spite of the fact the topics and questions fly in the face of his insistence that he is not a futurist; a debatable claim. The same brilliance and tension is on display in Distrust that Particular Flavor, which collects his nonfiction pieces written between the late 80s and early 00s.

This gives insight into Gibson’s obsession with Japan. Into the making of Johnny Mnemonic (I didn’t realize how involved he was in the process of adapting his short story). Into the mind of a collector. Into his view that technology more than ideology drives social change. Into the ways science fiction is more about the time it was written than the actual future and how frustrating it is when most people seem not to get that.

I’d recommend reading the fiction before this, but this is a fascinating look at his thought over the years with commentary from the year of the books publication. If you’re already a fan of his, it’s well worth a read. If not go read The Peripheral, Pattern Recognition or Neuromancer. Then read this.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Like The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe is a revisionist take on Lovecraft. Unlike that other novella, it is a companion piece rather than a retelling. Both approaches are really effective. I first read this last year, without having read The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Lovecraft work on which this is based. Rereading this after finally getting to the original gave me a much greater appreciation for what Johnson pulled off here.

Unknown Kadath is a frustrating work; it was an unrevised early draft. It has some really creepy and some really wonderful moments but can be a bit of a slog. Randolph Carter, a human dreamer, sets out across the lands of dreams to find the perfect city he glimpsed. He encounters all sorts of creatures and gods along the way. I can’t remember if he encountered any women or not, but, if so, they were in very minor roles.

Kij Johnson noticed that last bit and wrote an excellent companion piece in which a woman, a professor at a university at Ulthar, a town filled with cats, sets out in search of one of her students who has run off with a dreamer from the waking world placing the woman’s college’s status in jeopardy. It’s not a sequel per se, but another story in the same world. In her youth Boe travelled with Carter for a time, and she does meet with him at one point in this book. It’s a neat trick, setting up a quest the equal of Carter’s and thereby subtly critiquing Lovecraft’s work’s lack of women. Johnson is too good a writer to get didactic about it; the story does the work.

Johnson is also a better prose writer than Lovecraft. It might not be fair to judge Kadath given its unrevised state. Still, having read several works by both, it’s a true statement. Vellitt Boe’s quest maintains the fear and wonder that Carter’s did, but is paced much better. It didn’t drag at all. I like her The Man Who Bridged the Mist better, but I like it better than most things. This is an excellent novella, well worth reading if you’re into Lovecraft mythos stories at all.

Highly Recommended.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Blood and Donuts (1995) directed by Holly Dale

I didn’t know that I wanted a 90’s slacker hangout/crime/vampire love story centered around a donut shop, but I really did. An online friend described it and I was intrigued. It has David Cronenburg as a weird crime boss running his operation out of a bowling alley. It has a vampire who moves at times in a way reminiscent of Vincent D’Nofrio in Men in Black (though he’s far handsomer than a giant cockroach wearing an Edgar suit). It has a cabby who seems to be doing an exaggerated Christopher Walken imitation with an Eastern European accent. It has a donut shop cashier who reads philosophy, automotive repair books and conspiracy theory. This is a weird mix but it is charming and has a few great moments.

There’s a typical setup where the love interest comes across the vampire in situation where it looks like he killed someone; this is often the obstacle that has to be overcome in the third act of a story. But the cashier is much smarter than that. She knows the vampire well enough to trust him and doesn’t freak out. She brings her esoteric knowledge to bear as a sort of amateur Macgiver-esque EMT.

It is low budget and largely unavailable. I watched it in 10 minute chunks on YouTube, and it is apparently also available with commercials on some random Roku channels. It’s a very fun movie that does a lot with a little. Seek it out!


Night Moves (2013) directed by Kelly Reichardt

This is my third Kelly Reichardt, and probably my favorite. The two films I’d watched previously, Meek’s Cutoff and Old Joy were both slowly paced and beautifully shot. The opposite of the constant motion of the MCU and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fast paced stuff as well, but her films provide a necessary counterpoint. I love the silence they inhabit and provoke.

That being said my favorite genres are crime movies and dark comedies (followed by potential trainwrecks that really shouldn’t work but somehow do, a la Southland Tales, The Fifth Element, Tank Girl, etc). So when I saw that Reichardt had done a crime thriller of sorts, I was definitely intrigued. She pulled it off. Her quiet approach is perfect for a slow burn thriller.

Old Joy could be summed up as two guys go to the woods to figure out why their friendship faded and Meek’s Cutoff as a pioneer wagon train gets lost and yet both are much more than those summaries imply. Night Moves is about three environmentalists who plan a crime and the aftermath. This has a masterful slow build of tension, and the aftermath is as compelling and tense as the planning.

Reichardt does an amazing job here of coming from a certain point of view, environmentalism, but not making a didactic work. Her characters all have strong ideologies and what environmental concerns that are on display are their concerns. They fit in the narrative because they provide the motivation for the action. Reichardt knows that messages are more effective if they are not presented as a sort of gospel tract. I doubt that she would convince any climate skeptics, but she’s not making a polemic; she’s making a slowly simmering thriller.

This is a just about perfect movie. The pacing, the cinematography, the performances. Everything works.


Friday, August 2, 2019

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The first three lines of The Ballad of Black Tom were largely lost on me when I first read it last year. I had read things over the years that were influenced by Lovecraft. Last year I heard of a mini-boom in “revisionist” Lovecraft stories in a podcast; books in which people of color and women were made the protagonists. This and The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe were mentioned in this context. After those I went on to Caitlin Kiernan, who has subsequently become a favorite writer (though I’m not sure I would characterize her work as revisionist). Before I read Black Tom, I read The Horror at Red Hook; the LaValle is a retelling of that novella from the perspective of a black man. This is important, because The Horror at Red Hook is the most overtly xenophobic and racist of Lovecraft’s stories (or at least it has that reputation; it’s definitely that among the ones I’ve read). At the time I liked Black Tom much better than the original; now that I’ve read more Lovecraft and know a little more about him, the book is even better.

The first three lines are brilliant. Lovecraft moved to New York and, so the story goes, was so scared by the masses of people, particularly immigrants, that he retreated to Providence. The first lines are “People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn.” Whether this is true in the abstract, I will leave to people who have at least been to New York; however it’s a beautifully subtle way for LaValle to announce his intentions; Lovecraft couldn’t properly see the place, and he’s going to take a crack at it. It’s not preachy, a trap into which the “fixing” of a historical work could easily fall. He just takes the premise, a wealthy white man tries to get a lot of immigrants and non-white people (to the horror of the narrator in the original) in Red Hook to help him raise the sleeping god Cthulhu to destroy the world. He just tells it from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, who falls in with the wealthy man. He also tones down the purple in the prose, adds more rounded characters, a better understanding of the actual social situation and more believable dialog while keeping the creeping dread and encroaching madness that Lovecraft was so good at.

The book is dedicated “To HP Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” You can see that conflict in the book (again without being heavy handed or didactic). Clearly, LaValle has read his Lovecraft and enjoyed it enough to want to play in that sandbox. But the line, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day” hits really hard, given what the character goes through in the novella. This is clearly better than the source Red Hook story. You could read that so as to better see what’s happening here, but it really stands as an excellent work on its own merit.

Highly Recommended.

Light by M. John Harrison

Light is a complex book, and on this third reading I’m starting to feel like I understand it more. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it all three times. The first time I read it, my main response was a giddy, “This is how you do space opera!” The second time I saw that there was a lot more to it that I wasn’t getting, yet that enjoyment remained. This time I understand it slightly more, but I think that’s largely beside the point. Part of what Harrison is doing is saying there are things we can’t understand. As the Shrander says to Ed Chianese near the end, “I don’t want you to understand it, I want you to surf it.”

Ed is a burned out space pilot, now a VR addict, a twink in the parlance of the book, and the lead character in one of the three strands of the story. Seria Mau Genlicher is a k-ship, a human who has been grafted onto an advanced spaceship and partners with a sentient algorithm to pilot the thing, is the lead character of the second. These two strands happen in the distant future. Humans have discovered faster than light due to the mathematical and physics prowess of the main character of the third strand, Micheal Kearney and his partner, which ostensibly happens in the late 1990’s. Kearney is also a serial killer. He has this idea that killing people will keep the Shrander, a mysterious creature that is stalking him, at bay.

In the future strand the action takes place around the Kefahuchi Tract, which had just been discovered by astronomers in the present day portions of the novel. That tract is “a singularity without an event horizon. A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjurer’s stuff, magic that might work or it might not, undependable stuff in a retro shop window. You couldn’t make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn’t stop trying.” That is my experience of the book as well. I can’t fully grasp the science it’s hinting at, but it’s endlessly engaging. As best I can tell, it’s essentially a black hole or series of black holes out of which the detritus of countless civilizations falls out, not all working by the physics of our world. There’s a scavenger culture built around that, and the mathematics that drive ships like Seria Mau’s come from one of those civilizations.

There are the aforementioned space pilots and a serial killer physicist. There’s a space circus. There is a post-cyberpunk world as vivid, noirish and squalid as anything in William Gibson. There are a variety of sentient algorithms who manifest in disturbing ways. Information can manifest as a substance, as can light. There is a lot of math I don’t understand, but it in no way makes the book drag. The story is compelling, but the language is as well. It is a dark unflinching book in some ways. Out of this milieu, though, a weird sense of hope emerges. Without being saccharine, the book implies that if physics won’t always work, anything, almost literally, is possible.

I love this book even more with a third readthrough. I suspect I will revisit it at least several more times. It is literature of the highest order.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

At the Mountains of Madness and Other Weird Tales (Barnes and Noble Edition) by HP Lovecraft

At his best Lovecraft is very very good. This collection was weaker overall than the Call of Cthulhu Barnes and Noble edition. Still, there were some really good stories in here. I think that I prefer a lot of the work that Lovecraft influenced more than the man himself, especially Caitlin R Kiernan, but I’m glad to have a lot more context for those works. And, again, at his best Lovecraft was amazing!

The title novella was one of only two Lovecraft works that I’m certain I had read before this summer. It holds up to a second reading. It is not the same story as The Thing, but you can really see how Carpenter was pulling from this. It’s quite good.

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath was positioned as the other centerpiece of the collection. It had some really good moments, but it was a real slog at times. I was glad when I realized that it was essentially an unedited first draft. The high points were really high, though. I’m glad to have read it, though, as a reread of Kij Johnson’s novella The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe will likely make much more sense when I get to a reread of it.

The short stories The Music of Eric Zann and Pickman’s Model were probably my favorite of the bunch.