Monday, September 12, 2016

A haunted past

I don't want to be the kind of person who's super into true crime because I have a strong negative association with people who are into true crime. But that doesn't mean I'm not the sort of person who likes reading about serial killers or manhunts or the messy judicial process of an alleged killer being brought to trial. So basically I'm a snob who thinks true crime "is beneath me" but who is way into true crime.

I don't know, it's complicated. I know like four people who have serial killer tattoos and I live with one person who loves watching true crime but that overlaps with watching Nancy Grace and high profile trials. And that I can't hang with. I think the history of crime is fascinating, I think reading about trials is fascinating, I think reading about serial killers is fascinating, but there's this fannish culture that's grown out of true crime that I find incredibly gross and bloodthirsty and voyeuristic and I just can't hang with it.

But I did enjoy reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood more than many of the other books I've read about murders or tracking down serial rapists or court cases and I think it's because Capote elevates it with a level of sympathy that's hard to pin down for murders without being creepy as fuck. Capote's portrayal of the killers shows them as murderers who made terrible choices and did awful things but who were still people with families or who loved animals or who had been very badly hurt without ever attempting to excuse their crimes.

Which I think gets into the heart of why I don't like the fannishness of true crime as it exists today. Either human murderers are completely dehumanized and turned into demonic monsters (which only serves to terrify viewers and blow up cultural anxiety and give money to Nancy Grace) or the scales get tipped too far toward sympathy and you end up with Charles Manson getting married to a young woman who has been a fan of him her whole life. Worship and abject terror shouldn't be the only two reactions we have to violence or crime - and I think that Capote's detached consideration and curiosity are a more understandable and reasonable reaction.

It's clear that Capote was fascinated by his subjects but remained horrified by their crime while still being contemptuous of both them and the community reaction to them. In Cold Blood is a compelling book because it walks a fine line everywhere it goes - the townspeople are sympathetic but banal, the murdered family were well-loved but elitist, the murderers are admirable but stupid. He portrays multiple shades and angles of all of his subjects and leaves the reader to muddle through the mess of a murder motivated by money, a score that didn't score and left the world more empty.

It's a sad book, and occasionally a very funny book. Capote obviously has his opinions about the people he wrote about but doesn't pass judgement. It seems like a cleaner experience with true crime than I'm used to and I appreciated not feeling like I needed to take a shower when I finished the book.

And it doesn't hurt that Capote is a tremendously competent artist. The landscapes and people spring to life as you read and fill with the rustling of grain and the percussion of empty bottles rocking in the back seat of a stolen car. He leaves you feeling clean but sun-weathered and dust-coated like many of his subjects; you feel the loneliness of a prairie morning and the close comfort of a corrupted game room just as easily as you feel the sparkling waters and thrumming fishing poles of a Mexican resort.

Capote's touch is brilliant in many places throughout this book but it's genius when it comes to setting a scene for the reader to play a part in.


Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 2012. (1965).

Remaking in your image

I am dragging ass today (or all of the last two weeks) and don't have the energy to go story-by-story through Trigger Warning and offer an opinion of each piece.

I will say that I enjoyed the book as a whole, and in many ways it was a departure from much of the Gaiman that I've read before. There was a touch of science fiction thrown in, a story about an artist that seemed like a truly dark reversal of Neverwhere, a lovely poem about writer's block and chairs, and a delightful addition to the American Gods universe (that felt perhaps a bit too much like the last delightful addition to the American Gods universe). I can't think of a single story that I hated, and I want to spend a little time talking about a couple of stories that I loved.

 "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" and "The Sleeper and the Spindle" are both available as standalone illustrated books. I've picked them up and looked through them both in comic shops and bookstores but I haven't had the money to buy both of them and I feel guilty about reading books I can't buy so I just admired the art and set them back down. I had no idea the stories were included in Trigger Warning but I was delighted to finally be able to read both of them and both of them are WONDERFUL.

"The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a spooky folktale about loss and what you're willing to sacrifice to get what you want. It's more of a novella than a short story and it's lovely - you can practically feel the mist condensing on your skin and hear the waves slapping on the shore as you move through the story with Gaiman's characters and they progress toward their questionable goal.

"The Sleeper and the Spindle" is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a side-order of Snow White and it kicks utter ass. I don't want to say anything more than that because it's so delightful and unexpected that I'd hate to spoil any of the surprises the story holds. Suffice it to say that this is really the only version of either of the original stories that I'm capable of giving a shit about anymore. When Gaiman makes a story his own he does it right.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. Trigger Warning. William Morrow. New York: New York. (2015).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Problems and the bigger ones

There are plenty of books that fuck me up but Kindred fucked me up pretty good. It was painful to read but felt cleansing. Cathartic is the best word for it.

It also made me realize that the best books I've read this year have all been written by black women, a subset of authors who were largely missing from the readings assigned from kindergarten all the way up until I got my BA in English literature.

But Octavia Butler did show up in ONE of my college English Classes. We read a short story of hers in my junior college science fiction survey class. I'm really glad I got the opportunity to read her, but FUCK, why did no one think she belonged in my Modern American Lit survey?

Kindred is amazing and painful. It pulls back the veil on the ugliness of slavery from a 20th century perspective while ALSO illustrating that the 20th century was by no-means a post-racial society. Dana is a brilliantly crafted character who has to struggle with layers and layers of oppression and interpretation of that oppression both in her time and in the antebellum era she is transported to.

There's a lot that I could talk about here; Dana's painful encounters with Rufus, her guilt over her interactions with Sarah, her inability to find her place in either time, but I think one of the most interesting and fraught relationships shown in the novel is Dana's marriage to Kevin. She loves Kevin and he loves her but there's a distance between them that Kevin alone is incapable of seeing. The subtlety of Butler's commentary on 20th century race relations through Kevin's privileged perspective of racism is beautifully done and a tremendous part of what makes the novel so compelling - even when Dana is safe she's never really safe, even when she is recognized as a person she is still a woman, and black, and still seen as somehow "less than."

I'd strongly recommend that anyone reading this blog read Kindred. It's stunning.

     - Alli

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press. Boston: Massachusetts. 2003. (1979).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Burning with anxiety

Hey, you wanna get weird and esoteric and nitpicky with me for a sec? Of course you do; if you didn't want to do that sort of thing you wouldn't be reading a book blog written by a pedantic jerk with a frighteningly good memory.

This, by the way, has basically nothing to do with the book I'm talking about. It's just weird and esoteric and nitpicky.

So. Anyway. How odd is it for you, as a reader, to come across a self-referential thing in the work of an author you're reading for the first time? Like part of me says it would be kind of cool - you read this late book that makes reference to an early book but then later you read the early book and go "OH MY FUCKING GOD, THAT'S WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT" and your mind is blown. But the larger part of me thinks that it would stand out as something that could have been edited out? Like if you didn't know that one or two throwaway lines were referencing another book by the same author, one that had no other connection to the book you're currently reading and in context sounds weird when juxtaposed with the work you're holding in your hand, would it just confuse you as to why an editor allowed that to go to print?

I bring this up because Joe Hill makes one throwaway reference to NOS4A2 in The Fireman and it made me kind of smirk, because I'd read the book and I got the reference, but it wasn't a particularly graceful reference and also made me cringe a tiny bit because it felt forced.

But maybe that's just me. When you're reading you're supposed to feel empathy toward the characters you're reading about but I have such a surplus of empathy that I step out of the story to try to parse the emotional state of hypothetical other readers.

Yes, I do have social anxiety. How did you know?

Anyway the book is great! I really enjoyed reading it and got so into the story that at one point I had to put the book down and wander away for two days because the fallout that I could feel coming was upsetting me. Which is fantastic when you're reading a thriller. It legitimately got me so invested in the story and the action that I couldn't handle the tension and maybe only made myself more anxious by putting off a sense of resolution for two days.

Also, fun sidenote, the other Joe Hill novels I've read have an issue with rape. As in there's a bit too much of it and it's a bit graphic in a way that seems gratuitous or it makes a too-huge impact on the story (N0S4A2 did not have this issue). This book did not have that problem! There's implied rape/harassment but it's character background for an antagonist instead of character definition for a protagonist. I really appreciated that! It's clear that Hill does not like rape, and doesn't want his readers to think rape is a good thing, but that has led to an unfortunate tendency toward rape-as-backstory OR believed-rape-as-backstory. Again, this doesn't have that! Our protagonist is not a rape survivor; she's had her share of shit to deal with but that is not among her pile of shit.

Also it's pretty goddamned cool to have an apocalyptic novel with (Spoilers! Spoilers!) a pregnant woman, a d/Deaf child, a teenage girl defying gender norms, and a middle-aged black woman as the primary protagonists. I like that a lot, I hope a lot of people like that a lot, and I hope that more white authors will begin putting marginalized characters in their works without being afraid that it'll kick them out of the running for the bestseller list.

Anyway. In general I say fuck yes, this was a tremendously fun book to read. I thought Hill did a great job of handling everything from paranoid reactions to potential threats (Jacob) to cult-like reactions among the infected (Carol) to survivor's guilt (John). The Fireman is a compelling page-turner that I will be reading again at a later date, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it similarly on the second go-round.

     - Alli

Hill, Joe. The Fireman. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2016.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Prim and proper porn

Look, you don't have to tell me, I'm WELL AWARE of the fact that I read a lot of pornographic comic books. In fact I'm currently excitedly waiting for delivery of THREE smutty comics from Kickstarters I supported. Which is exactly where I got two lovely volumes from Jess Fink's Chester 5000 universe.

Chester 5000 XYV and Isabelle & George are delightful little porno comics, each is made up of beautifully illustrated standalone comic pages that come together into stunning stories full of affection, humor, and lots of fucking. Chester is the story of a Victorian lady who falls hard for the boner-bot her harried husband builds as an outlet for her energy, and Isabelle & George tells the story of that same harried husband beginning a partnership with another inventor and his wife - with some INCREDIBLY unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Both books make for quick reads in some ways - they have no dialogue and very few words pop up on any of the pages. In other ways they're good books to take your time with, at the very least so you don't get the lavishly drawn pages sticky.

These are A+ 100% worth the money I spent on them (and I got a cool enamel pin that nobody understands to wear on my battle vest) and I highly recommend that if you're looking for some classy lady-on-robot fuckin' or some classy dude-and-dude-and-lady fuckin' that you pick these up and spend some time enjoying them.

Also Jess Fink is a rad artist who has done lots of rad things, and she's an independent artist so you should go follow her on social media and check out her stuff and buy things that she sells by clicking anywhere on this sentence.

Fink, Jess. Chester 5000 XYV. Top Shelf Productions. New York: New York. 2015
Fink, Jess. Isabelle & George. Canada. 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Out of the dark

Aliens: The Original Comics Series wasn't what I thought it would be - a straight comic adaptation of the second film of the Alien franchise - it was significantly cooler and more exciting than that.

This series is everything that everything after Aliens should have been. It was a great exploration of characters we're already attached to, has a compelling story and some horrifying visuals, and keeps your pulse up as you turn the pages in a way that rarely happens in comic books and NOW rarely happens in Alien films.

It feels like every bit of it belongs in the franchise in a way that is much more intuitive and fascinating than something like, say, Prometheus. *shudder*

The art is almost unspeakably great in almost every part of the story (the space jockeys look pretty stupid, honestly, and nothing at all like the delirious Geiger biomechanics that populate the rest of the franchise) and really shines in covers and two-page spreads. The introduction talks some about how the art was pulled off using a now-defunct product that allowed for incredibly careful control of halftones and that I find stunning, perplexing, and impossible to visualize. But I don't have to visualize the end results - they're in beautiful black and white on the page and they hold up as great examples of horror/sci-fi comic work in a genre that apparently hasn't had much motivation to improve in 30 years.

I really want to talk about the story but don't really know how to without totally fucking it up for someone who might be coming fresh to it. It's deep and heady and full of twists and turns that build tension and make you sad and scared and carry you along with the characters. It's brilliantly done and I can't wrap my head around the fact that we got Alien Resurrection and fucking Prometheus instead of an adaptation of this comic series. Those movies were bad enough before I knew that there was a fucking genius extension to the canon of the cinematic universe, and that this much more engaging story was passed over for Damon Lindhoff foolishness.

Aliens: The Original Comics Series is a great fast read that I really would strongly recommend to sci-fi fans, Alien fans, and grownups who don't know if comics are a medium they can take seriously, and anybody who's looking for a new series they can eat up all at once. It's really well done, and though I'm sad I didn't know about it before an extra copy showed up in my Dad's Loot Crate a couple months ago, I'm really happy to have read it and think it was well worth the couple of hours it takes to work through the whole thing.

     - Alli

Vernheiden, Mark. Mark A. Nelson. Aliens: The Original Comics Series. Dark Horse Comics.
     Milwauke: Oregon. 2016. (1986).

Men's men

Why didn't anyone tell me that A Streetcar Named Desire includes a character whose husband killed himself once his wife admitted disgust with his sexual orientation?

I really love Williams. I read Glass Menagerie my senior year in high school, and saw a production of Spring Storm in college, but I'd never been all that interested in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski just seemed like such a bundle of toxic masculinity that I wasn't all that interested in his narrative.

And that's what I thought it was - Stanley and Stella's story. But it's not, not by a mile.

Blanche, broken, lost, ageing, confused, regretful, Blanche, is the star of the story and that makes it a much more interesting play. Stanley and Stella are healthy people in an unhealthy relationship - they have a vitality and rawness about them that is compelling to read, but it doesn't hold a candle to the fascination I felt as I got to know Blanche and her fragile, failing grip on the world.

Also, in spite of the issue of the bury your gays trope that's discussed so much these days, it's important that Williams has a dead queer character in this story that is such a massive part of building the masculine mythos of the 50s. Without Streetcar we don't get Brando, without Brando we don't get the masculine ideals we're living with now. I can't say for sure what masculinity would have looked like in America in 2016 if we hadn't had Brando in 1957, but stinking, sweating, tee-shirt-tearing Stanley Kowalski is a huge part of what laid the foundations for modern masculinity. And that's why it's so fascinating by the fact that he has a canonical counterweight who is only experienced by the audience through Blanche's shattered memories. Blanche's lover was beautiful, he was refined, he was gentle, he was sweet, he was poetic, and he was gay. This isn't a homosexist exploration that divides the men from the sissies, this is Williams illustrating a kind of masculinity that was deplored and countering it with the gross, abrasive, abusive, violent masculinity of the world he lived in.

Which is important as fuck when you remember that it was written by a man who was queer bashed and attacked for his own presentation of masculinity, who was institutionalized like his shattered protagonist, and who was in many ways adrift in a world that didn't have a space for him.

All of which is lit-major speculation. If you want an actual appraisal of the play I think it's stunning and full of beautiful language that sings off the page and puts hooks in your heart. I think the characters are beautifully sculpted masterpieces who are a joy to watch. I think it's wonderful, that Tennessee Williams was a brilliant playwright, and that I want to read much more of his work.

     - Alli

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions. New York: New York.
     2004. (1947).