Monday, August 27, 2018

Inverted Lear

Okay, right off the bat let's get this out of the way: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is King Lear told from the perspective of Regan and Goneril (Rose and Ginny). That's fine, but I actually want to approach the book independent of the Lear connection.

The writing is pretty dang great, honestly. I was expecting the book to be dull and slow but I read the whole thing in a single sitting - it was really engaging and brilliantly paced; it also has this stellar midwestern gothic thing going, you know, swaying corn and abandoned charity shops and churches no one really wants to go to. The grimness and drudgery of farm work and the incomprehensible multi-generational dedication to it.

I kept feeling like the book was familiar and it wasn't the Lear thing, it was Stephen King's 1922 and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It turns out that "something evil is lurking in she barn" or "these fields have many secrets" is an aesthetic that I'm super into. Smiley does that aesthetic really well and the faded mysteries of the junk pile and shimmering heat of the fields are tangible and harsh, as is the driving wall of water from the unexpected storm and the cool earthen rot of a cellar unknowingly housing a poisoned pill.


There's an unsatisfying tension at the end of the novel and I think it's actually pretty brilliant. Things aren't neatly resolved, people aren't happy ever after. That kind of makes it stick. I finished this book about three weeks ago but it's been in my head enough that I've been considering rereading it ever since.

Anyway, strong recommend.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

The stance of this blog is "fuck genocide"

Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Paiutes, their Wrongs and Claims is a somewhat controversial book and that's understandable. When it was published it was controversial because it was advocating for Native American rights; now it's controversial because of its advocacy for assimilationist rhetoric.

In spite of its flaws in that regard, the book is still a wonderful thing to hold up when racists claim that manifest destiny wasn't that bad or wasn't a genocide or that white people treated people better than other people did.

I don't have it in me to get super critical here, or to go into detail with this incredibly depressing subject. The settlement of the American West was a bad thing built on imperialism and genocide. There are clear victims of this settlement process and their people are still dealing with the repercussions of the genocide.

I happened to spend some time in Nevada and Oregon last year, when I had just started reading this book. One of the things I was curious about was the tremendous number of places I saw labelled as Paiute reservation land - where I'm from it seems like most tribal lands are fairly consolidated. You'll have a radius of maybe fifty miles, max, before you're out of that group's reservation areas.

The Paiute land stretched across hundreds of miles in a way that was strange to me.

Turns out that's because of forcible moves and multiple separations of the tribe and a whole bunch of other fucked-up shit.

Anyway, I can't recommend the book enough for people who are under the impression that white people settling the continent was somehow right or good.


Something moving in the trees

Okay look, Twin Peaks is great and I love it but it's a messy series that has huge continuity issues and that I'm not sure its creators really understand.

And for sure, a hell of a lot of the fans don't understand it and I don't fault them at all for not wanting to delve into twelve supplemental novels.

If you want the bare minimum Twin Peaks experience just watch the original two seasons. That'll do it, that's a totally valid way of consuming the series and it's a warm nostalgia bath of sweetness and horror.

Or you can get fucked up and actually read the books.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier go a long way toward making the most recent season of the show comprehensible, but they're also fucking bugshit crazy and have no problem with warping and twisting Original Series canon. (Best example of fucking with canon: the divergence between the book version and the show version of Ed and Nadine's marriage - and Norma's homelife and family get a hasty band-aid that tries really hard to make sense but just kind of doesn't).

Also Secret History is basically all about aliens, which is my least favorite part of the TP lore. It gets better toward the end, but it's a big heavy book full of disparate sources and difficult-to-read pages that's mostly about the alien-filled escapades of a character who gets like five lines in the original series.

The Final Dossier sheds a lot of light on what exactly the fuck was going on in The Return, which I liked and appreciated a lot - though this one got worse toward the end.

Some questions are answered but David Lynch seems to like leaving a lot open-ended. There are still gaps to fill in, there are still mysteries left behind in the wake of reading these novels.

I enjoyed both books to an extent but was also frustrated by both. Only read if you're super obsessively, unhealthily, into Twin Peaks.

Like me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Introductory Argumentation

Okay, so my parents met at a debate tournament and my dad is a debate and interpersonal communication professor who has taught at CalTech and USC as well as four other lesser known SoCal colleges.

I've also spent the last six years arguing with people on the internet about LessWrong, medical pseudoscience, and how to do basic research (hey, go get a lit degree if you want to learn how to do research go get a humanities degree).

All of that is to tell you that I'm probably not the audience for Dave Levitan's Not A Scientist. It's a really decent introductory book for folks who are getting sucked into family arguments about science on their FaceBook feed. It's just a baby little stepping stone for horrid gremlins who are online ten hours a day (like me).

That said, it's fine. It has some useful and very specific examples that you can draw from if you want to point out how someone's argument is disingenuous or misleading. There are lots of damn decent studies cited and the attribution is off-the-wall awesome, which I really appreciate.

It's a perfectly acceptable book for someone who is starting to get frustrated by arguing the validity of science with assholes online who does not yet have a list of reliable studies to link and refer to in those sorts of arguments. It's also very simply written and it's an easy read that illustrates the value of understanding and trusting science without getting too deep in the weeds of graphs, charts, and theories that do legitimately confuse a lot of people.

Actually I'll say the "blame the blogger" section of the book is probably its best asset because of that. Sometimes it's better to say "that statement you're making is based on a blog written by someone who has no expertise in the field and who frequently publishes crank statements on a bunch of topics" than it is to provide a meticulously researched refutation. (Also it's not an ad hominem attack if you're questioning the veracity of a source - saying "you can't trust Alice because she's a jerk" is not the same thing as saying "you can't trust Bob's knowledge about teapot theory because he hasn't researched teapots and doesn't believe the moon exists.") So that chapter is a useful reminder for everyone.

It's fine. It's just not really for me.

     - Alli

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dodos died for a reason - they were too slow

Hey so The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. was the first book I started reading this year and it took me until July to finish it because I fucking hated it.

Which is a little shocking considering my well-documented appreciation for Neal Stephenson. Nicole Galland co-authored the book and while it's tempting to blame her for what I didn't like that's not really fair because a) I've never read her other stuff and so I couldn't tell you if I like her style or not and b) most of what I didn't like felt like Stephenson bits that weren't landing.

I really dig maximalism done well but this felt like maximalism done badly - it became a slog, it got boring.

Maybe that was because it was supposed to be a journal and collection of documents and the bits of Stephenson's style I like the most are in the narration. Maybe it's because the majority of the book is from the perspective of a character who I feel is really poorly written. Poor Dr. Stokes. I wanted her to be really well written, I wanted to like her - it's clear she was supposed to be sympathetic but she was written as indecisive and insecure and passive-aggressive in a way that was really frustrating to read.

Also the big bad of the book feels poorly developed and everything sort of dissolves into a nonsensical rush in the last 50 pages. Plenty of people have talked about Stephenson's denouement allergy and the fact that he likes to cut things off right after the climax and maybe this book illustrates why that's the case - everything after the last big action scene was kind of shit.

Anyway, long story (and jesus it was around 800 pages and it was a slog for once I'm sympathetic to people who think he's long-winded and dull) short I didn't like this book and actively resented the time I spent reading it and should have stopped after the first hundred pages didn't grab me because I don't feel any better having finished it except that it won't drive me crazy for not making the effort.

Fuck this book.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Fixing Flaws

So up until about a year ago if you asked me about the character Thor I'd go off on a several-minute rant about exactly why I despised him in the comics as well as the MCU. He was too straight-faced, he got caught in really stupid traps, he put others in danger because he was too trusting. It was like someone gave a credulous three year old lightning powers and a hammer.

I've been relaxing about Thor in comics for a while - Squirrel Girl was largely instrumental there - but I'd maintained my apathetic-to-actively-aggressive attitude toward the MCU Thor. The Thor films seemed tedious and overly earnest, the character was inflexibly THOR, confused Asguardian who doesn't understand you silly hu-mans.

Ragnarok fixed that for me. Thor gets to be really silly. Thor gets to talk about his ridiculous history with Loki. Thor puts his foot in his mouth talking to people who are equally godlike and immortal. Thor experiences consequences.

I loved what Ragnarok did for the character of Thor and I actually appreciated Loki's opportunities for growth as well.

The rest of the film, well, that wasn't stupendous. Almost everything involving Hela was tedious and frustrating to sit through, the time on Sakkar seemed to drag on and I actually didn't like the Grandmaster character at all (not as in he's a bad guy and you're not supposed to like him, as in he wasn't even fun to watch and the "whee I'm so zany" writing seemed really forced) though the post-credits scene was pretty great. The "save my people because Asgard is my people, not a place" thing was actually a decent motivation and they pulled it off well.

I also liked the other gladiators and enjoyed watching them but they were perhaps a bit too silly. They weren't awful, just maybe a bit misused or overdone? "Fuck off, ghost" is a great line but "Oh, my god, the hammer pulled you off?" is maybe taking the jokes a bit too far.

The movie as a whole wasn't really that fantastic (it did look great), which is a shame because Taika Waititi is fucking fantastic and I want him to make so many more movies, but it did loads to rehabilitate the character of Thor for me and I'm really glad for that.

     - Alli Kirkham

Monday, April 30, 2018

Flawed mythology

Hey go watch this video:

Okay that basically sums up my thoughts on Disney's Hercules.

I rewatched this with my sister recently and was really surprised at how manipulative the film was, especially because of the tone problem that Lindsay Ellis discusses so much in that linked essay.

There were at least two moments in the film where I was crying in spite of the cynicism I know was at the heart of the production and the zany song and dance numbers that bracketed the pathos-heavy parts of the film. It's fuckin weird to go from bright and shiny winning battles at Olympus to Meg bleeding to death internally while Hercules watches her die. That is dissonant and unpleasant but it happens so quickly that you can basically ignore it.

It's a weird movie.


The songs are pretty great (not Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast great), the animation looks fantastic and the character design is some of Disney's strongest.

I first saw this film as a child when it was released with a big hullabaloo at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. El Capitan does lots of Disney premiers - they'll set up movie-themed obstacle courses, include a kid's candy combo with a screen-printed cup in the cost of a ticket, and hand out little goodie bags of tchotchkes. I'm pretty sure I still have my deck of Hercules cards somewhere. I know I went through a labors-of-Hercules-themed bounce house.

I've got some pretty solid nostalgia linked with this flick, but even that isn't enough to fix the broken parts.

     - Alli