Friday, June 27, 2014

The shadows inside of us

This is a story about a man being eaten by monsters of his own making. It's viscous, angry, and creepy. There are layers of insanity here that are driven by greed, jealousy, and mutual misery. It's a singularly unpleasant little tale, but one worth reading because of its examination of the fact that evil is a sickness that spreads and infects everyone it touches.

"Big Driver"
If ever there was a story that should start with "trigger warning" this is it. An author goes to a presentation and is violently raped and left for dead before she can make it back home. She discovers the identity of her rapist and plots her revenge. It's an ugly story about an ugly act but what it really has going for it is the rage and shame and helplessness that the victim feels in the aftermath of her rape. If you want a good look at rape culture take a hard look at the echo chamber in this character's head - the fear that her rape will be discovered, that she will be blamed for it, that it will hurt her career, that it will follow her everywhere she goes all the time for the rest of her life. King really seems to be making an excellent point here - the way we as a culture punish rape victims for being raped makes it feel like violence is a better option than prosecution.

"Fair Extension"
Thinner is a novel that Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman; at the end of the novel a man tries to end his curse by passing it on to his wife but instead passes it to his daughter and decides to take up the curse himself rather than let his daughter suffer alone. This novella examines what might have happened if the curse had been properly passed to the object of his hatred. A nice, normal bank manager with a run of bad luck asks for an extension that comes at the expense of his best friend since grammar school and gets it. There's something delightfully poisonous about how few qualms he has destroying another person's life.

"A Good Marriage"
What would happen if you found out you had been married to a serial killer for three decades? Would you "suffer"? Probably. King tackles that question with aplomb and tries to take a realistic look at what might happen to someone who had been happily married to a monster until that monster's mask fell off.

"Under the Weather"
 This icky little story is full of humor and madness and follows the afterword of the collection. It's not, like the novels in the collection, packed with evil people committing evil deeds - it's just the story of someone very sad trying to figure out whether life is worth living when you've lost something important. "Under the Weather" is touching and nauseating in equal measure.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars. Simon & Schuster. New York: New York. 2011. (2010)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sequels don't have to suck

I was left a little cold by reading Mr. Mercedes a couple of times last week so I decided to read another recent King book. A lot of people seem to think that King has "lost it" and writes out of habit or because he likes the money this late in his career. To those people I say "BULLSHIT."

Not every novel can be a hit and with the amount that King produces it's not surprising that his work isn't uniformly brilliant - sometimes you swing and miss. But I've really enjoyed most of the novels that King has published in the last ten years; it just so happens that Mr. Mercedes wasn't a home run - and I don't even think it was a miss, but maybe a foul or something instead (I don't really understand baseball).

Doctor Sleep is the novel that King published last year; it's a follow up to The Shining and it's amazing. I made the same face a lot of people make when they hear about a sequel to something as "important" as The Shining but I was incredibly pleasantly surprised with the novel.

The story follows Danny Torrence into adulthood and examines the problems that he has as a result of the terrible winter spent in the Overlook Hotel but also those problems that are simply the result of who and what he is.

In several of his novels King plays with the idea that some children carry magic inside of them, and it's fascinating to see that idea exploded onto adults with all of their vices and evils, and that is the world as King lays it out in Doctor Sleep, one with magic that saves lives and grows love, and with hate and avarice that want to steal that magic.

The book is creepy but not scary and touching but not sappy. In all aspects of the novel there is a wonderful sense of balance which, to me, proves that King is still writing because he likes it and cares for the craft - not because he just can't get out of the habit.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Dr. Sleep. Scribner. New York: New York. 2013.

Second glance, second chance

I wasn't totally sure how I felt about Mr. Mercedes after I read it last week so I read it again.

On a second read-through I still see a lot of the same problems that I noticed the first time around - a lack of characterization, some profound misunderstandings about how computers work, and so on.

Something else became more obvious to me, though, and made me realize why the book didn't resonate with me the way that King's novels usually do: there was no magic.

I mean this in both a literal and figurative sense - literally, there were no ghosts or demons or specters or any of the other otherworldly things that so frequently pop up in King's writing and I actually really missed that. I'm not big on reading mystery or crime novels and that's all that Mr. Mercedes is - a crime drama. Figuratively there was an authorial spark missing; something was off somewhere and the book was lacking in pathos - it spent a lot of time discussing tragedy without ever feeling tragic after the first chapter, which was the only part of the book that I really strongly connected with.

It still isn't a bad book, by any means, and it certainly isn't a dull book either. It's just not what I was looking for when I went looking for it and that's probably my own fault for typecasting King than it is King's fault for skipping some of his standard practices.

    - Alli

King, Stephen. Mr. Mercedes. Scribner. New York: New York. 2014.

Books, Motherfucker!!! What do I do now?

Real conversation that happened between my husband and I. He was amused by but unsympathetic to my plight.

     - Alli

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tropetacular, but in a good way

The first time I read Neverwhere was my last week in high school, which means it's been exactly ten years between readings for me. My yearbook teacher lent me her copy and when I was finished I returned it to her house (school was out forever for me at Charter Oak), leaving it on a green-painted wrought-iron table next to her charmingly bright blue door.

The book plays wonderfully with fantasy, mocking the "normal person finds a magic door and adventure ensues" story-type (which Gaiman himself has been accused of abusing) in a delightful way.

I really love this story; I like how it's constructed, I think the characters are fun and funny, and I'm entranced by the magical underworld that Gaiman is at such pains to describe and drag his readers into. That world is filled with a variety of horrors and charms, with magic light and dark, and all of it is filtered through the fool-or-hero who accidentally stumbled into the wrong door.

I think that's probably the biggest part of why the story works: so many fantasy and sci-fi worlds you see take magic and advanced science as a given - tossing a confused and maybe not-very-smart everyman into the mix means the readers are just as lost and get to discover the world in the same way as the characters do.

I'm glad I finally have my own copy - reading it this Saturday made me realize that I had remembered almost nothing about the story and it's a story well worth keeping in mind.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2003. (1996)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

German engineering

Stephen King keeps doing this thing where he writes really awesome books and then I read them and then I'm done reading them and I'm sad. Not because the books he writes are sad (though sometimes they are) but because I'm all out of new book to read. Whenever a new Gaiman or Gibson or Stephenson or King book comes out I'm incredibly giddy right up until I realize that it's all gone and I have to wait for the author to write some more.

I suppose this is a problem that many avid readers have.

When I first found Mr. Mercedes I nearly bought it on the spot while trying to kick myself for not knowing that King had a new book out. I resisted the temptation for both the purchase and the kicking and waited until my mom gave me a Barnes & Nobel coupon which I then combined with a member discount and a gift card. I may really love reading but I'm also really cheap.

But anyway, the book.

The story is fun, and pretty fast-paced. Mercedes is somewhat shorter than many King novels, coming in at just over four hundred pages, and the story isn't any more expansive than it ever has to be so it's surprisingly trim.

Some of the King trademarks seem to be missing; the characters aren't as aggressively developed as King characters often are and I think that takes away a bit from the novel. There's also something a little bit strange going on with diction with one character in particular that is potentially offensive, though I think it may just seem offensive because the character isn't as deeply developed as secondary characters usually are in King's hands.

It's also pretty clear that the main character's confusion about computers is shared by the author. Crumbs in the keyboard won't cause a screen to freeze and I don't have any idea how you'd get peanut butter in a CPU (most people who are technically incompetent enough to smear peanut butter on computer components are too technically incompetent to get access to the part of the box that has important components in it). That lack of knowledge is troubling because there are at least a few characters who are supposed to be good with computers. King admits in the acknowledgements that this is his fault and his fault alone but it is still distracting.

Other than those minor problems the novel is, by and large, very good. There's a lot of control, chaos, darkness, and madness explored here. The contest of wills between a retired cop and a supposedly retired mass murderer is fraught with suspense and, I will admit, nearly kept me home from work so that I could read it in one sitting.

Well worth picking up if you're a fan of King, and by far a better book than some of his recent efforts.

Also, look at how awesome that cover is!

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Mr. Mercedes. Scribner. New York: New York. 2014.

Folktales are freaky

I wish that I had the gumption to be a folklorist but I don't. I do, however, enjoy reading folktales from various cultures in various forms. It's probably why I like the Hellboy series so much - it is almost completely reliant on folklore for its source material.

One of the most interesting things about folklore is listening to how it sounds to the modern ear: you may be reading a story that seems wholesome and normal when you suddenly find characters strangling cats for fun. It's jarring, but in a bizarre way that we all accept because we were raised by these stories.

I had to buy this book as a text for my high-level German class; I remember translating at least a few paragraphs and trying to hide the English-language pages from myself, then giving in and reading some stories just for the hell of it but I never read through all of the stories or the introduction.

The introduction is a succinct biography of the Grimm brother that also goes out of its way to properly define the place of Grimm tales in folklore (rather more literary than folk-taleish, at least according to pedantic scholars of whom Stanley Appelbaum doesn't much approve). The tales are marvelous, familiar, and disturbingly different from most of the toned-down versions that get printed as Little Golden Books. All in all, they're literally fantastic.

"The Frog King, or, Iron Henry"
This is the story we generally know as the Frog Prince - the princess is as nasty and fussy about keeping her promises in this version as in most other tellings, but usually she kisses her prince to reveal him; here she throws him against a wall instead.

"Tale of one who set out to Learn Fear"
A very funny tale about a not-too-bright boy who thinks he could be useful if only he could learn what it means to "get the shivers" - the shivers elude him until he has won a kingdom and a wife and the wife throws a bucket of minnows on him

"The Wolf and the seven Kids"
 Very similar to the story "Old Oni Woman" in Japanese folklore, a nasty wolf tricks his way into the house and eats up all but the littlest kid. There's a happy ending for everyone but the wolf.

"Brother and Sister"
Casual violence gets creepy here; an evil stepmother banishes Brother and Sister to the woods where Brother is turned into a roe deer. Sister marries a king and has his child but the old stepmother is jealous and wants the king to marry her own daughter so she sets a fire that suffocates the queen the day after she has given birth. Things turn out well, but the way the story just drops in "and she started a very hot fire so the young queen was soon suffocated" is creepy.

There's more pain and misery in this version of Rapunzel (or Rampion) than you'll typically see in a children's book but otherwise it's the same story we all know.

"The Three Spinners"
This story seems to be a blend of Rumpelstiltskin and something else - a young woman must spin flax into gold to marry the prince or she'll be killed. She engages the help of three woman who have been deformed by spinning and invites them to the wedding; their appearance causes the prince to declare that his wife will never be allowed to spin.

"Hansel and Gretel"
Pretty much exactly the version of Hansel and Gretel that everyone has heard. I'm a little perplexed by how similar this story has stayed in spite of two hundred years of translations and retellings.

"Straw, Coal, and Bean"
A silly little fable about how Straw, Coal, and Bean escape becoming dinner but have other misadventures afterwards. Straw and Coal don't make it out but Bean explodes and is stitched up by a kind tailor, which is why beans have a black seam.

"The Brave Little Tailor"
I first read this story when sitting in my daycare at eight years old. It's pretty funny and based on an audacious Tailor whose superpower is his supreme confidence. There's also a unicorn in it and I have no problem with any story that has unicorns.

A fairly standard Cinderella story; there's a magic tree instead of a fairy godmother, the ball lasts three nights instead of one, and the stepsisters are forced to mutilate themselves by cutting off part of their feet to fit in the slipper, but otherwise it's basically the Disney movie.

"Mother Holle"
Mother Holle, who is winter personified, takes in a mortal girl as a maid and rewards her for her good service; the girl's lazy sister tries to win the same sort of favor and is dipped in pitch for her troubles.

"Little Red Hood"
Little Red Riding Hood as you know it with an epilogue about another wolf being drowned in a pig trough. 

"The Bremen Town Musicians"
A Donkey, a dog, a cat, and a cock are all going to be killed by their owners because they're getting too old and worthless to be worth the cost of feeding. The animals set out to make their fortunes as musicians in Bremen Town bus instead find a shack full of robbers whom they terrify and chase away and decide to live together in the shack instead.

"Table-set-Yourself, Gold-Donkey, and Cudgel-out-of-the-Sack"
I don't remember where I first read this story but I do remember dreaming about owning a Table-set-Yourself as a kid. Three brothers are chased away from home by their father and go out to learn trades - they are given wonderful gifts when their apprenticeships are through but those gifts are stolen by a greedy innkeeper; the youngest and cleverest brother manages to right these wrongs and the family is happily reunited.

Tom Thumb told in a much simpler way than I've seen it before - there's a lot less extravagance here than in the Don Bluth version but it's a funny, cute little story.

"The six Swans"
 An evil stepmother turns six princes into swans; their sister can save them only by being totally silent for a number of years and weaving them shirts out of asters. The sister manages to marry a king in spite of her silence and has three children who are all stolen away by the stepmother, who accuses her of cannibalism. As she's about to be burned at the stake her brother-swans fly over and she tosses their shirts to them, then absolves herself and the stepmother is burned to death after she's revealed the location of the stolen children.

"Little Briar Rose"
 A version of Sleeping Beauty that is neither the most insipid nor the most venomous version I've ever heard. There are thirteen wise women instead of four fairies in this story and a lot of their gifts (beauty, obedience) seem kind of bullshitty.

"Snow White"
It's clear that Disney cleaned up this story a bit because it's really hard to have any sympathy for a truly stupid main character. The dwarves have to tell Snow at least three times not to let strangers into the house or to talk to strangers but she does anyway. Dumbass little princess.

This is another tale that doesn't seem too changed by the telling - I've never even heard any variations on this one, it's always the same story.

"The golden Bird"
Three princes have endless quests and the simplest prince succeeds (in spite of being an idiot) with the help of a kind, wise fox. 

This was one of the strangest stories in the collection. A dying queen makes the king promise that he won't marry anyone less beautiful or with hair less golden than her. The king agrees and then notices that his daughter looks an awful lot like her mother and has golden hair. She says she'll marry her father if he brings her a dress as golden as the sun, one as silver as the moon, one as bright as the stars, and a cape made of the fur of all the kinds of animals in the kingdom. He completes these tasks that she thought were impossible and promises that her wedding will be the next day. She packs her belongings away in a nutshell and runs off wearing the cloak of fur and hides in a tree. Another king finds her in the tree and allows her to act as the serving girl in his kitchen. The king holds some parties and the girl sneaks in (arresting the attention of the king with her beauty) wearing the golden, silver, and bright gowns at various times. But she has to rush back to the kitchen before he finds out who she is so she can make his bread soup. Each time she does this she hides a golden trinket at the bottom of the soup bowl for the king to find. Eventually she cuts her timing too close and the little kitchen wretch, All-kinds-of-fur, is discovered to be the beautiful princess and marries the king and lives happily ever after. There doesn't seem to be any kind of moral or message, there's no reason to hide her identity in the second kingdom, there's no reason for her to put a gold spinning wheel in the king's soup. This sort of seems like a bunch of cool elements that are almost a good story, which sucks because this could be one of the best princess stories I've ever heard.

"Six Men make their way in Life"
Superheroes are hanging out in medieval Germany, they band together with a retired soldier to take money away from a greedy king. I've got to say, I like the concept of fealty-era Mystery Men.

"Hans in luck"
A foolish boy is paid at the end of his apprenticeship and is broke by the time he makes it to Mom's house, all the while celebrating the fact that his losses make his load lighter. This is a perversely appropriate allegory for the current college debt situation in a really odd way.

"The Goose Girl"
 A magical princess has her position and her talking horse usurped by a promise made to a conniving lady's maid and becomes a goose girl. The king suspects that she might be the real princess and tricks her into revealing her story. The lady's made is dragged to death in a sphere full of spike and then covered in boiling pitch and everyone else lives happily ever after.

"The Danced-out-Shoes"
Twelve princesses are mysteriously wearing through their shoes when they're supposed to be sleeping. A humble soldier figures out how and is rewarded with the eldest as a bride. I remember this story being a hell of a lot more enchanting and whimsical when I was a kid. It's still got a lot of good imagery going on and everything, but I think it's the only story in this collection where the princess-sutor dynamic is totally unwanted and the princesses are actually pursuing their own romantic interests without parental assistance. And I feel bad for the still-enchanted princes with whom the princesses were dancing.

"Snow White and Rose Red"
Two charming, pretty girls live in the woods with their mother and are Good all the time. The befriend a bear and help a gnome and after they've helped the ungrateful gnome a few times he's killed by the bear who is then revealed as a prince who the gnome had enchanted after stealing all of the poor boy's gold. The good girls marry the prince and his brother. The story is oddly structured and feels a little bizarre, like the moral is "don't judge a person by how they look and be kind to all except for those people who it's totally okay to kill because they're assholes."

"The Master Thief"
A long-lost son returns to his parents and reveals that he's become a master thief. The lord of the village sets him to three difficult thieving tasks which he accomplishes easily. The thief is then banished from the village and no one ever sees him again. I guess the message here is do the best at whatever it is you do and don't get on the wrong side of nobles. Kind of an odd note to end on, really.

     - Alli

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Selected Folktales. Edited by Stanley Appelbaum. Dover Publications.
     New York: New York. 2003.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good TV is hard to come by

I don't watch a hell of a lot of television. Once a week I go over to my parents' house and I'll watch a show with them but other than that I just don't really do TV; in my opinion a TV is a convenient thing to watch movies on, not something that people generally make good shows for.

That's changed quite a bit recently - improved technology means that there are fewer limitations to TV than there used to be; huge screens and HD mean that audiences won't lose picture quality and so new shows have made a mind boggling jump in technical quality - hell, just look at the improvements in image quality over the course of the last twenty years:

Those are all stills from CBS sitcoms with similar budgets each ten years apart; when even the crappy, relatively cheap shows are seeing technical improvements like this it comes as no surprise that interesting, experimental ventures are improving in all areas.

Now, back to what I actually want to talk about, which is this gloriousness:

The FX run of Fargo is easily the best thing I've seen on television this decade and possibly ever (Twin Peaks doesn't count because I've only watched it on DVD). The show is beautiful, incredibly well written, and full of darkness and fascinating characters. I know people are all super stoked about Malvo, but I'm a much bigger fan of Lester and Molly. Lester's transformation from the pilot to the finale is really well done and actually made me a little scared of Martin Freeman - he's a terrifyingly good actor. And Molly. Oh, man, Molly. Allison Tolman is amazing and I want to be Molly when I grow up. She's SUCH a great character and avoids so many of the tropes associated with Strong Female Characters (she's not perfect, mind, but she's the best that's been put on TV for a long damn time). Molly is just so wonderful I want to hug her and watch her be a complete badass for hours on end.

The show is technically fantastic; there are beautiful shots full of beautiful light and balance, crisp, clean visuals all around. The music is brilliant and unsettling, the writing is sharp (if occasionally heavy-handed) and so gloomily funny that I spent at least a few minutes of each episode laughing at horrible murders.

Fargo is a great movie and Fargo the show lives up to the film. The run is over for the moment but I really recommend picking this up and watching it if you've got about ten hours to spare - it will be time well and easily spent.

     - Alli

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So THAT'S why they don't teach it in schools anymore

My dad and I are each putting together a list of blind spots that we have in our favored form of entertainment. He blogs about movies so he's planning to watch a bunch of classics that he hasn't seen, I blog about books so I'm going to read some of those books that make people say "how can you have a BA in English without reading this!?!?" A good example for my part is Macbeth - it was never required reading in high school, any of my community college classes, or the two Shakespeare classes that I took at Cal Poly. I've never seen a production of it or even a film interpretation. The Scottish play is a mystery to me, as is a lot of Shakespeare.

I've decided to go one step further than my pops on this blind spot challenge - I'll take the month of July and blog about a Shakespeare play a day, saving Macbeth for the first of August, the month when he and I are starting our own challenge. That sounds suitably crazy.

Either way, I do need to read more Shakespeare and I've had a couple Pelican editions that I ordered from sitting on my shelf for a while, so tonight I sat down and read The Merchant of Venice.

The play is a fairly well crafted little comedy with some decidedly dark elements. Before reading the introduction I actually thought it was a tragedy because the only thing I remembered about it is that it's the play in which someone has to pay a debt with a pound of flesh.

Tropes abound in the comic portions of the play - gender-bending makes an appearance, clownish servants are in evidence, and so on. The tragic elements aren't built on tropes so much as they are on an incredibly negative Jewish stereotype, which does at least explain why public schools aren't exactly clamoring to ask students to read out Shylock.

Personally I find Shylock sympathetic and interesting to read and I think Antonio's a bit of an idiot - he loves his friends too well and puts himself in the power of someone who he's give every reason to despise him because of his friend's debts.

I did appreciate that the clever ladies step in to save the day, but the lottery set up to sell off Portia into marriage is just fucking grim. Like a lot of Shakespeare this play didn't age particularly well, but still manages to have some progressive ideas (for the late 16th century) pop up here and there.

     - Alli

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Pelican Books. New York: New York. 2000. (1598).

Poe and pretty prints

It's become strikingly clear that I was much too young when I started reading Edgar Allen Poe. My dad had a collection that he lent to me when I was nine (I finally returned it last week) and I managed to work my way through several stories, though many of the tales in the collection were beyond me at that age.

Last year I found an absolutely beautiful large-format collection of Poe stories illustrated by Harry Clarke; I'm a fan of Poe and Nouveau so I snapped it up and it's been sitting on my shelf glaring at me ever since. I finally managed to work my way through it in the last couple of weeks and was equally delighted by the selected stories and the gorgeous prints scattered throughout the book.

I do think that most people should read more Poe (yes, yes, "The Raven" is great but that's so ninth grade English) but I sort of wish I'd started out a little later than I did; you can't mix "The pit and the pendulum" with My Little Pony and walk away unscathed, and besides, I wish I hadn't spoiled the stories for myself as an adult by reading them as a child - I'll never get the great "I am your father" moment back for some of these wonderful little mysteries.

"Ms. found in a bottle" - The story of a man who was and a ship that wasn't as they traveled beyond the borders of the known world.

"Berenice" - Old-timey mental health information is unintentionally hilarious in this story right up until it becomes nightmarishly stomach-turning.

"Morella" - It's pretty clear from any biography of Poe that he had some rather unhealthy relationships with women. This story seems to be a horrifying example of what he loved and feared in his interactions with the fairer sex.

"Some passages in the life of a lion (Lionizing)" - A cheery little satire about what a nose knows and whether it knows it needs to know more.

"The Assignation" - Two people discharge their worldly debts in the grimmest way possible and meet up as they had intended.

"Bon-Bon" - An epicurean debates with a demon whether or not he's good enough to eat.

"King Pest" - Two roughs wander into a neighborhood condemned by disease and find rougher stuff than they had anticipated.

"Metzengerstien"- What the actual fuck. A horse is a horse except when it's your dead neigh-bor tormenting you.

"Silence" - According to Poe hell isn't other people, it's the creeping horror of an unechoing vastness.

"A descent into the Maelstrom" - Cool! An old (prematurely old) man tells the story of the worst day of his life. Overwhelmingly creepy.

"Ligeia" - I can't tell if this story is more about the supernatural or pipe dreams, but either way there's a level of obsession that it's difficult to read without falling into, this story straddles that line.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" - I think I tried to read this about twenty years ago and failed miserably. Reading it now the story seems much more simple than I remember and a good deal less spooky too.

"William Wilson" - Our narrator is a scoundrel who spends his time evading the remnants of his conscience. He does terrible and vastly entertaining things - well worth reading.

"The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" - Erios and Charmion have an exceedingly dull conversation about the end of the world. I don't really get this at all.

"The man of the crowd" - Confusing and creepy as hell this little story arrests the reader almost as much as the titular character arrests the narrator.

"The murders in the Rue Morgue" - Why did nobody tell me about Dupin? Why!? It's so easy to see Holmes' heritage here and it's rad! I remember being freaked out by "Rue Morgue" when I was a kid because the story seemed really long and there was a scary drawing of a gorilla, but no one ever told me that this was where Conan Doyle got the inspiration for Sherlock. Shit! I should have read this a decade ago!

"The mystery of Marie Roget" - An excellent illustration of the fact that human beings don't really change. A pretty girl goes missing and Dupin is able to collar the killer by being logical about human nature.

"The colloquy of Monos and Una" - Monos and Una figure out how to cheat death and have an incredibly boring conversation about it. I get the feeling that this may be some kind of political allegory that's flown completely over my head.

"The Masque of the Red Death" - I hadn't actually read this story until my college Chaucer professor mentioned it when we were talking about plague. I know that the Red Death is supposed to be Tuberculosis, but it also works exceptionally well for a story about plague. And I think this story may actually be riffing on Chaucer. I'm not sure, I'll have to flip through The Canterbury Tales to figure it out.

"The pit and the pendulum" - I know for sure that this was included in my 6th grade English book; this has no place in an 11 year old's library. All of the background of the inquisition is lost because kids don't cover that until seventh grade and so it's just a dude getting tortured by a bunch of mysterious dickheads. Haunting.

"The tell-tale heart" - from the category of "things Lisa Simpson told me to read" comes the classic tale of a neurotic and his victim. Much, much funnier when read as an adult.

"The Gold Bug" - I am absurdly pleased to have finished reading this story; I'd attempted it a few times over the years and never got past the first paragraph. It's an uplifting, dark little tale about being bitten by a gold bug.

"The black cat" - I know for sure that I was reading this story at the same time that I was reading James Herriot books and attending girl scout meetings. People, this is not a cute, cuddly kitten for your little girls to read about. But it's a good story even if it is creeptastic.

"The spectacles" - A lot of people wouldn't associate Poe with humor, but he's funny nonetheless; this story is wonderfully amusing.

"The premature burial" - I think that my claustrophobic dad should probably read this; it does a remarkably good job of entombing its reader with words.

"The facts in the case of M. Valdemar" - I will never get tired of laughing at the 19th century mesmerist movement; in spite of that, this did a good job of tainting the humor.

"The oblong box" - An artist protects his mysterious baggage until the very end of his personal journey.

"The cask of Amontillado" - This falls into the category of "not appropriate for children but read by children anyway", a trip to some catacombs turns out well for one man and ill for another.

"Landor's Cottage" - an odd little story that isn't a story at all; just a description of a disturbingly stunning cottage.

Poe, Edgar Allen. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Illustrated by Harry Clarke.
     Arcturus Publishing. London: England. 2012. (2008).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cute, sweet, cuddly, and fiery

When my sister first made me watch How to Train your Dragon a couple years ago I wasn't all that interested; it seemed kind of cheesy and not like something I really needed to see. Then I heard that the Chief's name was Stoick the Vast - the best viking name I've ever heard - and spent ten minutes giggling; then I was hooked. I enjoyed the hell out of the first movie and when I recently saw previews for How to Train your Dragon 2 I decided that I'd make the effort to go see it on the big screen. It was SO super-duper worth it.

HTTYD2 takes the audience back to Berk and its crew of dragon-riding vikings; Toothless and Hiccup are still the best of buds and Stoick still doesn't totally understand his son. The plot develops pretty quickly and the audience is introduced to new characters, locations, and dragons at a fairly breakneck pace.

I really want to avoid spoilers here (even though the preview for the film didn't bother) so I'm going to keep it to general topics, but I do want to say that the relationship between Hiccup and Stoick is lovely to watch as it grows and changes. The film spends a lot of time looking at the way that the children of Berk have grown up and taken on responsibilities, the way that they're setting out to handle their lives, and the value of hard work and cooperation.

Other than that most of the movie is about Toothless, which I'm completely okay with because he is adorable. The energetic young dragon still acts like a cat for most of the sequel and still rough-houses around with his human buddy. The animators did a fantastic job with all of the dragons but Toothless is especially beautiful and enormously entertaining to watch.

The music is also startlingly good in this film, moving and robust. I was quite surprised by how long the themes and tunes were running through my head after leaving the theater, but I can't say I was at all upset at being bit by such a relentless earworm.

     - Alli

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Noise in the signal

It is not very often that my husband wants to go to the movies, so when he called me yesterday and asked if I'd be interested in seeing a sci-fi flick I couldn't turn him down. I knew nothing about The Signal other than that Lawrence Fishburne was in it until we got to the theater last night and I'm not sure that I know all that much more about it now.

My husband made the comment that The Signal seems less like a film and more like a Rorschach Test - you make of it what you will. There is a superabundance of metaphor and stunning imagery but little actual content.

I tend to agree with his assessment; none of the characters are particularly well developed and the story is tenuous at best, but everything you see is beautiful. Someone went through this movie, the cinematographer, the director, the art director, or the set dresser, with a loving eye and turned out a product that is immensely visually pleasing.

I do have one major gripe with the film and it's the women: the main character has a girlfriend called Hayley who almost counts as a character but ends up as a plot device instead. She's literally dead weight for at least 70% of her screen time and the other 30% of the time she's not a character so much as she is the personification of emotion. There are several ways this movie could have been cooler and one of those ways is to actually make use of a character who's getting a bunch of screen time instead of spending so much time on lovingly lingering facial shots.

Also, I do have to say this: the thought of any kind of hacker saying "we're going to expose you at DefCon" is just absolutely laughable. So laughable that my husband and I, who have attended DefCon for years as Humans and Goons, actually laughed out loud in the theater. The last time I saw someone "exposed" at DefCon it was a shitty undercover reporter who was trying to do a Chris Hansen type story about the evil haxors and got chased out by the hackers. Wrecking MIT's servers isn't something you would want to hide from the DefCon community, it's something that we would laugh about over drinks. C'mon, guys - we've been telling you who we are for years; does Hollywood still think that we're out to hack the planet? I guess so, even if "Hollywood" is an indie flick.

     - Alli

The gods are clearly crazy

Spooky is difficult to define. Things can feel spooky, but spookiness isn't a feeling; it's a state. A dusty old house at twilight is spooky but the same house at noon might be seem nostalgic or even cheery. The house's spookiness is situational, not a permanent quality.

I bring this up because a lot of what goes on in American Gods is spooky but the book itself isn't. The book is fun and silly and full of mystery and delight but it isn't, in and of itself, spooky.

A huge part of what I like about this novel is the characterization of gods - how they come to occupy a space and what keeps them there. It's a compelling inspection of the way that myths are created and thrive and it honestly feels like Gaiman is trying to bring the myths he discusses to life for a new group of readers. I may not have been interested in Kali or Horus before reading American Gods, but I sure as hell am after.

The first time I read this book I didn't have a very good background in mythology; I was a 20-year-old journalism major who liked to read but hadn't really read formally. This time around I had a pretty solid background in Norse mythology and knew a fair amount about Celtic and early English myths - that helped A LOT when I was trying to understand what was going on and why the major players were doing what they did. I don't think it's mandatory to have a strong myth background when reading American Gods, but it did make the book a little more fun for me.

But the book is fun whether or not you know everything that's going on; it's well paced and intricate at the same time, there are brilliantly crafted characters and stunning settings, and oddly enough there's a sense of timelessness that pervades the whole novel - it feels dusty and modern at the same time, like this is a myth that's been weathered by the ages AND was just written.

      - Alli

Gaiman, Niel. American Gods. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2002. (2001).

Sad old men

It seems like Hemingway just liked being a depressing motherfucker. He went through an awful lot in his personal life but it feels like he went out of his way to make his characters into more intense versions of himself - somehow he managed this but I'm still not sure how because Hemingway was a pretty larger-than-life personality all on his own.

So any sadness that Hemingway felt is magnified and reflected back on his reader, which is kind of a dick move from an author who killed himself. Way to make everyone feel suicidal, Ernest.

But, while A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are condensed misery, Old Man and the Sea is a wonderful, fragile vision of hope.

Everything that everyone had told me about this novella was totally accurate and still fell far short of the truth. It IS the story of an old man fishing, it IS a metaphor for life, it IS beautiful, and it IS sad, but none of those truths do it justice - it's too hard to communicate all of the things that the story is without telling the story as a whole so people use these half-truths to explain it.

Old Man and the Sea is a life stripped of all its weight and value but still noble and fine, still something to be wondered at.

Of all the Hemingway I've read in the last few months this is by far my favorite, and by far the sweetest story that he told.

     - Alli

Hemingway, Ernest. Old Man and the Sea. Barnes and Noble. New York: New York. 2007. (1952).

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A guy walks into another world...

Sometimes Neil Gaiman bugs me because he seems like a one-trick pony; a ton of his stories follow the same arc of: normal dude walks into another world, realizes that normalcy is relative, everyone lives happily ever after, roll credits.

None of these stories are actually bad, it just gets a bit dull after a while - Gaiman writes brilliant, sparkling, wonderful prose and does so to tell the same sorts of fairytales that most people have been hearing for their whole lives. In one way, that's super cool - he's making new from old and kicking ass. In another way it's a little disappointing - couldn't he make new from new and kick even more ass?

Well, yes, he can. And when he does make new from new he tends to do it in really excellent short stories.

I didn't know that Fragile Things was a collection of shorts when I bought it, but was excited when I figured it out. I used to own a copy of Smoke and Mirrors (if you still have it, Ryan, I'd like it back or I'm keeping your copy of House of Leaves) and I adored it - I was excited to read more of Gaiman's shorts and the collection didn't disappoint.

"A Study in Emerald" - Sherlock Holmes meets HP Lovecraft and everyone wins. You probably need to know at least a little bit about both sources to "get" this story, but you don't need to be familiar with either source in order to enjoy the vision of a twisted England and a tormented populace.

"The Fairy Reel" - Not going to lie, I sang this entire poem aloud at least four times. It's pretty much perfect.

"October in the Chair" - Some nice personification going on in the frame story, and the story within the frame is delicate and haunting.

"The Hidden Chamber" - I didn't pick up on the Blackbeard story in this creepy little poem, but I quite liked the overall tone and construction.

"Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" - Fucking hilarious examination of Gothic Literature and the concept of Literature in general.

"The Flints of Memory Lane" - Short, sweet, and to the point, this little ghost story is all the more creepy for its familiarity; everyone has a story like this, and it is always something you could explain away if not for the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

"Closing Time" - Another story-within-a-story that has a nice inner and outer life. No explanations are given and that makes everything worse in the world but better in the story.

"Going Wodwo" - An odd poem about being turning feral. I like it.

"Bitter Grounds" - With all the pop culture that circles the drain discussing zombies, I think this is the best piece of zombie fiction that I've read in a long time; that being said, I think this is one of my least favorite works in the collection - it's a bit draggy and frustrating.

"Other People" - Delightfully hopeless, this very short story reminded me uncomfortably of myself.

"Keepsakes and Treasures" - This story introduces the reader to a wonderful bastard who is likeable, funny, and repugnant. Great characters are sketched out and you can see that plans are being laid with this piece - I'd really like to see more of what came from these plans.

"Good Boys Deserve Favors" - Music is its own kind of magic, but sometimes there's a little more magic to it than that. A cute, if somewhat meaningless, tale of a boy and a bass.

"The facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" - As a fan of freakshows and oddball circuses I enjoyed the presentation of this story; as a reader I'm not sure exactly what happened here, but neither is the narrator so that's okay.

"Strange Little Girls" - This collection of super-short stories has a few gems and a few duds. "Raining Blood" is probably the most complete and the most heartbreaking, but all of them are an interesting exploration of femininity and the super-short form.

"Harlequin Valentine" - Fast and funny this story jogs along and plays with identity and reason.

"Locks" - Why do we tell stories and what does it mean that we do? What does it mean when the stories change in ways that authors never intended? A fairytale about a fairytale told in a poem.

"The Problem of Susan" - Fucking A. What happens to the survivors of the stories that we read, where do they go when all the other characters are dead? Gaiman offers up a possible home and a life for at least one literary orphan.

"Instructions" - This poem is a set of rules to follow should you find yourself stuck on the wrong side of a strange door. Considered and quite complete; I sort of feel the need to memorize and perform this little piece, just in case I need a set of rules to follow someday.

"How do you think it feels?" - Gaiman seemed to have a lot to say about the labor of creation and the building of shields in this collection. This story is a bit awkward and a little gross, but is an interesting perspective on the fairy tales we lock ourselves into.

"My Life" - An interesting piece that builds on itself by not being made of much. It doesn't tell a story so much as it asks you what story you want it to tell.

"Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot" - I love tarots; there are so many possibilities for storytelling in the cards. This is another collection of super-shorts that happens to use a combination of vampire mythology and the classic tarot as a jumping off point. It's interesting, though the stories are really to brief to get into much detail.

"Feeders and Eaters" - Either I'm too good at recognizing foreshadowing or this story is a wee bit predictable. Good creepypasta either way.

"Diseasemaker's Croup" - A very funny and complicated commentary on hypochondria mixed in with some really delightful Engrish.

"In the End" - Perfect. This is the imagined inverse of Genesis and everything about it is great.

"Goliath" - Apparently this short was written to accompany the release of The Matrix, which makes a hell of a lot of sense in retrospect. It's a little bit twisted and a lot of fun, though it does make me worry for my Goliath-sized husband.

"Pages from a Journal found in a Shoebox left in a Greyhound Bus somewhere between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky" - A story of searching for something to search for. A love letter to the lost.

"How to talk to Girls at Parties" - A boy has an opportunity to explore the histories and traditions of other planets and he's only interested in getting a kiss. Cute and funny.

"The Day the Saucers Came" - This poem build to a delightful and honest-feeling anticlimax. I liked the combination of insanity and banality.

"Sunbird" - Just great. Exotic meat enthusiasts come across something a little to spicy and start the cycle of consumption anew.

"Inventing Aladdin" - A poem about the places that stories come from. This is actually a pretty good look at the effort and alchemy of the creative process.

"The Monarch of the Glen" - This story is probably what is going to make me ditch the Poe collection I'm reading halfway through so that I can reread American Gods - the story takes place in the same universe and has the same ethereal, dreamlike quality that made American Gods such a joy to read.

Stay away from strange doors unless you've memorized your instructions.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things. William Morrow. New York: New York. 2007. (2006).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

That's some heavy shit for lame jokes

I did this really odd thing when I was a kid - I'd hear about a book in a movie or on a TV show or in a different book and I'd make up my mind that I had to read it, usually because I was worried that someday someone would test me on all these books I'd heard of and I wouldn't have read them. The best and strangest example of this is a Nickelodeon show set in a high school where the characters had to read Moby Dick for one of their classes; I decided that this meant that all highschoolers had to read Moby Dick before they graduated and thought I'd get a jump by sitting down and reading it early. I wandered out into our living room and scanned the shelves until I found the dusty Melville volume I'd vaguely remembered and started to read. I got as far as Queequeg's dramatic entrance before I realized that I was nine years old and that mid-nineteenth century literature was a little over my head and I should probably go back to watching cartoons for a while. To this day I've never been expected to read Moby Dick and so I haven't, though I think that my appreciation of Billy Budd and "Bartelby the Scrivener" suggest that I'll enjoy it when I try wading through it again.

The first time I ever heard of A Farewell to Arms was when I watched an Evil Dead flick as a young teenager - Ash cuts off his possessed hand, thunks a bucket over it, and weighs the bucket down with a few books, the topmost of which is A Farewell to Arms. It's a decent sight gag and it is one of the things that (stupidly, strangely, yes I know I should have wanted to anyway) eventually convinced me to read Hemingway. What's really strange, though, is that I can name the single Farewell to Arms joke I remember, but I have seen SO FUCKING MANY For Whom the Bell Tolls jokes that they all blend together in my head. I'm pretty sure I've seen Garfield, Dilbert, Looney Tunes, Donald Duck, The Simpsons, and about a million other cartoons make some sort of punny reference to this book and that is fucking creepy because it's a book about living under oppression and fighting in a rebellion and rape and torture and death. And people seem to just think "well, we've got a thing that has to do with bells - let's haul out that old Hemingway title so people will make a connection." Here's the PBS show Arthur, about a little boy anteater and his family, just straight up using it as the name of an episode. When a book's main themes are death, suicide, and man's inhumanity to man it might not be an appropriate title to hijack for a kids show. Let me tell you, watching that episode and trying to figure out who was the Jordan analogue and the Maria analogue (which, even creepier, kind of works) was pretty profoundly disconcerting.

That's all beside the point. The book is good. Really fucking good. It's also damagingly depressing and has some after-the-fact irony that is bitter and funny and sad. The language is beautiful and the little stories that weave together to make up the three days in Spain-at-war are haunting.

But it is making me re-think whether or not I want to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because it's referenced in A Hare Grows in Manhattan.

     - Alli

Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Barnes and Noble.
     New York: New York. 2007. (1940)

Stephenson Retrospective

Now that I've spent a month reading Neal Stephenson I feel like I've got some things to say. Too bad that most of those things have already been said in my blogs about his books, which are awesome and should be required reading for functional, 21st century adults.

But part of the reason that I wanted to read all of Stephenson's non-collaborative fiction in chronological (in-universe chronology, not publication chronology) is because there's a level of interconnectedness that I felt the need to explore. Stephenson doesn't have the same crazy level of worlds-almost-touching depth that Stephen King does, but there are elements that clearly cross over from one story to another, even if they're transformed in the transition.

And here's what a chart of that craziness looks like:

And here's what I mean by some of these things:

Shekondar - A name that pops up in Cryptonomicon (the name of the fake band that Chester uses to send files to Randy, as well as a nasty boss in one of their old gaming campaigns), The Big U (the name of the worm/virus/operating system that is responsible for several problems), and Reamde (the name of a character wandering the Torgai foothills after Reamde is released and who is quoted in a company newsletter that Richard Forthrast is reading). Shekondar is not even remotely the same thing in any of these three books but the motif seems to represent computerized mayhem.

The Waterhouses - Drake Waterhouse, Daniel Waterhouse,Godfrey Waterhouse, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, and Randall (Randy) Lawrence Waterhouse are the Waterhouses we get to meet, though we also get a reference to Godfrey Waterhouse IV who helps to trace the lineage from The Baroque Cycle to Cryptonomicon. They are largely math and science oriented people who get a lot done by managing to be bright and competent.

The Shaftoes - Jack, Robert, Jimmy, Danny, Bobby, Douglas MacArthur, America, Robin, and M.A. Shaftoe are your friendly neighborhood badasses. The family survives by being a little odd and a lot dangerous.

The Gotos - Gabriel, Dengo, and Ferdinand are the Goto family; they are a strange mix of saint and samurai.

Enoch Root - A monk/priest/alchemist who tries to make sure that the world doesn't eat itself whole.

The Crypt - A data haven and means of circulating digital currency that is set up by Randy Waterhouse and Doug Shaftoe with the help of Enoch Root and Goto Dengo; it eventually allows for the decentralization of government and currency seen in Snow Crash which leads to the feeds and matter-building of The Diamond Age.

YT - YT avoids becoming chiseled spam long enough to earn herself a different set of smartwheels.

Kinotypes/Mediaglyphics - moving images that replace letters as a means of static communication; not actually connected but a reasonable suggestion that Hylaean Flow may exist between cosmos.

Earth - Most of the novels take place on Earth and all accept that Earth is a planet that exists in one of the at least five known cosmos. Taking place on Earth is the only thing that Zodiac has in common with the other novels, and the Laterran Geometers are the only solid connection between Anathem and the other novels if you exclude Kinotypes.

And hey, would you like to see another crazy chart? Neal Stephenson has a type for a lot of the characters he writes - which is not to say that the individual iterations are not fun unique individuals to read, just that they're identifiable the way that you can identify "goths" or "jocks" or "geeks" in your day-to-day life. And here's what some of his main character types look like:

I think this chart makes it look less complicated and awesome than his characters really are - especially the Kick-ass ladies; Stephenson doesn't tend to include a ton of female characters in his novels (though most of his novels pass the Bechdel Test, which is pretty impressive) but the women who he does include are really, really cool. Nobody writes a strong female character without falling into strong female character tropes like Stephenson.

Oh, in case you're curious, here's what 7318 pages of genre-defining literature looks like:

It weighs in at 17 pounds.

I really enjoyed the project of going through and reading all my Stephenson but I'm glad it's over, I was ready for a break. The only reason I think that I was able to finish this project at all is because Stephenson has a relatively small body of work - can you imagine trying to do this with King or PKD? You'd go crazy. I'd like to try a similar project with Gibson at some point in the future, though I think I'll wait a while and just dabble until I'm ready to give it a go.

     - Alli