A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Twenty-One Books that Shaped Me

I've been ridiculously remiss in these last few months of the year about migrating reviews over here from LibraryThing and even missed out an edition of Packing for a Reading Retreat. I'm working on a Reading Retreat post for tomorrow, but in the meantime, I give you the twenty-one books that have most shaped my life. This post is based on a meme that floated around Facebook and LibraryThing a few weeks back, and is divided into two halves: the eleven books that have most stayed with me (ten positive influences and one negative one) and the ten books with which I did not connect. For each book, I give a brief explanation of why I included it in the list.

Eleven Books that Have Been Important to Me

1.) The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
My dad read LotR (and The Hobbit) to me when I was very small (five or six). It's probably the first mythology of any kind that ever meant anything to me and was certainly my first introduction to "grown-up" fiction in any sense. I have many memories of being read to at a young age (and of having my own books), but the nightly LotR reading probably instilled in me the idea that curling up with a good book is one of the Best Things.

2.) The Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
These were read to me (Mom, this time) so many times and I read them myself so many times that the events within them became a permanent part of my mental furniture.

4.) Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
Probably the first book that I felt proprietary toward. I loved it, I read it over and over, I carried it around in my pocket, I had parts memorized. When I discovered that a nice hardcover edition on my grandfather's shelves was abridged OMG, I started (but did not complete) a comparative study between the abridged version and the complete text, making notes about how the abridgement altered the meaning of the book. I was about eleven. What a snot I must have been.

5.) Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
This was required reading at some point in middle school (sixth grade? seventh grade?), and I hated it. I could tell it was going somewhere awful, I couldn't escape being taken there with it, it traumatized me, and it made me feel trapped, scared, and depressed. That was the first time a book had ever made me feel that way (and it was one of the few times school ever made me feel that way, too). It may be the only book I have ever truly resented being made to read, and just the thought of the stupid thing still makes me feel a little sick to this day.

6.) Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Aside from just loving the story (which I did), this one is important because it was probably the first "classic" I read entirely of my own choosing and with no prompting from anyone else. I didn't struggle to read it, but it did require more "work" to get through than most things I read on my own at that age (about fifteen). For a kid who'd been reading way above her grade level for always, discovering that leisure reading could still be fun if it was also challenging was probably really important.

7.) Various Robert Heinlein books, including Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil
Heinlein gets a lot of flak for the way he wrote women (I don't disagree now that his female characters are problematic), but in my late teens his female characters who were smart and beautiful and unabashedly sexual (not sexy but sexual) were like a revelation to me.

8.) The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
A required text for a creative writing class in undergrad. Forever shaped the way I think about writing, reading, life, and what they're all for.

9.) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Romances can have substance! They can be worth reading after you already know who gets together with whom! I have much more complicated feelings (still positive) about P&P now, but that was the revelation then, some time in college.

10.) The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
In the summer between the two years of my masters program, I devoured HP 1-5 (all there was at the time). And rediscovered that reading can be pure, unadulterated fun. Thank heavens.

11.) A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I would sooner give up any other ritual at Christmas (or any other time of year) than I would my annual reading of this brilliant little piece. Puts me in the perfect mood for Christmas, always, and straightens me out with the world and with myself (if necessary). An annual spiritual balm for me since high school.

Ten Books with which I Didn't Connect

1.) The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
I wanted to maneuver Holden Caulfield off a bridge even when I was his age.

2.) The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Could never work up any sympathy for (or interest in) any of the unlikeable characters mooning around in SL.

3.) Ulysses, James Joyce
What a brilliant writer Joyce was (The Dead, be still my heart). And what an amazing feat Ulysses is. But I could never warm to it. What a wretched reading experience it was (twice).

4.) Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
I always (I've read it at least three times) feel mired down in an impenetrable jungle of unintelligible murky images when I read Heart of Darkness.

5.) The Russians
I have not yet given up! I am determined to read at least one mammoth Russian novel before I die. I've tried Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Doctor Zhivago. I just can't get into them. I have read some shorter works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich--three times! like Heart of Darkness, it was perpetually assigned to me throughout high school, undergrad, and grad school--Fathers and Sons, The Overcoat, some Chekov).

6.) The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
Die faster, Little Nell. Lord.

7.) The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Like The Scarlett Letter, my chief problem with GoW was that I couldn't muster up any sympathy for the characters. That's a lot of ridin' around in the back of an old truck with the fambly if you don't care a lick for anyone.  And don't even get me started on the everlovin' turtle.

8.) The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The allegory drives me nuts, and I just never warmed to the world. I wonder if there's a division between Tolkien and Lewis fans--like if you love Tolkien you're less likely to love Lewis.

9.) Animal Farm, George Orwell
I have heard some people describe this as the only book they had to read for school that they loved. Not me, boy. I found it both disturbing and tedious, which might be the worst combo ever.

10.) Slaughter House Five, Kurt Vonnegut
It's supposed to be funny, right? I don't get it. 

Book Review: Farthing, Jo Walton

Farthing posits an alternate history in which Britain negotiates a "Peace with Honour" with Hitler in 1941. By 1949 when the novel takes place, Hitler had overrun Europe, Nazi death camps still operate, the US (where Lindbergh is president) had closed its borders, and antisemitism runs rampant in Britain. The story is told from the point of view of Lucy Kahn, the daughter of a powerful aristocratic family with whom she has fallen out of favor because of her recent marriage to a Jewish banker, and from the point of view of a Scotland Yard detective who is called to Lucy's family's estate to investigate the murder of a political heavy-weight who was staying there for the weekend. The novel works much like a cozy murder mystery, with investigations into the murder forming the backbone of the story. And that format makes this history even more sinister than it already seems at first glance. Because so much of the story reads like a gentle murder story in which nothing too terribly awful will happen, the little details of the way the world works in the alternate history are all the more sharp and shocking and terrifying.

While I enjoyed Farthing a lot (it's written just wonderfully, and Walton handles her characters, setting, and plot deftly), the book did feel a bit uneven. It eventually becomes clear that things are even a lot worse than they appear in this version of Britain, and the book goes from interestingly sinister to downright chilling in the last few chapters. That move was appropriate, and, indeed, it felt the like the book was building toward it all along. But the transition still seemed a little rushed, and the novel ultimately felt not wholly in balance because of it. I'm also still puzzling over Walton's choice to make so many of her characters here secretly gay. Of the major players (easily a dozen), at least five turn out to be Also Gay, by which I mean they are introduced as having a certain bearing on the story (such as being a major figure in the politics of Britain) and then a while later we find out that they are also gay (or bi) (with the fact of their sexuality rarely having anything to do with the plot). I am always happy to see people who historically have often been elided from fiction better represented on the page, but the way Walton kept sliding this fact in about many of her characters led me to suspect that the fact of their sexuality was going be become very important either thematically or in the plot. And it never did.  Curious. Perhaps it will become clear in the second book in the series, which I am excited to read.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Book Review: Mrs Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn

What a strange but wonderful little book.  Set nowishly, Mrs Queen Takes the Train follows Queen Elizabeth through a day when she's feeling a little down and decides the solution is to visit some of her favorite things (yep, like the song). She starts with a little wander to the Royal Mews but ends up straying further afield to a cheese shop in London that sells to the Palace and then all the way to Edinburgh to visit the decommissioned royal yacht, Britannia. Naturally, this causes a bit of a panic among her staff, who scramble to find her and to keep the news of The Queen's going "walkabout" away from the press.  The novel is really the story of her staff (a young woman who works in the Mews, a young man from the cheese shop, a young vet currently serving as her equerry, one of the Palace senior butlers, her dresser, and one of her ladies in waiting) as much as it is the story of The Queen's Day Out. And somehow Kuhn manages to pull it all together and tell a satisfying story, one that does justice to all of his characters.

The novel is not perfect, however. The question (brought up repeatedly) of whether The Queen hasn't gone just a little peculiar is never really resolved. (Though the suggestion that she might be depressed is handled well.) It's clear in the end that The Queen knows what she's about and feels a renewed sense of how she can serve her country through her position, but one never fully understands whether The Queen has come round to her senses or was simply more sensible than everyone else all along. And the failure to answer that question rankles a bit, especially since this is a novel about a real person, still living. Is Kuhn making some sort of statement about The (real) Queen? Is it even possible to read the book without assuming he is, given his subject matter? If he is, what was the statement? If he's not, what does that mean? You write a novel about a sitting monarch, you can't pretend you haven't written a novel about a sitting monarch. What do you mean by it, Will? You can't escape the question by not answering it, dang it.  (I had pretty much the same problem with Allan Bennett's wonderful The Uncommon Reader--brilliant novella, but it doesn't fully account for itself, somehow.) So there's that little niggle twitching away the whole time one's reading, and it can't help but detract a bit from the experience. But the novel manages to be lovely anyway, so.

My only other quibble is Kuhn's use of pictures. Every so often, the text includes a black and white reproduction of a real photograph--sometimes of The Queen, sometimes of people she knew or places referenced in the story.  Why?  I ask you. Why? It doesn't rise to an experiment with form, but neither does it sit comfortably in the tradition of illustrated classics or the like. It seems only to underline the fact that the novel is about a Real Person, which, honestly, who could have missed that?

These complaints aside, this was one fun, engaging, satisfying read. (I can imagine myself just flipping through and rereading some bits just for the joy of returning to them--especially the scenes with Luke, the equerry, who should have his own book.) It will almost surely be in my top five reads for the year. Recommended.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Cocaine Blues, Kerry Greenwood

This first in the Phryne Fisher mystery series takes a little while to get going but had me pretty well hooked by about a third of the way in. Phryne grows tired of life in 1920s London, and, when an acquaintance asks if she wouldn't mind checking up on his daughter in Australia (who he thinks is being poisoned), Phryne sets sail for the other side of the world without much notion of coming back. And then she rather lands in the thick of things.

Phryne is capable and no-nonsense but also great fun. (And sexy, which is an element often somewhat missing in other mysteries of this type, I find. The attitude toward sex reminded me a bit of Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club, actually, though the comparison pretty much stops there.) The mystery was a bit transparent (I had it sorted very quickly and I don't usually figure mysteries out before the end), but that didn't really lessen my enjoyment of the story. The style could maybe be tweaked a bit (it's Wodehousesian, but sometimes with a clang) but any slight missteps there never rose to the level of irritation. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor

Teen paranormal romance with a dash of urban fantasy, this.  Generally not really my thing, though I do understand the appeal.  Taylor creates a really fascinating paranormal world, an interesting main character, and a decent romance.  While I never cared really deeply for the characters, I was completely invested in finding out what was going to happen. 

My biggest problem with the story puts me solidly into cranky old lady territory.   I am so tired of paranormal romance heroes who are beautiful beyond all imagination and of "destined" romances.  Daughter is much, much better about making the relationship complex and real than some other paranormal teen fare (Twilight, I am looking at you).  But there's still this tendency to over-romanticize, to make the relationship the only important thing.  I know, I know. It's a story, it's a fantasy.  And nothing annoys me more than the suggestion that a teenager's (or anyone's) entertainment diet ought consist of nothing but spinachy substantive tales bound to the workings of the real world and better preparing one to face it.  Sometimes you just need a custard-filled doughnut-story swathed in chocolate icing with sprinkles on top.  But even so, there's something off-putting about this wrapping up of impossible ideals in a supernatural package:  Okay, we know there's no such thing as perfect beauty, but, see, the character is an angel, so it's okay.  See, we know that a girl shouldn't let her relationship become the only thing that has any meaning for her, but their love is destined, so it's okay.  We know that love is more interesting and lasting if it's a choice rather than fate, but their destined romance will bring peace to the world, so it's okay.  We know that we can live without the ones we love dearly, but they actually can't  because of Supernatural Stuff, so it's okay. 

This kind of use of the supernatural as excuse to keep telling all the old "romantic" untruths appears to be a new trope, and I think that's too bad.  I don't read enough of this genre to know whether there are books out there that get inside this trope and turn it on its ear.  (I hope so.  Maybe Taylor's going to do that as she continues on with this series--the characters are flawed enough, the heroine smart enough, the set-up complex enough that I think she certainly could.)  There could still be a happy ending.  There could still be overwhelming joyful squishy ecstatic love.  They could still bring peace to the world.  But how much more interesting it would be if, instead of just being irresistibly drawn to one another, they really loved each other, saw each other for what they are, shit and all, and still chose to be together.  How much more compelling if they were complete alone and a truly kickass team together.  What if the supernatural elements, instead of making it "okay" to slot back into the old stereotypes, opened up whole new worlds and ways of understanding love?

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume VI

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat," where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I might imagine packing two kinds of books: those that are "New to Me" (books I've never read before) and "Old Favorites" (past reads I'd like to revisit).

New to Me

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
Another one of those books that has snared me with its cover--all that sparkling blue water and those brightly-colored buildings clinging to the rocks as if held there by magic.  The back cover promises 1960s Italy, the set of Cleopatra, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  I'm particularly interested to see how Walter handles the last as I've been in Edinburgh during the Fringe and it is quite unlike anything else I've ever experienced.   

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood
A collection of Atwood's writing on science fiction and speculative fiction.  I've never warmed to Atwood, but I am thoroughly convinced that I should not give up on her either.  Someday something will click--I'll read just the right book at just the right moment.  In any case, I'm intrigued to read what she has to say about SF, partly because I'd like to hear what Atwood has to say about SF and partly because I always want to hear what anyone has to say about SF.

Blackout, Connie Willis
Fifty years in our future, historians are time-travelers.  When a group of historians travels to World War II, strange things ensue and it appears that they may be altering history.  It's like Willis wrote a book just for me.  Love it when that happens. 

Cocaine Blues, Kerry Greenwood
The first in the Phryne Fisher mystery series.  It's the 1920s and Phryne Fisher is tired of London--so it's off to Melbourne, Australia, where she quickly meets with mysterious goings on.  I'm always looking for a good mystery series, and I've heard good things from trusted sources on this one.  And, again, the cover!  I would almost buy these just for the cover art alone.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: American Wife

American Wife fictionalizes Laura Bush's life, from childhood through the lame-duck years of her husband's presidency.  Laura and George Bush are called Alice and Charlie Blackwell here, though they are quite recognizably the former president and first lady, both through mannerisms and circumstance, especially so in the last quarter of the book, which deals with Alice's experiences as First Lady. 

The novel is by far best in the first half, as we follow Alice through a mid-west upbringing and adolescence in the fifties and sixties; her years as a single, independent young woman with a job she enjoys; and her initial romance with Charlie.  Alice is extremely compelling in this half of the book--she's intelligent and confident, but with a tendency to keep herself to herself, a fear of exposing herself, of being wholly who she is in front of others.  There's nothing doormattish about her, and she doesn't let these insecurities get in her way, but, still, there's that reining in, that holding back.  I imagine a lot of smart, capable women who would rather sit at home and read than go to a party would see a lot of themselves in Alice, and Sittenfeld portrays these seemingly contradictory aspects of Alice's personality with a deft and subtle touch.

But then Alice marries boisterous, wealthy, laddish, ambitious-but-aimless Charlie and the life just drops out of the book.  Alice becomes a house-wife, though an upper-class one who will never fade away under the drudgery of housework.  She still seems pretty content, it's clear that she loves her husband, and she becomes a good mother it their only child--but gone is the strong sense of her as an intellectual, gone is the job she enjoys.  We see some marital problems involving Charlie and drink, and Alice has enough backbone to quietly force Charlie to choose between his substance abuse and his family, but even then Alice seems curiously passive, curiously toothless.  Charlie gets religion, the aimlessness falls away, and, in a somewhat odd jump forward in the narrative of some twenty years, he becomes president.

The "First Lady Years" section of the book is the least compelling--and the least well-written.  Alice tells us much about the difficulties of being in the public eye, of how strange it is to be part of the public face of an administration with which she rarely agrees, of how exasperating it is to hear over and over of the puzzlement of those who don't understand how smart, bookish, liberal Alice Blackwell could possibly love conservative, war-mongering, rights-trampling President Charlie Blackwell.  This section ought to be the  thematic center of the novel--this ought to be the part where the book becomes whole, where the reason for writing a novel about a still-living real person becomes clear.  By the end, we ought to understand more fully Laura Bush or the office of the first lady or even just wifehood (the book's title, lacking an article as it does, seems to be reaching for some claim to a universal statement about American wives). 

And the thing is, we don't.  Alice stands up for herself again in the end, separating herself briefly from her husband and from her role as First Lady to be just Alice Blackwell, but the moment is just as passive and toothless as her stand against Charlie's drinking is earlier on.  Alice--smart, capable, happy Alice--is still subsumed under boisterous, laddish, ambitious Charlie.  What have we learned?  That people love who they love, and that intellectual or political compatibility doesn't necessarily come into it?  No kidding.  That smart, independent women often lose part of themselves through their genuine love of louder, more ambitious men?  You don't say.  Illustrating these facts beautifully and startlingly or giving Alice a convincing, true moment of reclamation of some of her younger independence of self--either of these would have made American Wife into something really satisfying.  But instead the novel just wilts when Alice marries Charlie and becomes more and more lifeless and rambling as it goes on.     

This review origianlly appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Below all those asterisks down there, I'm going to be spoiler-rich, to the point of ruining the movie for anyone who hasn't yet seen it.  So here's my one-sentence, spoiler-free assessment for those who wonder if they should drop $10+ on a ticket: Into Darkness is not without flaws and doesn't quite rise to the level of distilled awesome that the 2009 Reboot accomplished, but its engaging plot, heaps of witty dialogue, lovely special effects, nice helping of memorable moments, and near-perfect characterizations of Kirk and Spock make it a worthy sequel, an excellent addition to the Trek franchise, and a must-see in the theater.  Go see this movie.  (I will mention here that I saw the movie in 2D and so can't comment on whether the 3D is used to good effect or is worth extra monies.  I still can't bring myself to pay extra to watch something in 3D, which I have never liked and which gives me a headache.  I know, I know.  "It's better now."  I just can't.)

Okay.  Saying it again.  The following is rife with spoilers--it's more of a fan-happy analysis than a traditional "Ought I See This?" review.  If you haven't seen Into Darkness yet and have any intention of doing so, go away and come back after you've caught the film.  Spoilers start after the starfield.  You have been warned.

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I was wary of Into Darkness.  I loved the 2009 Reboot.  Loved. It.  I loved the horrible-wonderful  opening sequence which wrecked me thoroughly ten minutes in.  I loved the casting.  I loved the story.  I loved the new-but-the-same, slightly edgy characterizations of my beloved Enterprise crew.  I loved the dialogue, I loved the banter, I loved the ridiculous humor.  I loved the shiny ship interiors and the brewery-like engineering deck.  I even loved the stupid lens flares.  From the moment the credits rolled, I wanted more-more-more.

But then I started thinking about more.  Could they do this again?  How much of what was so awesome about the Reboot was its rebooty-ness, was the fact that we were getting to see these characters afresh for the first time ever, was the fun of seeing the Trek universe re-imagined?  Would that translate to a sequel?  And what of the rumor that started flying that the villain in the sequel would be Khan?   Surely that would wreck it, I thought.  You can't retell that story with a young cast.  The Wrath of Khan is so much a story of middle-age, of reckoning up with your past decisions, of personal obsessive revenge born of past intimate conflict.  You can't do that with a twenty-seven-year-old Kirk.

Well, the villain in Into Darkness is Khan (played to psychotic perfection by CumberKhan Smauglock, I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, who, as far as I can see, can do no wrong), and it works, mostly.  It works because they haven't tried to remake The Wrath of Khan--they've simply snipped out Khan's basic situation (scary-ass superhuman cyrogenically frozen and rocketed into space who is super-pissed at how he and his found-family have been treated) and built a whole new story around it.  It only mostly works because the ins-and-outs of the plot's backstory are a little murky, but that is not a problem that stems from the inclusion of Khan himself.  I leave final judgement on the plot construction until I've seen the movie at least one more time, but after one viewing I've got some questions.

What, exactly, was Admiral Marcus up to?  Was he simply trying to start a war with the Klingons?  Why?  What have the Klingon's done to anyone?  We get a little speech from Marcus about how they've been menacing about, but we haven't actually seen any of that.  Wouldn't the Romulans have been a better choice for that, given the events of the Reboot?  It would be unfair, since Nero was not acting on behalf of the Romulans and was from the future anyway, but the movie trys to set Marcus up as the dude who over-responds to acts of terroism and loses sight of his own values in the process.  Wouldn't that work better if we had direct knowledge of the things he was reacting to?  And what part were Khan and company meant to play in his plot against the Klingons?  At one point I thought when Kirk shot the torpedoes carrying Khan's people at Kronos Marcus meant for the Khanites to wreck so much havoc on the Klingons that the Klingons would no longer be a threat.  But later it appeared that he just meant it to be a provoking act that could not be traced to Starfleet and that would force the Klingons to react, thus sparking the war Marcus wanted while making it look like the Klingons actually started it.  This seems the most likely, but I still don't have the grasp on what Marcus wanted and why he wanted it that I think we need for the plot to sit square with the audience.  There was very little sense, either, of the rest of Starfleet (and Federation?) leadership dragging its feet about responding to the Klingon threat and of Marcus reacting to that.  Surely his little temper tantrum wasn't happening in a political vacuum?

And about that temper tantrum.  It takes the form of a massive base on Jupiter where he's building a gigantic, purely militaristic vessel (in violation of Starfleet's stated mission--exploration and peacekeeping).  Are we supposed to understand that this is a secret?  Or that people know about it but don't know what it really is?  I don't buy that you can hide a massive secret base in the Sol System in Trek-universe--there's too much coming and going (and sensors).  So, is there wide-spread corruption in Starfleet?  If not, how is Marcus accomplishing the building of this base and this ship?  Who are all those other people on his ship?  Where are the repercussions when Kirk and company get back to Earth?  Where are the questions, the inquiries, the paranoia?  "Thanks for ferreting out that rogue admiral, his giant secret base, hugenormous warship, and network of lackeys, Jimmy.  No wuckies here, so take our flagship and disappear into deep space for five years while we just cross our fingers there aren't more wackadoodles with big ol' ships who might try to start a war."  Really?  And Kirk just takes his coveted five-year mission and gets the hell out without stopping to try to tie up the Marcus loose ends or sort out if Section 31 is real, what it's about, or if it's a threat?  Again, I need to see the movie again--perhaps these things are more clear than they appear on the first viewing, but this is the kind of stuff that makes me say the movie isn't quite as good as the Reboot was, or as good as it could have been.

But, for the most part, I really didn't care that much about those plot wobbles--they certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment of the movie as it was unfolding--because it turns out they can do it again.  The fun of the Reboot, the witty dialogue, the humor, and the spot-on characterizations--it's all here again in Into Darkness and is every bit as good.  I will quibble that Bones was muttering around the edges of Kirk and Spock's tight-knit command structure and friendship a bit more than he ought to be, but the character arcs here were all Kirk-and-Spock, so I'll be forgiving on that one, especially since Bones did have some great lines despite not being as much a part of the classic triumvirate dynamic as he was in The Original Series.  I'll further quibble that some characters (Uhura, Chekov) were given things to do for the sake of setting up humorous situations or moments of character interactions rather than because there was any internal logic suggesting they ought to take on those roles.  (The Chief Engineer quits so you put your teenaged navigator into his role?  What, there aren't, like, forty guys down in engineering who have seniority, higher rank, and more experience than Chekov, even if he is a genius and has been shadowing Scotty?  Come on.)  While these moments did kind of irritate me in the moment, they also didn't really detract from my overall enjoyment of the film.  When you get the humor, the banter, and the characters as right as they did, I'm willing to forgive a lot of these kinds of little infelicities.

And now for the bit that made the movie for me: Kirk and Spock and their friendship.  J.J. Abrams et al. get Spock and they get Kirk-and-Spock.  Spock's story is about his struggle to be true to both his Vulcan and his Human sides, and that struggle almost always plays out in his interactions with his friends.  How do you be a friend to a human, for whom friendship inherently entails emotional availability, while remaining true to unemotional Vulcan ways?  If you are not just one or the other but both is it right to allow one half to take over?  Or is the denial of the other half an unhealthy betrayal of who you really are?   The exploration of this struggle in TOS was always about Spock's relationship with Kirk (though other characters--Bones, for one--played a large part in it as well), and I love (love) how they have made this struggle part of the story arc for Into Darkness and kept it about Kirk and Spock even while keeping Uhura in the mix as Spock's girlfriend.  Spock's failure truly to understand why Kirk saved his life at the volcano even though it violated their most important rule, his failure to understand why it's important to feel even negative emotions, and his subsequent epiphany about friendship and what it means were brilliantly portrayed and are classic, classic Trek themes.  All the points ever for making this emotional discovery a major part of the story arc for Into Darkness and all the more points for the astonishing, surprising, brilliant, magnificent  reversal of the unforgettable, quintessential Wrath of Khan scene where Spock declares his friendship for Kirk in his last moments after sacrificing himself to save the ship.  All my hats off to everyone involved in the crafting of this movie for figuring out not only how to get an homage to this moment that everybody knows into this movie but also how to make it a the-same-but-different emotional climax of this movie on its own terms.  Spock admitting that he's completely failing to keep himself from feeling as Jim dies?  I can't even.  Just.  *flails*  (As an aside here: it's very interesting to me that Spock gets to this moment so much earlier in this rebooted universe than he did in the original universe.  Remember all the times Spock wasn't as good a friend as he should have been in TOS? ("The City on the Edge of Forever," anyone?)  Or kind of stumbled around trying something that maybe wasn't the best move?  ("Requiem for Methuselah" comes to mind.)  What is it going to mean for Spock that he's had this moment so much earlier and as an epiphany rather than through a slow realization over many years?  Will he be happier?  Will he never get to a point where he wants to try Kohlinar?  Will he springboard off this moment into a relationship with Uhura that really, really works?  Will they have a passel of little Spuhuras?  Is Kirk going to have a little David with Carol Marcus and name Spock godfather?  Oh, the possibilites are endless.  More films, please.  Or a TV show with this cast?  A girl can dream.)

In addition to loving the hell out of the character development there, Into Darkness gets bonus points from me for three reasons.  First, letting Uhura be badass.  She's still not as badass as the dudes running around the Enterprise (she's not jumping into volcanoes or sacrificing herself for the ship), but she stands up for herself, calls Kirk out for underutilizing her skills as an officer, and faces down a band of angry Klingons on her onesies--and she can do all this because she's smart and capable, not because she's pretty or because she's in a relationship with the first officer or because she's friends with the captain.  Smart and capable.  And as much as I can't get fully behind sending her down into the fray when Spock was fighting Khan (because tactically she is not the best choice), it's still another chance to see her take on a traditionally male action (unflinching, repeated violence in a military setting) without any quibbling about whether she can do it.  And that is cool.  Second, showing us men who embody traditional maleness (they are protective, aggressive, good leaders, skilled fighters, and demonstrate (apparent) sexual prowess) and who also weep unabashedly, unashamedly, and without comment.  The scene where Pike died was especially brilliant--Kirk doesn't just grit his teeth, clench his fists, and go off hell-bent on revenge.  He weeps.  And it is not a failing, not a moment where he just couldn't keep it together, not an excusable lapse because the cause was sufficient.  It's just a natural reaction to his loss.  More of this kind of portrayal of masculinity, please.  Thank you.  Third, for being an action movie whose kickass action hero (Spock) is played by an openly gay actor.  We need to see this just as we need to see openly gay male athletes in major sports.  Slowly, slowly, we may be inching toward the vision of inclusion, equality, and respect Roddenberry tried to show us.  Carry on, Trek.  Carry on. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Round-Up

I realized as I was doing the latest "Packing for Reading Retreat" that I've been doing these posts for a year.  I thought it would be fun to do a round-up post listing all of the books mentioned in "Packing" over the last twelve months and, since I don't always review the ones I've read here at the blog, to provide links to reviews of the ones I have read.  Onwards!

New to Me
The Mirage--Read, Review
The Flight of Gemma Hardy--Read, Review
The Song of Achilles--Read, Mini Review
The Cove
Cloud Atlas--Read, Review
Canda--Abandoned, Tiny Review
The Time In Between
tiny, beautiful things--Read, Mini Review
Les Misérables
On the Map

Old Favorites
 The Lord of the Rings--Reread Fellowship, Previous Review
The Sound of Summer Voices
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Jane Eyre
The Little House on the Praire books--Reread first three, Review Big Woods, Prairie, Plum Creek

Just in Case  
Pride and Prejudice--Reread, Mini Review
The Mists of Avalon

Editions of Packing for a Reading Retreat

Volume V
Volume IV
Volume III
Volume II
Volume I

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume V

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat," where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I might imagine packing two kinds of books: those that are "New to Me" (books I've never read before) and "Old Favorites" (past reads I'd like to revisit).

New to Me

The Bone People, Keri Hulme
The Bone People is not exactly new to me.  I read about two-thirds of it during a Spring Break during PhD school about five years ago.  And I loved every sentence of this Booker-winning novel from New Zealand. The novel begins with Kerewin Holmes, a New Zealander of part Maori and part European descent, who lives a life of content isolation until a strangely silent child and his foster father wander into her life.  What follows is a sometimes dark, sometimes funny character study of these three and their interactions.  The novel was a casualty of graduate school--a not-for-school book which I was enjoying but eventually abandoned because of the demands of school--and I've been meaning to return to it ever since, to start at the beginning, love every sentence all over again, and finally get to the end.

How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher
MFK Fisher writes these nifty little essays which appear to be about food and recipes but which are really about life.  (Well.  And the food.)  They are some of the best examples of what the essay--the writing form which attempts--can do, where it can go, and what it can discover in the process of its unfolding.  How to Cook a Wolf was written during World War II, and was meant to encourage people during the shortages.  I recently read Fisher's Consider the Oyster, and I'm excited to carry on to Wolf.

Tin Toys Trilogy, Ursula Holden
Tin Toys Trilogy takes place in Ireland in the 30s and 40s and follows three sisters as they grow up and deal with various tragedies of life.  The trilogy is being reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, and is said to be an excellent exploration of childhood.  I'd never heard of Holden before I came across the news that Virago was reprinting her, and there seems to be a general opinion that her work should be more well-known and may be on the verge of a renaissance.

The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant
I often find myself itching for some good historical fiction, set in pre-1800s Europe with a female central character.  No, really.  I do.  And I can never seem to find something that will scratch that itch and be written well enough that I won't stick a pencil in my eye and be historically accurate.  I have a notion that there's more of this out there than I know about, but those that come to my attention generally seem to fail at either not-pencil-in-the eye writing or accuracy.  I have high hopes that Dunant's work will fit the bill, and scurried home with three of hers from yesterday's local Library Book Sale. 

Previous Editions of Packing for a Reading Retreat

Volume IV
Volume III
Volume II
Volume I

Friday, January 11, 2013

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume IV

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat," where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  My imagined packing can fall into one of three categories: "New to Me," for books I've never read before; "Old Favorites," for past reads I'd like to revisit; and "Just in Case," for one book that can always be counted on to save me if one of the other selections turns out to be a dud.  As the volumes of "Packing" pile up, I may share more "New to Me" choices and allow "Old Favorites" and "Just in Case" to appear only when a book which fits either category leaps out at me and demands to be recognized. 

New to Me

tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed
If you don't know about Dear Sugar and The Rumpus, you ought.  The Rumpus is an online magazine with reviews, essays, interviews and so on--often about and by people you want to hear from and likely won't anywhere else.  And Dear Sugar is their advice column.  And tiny beautiful things is a collection of those columns.  This ain't Dear Abby I'm talking about with one or two paragraphs of advice anyone with a brain and more than a decade or two of living behind them could give you (not that Dear Abby isn't usually right on the money); Sugar's responses are full-blown personal essays in response to her reader's questions, which themselves are often longer than an entire typical newspaper advice column and and are frequently heartrending.  Dear Sugar is less advice about what to do about something and more an invitation to contemplate what it means to be human and to discover how to be better at it.  This one is at the very top of my "to-read" pile.

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman
Dragons!  Seraphina is a young adult novel about human/dragon conflict wherein the dragons are sentient and eminently rational.  Hartman cited Vulcans and a desire really to explore what a society based on individual rationality above all else would look like as part of her inspiration.  She also reportedly listened to Italian polyphony and Breton bagpipe rock while she was writing. If she can put together a sentence, this basically cannot fail to be awesome, right?

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Doorstop-reads don't scare me off, exactly, but I'm often not in the mood to read them--usually because I have so many things I want to read now, now, now that I have a hard time committing so much reading time to one thing.  But lately I find myself aspiring to a lot of chunkster reads all at once.  Anna Karenina, The Forsyte Saga, War and Peace.  And Les Mis calls to me more than any other.  I'm not sure why (this notion predates the release of the recent movie, which I haven't seen.  Actually, I've never seen any interpretation of the book.).  Epic storytelling, tragic heroes, historical bits--all up my street.  Or maybe it's just winter.   

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Simon Garfield
Oh, how I do love maps! World maps, fantasy maps, topography maps, ancient maps.  I can just stare at a good one for yonks.  So here's a book for me.  On the Map talks history of maps and map-making, how maps shape our understanding of the world, maps in popular culture.  I suspect this will be a book anyone with a map in her hall of the surrounding country "with all her favourite walks marked on it in red ink" will find fascinating.

Previous Editions of Packing for a Reading Retreat:

Volume III
Volume II
Volume I