Jun 232018
 

Elizabeth Kostova’s novel is a baroque return to and elaborate reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only this time without any pretense that the women are desperate souls needing protection or that the men can save even themselves. It’s also extremely well written: the narration follows (in every chapter save one) a fixed pattern of frame and flashbacks recounted trough letters, journals or stories told over dinner that, once established, lends real energy to what is a very long book. The complicated reworking of the history of Ottoman Europe is completely fascinating.

I’m a sucker for vampire fictions whether written or filmed, so I often doubt my judgment about stories like these. For this book though, I feel confident recommending it to friends. For my part, as soon as I finished it, I ordered The Swan Thieves.

 June 23, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Jun 232018
 

Octavia Butler’s novel tells of a modern black woman, drawn back through time to save a slave owner’s young son from drowning before returning to her own time. Over the course of the novel she will be drawn back to save the boy repeatedly, will watch him as he grows older. Because time moves at different rates in the two narratives, the protagonist is never sure how long she’ll be trapped living as a slave. Sometimes it’s years. And when her white husband travels back with her in the middle section of the novel, he finds himself trapped alone in the past and grows old there while only a few days pass for his wife.

I didn’t know Butler and didn’t know what to expect, but this book is writing of a very high order. I started reading and couldn’t stop, finishing the novel at a breakneck pace over the course of a single evening. It was that powerful.

 June 23, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Jun 042018
 

Ruskin would have hated this book as pathetic fallacy pushed to the far reaches of decadence. Many of my students were skeptical of it for the same reason but without realizing there was a name for what they saw simply as unscientific bias. Those who loved it were mostly silent, only sharing in their essays how deeply moved they were by Wohlleben’s celebration of forest communities.

My thought? Most of my students have never been in woods thick enough to block their view of clear land. I’d be surprised if any of them had ever walked through a genuine forest. So language that pushes them to imagine trees as something other than biological machines for pumping water and sucking up carbon is good for them. And by that I mean good for their souls.

 June 4, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Jun 032018
 

When my mother came up last year, I bought her the first book in Louise Penny’s series of murder mysteries.

They’re set in the Eastern Townships, and I thought it’d be a nice reminder of Quebec when she was reading it back home.

Turns out she loved the first book and has now run through the entire series.

When she was midway through and praising them on the phone, I decided to give the first book a shot, even though I don’t usually like mysteries.

And what a nice surprise, it was great and I’ve bought the second and third for a rainy weekend sometime.

 June 3, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
May 272018
 

Marvel does Inception.

Sigh.

If there had been even one more episode, I wouldn’t have finished. But I got to four in a binge and realized I was half done, so I gave it a shot.

Sigh.

It’s interesting to see self-consciousness about the medium that is neither political nor anti-consumerist. Sets off the value of Soloway in Transparent and I Love Dick by way of contrast.

 May 27, 2018  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
May 132018
 

A one man show in which Alexander the Great, on his deathbed, offers a chronological history of his military campaigns in Asia. I’ve been working through a history of Ancient Greece and was interested.

Laurent Gaudé’s script is like a textbook—I’m actually not sure why it would have be written or staged as a play—but the actor Emmanuel Schwartz uses it as the occasion for a show of force. I didn’t necessarily care for what he was doing and his performance was often by necessity of arbitrary—the text isn’t creating options for him—but there’s no denying that it’s powerful work.

Apr 142018
 

A marriage comedy set in a world in which witches and future tech are at war with each other.

The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.

 April 14, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 092018
 

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

Apr 072018
 

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.

Apr 062018
 

Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.

McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during  important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)

Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?

Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.

 April 6, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,