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BoMC: Holes

I can’t recall why I first picked up Holes. I was mostly a reader of science fiction and fantasy, and didn’t typically read a book just because it had a medal on its cover. I was never quite sure whether I liked it, even, though I did read it several times. What really kept me engaged with it, I think, was a sense that it was deeper, more profound, than other books I’d read.

Holes

Holes, written by Louis Sachar, is the story of one Stanley Yelnats, a kid who is sent to a hellish camp for juvenile delinquents, Camp Green Lake. His crime: he unknowingly stole a pair of sneakers that were meant to raise money for a homeless shelter. This miscarriage of justice he ascribes to his family’s history of bad luck, brought on by his “no-good dirty-rotten pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.” While initially played for laughs, this detail, like most details in Holes, becomes highly significant to the plot. Stanley’s story, and the story of his ancestors, are joined tightly together in a multigenerational jigsaw puzzle.

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BoMC: The Andalite Chronicles

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!

Most of my friends were readers to some degree or another, and we all read Animorphs. No wonder: it was so popular in the late nineties as to be practically inescapable. The series was written by Katherine “K.A.” Applegate, who in more recent years was honored with the Newbery Medal for her book The One and Only Ivan. As such, her credentials as a writer should be beyond question, yet still I expected to be less than enthralled by Animorphs when revisiting it as an adult. After all, even as a kid I read less than half of the fifty-plus volumes. But there was one book in the series that captivated me more than any other: the prequel, The Andalite Chronicles. If there was anything great about Animorphs, I’d find it there.

The Andalite Chronicles

The premise of the series: there are two warring alien species. There are the noble Andalites, centaur-like creatures who have perfected a shape-shifting technology; and the evil Yeerks, a race of space-slugs that have the ability to take over other creatures’ bodies. In the Animorphs series, the Yeerks have begun a covert invasion of Earth with the intention of enslaving the human race, and a mortally wounded Andalite gifts the “morphing” technology to a group of children. These kids, the titular Animorphs, thus become the last hope of humanity. But our story today isn’t about the Animorphs at all. It’s about the Andalites.

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What Happens In… The Dark Knight Rises

Batman vs. Bane

The Dark Knight Rises returns to the story of Bruce Wayne, already in progress after a minor interruption involving an evil clown who robs banks. The film opens with a scientist being kidnapped by… somebody. The somebody takes the scientist onto his plane along with a few hostages, but little does he know that one of the hostages is a mask-wearing man called Bane. Bane is to be the Mega Bad Guy of the film, and like most Mega Bad Guys he can do anything, regardless of how implausible it is, so he naturally has his own cargo plane and uses it to kidnap the scientist himself and destroy the somebody’s plane.

Meanwhile, Gotham has actually lived up to its status as the world’s best city by totally eradicating crime. Now if you do so much as run a red light you can be locked up for life, no questions asked. However, Commissioner Gordon is not so sure this is a good idea, but he’s not going to be a party pooper.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is moping because without crime he doesn’t know what to do with himself. His mope is cut short when a Mysterious Woman steals a necklace that belonged to his mother. Uh-oh, crime! That gets Bruce’s attention real good.

In order to recover the necklace, Wayne traces her to a high-society bash, where he also meets a woman with a foreign accent. Nobody else in this film has an accent, so this is probably indicative of Deep Evil. Wayne doesn’t think of that, though, and for some reason he trusts her so much that he turns over control of Wayne Enterprises to her.

Bane, like most villains, has a deep grudge against The World’s Best City, and he strikes where it will hurt the most: the Department of Public Works! This is actually a surprisingly good plan. He also attacks the stock exchange, which is a less good plan, but leads to a motorcycle chase. Vroom!

Wayne Enterprises has, of course, continued its campaign of building dangerous weaponizable energy sources. This time around it’s constructed a fusion reactor that can be made into an atom bomb with minor modifications. (A job for the kidnapped scientist! Did you forget about him?)

When Bane finds out about this, he steals it and threatens to blow up Gotham! In the meantime his army of mercenaries (volunteer mercenaries, the worst kind!) sacks the city and force rich people to walk on thin ice.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, got in a fight with Bane that landed him in a prison somewhere in the Middle East. It is a literal hole in the ground which light cannot penetrate, and yet it is very well-lit. While Wayne is in the prison, he finds out that the Influential White Guy lives on in spirit… he had an offspring who is even now behind the plot to destroy Gotham! That guy just can’t give it a rest.

Soon, Wayne escapes from the foreign prison and gets back to Gotham by… by… I guess he learned to teleport himself while he was in there. Anyway, he gets back to Gotham in time to find out that Foreign Accent Woman is not only in league with Bane, but she is the offspring of the Influential White Guy! She tries to blow up the city, but it’s not going down without some vehicular action. Vroom!

So the whole crew pulls together: Wayne, Gordon, and Mysterious Woman manage to strap the bomb to Wayne’s Bat-Copter and Wayne flies it away just in time for it to blow him up… or does it?

Soon things are back to normal in Gotham despite having been the site of the most horrific terrorist coup in American history. Wayne’s mansion is turned into a Dickensian orphanage. And Bruce Wayne, who did not die, elopes with the Mysterious Woman. God bless us, every one!

What Happens In… Batman Begins

Batman vs. Scarecrow

Batman Begins is the story of Bruce Wayne, a rich and influential white guy who has an unhealthy obsession with crime. This obsession, like most such things, can be traced back to childhood traumas. Wayne’s parents were gods among men, simultaneously working as doctors and as venture capitalists whose multibillion-dollar corporation coincidentally worked for the betterment of humanity. However, they fell prey to a violent mugger, and Wayne’s hatred of the disenfranchised and desperate was born.

We meet up with adult Wayne in a Chinese prison for reasons which are never satisfactorily explained. He meets up with another influential white guy who, it turns out, runs a mystical mountaintop martial-arts monastery. He trains Wayne to be a ninja (ninjas are well-known to be part of Tibetan/Chinese culture), then makes a critical error by asking Wayne to kill a murderer. Wayne, of course, would never kill (never!) so he escapes from the monastery by setting fire to it and battling his fellow ninjas. Most if not all of them die in the process, including (probably) the guy he refused to kill. It’s all right, though, because the other white guy told him that a secret society of urban-renewal conspirators was planning to torch Gotham, which is the world’s best city despite being totally corrupt at all levels of society, and Wayne isn’t going to let that happen.

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Media Summation: 2016

Well, folks, it’s that time of year once again. What did I read this year? What did I watch? What was good, and what was bad? Read on for my recommendations, reviews, and the coveted trophies of badness.

Best Fiction of 2016

Top prize goes to The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I make a habit of picking up books by authors I haven’t read before, and in this case I’m sure glad I did. Udall paints a sophisticated and detailed portrait of the complicated lives entwined in a polygamous Mormon family. The book has a very rich cast of characters and a solid overarching plot, all spun together with tight and effective prose. This was the first book I read this year, and still it managed to take the top spot. Highly recommended.

Runners-up!

  • Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. This is a wonderful book. It revolves around a terrible play for children and each chapter follows a different character: actors in the production, audience members, and so on. A former instructor of mine said that a novel should be a world, and Prose’s book is a shining example of that approach. Each chapter is almost a standalone short story, and yet they still all fit together like the gears of a clock. I loved it.
  • Honorable Mentions: Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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Aliens Ate My Homework

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!

If you’d asked me who my favorite author was at the age of eight or nine, I’d have replied without hesitation: “Bruce Coville!” Mr. Coville’s specialty was works of science fiction and fantasy, usually with a dash of humor. He wrote numerous different series (some of which we may cover in the future) but my favorite by far was the “Alien Adventures,” beginning with Aliens Ate My Homework.

Aliens Ate My Homework

The Aliens series follows a small cast of alien characters perennially in pursuit of the evil intergalactic criminal BKR. Along for the ride is our hapless protagonist, Rod Allbright, a middle-school-aged kid who narrates the adventures in first-person.

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Movie Time: The Force Awakens

The movie is pretty good. I don’t want to drone on and on about it, but I do want to record a few of my thoughts for public consumption.

The Light Side

Spiritual Successor

The Force Awakens is the Star Wars followup that the prequels should have been. It has the same humor and likable characters as the original films, and at least aspires to the same degree of creative exuberance. It brings the adventurous spirit back into the series, and the sense of a once-proud civilization fallen into ruin. In short, it was above all else a Star Wars film, and a good one.

Humanization of Bad Guys

Star Wars has never been reknowned for a nuanced depiction of good and evil, but The Force Awakens does make some significant strides in that direction. To make the main character a defecting Stormtrooper was a stroke of genius, and the characterization of Kylo Ren was just ambiguous enough to allow me to think maybe he would reform. Sure, our arch-villains are still guilty of crimes that would make Hitler wince, but it was nice to see some genuine personalities among the bad guys.

Elderly Romance

A small thing, but noteworthy: I can’t think of any other movie, any other movie, that depicted a genuine romantic relationship between two characters who are effectively senior citizens. This is a major blind spot in our cinematic tradition, I think, and the degree of respect, of non-remarkableness, with which it was handled here, is worthy of commendation.

Gender Balance

Thank you for making Star Wars less of a men-only club. Not only by the addition of Rey as a main character, but by the use of so many women in minor supporting roles. In the old canon, “royalty” appeared to be the only job opening for women… now we see that girls can operate the ultra-doom mega-death-ray weapon, too!

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Media Summation: 2015

Last year’s everything-gets-a-summary model took too long to produce (and half the summaries therein were crap anyway) so this year I’m taking a different tack. Only the best and the worst entries will be summarized, and a complete list, without comment, will follow. Someday I’ll figure out the ideal format!

Best Fiction of 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I try to avoid giving the “best” title to acknowledged classics, but I didn’t read a whole lot of good fiction this year, so it was no contest. Nabokov’s narrative of an unhappy pedophile remains as disturbing and engaging as ever. Also well worth a look is his afterword, which was included in the edition I read.

Runners-up!

  • Rabbit, Run. by John Updike. Similar to Lolita in status as a classic and its dislikable protagonist, Rabbit, Run is likewise a very interesting piece of fiction.
  • Honorable Mentions: We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates. Mannequin Girl, Ellen Litman.

And the Worst Fiction of 2015…

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Despite the degree of hype that’s accumulated around this book, I found little merit in it. The characters are shallow, the plot revolves around extremely implausible coincidences, and it lacks any memorable qualities. It might seem good if you’ve never read anything better, but there are a thousand books I’d recommend instead.

Unlucky runners-up!

  • We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler. Despite the accolades he receives, Handler’s prose tends to leave me clammy and his plot in this book seems to be conflicted about whether it’s absurd or realistic.
  • From a Buick 8 by Stephen King. I wanted to try a King novel and this one sounded interesting. Here’s the entire book: There’s a creepy Buick. Sometimes it eats people. Sometimes aliens come out of it and then die. Repeat scenario for 400 pages.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (Spoilers) It’s engaging and even memorable, but its subject of an evil, conniving woman who frames her husband for murder plays too much into the misogynist’s playbook for me.

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Movie Time: White God

WhiteGodTitle

A few years ago I was attacked by a large dog while walking home one night. Its owner assured me that it wouldn’t bother me, but when I tried to walk past it I suddenly found myself pushed to the ground while the thing bore down on my hand with its teeth. This was the dead of winter, and I was able to slip my hand out of my glove and escape. The incident was a vindication of a lifelong distrust of dogs, particularly large dogs.

White God is a film about large dogs, and it might just be the best film I’ve seen this year.

Our setting is Budapest; our protagonists are a young girl named Lili and a mixed-breed dog named Hagen. As the story begins, Lili moves in with her father, who takes an instant dislike to Hagen, and eventually abandons him by the side of the road. It’s a quiet and understated opening, giving few hints about the horror that will eventually unfold.

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Comics Time: Friends With Boys

You know who can write a coming-of-age story better than John Green? Faith Erin Hicks, that’s who. And she can draw, too. Friends With Boys may not have any cancer patients or shallow philosophizing, but it does have plenty of character drama, attractive manga-style artwork, clever plotting, and impeccable comic layouts. If that’s not enough, there’s also a ghost.

fwb_03

The story centers around Maggie McKay, a girl who is starting high school after a childhood of homeschooling. According to the author biography, Hicks herself was homeschooled until high school as well, and (also like Maggie) has three brothers. As such, Hicks is clearly using her own life experiences as material, but rather than taking the easy route and writing a memoir (as far too many other cartoonists have done), she has instead synthesized a fictional scenario using her own childhood as a basis. Well played.

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