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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
The premise of John Green’s megahit young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a simple one: a love story about two teenage cancer patients. This is a good and relatively original premise. I approve. To make it work will be difficult, though. To write about the life of a teenager, and the tumultuous nature of teenage love, is difficult enough without adding cancer to the mix. To make this premise work, Green must confront the unavoidable fact that sick people feel very, very bad most of the time. It’s not conducive to romance.
The easiest solution to this problem is to sweep the experience of sickness under the rug, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Green does. Sickness is window dressing in this story. The primary function of cancer in this story is to grant travel via the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to incapacitate characters when required by the plot. When the plot needs the characters to not be sick, they are conveniently not sick until the plot needs them to be sick again. It’s a depressingly shallow understanding of the experience of illness, and Green sells his characters short by not making better use of the storytelling opportunities afforded here.
Have you read any comics by Der-Shing Helmer? No? Shame on you! As artist-writers go, Ms. Helmer is up there with the best of them, and frankly, she’s more than the webcomics scene deserves. She took a hiatus that lasted a couple years, but now she’s back and better than ever–and producing two comics simultaneously, no less!
I suppose I’m biased, given that Helmer works in one of my personal favorite genres–long-form speculative-fiction adventures–but her writing stands up beautifully regardless of one’s preferred subject matter. Her worlds are original and very completely realized, a tough thing to pull off. Her characters are complex and unique. Her writing can be a talky at times, but not so badly that it distracts from the experience. These are stories one will remember and think about.
Game of Thrones is starting to grow soft. No, not soft on brutal violence and the wholesale incorporation of dark themes; all that stuff is still in there. Rather, the show’s writing has begun to take a very by-the-numbers approach to its story, delivering more or less exactly what viewers have come to expect without doing anything really surprising. It goes through the motions, and that’s all it does. No more really needs to be said, but there’s no limit to my ability to carry on about things that irritate me, so let’s take an in-depth look at why Season 4 failed to live up to the example of preceding seasons.
Lack of Direction
All the season’s problems eventually fold into one larger problem: that there is no singular direction in this season, no one overarching plot that all the other storylines play into. The other seasons used the leadup, climax, and end of the war as a sort of “meta-story” unifies the more personal storylines into the context of a larger arc. This technique worked brilliantly to explore the concept of how individuals’ actions affect events on a global scale.
So, with the war more or less over, what’s left to do? Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Lannisters have more or less total control of the country, leaving them with nothing else to conquer. Most of the Starks are dead. Neither Stannis nor Daenerys are in a position to begin their invasions, so their activities are largely quotidian. The Greyjoys don’t do much of anything. The Wildlings eventually attack Castle Black but we don’t see much of their preparations for it. The Tyrells are nonentities. The White Walkers are hardly in evidence. With no particular goals to aspire to, much of the action consists of little more than characters shuttling back and forth between different locations, sometimes with minor skirmishes thrown in. Never do we get the impression that we’re witnessing a defining moment in this world’s history; it’s by and large a story of mundanities, and even some of the more interesting predicaments the characters face prove to be more pedestrian than they have in the past.
Hello, and welcome one and all to this, the first installment of this to-be-monthly retrospective of the things that I read and watched over the course of the previous lunar cycle. By posting more frequently, I hope to improve the quality (and, probably, the accuracy) of my commentary. At the end of the year, recommendations, awards, and condemnations will be selected from these, so if any of you wish to speculate wildly about winners and losers, now would be a great time to start.
Without further ado, here we go!
Finn, Brunton. Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. (Non-fiction)
This book has an excellent topic, one which has not yet (to my knowledge) been explored in such depth. What is spam? Why is there so much of it when no one likes it? Finn\’s examination of spam covers nearly every conceivable angle: history, sociology, technology, warfare, and even a smattering of drama. Spam is depicted here as something akin to a force of nature, an unwelcome but unstoppable flow of garbage that has nonetheless defined much of the way that the internet functions.
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It’s that time of year again! Read on for the best and worst of 2014. Accolades are given to A.M. Homes, George Saunders, Tim Kreider, Sheri Fink, Joe Ollmann, Gabrielle Bell, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Stern talking-tos are given to Scott Bradfield, Jonathan Miles, David Sedaris, Mark Singer, Jesse Reklaw, Jeff Smith, and Wes Anderson. Apologies for any typos; I’ve been working on this all day and I can’t stand looking at it anymore.
My recommendations are marked with stars (★) because god forbid I use the same system two years in a row.
Over the course of 2015 I intend to switch to a new format in which I review things throughout the year and drop this annual post format, which has gotten to be unmanageably large. Check back every now and then for more reviews, and we’ll meet here next January to sort out the winners.