Culture Consumption: June & July 2017

With all the traveling and such, I’ve fallen a bit behind. I’ve read some great books and seen some great movies over the past couple of months, though.

Books

“There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left but to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.”
— from Certain Dark Things

I love vampires and I love Mexico City, so it’s no surprise that I loved Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The world Moreno-Garcia has created features vampires of many species that live out in the open with humanity. Though vampires have been ousted from many countries around the world, they’ve gained a stronghold in Mexico, forming powerful and dangerous cartels — with the exception of Mexico City, which exists as a vampire-free zone due to the strength of the human gangs.

Certain Dark Things is told from multiple points of view — Domingo, a garbage-collecting street kid; Atl, a descendant of Aztec blood drinkers on the run from a rival vampire gang; Rodrigo, a human servant of vampires hunting Atl; Ana, a cop who becomes wrapped up in events when bodies start turning up; and a few others. Altogether, this is a brilliant crime thriller full of vampires and gangsters and femme fatales. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is fast becoming one of my writers favorite writers, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

“There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. There are worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart.”
— from Down Among the Sticks and Bones

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire, Jacqueline and Jillian are twins born to parents who never really understood or wanted children, parents who believe children are objects to be shaped to their desires. But the world is full of doors to other worlds and Jacqueline and Jillian find their way to a place of darkness and death, where they suddenly have the ability to choose.

Seanan McGuire seems to be getting better and better with every book she writes. The writing in this book is beautiful, often taking on the “fairy tale” tone of an outside narrator as a separate character relating the story.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a standalone story in the Wayward Children series, and as such, you can read the books in the series in any order. Although if you really want to know what happens to Jack and Jill, then I recommend reading Every Heart a Doorway, which chronologically comes after this one (even though its the first in the series). I hope there are many, many more books in this series, because I’m loving it.
Continue reading “Culture Consumption: June & July 2017”

Culture Consumption: May 2017

May was an interesting month, in that it was full of fabulous travels. Still managed to read and watch quite a few great stories.

Books

I adored Bone Gap by Laura Ruby a subtly speculative novel about Finn and Sean O’Sullivan, two brothers surviving in small town full of gaps that people slip through all the time. First, their mother abandons them for a new life, then Roza — the young woman who shows up in their barn and brings light into their lives and the lives of the whole town — vanishes. The story and characters and magical realism and the setting of a small town (where everybody knows everything about everyone, even if they always get the story wrong) is gorgeous. Also, the audiobook narrator Dan Bittner does a fantastic job of bringing each of the characters to life, making them feel distinct when the POV shifts.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: May 2017”

Culture Consumption: March and April 2017

My, my. I have gotten rather behind, haven’t I.

Books

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

I delighted in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, the audio book of which is read by the author herself, who does a wonderful reading. The novel is told from two points of view — Ruth, a writer on a remote island who finds a mysterious packet in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, containing a journal and letters and other items, and Nao, living in Tokyo, whose story is told through the journal itself.

There are so many layers to my love of this novel. The characters and their stories captivated me. Nao, who has faced such levels of bullying at school and sorrow at home, relates her decision to end her life in a straightforward manner. To her it is the only logical solution to what she’s been through (and she’s been through a lot). In her journal, she presents her life with a sense of self-depreciating humor. After all she’s been through, and despite her resolution, there is an underlying strength to her. It’s an interesting balance between depression, sorrow, and enjoyment of small moments.

Ruth is also fascinating to me. Her life is marked by less overt drama, and her story relates more of the small moments, the routines of her life that both provide her with contentment and feel like traps. As she explore’s Nao’s story through the journal and tries to seek a way to help this girl who lives across the sea, she finds certain threads of her own life loosening, creating their own minor havocs.

This novel is also so meta. One could start with the writer character, Ruth, who shares her name with the author of the book, which suggests the potential of the autobiographical slipping in even if none of it actually is such. Even the title A Tale for the Time Being has double meaning — as in both, a tale for a person who lives in time, and also a tale for right now. I don’t want to get too much into the ways this is a meta narrative, since a lot of it comes at the end, but I will say that it had me thinking about the creation of art and degree to which the reader participates in the creation.

I think this is one of those books I’m going to have to reread many times.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: March and April 2017”

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire are dark, unsettling and powerful. Mariana Enríquez uses horror and the uncanny to explore women’s lives, from schoolgirls to grown women, some impoverished, some wealthy, most reaching for levels of independence or to carve out some space for themselves in the world.

One story tells of three friend drink and drug their way through their young years, a partying haze. Part of the beauty “The Intoxicated Years” is the breathless quality of the prose, moment rushing into moment as the girls rage through their days. At first, it seems a story of reckless freedom, but it becomes clear that all of their adventures are underpinned with a growing viscousness that’s beautifully powerful and raw.

In “Spiderweb,” a woman feels bored and trapped by the marriage she rushed into, and when she brings her husband to visit her family, she’s embarrassed and repelled by him with every passing moment. One a trip with her cousin Natalia and her husband to Asunción (an open market offering mostly knockoffs or illegal items), her frustration comes to the surface. I love the way this story builds on the feeling of being stuck by the choices you’ve made.

“No Flesh Over Our Bones” is the story of a woman finds a human skull, rings it home and names it Vera. The woman becomes more and more obsessed with the skull, desiring to make it whole again. The story approaches the realm of body horror as it explores women’s relationships to their bodies.

In “Under the Black Water,” Marina is an attorney who works with the people who live in impoverished in the slums of Buenos Aires. She learns that strange things, including a dead man coming up out of the water, are happening in the slums. When Marina investigates, events grow more and more disturbing in a way that feels Lovecraftian. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection. I love the main character and how the story is both grittily realistic and strange in the ways it explores poverty and environmentalism.

Among the most disturbing and powerful stories for me was “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Body horror is a key trope in this story, in which women claim their own lives and bodies by setting themselves on fire and living in the world with their scars proudly shown. The scars are presented by this movement of women as a new kind of beauty, with fearlessness and a fervor, and yet.

I’m looking forward to reading more work by Enríquez.

Note: This book was provided as an ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Watching the Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria1
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

When I finished watching Clouds of Sils Maria all I could do was sit in stunned silence, letting myself exist in that space a little longer. A few minutes after the credits rolled to a stop, the tears came. I’m not sure how to describe what I was feeling, except that I knew I had seen something beautiful and I wanted to immediately watch it again.

The trailer sucks, by the way. Although it shows clips from the movie, they’re so out of context that it comes off as a completely different movie. And I get it, Clouds of Sils Maria is full of subtleties and is a hard movie to sum up in a simple, marketable way.

On it’s surface it’s about an film actress starring in the revival of the theatrical play that launched her career — now in the role of the older woman. She has to face how time has shifted and she has shifted with it. The more she delves into the role, facing the character’s pain, the more her own insecurities come to the surface.

clouds_of_sils_maria2-juliette-binoche

It’s about the relationship between stars and their personal assistants, that weird line — on the one hand it’s an employer/employee relationship, and on the other hand, the state of constantly being with your employer, answering their phones, and so on creates an intimacy. Sometimes that leads to friendship, sometimes it leads to weirdness. As the central relationship in the movie, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart spend a vast number of scenes alone together. They both provide phenomenal performances, with great chemistry together.

clouds-of-sils-maria-kristin-stewart

The movie is also about art and what it means to different people. Most of the conversations involve discussions about the theatrical play — analysis of who two women in the play are and what they and their literary relationship stands for. These conversations illustration how the meaning of art changes from perspective to perspective, whether from person to person or from one person at different stages of their live. And as these conversations about a fictional play takes place, it brings attention to the question of the two main characters in this movie and what they stand for (will this movie have the same emotional resonance to me ten years in the future as it does now?).

The movie leaves space for quiet moments and some questions unanswered. It’s a movie I feel strangely protective of this film — I want to tell everyone to watch it, but I also am a bit afraid family and friends might not connect with it the way I did. But then, I suppose that’s all apart of different people understanding art through different perspectives.


Culture Consumption: February 2017

My reading continues to be sloooowwww, but at least I finished a few things this month — along with seeing a TON of movies.

Books

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll was a favorite read from this month. This beautifully illustrated collection of scary stories, involving ghosts and wolves and other stranger monsters explores the dangerous things hidden in the dark that can steel one’s life and/or self away. The art uses bright vivid colors with a mixture of line styles to create a sense of tension and unease while reading — some scenes are vividly terrifying.

ThroughTheWoods-EmilyCarroll

I also loved reading Jessie Carty’s collection, Shopping After the Apocalypse. In this collection of prose poetry, the narrator begins a journey across an apocalyptic landscape. Contemplative and beautifully written, each poem builds on the next forming an interconnected story of isolation in an abandoned landscape. The result is a more contemplative exploration rather than the violence and terror expressed in most apocalyptic storylines. I really enjoyed this collection so much that I interviewed the poet about her writing process.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: February 2017”

Oscar Best Picture Showcase 2017

The Academy Awards were presented yesterday. I didn’t watch them — funny, since I spent so much time making sure I saw the Oscar nominated short films and Best Picture nominees over the course of the past two weeks. (I was playing with my toddler niece and nephew instead and don’t feel a bit bad about it at all.) I’ve meant to do the following write ups BEFORE the Oscars happened, but never got around to finishing them, so here they are now, all in one go.

For anyone interested in the Red Carpet fashion from the event, I recommend Genevieve Valentine’s rundown, which is quite charming.

And the winner was…

Moonlight

Received 8 nominations and won for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali).

In Moonlight presents three stages in life of an African-American man, from being a young kid who finds an unexpected father figure, to a teenager experiencing his first love with one of his friends, to becoming an adult. I don’t know if I need to say what almost everyone who has seen it has been saying, since it won the Oscar for Best Picture and all, but I’ll go ahead an reiterate it anyway — Moonlight is a beautiful movie. The cinematography, acting, and story all come together in what feels like an incredibly moving dream of an experience.

I was thrilled to learn that Moonlight won Best Picture, because the title is well deserved. It’s too bad the announcement occurred the way it did, with the Oscar gaff of the lifetime. The initial mistaken announcement of the winning film does not in any way take away from the accomplishment of director Barry Jenkins and his team in creating this phenomenal movie. But it did unfortunately take away from their moment to shine on the Academy Awards stage, their thank you speeches punctuated with confusion. Nevertheless, Moonlight and it’s a wonderful movie and well deserved.

Moonlight.
Moonlight.

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The rest of the noms…

Arrival

Received 8 nominations and won for Sound Editing.

Arrival was probably my favorite movie of 2016. Seeing it a second time around only cemented my love for this beautiful first contact movie, in which a linguist and a scientist work together to decipher the language of an alien race. The cinematography and sound editing are amazing, the editing jumping back and forth through time skillfully draws out the emotional impact of the storyline, and the aliens are truly alien. I love this movie so much.

If you loved the movie as much as I did and are interested in the process behind screenwriting and moviemaking, The Blacklist has a fantastic podcast interview with Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter who adapted Ted Chiang’s story into a script.

Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

Hidden Figures

Received 3 nominations and won for Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer).

Hidden Figures is the true story of the black women computers that performed mathematical calculations as part of the space program at NASA. These are incredible women and the movie, which hits all the right notes in terms of humor and perspective, has me wanting to learn more about them and the other women of science who have often been overlooked.

Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures.

Lion

Received 6 nominations (no wins).

Lion is the true story of a little boy who accidentally ends up lost in Calcutta thousands of kilometers from his home. When authorities are unable to find his mother or brother, he is adopted by an Australian family who raise him. As an adult, memories of his childhood in India come back to him and he begins a search using Google Earth to find his birth mother. It’s an incredible story. So many feels.

Lion.
Lion.

Manchester by the Sea

Received 6 nominations and won for Original Screenplay and Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Afflek).

There were some issues with the theater a couple of Saturdays ago, so I showed up a half hour late to Manchester by the Sea. Nevertheless, it was still a great movie, a moving story of grief and family and trying to overcome the past. It felt anchored in its location, which was almost a character itself.

Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea

Fences

Received 4 nominations and won for Actress in a Supporting Role (Viola Davis).

In Fences, Troy Maxson, an African-American man working as a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh, works to raise his family while railing agains the challenges of poverty and racism. It’s clear that this is based on a stage play, from the first scene with its constrained setting and long, eloquent monologues. The writing is beautiful, not so much focused on realism of the moment, but rather evoking a heightened sense of poetry. The writing is backs up with phenomenal performances from the entire cast, who bring these characters to life and handle these lines with amazing power and grace.

Fences
Fences

Hell or High Water

Received 4 nominations (no wins).

Two brothers begin robbing banks after their mother’s deaths in order to preserve their family’s land. They specifically take on the bank chain that holds the loan against the property, a kind of clever revenge. Hell or High Water starts right in the middle of the action and drives through to the end, with just enough breathing room to get to know the brothers and the officers hunting them. The movie is great — not quite on the same caliber as some of the other best picture noms — but still great.

Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water

Hacksaw Ridge

Received 6 nominations and won for Film Editing and Sound Mixing.

Desmond T. Doss was a U.S. Army medic who served during WWII. As a conscientious objector, he refused to carry a gun into battle (something that created significant challenges during his training). The story that unfolds and what Doss does is so unbelievable that it made sense for the movie to end with a mini-documentary, as if to clarify some of the history.

Hacksaw Ridge was good for a war movie, which is not generally my thing. The style of this in terms of cinematography and storytelling felt old, by which I mean it presented the typical look of big budget Hollywood films. I think if I had watched this one first out of the whole set, I would have been fine with it. But since I had already seen a number of the other best picture noms — most of which were more creative or experimental in their style and tone — this felt old fashioned.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge.

La La Land

Received 14 nominations and won for Director, Cinematography, Actress in a Leading Role (Emma Stone), Original Score, Original Song (“City Of Stars”), and Production Design.

La La Land is fun and all for a musical about two beautiful young people trying to make it big in Hollywood. The cinematography was pretty for the most part and the music was great — but otherwise it was pretty mediocre. I like both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who are great actors, but not great dancers or singers. The story is a bit light on emotional depth, as well. Nostalgia seems to be the greatest factor driving many people’s love for this (that and maybe how much Hollywood loves its own mythology), although it doesn’t quite live up to the classic musicals it’s meant to be in homage to. Fun enough to entertain, but nothing special.

La La Land
La La Land

* * *

In related news, the Razzies — which I don’t normally pay attention to — announced their “Worst” awards in film, with Hillary’s America garnering Worst Director, Worst Actor, Worst Actress, and Worst Picture. And that’s kind of awesome.

Some Thoughts on the 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films

I love short films and am fascinated with how they are able to tell compelling stories in tiny spaces. I’ve been wanting to watch the Oscar nominated short film showcases that play every year, but haven’t had people to go with or the timing was off. This year, I made it happen, taking time to see both the Animated and Live Action selections, and it was fantastic. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to also see the documentary shorts and I don’t think I’ll be able to this year. But I’m making it a goal for next year.

As a quick note, it was interesting to discover that all of the live action shorts were significantly longer than the animated shorts (with one exception), being 15 minutes to 30 minutes in length. I tend to think of short films as being in the 3-15 minute range, maybe due to the number of shorts I’ve seen through YouTube of Vimeo. I’m sure cost and time is a part of the reason why the live action movies were longer, with animation taking more time to create cell by cell. The differences in length might also have to do with how people connect with animation compared to live action. I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that the animated shorts were often able to provide as complete and moving of stories as the longer pieces in a shorter amount of time.

My thoughts are below, with links to trailers provided.
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The Animated Shorts

Blind Vaysha, directed by Theodore Ushev (8 minutes/Canada) – Blind Vaysha is a strange folk tale about a girl who is born with a strange infliction, in which she can see only the past out of one eye and only the future out of the other, essentially making her blind to the present. It’s a bit more talky than most of the other animated shorts, but the art is beautiful with a heavy-lined graphic style and strong-toned colors. I loved the way some images overlapped, stretched into impossible shapes, or presented sketchy, swirling images. A little more intellectual than emotional, but it’s my favorite of the animated films.

blind-vaysha_f
Blind Vaysha

Pearl, directed by Patrick Osborne (6 minutes/USA) – A girl and her dad tour the country in an old hatchback, busking and making music and facing life. Although the animation is somewhat blocky and not as dynamic or perfect as some of the other offerings, this is a moving story filled with music telling a sweet story with almost no dialog.

Pearl
Pearl

Piper, directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer (6 minutes/USA) – This story of a baby piper bird facing his fear of the ocean is funny and adorable in that predictable Disney/Pixar way. The animation is technically perfect and beautifully rendered, worth watching for that alone.

Piper
Piper

Pear Cider and Cigarettes, directed by Robert Valley and Cara Speller (35 minutes/Canada/UK) – There are parts of Pear Cider and Cigarettes that are gorgeous, the animation slick and stylish with hard angles that reminded me of certain comic book drawings. In the story, which is based on a real human, a man describes the dynamic personality of his friend, Techno, who eventually became a hardcore alcoholic. This is the most adult of the animated films, presenting a complex and straight look at sex, drugs, alcohol, and the fall of a friend. It’s also the longest out of any of the short films I watched. Although the last third of the film was moving, the first two-thirds were a little slow going for me and I think it could have been cut down a bit while still maintaining its powerful effect.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Borrowed Time, directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj (7 minutes/USA) – A sheriff returns to the site of his father’s death. The CGI animation is good, but the story didn’t connect with me, despite a few genuinely surprising moments.

Borrowed Time
Borrowed Time

Highly Commended

Due to the adult nature of Pear Cider and Cigarettes, the screening showed three additional animated films in order to give parents time to bring their kids out of the theater, if need be.

The Head Vanishes, directed by Franck Dion (9 minutes/Canada/France)

Once Upon a Line, directed by Alicja Jasina (8 minutes/Cyprus)

Asteria, directed by Josh Crute (5 minutes/USA)
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The Live Action Shorts

Timecode, directed by Juanjo Giménez (15 minutes/Spain) – One of my favorite shorts of the night, Timecode is the story of two parking lot security officers who begin communicating with each other in an usual way. This utterly delighted me. It’s wonderful and a bit weird. It probably is not going to win, but it’s the one I’d watch again and again without hesitation.

Timecode
Timecode

Sing, directed by Kristof Deák and Anna Udvardy (25 minutes/Hungary) – A girl comes to a new school and is delighted to join the school’s award-winning choir — only to discover that the choir is not what it seems. It’s a wonderful story about friendship and people coming together in quiet revolt against unfair systems.

Sing
Sing

La Femme et le TGV, directed by Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff (30 minutes/Switzerland) – A bit of a quirky tale and almost-but-not-quite romance in which an older woman set in her routine. Every day she waves a flag at the passing TGV train, which leads to a mysterious answer from one rider. It’s sweet, even if the ending felt a bit abrupt.

La Femme et le TGV
La Femme et le TGV / The Woman and the TGV

Ennemis Intérieurs, directed by Sélim Azzazi (28 minutes/France) – An educated, Algerian man applying for French citizenship finds himself confronted with a young immigration official whose examinations grow more and more invasive. This is essentially just a movie of two men sitting in a room talking, but the writing and acting are stellar, making this intense and captivating as each man tries to gain control, although the power is clearly skewed in favor of the young immigration official. There’s a lot going on in this, reflecting the current issues surrounding immigration and prejudice against Muslims. I’d like to watch it again and think about the layers some more.

Ennemis Intérieurs
Ennemis Intérieurs / Enemies Within

Silent Nights, directed by Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson (30 minutes/Denmark) – A woman working at a homeless shelter begins a romance with a homeless refugee from Ghana. Although the acting is great and it’s well done, there were aspects of this that annoyed me in terms of how the young woman approached him, more as someone to save instead of as a whole person. I also really didn’t like the ending (which I won’t talk about because of spoiling).

Silent Nights
Silent Nights

Culture Consumption: January 2017

Alrighty, here’s my January in books, movies, and such.

Books

This is the first is time in, well, probably ever that I haven’t completed a book over the course of a month — not even ONE. I’ve been doing a lot more watching TV than reading this past month as a way to unwind and reading three books at once sort of extended things out a bit — though really it was the watching that got me.

Books Finished This Month: 0 (*weeps*)

Total Books for the Year: 0 (*wails*)

Still in Progress: Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez, Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, and Tim Burton: Essays on the Films, edited by Johnson Cheu

Movies

Spotlight (2015)
Spotlight (2015)

I’ve been meaning to see Spotlight, for a while, ever since it won the Academy Award for Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay. The movie is based on the story of how a group of reporters uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Although a bit slow paced in the beginning, the movie is fascinating to watch, to see how each small piece of evidence, every interview, every mistake comes together in the end.

I’m particularly interested in how the characters are developed in the movie — which is to say not much, since the main focus is not on the emotional trajectory of these characters, but on the trajectory of uncovering and revealing the truth. And yet, the writers, director, and actors do an excellent job of using small moments that make us connect with them and reveal how their work is affecting them. It’s all very well done.

I also enjoyed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for and Don’t Breathe was a great thriller with tight pacing. XXX: Return of Xander Cage was all over the top action and somewhat stupid, although in a stupidly fun sort of way (it also gets points for having lots of diversity in its cast).

New-to-me Movies This Month:
1. Spotlight (2015)
2. XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017)
3. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
4. Don’t Breathe (2016

Short Films

I enjoy watching shorts and I’m hoping to taking time to watch them more often. All of the ones I list here are available online with links provided.

My favorite of the batch was The House of Small Cubes, a Japanese animated story of a flooded a world, in which an old man dives into his past — a beautifully animated and so many feels.

I also loved One Week, no surprise since I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan. A couple gets married and are given a build-your-own home kit — with disastrous and hilarious results.

I also dug the silent film A Trip to the Moon, which is loosely based a Jules Verne novel, and Isle of Flowers, a strange, jumbled, poetic documentary from Brazil.

Shorts from This Month:
1. The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (2012)
2. Isle of Flowers (1989)
3. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
4. Junior and Karlson (1968)
5. The House of Small Cubes (2008)
6. One Week (1920)

Television

Game of Thrones was my greatest time-suck last month — although I didn’t intend for it to be. I meant to take it slow and just watch an episode here or there, then something shocking or catastrophic would happen at the end of an episode and I’d have to watch the next. I went through Season Two and Three in this way — and if my pace keeps up I’ll probably finish all the way through Season Six before the end of February.

However, my focus Game of Thrones is not entirely there when watching, so sometimes I miss little details. I have a feeling I’ll have to watch it all again at some point in order to make proper commentary on it. But I continue to love  Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen (Khaleesi), and Tyrion Lannister, as well as Brienne of Tarth, who was introduced in season two.

Arya Stark
Arya Stark, from Game of Thrones.

I also checked out the first episode of Black Mirror from season one, which tells the story of a kidnapping and a bizarre ransom demand involving the Prime Minister of the U.K. It was complicated and smart and sooo disturbing. I’m excited to see more.

I’m starting to fall behind on The Walking Dead again, only this time it has less to do with being terrified of what’s going to happen to the characters and more to do with finding myself having greater interest in other things on TV. At this point, I’m mostly sticking with it to keep up with discussions among family and friends.


That’s it for me! What are you reading? Watching? Loving right now?

Top Reads of 2016

I read a total of 57 books in 2016, far lower than usual, but it was a particularly busy year for me in regards to writing and other projects. Nevertheless, there were many great reads this year, so many that I would not be able to narrow them all down to just a few. So, here are my favorite reads, all categorized, because that’s how I roll.

Best Science Fiction Novel

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The more I read Connie Willis’ work, the more I admire her as an author. Doomsday Book was no exception. Set in Oxford—at a university in which historians are able to actually travel back in time to witness and experience the past eras they research—the story is split between Kivrin, who travels to the Middle Ages (one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history), and Dunworthy, her mentor who is terrified to see her go and is left to face his own crisis in the present day as a sudden influenza outbreak flares up, forcing Oxford to go into quarantine. Dealing with disease as it does, it’s a dark story, although it is laced with Willis’ wit and humor. I especially loved Kivrin’s journey to the Middle Ages and fell in love (as Kivrin does) with the family that takes her in. A fantastic book, one that had me itching to read more in Willis’ time travel series.

Honorable Mention: Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie, which was the conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy (the first book was featured on my list from last year).

Continue reading “Top Reads of 2016”

Culture Consumption: December 2016

Alrighty, here’s December in books, movies, and such. I’ll be posting my lists of Top Books and Top Movies from the year over the next couple of days.

Books

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway introduces Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a place for children who have been there and back again, those who have found doorways to other worlds (of which there are many) that feel more home than home, and who, for one reason or another, found themselves back in the mundane world of their previous lives. It’s a place where these children can bide their time, trying to make do while they search for a way back to where they really belong, or learn to accept and make peace with the fact that they’ll never return. The story centers on Nancy, a teenage girl who has traveled to an underworld presided over by the lord of the dead, a place where she has learned to still herself into a statue. Having returned home, her parents can’t accept who she is now and so have sent her away to this school, where disasters begin to happen shortly after she arrives.

This story is beautiful and I love the way it presents different worlds for each kind of child and different kids for each kind of world. I also love the way it rejects the idea that a child like Alice would want to live in England instead of a place like Wonderland. It’s a good thing that this is a series, because I wanted more from this book, more of the characters and this strange school and of the worlds beyond.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: December 2016”

Finding Your 12 Best Days: Edward Burns’ Reflections on Filmmaking

In Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life, Edward Burns relates his experiences working in the film industry as a writer, director, and actor. Burns directed and produced his first film, The Brothers McMullen, on a tiny $25,000 budget — which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. Since that initial success, he has gone on to make ten more films on his own terms and act in several big budget Hollywood movies (such as Saving Private Ryan) and television shows.

This memoir highlights Burns’ successes, but perhaps more importantly delves into his mistakes, the poor decisions and bad luck that makes a movie fail to be the success one hoped it would be. These missteps, more than the successes, are where the greatest lessons lie.It’s hard to figure out why something succeeds, much easier to point to the number of reasons why something didn’t. His honesty in looking back on these moments, in which he examines where he went wrong and where the cards were against him, is a part of what makes this memoir work.

A few practical, useful pieces of advice are littered throughout the book (the difference between a master shot and a two shot, for example), providing some help in the nitty gritty of making a movie — but the real value of this book is in his philosophy toward filmmaking in general.

For Burns, the act of independent filmmaking is the ability to make movies according to your own vision and away from influences that might compromise that vision. He describes the twelve best days of his life as the twelve days he spent filming his first movie, The Brothers McMullen — twelve days telling a story true and making a movie for no other reason than the sheer joy of making a movie.

The Brothers McMullen
The Brothers McMullen (1995)

After The Brothers McMullen became a success and as his career as a director progressed, Burns continued to seek out those twelve days of joy. This lead him to choose projects that may have had smaller budgets, but that provided him with the freedom he needed to tell the kind of quiet stories to which he was drawn and to experiment with new technologies (such as using digital cameras and premiering some of his films on streaming services).

With the availability of such technologies, he notes, filmmakers have the opportunity to seek out their own twelve best days, to experiment and learn how to make movies while in the process of making movies in the same way writers learn how to tells stories through the act of telling stories, and musicians learn how to create songs by plucking strings on a guitar to get it right. He explains:

“At this moment, anyone who dreams of becoming a filmmaker is lucky indeed. For the first time in the history of cinema, filmmaking does not need to be a capitalist enterprise. You no longer need millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars. You are no longer beholden to someone writing a check. It no longer needs to be a business. It can be your artistic expression.”

Many filmmakers have realized this and are using various outlets on the internet to get their movies made and seen. But, as someone who’s often felt overwhelmed by what I believed the barriers to moviemaking to be, it’s empowering to be reminded that those barriers than I had imagined them. It’s a strong message for me — for all of us creative types — to get back to work and to keep seeking out those best days, those days when we are engaged and living our work.

As a footnote, I realize that I’ve never seen any of the movies Burns directed. As someone interested in independent filmmaking, I’m fascinated by what people are able to accomplish with small budgets and creative thinking. It would be interesting to do a marathon focused on movies that Burns directed to see how his skill in low budget movies evolved over time.

Another Note: This book was an ARC provided by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Culture Consumption: November 2016

Alrighty, here’s November in books, movies, and such. Some really powerful works this month.

Books

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.” — from The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad — which has won a National Book Award and a Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction —  tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When a fellow slave Ceasar tells her about the Underground Railroad, she agrees to escape with him and begins a journey north, taking her through various states and cities — each one with its own unique culture, some welcoming her with open arms, others openly hostile. The story unfolds the landscape of the Unites States, unveiling the many shades of racism, both openly violent and disguised behind a seemingly friendly face. This is a powerful book, at times uncomfortable in its straightforward portrayal of the violence inflicted on Cora and her peers, but always beautifully written and challenging in all the best ways.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: November 2016”

Culture Consumption: October 2016

A lot going on the past few days, so I’m coming in a little late, but here’s September in books, movies, and more.

Books

I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, even though it took a ridiculously long time to read. It was worth it, but it seriously took forever to read.

Miéville presents an ornately complex city, operating on a mixture of steampunk science and magic, layered with neighborhoods, districts, slums, and inhabited by numerous intelligent species from humans to khepri (insectile humanoids), Garuda (birdmen), cacti men, and other beings. Everywhere is slick and reeking with filth and squalor (although it’s noted that there are rich burroughs that are less so. It’s a fascinating place, although one I’m not sure I’d want to visit.

The story spends some time getting to know the main characters, alternating between their POVs and adding more characters as it goes along building to a catastrophic moment that unleashes danger and fear on the city. Those first 200 or so pages are necessary to making the novel work, but I had a hard time getting through them (almost too much information to be absorbed). When the action finally gets started things become gripping while still being richly detailed. A great novel, but it definitely took some work to get through.

I did a reread of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, which was a nostalgic experience that I talked about elsewhere.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: October 2016”

Returning to Bird by Bird

I returned to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life this month, although looking back I’m not really sure why. I knew I wanted to read a writing book and this was a book I loved once upon a time, but it had been years since I’ve read it and there were plenty of other as-yet-unread writing books on my selves that I could have picked up instead.

Maybe I was just drawn to it. Lamott’s words were as witty, intelligent, and compassionate as I remembered them, but I struggled through the first portion of the book, my mind distracted and unable to focus — a problem with my own headspace more than the words on the page.

I think I’ve been a bit mentally overwhelmed in recent weeks (or months), too many things in life and literature for me to process — which might be a reason I’ve been turning more to TV and movies as a form of relaxation, since they tend to require less engagement.

But as I read and continued reading, working my way through the my own mental blocks, the book slowly anchored me and I felt a little clearer. Lamott writes about her own challenges in writing and in life and the ways it can overwhelm and drive her into despair. Seeing to her imperfect journey was a comfort, providing a sense of I’m not alone in this mess as I approached mine.

At the moment, I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t seem to call up any of the specific pieces of advice that Lamott gives. So, I’ll point to Carina Bissett, who also did a reread of Bird by Bird recently and shared a lovely piece on the ways that this book has helped her through challenging times. In her post, she highlights the recommendations Lamott has for getting past perfectionism and moving into getting words on the page — shitty first drafts, short assignments, the picture frame technique.

As Carina notes in her post, “It can be a difficult pursuit to move past the desire for perfection in order to put the story on the page in its raw and garbled state. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to discover the places where a story might have missed its mark or characters whose voices might never be heard if you don’t get the words on the page.”

Once upon a time, I would have recommended Bird by Bird primarily to young writers, writers just learning to face the immensity of the page. But having reread it now, I can see that this is a book for writers of all ages and at many stages in their career, a book that teaches compassion for the self, even when struggling with the writing life and the universe, and everything.

Culture Consumption: September 2016

A lot going on the past few days, so I’m coming in a little late, but here’s September in books, movies, and more.

Books

Pixar Animation is one of my favorite movie making studios. Not every flick is my cup of tea, but they seem to approach each project with a sense of innovation and heart. How they manage to consistently maintain that level of creativity in an industry that tends to churn our generic blockbusters on a regular basis is presented Creativity, Inc. Written by by Ed Catmull (one of the founders of Pixar) with Amy Wallace, the book is simultaneously a history of the computer animation industry, a memoir of Pixar with all its ongoing success and challenges, and a guide for approaching the management of creative teams.

One of the main ideas behind his management philosophy is that it’s impossible for one person to know everything, and that, in fact, it is certain that there are things unknown that are influencing the flow of creativity. He writes,

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

This acknowledgement of unknown factors influencing the dynamics of a creative environment enables the initiation of a process of self reflection and analysis — not as a one time solution but as an ongoing process of growth. As one solution proves to be successful, another litany of challenges will present themselves and it’s important to know how to navigate those new challenges and change tactics as they arise. One of the many things I love about this book is how it shies away from simple, trite catch phrases that are usually presented as rules for success. Phrases such as “Trust the process” sound wise at first glance, but can often come to be meaningless. The reality is that finding solutions often requires adaptability and a willingness to address problems, failure, and change.

One of the great flaws, he finds in many operations is how they address failure as something to be avoided at all costs, a believe that often stifles creativity and risk taking. Catmull asserts that failure is “a necessary consequence of doing something new.” The very act of forging ahead on a new project, whether creating a film or writing a book, means that there will be inevitable failures along the way. Rather than seeing these failures as doom, seeing them as inevitable enables people to work through the frustration of not getting it right the first time (or second or tenth). It’s something that I’ve learned (and am still learning) to accept as I’ve attempted and failed again and again at finishing my stupid novel — each failed attempt getting me closer and closer to understanding the heart of the story, getting closer to learning how to get it right.

I also rather likes what Catmull had to say about change (similar to failure, in that people tend to be terrified of it):

“Here’s what we all know, deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”

I could probably quote passages and passages of this book, and examine each one closely, but I would quickly run out of space here. Having listened to Creativity, Inc. on audio book (narrated by Peter Altschuler), I’m eager to buying a print copy so that I can peruse the text more closely to better absorb the information and examine it for concepts that might help my own creative life.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: September 2016”

Culture Consumption: July 2016

Wait. July is over already? Where did the year go?

Books

All the Birds in the SkyI’ve long loved the work Charlie Jane Anders does — both as the host of Writers with Drinks and as a long-time editor and writer at i09. So I was thrilled to have been able to pick up a copy of All the Birds in the Sky (which I got signed at one of her readings in San Francisco).

The novel is sort of a like a nature witch and mad scientist love story that explores the philosophical differences between how magic and science approach deal with a world that’s falling apart. Both have their own ways of trying to make things better, but when magic and science begin to clash, it threatens to destroy the world instead.

I love the characters in this novel. Both Patricia and Laurence had rough childhoods that they managed to survive and deal with in their own ways. Though they are both flawed, they also have their own sense of compassion that leads them to try to do good in the world. Somehow, despite all their differences and mistakes, they manage to fit together.

Anders’ writing is beautiful — a mixture of beautiful details, humor, and emotional resonance. I loved this book.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: July 2016”

Culture Consumption: June 2016

In the intensity of getting words written, I feel as though I’ve slowed down on reading. In some cases, I’ve even been avoiding it in lieu of more mentally easy story consumption through TV and movies. Not always the best thing, since reading words is a part of what inspires me to write words. So toward the end of the month, I tried to get outside, setting into an easy chair by the pool, and delve into some much missed words.

Continue reading “Culture Consumption: June 2016”

New-to-me movies watched in April 2016

1. Frankenstein (1931)

The definitive Frankenstein monster, the monster all other Frankenstein’s are compared to. Although the some of the opening sequences are a bit awkward, this movie comes alive (pun intended) when the monster does. Karloff is wonderful as the monster and I completely understand why his performance was lauded. With great use of shadows and some creative film moments, this is a classic film worth seeing.

2. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Another great film from director James Whale. The movie is a bit stranger than the first Frankenstein, mixing a set of weird characters with humor and fantastic camera work to bring some interesting contemplative moments to the monster. Although the monster is responsible for a number of deaths, some are understandable after the horrors he’s endured, and the sense of his loneliness and longing for kindness are clear.

My main disappointment is that the Bride of the title gets so little screen time. In the few minutes she’s on screen, she presents a fascinating figure, twitching like a bird with fascination at the world. She’s amazing and I wish she had to be and do more.

3. Darling (2015)

Darling was a strange one, an intense story of a young woman taking on a care taking job and slowly going insane. The reasoning for this transition and whether she had mental health problems to begin with is not clear.

The story is set up in chapters with the start of each one featuring the young woman staring ahead like a portrait. I’m not sure these chapter cards are necessary, as the lend a feeling of unreality to the story.

Shot in black and white, the film mixes long shots of beautiful cinematography with jumps of fragments short frames, jarring the seemingly calm sequences with something hidden behind the scenes. This happens fairly consistently throughout the movie, to the point that it almost becomes numbing and looses the effect it’s going for.

Darling is interesting, bloody, strange, and mostly well done.

4. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Fun and mostly funny mockumentary about four vampires living as flat mates in New Zealand. Each vampire is from a different era and part of the humor is how each of them sees the modern world. They are also all awkward, failing to have that suave beautiful grace presented in most vampire movies. Not all of the jokes were laugh out loud funny, but there were a few golden moments. Plus, the characters were all likeable enough that I was willing to go on this bizarre little journey with them.

5. Purple Rain (1984)

I watched Purple Rain for the first time and I’m wondering how the hell I’ve never seen this before.

Prince on stage represents the golden moments of this movie. He’s a level of fabulous and HOT that cannot be contained.

Sure, the plot is thin as fishnet tights and the acting is sometimes laughable, but it’s also freaking fantastic for being the ’80s rock movie it is.

Reading from Poetry Month and beyond

My April was full of poetry, as it should be. I’m giving myself permission not to have to write reviews for all of these, due to the level of overwhelmed I’ve been and seem to continue to be.

Poetry Books Finished

Some of these are rereads. Some I started earlier in the year and only finished in April. All of them, I loved.

1. Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide to Beasts of the Southern Wild by Allie Marini
2. God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant (review)
3. Terra Incognita by Jennifer Martin
4. was it more than a kiss by Chella Courington (spotlight interview)
5. A Heart with No Scars by Brennan “B Deep” DeFrisco
6. A History of the Cetacean American Diasapora by Jenna Le (spotlight interview)
7. An Animal I Can’t Name by Raegan Pietrucha
8. The Midway Iterations by T.A. Noonan
9. My Mother’s Child by Pamela L. Taylor (spotlight interview)

Read in Part (as in a poem or few)

Again, some of these I’ve read in their entirety years ago, and others are ones I just didn’t have time to delve into completely at this time.

Neat Sheets: The Poetry of James Tiptree, Jr.
Paper House by Jessie Carty
Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan
Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda
From the Standard Cyclopedia of Recipes by B.C. Edwards
Love in a Time of Robot Apocalypse by David Perez
Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock
The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You by Caits Meissner and Tishon
No Experiences by Erin Watson
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Joy Harjo
TEN by Val Dering Rojas
Dream Work by Mary Oliver
An Apparently Impossible Adventure by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Ay Nako: Writing Through the Struggle by Lorenz Mazon Dumuk
Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich
The Usable Field by Jane Mead
Debridement by Corrina Bain
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
The Haunted House by Marisa Crawford
Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone by Annelyse Gelman
Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey

Catching Up

Back at the beginning of the month, I forgot to post my reading from March, so here’s those:

1. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

About a year ago (or something), I read and adored Jo Walton’s Among Others, for the way it handled fairies and magic as subtle things in the world, so subtle they often go unnoticed by most people.

Tooth and Claw is nothing like Among Other, a completely different direction in style and story. The book is a comedy of manners, kind of like Jane Austen but with a society of dragons. It deals with the practical matters of such a society. From the book description:

“Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.”

It’s so human in the kinds of troubles the dragons have to face (which makes sense since dragon culture was influenced by the Yarge), but social manners and propriety are all greatly influenced by the biology of the dragons — a young women is gold when she is a maiden, but blushes to pink when she becomes betrothed signifying her new ability to have children (it makes for some interesting new challenges when a woman is “compromised”); the length of a dragon has a strong influence on their social position; and so on. There is more, but I don’t want to give too much away.

The only giant glaring negative to this novel was the fact that my edition had two pages that were bound wrong — page 19 came after page 22 (which took me a week to figure out) and another page toward the end was flipped upside down.

Otherwise, Tooth and Claw was a charming read, neatly pulling together the threads of all the character’s storylines into a satisfying conclusion.

2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

This novella explores the nature of consciousness and what constitutes sentience. In the story, a set of digital pets are created and sold to users in e VR environment. While some grow bored with the creature a few become dedicated to their progress and they begin to grow their own sense of autonomy. There’s no apocalyptic machines-are-going-to-take-over-the-world elements to this. It’s more of an intellectual exploration of one possibility. It’s fascinating and sweet, and the people raising these AI pets bring them up like family.

3. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

A young teenage boy has become a single father. He’s not ready for it and struggles to maintain his schooling and raise his daughter and is strained to the point of extreme exhaustion. But throughout there is no doubt that he loves his little girl and he will do anything for her, if he can. It’s wonderfully moving and worth a read.

Poetry Review: God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant

“He got into nails, of course,
because He’d always loved
hands–
hands were some of the best things
He’d ever done”

In Cynthia Rylant’s novel-in-poems, Godgets a job, watches cable, eats dinner alone, marvels at he beauty of the world, sees all the ways life went in directions he didn’t intend it to go, discovers Himself. By grounding himself in the mortal world, He learns loneliness, anger, wonder, and fear. I found myself smiling at each new discover God made about the world he created, as well as each new discovery about Himself. These are accessible poems, beautiful in their simplicity and the way they subtly unveil layers of meaning in their own words and in religion and life. Recommended reading.

“But he finally saw
how pain caused
one of two things:
A reverence for life.
Or killing.
Both grew from the same seed.”

_____________________________________

New-to-me movies watched in March 2016

March was a GIANT movie month for me, because I participated in the March Around the World challenge, which has a goal of watching thirty movies from thirty different countries in one month.

I did not make that goal, but I did manage to watch 22 movies from around the world. Not too shabby.

March Around the World Challenge (my favorites are in bold):

1. Monsoon Wedding — India (2001)
2. Suspiria — Italy (1977)
3. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — Australia (1994)
4. Ida — Poland (2013)
5. Blue is the Warmest Color — France (2013)
6. Heavenly Creatures — New Zealand (1994)
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — Iran (2014)
8. Bangkok Love Story — Thailand (2007)
9. Volver — Spain (2006)
10. The Snapper — Ireland (1993)
11. The Assassin — China (2015)
12. Sin Nombre — Mexico (2009)
13. A Better Tomorrow — Hong Kong (1986)
14. Juan of the Dead — Cuba (2011)
15. Stalker — Russia (1979)
16. The Second Mother — Brazil (2015)
17. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance — South Korea (2005)
18. Sisters in Law — Cameroon (documentary, 2005)
19. The Devil’s Miner — Bolivia (documentary, 2005)
20. The Cave of the Yellow Dog — Mongolia (docudrama, 2005)
21. Xenia — Greece (2014)
22. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha — South Africa (2005)

Non-challenge movies:

1. Treehouse (2014)
2. Crimson Peak (2015)

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “New-to-me movies watched in March 2016”

FOGcon Homework: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

FOGcon 2016 kicked off yesterday, and I’ve already been to several interesting panels, connected with friends, and generally having a fabulous time. I’ll be posting a recap sometime next week, but for now…

About a year ago (or something), I read and adored Jo Walton’s Among Others, for the way it handled fairies and magic as subtle things in the world, so subtle they often go unnoticed by most people.

Tooth and Claw is nothing like Among Other, a completely different direction in style and story. The book is a comedy of manners, kind of like Jane Austen but with a society of dragons. It deals with the practical matters of such a society. From the book description:

“Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.”

It’s so human in the kinds of troubles the dragons have to face (which makes sense since dragon culture was influenced by the Yarge), but social manners and propriety are all greatly influenced by the biology of the dragons — a young women is gold when she is a maiden, but blushes to pink when she becomes betrothed signifying her new ability to have children (it makes for some interesting new challenges when a woman is “compromised”); the length of a dragon has a strong influence on their social position; and so on. There is more, but I don’t want to give too much away.

The only giant glaring negative to this novel was the fact that my edition had two pages that were bound wrong — page 19 came after page 22 (which took me a week to figure out) and another page toward the end was flipped upside down.

Otherwise, Tooth and Claw was a charming read, neatly pulling together the threads of all the character’s storylines into a satisfying conclusion.

New-to-me movies watched in February 2016

1. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

By all accounts this is a ridiculous movie, but it’s delightfully so. The movie just oozes with scifi geekery, from boots that allow you to fly to human-animal clones to a planet comprised of bureaucratic aliens. The costuming and sets are visually gorgeous with rich detail.

My major complaint is the heroine, Jupiter, spends most of the movie falling off of buildings and being caught by the hero. She’s literally whipped around from place to place without much agency of her own, which doesn’t make me much interested in her as a character.

Nevertheless, this was fun.

2. Deadpool (2016)

Amazeballs. This movie manages to be a superhero movie that breaks the rules of superhero movies. It’s incredibly violent, with tons of blood splatter and severed limbs and other cringeworthy moments, and it has more fourth-wall-breaking humor and asides than a wrecking ball. Plus, it brings in two awesome X-Men characters, who have not been seen (much) before. So much win.

deadpool

 

 

Book Review: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

New York is a terrifying place in the summer of 1977  with incidents of arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer known as Son of Sam shooting young women. As if this is not enough, seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez also has to deal with her out of control brother, her mom who may loose her job at any moment, and a landlord who continues to hassle them about the rent. With all this going on, its seems almost too much to have to deal with falling for the hot guy who started working at the grocery store, as well.

The heat and anxiety of living in 1977 New York comes through clearly in Burn Baby Burn. I could practically feel the heat baking through the cement and the growing tension surrounding the ongoing murders created a constant underlying anxiety, which must have been present for so many people at the time.

But for all the dangers out on the streets, the biggest dangers in Burn Baby Burn are the ones that are closest to home. Nora’s situation at home is clearly abusive, but it can take a lot of break out of the secrecy and suffering and shame that such a situation creates. Medina does an excellent job balancing the frustrations and fears of being a teenager in a hostile world, while also imbuing the story with a sense of young joy and hope. Nora has a lot to deal with, but all of her problems are real relatable problems and there is little to no angst for angst sake. She’s a believable character, one I could easily relate to and sympathize with. Nora’s relationships wither her family and friends are well handled, each with their own layers of complexity.

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom is a fitting tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a novella that draws up the doom-ridden horror of the elder gods, while also addressing the unsettling prejudice of Lovecraft’s writing. “I grew up worshipping the guy so this issue felt quite personal to me,” explained Victor LaValle. “I wanted to write a story set in the Lovecraftian universe that didn’t gloss over the uglier implications of his worldview.”

The story centers around Tommy Tester, a young black man in 1920s Harlem. In order to avoid the hard life his father led as a laborer, Tommy turns to hustling in order to make his living. He has learned to disguise himself, donning a suit, a guitar case, and a shuffling step to mask himself against the watchful eyes white folks and the cops, who might see him as threatening otherwise. He knows how to put on a bit of theater and draw in a certain subset of clientele. But after he delivers an occult tome (with a page conveniently missing) to a reclusive sorceress in Queens, he earns her wrath, which brings destruction down on him and leads him into awakening powers best left sleeping.

Racism serves as an ever present backdrop, a constant shadow laid across the vivid descriptions of Harlem and other regions of New York that make their appearance. This racism takes several forms, both subtle and overt, from the cops who hassle him and steal his money to the patronizing rich white man who promises “salvation” for the downtrodden. Some of these moments are eerily familiar to current events. This is an intricate part of what makes this story so horrifying. If the world is so hateful, then how can ancient, powerful, and indifferent beings be any worse? Thus, Tom’s descent into darkness is frightening, blood soaked, and to a certain extent understandable.

The Ballad of Black Tom is fast read and a brilliant horror story.

New-to-me movies watched in January 2016

1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

The first film I’ve seen in the new year and a good conclusion to the Hunger Games storyline. They handled some of the stranger aspects of the book with aplomb and Jennifer Lawerence continued to bring depth to the character in situations where it could easily be overshadowed by the action.

2. Pontypool (2008)

A three-person team of a small town radio show become more and more horrified as reports come in of what seems to be rioting and death. With its small cast and single location, this movie manages to provide a growing sense of tension. It’s a fantastic take on the zombie apocalypse story with a unique concept for how the infection spreads. Really enjoyable.

3. Blazing Saddles (1974)

A spoof of the western genre. Not as funny as I thought it was going to be based on my experience with other Mel Brookes flicks. While probably “edgy” for the time period, some of the jokes are somewhat cringeworthy in the present day. However, the scenes with Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder are brilliant.

Book Review: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

In a dark city, overshadowed by darkness, a man embraces his wife and daughter and then boards a steamship for another country, where he hopes to create a new life for his family. After going through a long process of immigration, he finds himself in a city he finds himself is bright and beautiful and strange.

Although he doesn’t understand the local language, he fumbles his way into a room for rent and then seeks employment. Along his journey into shaping a new life for himself and his family, he meets other people from other countries who have migrated to this city as well. Each has their own stories, their own reasons for leaving home and making a new life for themselves.

One of the amazing things about this book is how it tells a moving, heartfelt story entirely in images. There are no words, just gorgeous art. The art is softly penciled and sepia toned. It manages to be both realistic and fantastical at the same time, elaborately bringing to life a strange world that also feels familiar.

A beautiful book.

Art from The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Books finished in November and December 2015

1. Attachments (audio book) by Rainbow Rowell
2. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
4. My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock
5. The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
6. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
7. Rough Magick, edited by Francesca Lia Block and Jessa Marie Mendez
8. Fables: Happily Ever After by Bill Willingham
9. Fables: Farewell by Bill Willingham

REVIEWS

Continue reading “Books finished in November and December 2015”

Book Review: Rough Magick

The short stories and poems in Rough Magick, edited by Francesca Lia Block and Jessa Marie Mendez, explore the darker side of love and sex with a mixture of haunting, romantic, and horrifying tales. The anthology is split into two parts with the first half being lyrical stories based in realism, while the second half presents fantastical tales. This choice to split the collection was my biggest annoyance. I would have preferred to have read alternating tales of realism and fantasy, which would have provided an interesting juxtaposition. On the whole, though, Rough Magick is a strong collection with the majority of the stories being rather good and some being utterly fantastic. Here are a few favorites.

Written out like a series of instructions, “Spell to Mend a Broken Heart” by Amanda Yates Garcia sketches out the pain of heartbreak and charts a path to healing. 

“Paradise” by Ashley Inguanta is a  gorgeous story of burning — California wildfires and dry, dusty air, and the thirst of dried out and ashy hearts.

In “Venus,” Sarah Herrington presents two young girls discovering each other among the Venus fly traps with a beautiful, magical lyricism.

Probably the most disturbing story in the collection is “Rathead” by Laura Lee Bahr. It’s a strange staying which a woman falls for a handsome magician, only to wake up the morning after to discover he has a rat head. She stays with him, both loving and hating him for and despite of his hideous head.

“Persephone + Hades” by Jilly Dreadful and K.T. Ismael envisions the underworld as a sleek and seedy version Los Angeles, with various gods of death commingling and Persephone’s journeys there a kind of rebellion against her mother. The writing in this is rich and playful and gorgeous. For example: “I was taken by the ruin that bloomed there: eyes rotted out of the skull, nose skin shrinking away from its open mouth and maggots feasting away on what was left. Surrendering to the cycle, how death begets life: these were things I would never know as the daughter of Demeter.”

Kira Lees offers a disturbing vision of possessive love in “Strands of Gold.” A young girl discovers a monster, which falls in love with her instead of eating her. She brings him gifts of other children (to consume) and plays other kinds of games with him as she grows older. The ending is wonderfully unsettling.

New-to-me movies watched in November and December

1. NH10 (2015)

A woman and her husband take trip from Delhi to the countryside. Along the way they try to help a young woman being dragged off by some men, which leads them to being hunted by the locals.

Altogether a solid thriller/revenge film and it’s interesting to see a film from India expressing the same city folk fears of hicks as in the U.S. (but not surprising when I think about it).

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Love, love, love, love, love. It totally gave me the feeling I had when I was young — when I used to watch Episodes 4-6 over and over and over again to the point of annoying the hell out of my family.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

On the same day Essun comes home to find that her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter, a volcanic rift is torn across the center of the continent throwing the Sanze empire into chaos. A great earthquake rolls over the land, crushing cities and villages, and ash begins to cloud the sky. Essun leaves behind the illusion of normalcy she had shaped for so many years and journeys into a wilds of the collapsing world in order to pursue her husband and save her daughter.

Essun is a woman with secrets and many names. I don’t really know how to talk about her without giving something away. There were aspects of her personality and her story that were only revealed (to me, at least) deep into the novel, her individuality, her self having many aspects, all naturally fitting in to the whole of her story. She’s complicated and calm and full of rage. One phrase she repeats again and again throughout the story as she faces prejudice and oppression in many forms is, “It’s not right.” She sees that society is violently broken and is powerless to stop it. And already, I feel as though I’ve said too much, so let’s move on.

The worldbuilding in The Fifth Season is exceptional. It’s a world built on continual catastrophe, a continent continually beset by earthquakes and the threat of apocalypse. The stability of the empire is built on survival through past destruction, surviving many apocalyptic seasons (known as fifth seasons, seasons of death) in which earthquakes, volcanoes, or other natural disasters have created months, years, or decades of light-less winter and famine. As such, the culture is focused on survival, with their scripture, known as Stone Lore, primarily presenting knowledge on how to prepare for and survive the next apocalyptic season that is sure to come.

The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. I hadn’t intended to get started on another series this year, but here I am and I don’t at all mind. Jemisin’s story is fantastic on many levels and I can’t wait for next books to be released.

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

From page one, I loved Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Every ten years a Dragon chooses a young maiden, but this is not the kind of dragon with scales or the kind who would eat her. He’s an ageless wizard in a tower, who keeps the darkness and malevolence of the Wood at bay in exchange for the service of a girl, whom he releases at the end of ten years (although none of the girls chose to return home after). Every one expects him to take Kasia, the most beautiful and brave and capable girl in the town, so when the time of the choosing comes and he chooses Agnieszka instead, it’s a great surprise to everyone, most especially Agnieszka herself.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of this book, because so much unfolds is packed away and then unfolded again over the course of the story. Amal El-Mohtar has in her review on NPR has a wonderful description of reading this book.

“Watching the plot develop is like watching time-lapse footage of a plant growing, unfurling leaves, gaining height and depth simultaneously: it’s an organic, vivacious development that builds seamlessly on what came before. Agnieszka’s training, her failures and successes in magic, her loneliness and fears and frustrations, all bud and blossom into new adventure even as the roots tangle into deeper complication: The ultimate source of the Wood’s malice.”

Although the story features sex and something like romance, the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia is the true heart of this story. Having known each other all their lives, their friendship begins sweet, but delves into a deeper trust as all their petty jealousies and hidden anger laid bare over the course of the story. But throughout, they stay true to each other and they stay true to themselves, able to have their own emotional arcs, face their own inner demons, and realize their own strength and confidence.

There are so many other things I could say about this book, about how it plays with story telling and myth, how it focused more on the local village community than on royalty, how it relates a story of nature versus civilization, or maybe how explores the differences between linear versus organic styles of magic. This book is just so wonderfully layered and I’m sure there will be more to think about and reconsider when I come around to reading it again, but for the moment I just want to say that I love Novik’s writing style, how she manages to maker her lines seem at once so beautiful and at the same time so effortless. I melted into this story and I will be looking forward to exploring more of Novik’s work.

 

New-to-me movies watched in October 2015

(I don’t have the mental capacity for full reviews this week, so here are some short thoughts.)

1. Glengary Glen Ross (1992)

About five minutes into watching this, I thought, This feels like a David Mamet play. That would probably be because it was written by David Mamet. The story is as simple as a day in the life of shady real estate salesmen, but the crisp and snappy dialog and brilliant acting make this incredibly dark and tense.

2. The Martian (2015)

Capturing almost everything I loved about the book, the movie was just as funny and thrilling as I hoped it would be with gorgeous shots of the martian landscape.

3. We Are Still Here (2015)

This fairly standard haunted house movie set in the early ’80s features a family trying to start over, a suspiciously creepy small town, and a violent ghosts. The opening sequences are unsettling with sparse images of a snowed in landscape, which building to a conclusion full of bloodplatter. Just what I wanted to see.

Books finished in October 2015

1. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (audio book) by Susanna Clarke
2. All the Rage by Courtney Summers
3. Fiendish (audio book) by Brenna Yovanoff
4. Celestial Inventories (short stories) by Steve Rasnic Tem
5. Failure Lyric, poetry by Kristina Marie Darling

Still reading at the end of the month:
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie and Attachments (audio book) by Rainbow Rowell. Both are wonderful.

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books finished in October 2015”

The Power of People Working Together and THE MARTIAN

Note: This post involves minor spoilers. 

A significant portion of Andy Weir’s The Martian centers around a lone astronaut using his wits to survive in impossible circumstances.

During a massive sandstorm and an evacuation of the mars expedition team, astronaut Mark Watney is hit by a radio dish and presumed dead. But he wakes on Mars alone, still alive in a hostile environment. The only way to survive is to use scientific knowledge and engineering skills to make an uninhabitable world inhabitable for four years when the next Mars mission is set to return.

Space and travel to other planets are incredibly dangerous for human being. There are thousands of ways for a person to die, from severe cold to lack of atmosphere to the wrong oxygen/nitrogen/carbon dioxide mixture in a space suit. A small error in judgment, one tiny unconsidered element of physics (like a single flawed bolt or a piece of overstretched fabric) can mean catastrophe and death. This epically fun book makes this danger brutally clear.

Continue reading “The Power of People Working Together and THE MARTIAN”

Books completed in August 2015

1. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
2. Rupetta by N.A. Sulway
3. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (audio book) by Susanna Clarke
5. Highku: 4 & 20 Poems About Marijuana (chapbook) by Brennan ‘B Deep’ DeFrisco
6. House and Home (chapbook) by Jaz Sufi
7. Reflections by Jocelyn Deona De Leon
8. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
9. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.
10. The 2013 Rhysling Anthology, edited by by John C. Mannone

In progress at the end of the month: The Martian by Andy Weir

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books completed in August 2015”

SciFi Reading

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.

Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him. 
— from “On the Last Afternoon”

One of my goals this year was to start reading books that have won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which is presented for stories that explore aspects of gender, primarily in SciFi and Fantasy. Since I was reading these award winners, I figured I should also read some of the work by the author after whom the award is named. James Tiptree, Jr. is a pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon (and had a second pen name, Raccoona Sheldon), who wrote hard science fiction for years without readers knowing she was a woman.

Tiptree is a perfect namesake for this award because so many of her own stories explore gender and sexuality in challenging and innovative ways. These stories are intelligent, sometimes challenging, and often bleak.

“The Screwfly Solution,” which is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years, involves increasing numbers of attacks by men against women. Bits of news clips, letters, and diary entries are placed alongside the main narrative of a man trying to make it home to his wife and daughter amid the mounting chaos. The ending is fatalistic and powerful, haunting.

In “The Women Men Don’t See” a journalist on a trip into Mexico takes a flight on a small plane with a mother and daughter, whom he finds unsettlingly independent and not fitting into his expectations of how women should be. I can’t say much more about the story without giving too much away, but the exploration of gender roles becomes increasingly explicit.

“With Delicate Mad Hands” is the story of a woman with a facial deformity who has lived her entire life unloved by her fellow human beings who mock and abuse her. She perseveres through an inner secret drive to leave Earth’s solar system behind her, and she achieves this one day by stealing a ship and steering it solo to the stars. There is so much more to the story than that short description, but I don’t want to say anymore. Although as dark as any other of Tiptree’s stories, this was also sweet and romantic.

Another subset of stories explore sexual behavior through alien bodies and include stories such as “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death,” “On the Last Afternoon,” and “A Momentary Taste of Being.” The alien-ness of these creatures or beings is startling and often destructive to human existence.

Other stories reflect on moral complexities of human society. “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” for example presents bits and pieces of Doctor Ain’s last flight told through the points of view of the people who meet him along his journey (again, this tells too little, but it really is a thrilling story). In “We Who Stole the Dream” an alien race enacts a revolt against humanity which holds them captive, breaking free from slavery and suffering, only to find that the home they are returning to is not the dream-come-true they expected.

Although I didn’t necessarily love every story, reading this brick-thick collection was a fantastic experience. Tiptree was an amazing writer, a master of the genre. Her work is a must read for any science fiction fan.

The 2013 Rhysling Anthology

Edited by John C. Mannone

This is not really a review, because this anthology contains one of my poems. (I received my contributor’s copy two years ago and it’s taken me that long to getting around to actually reading it.)

The anthology, published by the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), comprises works nominated for the Rhysling Awards, which recognizes the best speculative poems published in the previous year. Below are the winners; I’ve included links to poems or poets, where I could find them.

Winners in the Short Poem Category:

First Place: “The Cat Star” by Terry A. Garey

Second Place: “Futurity’s Shoelaces” by Marge Simon

Third Place: “Sister Philomela Heard the Voices of Angels” by Megan Arkenberg

Winners in the Long Poem Category:

First Place: “Into Flight” by Andrew Robert Sutton

Second Place: “String Theory” by John Philip Johnson

Third Place (tie): “The Time Traveler’s Weekend” by Adele Gardner and
“The Necromantic Wine” by Wade German

In related news, I’ve decided to join the SFPA. In a large part this was to receive copies of the various publications as they come out, because I love speculative poetry, as well as to be able to participate in future voting when the time comes.

Book Review: Rupetta by Nike Sulway

“History was an art form — the delicate, dangerous art of creating the past.”

Science fiction writers have long used visions of animatronic machines and robots to questions the nature of humanity and god and to explore what constitutes a soul. In this beautiful and strange alternate history, N.A. Sulway performs a similar exploration while also taking into consideration how history is shaped and how the creation of history through carefully selected “facts” or stories shapes a society.

Rupetta is an animatronic object, constructed in the 1600s by a young French woman out of brass gears and cogs and leather fittings to resemble a human being. She shares souls and consciousness with the women who wynd her. As Rupetta recounts her own story, in which she witnesses centuries, from her creation to the formation of a new society with her image at its center, she reveals the ways she has been loved, hated, and used by the women she is bound to, as well as the ways she herself has loved.

Alternating with her own story is Henri’s tale, a young woman living in the “present” day society formed out of the devotion to the Fourfold Rupettan Law — “Life is Death. The Earth is a Grave. The Body is a Machine for Dying. Knowledge is the Path to Imortality.” Henri longs to be a historian of the Penitent order and to give up her human heart for a mechanical one that would extend her life. In her researches on the Salt Lake Witches, she uncovers a hidden secret that could shake the stability of the current societal order.

This was a strange and wonderful read with beautiful language. I loved the varying relationships between each of these women, based on kindness, love, friendship, and trust, as well as pain, betrayal, and anger. At it’s core this is a love story interweaved with the histories that shape society and the intellectual rebellions that threaten to undo it.

The hardback edition is out of print and expensive to purchase, but I recommend picking up a digital copy.

Don’t Forget that I am running a giveaway for The Walls Around Us. Just comment on the post by August 31 to enter.

THE WALLS AROUND US book review and giveaway

“We went wild that hot night. We howled, we raged, we screamed. We were girls — some fourteen and fifteen; some sixteen, seventeen — but when the locks came undone, the doors of our cells gaping open and no one to shove us back in, we made the noise of savage animals, of men.”

A few years ago now, I read and fell in love with Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, an emotionally complicated sister-centered story with a touch of creepy and unsettling magical realism. It’s a story that still haunts me, sneaking from behind the shadows into the foreground of my mind. A book that I treasure in my soul and a level of achievement that I aspire to in my own writing.

Nova Ren’s latest novel, The Walls Around Us, has the same kind of haunting quality, and not just because it’s a ghost story. It’s a tale that lingers long after you’ve put it down.

Three girls are the center of this story — Amber is a young woman convicted of murder who has been locked in prison for years; Violet, a ballet dancer with a dark secret; and Orianna, a girl caught in a tide of misfortune who binds the other two together. Their stories weave together unveiling lies and secrets and the truth behind a murder.

Alternating between Amber and Violet’s points of view, the story unfolds with a feeling of inevitability, a sense that everything has happened before and cannot be stopped from happening again. Neither girl is nice or easy; instead they are both complicated and difficult, having made dangerous decisions that lead to catastrophes that define their lives. Where Nova Ren’s skill is clear is in how she manages to generate a feeling of fascination and sympathy for both of these girls. Violet in particular is an awful human being, and yet I found myself pitying her and how she has cut herself off from feeling for anyone else in the world and a part of me wanted her to make it to Julliard despite all the things she’s done.

Amber is particularly interesting to me in the way she erases herself into the group of her fellow prisoners, rarely using the singular “I” and more often using the plural “we”, as though their stories and her own story were the same, as though they are all one body of girls moving through the prison system. Her own personal story slowly unfolds but never quite condemns or absolves her of any crime. She is both guilty and a victim of society and circumstances, screwed over by the man her mother married and the system. A girl taken for granted, as many in the prison are.

Rich, gorgeous prose brings the world inside this prison for young women and the outside world (for this books seems to divide the world into two realms – inside and outside) to vivid, brutal reality. The supernatural aspects of this tale are subtle, weaved in among grounded real-world details enabling a level of plausibility. The effect — of not just the supernatural elements, but the entire story — is unsettling in all the right ways. Although the end is satisfying, this is a novel without easy answers, one to ponder after finishing, and then to go back and reread and ponder some more.

For a further exploration, here are some great interviews Nova Ren Suma has done regarding the book:

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Giveaway

As it turns out, I ended up with an extra copy of The Walls Around Us and I want to share the love, hence a giveaway! I’ll send the copy of the book to someone in the U.S. or Canada.

How to Enter: Just leave a comment telling me about why you would like to read The Walls Around Us.

Signups end on August 31, at which point I will pick the winner randomly.

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Books completed in July

1. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
2. Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone: Poems by Annelyse Gelman
3. Drink by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month: The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma and I’ve started listening to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke on audio book, which is a reread after watching the recently released mini-series.

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books completed in July”

Poetry Review: Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone

Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone, by Annelyse Gelman
Write Bloody Publishing, 2014

                                 Hello,
my name is Annelyse, I have
chrystalized myself in the liberal arts
and now emerge, grotesque
insect, able to do nothing
but talk about everything.
— from “Ars Poetica”

I learned about Annelyse Gelman’s work by attending a Writer’s with Drinks reading at which she performed. Although she seemed to not be entirely comfortable with being on stage, she read well and her series of quirky, intelligent poems that had me immediately wanting to buy the book.

After purchasing Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (and getting it signed by the poet), I quickly read through it and then went back to reread many of the poems over again, revisiting and re-experiencing them because I loved them, I really did. But when it came time time for me to sit down and write a review all I could think to say was, These poems are awesome, without really being able to find the words to explain how or why these poems. So, I spent the last two months, planning to write a review and thinking about the review and going back to read a poem here or there and falling in love all over again without being actually able to write a proper review.

We wanted to show you anything is possible.
Forgive us. We were so in love.
In past lives, we were mothers, and you mourned

when we promised you would outlive us.
— from “Hurricane”

These poems are witty, clever, fun with an undercurrent of vulnerability and introspection. They explore the chaotic realm of everyday life, poking fun at its imperfections and drawing out its underbelly. I don’t really know what else to say, so I’ll just end with, These poems are awesome and you should go read them.

The future has an obscenely happy
ending: one day there you are
then suddenly BANG!
— from “An Illustrated Guide to the Apocalypse”

Books completed in June 2015

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
2. Ship Breaker (audio book) by Paolo Bacigalupi
3. Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
4. Atonement by Ian McEwan
5. Kit’s Wilderness, by David Almond
6. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books completed in June 2015”

Books completed in May 2015

1. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
2. A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
3. Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
4. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
5. Middlesex (audio book) by Jeffrey Eugenides
6. Monster by Walter Dean Myers
7. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (audio book) by Truman Capote
8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Books still in progress at the end of the month: The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone, poetry by Annelyse Gelman, and thanks to the Short Story Month challenge I’m in the middle of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a massive compilation of James Tiptree, Jr. short stories.

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books completed in May 2015”

#ShortReads Days 20-21

Both stories are by James Tiptree, Jr., published in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, because I can’t seem to get enough.

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In”

Dark and complicated, this story is about a young woman who yearns to touch the beauty of the starlets she worships like gods. So, when a corporation offers her the chance, she agrees to be the mental controller of a waldo, a beautiful puppet-girl who dazzles audiences and sells product. But everything comes at a price.

One of the many fascinating things about this story is the voice of the narrator, a voice I associated at first with the girl, but is clearly separate and slightly omniscient. It’s not clear who this narrator is, nor is it clear who she is speaking to — maybe us, but maybe someone else specific from the past.

“The Man Who Walked Home”

I can’t really talk about this story without giving too much away, but I can say it’s apocalyptic and portrays an array or humanity after the fall. About halfway through the story, I started thinking I wasn’t that into it and then the ending. Oh, my, the ending. And, yeah, it’s just as fantastic as all the rest of the Tiptree stories I’ve read.

#ShortReads Day 19: "12:02 P.M." by Richard A. Lupoff

Published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2011

A man is caught in a time loop, the same hour repeating over and over again which no one else seems to notice. A basic fun adventure, time travel story. 

Tell me your short story suggestions in the comments. 

#ShortReads Day 18: "The Grief Frequency" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Available on Kindle.

This is a knock out of a short story, creepy and sorrowful. After his wife dies, Paul is drawn so deeply into his grief that he begins to see… I won’t tell you what. Burke does a fantastic job with this story, creating deep characters in a short space and invoking the feeling of grief, while also making it all so unsettling. 
Favorite Line(s): I dug deep into the pockets of my overcoat and grabbed fistfuls of patience as I watched them queue for the opportunity to be sorry.”

#ShortReads Days 16-17

“Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch” by Kelly Barnhill
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

The widow Sorensen forms a new, if unconventional, family for herself at the shock of the local town. Though Agnes Sorensen is clearly human she is portrayed as nymph-like with a magical collection to animals and her new paramour. A sweetly romantic and whimsical tale.

Favorite Line(s): “Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy — to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes.”

“Sleepwalking Now and Then” by Richard Bowes
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

Art imitates life or, rather, life imitates art in a theatrical play staged in a dilapidated hotel in 2060. I love the idea of a stage play that takes place over multiple days and rooms in which the audience can interact with the actors. I didn’t much connect with the characters or story as a whole, though; the ways theatre sets a stage for violence is a common theme.

Favorite Line(s): “Like many New Yorkers, Jacoby Cass saw the rising waters as a warning of impending doom but, like most of them Cass had bigger worries.”

#ShortReads Days 13-15

“As Good As New” by Charlie Jane Anders
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

A young woman playwright who is the only survivor of the apocalypse. You’d think that would mean the end of all things, but it turns out the apocalypse has some surprises left. The story is charming and funny and has a lot of dialog about theater and stage writing. So much fun.

Favorite Line(s): “When Marisol let herself think about all the people she could never talk to again, she got so choked up she wanted to punch someone in the eye until they were blinded for life.”

“The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

A considerably darker and more fatalistic story than what I generally like, in which a bleak ruin is slowly consuming the world and the rich spend the end of days in lavish parties with some picking themselves off periodically in suicide. It dragged a bit for me, but the characters were lost and real, and the ending brought it around to a powerful and moving conclusion.

Favorite Line(s): “Words were but paltry things, frail hedges against the night. Ruin would consume them.”

Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
Published at Strange Horizons

A young woman deals with the aftermath of her mother’s departure. I don’t really want to say anything more than that, because this is a sad and moving tale, one I recommend you should go read right now.

After you read the story, check out this fabulous analysis of what’s not said by Anaea Lay.

Favorite Line(s): “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.”

#ShortReads Day 11 & 12: "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "Tuning Philomel’s Steely Strings in the Wasteland’s Dark Matter"

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
Published in The Martian Chronicles.

This is one of my favorite short stories of all time, which haunts me every time I think about it, so of course I had to reread it for this Short Story Month challenge. 

I got chills all over again. Bradbury makes this tragic smart house come alive, breathing with its own mechanical needs and passions and fears in the absence of humanity. 

A reading by Leonard Nimoy of “There Will Come Soft Rains” can be found on YouTube.

Favorite Line(s): “And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.” (Hard to choose a favorite line, since each word in this story sings.

Tuning Philomel’s Steely Strings in the Wasteland’s Dark Matter” by Carina Bissett
Published in Nonbinary Review.

This lyrical retelling of the myth of Philomela and her sister Procne poetically unveils a story of brutality and revenge. Two women reclaim their own sense of power following terrible and brutal abuse.

Favorite Line(s): “Through the centuries our story twists and turns, contorting to fit into new molds, yet the rumors persist as rumors will. They tear apart truths to meet their needs, finding new ways to silence our protesting screams. Only we know the truth.”

Any story suggestions?

#ShortReads Days 9 & 10

The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
Reprinted at iO9.

Such a bittersweet tale of magical realism, in which folded paper animals live. It shows the pain of internalized racism and the loss it can cause. Beautiful and so moving.

Favorite Line(s): “She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.”

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu

Published at Clarksworld Magazine.

This is a reread for me and it is as astounding experience now as it was the first time around. A group of wasps enact a form of colonization on a nearby hive of bees, though that’s only a small fraction of the story. It is beautifully told with vibrant language, relating an alien view of life in very relatable terms.

Favorite Line(s): “… it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.”

#ShortReads Day 5 & 6

Missed a day yesterday. (Eep.) So, here are two story reads today, both published by Tor.com.

Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh

This tale is presented in the form of an engineering exam offered by the Ministry of Abstract Engineering, in which three investigations involving “reports, rumors, folktales, and intimations of machines that do not and cannot exist” are offered. Each of the accounts presents different people from different parts of the world. They are a beautifully written tales with common themes of longing, sadness, and loneliness, although each seems to find ways to overcome this either through the machine or in avoidance of it. A gorgeous story.

Favorite Line(s): “So into his design he put the smoothness of her cheek, and the light-flash of her intelligence, and the fiercely tender gaze of her eyes. He put in the swirl of her hair in the wind, and the way her anger would sometimes dissolve into laughter, and sometimes into tears. He worked at it, refining, improving, delaying as much as he dared.”

The Two Weddings of Bronwyn Hyatt” by Alex Bledsoe

Bronwyn Hyatt is Tufa (a kind of fairy creature) who is marrying her love, a human. In preparing for her wedding day, she’s torn on what to wear for a dress, wanting to honor her people, while also not wanting to be bound by tradition. While pondering her problem, she meets a Yunwi Tsunsdi (another kind of fair, known as little people) who presents a solution to her problem as long as Bronwyn makes a deal. This was a fun, light-hearted story, in part due to the mundane way these events and fantastical creatures are described.

Favorite Line(s): The woman reached into a bush beside the trail and produced a miniature fiddle. She tucked it under her chin and played a high, mournful note. “It is a beautiful day for thinking. What are you pondering?”

It’s Short Story Month! What shorts have you read and loved lately?

New-to-me movies watched in April 2015

1. Gone Girl (2014)

Fantastic execution of the story line and phenomenal acting. The combination of music and cinematography creates tension even during the flashbacks of the good times. Great twists and turns (even though some had been previously spoiled for me). None of the characters are likable, but that works for the plot. They all deserve each other.

2. The Babadook (2014)

As psychological horror, The Babadook wasn’t scary so much as creepy. The story of mother dealing and her troubled son being plagued by monster in the closet had a fairy tale feel, which I liked.

Although I get why other reviewers have described the kid and other characters in this movie being annoying. Didn’t bother me too much, though, as it fit the storyline.

I liked the music and cinematography, which worked well with slow building of tension that lead to an “interesting” ending. The cutout pop up book style imagery of the monster were cool and creepy and fit with the fairytale feel.

Although I didn’t love the movie, per se, it was a good enough that I’ll be looking out for more from director Jennifer Kent.

3. How to Steal a Million (1966)

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are adorable. The story, involving the theft of a million dollar statue from a museum in order to keep an old forger out of prison, was silly and illogical but fun.

Books completed in April 2015

1. A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
2. Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
3. Blue, poems by George Elliott Clarke
4. Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
5. Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
6. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, illus. by Matt Phelan
7. The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (audio book) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
9. wingless, scorched & beautiful (chapbook) by Allie Marini Batts
10. how i live now (audio book) by Meg Rosoff

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone, poetry by Annelyse Gelman, and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books completed in April 2015”

Chapbook Review: wingless, scorched & beautiful by Allie Marini Batts

battscover

wingless, scorched & beautiful by Allie Marini Batts (on FB and Goodreads)
Publisher: Imaginary Friends Press
Date Published: March 2015

“if, in April,
the seeds planted in your scapulas
fail to bloom into wings

at least learn to love falling—
— from “Boneseeds”

The ten poems in wingless, scorched and beautiful delve into the dark corridors of women’s lives and bodies. These are women who have made mistakes, crawled through the muck, endured, and returned scarred but with renewed strength.

At first glance, a reader might perceive these poems as gloomy, but here death and rebirth dance with each other in cyclical pirouettes and hope comes back around eventually. For example, in the opening poem “Boneseeds,” the act of crashing down transitions through catastrophe into flight, while “breeding, trumpet flowers out of the dead ash” reveals how life — both plant vines and oneself — can labor to come back from destruction.

In “Her Intentions Are,” the “you” of the poem is a woman broken down by abuse, her shame and devastation revealed public on a city street corner. Her “every clinging breath is futility” and her “tears are scented and boiling with the stink of desperation”. The imagery, such as wolves and women in battle armor, evokes a feeling of folklore that reflects the inner forests in which she struggles. Though no happily ever afters are on the horizon, the poem culminates in the ability to rise up and continue living.

Female sexuality and how it is twisted and commodified is discussed in the poems “Pussy Pass” and “high art”. The first expresses rage at the entitlement of men, who expect their advances to be granted with ready sex — “every man who thinks sex is a gumball that’s owed to them / after putting two nice-guy coins into the girl-machine”. Meanwhile, the second explores the nature of art, noting “soft filters / don’t make disenfranchised body parts / any less than pornographic.” For me, “high art” suggests that art is a mirror, reflecting both truth and lies that are determined by consensus of the beholders.

Each of the poems collected here is powerful, revealing its own mixture of beauty, strength, and pain. Multiple readings of these poems unveil new layers of meaning and I suggest downloading the collection, which is available free online, and spending time with each one.

“…poor things, they
can’t see that I am
dead inside, numb to their
ether, the drug they smell on me is
freedom, they want to taste it like
ginger, a sweet and hot burn.”

— from “Vampire Boys” (note: not original formatting)

If wingless, scorched & beautiful proves to not be enough for you, never fear. Batts has released two other collections this year — another chapbook, Pictures From The Center Of The Universe (Paper Nautilus, March 2015), and a full length collection, Before Fire: Divorce Poems (ELJ Publications, 2015). Based on the strength of wingless, scorched & beautiful, I would recommend either of these collections as a good way to spend your money in support of the poet.

Book Love: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Description from Goodreads: “Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.”

I have a secret affinity for Westerns or, more accurately, I love the idea of Westerns — although I don’t often read or watch them.

My interest is closely connected with my love for folklore and mythology and the ways modern storytellers break it apart and shape it anew. There is a myth of the American Wild West, often based almost on the image of lonely, noble white cowboys standing up against the dangers of a lawless land. I can understand the appeal of figures like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok and the characters portrayed by John Wayne. Although, I’m more partial to the female versions, seen in Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. I love cowgirls and will be immediately drawn to any story that has women facing the Wild West on their own terms, even not-great movies, like Bad Girls.

I come to this interest in Westerns with the full knowledge that this mythology is deeply problematic, erasing and villainizing the image of POC, particularly Native Americans. It’s a mythology to be tangled with carefully, with room for dismantling, and approached with reservation, oodles of research, and a sense of inclusion.

One of the things that drew me to Under the Painted Sky was not only the diversity of the main characters — Sammy is Chinese and Andy is black — but the fact that they disguise themselves as boys to make their road safer. I loved both of these girls, how they faced their fears and strove for their own freedom. They both have skills and knowledge of their own and learn a lot from each other. Their bond of friendship is powerful, as strong as sisterhood by the end, and I loved the mutual respect they had for each other.

“You miss being a girl? I ask her.

Not as much as I thought I would. Just feels like when I’m being a boy, I can cut a wider path.”

The trope Under the Painted Sky most clearly breaks from is the image of the lone noble cowboy image/hero image. Instead of solitude, the story presents the strength of community and the power of being backed by the family you choose. On the road, Sammy and Andy meet three young cowboys — two from Texans and one Mexican — who join them on their journey to California and teach them some cattle wrangling skills. The interactions between the five characters are often hilarious, and the author does a great job of showing how their friendship blossoms into complete trust.

Under the Painted Sky is sometimes thrilling, sometimes touching, and often funny. It had me staying up way to late so that I could finish it. A fantastic debut and a wonderful read from Stacey Lee. I’ll be looking out for more work by her.

New-to-me movies watched in March

March was an interesting movie watching month, since I participated in a challenge on Letterboxd, called March Around the World – 30 Films from 30 Countries. I only made it to ten films because of how packed the month was for me, but it was a great experience stretching the horizons of what I normally watch.

Challenge Movies:
1. Violeta Went to Heaven / Violeta se fue a los cielos (2011, Chile)
2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec / Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, France)
3. English Vinglish (2012, India)
4. Circumstance (2011, Iran)
5. Cure (1997, Japan)
6.
Caramel (2007, Lebanon)
7. The Red Chapel / Kim Jong-Il’s Comedy Club (2009, documentary, North Korea/Denmark)
8. Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia)
9. Tsotsi (2005, South Africa)
10. The Devil’s Backbone /El espinazo del diablo (2001, Spain)

Non-Challenge Movies:
11. Oculus (2013)

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “New-to-me movies watched in March”

Books Finished in March

1. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
2. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
3. Paladin of Souls (audio book) by Lois McMaster Bujold
4. The White Darkness (audio book) by Geraldine McCaughrean
5. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
6. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
7. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
8. Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Blue, poetry by George Elliott Clarke

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books Finished in March”

Book Love: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Description “On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.”

I love this book. There are so many layers of world building and character and language that make this fantastic. Beyond the creativity of the world, the just storyline is a straightforward and tense revenge tale and I often found myself unable to put this book down.

The ruling human culture and government is the Radch. The language has no distinction between genders in their culture, so the main character uses “she” for all characters. This is set up and made clear early on, as Breq’s story begins on a world with distinct genders, so that while. Breq uses “she” in all cases, another character might use “he” pointing out the language distinction. Breq also has to be careful to not mis-gender characters in order to avoid confrontation. It might be confusing, except that it’s handled exceptionally well. It was fascinated to note my own assumptions while reading and how they shifted when I learned that a particular character was “male” according to a more binary society.

In addition to the Radch, which is a complex society with rules of power and politeness and a sort of interplanetary manifest destiny, every world had its own societal rules that felt complete and natural to that world.

I also really loved Breq and the idea of a character as being one part of larger being. As Justice of Toren, she was the ship and all of the human-esque counterparts, known as ancillaries, all sharing the same mind. This was another area, where Leckie’s skill is proven as she was able to portray that sense of being a single being existing many place at once in a clear and compelling way without it being overwhelming to the reader. It also created a unique and fascinating layering to Breq’s character, who is the single unit cut off from her former self.

In fact, each of the characters was fascinating to me and those I initially hated turned out to have depth and histories that revealed them to not be bad guys, at least not from their own point of view.

I don’t really know what else to say. I love, love, loved this book and I can’t wait to read the a sequel, Ancillary Sword.

Book Love: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

“And the Bastard grant us… in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word.”

I LOVE THIS BOOK! Let me count the ways!

1. It’s so refreshing to have a female main character who is middle aged. At 40 years old, Rowena Ista dy Chalion is free of her past madness and tucked away into a safe, little town away from the demands of the central government. She is coddled and patronized and treated like a child. She’s hard on herself and bitter about her past mistakes. Ista longs only to escape the bounds of her past and of her claustrophobic present life, and so enacts a plan to venture forth on pilgrimage, even though she doesn’t feel slightly pious. Along the way, she curses the gods for the burdens they once placed on her and her failure to carry those burdens. Despite all her hard edges, she’s compassionate toward most people, hoping to do as little harm as possible as she seeks her own freedom.

2. Challion is a well imagined high fantasy setting. The back of the book described it as medieval, but I would more visualize it as similar to 16th century Italy or France. Without overwhelming the reader with details, Bujold presents the society along with its government and religions in a way that rather specific to this world.

3. I love that there clear magical rules and limitations with power sourced either from the gods or demons. The rule provide just enough leeway for mystery to still be possible, although it’s clear that while these rules can be bent, they cannot be outright broken.

3. The fifth god in Challion’s religion is The Bastard, who is less holy than the other gods, enjoys playing tricks, and has a delightfully crude sense of humor.

5. Liss is a courier, who becomes Ista’s lady in waiting on the road. She’s a rough and straightforward girl from a common family, who unabashedly rides faster than any man on the field. I love her.

6. Illvin makes me swoon.

7. The writing is wonderfully vivid, drawing me in so that I can hear the buzzing of green flies or the see the glint of a man’s armor.

8. Though it’s the second book in the series, it stands on its own feeling complete in and of itself. This book is just about perfect for me and my tastes, so much so that I almost don’t want to read the first or third books and risk marring the experience (though I’m sure I’ll read them eventually after some of the shine wears off in my memory).

FogCon Homework: Reading Red Mars and Six-Gun Snow White

I’m stoked to be attending FogCon this weekend, where Kim Stanley Robinson and Catherynne M. Valente will be honored guests. In preparation for the excitement, I’ve been doing some homework to mentally prepare by reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente. Joanna Russ will be the Honored Ghost, so I am currently rereading The Female Man.

I’ve also semi-recently read and reviewed Valente’s Palimpsest and Robinson’s 2312.

While both authors write very different kinds of books, they each present richly detailed universes.

Continue reading “FogCon Homework: Reading Red Mars and Six-Gun Snow White”

New-to-me movies in February

1. Le Gouffre (short film, 2015)
2. Amer (2009)
3. Pariah (2011)
4. Carrie (2014)
5. Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
6. Belle (2014)
7. Birdman (2014)
8. Boyhood (2014)
9. The Theory of Everything (2014)
10. The Imitation Game (2014)
11. American Sniper (2014)
12. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
13. Near Dark (1987)
14. Kiss of the Damned (2012)

Being a part of a community on Letterboxed really increased my movie watching this month and will likely do so again in March as I take part in the March Around the World – 30 Movies and 30 Countries challenge (not that I have anywhere close to enough time to watch that many movies this month).

FEBRUARY REVIEWS:

Continue reading “New-to-me movies in February”

Slavery by Another Name

“Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s full grip on U.S. Society — its intimate connections to present day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end — can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”
– Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name

When I was in high school, in regard to black history, I remember learning about the slavery and Civil War, and then jumping ahead to the civil rights movement, with only a brief mention of sharecropping. The impression left from these lessons was that although racism still abounded after Emancipation, African Americans in the South were at least free, able to farm and build a life for themselves.

It turns out this was mostly a myth.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon reveals through meticulous research how southern whites by-passed the Emancipation Proclamation and constitutional amendments to continue slavery in the form of convict forced labor. “In the first decades [after Emancipation], the intensity of southern whites’ need to reestablish hegemony over blacks rivaled the most visceral patriotism of the wartime Confederacy,” writes Blackmon. So, they found their way around emancipation by criminalizing black life by writing laws targeted specifically at African Americans, one such law making it illegal for someone to leave their current employment without their employer’s permission.

Continue reading “Slavery by Another Name”

Books Finished in January

1. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
2. Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
3. Links: A Collection of Short Stories by Kaylia M. Metcalfe
4. Ancient, Ancient: Short Fiction by Kiini Ibura Salaam

Total for the year: 4

Favorite Read:
Palimpsest was complex and lyrical and wonderful.

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. I thought I’d be done by now, but it’s fascinating and fact heavy, which is why it’s taking me so long to read.

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books Finished in January”

New TV on My Radar

I’m terrible at keeping up with TV shows, especially those that require a chronological viewing in order to understand ongoing events. One of my favorite shows is The Walking Dead, but I’m a whole season and a half behind, so I haven’t been keeping up with new episodes.

This is usually why I end up watching things like The Big Bang Theory , because I can find them while channel flipping and they don’t require the same level of commitment.

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to tune into a three new shows this season and have done a relatively good job of keeping up with them. (We’ll see if I stick to it or not.)

Continue reading “New TV on My Radar”

Movie Review: Selma

selma movieReleased: 2014

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Description (from Letterboxd):

Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights marches that changed America.

“Selma,” as in Alabama, the place where segregation in the South was at its worst, leading to a march that ended in violence, forcing a famous statement by President Lyndon B. Johnson that ultimately led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

It astounds me that Selma was not nominated for more than two Oscars. Ava DuVernay has put together an excellent biopic, subtly fitting in many layers of history, including disagreements between different aspects of the civil rights movement (such as the SNCC) and the planning and focus required to steer events to a particular outcome. It was a smart move for the movie to focus on a single issue of the movement — the work to secure voting rights — as it give the audience a clear sense of the conflict at hand and something to rally for. I also liked the decision to overlay events with typewritten messages from the FBI’s monitoring of King and the movement, which was an unsettling and brilliant addition to the film.

David Oyelowo is fantastic as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., revealing his uncertainties in facing the enormity of the task before him. He really embodies the man and brings humanity to the character, even as he gives iconic speeches.

selma movie still

If there is one thing that bothered me, it was that sometimes it was hard to keep track of timelines. I’m not really clear on how much time passed, from when King first appeared in Selma to the final march from Selma to Montgomery. I’m assuming months, or at least weeks, but I’m not sure. It was a minor problem anyway, as I enjoyed and was moved by the movie.

My sister and I had a great conversation following the movie, talking about the history of racism and how it applies to today’s current events. Isn’t generating discussion what a movie like this is for?

selma-bridge movie still

Book Review: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

“Things that are unsightly: birthmarks, infidelity, strangers in one’s kitchen. Too much sunlight. Stitches. Missing teeth. Overlong guests.”

Palimpsest is the story of a city that exists between dreaming and waking, full of living trains, mechanical bees, houses grown from trees, rivers made of coats, and other beautiful, ugly, wonderful, and dangerous imaginings. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that access to the city is achieved through sex, as four characters — a woman who loves trains, a man who loves locks and keys, a woman who tends bees, and a man longing for his lost wife — living in different parts of the world discover after chance encounters. As each one longs more desperately to reach the City of Palimpsest, they find they have to put them in increasingly compromising situations with a multitude of complications and consequences.

“Do not ask, he thinks, and tried to clench his throat around it. But the question is a lock and it seeks the key of her and he cannot stop himself, even though the taste of it is like the Volkhov, muddy and reedy and cold.”

The language in Palimpsest is often beautiful, poetic, rich and thick as honey. It’s perfect for the surreal other city of Palimpsest, though for the “real” world it can have feel of distancing, the focus more on the labyrinth of the words than on the characters. At the beginning, when we are just getting to know the characters, I think it creates a distancing effect, making them hard to relate to, their quirks feeling exotic and strange rather than relatable. So, I had a hard time with the novel at first, as it felt more like a complex poem that I couldn’t quite penetrate.

“Every morning she pulled a delicate cup from its brass hook and filled it, hoping that it would be dark and deep and secret as a forest, and each morning it cooled too fast, had too much milk, stained the cup, made her nervous.”

After a certain point, though, when the threads of the characters’ stories began to come together, twisting through the labyrinth of Palimpsest toward the conclusion, I began to really enjoy the novel. I varied between needing to compulsively read and needing to take a break to absorb one or another beautiful phrase. While the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked, this was still a great journey and one I will reread in the future.

New-to-me movies in December

Not a great month for movie watching….

1. The Giver (2014)

The Giver is about a young boy who is assigned to work with an older man, who houses all the memories of society. Somehow the humanity’s memories have been stored away, leaving everyone empty of extreme emotions and happy in their assigned roles within a community in which everyone is equal. Or something.

I think what this movie suffers from most is the current trend in YA dystopian stories, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, in which a young character rebels against the system. It carries too much of that sleek pop-culture flavor and even mimics certain scenes (most clearly the visual aspects of the ceremony at the beginning of Divergent). What might have been unique about the original storyline has been obliterated by the need to fit in with these other popular dystopian stories, which was unfortunate. The result is a boring movie that doesn’t make much sense.

I have not read the book. I’m sure that where movie is obtuse and incomprehensible, the book is logical. Or at least I hope it is. The movie’s ending was so illogical that I was ranting at my family members, who kept telling me I was over thinking it. I guess I just need to read the book.

2. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Technically, I watched this in November while captive on a plane flight. It was a terrible decision really. Zero entertainment. Zero joy. Even the action was snooze worthy. Not even really worth writing a review about. It was just… so, so, so bad.

Books finished in December

1. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
2. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 3
3. The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
4. Siberiak: My Cold War Adventure on the River Ob by Jenny Jaeckel
5. Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Hepperman
6. The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson
7. Audacious (a novel in verse) by Gabrielle S. Prendergast
8. This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

REVIEWS:

Continue reading “Books finished in December”

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by

Fairy tales neatly blend together with the lives of teenage girls in this darkly funny collection of poems for teens. Definitely from a girl’s perspective, these poems explore unfortunate boyfriends, friendships, girl-on-girl cruelty, and other teenage nightmares using the fantastical and strange. As the Hepperman explains, these poems show how a teenage girl walking down the street can feel as though she’s trapped in her own personal tower. Many of these poems are simple, narrative poems told from the point of view of a villain or an innocent, if you believe one is any different from the other. The book is also illustrated with fantastical and surreal black-and-white photography, often evoking fairytale imagery.

A lot of these poems focus on body image, weight issues, anorexia, and so on. It was by far the most common theme among the poems. And for the most part Hepperman explores these issues artfully, though at times it seemed as though there was too much focus on this subject, the impact dulled by overuse and the ultimate message eventually feeling somewhat trite. However, some of these body image poems were also my favorite in the collection, as with “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy”, which shows how easy it is to become obsessed with self-image.

It used to be just the one,
but now all mirrors chatter.

In fact every reflective surface has opinions
on the shape of my nose, the size

of my chest, the hair I wash and brush
until it’s so shiny I can see myself

scribbling notes as each strand
recommends improvements.

— from “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy”

One of the things I really enjoyed about this collection was how darkly funny many of the poems were. For example, the poem “Big Bad Spa Treatment” describes how you can get sumptuously treated with “deep-tissue Massage Mallets, / leaving you loose / and gristle free” and a “honey barbecue facial mask”. And the evil queen doesn’t stop at Snow White in “Assassin,” but laboriously works to take out Sleeping Beauty, Gretel, Bo Peep, Goldilocks and others in her need to be the fairest.

While I can’t say this was the best collection of poetry I have every read (I think there is more mature work out there), it was certainly enjoyable and I would recommend it for just about any teenage girl. I think it would resonate with that age group quite a lot. I would have been obsessed with this collection as a teenager, reading it dogeared and copying quotes down in my journals. I remember facing my own self loathing around my body in high school and the awkwardness I felt around my peers, and I’m sure this book would resonated. It might have even made me feel stronger, as though I could face the world with courage and awesome.

My Top Five Christmas Movies

There are a zillion lists of favorite/top Christmas movies out there, so creating my own is probably just adding to the chatter (and it’s even possible I’ve done this before). Yet, here I am adding my own personal list, and it is just that — personal. These are movies that I either grew up with or have a connection to, that I get eager to watch every year, and that (along with friends and family and decorations) make it feel as thought the season is really here, as I cuddle up with my sisters in big fluffy blankets to watch.

My list focuses on movies about Christmas, instead of movies about other events that just happen to be set at Christmas time, such as Die Hard, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Home Alone.

So, here are my favorite Christmas movies, in no particular order.

The-Muppet-Christmas-Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Numerous as the “best of” Christmas movie lists are the adaptations of Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, but the muppets version is by far my favorite, gently incorporating the zany antics of the muppets characters, while also holding true to the sentiment of the original story.

Gonzo makes for a surprisingly great Charles Dickens and Michael Cain is fantastic as scrooge. Each of the ghosts hit the perfect notes: The Ghost of Christmas Past is ethereal and wispy, the Ghost of Christmas Present is joyful and solid, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is a kid=friendly level of grim and frightening.

Elf

Elf (2003)

A orphan crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and ends up being raised by an elf at the North Pole. It’s not until he’s an awkward, ginormous adult that he figures out he’s not really an elf and goes in search of his father, a Scrooge-like character who has been on the naughty list for years. His reunion with his long lost father does not go smoothly.

One of the things that makes this movie fantastic is Will Ferrel’s ability to pull off a level of childlike innocence and glee that reminds me of the shrill, ridiculous joy of being young at Christmas. Just seeing him scream “SANTA!” at the top of his lungs makes me think, Oh, yeah, I remember that feeling.

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983)

All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a a Red Ryder B.B. gun, but all any adult, — from teachers to his parents and even Santa Claus — has to say on the matter is “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

I know people who hate this movie (my sister is one), but I can’t go through the Christmas season without watching it at least once. The dark humor appeals to me. Also, the adventures of this family struggling through Christmas — the kids dealing with bullies, over-sized snow suits, and horrible gifts, the parents trying to offer as much joy as they can while strapped for cash — resonates with me. It reminds me on a small level of the chaos that surrounded my own family around the holidays, my parents doing the best they could with what they had. Somehow it all came together into a fabulous holiday event in the end.

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The Santa Claus (1994)

When advertising executive Scott Calvin accidentally kills Santa Claus by causing him to fall off the roof, he finds himself whisked off to the North Pole with his son, where he learns he has to take Santa’s place as the deliverer of presents and joy to the children of the world. Though he tries to deny it, his transformation into Santa begins to take place regardless.

I’m not really a fan of Tim Allen, but I love this movie. It’s funny and sweet and magical, and I will sit and watch it anytime it comes on.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Feeling depressed and disenchanted with his work as the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington wanders away from Halloween Town and discovers a doorway into the North Pole with snow and elves and joyful feelings. So enamored is he with the discovery of Christmas that he takes over the holiday, taking on the role of Santa Clause.

While I feel this is almost as much of a Halloween movie as a Christmas movie, I love this animated tale, which puts a creepy spin on the genre. It fills the dark little heart of my goth/horror-loving shadow self.

Honorable Mention: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

And the rest of the ’60s Christmas cartoons, really. Each of these movies, especially Rudolph holds a special place in my heart. Rudolph as the outcastand, all of the misfit toys, and the abominable snowman — I love them all.

What are your favorite holiday movies?

Thoughts on The Arabian Nights, Vol. 3

Arabian NightsI have officially finished all three volumes of The Arabian Nights, a 2,715 page journey!

Volume 3 comprises nights 719 to 1001, as well as the “Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp” standalone story. This third volume has proven to be my favorite, as there is less repetition (same kind of story followed by same kind of story) than in the previous books and some stories that begin on well trodden themes actually branch of in surprising directions. Adventures, romances, and comedy tales mix together with morality tales in a broad spectrum of stories, many of which I found rather fun and interesting.

Shahrazad’s Tale Comes to an End

As I mentioned, in my review of volume 2, we can see Shahrazad’s story and dramatic progression through the tales she tells, guiding King Shahriyar to a different perspective on women. By volume 3, I get the sense that Shahrazad has relaxed, which allows her to explore a greater variety of tales. She probably senses him coming around and so can use the tales more as entertainment than for moral and philosophical lessons.

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Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Book description (from Goodreads):

“In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.”

I loved many things about this book, fantastic post-apocalyptic worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and a captivating storyline, full of complexity. The writing is clean, giving Onyesonwu a clear voice as she narrates her life story.

Onyesonwu is a wonderfully interesting character, full of both anger and compassion, able to strike out and provide healing, desiring revenge and yet not wanting to engage in the violence she sees around her. Likewise, her companions and teachers (there are many) are complicated too, with a variety of motivations and assumptions based on traditions or superstitions.

The story includes descriptions of rape, genocide, female circumcision, stoning, child soldiers, and other real-world violence that is horrifying (and sometimes hard to read), and yet handled with honesty, precision, and care. In the face of all this horror, the story could have easily turned into a downer, but hope, love, and friendship are weaved into the story as well. The story is powerful, deeply resonant, and one to think about long after having put it down. An amazing work of art.

I will definitely be reading more by Nnedi Okorafor.

Book and Movie Completed in November

Does this blog title sound odd to you? Because it sounds odd to me.

I don’t remember the last time I’ve only finished one book over the course of a month, as I tend to average between 6-8 books a month. This is in part because of my busy November schedule and because my time was spent absorbing longer works. In addition to the one book I’ve completed, I spent the month working my way through the third volume of The Arabian Nights (which is 850 pages long, so I’m still not done after reading around 500 pages this month).

It was also a slow month in movie watching, with only one new-to-me movie watched. Though again, I spent time working my way through a longer storyline, binge watching ten episodes of The Walking Dead on my flight back from London, instead of catching up on current movies like I usually do.

All that is to say, here are my thoughts on the one new book and movie for this month.

Movie – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the ApesAn astronaut journeying through space lands on a strange planet, on which the human-like inhabitants are mute and are ruled by intelligent apes. Captured and unable to speak due to an injury, the astronaut (played by Charlton Heston) is unable to express his intelligence and is treated like a caged wild animal.

While the makeup and special effects are corny by today’s standards, I totally understand why this movie is a classic. The storyline is compelling as it presents an interesting, critical look at what it means to be human, how we treat animals in cages, and the threat of human’s tendency toward violence. There are many layers and much that could provide ample space for critical discussion (I’m sure many essays and analyses exist). An excellent movie, so much more interesting than ANY remake that has come after it (and I’m sure sequels, too, though I haven’t seen all of them yet to be able to judge).

Book – Sleepwalk by John Saul

I’ve had this on my bookshelf for ages and finally picked it up because it was a lightweight paperback to take on the plane. It served its purpose as something to read, but it annoyed me in several ways. The main character was a teacher; I was a substitute and my sister and friend are teachers, and the descriptions of classrooms and schools in the book did not ring true. None of the characters were particularly interesting either and the evil corporation conspiracy storyline was cliche. Plus the story involved around the concept “noble natives” as connected to nature compared to the people in town people who blindly working at an oil refinery, which is destroying nature. It all felt like it was borrowing old ideas, tropes, and stereoypes mixed together into a novel. Not a winner.

New-to-me movies: August to October

Very short reviews from three months worth of movie watching. What have you seen lately?

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
3. Divergent (2014)
4. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
5. The Bling Ring (2013)
6. A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
7. Prom Night (2008)
8. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
9. Captain America: The Winder Soldier (2014)
10. The Pact (2012)
11. The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
12. Horns (2014)

REVIEWS:

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Books completed in October

1. Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie
2. Contact (audio book), by Carl Sagan
3. Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
4. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
5. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
6. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio book) by Robert Louis Stevenson

Still reading at the end of the month: The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 3, which will probably take me a long while.

Please share what you have been reading in the comments. Nothing better than discussing books!

REVIEWS:

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Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

I received this book as a reward for supporting the kickstarter project that made it possible. “Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center,” the editors wrote in the project description. “People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins.”

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History provides alternative narratives, presenting the stories of people that the history books usually ignore. A wide ranging variety of voices populate this excellent collection of stories, offered alongside an individual black and white illustrations, also in a variety of styles. The stories are anchored in time and place, with the date and setting noted at the top of each one, this connection with real-world history makes these stories of the fantastic more believable. There was not a single one in this collection that I didn’t like and, for me, the stories ranged from good to utterly fantastic. Below are a few of my personal favorites.

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Book Review: Contact by Carl Sagan

“In the scant few decades in which humans have pursued radio astronomy, there has never been a real signal from the depths of space, something manufactured, something artificial, something contrived by an alien mind.

And yet the origin of life now seemed to be so easy — and there were so many billions of years available for biological evolution — that it was hard to believe the Galaxy was not teeming with life and intelligence.”

– from Contact by Carl Sagan

Contact by Carl Sagan
So many alien contact stories, especially those presented in movies, show a hostile force invading the Earth, forcing the human race to rally together in order to fight back. This is perspective is often driven by humanity’s history of violence and colonization, as well as human paranoia, such as with 1950s alien invasion movies as a metaphor for Cold War fears.

While I’ve enjoyed many an alien invasion stories (most recently, Falling Skies), I find myself drawn to and prefer first contact stories that are more positive or, at least, more ambiguous.

I think that is part of what made me love the movie Contact so much, when it was released in 1997, that story of ambiguous first contact with alien life based in scientific plausibility. It was a story not wholly built on paranoia and allowed for interesting perspectives to come through — How would people and government and religious groups react if an alien signal arrived from space? Plus it featured a complicated woman, heading the scientific investigation, played by the amazing Jodie Foster. I still get chills just rewatching the movie trailer.

“I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”
— from Contact (movie version)

It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading the novel, but it’s been on my to-read list ever since I’ve seen the movie. I’m so glad I did.

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Books finished in September

This is coming to you rather late due to my recent two weeks in Germany, two weeks of hard work and very little play. I’m planning to get a short post up tomorrow with the highlights of the trip, but for now…

Books Completed
1. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
3. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
4. Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
5. Locke & Key: Head Games, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
6. Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
7. Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
8. Locke & Key: Clockworks, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
9. Locke & Key: Alpha & Omega, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Contact by Carl Sagan, because the last CD of the audio book was too scratched to listen to and I’m still waiting to get the print edition from the library
• Blue (poems) by George Elliott Clarke
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox
• The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 3, which will take me a while to work through

REVIEWS:

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How to Dig Yourself Out of a Creative Slump

It’s an awful, crappy (insert additional expletives) feeling when you’re in a creative slump, no matter what you’re working on, whether its writing, painting, or a new business proposal. Everyone goes through it — and yet it manages to be a terribly isolated feeling, like you’re trapped inside a dank, dark cave with no sign of rescue on the horizon.

Here are some things you can to do to help pull yourself out of the mire. Or, rather, I should say, here are a few things I’m currently doing to try to dig myself out of my own current slump. As with most bits of advice, your mileage may vary.

Seek Community Engagement

Go out and find fellow artists, writers, creators with which to interact. You can do this online, but if you’re really stuck, I recommend seeking a face-to-face experience. It provides a different level of osmosis. On a really good day, you can feel their excitement, their creativity energy coming off them. I don’t think of this as stealing, so much as basking in their sunlight. It’s great for gathering inspiration

My most recent foray was to attend Writers with Drinks at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco this weekend. Charlie Jane Anders is a live electrical wire on the stage and she always selects amazing writers to perform. It was a fantastic event and I felt energized by the end, excited to get some of my own words down.

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Books Completed in August

1. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Echo
2. We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead, edited by Dawn Keetley
3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
4. The Essential Edgar Allan Poe (audio book) by Edgar Allan Poe
5. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
6. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line: Veronica Mars #1, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham7.
7. The Science of Herself, Plus… by Karen Joy Fowler

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
• Blue (poems) by George Elliott Clarke
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox
• The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

REVIEWS:

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Book Review: House of Leaves

It’s hard to know how to explain the story of House of Leaves, which is deeply layered. I suppose one could start the explanation with what is essentially the core story, Navidson, an acclaimed photographer moves with his family into a country home in order to rebuild bonds and find a calmer, more cohesive life together, only to discover that the house is much more than it seems.

That explanation just barely scratches the surface of this book, however. The story begins with Johnny Truant, who learns of the death of a man named Zampanó and discovers a chaotic stack of papers in the man’s empty apartment. As he starts to put them together, his life starts to fall apart.

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Books Completed in July

1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
2. A Good Indian Wife, by Anne Cherian
3. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons from a Life in Comedy, by Carol Leifer
4. TEN (chapbook), by Val Dering Rojas

Still in progress at the end of the month: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Echo and We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s the Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human by Dawn Keetley — these two books are the reason why it’s been such a slow reading month for me.

REVIEWS:

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Poetry Chapbook Review: TEN by Val Dering Rojas

Book Cover: Ten by Val Dering Rojas

TEN by Val Dering Rojas
Publisher: Dancing Girl Press
Date Published: 2014

ONE.
I think
if he tried,
I would crumble
like the iridescent shell
of a beetle.

Val Dering Rojas’ TEN consists of ten long poems alongside ten mini-poems that explores the inner working of body and soul through the out workings of color and texture. The ten mini poems act as a form of chapter headings in between each of the longer pieces, providing a framework for the chapbook. Read together, all in one go, these mini-poems provide a poem of their own, which unveils a personal journey, from a place of a place of disconnecting from emotional wounding to a sense of inner calm, a spiritual awareness. As interjections, the mini-poems share thematic progression with the longer pieces.

In “An Instance of Affliction,” a medicine cabinet is contemplated, an “axis of obsolete / streets, old razors roads.” The medicine cabinet, the objects within, and the reflection in the mirror fade behind an deeper reflection. The material world itself becomes metaphor for personal experience.

“How To Leave” expresses the unpacking and dismantling of the meaning love with “its utopian tongue”, expressing both how love fails us and also all the things (objects and feelings) that must be left behind. “Love can’t be found / in these humble jars of honey, / in these everyday teaspoons.” At the same time, there is what remains in the leaving: “You are packing yourself up in bags, // stuffing yourself in boxes.” What do we have in the ending of a relationship, but ourselves? The objects (clothing, books, toiletries, towels, bedding), which gets stuffed into bags and boxes, become representative of the self. And yet, the poem, shows how the things we tell ourselves in leaving (“I hate love” or that “love / doesn’t know any truth at all”) are either lies or, at the least, half truths, because feeling, love, emotion lingers.

The progression of the poems eventually lead the reader to realize that the self is enough. In “While Alone at Topanga Thrift,” the narrator explores the feeling of space while discovering objects in a thrift store: “It occurs to me / that most things are made / to be filled; even now, / these old red dough-bowls / brim with sun.” As with the rest of the poems, it’s easy to relate the outer objects to the inner realm. The imagery of a tiny teacup or a ginger jar becomes moving and beautiful metaphor.

EIGHT.
I can’t let you
see me cry,
but if you’d like,
I’ll tell you a sad story.

I’ve returned to these poems several times in the course of reading them, each time discovering something new — a turn of phrase to fall in love with, a deeper meaning to latch onto. Each poem is shown to be lovelier and more evocative each time I read it. All told, a lovely. wonderful collection and I hope to be able to read a full length book from Val in the near future.

Note: A review copy of TEN was provided by the author, whom i consider a friend. Take this review with as much of a grain of salt to taste.

Books Completed in June

1. The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, by Margaret Atwood and Naomie Alderman
2. Red, by E.J. Koh
3. The Complete Guide to Buying a Business, by Fred Steingold (DNF)
4. Hum, by Jamaal May
5. The Blue Place, by Nicola Griffith
6. Fangirl (audio book), by Rainbow Rowell
7. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder
8. Parasite, by Mira Grant
9. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Vol. 2

REVIEWS:

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Thoughts on The Arabian Nights, Vol. 2

Arabian Nights

Thoughts on Volume 1.

Volume 2 of The Arabian Nights begins with night 295 of tales and goes through night 719. The stories at the beginning of the book are all very short, some only around a page or two long, and it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the tales grew into longer epics once again, including the seven voyages of Sindbad. There’s a lot of risk of tedium when you binge read these books like I’m doing. The shorter tales all stacked on top of each other begin to blur together and longer tales can grow to such epic lengths as to be too long, and long or short there are repeated kinds of stories, themes, and phrases throughout. But if I had not read these books in the rapid way I’m going, I’m not sure that I would have figured out the genius of Shahrazad.
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Review: Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

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Not actually the last book you’ll need on screenwriting.

Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder provides a guide to screenwriting from an industry perspective, focusing on what a writer needs to do to prep for the act of writing. These techniques include creating a logline (or one-line), watching and analyzing movies in your chosen genre, creating a beat sheet, and building a board to layout scenes as a form of outlining. Skipping over actually writing process, he then reveals some screenplay “rules” and somethings to look for during edits if the finished draft isn’t working.

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Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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44. [Fangirl] (audio book), by Rainbow Rowell (*****)
Category: Part Four – Just Because

Prepare for caplocks and lots of squee.

Cath and her twin sister Wren have loved Simon Snow since they were kids and avidly lived in the fandom, reading, discussing, and writing fanfic. But when go to college, they head for college, Wren wants her own life and to leave all that behind. Facing a new school with new social rules by herself, Cath retreats further into the fanfic worlds she’s created and that she refuses to leave behind.

I love, love, LOVE this book. Normally I only listen to audio books in the morning on my way to work, because after work I’m too mentally tired to pay attention. But with Fangirl, I couldn’t stop listening, using every available moment in the car that I could to keep listening.

(I should note here that if you don’t get fandom, then it will probably be hard to relate to this book, since it’s a vital element to the story.)
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Poetry Review: Hum by Jamaal May

Hum by Jamaal May

Hum by Jamaal May
Publisher: Alice James Books
Date Published: November 2013

Description: “In May’s debut collection, poems buzz and purr like a well-oiled chassis. Grit, trial, and song thrum through tight syntax and deft prosody. From the resilient pulse of an abandoned machine to the sinuous lament of origami animals, here is the ever-changing hum that vibrates through us all, connecting one mind to the next.”

I admit to being drawn to this collection because of the gorgeous cover and its steampunk robot with a birdcage head, which immediately sparked my imagination. The physical book itself is also beautiful, with a lovely typeset. A smattering of dark pages, each for a “phobia” poem (such as Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored”), appear throughout the book, starting out black at first then lightening toward softer grays. It’s an interesting way to highlight a set of associated poems and there’s a subtle effect to reading words with white text on a dark page that suits the “phobia” poems. For example, reading “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” on one of the rare black pages in the books creates an interesting contrast between text and the physical page.

Hum is dedicated to “to the inner lives of Detroiters.” When I think of Detroit these days, I picture photo essays that show the city in seemingly apocalyptic states of decay. May’s poems reflect this state of everyday apocalypse. “Still Life” presents a “Boy with roof shingles / duct taped to shins and forearms / threading barbed wire through pant loops” as well as other trash can armor in the face of what seems to be a wasteland. While in “The Girl Who Builds Rockets from Bricks,” a girl wanders in “the caverns of deserted houses,” performing “her excavation for spare parts: // shards of whiskey bottle, matches, / anthills erupting from concrete // seams, the discarded husk / of a beetle.”

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Books Completed in May

1. Red Hood’s Revenge, by Jim C. Hines
2. The Snow Queen’s Shadow, by Jim C. Hines
4. Practicing Disaster by Jessie Carty
5. Wormwood by G.P. Taylor
6. Boxers by Gene Luen Yang
7. Saints by Gene Luen Yang
8. Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Still in progress at the end of the month: The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 2.

REVIEWS (behind the cut):

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