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Friday, December 30, 2016

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book blew me away. It took me a very long time for me to get to it and I'm pretty disappointed in myself for taking so damn long to get to it. I mean, VanderMeer has often be compared to the likes of Mervyn Peak, who is a damned genius and a huge inspiration on me. However, VanderMeer does not, in my view, draw solely from the likes of Peak. Sure, the descriptions are there, dolled out occasionally as a form of punctuation, a snare hit, hard and fast to really make the point.

No. VanderMeer is not only an acolyte of Peak. He takes some cues from the post modernists. His sentences can be short, sometimes vague in their briefness, sometimes painfully poignant in their simplicity. It reminds me a bit of Vonnegut in its economy and humanity and of Philip K. Dick in its strangeness and playfulness with reality.

And perhaps that there is one of the most engaging parts of this book: the way that VanderMeer takes the old Lovecraftian trope of coming across something odd, something that should not be contacted it and re-contextualized it so that it comes from the inside.

It's almost like body horror. But not quite. No, body horror implies something that VanderMeer does not employ in this story. What he does employ though, subtly, is a look at how what we are told, what our superiors divulge, what the media gives to us, is often what we take as truth, what we use to define the reality we inhabit. In this story we see that confrontation, that sinister realization that reality and truth are both malleable and that those who have power are often the ones that manipulate it.

Of course, there is another fascinating aspect to this story. It is clear that there is a city-scape, one that may even be the same as ours, and yet VanderMeer does not focus on that. Instead, with his nameless character, we get a glimpse at nature. Yet this is not the nature of our day, nor the nature of some idealized world without pollution or corporate greed to destroy it. This is the nature of a post-natural world. One that is violent and hostile and, perhaps, sentient.

This books is gothic and political. It shows the splendor of that wild, unknowable thing and the terror of it as well. It is clear from the beginning of this tale that VanderMeer has a great love of nature and a sort of reverence for it, even if it does not extend to the near religious reverence his main character has, the seed of that love surely exists within him.

Overall, this book was a mix of sheer beauty and sheer terror. But strange and awful and frightening in its unknowable nature and comforting, beautiful, and even inviting. A perfect synchronization of horror and beauty, this book is, undoubtedly, the best I've read this year. And I read a good deal of Gaiman this year so that really means something.

Well done, Mr. VanderMeer. Well done.

  Get the Book here, at Amazon if you're interested!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Steven Universe and the Importance of Empathy

One of the most important things, and hardest things, to do when we write and create is to be empathetic to others. It is hard to step outside of ourselves, to look at life from another perspective and through the eyes of someone else. In truth it is impossible. We can only know ourselves and never truly know another, never know how the feel or what they think, how a certain action or saying truly affects another. But we can try.

Perhaps that's what makes Steven Universe so impressive. It is a show of incredible heart, depth, humanity, and empathy. It seems strange to give such high praise to an eleven minute show on cartoon network, especially one that starts off so silly as Steven Universe does. However, despite those beginnings, creator Rebecca Sugar really knew what she wanted to create and did so with such beauty and precision that I'm jealous.

When we talk about this show we are talking about a show that shows the virtues of femininity, that shows that boys can be matronly and girls can be soldiers of great strength and skill. We are talking about a show in which relationships, straight and otherwise, are explored with fairness and depth. We need only look at Garnet or Steven and Connie to see the beauty of a healthy and happy relationship. We are talking about a show that shows to virtues of family, that shows that love comes in all shapes, and that strength comes from what is around us.

We are also talking about a show that deals with insecurities and fears. With loss and love and mistakes. We are talking about a show that knows grief as intimately as it knows love, that knows success as well as failure. It knows these things like old lovers and it holds them dear, looking at them starry eyed.

One need only look at that picture of titular character Steven and one of his guardians, Pearl, to see the heart and heartbreak contained in this show.

It feels like I am late to the party to be writing about this now, four seasons in. But what strikes me the most is that this show so understands the human condition. That it understands just how mean and foolish, how prideful we can be. How we can be driven by rage and regret and our insecurities and be so caught up in the past that we forgot how to live now. It is a show that knows what it like to live in that abyss of grief and loss and not know how to move forward, no matter how we try, and know the difficulty of connecting to even those that share in our grief.

But it also knows how great we can be. How we can aspire to love and live a life of compassion and kindness to all things. In some ways it is like Doctor Who in that it looks to the greatest aspects of what we are and asks us to keep striving to live up to those great ideals, no matter how naive or difficult that they may be.

It is a show about a boy who cares for and tries to love everything, even the things that harm him. Not because he is perfect or a saint. Not because it is a moral trip or because it is easy. But because it is harder to listen, to accept, to understand. It is harder to give love than to hate, harder to recognize the humanity in others that it is to dehumanize them as some other thing. But Steven always tries to walk that difficult path. And maybe that message of acceptance and family, of dealing with loss and our own insecurities in a positive way, of openness, is the sort of message that is most suited for the young to absorb and perhaps even for us adults.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Umbrella Academy: A Review

The Umbrella Academy, Vol.1: The Apocalypse Suite (The Umbrella Academy, #1)The Umbrella Academy, Vol.1: The Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've always had a sort of love My Chemical Romance. Which is strange, really. I hate that kind of emo, pop-punk, early 2000's sounds for the most part, but there is a dramatic flair to what Way and Co do. One need only look at The Black Parade to see what I'm talking about.

Looking here, at this comic, it is easy enough to see that same flair for the dramatic that Way brings to his music. Things are dark, very dark, but there is a kind of playfulness to it. It's like a Tim Burton movie in some ways, as fucked up and strange as things get, there is always that barrier, that cartoonyness, that makes everything seem playful even when it isn't.

Furthermore, I'm impressed by that fact that Way isn't some pondering emo throughout this book. There are sections when he makes points about belonging and what makes someone special, but it isn't handled in some heavy-handed, unique butterfly bullshit kind of way. Neither is the dysfunctional family.

The steam-punk and after the glory days superhero team thing was also nice. It's always kind of fresh seeing superheroes get together years after the team has fallen apart. It's like watching a reunion of all your favorite actors from your favorite sitcom. Awkward and everyone hates each other, but it still somehow feels right. As if they hate each other because they are practically family.

The art is spot on as well. I mean, when it gets down to it, this is really a classic superhero comic that is brought down to earth just a little. It's fun, it's funny, and it's worth your time.

I look forward to reading more and that's all you can really hope for in the end.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Rewatching Death Note: Tension through exposition

It's been a good, long while since I've watched Death Note. Maybe since it first aired here in the States. I really loved it then, but I was in High School so I related with Light--Kira--a little too much. Don't get me wrong, personally, I don't go in for life being sacred or special. No intrinsic value to it whatsoever!

But I digress.

A couple of things strike me about Death Note. Some of it is the philosophy. It is incredibly nihilistic. Light and Ryuuk (fuck that name, let's call him R.) both find themselves bored with life. They see it as without reward or value. They see it as rotten.

So, R. drops the eponymous Death Note and Light gets the note and so the story begins.

However, the other thing and the thing I really want to talk about is how almost no action happens throughout the narrative and yet the story remain tense and dramatic through dialogue alone. This in and of itself isn't too strange. Dialogue can drive everything forward and give us some of our best moments. I mean, how many times have you watched Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill and just fallen in love with the great interactions between the characters and the memorable as hell lines.

But what strikes me even more is the fact that a great amount of this dialogue is expositional, that is, they explain what is happening in the story over and over again. You can see why this might be an issue. After all, exposition can suck out all the drama of the story and make everything feel stilted and unnatural. Yet, Death Note manages to avoid this trap.

The thing that makes Death Note special is that while you, the viewer, may have an idea to individual character motivations and there various musings, the rest of the cast doesn't always. This is interesting because s writers we must be able to use every tool at our disposal. While, often times, exposition is seen as the death of dialogue, it can be used as an effective tool to build tension for the audience yet still maintain an air of mystery for the characters of the narrative.

Through the use of exposition in this way we can keep our main characters or cast working toward and against things, and yet keep them mysterious enough that there is always a sense of the unknown. It keeps the reader in the loop without giving them everything. This makes Death Note special and makes the writing strong. As a writer it helps to keep the logic of the story from falling apart because it is constantly being laid out for us all.

In other words, watch Death Note and better your writing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Macklemore and White Privilege

 The new Macklemore song is about Black Lives Matter. It is about cultural appropriation. It is about Hip-Hop and the place of people like Macklemore and white people as a whole in the context of racism and Black Lives Matter.

To borrow a line from Andrew Jackson Jihad, "I am white and I've got everything I need."

If there was one line that could get to the heart of a large portion of the conflict of this song it would be that one. Macklemore is well aware of his privilege and his, as well as other white artists (Elvis, Iggy Azeala, Miley, etc.) ability to co-op an entire culture and what that means. In the fictional narrative of this song Macklemore is confronted by a fan, the middle-class white crowd he speaks to and everything that Macklemore loves and appreciates about hip-hop is long on this person.

Throughout this song, Macklemore is conflicted. It's clear he understands how he benefited from his privilege. At one point he even states it. It's also clear that Macklemore is unsure of what to do. On one hand, this is the culture that has inspired him and allowed him to become who he is, even if that means building off the inherent, institutional racism that America was founded upon. On the other hand, Macklemore worries about how he will be perceived. He argues with himself, unable to deal with the fact that he may be looked at as a leech, cashing in on the struggles of a group of people.

This may seem whiny. It may even seem like Macklemore is distracting from the argument. That he is trying to make this whole issue of racism about him, the very thing he seems so frightened about. However, we need only look at the bridges between verses in which Macklemore complies clips and bits of people saying things for and against Black Lives Matter. These are here to make the listener uncomfortable. Between these bits and the words, we are supposed to be confronted with an honest fact that, the big issue is that people are either too busy trying to manage their own image to get involved or they have their head so far up their own asses that they vomit out dumb shit, ("What, I've got an advantage because I'm White?" "People today are pussies, this is the generation of getting offended").

Macklemore knows full well that this is a problem. He even knows that, though he himself loves the culture and desires justice, he is part of the problem. His very privilege and status in the American music scene make him a powerful voice, but also one that may be seen as putting forth empty sentiment to sell records.

The conclusion that Macklemore comes to is that between his love of hip-hop, a genre he finds inherently political, and his privilege, he is left with no choice but to speak out against the racism that he sees in the world and use his power to support Black Lives Matter instead of being so worried about his image.

The answer is clumsy. It isn't a solution to all the problems and, to put it bluntly, it is very personal. This isn't the best answer. However, Macklemore does provide an insight into a big, and terrilbly complex problem. Macklemore shows on this track that he is thoughtful and not afraid to compromise his fame for the sake of what he believes in.