“Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.” — Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty
||Zero Dark Thirty (2012, USA)
I watched the Oscar-winning Argo two nights before watching this. Zero Dark Thirty was snubbed at the Academy Awards, apparently for political reasons. It is IMHO twice the film Argo is, better based in reality and absent even a hint of Hollywood navel-gazing or fluff. I reacted as strongly to the torture scenes as anyone else, but accepted them as a realistic portrayal of what went on in the decade leading up to bin Laden’s killing. The drama and tension feels authentic and immediate: you react almost as if you are part of the operation. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and finished this film almost gasping for air. Zero Dark Thirty is every bit as good, and gritty, as Kathryn Bigelow’s previous war movie, The Hurt Locker. It is brilliant. In an honest world it would have been nominated for Best Picture, and it would have blown Argo out of the water. Do see it.
||Argo (2012, USA)
The test of an Oscar-winning film, at least to me, is whether I would watch it again. Once was enough for Argo. I don’t understand what it is about this movie that so impressed everyone. Based on everything I’ve read, much of it is historically inaccurate. The Americans holed up in the Canadian embassy come across as selfish and unsympathetic, and apart from one character, are mere foils to Ben Affleck’s character (speaking of Affleck, he needs to work on closing his mouth when he isn’t talking). Several potentially interesting parts of the real story were left unexplored, like the allied embassies who turned the six Americans away before the Canadians took them in. I think what hurts Argo is that it’s about an event that still shames most Americans right down to their toes, and it does little to make us feel better about what happened in 1979. Frankly, it angered me all over again, and for all the pre-Oscar night buildup, the story of the six who were rescued seems a minor subplot to the story of the fifty-two who weren’t.
||Seven Psychopaths (2012, USA)
From the trailers I expected a light, quirky comedy. It was way funnier than that, and far more quirky. It was almost profound, too, in a sort of Pulp Fiction way … a far deeper movie than I had expected. Warning to the squeamish: the humor and quirkiness is interspersed with graphic splatter and gore, but once you accept the notion that you can make jokes about murderous psychopaths the humor overwhelms the gore. By the end I was laughing out loud. The ensemble of actors is perfect, the LA and southern California desert scenery gorgeous, even the dog is decent. We watched it on St. Patrick’s Day; just before hitting play I posted to Facebook that we were going dine on corned beef and cabbage while watching Seven Psychopaths, joking that it would be a perfect Irish evening. Little did I know Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter in the movie … though I note (my only criticism) that his Irish accent comes and goes.
||Samsara (2011, USA)
A scriptless, non-judgmental documentary composed of moving and near-still scenes of locations and people around the world. Incredibly exotic and colorful, brutally frank and disturbing in places. Samsara gives you the feeling you’re seeing parts of the world, and the strange lives people lead, for the first time ever. For my tastes, the film’s emphasis on eastern mysticism was a bit much, but that’s a very minor objection. Samsara is a sensory and sensual feast.
||The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
I’m interested in banned books and rented this movie because it’s based on a book parents and religious groups have tried to have removed from school libraries and reading lists. I have yet to read the book, but if the movie is faithful to it, I now have an inkling why. The story is the often-told one about teenagers reacting to the high school experience and growing up with the help of friends. The kids in this story have uncomfortable problems related to sexuality and sexual abuse, and that, I’m sure, is what conservative and religious parents object to. But forget them for now. This movie is damned good, and the young actors … particularly Emma Watson … are brilliant. My high school days are a distant memory but the movie rings true, and if I was moved (I was) you probably will be too.
||End of Watch (2012, USA)
An outstanding cop film, also a buddy film, told from the point of view of two Los Angeles patrol officers. The drug cartel-related trouble the cops manage to bring down upon themselves at the climax of the film may be exaggerated and unrealistic, but everything leading up to it is so real, so authentic-seeming, that you don’t notice: when things turn to shit you totally buy it. I didn’t know what to expect with this one … it certainly had a great cast, but I’ve been burned by that before … but damn, it turned out to be a good one, maybe even the best cop film I’ve seen, and that includes The French Connection.
||Django Unchained (2012, USA)
Django Unchained is pure guilty pleasure. It’s about the horrors of slavery in the pre-Civil War USA, a subject that normally would be approached in a somber and respectful way, but not here: it’s riotously funny, tongue in cheek, full of action. That’s where the guilt comes in: how can anyone enjoy a movie about slavery? But now that I think about it, we all enjoyed The Godfather, right? And it was about crime, which victimizes millions in horrible ways, so maybe it’s okay to enjoy Django Unchained. What did bother me, a little bit, was the ease with which Django overcomes his white racist adversaries. True, there were slave rebellions back in the day, but they were quickly put down with great violence … in other words, there were no Djangos. The violence, particularly the gunshot effects where huge gouts of blood and gore erupt from exit wounds, is over-the-top Tarantino, but if my wife (who usually gets up and leaves the room when the shooting starts) could sit through it, you probably can too … still, I would not want small children watching it.
||Lincoln (2012, USA)
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the story told in Lincoln: not just the story of Lincoln the man but the story of Lincoln’s role in the passage of the 13th Amendment. One has to be in awe of the movie for bringing this history, and this great man, to life. I suppose it was impossible to do it without having background characters act as an on-and-off Greek chorus, explaining history to us as we go along (dummies that we are), but those bits felt clunky to me. The period detail fascinates: the fussily rococo furnishings of the White House, the 1860s version of the situation room, the difficulties of travel on muddy Virginia roads, the state of trauma care. It all feels quite authentic. Mostly, though, you come away with an appreciation of Lincoln the man, and to some degree Mary Todd Lincoln. This movie is a great achievement, but one that demands active attention from the audience … this is not the passive entertainment we’re used to, and it might be too demanding for many.
||Life of Pi (2012, USA/Taiwan)
A visually gorgeous movie, nature enhanced to a remarkable degree, and it is only at the end of the movie that you are reminded of reality, as the lush green jungle slowly fades back to its actual, still green but somehow drab and dusty, color. The lifeboat scenes are the most memorable, and I had to keep reminding myself that what we see, a god’s eye view of a man and a tiger floating in a boat, is not what the man and the tiger would see … for them it would be endless heaving stretches of gray sea and sky, a hopeless vista. The spirituality of the novel drives the computer-generated beauty of the movie. If you accept the movie as a pure visual experience, it’s grand. If you question the spirituality, it’s less so. When I read the book and encountered, at the end, Pi’s alternate (true?) description of what happened after the ship sank, and the horrors of what unfolded in the lifeboat, I visualized those scenes. I was disappointed that in the movie, Pi doesn’t visualize, but merely talks about it. That was a bit of a letdown, but still, for those who come to the movie without having read the book, it will be a shocker.
Can’t Believe I Watched the Whole Thing
||Lawless (2012, USA)
Lawless may well be based on a true story, but the director sets his entire focus on the violent aspects of the tale, lingering pornographically on flying teeth, bullets ripping through bodies, gobbets of flying flesh, blood spatters, crushed larynxes, and slit throats. This is a movie for people looking for excuses to snap and go on shooting rampages. The Bondurant brothers, who were probably fascinating characters in real life, are here drained of irony, color, and humanity. At several points I was ready to hit stop and walk away. I really should have.
- See all my reviews
I’ve been thinking about the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, and what seems to me a colossal overreaction by the authorities. If what I’ve heard is true, the FAA suspended flights into and out of Boston, Amtrak stopped train service, and even Greyhound quit running. The city shut down ferry, subway, taxi, and bus transit. Businesses (except, hilariously, for donut shops) were told to shutter their doors. Residents of Watertown were ordered to stay inside, and judging by the empty (except for law enforcement) streets we saw on TV, willingly complied.
Chickenshit? Common sense? I don’t know. I wasn’t there and no one consulted me. But it seemed way out of proportion to me. Despite the media’s best efforts to turn Boston into another 9/11, it was clear all along the bombings were amateur terrorism, most likely homegrown. Sure, there were two armed men on the run, but when aren’t there armed men on the run, in any city, at any time?
And now I’m thinking about police militarization. If you’re not an inner-city minority or suspected drug dealer, you rarely encounter your local SWAT division, but let me tell you, they’ve been busy amassing military weapons and equipment, and they appear to be ready for almost anything. Boston gave us a glimpse into just how militarized they’ve become:
What the hell? If you’re from Belfast or Grozny, a scene like this might make you feel at home, but I don’t think most Americans are ready for it. And yet it’s been happening right under our noses. What scares me is the thought that when law enforcement agencies have military hardware, firepower, and training, they’ll inevitably cook up reasons to use it.
On to happier cities and times, and a bit of local color. Last week I wrote about walking in downtown Tucson on the night of the Boston bombings. Tucson still feels like a quiet, peaceful city. Sure, local law enforcement has a SWAT division, probably a couple of tanks as well, but so far they’re out of sight and law-abiding mind. And long may it stay that way. Here are a couple of photos from our walk last night:
Our friend Angie, visiting from Tampa
Donna and me with the kids
You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring news about banned books and censorship.
More than a year later, activist groups are still trying to combat the infamous Tucson school book bannings.
Here’s a highly suspect list titled top five banned books (suspect in that while all five books have been banned, they aren’t the “top five” on any survey I’ve ever heard of) … but the writer’s takes on why these idiosyncratic picks were banned are spot on.
Meanwhile, here’s a real list: the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2012.
Power to the people? A Santa Fe citizen takes it upon himself to ban an alternative weekly newspaper that offended him … by stealing all the copies!
A librarian considers Persopolis.
A fascinating essay on the history of attempts to ban Gone With the Wind.
From Moms Demand Action, a jarring poster:
Too cute … how censorship can make what’s being censored seem far more interesting than it actually is:
Is the world really watching Iceland’s plan to ban online porn?
I finally watched Django Unchained. My first reaction: what the hell is it with these eruptions of blood and tissue whenever anyone gets shot? Looks like the Chinese censors had the same reaction.
So far it’s been a thuggish week. The Boston Marathon bombings. The media frenzy and over-reaction that followed. The Senate demonstrating, once again, that it thinks “democracy” is crazy talk. And now the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. And I don’t have anything to say about any of that, other than to note we’ve taken a few punches this week. But we’ve taken worse, far worse, and we’ll recover.
A friend asked if I’d lead a pack of 4th graders on a tour at the Pima Air & Space Museum, and I said sure, why not? Luckily for me, the school tour was set for yesterday at 9:30 AM, and since yesterday was my weekly museum day anyway, all I had to do was show up an hour early to talk to the kids, then stay for my regularly-scheduled tours at 10:30 and 11:30. There were about 45 kids and 5 chaperones in the group. I modified my normal tour, focusing on the more fun airplanes, and was pleasantly surprised by how many of the kids paid attention and the quality of their questions. Still, I’m glad I didn’t go into teaching … what an exhausting occupation that must be.
I want to go to the gym this morning to work my knee on the stationary bicycle, but I’m waiting for a pool repair guy to call. Our pool has always lost more water than it should, but lately the level’s dropping two inches if I run the pump overnight … that’s a lot of water. Brian, the guy who checks our chemicals once a week, was pretty sure one of the buried PVC pipes running between the pool and the pump was cracked. He started digging to find the leak, but he’s only here once a week and can never stay long because he has other clients. Over the space of two months he gradually dug down to the pipes, but only in a two-foot long section near the pump … and there are several more feet between the hole and the pool. I finally called a pool repair company and they were supposed to come today, but so far no one has called. I just want to get it fixed and done with … the grandson will be here in June and I know he’ll want to swim. What’s annoying is that we resurfaced the pool just two years ago. I wish we had thought to replace the underground pipes at the same time!
Well, enough about me and my pool, and back to the thuggery. While we’re reeling from death and destruction at the hands of terrorists and unregulated industries and the Senate’s failure to address gun violence, our friends in North Korea are reeling from vicious attacks on the dignity of the Men of Mount Paektu. I mean, sure, North Koreans die all the time, either from starvation or from being worked to death in prison camps, but they don’t sweat (or report on) the small stuff. No, what gets them worked up is any hint of disrespect to their hereditary rulers. And boy, are they worked up this week … so worked up, they’re ready to offer the South Koreans a deal. From the Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK:
Koreans Vow to Give Deal to S. Korean Traitors
Pyongyang, April 16 (KCNA) — The army and people of the DPRK are trembling with anger at the hideous criminal act of the south Korean group of gangsters who hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK. Kim Song Nam, teacher of Kim Chaek University of Technology, said as follows:
It is an unpardonable big treason that the devilish enemies hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK on the Day of the Sun. The enemies made no hesitation of insulting portraits of the peerlessly great men of Mt. Paektu which the Koreans have deeply cherished in their hearts. It is a hideous provocative act unprecedented in history that they played with edged tools on the day celebrated by the nation as a significant holiday.
The present south Korean authorities connived at the big treason that was held in downtown Seoul in broad daylight. They are a group of traitors like Lee Myung Bak who was thrown into the garbage of history. The group of gangsters who are utterly disregarding the history and the nation should be forced to meet death by dismemberment.
Ryom Song Chol, officer of the Korean People’s Army, branding the act of having hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK as a despicable act of those who plunge into fire with faggots on their back, said:
The present regime of south Korea is whetting the sword for confrontation with fellow countrymen, taking the advantage of its master’s anti-DPRK moves just like the Lee Myung Bak group of traitors which was thrown into the dumping ground of history. The regime has staged a nuclear war racket targeting the fellow countrymen in April, a month celebrated by the nation as the most auspicious season, and even committed the hideous act of confrontation hurting the valuable dignity of the DPRK. How can they be allowed to go unpunished.
Anger has mounted among the army of the DPRK at the news of act hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the country by the south Korean gangsters. The best option for us in defending the dignity of our supreme leadership, our lifeline, is a practical military action for severely punishing the group of traitors. They can not be pardoned. They should be made to pay a dear price for their hideous criminal act.
Actually, that doesn’t sound like much of a deal. If I were the puppet master of the south Korean group of gangsters, I wouldn’t take it.
Ostensibly, the Norks are responding to an incident in downtown Seoul on Monday, where demonstrators burned effigies of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong Il. But I think what’s really going on is that they’re trying to pre-emptively manage an internal PR crisis: Monday’s collapse of a giant wall mural in Musan, North Korea. The mural, a mosaic of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il, fell down during broad daylight in full view of the citizens of the town, a most public and embarrassing disgrace, something people will talk about despite the regime’s best efforts to shut them up. Apparently the workers who built the wall sold most of the concrete on the black market, leaving behind a structure that couldn’t stand up to strong winds.
And we think we have troubles! Sheesh.
Speaking of thuggery, how about that Gabby Giffords? What a bully!
There, there, gun lovers … it’s okay. How about some hot chocolate and a good snuggle? The brave men and women of the US Senate will protect you from that mean lady!
And what better way to face down an act of terrorism than to go for a walk in a city with hundreds of other people?
Last night was the 4th anniversary of the weekly Meet Me at Maynards walking and running event in downtown Tucson, and the organizers had signed up bands and combos to entertain people along the route. We took our doggies, as we nearly always do, and enjoyed a lovely evening.
School mariachi band in Tucson’s Old Presidio
Bagpipers at the Masonic Temple
We left early, thinking parking would be a problem in light of all the walkers and runners showing up for the anniversary, but it wasn’t. Yes, there was a crowd, but it was smaller than on previous anniversaries. I hope people didn’t stay home because of the bombings in Boston.
When we got home we turned on CNN hoping for some new information. We were appalled at how CNN was handling it, running an endless loop of explosions, bleeding marathoners and spectators, running cops, and eyewitnesses telling the same stories over and over. MSNBC was no better. You’d almost think the media is working with the terrorists, trying to keep everyone at a fever pitch of fear. Hint, people: that’s exactly what whoever planted those bombs wants. Get out. Go for a walk. Sit down at a sidewalk cafe. Be with people, show you’re not afraid.
Somewhere in amongst hysterical descriptions of severed limbs on TV I heard some commentator trying to make a big deal out of Obama not saying the word “terrorism” in his brief statement earlier in the day. Jesus. As Digby points out on her blog, “Yeah, and he didn’t read ‘My Pet Goat’ either.” AFAIC, Obama set the proper calming tone, one CNN and MSNBC and the rest of our pants-wetting media should emulate.
Back to Meet Me at Maynards (yes I know there’s no apostrophe and it drives me effing crazy but that’s how they spell it). It used to start and end behind Maynards (ditto) Restaurant on Toole Street, but for the past year it’s been starting and ending across the street at the Hotel Congress. Both locations are right in the heart of downtown Tucson, where the streets are currently torn up for the installation of streetcar tracks. Yes, our town is putting in a streetcar system, and every week when we go walking we see changes to the downtown landscape. A lot of people are grousing about the new streetcars, predicting no one will use them, but I’m looking forward to seeing them. Streetcars are so cool! Will they help revive downtown? Maybe. I hope so.
I’ve been thinking about political correctness lately. The legend on the bag says “Political correctness killed soldiers at Ft Hood.” Really?
We all know what happened at Fort Hood in 2009: a single gunman, an Army major serving as a psychiatrist, killed 13 of his fellow troops and injured 30. He was Arab-American and Muslim; prior to the shootings he had exchanged email with a cleric in Yemen who had suspected terrorist ties, Anwar al-Awlaki; his attack was probably an intentional act of terrorism. The FBI reportedly knew about the email prior to the shootings but did not intervene (not from political correctness, I suspect, but from the same bureaucratic ineptness and turf guarding that kept them from doing anything about the 9/11 terrorists before they struck). The gunman’s court martial has been delayed numerous times and is currently scheduled to resume in May of this year.
I don’t see political correctness there, at least in terms of obscuring the facts to hide politically inconvenient details.1 Nothing about Fort Hood, as far as I know, has been glossed over or covered up. I suspect the legend on the bag represents an earlier attempt by right-wing conspiracy theorists to stir up Obama-hatred among the faithful, much like the current Benghazi campaign (where, once again, no one in the media and the government has tried to shield us from ugly truths in the name of political correctness).
Sadly, though, there are examples of government and the media covering up things they’d rather not talk about, plenty of them. Exxon, for instance, would like everyone to stop talking about the tar sands oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas, and our government, ever a friend of big oil, is helping them by having the FAA ban overflights of the affected area to prevent journalists from taking photos of the damage. Fox News routinely ignores stories about domestic terrorism, at least when the terrorists are white. And then there’s the abortion doctor in Philadelphia, Kermit Gosnell, currently on trial for murder. Oh, he’s a bad one, the exemplar of everything pro-choice and pro-life activists alike hate and fear: his clinic was filthy, he delivered viable third-trimester babies and cut their spinal cords to kill them, he kept a collection of severed baby feet.
So what’s the PC angle here? This: a mounting drumbeat of assertions from the right that the “liberal” media are ignoring the story because it is politically inconvenient and might undermine their constant coverage of threats to abortion rights. These claims are demonstrably untrue, but you know what? When it comes to media outlets like NPR and MSNBC,2 right-wingers may have a case.
Progressives both in and out of the media have learned that we cannot have adult conversations about abortion excesses and bad apples on the left and cheaters who game the system to receive unearned benefits. Because every time we admit such things exist, the opposition immediately seizes on those admissions and starts screaming “See? SEE? We told you so!” You might think it would be a simple thing for someone like Rachel Maddow to say, “Yes, there are bad abortion providers in the system but better regulation and regular inspections will eliminate them and ensure that safe, legal abortion is available to women,” but she can’t, because every word after “there are bad abortion providers” would be drowned out by the screaming.
Disingenuous screaming doesn’t come just from the right, of course. About a month ago Ira Glass aired a disturbing story about disability on This American Life, his excellent NPR show. It was about long-term unemployed people in a small Missouri community, people who were laid off in bad times and now can’t find work because they’re in their 50s, people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. Many of them are now living on Social Security disability benefits, and the rest are lining up to file for it. The story revealed that there a lot of people in this boat, invisible to the rest of us because they no longer officially register as unemployed, people who will now collect and live on modest disability benefits until they reach the age where they can begin collecting Social Security. It was a shocking story: I had no idea so many of the long-term unemployed were on disability. As far as I knew, they had either disappeared or found work, but no … they’re on the dole!
Which, of course, is exactly how the right sees it, and they immediately jumped on the story, lumping people on disability in with welfare cheats. But in reality, as the story made clear, Social Security disability has become the last resort of the long-term unemployed, picking up the slack when unemployment benefits and other forms of state and federal assistance run out. It’s a story we don’t want to face up to, one that would still be out of view if Ira Glass and his reporters hadn’t exposed it to light. But now it’s out there and the right is making hay with it, and progressives have turned on This American Life, picking at minor inaccuracies in the story to mask their real beef, that Ira Glass has hurt the cause and given ammo to the right. Imagine how pro-choice forces would turn on Rachel Maddow if she were to do a segment on the horrific sins of Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
And that’s why, I’m certain, Rachel Maddow and other progressive commentators have been silent on the issue. The right-wing drumbeat is growing louder; perhaps Rachel will have to talk about it soon … but the minute she does the left-wing drumbeat will begin. For now, the charge of political correctness is one that sticks. But it’s not because we don’t want to talk about it. It’s because we recognize Americans are too polarized to discuss sensitive issues as adults.
1I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I don’t know what the bag in the thumbnail is saying. The sentiment behind “political correctness killed soldiers at Ft. Hood” comes from the Michelle Malkin sector of the nutosphere; what it means is that the Army should never have allowed a single Muslim into the ranks, because Islam=radical Islam=terrorism. One doesn’t have to follow that train of thought very far to see where it leads.
2MSNBC covered Dr. Gosnell’s trial for the first time this morning, on the Morning Joe show. The evening hosts, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell, have yet to mention it, nor have I heard any coverage on NPR. My apologies if I missed it.
Note on editing:
In the intervals between checking Twitter for the latest rumors and updates on today’s bombings in Boston, I edited this post not once but several times. I felt that I’d jumped to some unsupported conclusions in the original version; I’ve gone back and added citations and links to support my points. I also tried to tighten up some of my typical sloppy thinking, and of course to make my language more precise.
“I told Agustus the broad outline of my miracle: diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen. (I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.) It was, we were told, incurable.” — The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
A Feast for Crows (Game of Thrones # 4)
George R.R. Martin
I devoured the first three Game of Thrones novels, rating each of them four stars, but found this one less tasty. Why? There’s not a word in this 775-page doorstopper about four important characters left hanging from cliffs at the end of GOT #3, A Storm of Swords: John Snow, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.
In an afterword, George R.R. Martin explains how he came to split his fourth GOT novel, which was rapidly growing beyond 1,000 pages, into two, and assures readers that in GOT #5, A Dance with Dragons, we’ll catch up with the aforementioned characters. In fact, he explains that the time period experienced by the characters who inhabit GOT #5 will be the same time period experienced by the characters inhabiting GOT #4. I suppose it was a sensible decision, but still it’s a jarring one … perhaps George should have made his afterword a preface.
In comparison to the first three GOT novels, this one drags a bit, being largely concerned with a host of lesser characters acting out subplots on the fringes of Westeros. Oh, sure, many chapters follow the unfolding stories of Cersei, Jamie, Sansa, Arya, Brienne, and Samwell, all of whom move the main plot along smartly, but these make the chapters devoted to lesser characters and subplots seem, in comparison, like filler. Also: is it just me, or is there an overabundance of courtly Monty Pythonish kniggit talk in A Feast for Crows? I’m up to here with sigils and shields and Valyrian longswords with names and courtly lineages and Good Ser This and Good Ser That.
And yet I couldn’t put it down. Salman Rushdie’s memoir (reviewed below), which I read during breaks from A Feast for Crows, is more interesting. So why not put the draggy GOT novel down and finish the better book? I can’t explain why I couldn’t, but there it is. Apparently my appetite for courtly kniggit talk is stronger than I knew.
If your reaction to the first three GOT novels was as strongly positive as mine, you may be tempted to skim through this one, or even put it aside. Don’t. Even though a lot of it is concerned with lesser characters, the Cersei/Jamie/Sansa/Arya/Brienne/Samwell threads are riveting, and a major part of this ongoing story. It may be a little harder to read, but it’s very much worth it.
Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Well, here I am, two books into this collection of reviews, and already caught out in a lie. I read Rushdie’s memoir during breaks from A Feast for Crows (reviewed above) but didn’t finish it, despite claiming it to be the better and more interesting of the two. In my defense, my claim was true the first 300 pages of Rushdie’s memoir, but then it became repetitive and I began to feel I had read enough.
I shouldn’t rate a book I didn’t finish, but I did read half before deciding I wouldn’t get much more out of the remaining pages. The writing is of a very high quality, hence the three-star rating. The subject matter — Salman Rushdie’s life during the fatwa years (which, technically, are still going on) — is compellingly interesting, at least at first. Rushdie’s massive ego got in the way, though, and became ever more off-putting the deeper I got into his memoir. Several reviewers complain of name-dropping. I didn’t mind that at first, since Rushdie moves in literary circles and I’m a great fan of many of the authors he gossips about, but after a while that too began to wear. He treats his enemies harshly, and one cannot approve of the way he treats his wives and lovers. Overall, I came to this memoir prepared to like Salman Rushdie. I came away with an appreciation of Rushdie’s interesting, brilliant mind, but no fondness for the man himself.
The Fault in Our Stars
I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska because I enjoy both young adult literature and banned books (Alaska was challenged by parent groups around the country because it included a sex scene). I was very impressed with Green’s writing, so when The Fault in Our Stars came out I put it on my to-read list as well.
To my knowledge, The Fault in Our Stars has not yet been challenged or banned, but there is a growing parental movement against “dark books” aimed at young readers, and concern over a type of YA literature sometimes labeled “sick lit.” This novel is about teenagers suffering from cancer. Teenagers who will die (sorry if that’s a spoiler). As such, Green’s novel is both dark and sick, and I expect it is only a matter of time until some parent or religious group demands it be removed from a school library or a high school English class reading list.
Why would religious people challenge this book? I once heard a doctor say his belief in god didn’t survive his first encounter with pediatric cancer (just as my faith died when I learned about Ann Frank). The characters in this novel have lost whatever specific religious beliefs they might once have held. Yes, they cling to a vague spiritualism, a belief in something larger than themselves, but Jesus is notably absent from their lives. That right there is more than enough reason for religious groups to oppose The Fault in Our Stars. There is also a Judy Blume-ish sex scene in the book, and that is sure to draw a challenge as well. For those reasons, I’m adding a peremptory banned book tag to this review.
So, to the book. Is it good? Yes, it is every bit as good as Looking for Alaska. Green pulls you into his teenaged characters’ lives, into their innermost thoughts and fears, and you finish this book feeling almost as if they were your own siblings, your own first loves, or … if you are a parent … your own children. Is it sad? Yes, it’s heartbreaking. Is there anything to be learned from this novel? I suppose so, if “pediatric cancer sucks” counts as a life lesson.
So, why three and a half stars and not four? After all, I gave four to Looking for Alaska. Alaska felt more real to me, I guess. Not that there’s anything not real about kids with cancer; not that they don’t deserve to have a sympathetic novel written about what they go through before they die; not that we don’t need to understand the disease and how it affects its victims and those who love them … no, it’s more that there’s nothing we can do about it other than to cry, and that this novel seems to have only one purpose: to make readers cry.
I rated other Paolo Bacigalupi novels at four and four-and-a-half stars. The Alchemist, I’m sad to say, struck me as a lesser work, and I was disappointed in it. The writing is up to snuff, but the story itself is very short (I read it in an evening) and I kept feeling there should have been more. Bacigalupi’s other novels are based on solid environmental science and present believable future societies and worlds. This one is a fantasy, an Arabian Nights tale about a world where magic (literally, flying carpets and cloud castles) is widely practiced until an unfortunate side-effect kicks in: a world-consuming bramble that grows every time magic is practiced and comes to threaten human life itself. The bramble is consistent with Bacigalupi’s science fiction (it made me think of his genetically-modified crops gone wild); magic is not. Now this is just me: I am not a fan of fantasy, and that aspect of the story leaves me cold. I recognize that fantasy lovers might have a completely different reaction to this story … but I personally hope Bacigalupi returns to science fiction.
Slated (Slated # 1)
This is a pretty good start to a series of dystopian YA novels. I understand a movie is already in the works, and it’s not hard to envision it as another Hunger Games. The story is set in a future V for Vendetta-ish London, a society where people are rigidly controlled by lorders (law & order forces), a society where malcontents and dissidents are hunted down and “disappeared” in most interesting ways. Younger ones are “slated,” their memories wiped clean, then reintroduced to society. Older ones are … well, who knows? This novel introduces the scenario and the engaging young protagonist, a 16-year-old girl named Kyla, but it doesn’t take the reader down all the plot paths introduced here. Presumably the ins & outs of disappearing, termination, and slating will be explored in sequels. And that’s fine! There’s plenty here to chew on, and Kyla is a fascinating character who is ominously not at all like other slated kids. You know she’s going to make an impact on society, but she’s just learning her own strength in this first novel.
Teri Terry’s writing is average. At least one Goodreads reader/reviewer commented on Kyla’s habit of “jumping” whenever she is startled. She never twitches, flinches, goes white, or starts … she “jumps,” over and over. I suspect Terry’s writing will improve as she develops this series, much as J.K. Rowling’s writing improved as she got deeper into the Harry Potter saga.
The second novel in the series is out. It’s called Fractured and I very much want to read it, but it’s not yet available as an ebook. What the hell is up with that, publisher? The first one is on my Nook and that’s where I want to second one to be as well. Get on that, okay?
Live by Night
Dennis Lehane’s 1920s prohibition-era crime novel takes a minor character from a previous novel, The Given Day, and follows his rum-running and organized crime career in Boston and Tampa. My reaction to this character, Joe Coughlin, was sort of meh. Even in his own novel he continues to feel like a minor player, making Live by Night seem less a destination than a detour. Nor is Joe Coughlin particularly believable, afflicted as he is with a soft heart that in any other organized crime novel would have gotten him whacked before the end of the first chapter. This is not Lehane’s strongest novel, but if you suspend your disbelief in Joe Coughlin’s unlikely survival as a crime figure, it’s enjoyable enough.
As an aside, I’m disappointed Lehane hasn’t yet tackled the Tulsa race riot of 1921. He dangled a hook in The Given Day, and does so again here, but I guess it remains a subject for a future novel. I hope so, at any rate: I know Lehane’s the writer who can bring that shameful and deliberately-hidden part of American history to life.
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