Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 47 books in 2014, which, strangely enough, is exactly the same number as I read last year--not sure that's ever happened, and certainly not since I started keeping track.  It was a very odd year too, reading-wise, with periods of intense and enjoyable reading alternating with long fallow stretches in which nothing appealed and the thought of concentrating on a single work was positively wearying.  Nevertheless, looking back at the books I did manage to read this year, I'm impressed with their quality and how much I enjoyed them.  Usually these end-of-year posts include examples of the year's worst reads as well as the best ones, but this year I don't really have any nominees for the former category.  The closest I came to a bad book this year was Dorothy L. Sayers's Five Red Herrings, in which Sayers takes her obsession with "fair play" mysteries to unreasonable extremes, bogging the reader down in minute descriptions of the various suspects' movements, travel time calculations, and of course train schedules, that completely overwhelm any interest we might have had in the characters, the detectives, and even the central murder.

Nevertheless, Five Red Herrings was a blip in what has otherwise been a strong year for mysteries, which make up a full third of the year's reading.  This is down largely to two series--the Holmes canon, which I revisited for the first time since my teens (you can see my thoughts on the various novels and story collections at my Storify account), and Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels.  I've read (and in some cases reread) the novels featuring Wimsey's love interest and fellow detective Harriet Vane, but this was my first time through the solo novels, which I am reading in order.  With the obvious exception of Five Red Herrings, it's turning out to be a delightful experience, with Wimsey shining on his own as both a character and a detective (though the classist and occasionally sexist aspects of the novels can be hard to take).

Otherwise, it was a quiet year for genre reading.  Aside from the mysteries, most of the books I read were either literary or historical fiction.  I tend to seesaw between the two extremes as my year-end reviews point out to me how I've neglected a particular corner of my reading, so expect a stronger genre year in 2015 (and anyway, there are quite a few genre novels I'm planning to read in the coming weeks as I gear up for Hugo nominations).  Something else that I'd like to focus on in 2015 is reviewing the books I read, which I've neglected terribly this year--though I planned to do so several times, I don't think I've written a single full-length book review this year.  Next year, I'd like to not only get back to that, but maybe change up the format of reviews on this blog a little.  Instead of concentrating my shorter book reviews into recent reading roundups, I'm thinking of posting them as I go in individual blog posts (I might do the same thing for film reviews as well).  I don't know if that's a format that will suit me--I think I've nailed my colors rather firmly to the long review--but it's worth experimenting with.  At any rate, my reading resolution for 2015 is the same as every year's, and the same, I think, as every book blogger's--to read more, and more widely, and to blog more about what I read.

For the last few hours of 2014, however, here are my best reads of the year, in alphabetical order of the author's surname:
  • Spin by Nina Allan

    I'm very much looking forward to Allan's debut novel The Race, which is sitting in my TBR stack, and a great deal of that expectation is rooted in the exceptional quality of this 2013 novella (which deserved a lot more awards attention than it got).  Allan's prose is spare and her story is low-key, but with those deceptively simple tools she constructs an elaborate alternate world, in which religion and government are subtly but powerfully different, and magic is real but heavily regulated.  The story of a young artist struggling with a difficult family history and her nascent magical powers is woven into the myth of Arachne in ways that are delightful and thought-provoking, but an equal pleasure is Allan's handling of the seemingly mundane topic of an artist discovering her voice and style.  The fact that the heroine is engaged in the traditionally feminine (and thus frequently delegitimized) field of textile arts only makes the seriousness with which Allan depicts her process more enjoyable.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker

    I had no idea what it expect from this book, and yet it's lingered with me through the year.  The concept seems gimmicky and calculating--Pride and Prejudice retold from the perspective of the Bennetts' servants--but not only does Longbourn tells its own story, into which the original novel intrudes only occasionally, but it uses its central concept for a lot more than just a refreshing perspective shift.  Through her heroines--the thoughtful, searching maid-of-all-work Sarah, and the level-headed but loving housekeeper Mrs. Hill--Baker explores not only the life of a Regency servant, but the effect that class has on women's roles in that era, and on the limitations and expectations placed on them.  The final encounter between Sarah and Elizabeth Bennett is devastating for what it reveals about the two women's choice between freedom and security, and for the value that is placed (and often not placed) on their work.  Far from repeating Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn uses its outline to make its own statement, and is all the more powerful for it.

  • Versailles by Kathryn Davis

    I read several books this year by Davis, an author of quasi-slipstreamy literary fiction whose dense, impressionistic prose shifts time, place, and point of view at a moment's notice.  Versailles--a short novel about Marie Antoinette--is the one that has stuck with me.  As much about the palace and its history as it is about its heroine, the novel switches from her point of view to potted histories of the palace, to interludes with her servants and courtiers.  Amazingly given its slight size, both the character and the place emerge as fully-formed creations, and Antoinette in particular is sympathetic and interesting (though perhaps a little too prone to self-justification).  It often feels as if historical fiction is too beholden to realism, too conventionally structured and plotted.  Versailles is a rare and welcome instance of an author experimenting within that form, and it yields great results.

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    A bit of a cheat, since this isn't a book that I read for the first time in 2014, but as my return to Hill House revealed, the first time I read this book it went completely over my head.  In my mid-or-late teens, I expected a haunted house story to have, well, ghosts, and preferably an explanation for them.  I wasn't able to understand that what makes The Haunting of Hill House so scary is the house's unknowability, and even more than that, the hauntings that the ghost-hunter protagonists--and particularly the troubled, childish heroine Eleanor--bring with them when they come to stay.  The second time around, I feel as if I've discovered this novel for the first time, and am kicking myself for not revisiting it sooner.  It seems as if, in recent years, Hill House's star has dimmed a little in favor of Jackson's other and equally magnificent novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle--perhaps because its conventions have been recycled by works like House of Leaves, whereas Castle remains utterly unique.  I think it may be time for a rediscovery--I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed to be reminded of what a sharp, tense, frightening novel this is.
Honorable Mentions:
  • HHhH by Laurent Binet - At once a nonfiction account of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, a fictionalization of it, and a meditation about the gap between the two, this novel (?) is surprisingly readable and entertaining for such an odd experiment (and such a grim topic).

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - A lush, beautifully written historical fantasy about the lifelong love between a 19th century French winemaker and an angel.  Weird and indescribable, but utterly enchanting.

  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner - This slim volume constructs a whole fantasy world, complete with manners and conventions, within a few chapters, and the political and social drama that it sets within that world (not to mention its central love story) is instantly engaging.

  • Tenth of December  by George Saunders - Sharp, funny, and often extremely weird short stories.  Genre readers will like Saunders's forays into that field, but his mimetic stories are equally distinct and memorable.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Recent Movie Roundup 20

In the previous installment of this series, I noted that I was looking forward to watching some more grown-up fare at the movie theater.  Eight months later, I seem to have failed spectacularly at that task.  There are a whole bunch of movies for adults, like Boyhood and Whiplash, that I meant to see and never got around to, and here I am again reporting on the more shlocky end of the scale.  So let's make this a resolution for 2015--watch some more challenging stuff at the movie theater, and if I can't manage that, try to catch up with it at home.  In the meantime, though, here are my thoughts on the movies I have seen.
  • Gone Girl - David Fincher's artful, tense direction can't obscure the fact that this is one of those novel adaptations that are completely inessential if you've read the book (in fact, much like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl is a case in which watching the movie and reading the book would probably take about the same amount of time--though in Gone Girl's case that's largely because the film is overlong, taking far too long to wrap up its story).  With the exception of Rosamund Pike's Amy--a wonderfully chilly, scary performance that can't quite get around how hollow the character, as written and conceived, is--there's nothing that Gone Girl the movie adds to the book, and nothing that it does with a story that is, let's face it, pretty schlocky and ridiculous if you think about it for a moment, to make it its own.  If you're coming to that story for the first time--like my brother, who watched the film with me and loved it--that should be more than enough, even if you know the major twist (as I did when I read the book).  On a second viewing, when you already know the story beats, there's not much here to watch for.  Despite Fincher's reputation as an auteur, Gone Girl is clearly a commercial creation first and foremost, designed to feed on and multiply the book's popularity.  That means that it can't afford to alienate fans or potential fans by failing to deliver exactly what they expect.  I found myself, while watching the film, thinking again of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book that has more than a few similarities with Gone Girl and whose success in the mid-00s meant that it, too, was briefly intended as a cash-in product for some major film studio.  Somehow, miraculously, Lynne Ramsay got her hands on the project and was able to make something living and vibrant out of it, filing away the book's problems and making something resonant out of a rather silly story.  Gone Girl hasn't been so lucky.

    Perhaps inevitably, author Gillian Flynn's screenplay strips out most of the novel's social commentary, and on the whole this is for the best--Gone Girl's biggest problem was that it tried to make a statement about marriage through a story about a marriage in which one partner was a raging psychopath.  But it's also a choice that lays bare the absurdities of the story's twists and turns, and leaves the leftovers of this theme feeling particularly unconvincing--the Cool Girl speech, already out of place in the book (it's a darling that should have been killed, except that its cultural currency is already greater than the novel that contains it) sticks out like a sore thumb in the movie.  When I read Gone Girl it seemed to me that the only way to resolve its inherent inconsistencies and problems (chief among them, the choice to indulge in so many pernicious stereotypes where the rape-faking, sperm-stealing Amy is concerned) was to take it as a very dark comedy, and I think that a director who was less beholden to a studio determined to monetize the book could have made a great movie along those lines.  That's not what happened, and so Gone Girl is roughly as good as the book--compulsive and extremely well made, but prone to falling apart if you think about it too much.

  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 - This movie has been catching a lot of flak for being half a story, and for a split that quite clearly happened purely as a cash-in measure.  But though Mockingjay.1 has its moments of padding--there was no need for Katniss to make two trips back to the bombed and destroyed District 12, and the action scene that concludes the films is ridiculously drawn out in a way that makes it less tense and more comedic--on the whole it benefits from the extra breathing space, which leaves us room to appreciate the film's remarkably un-heroic subject matter, and a stellar central performance by Jennifer Lawrence that brings it to life.  I went into Mockingjay feeling very jaded about the Hunger Games series, which seemed to go into a holding pattern with the utterly unnecessary Catching Fire, repeating the beats of the first film with only minor variations.  Mockingjay, thankfully, moves the story forward, with Katniss spirited off to District 13 to become the symbol of the revolution.  Where the two previous films struggled with the realization that Katniss's heroism in the arena was merely a tool that ultimately served the Capitol, Mockingjay faces that truth head-on.  It does this by effectively removing Katniss from the hero role--where the film's trailers make it seem that she is fighting the Capitol, in truth she's making propaganda films (and in a clever touch, the logos and films produced by this propaganda machine look remarkably like the film's own promotional materials).  Meanwhile, Katniss is struggling with PTSD and with her growing inability to protect the people she loves--chiefly Peeta, who was left behind in the arena at the end of Catching Fire and has been forced into becoming the Capitol's spokesperson.

    Mockingjay can assign Katniss this passive, reactive role because it gives more space to other characters, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, a PR maven who doesn't quite realize what a revolution actually entails, Julianne Moore's Alma Coin, the soft-spoken but slightly sinister leader of District 13, and the reliably delightful Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  (Even Liam Hemsworth's perpetually underserved Gale finally gets the chance to seem a little more like an actual person, after two films in which his character seemed to have no point.)  Since worldbuilding has always been the Hunger Games films' strongest point, this chance to see more of the series's world and its workings is all to the good, even if the revolution that Mockingjay depicts doesn't really make sense--the scale of the revolutionaries' willingness to commit violence, often at the cost of their own and their families' lives, requires a great deal more explanation than the film gives, probably because it isn't willing to face up to its implications.  Nevertheless, the sense that we are finally getting to see the bigger story playing out around Katniss is a relief after being stuck in her limited point of view in Catching Fire, and though I don't doubt that Mockingjay.2 will place her back in a more central, heroic role, the bleakness of the first part is both necessary and extremely effective.

  • Big Hero 6 - Marvel's first foray into the realm of animated kids' entertainment, though not officially part of the MCU, feels both inflected by it and different from it in significant ways.  There's a great deal of Iron Man in the way that lead character Hiro (Ryan Potter), a juvenile genius in the futuristic city "San Fransokyo," designs and manufactures robots, armored suits, and a myriad other fantastical devices that help to turn him into a superhero.  But despite the team name in the title, Big Hero 6 is only really interested in two of that team's members--Hiro, and the medical robot Baymax (Scott Adsit), who allows himself to be transformed into a fighting, flying machine in the belief that this will enable Hiro to come to terms with the recent death of his older brother.  Big Hero 6's story thus has a lot more in common with The Iron Giant or Up, though those comparisons are perhaps a little unkind, since it lacks either of those films' emotional power and fleet-footed plotting (like Up, the film starts with a preamble that establishes Hiro's life, his close relationship with his brother, and the sudden trauma of his loss, but what Up achieves in ten heart-wrenching, wordless minutes takes Big Hero 6 twice as long, with nowhere near the same effect).  What makes Big Hero 6 its own creation is its stunning animation, and the world that it brings to life, a vibrant, truly multicultural city whose citizens are a genuinely diverse bunch (starting with the film's protagonist, of course, but hardly stopping there--at least three of the human members of the Big Hero 6 are people of color).  The result is enjoyable and often quite funny--especially when the other members of the team are on screen, though none of them ever emerge as fully-fleshed characters--but adult viewers intrigued by the Marvel imprimatur could just as easily wait for the DVD.

  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - It's disappointing to me how disappointing I found this film.  Despite recognizing that neither one was particularly good, I enjoyed the two previous installments in Peter Jackson's bloated, aimless "adaptation" of The Hobbit, finding enough bits, scenes, and character moments in each one to tide me over their absurd running time and complete incomprehension of what made the original novel lovely and engaging.  There's little of that in The Battle of the Five Armies, probably because with this movie, Jackson and his fellow writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have hit their lowest ratio yet of original material to running time--the film is based on only a few chapters of The Hobbit, none of which actually describe the titular battle, since Bilbo is unconscious for most of it.  What that translates to on screen is essentially a single, two-and-a-half-hour battle scene, with little ingenuity or directorial flair to enliven it--it's hard to believe that this is the same writer and director who made the final battle scenes of The Return of the King so tense and engaging.  While some of the emotional beats of the movie still land--basically anything involving Martin Freeman's Bilbo is golden, with Freeman effortlessly conveying Bilbo's fundamental decency, and how his matter-of-fact Hobbit nature shines through the disreputable burglar-hero that he has become--others, such as the strained relationship between Legolas and his father Thranduil, never rise above boilerplate (though on his own Lee Pace's Thranduil remains one of the secret successes of these films, a character who is, at one and the same time, absurdly camp and genuinely powerful and scary; the fact that he ends the film as neither a villainous figure nor a fully "redeemed" one is one of the most subtle touches in it).

    And then, of course, there's Thorin, a character who has had a dozen different motivations, tragic flaws, and fast-approaching dooms since this series began, none of which were well-realized or very convincing.  The Battle of the Five Armies swaps out his One Ring-like lust for the Arkenstone from The Desolation of Smaug (itself a replacement for his desire for vengeance from An Unexpected Journey) for "dragon-sickness," the lingering curse of Smaug which causes paranoid greed (and does not affect anyone except Thorin, and is shaken off with a crude, unintentionally hilarious CGI montage).  All of this is because Jackson, Boyens and Walsh can't face up to the fact that in the original book, Thorin is an ornery, greedy, unheroic businessman, not the Byronic figure that they and Richard Armitage keep trying to cut.  But what makes The Battle of the Five Armies such a failure is that, in the end, it's really not clear why Jackson and Co. chose to make that swap.  We've been saying for years that the core flaw of the Hobbit films is trying to recreate the sweeping, elegiac tone of the Lord of the Rings movies, telling an epic story where the original book was a more mundane, small-scale story about people who just wanted to get paid.  But just at the point where you'd expect The Battle of the Five Armies to hit that heroic tone hardest it seems to forget that it ever meant to do so.  The titular battle--and its tragic outcome for Thorin and his line--turns out to have been about nothing more than petty disputes over gold, conveniently forgotten when a common enemy emerges in the form of the orc army, but no less petty for all that.  This is, of course, the point that Tolkien made in the original novel, but Jackson and Co. have so obscured it with their constant references to the future war with Sauron, and with their reimagination of Thorin as a great-but-angsty warrior, that the full tragedy of it--the unnecessary waste of life--fails to land.  The movie ends up being neither one thing nor the other, and perhaps mainly concerned with making sure that certain plot elements, such as Bilbo's mithril coat, end up where they need to be for the story of The Lord of the Rings.  This is pure prequel-itis, and far less than The Hobbit deserved.

  • Ascension - Not actually a movie but a Syfy channel "special event" miniseries.  But of course that's not true either, because once you've watched Ascension, it's clear that what you're seeing is a pilot and four episodes of an ongoing series, recut into three parts after Syfy declined to order the show to series--and thus without anything like a proper conclusion to the story.  (The series's creators have raised the possibility that Syfy will order more episodes, like it did after the Battlestar Galactica miniseries aired, but it's hard to watch the existing material and believe that this was the original plan.)  Which is actually a shame, because for all its flaws--and there are many--Ascension might be one of the more ambitious genre efforts of the last few years, a show with a chunky premise and lots of moving parts that might have been a lot of fun to follow.  That premise is that in the early 60s, mankind launched a generation starship on a hundred-year journey to a new world.  In the present day, the descendants of the original crew are struggling with the stratified society that has emerged on the ship, and with the realization that their life's work is merely to act as a bridge for the generation that will get to see and live on a new world.  So when a murder is committed on the ship for the first time, the small, fragile society is rocked, and the officer charged with investigating the crime finds himself out of his depth.  There's a twist to all this that is pretty easy to guess about halfway into the pilot but whose revelation is handled very well, so I won't spell it out here (though if you're a genre fan you've probably worked out what it is simply by being told that it exists), but in the later episodes of the series the currents of power and influence on Ascension are joined by forces on Earth, who reveal a very different goal for the mission than the one imagined by the crew.

    It should be said that despite this intriguing premise, the execution, and particularly the worldbuilding, on Ascension are nothing short of ridiculous.  The point is made that the ship was launched before most of the social justice movements of the last half-century came to fruition, and yet Ascension's crew appears to be fully integrated.  On the other hand, this is also a spaceship on which dozens of young women (and not a single man) have no greater call on their time and skills than to be prostitutes (this plot strand is also where the series criminally wastes the talents of Tricia Helfer, who could play the politically hungry madam role she's been given in her sleep, and only comes to life in the final episode when her character is finally handed some real responsibility).  The series repeatedly stresses the rigid class system that has emerged on Ascension, but with every reference to the "lower decks" it only becomes clearer that this system is unworkable--the right to have children, for example, is reserved for higher caste crewmembers, but if that's the case then where did all the lower deck people come from?  Despite this, I found myself enjoying the show and buying into its world, ridiculous as it is, largely because there are so many components to it, and the plot of the miniseries moves so fast that it was easy to ignore these obvious flaws.  I don't know if Ascension could work as an open-ended series--the last few years have proven that barreling through your plot at a breakneck pace to distract from how empty and silly your story is can only work for so long, and especially for a series whose premise touches on so many meaty subjects, I'm not sure it's possible to simply coast on the audience's desire to know what happens next.  Nevertheless, I'd be happy to learn that Ascension will given the chance to fail or succeed.  There are so few genre series with genuinely odd, SFnal premises out there right now, that even a flawed, ridiculous one could be a lot of fun to watch.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recent Reading Roundup 37

I went through an unplanned blogging hiatus this summer, which meant that a lot of books and movies that I would have liked to write about ended up unreported (though some of them will be showing up in my forthcoming year's best list).  Still, it seemed wrong to end the year without another look at what I've been reading (one of the things I'd like to get back to next year is full-length book reviews, which is something I've let slide, but this will do for now).  Those of you who haven't been following along on twitter (or who have been defeated by its ephemeral format) might also be interested in the conclusion of my read-through of the Sherlock Holmes canon--here are my thoughts on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Tartt's bestselling, Pulitzer-winning novel kicks off with a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his beloved mother in the explosion but survives himself, and in his addled state, steals the titular masterpiece.  For the rest of The Goldfinch's 800 pages, the painting functions as both a talisman and a millstone for Theo--a reminder of his mother's love (it was her favorite work) and of the world of beauty and kindness he lost with her death, but also a source of anxiety, as he worries about being prosecuted and jailed if he tries to return it, and alienates potential friends in trying to keep its secret.  Tartt doesn't quite manage to argue that Theo's fears of the authorities throwing the book at a theft committed by a traumatized, concussed child are realistic (but then, late in the book, she seems to suggest that Theo himself doesn't really believe in this danger, and is keeping the painting for more selfish reasons), but The Goldfinch is extremely effective at conveying the toll that trauma, sudden loss, and uncertainty take on Theo's psyche.  Though not officially mistreated--he bounces from the home of a friend's affluent but chilly family, to the Nevada desert with his abandoning, neglectful father, who allows Theo to run wild, then back to New York where he's taken in by a kind but unworldly antiques restorer--Theo is left to more or less fend for himself, and his obvious bewilderment at being thrust into the world unprotected is heartbreaking.  Distrustful of his new guardians, and anxious about being torn from them and deposited somewhere worse, he expends all his energies on gaming the system and fobbing off those in authority, and none on processing his trauma and growing up--which eventually leads, in his twenties, to an involvement with the criminal underworld, as he sells fake antiques and hobnobs with art forgers.

    Despite its length, The Goldfinch is a compelling, engaging read, effortlessly evoking both the wood-paneled rooms of New York's upper classes and the dusty decay of a half-built Las Vegas suburb.  But by the time one approaches the end of the novel--in which Theo's criminal acts, his concealment of the painting, and his emotional instability all lead him to a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam and a violent crescendo to the story--it's hard not to wonder what the point of all this was.  Did the world really need another baggy coming-of-age novel about a middle class white guy who struggles with self-absorption and self-loathing?  Even more importantly, did it really need a novel that is as obvious a retelling of Great Expectations as The Goldfinch is?  On the latter point, it's particularly disappointing that Tartt passes up any and all chances to address the problems that Dickens poses to modern readers.  Like her 1992 breakout novel The Secret History, The Goldfinch is steeped in a snobbishness so profound that it goes out the other end into self-parody.  Goodness, in this novel, is associated with the sort of old-world, Anglophile gentility that wouldn't be out of place in an Edith Wharton novel, with people who love Old Masters, classical music, and early American furniture, and are politely bewildered by any pop culture artifact produced after 1960.  The actual realities of American life, meanwhile, are treated--even by a modern teenager like Theo--with horror and incomprehension, as in the case of his grotesque stepmother Xandra, a spray-tanned, pill-popping New Age freak.  People of color, in this construction, are almost entirely absent except as cheerful, devoted servants--the doormen at Theo's building, or the housekeeper who loved his mother so much that she offers to work without pay.  (In a particularly tone-deaf moment, Theo's horror of going into the foster system is illustrated through the example of a pair of black children who were abused and murdered by their foster parents.  It seems to have escaped Tartt's notice that this brief mention immediately throws into sharp relief how petty Theo's self-pitying concerns are, and how privileged he is in comparison to the children not deemed interesting enough to star in this story.)  The novel's Estella is Pippa, a girl who caught Theo's eye in the moments before the explosion, and whose fascination for him is rooted equally in love and in his need to dwell on their defining traumatic moment.  The Goldfinch occasionally hints that Pippa is just as troubled as Theo, just as haunted by what they experienced and just as lost (in her case, even more profoundly; being in the explosion throws Theo into the world of antiques and provides him with an avocation, but the injuries she sustains cost Pippa her future as a professional musician).  But it never allows her to become a real person, rather than the idealized object of Theo's obsessive--and, as even he is eventually forced to admit, unhealthy--love.

    Tartt is known for taking years--just over a decade, in this case--to produce her novels, and especially given that weight of investment it's hard to look at The Goldfinch and not wonder what it was all for.  In its closing chapter, The Goldfinch launches into several pages of Theo trying to explain his new life philosophy, but though this creed is unobjectionable--don't get hung up on labels like good or bad, or waste your life obsessing about which one describes you; just be kind and loving to other people--it's also thin enough to drive home that there's really nothing at the heart of this novel.  And its failures when it comes to race, class, and gender only reaffirm how shallow and unnecessary it is.  (It's both interesting and sad that Tartt's only attempt to buck the snobbishness that infects her writing, her second novel The Little Friend, which has a female protagonist and tries to treat its working class characters with respect and explore their humanity, is also her least successful work, and that its poor reception is almost certainly the reason she returned to the milieu and tone of The Secret History in her third effort.)  I'm coming off more negative on The Goldfinch than I actually felt while I was reading it, when I was carried along by Tartt's engaging prose and story, but by the time I turned the last page, the book's pleasures had faded, and I was left with its hollowness and its lingering problems.

  • Inversions by Iain M. Banks - This stealth-Culture novel (whose stealth is wasted since every list of Banks's SF identifies it as such) has some echoes of Banks's more ambitiously structured work, such as Use of Weapons or Feersum Endjinn, with two storylines proceeding concurrently but with enough ornate worldbuilding detail that it can take a while to work out how their settings and time periods relate to one another.  But in nearly every other way this is a major departure for Banks, his SF writing, and the Culture sequence--a novel rooted in character and emotion rather than elaborate SFnal invention, or in the grand scale of the Culture and its neighbors.  This is all, of course, in service of the same goal as all Culture novels, the question of the Culture's right to interfere in the business of other races, and of the methods it uses to achieve its goal of spreading peace and prosperity, but in Inversions that question is examined on a very personal scale.  In one plot strand, the narrator is the apprentice to Vosill, a foreign doctor in the court of the king, who has scandalized the court and the political system with her gender and her attempts to influence the king towards a kinder, more progressive mode of rule.  In the second storyline, DeWar, a bodyguard in the service of a Napoleon-like usurper, tries to protect his master from multiple assassination attempts even as the empire he's built begins to crumble.  Both stories are largely about interpersonal drama--Vosill's apprentice falls in love his mistress, who is herself in love with the king; DeWar develops a friendship with Perrund, the emperor's concubine, who slowly reveals her history of suffering and abuse during the emperor's wars--but interwoven through both are the central questions of the Culture sequence.  Vosill is trying to make a difference while doing no harm; DeWar is protecting a violent warlord who might be a better ruler than his predecessors.  Which is the right approach?

    It's a concept that is perhaps too slight to carry a whole novel--or perhaps the whole thing would be more compelling if knowing that Inversions was a Culture novel did not make it so obvious who the Special Circumstances agents are (though I suspect not; I think that reading the novel cold would have been a supremely annoying experience, as so much of it is opaque unless you know the secret, and there aren't enough plot twists or action scenes to distract from that obliqueness).  Banks has never been a particularly good writer of characters, and his tendency to plump for melodrama, particularly when it comes to the unrequited romances in Vosill's story, robs the book of much of its affect.  (Another problem is the way that Inversions uses rape in both storylines; Vosill's story ends with a gruesome scene of attempted rape whose graphic description is not made any less exploitative by the fact that the rape is prevented at the very last moment; in the other story, Perrund's revelation that she was gang-raped as a child has no effect on the burgeoning romance between her and DeWar, despite the fact that she has obviously not recovered from the experience.)  In the end, it doesn't feel as if Inversions adds much to the conversation that all Culture novels are involved in.  The personal stories through which Banks chooses to approach it obscure the central issues rather than clarify them, and the dual twists at the end of the novel--in which Vosill is forced to commit violence, and DeWar is forced to acknowledge the personal cost of his big picture approach--feel more than a little schematic.  The novel ends up working only as well as its characters do, and since the most compelling one of them, to me, was Perrund, whose story is glimpsed only in pieces through DeWar's eyes, this made for a patchy experience.

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - On a summer's night in 1808, a heartbroken eighteen-year-old French peasant, Sobran Jodeau, take a bottle of his father's wine into the hills to drown his sorrows, and meets an angel.  The two share the wine, and make a pact to meet on the same spot every year for the rest of Sobran's life.  This is the starting point of Knox's novel, a strange, lush historical fantasy, and from it she spins out a number of enticing, interwoven stories.  The Vintner's Luck is a portrait of early 19th century French peasant life, following Sobran's fortunes as he marries, has children and loses some of them, flourishes as a vintner, and becomes an influential figure in the village.  Knox's portrait of the community, with its subtle nuances of class, family connection, and unspoken secrets, is delicately drawn and full of vivid characters, chief among them Sobran himself, who grows into an irascible, strong-willed man whose gruff demeanor belies the befuddlement he experiences whenever he encounters the numinous in the form of his winged friend.  At the same time, The Vintner's Luck is a fantasy, with a meticulously constructed cosmology that gives not only the angel--whose name is Xas--but god and Lucifer and several other Biblical figures roles and stories to contrast against Sobran's human drama.  (The one problem with this aspect of the novel is its unquestioned assertion that Christian theology is the correct one; there's more than a frisson of discomfort when Xas reveals to Sobran that one of his other human friends is a Turkish woman who, as a result of her friendship with the angel, converted to Christianity.)  And finally, The Vintner's Luck is a love story, at points a deeply sensual one, between Sobran and Xas (as well as Sobran and several other human lovers).  It's a romance that takes decades to unfold and suffers multiple complications, but despite its otherworldly elements Knox succeeds at making the relationship feel weighty in just the right way.  When Sobran and Xas fight, their arguments are as petty and knowing as any other married couple's; when they make up, the resulting affection is often homely and mundane.  Taken all together, these different elements should amount to a mess (especially in a novel as relatively brief as this one) but Knox miraculously manages to weave them all together into something beautiful and moving, which ultimately becomes a meditation on love and loss as the inevitable end of Sobran and Xas's relationship approaches.  The Vintner's Luck is very much its own thing, and in some ways indescribable, but it's also truly worth a look.

  • Tenth of December by George Saunders - About ten pages into Saunders's collection, one of the most lauded books of the last few years, I sighed and decided that it and I were probably not going to get along.  Saunders seemed to be writing in the familiar vein of literary short story writers--minute, well-observed pieces with little in the way of plot or resolution--and I envisioned myself admiring Tenth of December but not really getting the fuss.  About twenty pages after that, I got the fuss and then some.  Saunders, of course, writes beautifully, his prose spare and incisive, and often quite funny.  But the true magic of his stories is how they often conjure whole worlds in just a few pages--the internal worlds of their characters, such as the fantasist, Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of "Al Roosten," but sometimes also strange alternate worlds.  Several of the stories in Tenth of December are unabashedly SF, and where you'd usually expect a literary writer dipping their toes in genre to write simplistic worlds with overwrought social messages, Saunders's light touch and sharp humor are as present in these stories as in the mimetic ones.  In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a middle class parent desperate to keep up appearances buys a lawn decoration made from living job migrants, and though this feels like too outlandish a concept to work Saunders is deft enough at describing the social nuances of this future society and its timeless need to keep up with the Joneses that you buy both the fad for such ornaments and the narrator's ability to ignore their profound cruelty.  In "My Chivalric Fiasco," a theme park employee receives a promotion as a bribe for overlooking a superior's crime, but the new job involves being chemically altered to be truly chivalrous, and in that mode the employee can't keep his mouth shut about the injustice he witnessed.  The humor of the story only lightly conceals the horror at its core, both at a technology that can alter people's personalities, and at an economic system that forces employees to accept such a treatment, and then punishes them for its consequences.  And then there are stories where Saunders lets his humor fade, and the sad humanity of his characters come to the fore, as in the title piece, which intertwines the narratives of a terminally ill man bent on suicide and the lonely, precocious boy who decides to save him--a premise that might have been maudlin but is instead deeply moving (and also very tense, as both characters come close to death).  It feels a bit silly to say that a book that has been decorated with almost every award possible turns out to actually be very good, but if you've been put off Tenth of December by its aura of respectability, I strongly urge you to give it a chance.

  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - A new Sarah Waters novel should be an event, so I was a little surprised at how muted the response to The Paying Guests has been.  A hundred pages into the book, that reaction seemed a little less remarkable.  Not that The Paying Guests is bad--it's as sharply written and plotted as any of Waters's novels, and just as compulsively readable.  But readers looking for the delicious ambiguity and slippery characters of her last novel, the masterful The Little Stranger, will be disappointed.  The Paying Guests, by comparison, is something much more mundane, a love story whose strong depiction doesn't quite make up for the familiarity of its beats.  Set in 1922, the story centers on Frances, the only surviving child of an upper-class London family shattered by WWI and ensuing financial crises, who has let her sense of duty and propriety distance her from the rebelliousness of her youth.  Struggling to pay the bills, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers, the lower-class but vivacious Leonard and Lilian.  The early chapters, which chart Frances's unease at this incursion into her and her mother's life, and the subtle currents of class snobbery between the two families, are very well observed, but it comes as no surprise when Frances and Lilian become friends, and then more than that.  The problem is, Waters doesn't really have anywhere interesting to go from that point.  She's very good at describing the feverish, obsessive tenor of Frances and Lilian's affair, their growing desperation at being kept apart by the two other people in the house, but once that sense of claustrophobia is established, what can she do with it?  Her choice is a rather melodramatic one that shifts the focus fatally away from the novel's strongest aspect, Frances's psyche.  The book's final third, in which Frances and Lilian are torn apart by guilt and nearly caught in a legal noose, feels slack and boring compared to the tension of their early friendship and courtship.  It's hard to know why we should care about these two characters, who suddenly seem very mundane where before their love affair felt as grand to the reader as it did to them--which means that the central question of the book's final chapters, can Frances and Lilian overcome the darkness that has come between them, is a lot less urgent than Waters needs it to be.  In her afterword Waters says that The Paying Guests was inspired by several famous murder cases among the British middle class in the 1920s, but it lacks the nasty streak it would have needed to truly do those cases justice, or the emotional depth necessary to make their horror truly resonate.  Instead, the book feels a little bit like Frances herself--too wedded to its respectability to be any real fun.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Mad as Hell: Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin

I had no plans to comment on "Oh, Shenandoah," the now-infamous penultimate episode of Aaron Sorkin's final (?) TV series The Newsroom.  I've tried not to think about Sorkin since I gave up on The Newsroom two episodes into its beleaguered run, when it became clear that the flaws that had marred his previous series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--preachy characters who exist only to speechify, regressive politics, an elitism as overweening as it was unfounded, and a genuine disdain for women--were back in force, and it was actually a bit of a shock to discover that he was still capable of arousing as much outrage and indignation as "Oh, Shenandoah" did.  It seemed like a lot more fun to just sit back and watch the wall-to-wall pans appear--from Libby Hill at The AV Club, Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, James Poniewozik at Time, Tara Ariano at Previously.TV, Ariane Lange at BuzzFeed, Todd VanDerWerff at Vox.com, Emily Yoshida at The Verge, Sonia Saraiya at Salon, and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at Jezebel, to name but a partial sample.

The episode came under fire for multiple sins, from the hackneyed and cheesy shuffling off of a major character to the return of an unearned romance between two increasingly unpleasant characters, but the plot strand that has garnered the most attention and the most outrage involves a producer in the titular newsroom conducting a pre-interview with a rape victim who, having been confronted with the indifference of the justice system to her ordeal, has started a website on which victims like her can name and shame their rapists.  As multiple critics have noted, instead of dealing with the real and legitimate questions raised by such a tactic (while also acknowledging that it may be the only recourse left to victims such as this character), the scene centers on the male character's discomfort with it, and on his unwillingness to believe the victim despite the plausibility of her story.  As Lange writes:
Sitting in a Princeton dorm room, Don tries to convince Mary to take her website down, "to ensure an innocent person isn't destroyed." What about the men, he essentially pleads. One example he offers of the type of person who might post a false allegation on the site is "a woman who feels rejected." And we're meant to be on his side, really. In rape culture, being accused of rape is worse than rape. In rape culture, when we have to decide whose story to believe, it is our moral obligation to believe that the alleged attacker is telling the truth and the alleged victim is a liar.
You can read more about the problems in "Oh, Shenandoah" in any of the links above--if nothing else, the material has inspired many of these writers to greatness--but as I said, I had no intention of joining the fray.  Until, that is, I saw what at first seemed like a mere appendage to the brouhaha, a series of tweets from Alena Smith, a former Newsroom writer.  I'm going to quote Smith's statement in full--because it's short, but also because I want to make some things clear before we talk abut the response to it.
A few points worth making about this statement: it's brief and to the point.  It isn't angry or emotional (not that there's anything wrong with being angry or emotional, but it isn't).  It doesn't name anyone except Smith and Sorkin.  The only experiences, feelings, and ideas it reports are Smith's.  It doesn't violate anyone's privacy--except, possibly, Sorkin's, though only in the sense that it references a storyline that he had, by the time the tweets were published, already released into the world with his name signed to it, and which multiple sources had already condemned.  It's hard to imagine how Smith could have been any more civil or collegial in talking about her own experiences in the Newsroom writers' room--unless, of course, she chose simply not to talk about them at all.

Of course, if you've ever been a woman who has expressed criticism of a man--especially a more powerful man--in a public forum, you know that none of this matters.  How soft, polite, and matter-of-fact your statement is doesn't mean anything--the very fact of having made it puts you in the wrong.  And because the men who flock to the "defense" of the man you dared to criticize have some instinctive understanding that they can't actually say this, what you're in for (assuming it's not the more gruesome option of rape threats, death threats, and doxxing) is a death by a thousand cuts.  A million different ways in which you were wrong, not in what you said, but in how you chose to say it.  You've accused someone of the heinous crime of being sexist (which is of course far worse than actually experiencing sexism).  You've violated their privacy (by speaking about your own experiences).  You're calling for censorship and thought police (say the people who would just like you to shut up and go away).  You were rude (there's no actual response to this; the rudeness is inherent in your very existence).  You're just trying to get attention (what the hell is wrong with someone in the entertainment industry trying to get attention?).  You're endangering your career (somehow the concern-trolls who raise this prospect never actually do anything to make sure that it doesn't happen).

If all of this is starting to ring a bell, go back and read the excerpt from Lange's review of "Oh, Shenandoah" above.  Though the subjects at hand are very different, the same dynamic is at play.  A woman speaking out about her experiences makes a man uncomfortable, so he tries to argue that the choice to speak is inherently illegitimate--even though speaking out is demonstrably the only way to achieve any real change.

And here's where the whole thing becomes wonderfully surreal.  I've seen Sorkin defenders making these Don-esque arguments, towards Smith and towards the reviewers who criticized "Oh, Shenandoah" (though, for some completely unfathomable reason, only towards the female reviewers).  But yesterday their ranks were joined by Sorkin himself.  After largely ignoring the criticism of "Oh, Shenandoah," and confirming the details of Smith's account (though he also claims that she gave her "enthusiastic support" to a revised version of the rape storyline), Sorkin gets down to what he feels is the actual controversy of the day.  I don't usually go in for fisking, but this is simply too beautiful for any other approach:
I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story.
Obviously, the real issue here isn't the tone-deaf and offensive rape storyline I wrote, but the fact that a woman publicly expressed her disapproval of it!
But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality.
This is a thing that an actual human being has written, and which he clearly expects other actual human beings to take seriously.  Even taking into account Sorkin's reputation for self-importance, it's a little hard to take in.
It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched.
Please note: none of these private and intimate details were mentioned in Smith's tweets, and neither was anyone other than Sorkin himself.  The notion that she has violated anyone's privacy is utterly false and plainly a derailment tactic.
That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in
Not-too-subtle dig at female writer's inexperience, as opposed to the male writer, who Knows How Things Work: check.
the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
Left unspoken: what other recourse Smith had given that her valid, legitimate objections to a storyline that has garnered near-universal pans were shut down by the person running that oh-so-private writers' room.

What we're seeing here is Aaron Sorkin becoming an Aaron Sorkin character, making the same arguments as Don.  In his conception of reality, a woman who feels that she's been treated unjustly and has no hope of redress from the hierarchy above her, also has no right to speak out, because doing so is Rude.

As beautiful as this conflation of fiction and reality is, it actually gets better.  Way back in 2007, Sorkin wrote the Studio 60 episode "4 A.M. Miracle," in which lead character Matt Albie tries to avoid a network lawyer who wants to depose him about a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in his predecessors' writers' room--a storyline itself based on a suit filed against the production of Friends in 1999.  Though he initially dismisses the suit (and the woman bringing it) as frivolous, Matt is eventually persuaded that the atmosphere in the writers' room was indeed toxic and hostile to women (though it is worth noting that he only accepts this once he learns that the lewd, sexual comments rife in the room were directed at his on-and-off girlfriend, Harriet Hayes).  Nevertheless, he tells the lawyer, he will help to quash the suit, because "No conversation like this has ever or would ever go on in a room I was running.  But there's a lot of good writing that comes out of rooms I don't run."

It's a testament to how generally vile Studio 60 was on all fronts, including gender, that this quote didn't get more play at the time.  Matt isn't simply saying, as defenders of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen will occasionally do, that great art can be an excuse for the abuse of women and girls.  He's saying that the abuse of women and girls might be necessary to the production of great art (this is leaving aside, obviously, the question of whether Studio 60's titular show-within-a-show was art at all, much less the great kind), and that, as an artist himself, he has to prioritize that over the safety of women (or people of color, or LGBTQ people).  The possibility that those people might have voices worth hearing, and that the hostile environment that Matt holds more valuable than their safety might be preventing from speaking up, is never even considered.

What we have here is a pattern.  On The Newsroom, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and in real life, we have Sorkin repeatedly prioritizing the comfort of men--powerful, privileged men like himself--over the safety of women.  To be clear, I'm not saying that Smith's experience was comparable to rape or sexual harassment.  I'm not even saying that Aaron Sorkin wasn't fully within his rights to shut down a conversation with his employee, or order her out of the room (I don't even think that Smith is saying this; her tweets seem mainly to be about venting the frustration of that argument, and expressing some well-earned schadenfreude at having been proven right).  But in all three cases, there is an assumption that a woman speaking out is fundamentally wrong.  That no matter how unfair her experience was--and please take a moment to admire Don/Matt/Sorkin for recognizing that unfairness--and how limited her options are in response, speaking about it makes her the bad guy, because the system and its smooth running are more important than she is.  True, this approach means that nothing will ever change, but... well... let's pretend that isn't exactly what Sorkin wants.

What makes the Smith incident and Sorkin's reaction to it all the more delicious is that, judging by what I've read by her, Alena Smith's worldview may not be that different from her former boss's.  Coincidentally (or not?), she had an essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week.  "You Can't Make a Living: Digital Media, the End of TV's Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright" is a long, interesting, perhaps tendentious piece that argues that writing for the theater has become effectively a hobby (and has been progressing towards that state since the 1920s) and that writing for television is going the same way.  Smith's analysis has many echoes of the bugbears that appear in Sorkin's writing: she discusses the advent of new media and the de-professionalization of many creative pursuits, the audience's shifting tastes which make it difficult for quality entertainment to get off the ground, and, of course, the internet.  The difference between Smith and Sorkin is that she doesn't come at the situation from a position of disdain.  She's identifying trends that she clearly views as problematic, but she doesn't depict them--as Sorkin often does--as the death knell of civilization.  Nor is she trapped by the delusion that these processes can somehow be reversed, returning us a golden age when everything was better.  This, not to put too fine a point on it, is what The Newsroom should have been.  There are obvious problems with new media, citizen journalism, and the effects that the internet has had on the creative industry that are worth talking about (just as there are obvious problems with a website where women can identify alleged rapists, that are equally worth talking about).  But the people we should be hearing from about these problems are people like Smith--thoughtful and cognizant of the inevitability of change--not frothing reactionaries like Sorkin, whose only real concern is with their own comfort and vanity.

I've been thinking for a while about Arthur Chu's essay "Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage."  It's a trenchant, thought-provoking piece that argues that flare-ups like the recent (and still ongoing, in some places) GamerGate are part of a reactionary stream within popular culture, which periodically explodes with the rage of white males' fear that their central role within it is being displaced--by women, by black people, by gays.  The whole thing is worth reading, and not just if you're interested in GamerGate, but it was this paragraph that suddenly lit a lightbulb over my head, and clarified for me why I've increasingly found Aaron Sorkin impossible to stand, and why even his earlier, better-written work has become nigh-unwatchable for me:
If you want to get a good idea of the "mood" of middle-class white people in the '70s, rewatch Network and pay attention to Peter Finch's Oscar-winning "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" monologue. Some of his grievances are legitimate. Some of them are incoherent, even bigoted. But all of them add up to a coiled-up rage, ready to lash out at the nearest target.
Network is, of course, Aaron Sorkin's touchstone text.  He references it, and its writer Paddy Chayefsky, repeatedly in both his writing and his public statements.  Both Studio 60 and The Newsroom are, in large parts, attempts to remake it for the modern era.  But as Chu notes, its influence on his writing is rarely revolutionary.  Sorkin has the reputation of being a liberal, but for more than a decade his commentary about our culture has consistently taken the form of that brave conservative self-conception, the man who stands astride history yelling "stop."  And it is, of course, always a man.  The Newsroom in particular nakedly yearns for the days when great men had a single platform from which to pronounce on the culture, determining right from wrong, highbrow from lowbrow, worthwhile from worthless.  Sorkin's depictions of the enemies of this manly authority are almost inevitably feminized.  His characters' enemies--bloggers, online journalists, gossip columnists, sorority girls, rape victims--are women.  The internet itself is perceived as the tool of women.  For years there's been an assumption floating around Sorkin that his misogyny is a trait distinct from his intellectualism, his idealism, his faith in humanity's potential.  What Chu's essay--and the events of the last 24 hours--have crystallized for me is that they all come from the same place, a world where white men like Sorkin have a platform and women who try to speak out against the system that benefits those men are, at best, misguided souls who must be condescended to by people who aren't really interested in grasping their experiences.  Sorkin thinks of himself as a liberal, but liberals seeks to dismantle unjust systems even at a cost to their own privilege.  As episodes like "Oh, Shenandoah" and his response to Alena Smith demonstrate, there is no injustice so profound as to convince Aaron Sorkin that such a dismantling is necessary.