The Slow Regard of Silent Things

By Patrick Rothfuss

This book is not going to be for everyone. I don’t say that to take anything away from the author, Patrick Rothfuss—indeed, he’s quite aware of it, as he spent the entire afterword discussing his acute awareness of how “not for everyone” it was. To begin with, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a side story from Rothfuss’s best-selling (and as yet unfinished) trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicle, and it requires familiarity with the main story to make any sense. The bigger obstacle, though, is that not much happens in this book. As Rothfuss himself admits, this is the type of book where he spends eight pages describing the protagonist making soap. Put those together and you have a bit of a problem, since my feeling is that most epic fantasy readers will expect a more plot-heavy story.

So, as I said, it’s not going to be for everyone. And yet, it certainly was for me. I loved it.

Slow Regard is a week in the life of one of the more eccentric—if that’s the right word—side characters in The Kingkiller Chronicle, Auri. Auri is a young (or perhaps young-seeming) woman who lives in the catacombs beneath the wizard school featured in the main trilogy. She’s an odd character, of the type you often see in epic fantasies: ostensibly insane (in a quirky, mostly benign way) but also possessed of a deep wisdom, as though she sees truths about the world to which mundane folk are blind.

Now, a character like that makes for an interesting foil to a typical protagonist, and, indeed, that’s how she’s used in Rothfuss’s main novels. Here, though, she is the focus of the story. Showing things from her perspective is tricky, and requires a light touch. Too weird and you lose the audience, but too normal and you lose the magic and mystery that made her interesting to start with. I think Rothfuss strikes just the right balance, his lyrical prose and tight viewpoint making her both relatable and alien.

Not a whole lot happens, it’s true, but Slow Regard is compelling and beautiful nonetheless. Hauntingly so. Rothfuss somehow manages to make cleaning a room and making soap into something like poetry, all the while hinting at both the events of the trilogy and Auri’s own past. It’s really quite a remarkable book.

I don’t know whether or not you will enjoy this book. But I absolutely loved it.

Started: 1/15/2015 | Finished: 1/19/2015

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This Is Where I Leave You

I’m told that the novel this movie was based on is hilarious. I took the liberty of looking up the 2009 New York Times review, in which critic Janet Maslin called it “smartly comic.” Some of that carries over to the film adaptation, but mostly when I was watching it, I kept thinking “This would be better as a book.”

This Is Where I Leave You is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to being good, but ultimately winds up just being OK. The bulk of the story deals with the four Altman siblings—Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), and Phillip (Adam Driver)—as they return home in the wake of their father’s death. Now, you look at a cast like that, which is rounded out by the addition of Jane Fonda as the mother of the family, and Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepherd, and Rose Byrne in supporting roles, and give them a premise like that, and what you’d imagine—what I’d imagine, at least—is a witty, heartfelt, observant ensemble movie. And at times that’s exactly what This Is Where I Leave You feels like, but it can’t hold onto it.

I think the main problem has to do with the fact that, rather than being truly an ensemble piece, the movie begins with Jason Bateman’s character, Judd, and follows his thread the most closely throughout. As the film opens, Judd appears to be a successful radio producer with a good life, but that gets upended when he walks in on his wife having sex with his boss. That this is shortly followed by the news that his father has died seems a bit piled on, but perhaps not unworkably so. No, the problem for me is that I’ve just seen too many movies about sad dudes who have to overcome some personal or emotional obstacle, mostly with the help of some Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That kind of story felt fresh when I was 25. At 35, I want to see something different. (At one point while watching this movie, I wondered aloud whether there were even any interesting stories left to tell about men. Perhaps that’s taking things a bit far, but certainly the shine has come off of this particular story.)

Still, if the main plotline fell flat for me, This Is Where I Leave You does get some things right, mainly in its portrayal of the Altmans as a family. There are little sprinkles of insight and realness here and there, bits of amicable dysfunction and the closeness that can only come from a shared history, which rang true to me. There are ways that, for many of us, family brings out both the best and worst of ourselves, and this movie understands that, and shows it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or heavy-handed. Or, rather, it doesn’t feel any more heavy-handed than real families can be.

Still, those moments of connection only serve to make me all the more frustrated that the whole thing is so mediocre. And that’s especially true given the collective talent of the cast. I can’t say that this is really a bad movie, but it’s not one that I’m going to be coming back to often.

Viewed: 1/17/2015 | Released: 9/19/2014 | Score: C+

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Obvious Child

In one of the year-end episodes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, panelist Glen Weldon picked out Obvious Child as a counterexample to the claim that 2014 was a bad year for film. The movie had already been on my list for a while at that point, but Weldon’s recommendation was another reminder to move it up in the queue, especially now that the movie is on Netflix. I’m glad I did.

Obvious Child takes its name from a 1990 Paul Simon song, one with the light, airy melody and propulsive rhythms I think of when I think of Simon’s music during that era. And, as was so common with a Paul Simon song, the lightness and danceability of the music belied the complexity of the lyrics. “The Obvious Child” is a wistful song, one about the necessity of growing up, and of facing who you turn out to be when you get there. In a lot of ways, it’s an apt title for this movie.

Jenny Slate plays a young stand-up comedienne, Donna Stern, stuck in that phase of your early twenties where you’re out in the world but don’t yet feel like an adult. After a break-up and a casual (if adorable) fling, she finds out she’s pregnant, and then decides to have an abortion. Now, this summary sounds fairly trite and simple, possibly even didactic, but Obvious Child is anything but. Rather, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and honest portrait of the mess and struggle of early adulthood. Slate is, by turns, funny and poignant, juvenile and mature, brash and vulnerable. So much of the movie hinges on her ability to give a good performance, and she more than lives up to the challenge. You’re left with something that sounds almost like an oxymoron: an abortion story that somehow manages to be a feel-good movie.

It’s not going to be for everyone, this movie. Clearly, some people will find the central tension and its resolution distasteful. But I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie before that deals with abortion so honestly. It’s never heavy-handed or even particularly partisan, focusing instead on the people involved and what they go through. It’s a story, not a lesson. And, in any case, there’s so much more going on: Donna’s relationship with her parents, her place in her community of friends, and, most importantly, her relationship to her own life. The real climax of the film doesn’t take place in a clinic, but in a comedy club where Donna’s stand-up becomes the vehicle for her accepting her situation and her decisions, and that those decisions are hers to make.

I can’t say for sure how you will feel about this movie, but I can say that I really enjoyed it.

Viewed: 1/16/2015 | Released: 8/29/2014 | Score: A-

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Ancillary Justice

By Ann Leckie

I made up my mind to read Ancillary Justice when I saw Kameron Hurley tweet that her book The Mirror Empire (which I read and loved last year) would never have gotten published if not for the success of Ancillary Justice. The author of the weirdest and most innovative fantasy of the past decade is tipping her hat to this book? I’m in.

One of the first things that anybody will mention about Ancillary Justice—at least, the first thing that everyone has mentioned to me about it—is the way gender is treated. Or rather, the way it isn’t treated; throughout the book, the narrator simply refers to everyone using feminine pronouns. As becomes clear fairly quickly, this is because she is an artificial intelligence, and moreover one that was created by a society where gender differences aren’t recognized. It makes for an interesting tension in spots where she has to interact with people who do care about gender, but the most impressive thing about this choice is how little it ends up mattering for most of the story. That is, I was forced to look at how my biases color my perceptions when everyone in the book is a “she,” but in terms of the arc of the story, it mostly doesn’t factor.

Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera and revenge tale, told from the perspective of a person who used to be a spaceship. Now, that sounds completely bonkers, and I suppose in some ways it is, but accepting an AI as a protagonist turns out to be a lot less mind-bending than dealing with the central premise, which deals with the concept of a consciousness being spread out over many individuals. In this universe, you see, a huge space empire (reminiscent of Rome in many ways) has been conquered using sentient spaceships who control large groups of “ancillaries,” which are essentially human bodies whose brains have been connected to the ship’s AI. But the ancillaries are not only controlled by the ship, rather, the ship’s awareness and “self” is spread across all of those bodies simultaneously. This leads to a few scenes—including some of the most tense and exciting ones in the whole book—that become a little difficult to track, as the narrator speaks of an “I” that is both singular and multiple.

Indeed, the whole motive force behind Ancillary Justice’s plot comes from this idea of multiplicity, and author Ann Leckie explores some really intriguing ideas about identity and consciousness over the course of the story. Moreover, she does it in a way that’s not only intelligent, but also highly entertaining. The whole thing is just really well done, which ought to be obvious of a novel that won both the Hugo and the Nebula in its year. Despite the fact that the pile of books on my nightstand is still quite tall from my Christmas haul, I couldn’t resist running out and picking up the sequel, Ancillary Sword. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Started: 12/17/2014 | Finished: 1/14/2015

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A Story We Tell Ourselves

“I’m sorry I left you up on that ridge, Mike. I’ve always regretted losing your friendship.”

Several years ago, I opened up Facebook to find a friend request and a message from a guy I’d known since fourth grade, but whom I hadn’t seen in years. He apologized profusely and sincerely, clearly having carried guilt over abandoning me, and wanting to make amends. The only thing was, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

A short conversation jogged my memory. On a school camping trip, back when we were sophomores in high school, we had climbed—off-trail—to the top of a ridgeline above our campsite. We’d gone the long way around on the ascent, coming up the shallower slope on the back side, but now the sun was setting and we needed to get back before the evening campfire. We started down the steep face together, but I froze halfway down, overcome with vertigo. He shouted for me to hurry up and went on without me, assuming I’d make it on my own. But I didn’t; three or four other campers ended up guiding me down, inch by inch. I was shaken, and angry with my friend for leaving me, but I got over it.

Over the next few years we remained friends, but as so often happens we drifted apart. He joined the football team; I joined the drama club. We both made other friends. There was never any particular rancor between us, other relationships just became more important. Senior year, we were on the yearbook staff together, and I remember having a few laughs. We lost touch after graduation, but I always remembered him fondly.

This was how I remembered it. But as I discovered when he messaged me, his version of the story was very different: I had been angry and hurt that he abandoned me, and I never forgave him for doing so. Our friendship ended that night, because of his actions, and the regret over the incident changed his life. From then on, he made it a point never to let anyone down, especially if they needed his help.

So, for him, that night on the ridge was a foundational experience. For me it wasn’t even remarkable enough for me to remember it without being reminded. That disparity has been on my mind a lot lately due to an interesting coincidence. Earlier this month, I received an invitation to a Facebook group for alums of the Monterey Gaming System BBS. As it happened, that was the same week that I finally started listening to Serial.

It’s a little strange to think about these days when social networking sites are so central to most people’s daily lives, but back in the pre-Internet days the closest thing was the local bulletin-board system, or BBS. Monterey Gaming System (or, as it was known to its regulars, “MGS”) was the largest of the local BBSes back in the area where I grew up. Boasting dozens of dial-up lines and an active user base in the hundreds, the MGS chat rooms were the place to be for the computer nerd of the early 90’s Monterey Peninsula.

I was introduced to MGS around 1990 or ’91 by the friend from the story above, and for about three years it was my main social outlet. Most of my good memories from the first two years of high school—which were generally terrible for me—come from the time I spent in those chat rooms or hanging out at the local bowling alley during one of the “get-togethers.” My first steps toward understanding myself as an individual came during experiences I had with that group. I even met my first girlfriend there. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I stopped going, though by the time I left for college it was mostly a thing of the past.

The thing that has been the most striking to me about reconnecting with the group after twenty years is how poor my own memory of that time is. In the past two weeks, dozens of threads have popped up in the Facebook group, people sharing stories about the old days. And it’s been shocking to me how few have sounded even a little bit familiar to me. With just a few exceptions, I can’t even remember people’s names. Somehow, despite this being a formative period in my life that I think about regularly, the people and places have mostly slipped my mind. The question that I keep coming back to is: why don’t I remember this better?

And this brings me to Serial, the wildly popular spin-off podcast of This American Life. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Serial debuted last year with a twelve-episode arc examining the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student from Baltimore. There’s a lot covered in those twelve episodes, and the series is well worth a listen if you haven’t already done so, but what intrigued me the most was the way in which the people involved in the case remember the people and events so differently. The series is largely an attempt to understand whether the man who was convicted of the murder—Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed—was guilty or innocent, but depending on which present-day interview you give the most weight, Syed is either a golden boy or a manipulative liar. And the same discrepancies pop up in people’s descriptions of nearly every facet of the case. In some ways, this isn’t so surprising given that the interviews happened some fifteen years after Lee’s murder, but the huge variations in how people remember Syed, Lee, and what happened that day is striking. What’s more, even the contemporary accounts vary wildly, and not all of it can be explained by the possibility that some people are lying.

Being the sort of introspective person I am, I have a definite picture of who I am now, and who I was at many points in my past. This sense of myself, of awareness and understanding—in many ways this is fundamental to my experience of life. I know that my identity and my ways of being have changed over the years, but even that process is something that I have thought of as comprehensible. Or at least known. More and more, though, I’m coming to the realization that that understanding is flawed.

And that stands even though my conception of my past has changed over time. Leaving high school, I saw myself at 14 as a victim, pushed around and bullied by people stronger and cooler than I was. Ten years later, I looked back with what I thought was clarity and saw the self-absorption, the arrogance and cruelty I displayed at that age, and I admitted that what I endured was at least partially my own fault. Another ten years have gone by, and neither story seems to stick on its own.

Who was I when I knew the people I’ve been reconnecting with? I can tell you about the length of my hair (long), the music I listened to (mostly metal), and the awful poetry I wrote (self-indulgent, but not atypically so for someone going through puberty). I can chuckle about how seriously I took myself, how simple my views of the world were. But is that right? Was I so silly then? Am I so much more advanced now?

What does it mean for my friend if a lifelong regret—one that influenced all of his subsequent relationships—is based on something that didn’t happen? What does it mean for my understanding of myself if it did? Is identity nothing more than a story we tell ourselves in the present? And can we ever really know what our own story really was?

Memory is such a tricky thing. It’s so susceptible to being influenced by our present state of mind, and not just in color but in the details, which can disappear or even change as the story we want or need changes. In Serial, Koenig often butts up against the fact that the narrative she gets changes based on who’s telling it, or that people have no memory of the day at all. It’s a frequent refrain that we don’t pay attention to what happens on a normal day; it just doesn’t stick. But it’s hard to know at the time which days end up being normal and which become important, and how, and to whom. And if life is mostly a sequence of normal days, what are the implications for our conception of that life if we can’t remember those days?

As I’m writing this post, my son and older daughter are in the other room playing. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, what’s causing the laughter and shrieks. I can’t help but wonder what they will take away from this time, what they will remember in twenty years and what they will forget, and how that will differ from what I remember and forget. Time will tell, I suppose.

The Wolf of Wall Street

In the years since the 2008 crisis, we’ve all heard a lot of stories about Wall Street and its excesses, so it makes sense that a movie like this one would get a lot of attention, especially given the enduring popularity of the Scorsese-DiCaprio partnership. But, coming away from The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a little difficult for me to put my finger on what I think about the film and what it’s saying.

In a lot of ways this movie has a lot in common with another Scorsese classic, Goodfellas. Both follow a charismatic but unstable (and unlikeable) character’s rise and fall, charting his journey into a secretive subculture that is defined by power and corruption. Both are stories of hubris, entitlement, misogyny, and violence. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Goodfellas, but as I recall it, this one doesn’t quite measure up.

Perhaps it’s just that the structures of the two stories are so similar that this one feels like it’s already been done. Or maybe it’s just that this one is newer, rather than being the “classic” that Goodfellas has become. But I think perhaps it has to do with the nature of the transgressions in each movie, and the moral tones of each.

The thing is, however much organized crime has fascinated the moviegoing public for much of the history of film, the mafia are in many ways small potatoes compared to Wall Street. To be sure, the criminals we see in movies like Goodfellas or The Godfather are ruthless and powerful, but even at the height of their influence, the mafia could never cause the sort of global meltdown we saw in 2008. So, when you consider the way that both movies dance right on the line between condemning and condoning their main characters, Goodfellas seems a bit more harmless than The Wolf of Wall Street.

Like any Scorsese film, this one is well made and has some good performances. Unlike his best movies, though, this one felt very long. At one point Juliette and I turned to each other, both about to complain about how it felt like we’d been watching a long time, only to realize that the film was only about halfway through. And, at that, The Wolf of Wall Street is a minute shorter than Goodfellas, though I don’t remember the latter dragging in the same way this one did.

Not a bad movie, at the end of the day, but in many ways problematic. And in that, perhaps it’d be easier for me if it had been bad, because it would be easier to write off. What I’m left with as it is, is a movie that I’m uncomfortable with, and not in a way that feels purposeful.

Viewed: 1/10/2015 | Released: 12/25/2013 | Score: B

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Goals for 2015

I’m not a big fan of resolutions for a new year. They’re too easy to abandon, and too much of a cliche. Nevertheless, I find that my life and my sense of self tend to be the most stable and satisfying when I have goals. The distinction may be fine, and despite having thought about it for a few days I’m not able to articulate the difference. But goals are something I need. Attainable, concrete, measurable goals.

Here is my list of goals for 2015:

  • Read 25 books in any genre. (I read 23 in 2014.)
  • Run 600 miles. (I ran 319 in 2014, having started running seriously over the summer.)
  • Write 24 non-review, non-photo blog posts of at least 1000 words.
  • Post 52 photos to this blog.
  • Get accepted into at least 2 juried exhibitions or competitions. (I was accepted into 1 in 2014.)
  • Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
  • Finish writing the text for the “It Forgets You” book.
  • Shoot at least 500 frames for my Mira Mesa project.
  • Complete a rough draft of a photo book for my “All Good Things” series.
  • Shoot at least 12 self-portraits for the new series I’m working on.

There’s a lot to do on this list, and the year will go by quickly. But I think I’m up to the task.

2014 Film Reviews

I saw 11 movies in the theater in 2014. Up to this point—with a few exceptions—new theatrical releases are the only movies I've reviewed on this blog. But it occurred to me that, 1.) I don't see all that many movies these days in any venue, and 2.) I've been reviewing all of the books I read regardless of format or publication date. Thus, I decided to include rentals and streaming as candidates for review, bringing my total for the year to a whopping 13. Once again, in chronological order:

Walking With Dinosaurs: Oh, the things we do for our kids. Looking over my notes, this is probably the worst movie I've seen in the past five years. Maybe longer. Imagine if you took The Land Before Time but made the voice acting terrible, gave it a stupid modern-day framing story, switched from charismatic hand-drawn animation to sleek but soulless CGI, and weighed the whole thing down with a veneer of edutainment (which fails at being either educational or entertaining). That's pretty much what you have here. My six-year-old liked it, but fortunately not so much that it's likely I'll have to see it again. (IMDb)

Her: Of the two heavily nominated movies of 2013 that are included in this list, this is certainly the one I liked better. I'm hot-and-cold with Joaquin Phoenix, finding him sometimes wonderfully nuanced and sometimes overly self-conscious as an actor. His performance in Her was definitely the former, just a wonderful portrayal of a buttoned-up sad sack in an alienating world. And, of course, I was impressed by how much of a presence and personality Scarlett Johansson projected using just her voice. Amy Adams was great in her supporting role, too, the first I can think of where she wasn't stuck in her former cute-as-a-button pigeonhole. (IMDb)

American Hustle: Walking out of the theater after this movie, Juliette and I turned to each other to ask whether either of us understood why American Hustle had garnered such high praise from so many corners. It's not that it was a bad movie—really, it was a perfectly adequate little caper story. But the hype leading up to the awards season had been so high, we both expected something that ultimately the movie didn't deliver. The performances were fine, but mostly a bit over-the-top for our taste. The story was fine, but nothing special. There were some funny parts and some tense moments, but in the end nothing really stood out to either of us. I have a feeling that this isn't going to be one that enters the canon, but so far I've been in the minority with this movie, so I wouldn't be too surprised to be wrong. (IMDb)

The Lego Movie: One of the things that having a six-year-old has given me the opportunity to do is revisit a lot of the pop culture of my youth. And although much of it still holds my interest via nostalgia, I have to admit that it's made me realize how great kids these days have it. Really, a whole lot of the children's entertainment from my youth is just crap. Meanwhile, my kids get to grow up with stuff like The Lego Movie, which I not only loved when I took my son to see it in the theater, but I've been more than happy to re-watch several times since we bought the Blu-Ray. It's funny, smart, and just completely entertaining. (IMDb)

Muppets Most Wanted: As I recall, I really enjoyed The Muppets when it came out back in 2011. I wasn't expecting much from this sequel but, if anything, I think I liked it even more than the last one. The songs were better, the plot more in line with the sort of capers I remember from the old Muppet movies, and the jokes were just as good. Heck, I even liked Ricky Gervais, so something must have been going right. (IMDb)

The Grand Budapest Hotel: As far as I can tell, most people tend to fall into one of two camps with Wes Anderson: you either think he's a genius or he's pretentious and twee. Given that The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou are two of my favorite films, you can guess where I land with respect to Mr. Anderson. And The Grand Budapest Hotel may be his best work yet. It's visually gorgeous, with all the cinematographic hallmarks of a Wes Anderson movie but in a way that felt—to me, at least—more organic and heartfelt. It's never as emotionally raw as the climax of The Darjeeling Limited, possibly not quite as funny as The Royal Tenenbaums (though my opinion there may change with more viewings), but it all comes together just so, a perfect balance of affectation and emotion. (IMDb)

Don Jon: It's funny, the more I think about this movie, the less I like it. In general, I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, both as an actor and as a general creative force. And I always have a soft spot for Tony Danza, and I thought Julianne Moore was quite good. But the sexual politics portrayed in the movie were problematic, to say the least. On the one hand, the movie is a sharp criticism of porn addiction and the sort of bro-y, meat-headed, overt chauvenism of the "guido" type, of which the title character is a member. And that's fine. But it also finds an equal problem with the rom-com-fueled, "a real man would do anything for his woman" sort of objectification that a woman can do to a man. And while the latter is certainly problematic on a personal level, it just doesn't have the same structural ramifications of the former. So, despite a certain amount of charm, I'm left feeling kind of uncomfortable with this movie. (IMDb)

Sleepwalk With Me: Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite recurring contributors to This American Life, and I was quite excited when I heard that he and Ira Glass had teamed up to make this movie. Sadly, 2012 just wasn't a year where I managed to get out to see a lot of small, independent movies. Or any, actually. But when I saw that it was available via Netflix, I added it to my queue immediately, and while it was shaky in the ways that movies from first-time writer/directors often are, I really enjoyed it. It was funny, heartfelt, and painfully honest in just the way I love about Birbiglia's stand-up, and more than any other movie that I've seen, it really focused in on the life of a young road comedian, which is something I've always found fascinating. (IMDb)

Chef: It's an odd coincidence that I'd happen to see two movies in a row that I heard about via a podcast. I became aware of Chef when its writer, director, and star, Jon Favreau, appeared on Marc Maron's WTF podcast. In that interview, Maron described the movie as sweet, and Favreau talked about how it wasn't the kind of movie that would have gotten made if he hadn't done it himself. I'm glad that he did, because it was one of the most heartwarming movies I've seen in recent years. Favreau really hit all the right notes to appeal to someone like me, with beautiful food, self-deprecating humor, a great cast, and a feel-good story that would make Frank Capra proud. It's an unabashedly sweet and earnest movie that yet manages to avoid becoming overly saccharine. Thinking about it now, I can't help but smile. (IMDb)

How to Train Your Dragon 2: Dreamworks has really had a great run of animated films over the past several years. That's not news to anyone who watches animated films, of course, but it's still striking to me how quickly and strongly they switched from being a mere "not Pixar" to an animation studio to be reckoned with. I absolutely adored the first movie, and even though I'm on record as being tired of sequels and movie franchises, for some reason animation tends to slip around those reservations of mine; I was quite excited to see this one. And, boy, it delivered, maintaining the laughs and thrills of the original while broadening the scope of both the setting and the characters' personal histories. I just loved it. (IMDb)

Planes: Fire and Rescue: This one, though, I didn't love. Here's the thing: it's basically the exact same movie as the first Planes, which while visually exhilarating was completely flat and boring in just about every other way. The first one was just a cheap knock-off of Cars, which, itself, was not one of Pixar's better movies. This one is an even cheaper knock-off of the first one, so if you're above elementary-school age, it's probably not going to do a whole lot for you. (IMDb)

Big Hero 6: For the past two months since we went and saw Big Hero 6, my son has been talking about the main characters, drawing them, pretending to be them, and asking for toys of them at least every other day. Suffice it to say, this was probably his favorite movie of the year. I liked it quite a lot, too. It's gotten to the point where I'm no longer surprised when a kids' animated movie makes me both laugh and get choked up—indeed, the stinkers like Walking With Dinosaurs and Planes: Fire and Rescue have become the ones that feel like outliers. Children's entertainment has just gotten so great, and I'm just happy that I get to be a parent now that that's the case. (IMDb)

Annie: The last movie of our year was the remake of the classic musical Annie. Juliette and I, of course, grew up with the 1982 version, which Jason has also seen and enjoyed. We weren't sure how this one would measure up, especially since we'd heard that much of the music was going to be different. (I'm also just generally skeptical of remakes.) But both Juliette and I agreed that this new version of Annie was pretty great. Many of the songs were almost unrecognizably different, and there were several new ones added, as well. But it all just worked. There were a number of character and plot updates as well. The most notable of these was the changing of the two main characters from Caucasian to African American, but there were a lot of others, too: having Will Stacks (the Daddy Warbucks character) be running for mayor; replacing Miss Hannigan's dastardly brother, Rooster, with Bobby Cannavale's political consultant; giving Will more overtly humble origins; making Annie a foster child instead of an orphan. From what I've read, some purists have protested the changes, but for me they all added up to a story that felt more organic and plausible, as well as more relevant. At the end of the day, both Juliette and I and our kids thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and it was a great way to close out our cinematic year. (IMDb)

2014 Book Reviews

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, which means it's time for my now-traditional round-up of everything I read and saw during the past one. In terms of quantity, I had a decent reading year: my final count stands at 23. Of those, most were fairly entertaining, a few were a little flat, and a few were quite good. In chronological order:

The Daylight War, by Peter V. Brett. One of the downsides to waiting until now to write these reviews is that it's been almost a year since I finished this book, so most of the details are fairly fuzzy. I read the first book in 2010 and the second in 2012, and mostly what I recall of this installment is that it was fun and worth the wait. One interesting thing about this one was how Brett went back and provided a more detailed backstory for one of the interesting female characters, Inevera, giving her a lot more depth as well as fleshing out her culture a bit more. The next book is due out in March, with the final one expected some time in 2018. So we've got a ways to go, but I'm still interested to keep reading. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Tattered Banner, by Duncan M. Hamilton. I found this one via a Buzzfeed list, which sounds like it wouldn't be a particularly reliable source except that it also included several others that I enjoyed quite a lot. Sadly, I didn't find this one to my liking—the writing felt clunky and the characterization thin. The story follows a young man from a hard-scrabble life in the streets to a chance encounter that gets him into a prestigious fencing academy, and then beyond as he embarks on a career as a soldier and starts to discover some mystical secrets about his past. It seemed like pretty standard high fantasy fare to me. As noted in the Buzzfeed article, there were a lot of sword fights, which I would normally find quite entertaining. In the end, though, I just didn't have a lot of fun reading this book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. If you are a certain type of nerd, born in the mid-to-late 70's who enjoyed Devo and Atari and Zork, this book is written for you. The story is set in a dystopian near future where the real world is mostly gone to hell but everyone spends the bulk of their time in a virtual reality simulation called OASIS. The protagonist is a teenage boy who gets caught up in a quest created by the inventor of OASIS, wherein he has to use his knowledge of esoteric 80's pop culture trivia to solve a bunch of riddles that will give him the keys to the virtual world. Writing that out, it sounds kind of stupid, and in some ways the book is kind of silly. But, as I said, if you're the right kind of nerd, this book will push your buttons. The pop culture references are thick on the ground throughout the book, often to no particular purpose, and neither the prose style nor the story structure are particularly innovative. But it's fast-paced and quite entertaining—I read the whole thing in two days. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Powder Mage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan. This is probably my favorite new fantasy series, in terms of sheer enjoyment. Brian McClellan's debut series combines a whole bunch of things that are right up my alley, some of which I've never seen done before in high fantasy: a pseudo-Napoleonic-era setting; an innovative magic system that, in part, involves "powder mages" who use gunpowder to enhance their strength and speed; a well-developed world history which, of course, comes to bear on the events of the novel; intrigue, war, private investigators, and ancient gods. I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale, which comes out next month. (Promise of Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Crimson Campaign: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I'm not going to lie: this book is a lot of work. When you slip off the case, you're presented with what appears to be a library book from the 50's, called Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. (That author and his works are all fictional.) It's an impressive facsimile, down to the fake library stamps, the old-style binding, and even the way the pages appear to be browning with age. Ship of Theseus is a relatively opaque novel about an unnamed protagonist who finds himself caught up in a socialist revolution that takes him through some apparently Eastern European and South American settings, as well as through time itself.

Ship of Theseus is actually interesting in its own right, reading a bit like a Kundera novel. But the overall story of S. occurs in the margins. Literally. Scribbled into the blank spaces around the edges of the pages are notes between two strangers who pass the book back and forth by leaving it in an out-of-the-way spot in a university library. In that story, a whole shadowy world of international conspiracies, plots, and codes unfolds, as well as the growing relationship between the two scribblers. In this story there are flavors of Borges and Umberto Eco. What makes it difficult is that the notes are not in linear order. As you would expect might happen between two people passing a book back and forth, re-reading it several times in the process, their comments get added whereever appropriate to them at the time they were writing. The book helps you out by presenting the marginalia in different colors, as though the two people were using different pens each time they came back. But it takes some doing to unravel it all.

Ultimately I wasn't completely able to decide whether I thought S. was completely genius or pretentious wankery, or perhaps a little of both. But there was definitely something there, and I think it was worth the time I spent trying to figure it all out. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It's hard to know exactly how to talk about this book without spoiling it, even though the book and movie have been pretty thoroughly discussed everywhere else. What I will say is that I was completely sucked in by this book, and the major turn at the halfway point caught me entirely by surprise. The characterization and use of voice were very skillfully done. I'd say it deserves all of its popularity. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz. A co-worker of mine lent me this book, which is sort of a grown-up Sixth Sense detective story. The title character can see ghosts, whom he helps move on into the afterlife by solving their murders, and so on. It was interesting to me to compare this to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, the other urban fantasy detective series I've read recently, and which started around the same time (Odd Thomas in 2001, The Dresden Files in 2000). This book was more than adequate, but felt smaller in many ways than Butcher's novels. In part, this book feels more like a standalone story as opposed to the Dresden books, which are clearly episodes in a larger series (though, of course, this one is also the first in a series). There was no real connection to a larger, ongoing narrative, which is something I enjoy about Butcher's series. On the other hand, though the story was less grand, that also made it feel a bit more intimate. I'm not sure I'll be rushing to pick up all of the sequels, but I certainly enjoyed this book just fine. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Expanse novellas, by James S. A. Corey. Looking back over my archives, it appears that I've never written a real review for any of James S. A. Corey's Expanse books, which is a shame because they're pretty damn great. The main series is four books long at this point: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War (which, for some reason isn't anywhere in my reading notes), Abaddon's Gate, and Cibola Burn, each of which I read as soon as it came out (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively). (Actually, I read the first two early because one of the authors is a friend of mine, but that's neither here nor there.) The series is a mid-future space opera set at a point where humanity has spread out across the solar system, but as science fiction goes, things are fairly low tech. There's no faster-than-light travel, no laser guns, nothing that's that far outside what we can do now, actually. Several of my friends like to describe it as "mechanics in space." The main series follows the adventures of James Holden and his crew through interplanetary political machinations, war, and even humanity's first contact (by proxy, sort of) with an alien species. It's one of my favorite SF series of the last ten years or so.

In addition to the main series, Mr. Corey (actually a pseudonym for the partnership of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has also (so far) written three novellas set in the same universe, which flesh out the backstories and side stories of some of the supporting characters. None of them are necessary to understand the main series, but they're all fun, and getting the extra dimensions for these characters adds a lot to the experience, particularly—in my opinion—with The Churn. Franck and Abraham started writing these in 2011, but I had let them sit until this past spring, when the waiting for Cibola Burn got to be too much and I had to get a little taste of the Expanse universe. At just a dollar a piece, I more than got my money's worth, and if you're a fan of the series, I can easily recommend these to you. (The Churn: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Butcher of Anderson Station: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. Gods of Risk: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)


Growing Up, by Russell Baker. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher assigned us an essay to read by Russell Baker, entitled "No More Orange Motorcycles." It's a piece that's always stuck with me, a wry, funny look at the aging process by way of looking back on the progression of Christmas presents Baker received over his life. The combination of wit, nostalgia, and observation in that essay are something that certainly influenced me early on as a writer.

On a whim, I looked up Baker again this past May, having not read anything of his since that one essay, twenty years ago. I was delighted to find that he had written an autobiography, so I checked it out. As it happens, while the book is the story of Baker's own life, the real stars are three strong women in his life: his grandmother, his mother, and his wife. The book covers his upbringing during the Depression, showing how his mother's grit and determination were largely responsible for his success and character. After I finished it I discovered that Growing Up won the Pulitzer for autobiography in 1983, which came as no surprise. It's funny, insightful, at times poignant, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey. As I mentioned above, this past spring I found myself jonesing for some Expanse stories, since this fourth installment in the main series didn't come out until early June. I finally picked up a copy at a book signing when the authors came to San Diego, and it didn't disappoint. Cibola Burn picks up at a point in the series just after Holden and his crew have unlocked an ancient alien "gateway" that gives access to distant star systems. Humans have rushed through to begin colonizing the new worlds. The first colony is meant to be on a planet called Ilus, but ahead of the official expedition, a group of independent homesteaders have started their own settlement, which predictably leads to friction. Holden and his team are sent in to mediate between the two sides, and along the way uncovers new clues about what happened to the alien civilization that left the gateway.

One of the interesting thing about this series is that each book is conceived of as an intersection of science fiction with another genre. Leviathan Wakes was, in its bones, a noir detective story. Caliban's War was, as the title suggests, a war story. Cibola Burn is a Western: a stranger comes to town to settle a dispute between two factions that represent freedom and order. Based on conversations I've had with friends who've read it, whether this book works for you may depend on how much you enjoy these tropes. Most of the people I know who disliked it specifically mentioned that they tend to be sour on Westerns; I, on the other hand, can't get enough of them. Still, that aside, the engaging characters, tight plotting, good writing, and exciting action I loved from the previous novels is all present in this one. I reckon, though, that if you've made it this far into the series, you're not quitting any time soon. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. I probably wouldn't have been aware of this book if not for the fact that it was turned into a movie. I haven't seen the movie, and based on what I've read I may never do so (though, Neil Gaiman liked it), but I'm glad that I read the book. In that blog post I linked, Gaiman made a reference to John Crowley's Little, Big, which was one of the best books I read in 2012, or, indeed, in any year. There are certainly echoes of Crowley's book in Winter's Tale—both can be described as magical realism, both are set in the United States—but where Little, Big is more of a fairy tale (or, perhaps, faerie tale) in both its story and its writing, Winter's Tale feels more American. Indeed, as much as it is a story about its characters, it is also very much a story about America, and in particular about New York City. In that respect I was reminded very much of Pete Hamill's Forever.

The story is sprawling and epic, following a number of characters over a span of about a hundred years. Among them are Peter Lake, a mechanic and thief in New York near the turn of the 20th century; Beverly Penn, the consumptive daughter of a New York printing magnate, with whom Peter Lake falls in love; and Virginia Gamely, a young woman from the Brigadoon-ish village outside time, Lake of the Coheeries, who comes to the City to make her fortune. So much happens in this book that I couldn't even really summarize it, but suffice it to say that reading it was a profound experience. The prose is lyrical, by turns whimsical and passionate, often dense but packed with emotion. It's a book about family, love, and an America that never existed literally but still lives in the stories of ourselves. It's a story about cities and justice and magic and history. All in all, an amazing book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. It's funny that in the same year I read Ready Player One, the book that would first come to mind when I thought of "fan service" would be this one. To be sure, The Queen of the Tearling had a lot more going for it than just that, but as I read it, I did often get the feeling that Johansen was reaching out to "her people." Which, as one of those people, I both appreciated and felt was a little silly. The titular queen is a young woman named Kelsea who has just ascended to the throne after having been raised in seclusion for her entire life. Knowing nothing about her mother and little about the recent history of her country and its relations with its neighbors, she has a lot to figure out in a hurry, and with little more than heart and good instincts, she starts on her journey toward becoming a legendary leader. That fate is foreshadowed by an interesting framing device: each chapter begins with an excerpt from an in-universe historical text written in the future of the events of the novel. It feels like a debut novel (which it is) in that the writing has both a certain exuberance as well as a few hints of inexperience, a few clunky bits. But overall I found the book entertaining and I'm interested to see where the series goes. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. This being the fifteenth novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, anybody who is in a position to read this book more or less knows what she's in for. So rather than write a lengthy review, I'll just say that I enjoyed this book pretty much exactly as much as I enjoyed all the rest of them, which is to say: a lot. Butcher doesn't seem to be losing any steam, and if and when this series ever does conclude, I'm going to be sad. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's an interesting bit of juxtaposition that the very next book I read after Skin Game was Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Both are the fifteenth installment in a long-running, best-selling series. However, where Jim Butcher's fifteenth Dresden novel is just as entertaining and fast-paced as the other books I love in that series, Bujold's fifteenth Vorkosigan book is pretty flat. I'm hoping this isn't a pattern for the future of the series, because the previous one—2011's CryoBurn—was also kind of disappointing. My complaint about that one was mainly that it felt shoehorned into the series, and didn't really need to include the main character. Unfortunately, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance didn't improve much by mostly leaving out that character. The story follows series protagonist Miles Vorkosigan's errant cousin Ivan Vorpatril as he unwittingly gets caught up in a coup between two Houses of the pseudo-crime-syndicate society of the Jackson's Whole system. Unfortunately that description sounds a lot more exciting that the story actually is; it mainly turns out to be a light romance between Ivan and the "princess" he "rescues." This isn't a particularly new sort of story for Bujold, who has done similar things in her Sharing Knife series and even in some of the earlier Vorkosigan books, notably in 2000's A Civil Campaign. Though, it's worth noting that that last was one of my least favorite books in this series. What I tended to enjoy about this series was the frenetic genius of Miles, the action and intrigue, and the exploration of different societies. There is some of that here, but the Jackson's Whole culture just isn't interesting or alien enough to warrant much interest, and for the most part there isn't much in the way of plot to Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. I'm sure I will pick up the next book whenever it happens to come out, but at this point I mostly hope Bujold finds some new direction to go in. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. Howard Zinn's revisionist history of the US is a pretty famous and influential book at this point, so I'd been meaning to read it for some time. Note that I use the term "revisionist" not in a pejorative sense, but rather to indicate the fact that this book takes a different interpretation of the subject matter than the standard history textbook. Rather than the received wisdom of America being the land of opportunity, he examines the history of women, racial minorities (especially Native Americans and slaves), and the working class in America, revealing the inequities that have been part and parcel of our nation since its inception. For me, though, I'm not sure if it's just because I'd already had a lot of exposure to these ideas in other reading as well as in some of my college coursework, but Zinn's book just didn't give me much new information. Things like the extermination of the Native American nations, the systematic oppression of women and blacks, and the explosive clashes between labor and capital in the early 20th century were already well-known to me. As a comprehensive overview, though, I can't think of any other books that cover it all in a single volume, so if you have an interest in an alternative perspective of American history, you could do a lot worse than A People's History. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. To give you an idea of how much this book worked for me, I'll say this: within the first ten pages, I almost cried twice. As it happened, at exactly that point I was working on pulling together my "All Good Things" and "It Forgets You" photo series for a portfolio review, and those bodies of work deal specifically with the passage of time, ephemerality, home, nostalgia, childhood, parenthood, and family. So The Ocean at the End of the Lane pretty much hit me right where I live.

Gaiman is, of course, a wildly popular figure in contemporary fantasy, albeit a somewhat polarizing one. I have no idea whether a person who normally dislikes his work would like this one any better, but to me it was a near perfect distillation of what works about his writing. Ocean is told as a memory that comes over the narrator as he revisits his childhood home, a memory that he's long forgotten about a dark, mystical episode in his childhood, and the fairy-like family who lived on the farm next door. It's a short little book, one that took me only a few hours to read, but which just crushed me with how well it expressed so many feelings that I'm examining in my own life right now. If there's anything about my photography or my writing that resonates with you, you may very well find the same thing in this book, only better. For me, it was easily the most moving thing I read all year. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


The Magicians series, by Lev Grossman. So, imagine that you want to write a Harry Potter novel but where the point-of-view character is a wiener and a bit of a douchebag and self-absorbed and casually misogynist in the way nerds so often are—you know, like a real teenaged boy. And then use that as the way into a contemporary Narnia story, but where all of the characters are drawn with the same realism. That's basically what you have with Lev Grossman's Magicians series. It's always an interesting experience reading a story where I dislike the protagonist, and it usually doesn't work well for me. Where it does, either I have to find some other character or characters to root for, or I have to be able to find some core of decency in the main character. What's intriguing to me is the way in which both of those things are present in this series, and yet neither is. As I mentioned, the main character is selfish and whiny and tends to play the victim, vacillating between wanting to be a better person and wallowing in ennui and self-pity. But the book never really lets him off the hook, and though pretty much none of the characters are sympathetic ones, they all have their moments, particularly when calling out the protagonist for his bullshit. I started reading this right in the midst of taking in a lot of new information about patriarchy and misogyny and feminism, so in a lot of ways I ended up questioning whether the world really needed another story about the redemption of a shitty male character—which is ultimately what this ends up being, plotwise—but even so I did really like this series, and if nothing else, it was a fresh take on an old formula. (The Magicians: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician King: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician's Land: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)


The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley. The person who recommended me this book describes it like this: "This is the weirdest thing I've read in ages. You should try it. You'll see." I don't think I can do better than that. But, look, if you want to read probably the most innovative epic fantasy I can think of, this would be the one. In the broad outlines, the story isn't so new—invaders from a parallel world threaten to destroy civilization as its known to the protagonists—but the broad outlines are never where innovation happens in genre fiction. What's immediately unusual about this book is the way it sets up a world in which the gender binary is not just rejected, but is not even acknowledged. What makes it both skillful and somewhat opaque is that in the worldbuilding, the author refuses to hold your hand; nothing is explained unless the character would actually need it explained, there are no info dumps and precious little exposition. But what makes it gripping is how utterly brutal the author is to her characters. Look, just go read it. It's really weird. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)


Tome of the Undergates, by Sam Sykes. I really wanted to like this book, which I bought because its author is highly entertaining on Twitter. It ended up not really being for me, though. The story is a sort of D&D-reminiscent quest where a group of adventurers (this is the word that's used in the book) are hired to retrieve the tome mentioned in the title. And, granting that it's only the first book in a trilogy, the plot still felt meandering and unresolved, and most of the character beats in between the plot and action points felt repetitive and uninteresting to me. I gave it my best shot, but ultimately quit halfway through the second book. A fair number of Goodreads reviewers had almost exactly the opposite impression of me, particularly appreciating both the plot and characterization, so your mileage may vary. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)