Month: August 2014

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

question-mark

Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Kramer vs. Kramer Better or Worse Than Crash?

kramer vs. kramer

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1979 winner Kramer vs. Kramer. Is it better than Crash?

My parents saw Kramer vs. Kramer on one of their first dates. My parents, both relatively recently divorced at the time, weren’t really in the right place to watch it. It’s also not really a great “date movie” on account of it being a movie about a divorce and a custody battle.

It’s been a long-running joke in my family that Kramer vs. Kramer was the last movie my mom got to pick out while they dated. It’s easy to see why: this is a damn brutal movie. I have no children and I haven’t been divorced and it hit me like a truck carrying another truck. If you’ve got some deeper connections to the themes, well, prepare yourself.

Within the first ten minutes, Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves Ted (Dustin Hoffman). We aren’t given a lot of insight into exactly what’s wrong, but it’s clear that Joanna is unhappy, and she’s apparently unhappy enough to leave their son Billy (Justin Henry) behind, as well. Ted has to learn to balance a demanding job and a single parent household, and Billy has to learn to forgive his dad without really having any explanation for why his mom left. It’s hard stuff, but mom left completely, so everyone involved has to learn to start over.

Meryl Streep is out of the movie for a solid hour. It’s entirely about Ted and Billy bonding, and the mix of heartfelt moments and tough moments is effective. Billy wants his mom back, sure, but if all he has is dad then he’s going to make the best of it. Ted’s worn out and frustrated — one scene involves him making a drink and staring at a wall for a brief moment — but he’s proud of himself for being able to take over parenthood alone.

That makes it all the more difficult when Joanna comes back and wants to be in Billy’s life again. The custody battle is the bulk of the movie’s conflict, and it deserves not being spoiled at all. It’s emotional and powerful, and it’s amazing to see Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both give (possibly) their best performances in the same movie. If I’m wrong there, then perhaps you can downgrade them both to “excellent” here.

What stands out the most is the difficult line that the story walks about who the “hero” is. We spend a full hour with Ted, but Joanna tells the court the story of the Ted we never got to see: married Ted. The real answer isn’t that Ted is a good father or that Joanna is a bad wife or that Ted is a bad husband or that Joanna is a good mother, it’s much more complicated than that. I think there’s a lot of interpretation to be done and Kramer vs. Kramer will hit different people different ways, but I really am struck by the complexity of everyone involved. Terms of Endearment has a similarly complicated view of how we interact with the people we love, but this is a much more difficult topic. Everything in Kramer vs. Kramer is a little difficult, but it manages to be emotional without being manipulative.

The Best Part: The courtroom scene is fantastic, of course. Both leads give outstanding performances and earn their respective acting Oscars many times over, but it’s Ted’s lawyer that stuck with me. Played by Howard Duff, he’s tasked with destroying Joanna on the stand. He’s brutal, and it speaks to the fact that even though Ted and Joanna are trying to make this as positive as they can, no one escapes these situations that way.

The Worst Part: Many Oscar winners go through some revision after the fact. Kramer vs. Kramer‘s version of that is a disagreement with my notion that both sides are played equally in the custody battle. Since the movie is from Ted’s perspective, mostly, it can be easy to side with him against Joanna or to paint her as flighty or “crazy.” I can definitely see the argument that it’s a proto version of “men’s rights” nonsense, but I disagree with that take.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’ve said this a million times at this point, but it all goes back to realism. I feel for Ted and Joanna. Ted wants to make enough money to provide for his family and Joanna wants to hold her family together. No one is “bad” in Kramer vs. Kramer, they just make bad choices because they don’t have time to consider if they’re even making a specific choice or not. Ted works too much and Joanna keeps her problems inside. Neither of them works on their marriage with the other one and thus it fails them and Billy suffers. The message of Kramer vs. Kramer is that you have to be well-rounded in your life and take care of every aspect of your humanity. Crash would tell you that it doesn’t matter, because all people are villains at their core and all people are waiting to literally kill each other at the slightest provocation. When the “divorce-and-custody-battle” movie is the happier, more hopeful movie then you’ve really taken a wrong turn.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Worst Best Picture: Is Grand Hotel Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: wiki

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1931/1932 winner Grand Hotel. Is it better than Crash?

You aren’t going to watch Grand Hotel unless you’re watching all 86 of these. There’s just no other reason to see it now.

It Happened One Night won the seventh Best Picture award in 1934 and earned a spot in the canon of romantic classics at the same time. It’s the first winning film that you might have cause to see on your own. The rest of the early winners, Grand Hotel included, are strange looks into 30s Hollywood. They’re fascinating in a way, but they don’t hold up in the way we think of “stories” today. Just as the audience in 1931 wouldn’t have known what to do with No Country for Old Men, we don’t really know what to do with the busy, crazy, dramatic Grand Hotel.

A brief plot summary is probably required. Grand Hotel apparently was the first movie where a lot of characters interacted with each other without realizing they’re all connected. It gave birth to the term “grand hotel theme” which describes just such a story. In Grand Hotel itself, the characters are all at the finest hotel in Berlin for various reasons. One man is dying of a mysterious disease, a businessman is trying to close an important deal for a merger, a performer is in hiding, and a jewel thief is, well, thievin’ jewels. They all are connected, and the movie’s whole point is to show the audience how.

The jewel thief robs the performer and falls in love. The dying man works in the businessman’s factory. The businessman hires a stenographer, and the stenographer turns out to be an aspiring actress. The stenographer thinks the businessman should be nicer to the dying man. The dying man just wants to drink all the champagne in Germany. It’s pretty busy.

This is old Hollywood at its old-Hollywood-est. It’s a crazy story that likely works well as a play but doesn’t make a ton of sense as a film. It’s not really fair to judge the original for the crimes of the copycats, but “thief with a heart of gold” and “performer who is tired of her fans” are well worn tropes at this point. The industrialist businessman is ridiculous. The dying man is a full-on cartoon character brought to life. The cast is too “big” and too crazy and the story itself isn’t interesting enough to hold together for two hours. It’s hard to even nail down what the right complaint is about Grand Hotel, because once you pull on any thread you unravel how you feel about all of it.

The Best Part: Lionel Barrymore plays Otto Kringelein, the man dying of a mysterious illness. He’s best known as the villain in It’s a Wonderful Life, but he’s best known in this series as the most insane part of You Can’t Take It With You, which is saying a lot. Kringelein is a fascinating character, and Barrymore clearly decided that he was just going to be a crazy motherfucker for two hours. Greta Garbo is in this, but she’s reasonably forgettable. Even if you hate Grand Hotel, you’re going to remember Barrymore slamming champagne and yelling as Kringelein.

The Worst Part: Wallace Beery’s General Director Preysing (pictured above). He’s the factory owner that hates all the simple folk that work in his employ. He’s clearly supposed to be the “villain” of the movie, so much as it has one, and they don’t really work to make him anything else. Only Gladiator has a less complicated antagonist, and since that’s the problem with Gladiator (well, it’s one of the problems) it’s also the problem here.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? These just aren’t the same thing. It’s like asking if green is more than eight. It’s hard to compare the idiotic message of Crash (trust no one! everyone is evil! beware the OTHER! learn nothing!) and the device of Grand Hotel (what if, like, we’re all connected?), but since I forced myself to do it, I’ll do it. They both feature people who wake up at the start of the movie determined to be a bastard — John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, Matt Dillon in Crash — who redeem themselves for questionably relevant narrative reasons. They both fall apart if you look at them too closely, but for Grand Hotel it’s because it came out literally three years after the invention of sliced bread. For Crash it’s because Crash is terrible.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Song of the Summer? Rae Sremmurd – “No Flex Zone”

“No Flex Zone” by Rae Sremmurd

Jonathan May

One of the summer’s more fun rap constructions appeared this June with a video released earlier this month. Sung by two brothers who hail from Tupelo and live in Atlanta, this song has all of the bravado and gloating of boastful youth coupled with imaginative visual rendering and a simple beat that won’t leave your head; even the duo’s name reconfigured (Ear Drummers) lets you know they’re down with wordplay, though they work within an inherited narrative structured well before their spin on the scene. The song centers on everything young rappers consistently brag about—drugs, sex, a party lifestyle, smoking weed—but manages to be insouciant in its naïveté, like a bumptious puppy parading around its new bone. I would compare this, easily, to anything Miley Cyrus has done recently, in terms of overall concern and mood. The childish background melody reminds me of a music-box, while the vocal overlays scratch into it, adding some needed tension; the duo was not afraid to leave their voices scratchy and pubescent, possibly to further add a level of realism to their enterprise. Visually, the video does a great job of turning rap clichés on their heads, the main example being the literal laser-like “No Flex” zone that floats, a la Tron, around them as they sing and drive. Also, small touches like the gold vampire grill were a nice touch. Overall, the song carries with it all the joys of privileged youth, and who wants to rain on such a weird and fanciful, but somehow unique parade? Certainly not me. I’ll be turning up the dial as this summer approaches its end.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Normally, this feature has me rooting around in the dust heap of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughties to find something to review. I write here based on what I’ve finished reading in the past month or so, and since there is a lot more written in the past 50 years than the past one, more often than not there are a couple decades between publication of the book and the posting of the article on it. I’m excited to say that today, I bring you Ancillary Justice, published less than a year ago. I ran across it a little while ago, but the title seemed like something that would have David Caruso de-sunglassing on the cover, so I passed it by. It won the Hugo on August 17th, and the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Nebula awards are all telling me I made a mistake. Any single one of those awards is enough to get me trust a book, and this one got all four of them. Another tidbit – at the Hugos, the entire Wheel of Time series was also on the shortlist. This beat out the Wheel of Time – not one of the books, all of them. On the one hand, that’s not surprising – I tried to read them. The first one was not that bad, but I had to put it down halfway through the second one, asking myself how many words were really necessary to describe the tapestries hanging on the chill stone of the castle hallways through which our protagonist was running for his life. Still, even if Wheel of Time is kind of bad, it occupies a gigantic cultural niche, and the power the entire series should hold over Hugo voters is impressive, but Ancillary Justice beat it, stupid name and all.

1280px-Tapisserie_de_l'apocalypse

image source: wiki

Yes Robert, it’s beautiful. Isn’t the world in peril or something?

First off, in the context of the book, the name is not that stupid. The premise of the book is as follows: a galactic empire called the Radch is a vast and expanding power, and it conquers through the use of ships and ancillaries. Ancillaries are ex-humans, drawn from the conquered populace, who are heavily modified and slaved to the ship AI, becoming appendages of the ship itself. It is effective (AI brain running targeting, hunting, thinking), it is cheap (feed them water and the minimum, no-frills nutrition, freeze them in the ship hold when they are not in use), and it is good propaganda (they are terrifying in much the same way zombies are – “that could be us” – and the enemies of the Radch call them corpse soldiers). There is a lot more going on in the plot, but to avoid spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that one of the ships, The Justice of Toren, is destroyed, and only a single ancillary escapes. Since she basically is the ship, albeit heavily reduced, she launches on a mission of vengeance (hence Ancillary Justice, slow clap).

Fairly basic plot, so what makes this such a darling of all the most famous SF awards? First off, the entire concept of ancillaries is really cool (and horrifying). The book chapters alternate between the vengeance-mission present and the pre-Toren destruction past, so we get to see the main character function as a distinct entity and as an ancillary. As an ancillary, there are 20 of her, all connected to and by the ship. A single ship possesses thousands (possibly millions) of ancillaries stored in its holds, but the active ones seem to be organized into action groups of 20. The author does a good job of recreating what it would feel like to be a 20-bodied hyperconsciousness, jumping back and forth among all the tasks (guard, administrator, detective, etc.) this group is performing simultaneously, all of them with a constant awareness in the backs of their minds of being in orbit overhead. All ancillaries are heavily modified, each implanted with advanced communications and optic suites, forcefield generators, and other technical goodies. They have, while connected, access to all the processing power and judgment of a ship AI – they are the AI. This creates an interesting problem for the main character when she is left alone – she constantly compares herself to “what [she] was,” that is, compares her existence in one tiny meatbrain to her much more powerful existence as a linked and devastating machine of war.

One thing that makes ancillaries so compelling is their believability. Sure, it seems completely out there right now, but this is the far-future. Let’s think about progress in terms of mere decades and centuries. 1914, one hundred years ago, was the first time anyone successfully completed an indirect blood transfusion, meaning that before that, for a transfusion to work, the donor had to be strapped in the hospital bed next to the recipient. Over the past century, we have developed the ability to transplant hearts, kidneys, eyes, and other organs, and in March of this year, scientists reported that they could use a blood sample from any human to create stem cells. We went, in 100 years, from just barely being able to move blood from one person to another to being able to use blood cells to regenerate any type of damaged cell in the human body. The terrifying thing is, we’re getting faster – just think of where technology was even in 2004 versus now.

The most advanced piece of consumer communications technology available in 2004.

In February, a man received a prosthetic hand that gave a sense of touch. Right now, I have a friend pursuing a biomedical engineering Ph.D, and his main job in the lab is studying monkeys who are hooked up to mechanical arms which they control with their neuronal impulses. Right now, we have man-made hands that transmit directly to nerves and mechanical arms that monkeys can control with their minds. Where will we be in 100 years? 500? 2000? Now, there is the problem of AI, which, like expedient interstellar travel, is kind of a holy grail for science. Accepting AI, it becomes completely feasible that machines and humans could be linked, and that the machine could be programmed as the dominant partner in the relationship. The possibilities are terrifying.

This is a little bit scary to watch. How much damage could that arm do?

Another point of interest in the book is that Radch society makes no real distinction between genders. Every Radch character uses “she” as the third person singular, and this creates a sense of ambiguity that emulates the ambiguity of gender in the Radch itself. It is an interesting choice, and it requires you to form your own opinions about the gender of the characters, which, in Radch society, doesn’t really matter anyway.

There are some weak points in the book. First off, the characters are a little bit flat. They are not unforgivably thin, but they could be more fleshed-out and believable. One of the main characters goes from a disloyal waste of space to an effective and dedicated companion through the mediation of one key event, and the switch was too fast for plausibility. The main character is simple, which could be forgiven due to her being the amputated consciousness of a machine, but the other characters are even less complex. They are by no means inadequate, but by comparison, I’m reading Light in August right now, in which each character has about three pages describing their life story before they actually do anything. The plotting could also be tighter. The book rides on a well put-together mystery plot which drives the reader forward, but it drags in some places, gets lost in exposition or description here and there.

Up to this point, Ann Leckie has built her career on writing and editing short stories. This is her first novel, and it is a great one. In an article of around 1400 words, I dedicate just 158 to weak points in the book. There is a lot more good here than bad. It explores the concept of identity and loss through the ancillary and the contradictions and problems inherent in empire through the history of the Radch. There are some issues, but they tumble away insignificantly in the face of the gale-force imagination with which Leckie infuses her work.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Major Issues: Supreme: Blue Rose #2

STK647497.jpg

In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Now updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Supreme Blue Rose #2
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Tula Lotay
Published by Image Comics
Published: 8/20/2014

Issue #2 of Supreme: Blue Rose opens on a scene that can be described as both artfully crafted and expositionally convoluted. It withholds exactly the information that would contextualize it–who are these characters and what is their purpose in the story? And, really, that’s exactly how Supreme: Blue Rose itself can be summed up so far. Warren Ellis reveals layers of the story like a magician overturning cards, but it’s two issues in and we’re just seeing the beginnings of the trick. Who knows how long it will be until he unveils what he’s up to.

The story so far: Darius Dax, a wealthy investigator of “blue rose cases”–rare events that do not typically occur in nature–hires Diane Dane, an out of work journalist, to investigate a strange event in upper New York state for an exorbitant rate. Dax plans to sell his findings to “actors” or “entities that act upon the geopolitical sphere” for even more money.

Before getting back to Diana Dane’s story in this issue, we wade through additional new subplots. Like artist Tula Lotay’s multimedia approach, there are layers upon layers of subplots. In the opening scene, an enigmatic woman leads an aged writer up a spiral staircase to [heaven?]. Following this is another installment of Professor Night, a TV show Diana Dane watches that is stuffed with non sequiturs and high-minded pronouncements. Its dark imagery is a reflection of the psyche of the Manhattan of the Supreme universe: violent and paranoid and cowed. It’s possibly an unconscious parallel version of the events of the story proper, like Tales of the Black Freighter was for Watchmen. Finally, there’s a scene in which a [mathematician] solves an equation that puts her in contact with an intelligent source from somewhere in deep spacetime.

When we catch up with Diana Dane, she’s grabbing a limo ride with a representative of Darius Dax, code name Twilight Girl Marvel. Twilight Girl Marvel explains to Diana that her position as a limo driver is a temporary reprieve from her true job as a “versioner”–someone who tests alternate versions of history and their would-have-been effects. We’re just getting back to some semblance of linear, understandable plot when suddenly Diana falls into a dream state in which she envisions an alternate history in which a North African scientific empire pioneered Mars.

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Should You Get it?

Supreme: Blue Rose is one of those puzzle-piecer stories for fans of Memento or Donnie Darko or Primer where every single frame will probably have multiple meanings. It’s for those with an allergy to exposition dumps and patronizing narrators. It’s for “smart” readers. In comic form, a story like this can be frustrating. Can you imagine watching two or three scenes of Memento at a time with a month between each installment? On the other hand, maybe it’s just convoluted for the sake of convolution. The question is: how much do you trust Warren Ellis?

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Tough Questions: What Did You Love as a Teenager That You Can’t Stand Now?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What did you love as a teenager that you can’t stand now?

Rules are simple: what have you grown out of, or at the very least what do you think you’ve grown out of? Everyone is at their dumbest when they’re a teenager, and that’s never clearer than when you consider what you liked as a teen. When you were brooding, moody, and SMARTER THAN ANYONE, what were you, like, into?

Alex Russell

I want you to hit me as hard as you can. I was just leaving my teenage years when Facebook became what it is today, but with Facebook’s boom in the mid 2000s we all learned about the most common things people we knew liked. The answers for “favorite movies” on Facebook were eerily consistent: The Big Lebowski, Boondock Saints, and Fight Club. I’m not going to lie to you, I saw Fight Club about ten times as a teenager. I read the book. I considered the deeper implications of the philosophy of Tyler Durden on my life. The Big Lebowski is a pretty good movie and Boondock Saints is a pretty bad movie, but Fight Club alone represents the terrible nature of a teenager best. What better movie is there to sum up the angst and rage of a teen than a movie about pushing the reset button to wake people up, man!? There’s also The Matrix, I guess, but Fight Club is especially horrible because (myself included) people seemed to latch on to the supposed message. I lived in the suburbs and sometimes drove past one version of a fast food place to go to another version of the same shitty restaurant. I was not bringing down the system. Clean it up, kids that like Fight Club too much.

Jonathan May

Myself mostly. No, all jokes aside, I used to really love coffee, so much so that I worked at three different coffee shops over the course of ten years, from high school up to grad school. I drank the stuff several times a day, and, when I was on the clock, you better believe that black liquid cocaine rushed freely and sweetly through me. That day I quit working at a coffee shop, though, was the day I gave up coffee. It was like flipping off a switch inside me; I just never craved it from that day forward. Also the smell still makes me think of bitchy people.

Andrew Findlay

Admitting that I ever loved something worthy of hatred would be admitting that I ever made bad choices. I only make good choices, ab aeterno.

Gardner Mounce

I started writing and reading poetry more seriously during my senior year of high school. It was my first foray into contemporary poetry, and pretty soon I came across Billy Collins. My poetry education up to that point had been strictly assigned by English teachers, so compared to Shelley and Dickinson, Collins was off-the-cuff, and spoke with honesty and wit. He was so accessible. The reason I don’t read him anymore isn’t because he’s too accessible or because I think he’s a hack. I think Collins writes honestly and from the heart. I believe that. But he is so boring, in terms of both content and sound. Reading his poems out loud will put you to sleep. And the best of them are like diet drink poems. I think his next collection should be called Epiphany Lite.

Worst Best Picture: Is Casablanca Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1943 winner Casablanca. Is it better than Crash?

I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to find something new to say about Casablanca. Fresh off The Godfather, I have to find something new to tell people about one of the other consensus picks for greatest movie of all time (G.M.O.A.T., which is not a great acronym). I think it’s this: Casablanca is one of the rare things in life that is as good as you hope it is.

We constantly expect disappointment from the supposed canon now. Just yesterday someone was telling me about a guy who wouldn’t watch Citizen Kane because he didn’t expect it to live up to the hype. I still haven’t read any of the (stop it) Game of Thrones (I know) books yet (note the yet, I said yet, you don’t have to tell me to) and I’m skeptical that they could possibly be as good as people say. None of us will take “this show is hilarious” as enough reason to watch something. We just tell people “oh, I’m sure, I’ll check it out” and then we continue with whatever we were going to watch anyway.

Is that so wrong? Do we need to be broadening ourselves on recommendations of the people we surround ourselves with or the cultural arbiters of our world? Casablanca exists as a monument to the argument that we do. The beautiful lines are still beautiful, 70 years later. The performances are incredible; Humphrey Bogart’s Rick has become one of American film’s most enduring characters, even though he didn’t win Best Actor for it that year. The love feels like love actually feels: complicated, painful, and overwhelming. Casablanca is a romantic movie and a war movie and it’s never one at the detriment of the other. It defies you to pick one of those to describe it.

I think that’s what comes through the most: it’s so many things. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a brief period of time in Rick’s Cafe Americain, a bar/casino/nightclub/etc in Morocco in the early 40s. Rick doesn’t want to deal with the war, he just wants to drink and quip one liners to his patrons. His life of rolling his eyes at everyone’s silly “war” is broken up when his ex Ilsa shows up with her new beau Victor. It’s more complicated than all that (because it always is) but the movie depends on this triangle. It also depends on the war, but Casablanca is such a great war movie precisely because the war is never the biggest thing in any one scene. It’s not about combat, it’s about the realities of war outside the battlefield. Just how The Best Years of Our Lives is a war movie with no real war going on, Casablanca is a war movie that happens entirely in tensions between people. Oh, and a really loud version of “La Marseillaise.”

Gushing about one of the greatest triumphs in film history is a bad use of time. Let me say this, and we’ll move on to Crash: you’ve got to watch it. Just the same as I’ve got to find out about this throne and the wall and the debts and all that, you’ve got to fill in your cultural blanks. If one is Casablanca, you should start there.

The Best Part: This has to be the piano scene. Ilsa wants to hear “her song” “As Time Goes By” but Rick has banned it from his club because it pains him. We’ve all got that song. The melancholy of hurting yourself with music that’s so deeply connected to an old, beautiful time is an extremely specific emotion, but even though “As Time Goes By” is intensely dated by itself, the scene is timeless.

The Worst Part: Paul Henreid was supposedly worried that his portrayal of Victor Laszlo would typecast him as being “a stiff.” It’s a necessary character for the movie, of course, but you can definitely see where he was coming from. He’s the Scottie Pippen of the greatest movie of all time: a guy who only looks worse because he’s right next to Bogie’s Jordan.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I wrote this question and I’m offended by it. Casablanca is perfect in a lot of ways, but matched up against Crash you start to notice why subtlety is so important. Casablanca is about a tense time in a tense country, but it never feels forced. As you watch it you are aware of the political realities of the characters (like when the police look the other way for most things, but can’t ignore internationally important incidents) without people reading explanations into the camera. The meaning in Casablanca is there for you to find. Crash is a lesser movie in every way, but it’s specifically lesser in that it is so terrible about telling rather than showing. Casablanca hopes you’re smart enough to find everything in it; Crash thinks too little of you to even hide anything worth finding.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: rogerebert.com

Song of the Summer? Meghan Trainor – “All About That Bass”

“All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor

Jonathan May

Attempts at social consciousness aside, “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor ultimately fails as a continuation of the female, vocal-centered pop tradition. Its cardinal sin is that of being boring in a genre that demands newness within strict boundaries and digestible parameters. What the listener instead is subjected to over the course of the unending three minutes and ten seconds is nothing more than a grotesque and laden pastiche of female pop vocalists from the 1950s and 60s. Go ahead and call me Killjoy; upon first listen, the song has everything you might want from it, given the first verse and lead-in to the chorus: punchy vocals, a “message” of sorts, nods to 50s and 60s swing pop, and a classic, predictable beat structure. But every subsequent listen goaded me further into believing that the song, lyrically, merely trades one set of priorities and objectifications for another, still reveling in a world of the vain concern for one’s looks as the metaphor by which to find/reclaim self-assurance and gratification. As always, the woman is posited only in relationship to how she’s perceived by others, specifically men; her body is always on display and needs to be explained to the outside world. The video only further entrenches us in a plastic, heteronormative world, with modest knee-length, go-go style dresses in all manner of pastels, pink walls, sweater vests, and girls playing with dolls. If the video subjugated these clichés instead of merely presenting them for their cartoonish visual aesthetics, perhaps it might imbue the song with some ironic winking eye. Instead paraded before us is a facile Old Navy commercial “celebrating” curvature. By all means, I don’t believe all songs must be completely self-aware, but for a song to take such a bold claim and hard line through its lyrics means that it wants to be taken, perhaps, for more than just another pop construction. In a larger sense, the song could easily, by removing just a few lines, parody the church of the body which we all attend or at least not be Janus-faced in its own logic about women. Though it’s catchy the first time or two, this track is certainly not the summer jam for which I, or anyone else, is looking; one would think a celebration song would somehow feel more fun for everyone.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com