Tag Archives: Postmortem

Double-feature postmortem: Kubo and the Two Strings & Interstellar

Yesterday I was sick and ended up with a whole day home alone (quite a rarity in this phase of my life). I watched two movies I’d been wanting to see for a long time: Kubo and the Two Strings and Interstellar.

Kubo is animated, ostensibly a kids’ movie, full of bright colors, Asian-themed, bouncing with energy, heavy on fantasy and magic, while Interstellar is very adult, bleak and somber, America-centric, slow-paced, heavy on sci fi. Very different films.

But also a lot of similarities. Both revolve around the parent/child bond; both have a lot of darkness; both are visually stunning; both have a twist at the end that redefines everything that’s come before, inviting a re-watch; both, strangely, star Matthew McConaughey (he’s the voice of Beetle in Kubo); both got fairly good Rotten Tomatoes scores (Kubo 97%, Interstellar 71%); both have more heart than brains; and both, ultimately, left me a little disappointed.

Let’s start with Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo is a kid with one eye. He lives with his mom. She warns him not to stay out past nightfall, or else his evil supernatural aunts and his evil grandfather the Moon King will steal his other eye. (Ahem. You have my attention.) Of course he does, and the baddies chase him (with grappling hooks!), and a lot of stuff happens but he ends up going on a quest with a monkey and a human-sized beetle samurai thing. (The “two strings” of the title refer to his musical instrument, which has a variety of magical powers and comes to symbolize his family.) It’s probably not a spoiler to say that he triumphs in the end.

As I mentioned, the animation is just gorgeous:

Kubo has magic of his own, which largely involves paper-folding (origami), and that’s cool to watch. The music is great too. And the story is pretty solid. In theory, it seems like an amazing movie.

One problem, for me, is that nearly all the dialogue is just … a little bit … off. It’s a subtle but persistent feeling that’s hard to describe. The rhythm of conversation, the timing, the flow, isn’t quite right. Pauses are just a bit too long, or something. It feels like the story is trying to move a tiny bit faster than the conversation, and it can’t. Legend of Korra had this same problem and it drove me bonkers. I doubt this will bother many other people, though.

Another problem: The way the story unfolds feels haphazard and arbitrary in a lot of places. Kubo and most of his family (good and evil alike) have magical powers of one kind or another, and the magic seems like it can do … well, whatever the story needs for that scene. Likewise, we move from one strange location to another without an overall sense of direction. It’s a problem because, the more arbitrary the story’s path becomes, the less the characters’ choices matter, and character choices are the heart of a story.

Also it gets really sappy near the end. I mean, it’s dark in a lot of places — I mean really dark, by “kids’ movie” standards — but by the end it’s so saccharine that even Disney’s like “Can you turn it down a notch?”

Okay, so. Interstellar.

This story is set in a dystopian, not-so-distant future, where we have (somehow) run out of food and (for some reason) cast aside technical knowledge, instead refocusing ourselves on traditional farming. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a compelling premise: McConaughey plays Cooper, a pilot-turned-farmer who is raising his son Tom and his daughter Murphy on a dying planet, and yearning to use his engineering know-how to save the human race, and his kids in particular.

Again, the visuals are great:

The plot gets complicated — this is a Christopher Nolan movie, after all — so I’ll just say that Cooper has to leave his daughter Murphy behind to fly this long-shot interstellar mission, and everything he does out there is really all about getting back to her.

It’s a stark, slow, deliberate film, which is both good and bad: It definitely drags in places, especially in the second half, but it also has a sort of unhurried grandeur that seems fitting for a movie about something as huge as a true interstellar journey. (In that third screenshot, the smudge in the very center is actually two astronauts in space suits locked in a fistfight to the death, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The shot is a flash of genius from Nolan.)

It’s also harrowing to watch. The formula for an emotional gut-punch is (deceptively) simple: Just forge a bond of unfathomable love between two people, and then stretch that bond until it screams, and then stretch it some more. Interstellar does this repeatedly with devastating power, with Cooper and his daughter, and it never feels cheap. One scene in particular gave me a new appreciation for McConaughey’s acting abilities.

So there’s a lot to like. But also a number of problems.

For starters, as I said, it’s long — almost three hours — and it feels long. I definitely think some parts could’ve been cut. It also gets into a lot of weird semi-philosophical semi-scientific mumbo jumbo near the end, and the further they drifted into that, the less interested I got. I don’t mind a complicated movie, but it has to feel like a puzzle worth unraveling, and this wasn’t really it. These two problems are linked, and they were probably the biggest obstacle to enjoyment for me.

About the scientific accuracy of the movie — I guess I need to do some more thinking. Last night I subjected my poor wife to a rant about how bad the science was, but today I’m reading about how accurate it is, how painstaking the research was. So I may need to brush up on my own knowledge of relativity and see if some of my criticisms were wrong. None of that matters too much to the story, but I’m a science guy, so I’m interested (and apparently Nolan is interested too).

Anyway.

In summary: I wasn’t really impressed with either movie overall, but both were very impressive in certain particular ways, and both were clearly made with a lot of love. Also, I’m pretty weird, and a lot of my criticisms are things that won’t bother anyone else.

See how helpful I am?

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Postmortem: Wonder Woman (spoilers)

In our latest installment of Brian Finally Gets Around to Watching Stuff that Everyone Else Watched Ages Ago, we look at: Wonder Woman!

WW is a very good movie that is fun to watch, but also frustrating, because it could’ve been a great movie with some fairly minor changes.

We’ll start with the good stuff.

The strength of WW is its characters. Wonder Woman herself (who in the movie is thankfully just called by her name, Diana) has spent her whole life among the all-female Amazon warriors on a remote island, cut off from the rest of civilization, and has no idea that the whole planet is caught in the throes of the Great War (i.e., World War I). She is strong and brave and virtuous, but heartbreakingly naive, which puts her in constant tension with the modern world. All this is executed brilliantly.

Steve Trevor (who I mentally called “Captain Kirk” throughout the movie) is her opposite in many ways. Weary of fighting, of watching those around him suffer and die year after year, he is a cog in the great war machine, and he knows it. He has no super powers. He doesn’t feel very righteous. But, like Diana, he is strong and brave, and he still wants to make a difference.

Whether in the streets of London or on the front lines, they’re perfect together. Each of them would be lost without the other. Their dialogue has energy and conviction, and it’s genuinely funny when it’s trying to be. (WW has more humor overall than you might expect.) Their romantic chemistry is both believable and understated, which is a breath of fresh air compared to, say, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man (not that I blame the actors; they did the best they could with the lines they were given).

Kirk’s Trevor’s ragtag band of misfits are surprisingly human and likable too. Each has a backstory that is touched on briefly, rather than hammered in; each is broken in his own way; each, in his own way, has turned his brokenness into strength. In many films, sidekick characters like these would be written, dully, as stock tropes: Crazy Guy, Ethnic Guy, and Ammunition Guy (or whatever). It’s a measure of WW‘s quality that the writers went deeper.

At the heart of the story is a philosophical question: Do humans fight wars because their pure hearts have been corrupted (as Diana believes) by Ares, the god of war? Or do we fight because (as Trevor believes) we were never pure to begin with? The film revisits this question, quietly but persistently, throughout. When Ares is finally revealed at the end, his true nature is more interesting and subtle than either of those two worldviews might suggest.

One more thing: There are some movies and shows whose approach to feminism is roughly, “Look! It’s a woman! She’s a hero! She’s doing hero things that are traditionally male! Did you see that she’s a woman? A woman hero! Did you catch that? Girl Power! Instead of a plot!” Thankfully, WW avoids this trap. Like Buffy before it, WW makes feminism a central theme of an excellent story, rather than putting a veneer of story over a Feminist Message™. So that was a good thing.

But, as I said, WW does have some problems.

For starters, the beginning … is … really … really … REALLY … slow. We spend 20-30 minutes just among the Amazons, and it’s pretty much all backstory. There’s no significant conflict, just some tired tropes that are very predictable and very boring. (Will the young girl end up with kickass hero superpowers, or not?! I’m on the edge of my seat.)  A story without conflict isn’t much of a story. Things don’t actually get going until Trevor shows up, and the movie should’ve started there, or else given the Amazons something more interesting to do.

The ending is kinda tiresome too. When Ares is first revealed, it’s awesome, because he’s this quiet, unassuming little man, somebody you’d never expect to be the god of war, but who — in retrospect — is perfect for the role. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the movie then throws away all that subtlety, puts Ares in a massive suit of armor, and makes him fly around shouting idiotic cliches. Incidentally, the key to defeating the living incarnation of conflict turns out to be, um, battling him to the death. So there’s that.

The other villains are a bit on the dull side too. There’s this sadistic lady who invents a new, super-deadly poison gas, and there’s a general who likes killing and poison gas and gets some minor super powers that don’t really accomplish much. They’re both Germans (of course), and they’re both pretty flat comic-book villains. I mean, I know it’s a comic-book story, but still.

Also, there are a whole lot of things in WW that don’t make any sense. This is true of pretty much all superhero movies, so I’m not picking on WW in particular, but they’re still annoying. Stuff like: Why do all the Amazons speak such good modern English, when they all learned it ages ago? (Why does Diana know the English word hydrogen when she’s translating from Sumerian? For that matter, why is there a Sumerian word for hydrogen?) If Diana’s mother is so obsessed with Diana’s safety, why does she let her go to the Great War without even considering giving her any Amazon backup? Why does Ares forget how to teleport as soon as he starts fighting her? How come nobody at the party notices that Diana has a sword lodged in her dress? Why does Diana, a trained warrior, walk around carrying her sword with the blade up by her face? And so on. Again, these are all relatively minor, but they don’t help the suspension of disbelief.

One scene in particular sticks out. Diana comes to the trenches for the first time, along with Kirk Trevor and the others. Trevor is explaining that nobody can cross the “no-man’s land” between the trenches because both sides have machine guns. Diana, brave and hopeful, ignores his warning, leaps out of the trench, and charges the German side, deflecting bullets with her bracelets (wrist armor?) and then repelling sustained machine-gun fire with her shield. This “distraction” gives Trevor and his men the chance to charge the enemy as well, and together they lead an attack that is ultimately successful.

The scene is memorable because it’s (1) incredibly cool, both on a visual level and a story/character level, and (2) completely ridiculous. Diana, who is just as vulnerable to gunfire as any human, has no covering at all over her arms or legs, and her shield is only big enough to protect her torso, yet somehow, a dozen or more soldiers with all manner of weapons firing from multiple angles can’t seem to land a single shot to her limbs. I know, I know, it’s just a movie, but the over-the-top absurdity does kinda undercut Diana’s whole you-can-succeed-if-you’re-brave-enough mentality.

On a more philosophical level: Diana seems to have no problem with killing humans, which is a bit jarring after seeing so many heroes from all different universes who so viscerally oppose it (e.g., Superman, Batman, Buffy, Aang). That’s not a criticism in itself. However, neither Diana nor the filmmakers seem to notice the hypocrisy in her position: That poor, weak-hearted humans fight wars because Ares corrupted them, whereas noble, strong-hearted Amazons fight wars because it’s the right thing to do. By the end of the movie, she’s decided to embrace a philosophy of love, but seemingly doesn’t even reflect on the many German soldiers she’s killed (most of whom would’ve given anything to escape the misery of the trenches). This values dissonance, like my other criticisms, is hardly unique to WW, but in an otherwise excellent movie, it stands out all the more.

Oh yeah, and one other thing. There are a lot of slow-mo action shots. I mean a lot. And that’s coming from someone who liked the Matrix sequels.

So, wow, I’ve rambled a lot.

In summary: If you’re at all interested in Wonder Woman, you should go check it out. It’s probably the best DC movie I’ve seen, apart from The Dark Knight. And if you do see it, let me know what you think!

Postmortem: The Call of Cthulhu

Bounce around the internet for a while and you’ll surely bounce into Cthulhu, that ubiquitous squid-headed eldritch abomination we’ve all grown to love so dearly. There are even Cthulhu plushies. (Aw …)

But despite all I’d seen and heard about this patriarch of horror, I had never actually sat down and read the original source text: “The Call of Cthulhu,” a story by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1928. So when I stumbled across the volume above at a local Books-a-Million — overpriced, but bargain-discounted to a more palatable cost — I had to have it.

The story itself is remarkably short, for how influential it’s become — just twenty pages in my copy. The complete text is available here, if you like. There’s little plot to speak of. An eminently forgettable narrator does some digging into some old papers, talks to some people, etc., and learns about Cthulhu. What he finds is Truly Horrifying™. Cthulhu is a cosmic, horrific, ancient being that came to Earth long ago. He sleeps beneath the waves, but one day he will wake and bring madness to the whole world. Also, he has a cult. That’s basically it.

I’ve read a little other Lovecraft before: the novella At the Mountains of Madness, a long essay about horror writing, and some small story whose name I’ve forgotten. So, how does “The Call” compare?

Well, it’s the best of his fiction so far, and it’s sort of a fun little read. But it’s still Lovecraft, and his horror is all starting to run together for me, virtues and flaws alike.

Lovecraft’s main virtue is this singular vision he has, that the day-to-day world we know — comfortable, or at least familiar, with our human ambitions and worries and notions of good and evil — is just an infinitesimal speck in the belly of a universe dark and vast and ancient beyond imagination. That much, at least, is simple scientific fact, but Lovecraft gives the darkness force and personality in the form of the Great Old Ones — beings, like Cthulhu, that are so old and strong and strange that we literally cannot imagine their true nature. Even the names we use for them are just feeble human approximations. They are not so much evil, in the mustache-twirling sense, as simply other, utterly indifferent to our desires. Amoral, rather than immoral — and the former is far worse, at least for Lovecraft.

This is a compelling vision, not least because it feels powerfully real. We don’t actually believe in squid-headed mile-high monstrosities, but we do sense that the universe is far darker, deeper, and stranger than our human-centric views might suggest. It’s that particular brand of unfathomable weirdness that survives today as the core of his legacy, and that makes “The Call” enjoyable.

The problem, though, is that Lovecraft is a little too focused on his vision. He hammers it into you endlessly, with every paragraph, every sentence. He is forever insisting that his darkness is so dark, so ancient, so strange, so far beyond mortal comprehension, that you just want him to take a breath and maybe have a beer or something. Certain words pop up over and over: unhallowed, nameless, strange, aeons, Cyclopean (which means “enormous,” only bigger). So many people are driven mad that you start to wonder if they just need better psychiatrists.

Every writer hears the advice “show, don’t tell,” and Lovecraft desperately needs this remedy. You don’t convey horror by saying that something is horrible, or dark, or twisted. You’ve gotta give details, and let the reader’s brain supply the horror on its own. Lovecraft does give details, but he doesn’t let them stand on their own, and honestly the details he gives aren’t super horrifying, especially compared to the over-the-top reactions they induce in all his characters.

That’s another thing. Nobody in a Lovecraft story can hear or see anything remotely connected to the Great Old Ones and just blow it off. “Pfft, squid-head statue, whatever. Did you hear what Stacy said that Molly told Howard about Mike’s promotion?” It’s always shuddering, shivering, whispering. Everyone in this world is as impressed by the mythos as the author himself. And the experts (archaeologists, biologists, linguists) are always baffled by any Cthulhu-related artifacts they find. It’s like nothing they’ve ever seen. Really? You’re telling me a room full of scientists, all trying to impress each other, can’t come up with any connection, even superficially, to anything they know? Lovecraft is trying too hard.

He’s also pretty snooty. He says that only sensitive, receptive people get visions of Cthulhu — fair enough. But he then says that this is all artists and poets (and presumably writers of fiction), whom he calls “aesthetes.” Thoroughly excluded from this group are what he calls “average people in society and business,” who are clearly incapable of grasping the profundity of his darkness. I mean, I get that creative types might be more receptive, but really? That whole lump of “average” people is just right out? You’d almost think he was projecting a bit. (At another point, the narrator refers to a sailor rather condescendingly as an “unlettered seaman,” even though he is currently reading the man’s diary.)

Above all, Lovecraft’s fiction is rife with purple prose. In one passage, he says a statue of Cthulhu “squatted evilly,” which is fun to try and visualize. Elsewhere he speaks of “unhallowed blasphemies” (as opposed to the hallowed kind?) and describes something “visibly darkening the sun” (a contrast to all that invisible darkening you hear about).

Here’s a sentence that so perfectly capture’s Lovecraft’s style that I have to quote it in full. (The “It” below refers to Cthulhu.)

Everyone listened, and everyone was listening still when It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness.

Now you know why Hemingway was so sparing with adverbs — Lovecraft took them all.

(By the way, Lovecraft’s nonfiction is far better than his fiction, because he’s not trying so hard to impress you.)

One perk of this over-the-top writing, though, is that you get some really killer vocabulary. The three words below, all of which my web browser has underlined in red, are just a sample of the treasure trove this story comprises:

  • abysm — means the same thing as abyss, but cooler
  • vigintillions — like trillions, but bigger — a vigintillion is a 1 with 63 zeroes
  • cachinnating — to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or convulsively, according to M-W

All criticism aside, though, Lovecraft’s dark-purple prose is fairly enjoyable in small doses — which is one reason that the twenty-page “Call of Cthulhu” is much better than the much longer At the Mountains of Madness. So if you’re curious about the origins of our tentacled, occasionally plush friend, this story is a fun way to spend an hour or two.

Postmortem: The Fall of Arthur

tfoa

For a man who died in 1973, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien still gets an awful lot of books published: The Silmarillion, 1977; the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth in the 80s and 90s; The Children of Húrin, 2007; and others.

All this is possible because one of his sons, Christopher Tolkien, has devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy over the decades to combing the elder Tolkien’s voluminous notes, sketches, and drafts, which are often incomplete and hard to decipher. Christopher is 92 today, and still going.

A few years ago he came out with The Fall of Arthur. A few weeks ago I discovered it in a local bookstore. A few days ago I finished it. And it’s excellent.

The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished long poem about the death of King Arthur, the last battle with Mordred, and the downfall of Camelot, covering roughly the same ground as the final chapters of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, though Tolkien draws on other sources as well. It is written in a form relatively unknown today, the so-called alliterative verse of the Old English poets, used most famously in Beowulf. Tolkien’s work has no rhyme, but a definite rhythm and structure, as in this bit from the first canto (chapter):

Dark and dreary     were the deep valleys,
where limbs gigantic    of lowering trees
in endless aisles    were arched o’er rivers
flowing down afar    from fells of ice.

That space in the middle of each line is part of the Beowulf form, too. When discussing it, Tolkien speaks of both lines and “half-lines.” The purpose of the half-lines would require a whole separate blog post (and more research on my part), but the Wiki page I linked above has some explanation.

More remarkable, from my perspective, is that this is really good poetry.

I grew up on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and I thought the poetry and songs in those books was amazing — but the older I got, the less impressed I was. So I wasn’t sure what to expect here. But his use of language is just beautiful.

I think the Old English form (as opposed to the more conventional rhyming verses he uses elsewhere) pushes him to find more interesting word choices. I also love all the old words he uses, which make the poem as a whole feel both ancient and truly connected with Arthur’s world. In the quote above, “fells” are hills or heights — so “fells of ice” are hills of ice. Elsewhere, he uses “tarn,” which is a small steep-banked mountain lake. (Incidentally, “tarn” appears in the first paragraph of The Fall of the House of Usher as well.) Other examples abound.

I’ve gotta say, too, it’s refreshing to read a serious work by Tolkien that isn’t in Middle-earth. I like hobbits as much as the next guy, but sometimes I also like, y’know, not hobbits. So that was cool.

As I mentioned, the poem is unfinished — as with so many projects in his career (and mine), real life got in the way. The story ends well before the apocalyptic Battle of Camlann (the battle that puts the Morte in Morte D’Arthur). At 40 pages, the poem itself takes up less than a quarter of the full volume. The rest is mostly commentary by Christopher in the form of three essays:

The Poem in Arthurian Tradition — Which sources did Tolkien draw on for his story? The Arthur mythology doesn’t have a single canonical source. It’s a jumble of different authors and traditions and languages over a span of centuries, with some altering or expanding on earlier works, and some inventing completely new stories. Christopher offers a solid historical context for the mythology his father decided to use.

The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to The Silmarillion — Although The Fall of Arthur isn’t a Middle-earth story, there are certain parallels. The strongest parallel is between Avalon and Tol Eressëa, the latter being the “Lonely Isle” near Valinor from The Silmarillion. Tolkien also, at some point, wrote some lines of verse — which do not appear in the main poem — featuring the Silmarillion character Eärendel:

Eärendel goeth on eager quest
to magic islands beyond the miles of the sea,
past the hills of Avalon and the halls of the moon,
the dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Faery on the borders of the world.

Even putting aside the Arthurian connection via Avalon, the lines above are gorgeous poetry, in my opinion — the word choice isn’t as sophisticated as what you’ll find in The Fall of Arthur, but it’s a vivid image nonetheless.

The Evolution of the Poem — Christopher had access to earlier drafts of the main poem, and he uses them to show how his father’s ideas grew and changed over the course of multiple revisions. He presents this evolution in considerable detail, taking a full 50 pages — which is longer than the poem itself. I confess this is the only section of the book I was unable to finish. I love writing, and editing, and revision, and poetry, and textual analysis, and Tolkien, and King Arthur, but even so, there’s only so much “See how he added five lines here?” that I can stomach. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource for anyone doing serious research, and its inclusion demonstrates once again Christopher’s dedication to his father’s work.

There’s also an appendix, an essay, where J. R. R. Tolkien explains in his own words what alliterative verse is all about, and explains the Old English verse tradition more generally. I found it fascinating, but I fear I may be in the minority there.

Whew! I always start these postmortems intending them to be just a few words about the book or movie or whatever, and I always end up being reminded yet again that writing “a few words” is beyond my abilities. But that’s how it goes.

Happy weekend!

Postmortem: A Monster Calls

amc

Warning: Spoilers.

Published in 2011, A Monster Calls is a short novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay. It’s billed as a “children’s book,” with a target audience somewhere in the 10-16 range. But it’s one of those children’s books that — like The Hobbit and Matilda and Harry Potter — is meant to appeal to young and old alike.

While Betsy and I were in Oxford, England, a little over a year ago, I picked up a copy. I had never heard of it, or its author, but the art looked beautifully grim, the story looked intriguing, and it seemed to have won lots of praise and awards. So I grabbed it and lugged it back to the States, where it sat on a shelf, unread.

Then yesterday, I saw an ad for a movie titled A Monster Calls, and assumed (correctly) it was based on the neglected book I’d bought. I figured it was the perfect excuse to finally read the thing. So I did. Or tried to, anyway.

I got a quarter of the way through and had to put it down. It was bad. Not scary-horror bad, just plain old bad-writing bad. Boring, unconvincing, unoriginal. I read the rest of the plot in a summary on Wikipedia, then skimmed through the rest of the book to confirm.

What’s wrong with it?

For starters, the monster — the one on the cover and in the title — isn’t scary. At all. He looks scary in the art, and he’s meant to be scary in the text, but it never happens. Physical appearance aside, the dude just isn’t very menacing. He never does much harm to anyone. Mostly, he talks to the main character (a 13-year-old boy named Conor). And he talks. And talks. In polite conversations where they take turns and consider each other’s points thoughtfully. Terrifying, right?

Books about non-scary monsters can certainly work. But when the art and the tone try so hard to convince you otherwise, it’s a pretty big letdown.

Conor himself says more than once that he’s not afraid of this oh-so-frightening creature. Why not? Because he’s scared of something even worse: real life. His mother is dying of cancer, and he has this recurring nightmare about her that he won’t tell anyone, that he can’t even stand to think about.

See, the book isn’t really about monsters outside. It’s really about the monsters within. Like, whoa. Who knew monsters could be symbolic of other things?

The actual purpose of the monster — and I am not making this up — is to offer therapy sessions for Conor, to help him work out his emotional baggage. To be fair, the book doesn’t call them “therapy sessions.” The therapy comes in the form of stories. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories, and then Conor will tell him a story, revealing what’s in his dark and secret nightmare.

Look, I like stories. I’ve read thousands and written dozens. That’s why I bought the book in the first place. But I gotta say, reading a story about someone hearing a story is not high on my “exciting” list. It’s possible to make a story-in-story interesting, but the author has to make the reader care, and that just doesn’t happen here. The monster keeps insisting that stories are wild, dangerous things (which they can be), while Conor keeps saying it’s going to be boring.

Maybe Conor should have written the book.

Besides the unimpressed protagonist and the un-scary non-villain, other story bits include:

  • Conor’s mom, who (as we said) is dying of cancer, which is Very Sad.
  • Conor’s douchebag dad, Conor’s condescending grandma (who has a Heart of Gold), and Conor’s friend Lily, who serves no purpose I can see, at least in the first quarter of the novel.
  • A high school, which features such remarkably original characters as a Bully With Two Sidekicks and a Well-Meaning Teacher Who Just Doesn’t Get It, with “it” being Conor’s teen angst.

Most of the tropes above aren’t necessarily bad, and can often be good. Monster as metaphor, story-in-story, death of a parent, tough adolescent relationships — these are solid building blocks for a story. You can’t tell a story without tropes, after all.

But tropes only work if you recognize that they’re old, they’ve been done a million times, and you have to put a fresh spin on them. The problem with A Monster Calls, I think, is that it not only fails to dress up these old devices, it treats them as something brand-new and remarkable. “Look,” the story seems to say. “We’re using fantasy to deal with issues in real life. Did I just blow your mind, or what?”

Also, as I may have mentioned, the monster is about as scary as a bottle of mineral water.

Here’s the thing, though. People love this book. The New York Times called it “a gift from a generous story­teller and a potent piece of art.” The Telegraph hailed it as “a beguiling and heart-rending tale, tender and eviscerating in turn.” It’s won loads of prestigious awards, bestselling authors have praised it, and it has 4½ stars on Goodreads.

Why the disconnect between my experience and theirs?

Well, for starters, they read the whole book. I might like it better if I read the latter three-fourths of it. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Another thing is expectations. They were (perhaps) expecting just another book, so any outstanding qualities may have shone extra bright. I was expecting something amazing (the cover alone lists five major awards, on my version), so I was bound to be harder to please. To be fair, I think the book is more mediocre than truly awful.

Yet another factor: The real-life story behind the novel itself is genuinely touching. A beloved author named Siobhan Dowd (who I’d never heard of before yesterday) came up with the idea for this book, but died before she could finish it. Like the mother in the story, she had cancer, so the book was very personal for her. The fact that another author took her idea and ran with it, and created something that so many people like, is really beautiful. So that might be part of it.

And of course, art is subjective, and people just have different tastes. I didn’t like it, but they did, and I’m glad they did. To each their own, etc.

Still, all that said, I do see this book as part of a larger pattern that I wrote about years agoAmerican Gods and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, and above all The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, are books that received universal, effusive praise. I forced myself to read them all cover-to-cover, and found that they ranged from mediocre (Gaiman and Sanderson) to awful (Rothfuss) to borderline physically painful (Beagle).

It’s odd, isn’t it? Opinions vary, as I said, but I do wonder why I diverge so sharply from mainstream and critical opinion in those cases, when my tastes are so “normal” in so many other areas. (I love Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling, Robert Jordan, Isaac Asimov, and J. R. R. Tolkien, to name just a few.)

I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last look at the art, which is excellent, as I said — definitely the book’s best feature.

amc2

Postmortem: Ruthless

ruthless

I have a history with – or rather, against – the Church of Scientology.

A number of years ago, I started reading about the Church. I forget exactly what sparked it. But I remember my utter fascination at getting a glimpse into what seemed like an alternate reality.

Scientology has some really weird beliefs, sure. But people are entitled to their weird beliefs – myself included. I don’t begrudge them that.

My problem isn’t with the beliefs, nor with individual Scientologists. My problem is with the organization itself.

See, the group that calls itself the Church of Scientology is actually a cult that practices extortion, intimidation, harassment, abuse, and dishonesty on a massive scale, while offering little or nothing in return to the thousands of honest believers who open their checkbooks again, and again, and again.

The Church has a prison camp. I’m not exaggerating or sensationalizing. I mean they literally have a cluster of buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence, patrolled by guards, monitored by cameras, in which there are Scientologists who desperately want to leave but are physically prevented from doing so, for years. This area, believe it or not, is the Scientology world headquarters – known as Gold Base – in California. You can see it on Google Maps. (The Church, of course, denies this and all other allegations of wrongdoing.)

The Church practices something called “disconnection,” which means that if a Scientologist leaves the Church, any family members who remain are forbidden from having any contact with them. In other words, they break up families, often for many years.

The Church has an internal organization called the Sea Org, whose members are supposed to be 100% dedicated to the Church. Women in the Sea Org who become pregnant are encouraged to have abortions.

I could go on.

And by all means, don’t take my word for it. All the information above is based on numerous reports from many different people who have left the Church over the years. The stories are publicly available and easy to find. Google will tell you whatever you want to know.

So, as I said, the Church of Scientology has been on my radar for a long time. (I even attended some public protests against them back in the day.) So when I saw a book about “Scientology, my son David Miscavige, and me,” naturally I was interested.

David Miscavige, you see, is the hot-tempered, abusive, power-hungry leader of the Church of Scientology. He is the successor to its founder, science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.

I finished reading Ruthless a couple days ago. It was fascinating.

See, no matter how many times I read about the cruelty and insanity of the Church, I’m still amazed all over again each time I read a new account. This one, coming from the father of the Church’s leader, was especially interesting.

He talks about how he got interested in Scientology in the first place, how he got his wife and kids (including David) involved, how the early years were happy and hopeful. Although I don’t think the Church was ever a good organization, it does seem clear that they’ve taken a real nosedive in the past three decades, under David’s leadership.

Ron (the author) talks about joining the aforementioned Sea Org, which is something like a Bizarro version of the Navy. As the years went by, the long hours got ever longer, the days off got less and less common, the pay got lower, the expectations got higher, the rewards evaporated, the punishments got more sadistic, and sleep became an ever more precious commodity.

Eventually, he moved to Gold Base. At first it was just a large, expensive, impressive headquarters for a worldwide organization. But Ron watched as security grew tighter and tighter over time, until it was literally impossible to get permission to leave. Ron said there were stretches lasting years in which he didn’t get a single day off. He says all-nighters were very common, and he once had to stay up more than 80 hours straight finishing a project.

Even the impossible deadlines and insane schedules might have been bearable, had the environment been more positive. But, Ron says, David was an obsessive micromanager and constantly abusive, screaming at people and insulting them and shaming them. Nothing was ever good enough. Lower-level managers picked up his attitude (or else they were removed). And the abuses weren’t just verbal. People were physically hit, or forced to stay in hot rooms for weeks, or shoved into a lake, or even (in one bizarre instance) forced to live in a shack out by a swamp, away from everyone else, for months.

Ron finally got out of this place in 2012. And when he refers to his departure as an “escape,” he is not exaggerating.

I admit that the book’s writing style is not very good, which is odd since Ron evidently had a ghostwriter. The story wanders sometimes, with large chunks that feel sorta irrelevant, and the prose is a little choppy. But those faults are easy to overlook in exchange for the engrossing view it offers into the Bizarro world that is the Church of Scientology.

Postmortem: Exodus

Betsy and I are still making our way through the Bible, one chapter at a time. A couple days ago we finished Exodus. Some brief thoughts…

Whereas the God of Genesis does a lot of killing in vast and dramatic ways (genocidal Flood, raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah), the God of Exodus seems smaller, more spiteful and cruel. Examples:

  • He repeatedly “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh – who would otherwise have let the Israelites go free – explicitly for the sake of his own glory (e.g. Exodus 10:1).
  • He punishes the Levites by having them get out swords and run around and “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” They do, and three thousand die. (32:27-28)
  • He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:7)
  • He orders that anyone who works on the Sabbath must be executed. (35:2)
  • etc.

Readers have commented for centuries that the God of the Old Testament seems shockingly bloodthirsty compared to the God of the New Testament, and I knew most of these examples already, so it’s not like this was a surprise. Still, it’s striking to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.

I was surprised, however, to find that the golden calf created by the Israelites is so ambiguous in nature. I always thought of it as simply an idol worshiped instead of God, and in some respects that is how it’s described. But we’re also told: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord [YHWH].’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (32:5-6)

In other words, the calf-centered festival where they offered sacrifices was still considered a festival to their original God (at least in Aaron’s mind). I had never heard that before.

The revelation of the divine name “I Am” to Moses is poetic and beautiful, and seems fitting.

I’ve heard people claim that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t wrong, because it’s not like the Southern pre-Civil War slavery we think of today. Well, it may not be the same, but read this divine law and judge its morality for yourself: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21:20)

That is, it’s okay to beat your slaves to death, as long as it takes them at least twenty-four hours to die of their wounds.

There’s a single sentence that is ten verses long (35:10-19). I wonder if that’s the record, or if there are any longer sentences later.

A surprising amount of time is spent going over the precise physical details of the Ark, Tabernacle, altar, and so on. I mean, it’s really intense. Six chapters of description (25-30) of the design, followed by five chapters (36-40) of the construction, which is basically a near-verbatim repetition of the design part, except it’s what they built instead of what they’re planning to build.

I noticed, too, that Exodus had much less emphasis on women than Genesis. There was Miriam (sister of Moses and Aaron) and Pharoah’s daughter, and a few others, but all had brief and minor roles. Contrast with the roles of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

I’ve been very critical of Exodus, but I have to stress that my criticism (and, let’s be honest, anger) is not from any dislike of Christianity. It’s the opposite. Because I respect Christianity and expect good things from it, I get very frustrated to see holy books that glorify death and cruelty. I think Betsy feels something similar.

It is a credit to Christians around the world that they can transform even books like these into a force for peace and love. (I feel similarly about nearly all other religious texts, by the way.)

Anyway – as mentioned before, we’re heading to Matthew next. A little New Testament reading will be a nice palate cleanser before we plunge back into the Old Testament again, and Leviticus in particular.