May Superlatives

This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!

best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.

slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.

most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.

most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)

most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.

best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.

most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.

most annoyingly good: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.

best premise: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.

closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.

best historical escapism: The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).

best audio choice: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.

best sunshine thriller: Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.

currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.

Pandemic commissions: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve had multiple requests for reviews of The Last Jedi, though my mate Bojan (an absurdly gifted Baroque violinist, lecturer at the RCM, and husband to Esther) got in there first. Seeing as the sequel trilogy is its own entity, I’ve decided to review them all together.

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I’d already seen The Force Awakens (or, as my housemate Joe and I kept cacklingly calling it, The Force Wakes Up) and already thought it makes a great, great start to the sequel trilogy. A rewatch didn’t change my mind on that. What’s always interested me about the Star Wars universe is the fact that, although so many spinoffs in so many different formats exist—comic books, novelizations, fanfic, extra TV shows like Clone Wars and The Mandalorian—the original movies don’t strike me as being particularly interested in that kind of elaboration. Maybe that’s exactly why it happened, because they provided a universe with a million different environments and possibilities, then demonstrated interest in virtually none of them: the original trilogy’s vaunted failure to  provide any world-building detail about economies, religions, day-to-day lives, left a vacuum that fandom (and the franchise itself, in many cases) has rushed to fill.

All of which is to say that maybe that’s why The Force Awakens has such charm. It feels like the official big proper Star War films are actually now being made by someone who’s really interested and invested in the questions that the original films raised. What’s it like being a stormtrooper? What if you don’t fancy it anymore? Does PTSD exist in this universe? What has it been like living in the literal ruins of the Empire? Who got—figuratively and literally—left behind? The film at least acknowledges those questions.

Daisey Ridley as Rey is a major asset to this film, as are all of the major players. Disney’s primary takeaway from the prequel trilogy, luckily, appears to have been “Cast people who can act”, which is a nice change from the Portman/Christensen dynamic. Ridley projects exactly the kind of wounded strength that a person develops when they’ve had to fend for themselves for a very long time, but there’s no cynicism at all in her; she believes in the Resistance, and in the efficacy of hope. This makes her an extremely effective foil to Kylo Ren, who is a child of privilege and has never been raised to doubt the love of his family and the security of his place in the world, yet whose seduction by the Dark Side is presented, quite disingenuously, as some kind of inevitable, heritable trait. The choice of Adam Driver for this role grew on me, a lot; he’s got that slightly unhealthy look and flat affect that seems to characterize incels, active shooters, white supremacists and so on, all of whom—@ me if you please—are real-life models of Kylo’s whiny/murderous behavioural complex. More pleasingly, John Boyega as deserting stormtrooper Finn and Oscar Isaac as sexy flyboy Poe are both wonderful (Boyega makes me laugh out loud and want to hug him in every single scene he’s in), and they have such great chemistry with each other that I spent most of their escape scene wishing they would kiss. It’s a shame the film doesn’t spend more time on Finn, to be honest; his premise is so good, but is never explored on the emotional level it has the potential for. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both deliver magnificently, feeding nostalgia without pandering to it.

The film falls down most heavily when it comes to villainy. Supreme Leader Snoke? The “First Order”? Bitch, please. None of it makes sense, not philosophically, not narratively, not geopolitically. The fact that at some point in a planning meeting, someone clearly asked “What’s scarier than the Death Star?”, someone else answered “A bigger Death Star!”, and everyone around that table nodded their heads, is also unfortunate. It is, however, also not surprising, because the Star Wars franchise has never been able to create a coherent moral framework, or even conceive of one. It is not interested in the nature of good and evil. The bad people are bad because they are bad. The good people are good because they are just naturally better at being good. It’s completely circular, it makes no sense and never has, and it’s the sequel trilogy’s greatest obstacle. Having defeated mega-evil in the original trilogy, having failed to nurture an audience’s sense of how evil develops, and faced with the prospect of needing a new form of evil for the sequels, the filmmakers are forced to rehash old ground. It’s a shame in a movie that’s otherwise so exciting, fresh, funny, and above all, not self-serious.

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The acting continues to be top-notch in The Last Jedi, with the notable exception of Mark Hamill, who at this point is more famous for being a not-very-good actor than anything else, so at least that feels pretty consistent with the original trilogy. The training sequences on Ahch-To between Luke and Rey are both fun callbacks to Luke’s training montage, and a genuinely exciting expansion of the way the films have historically talked about the Force—which is to say, very little. When Luke explains to Rey what the Force isn’t (a magic power) and what it is (energy that binds all objects in the universe, living and inert, and that can be manipulated), it feels like the most serious attention any of these movies so far has paid to the conceit that holds them all together. The sets for Ahch-To, which was filmed on the remote Irish island of Skellig Michael, are seriously stunning, and it also provides two of my favourite comic relief creatures: the porgs (DADDY, I WANT AN OOMPA-LOOMPA), and the weird mute fish nuns who seem to spend all their time doing Luke’s laundry. Both are excellent additions. Also, the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran as awkward mechanic Rose is a delight, one of the few moments that properly surprised and intrigued me, that felt really original.

The big thing about The Last Jedi, though, is the way it reveals (or supposedly reveals) Rey to be a nobody; her parentage has been in question for the better part of two films, because of her unusually strong Force abilities, but Kylo Ren tells her, in a moment of pique, that her parents were no one and she comes from nowhere special. Even in the moment, I assumed this would be walked back in The Rise of Skywalker—if they can do wrong by Rose, we’re now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where every supposedly irreversible plot twist is just another stick with which to emotionally abuse the audience when it turns out to be, in fact, highly reversible—but if it had been respected, I would have had a lot of good things to say about this choice. It would have suggested that the franchise that has been obsessed with heredity and close-knit elite family connections since day one is opening up, but of course this is not to be. The closest it gets to emotional complexity, as before, is by making Rey deeply invested in Kylo’s salvation, an investment mainly demonstrated to the audience by their scenes of mutual extended telepathy, or, as my boyfriend called it, “Force FaceTime phone sex”. Since Kylo in this film is not just bad, but actively makes choices to abuse the increased power he gains, and since Rey’s virtue as a character is based on her choice not to use her power for genocidal, murderous purposes, it is at best frustrating, at worst deeply disingenuous, to establish Rey’s good opinion as being key to Kylo’s redemption. She, after all, was abandoned as a child and grew up frightened and alone, and yet she does not need anyone to hold her hand in order to make choices with basic decency—as, indeed, most of us do not. If it is necessary to trick someone into goodness by bombarding them with assertions of their potential for it, despite evidence to the contrary, their problem is not that they are simply misunderstood.

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I must confess that The Rise of Skywalker lost me. I mean, I watched the whole thing, and paid attention, mostly, but it’s much longer and, unfortunately, much less self-aware than the first two installments. Therefore, the most I can really do is comment on the bits I remember, and most of those, I regret to say, aren’t very good.

Rey’s increasing attraction to the Dark Side manifests in her increasing willingness to use the Force to get results when she’s impatient. The revelation of Rey’s ancestry is both unsurprising and infuriating. There are heavy hints that the “nothingness” of her parentage previously established is, in fact, not the whole story. Given what we know about the films’ obsession with heredity, it’s clear she must be related to someone we’ve already met; Leia is out (we’d absolutely know if she and Han had had another child, plus that would mean Rey’s interest in Kylo was actually incestuous, and I think we can all agree that even the hint of incest is something we’re happy to leave in the ’70s). Luke is out (he never had a viable love interest and has clearly remained celibate since the fall of the Empire), and Lando only shows up in this movie, so the only possible option is Palpatine—which is also stupid, because Palpatine as a character is neither sexual nor romantic and there’s never been the slightest indication that he’s had a spouse or partner, not even in order to promulgate his own dynasty; in fact, Palpatine is characteristically disinterested in having a dynasty, because he never had any intention of dying. (His return from the dead is one of the stupider parts of an already quite stupid movie, on a par with “bigger Death Star!” from The Force Awakens.)

The fallen Death Star, by the way, is also one of the stupider parts. The thing explodes in A New Hope; it does not fall from the sky. It fucking supernovas. How, therefore, is it possible for a huge and recognizable chunk of it to be protruding from a tempestuous ocean? The answer, of course, is that it needs to be there in order to Look Awesome and for Rey and Kylo to have a semi-climactic showdown in its ruins, for reasons of Heavy-Handed Symbolism. It’s a good fight, to be fair. Rey’s fatal wounding of Kylo is the proof of what we’ve always known—that she’s a much better fighter than he is—and her choice to bring him back to life, proof that she’s a much better person than he is. She can’t bring herself to be a murderer, not even of someone who would seem to richly deserve it; she can’t stoop to Kylo’s level.

A more concretely terrible development is the diminution of Rose’s role. I had been vaguely aware that racist bullying after The Last Jedi had pushed Kelly Marie Tran off of social media, and had had some effect on The Rise of Skywalker but I’d assumed it was very much of the “asshats gonna asshat” variety. Obviously, all bullying is, but it’s equally obvious that the filmmakers took one look at the roiling shitstorm online and decided they’d have easier lives if they virtually cut Rose out altogether. Presumably, Tran had signed a contract for two movies and they couldn’t just delete her, but the early potential of Rose’s relationship with Finn and her charming, clumsy courage has been shoved so far into the background, she’s really not in this. She gets a line, maybe two, that could have been spoken by any random background character, and our main trio never talk to or about her again. Given how hard the earlier film was pushing Rose and Finn’s storyline, the backpedaling here is glaring, and shameful.

The rest of it—all the Resistance stuff—is quite frankly filler, and there’s too much of it. The showdown on the Sith planet (Exegol, which sounds like one of those minor northern countries from Lord of the Rings) makes a good stab at creepiness, with all those hooded Sith minions chanting in darkness and the terrifying glow of Palpatine’s yellow eyes under his cowl, but really it’s all a bit much. And Rey killing Palpatine is okay when she does it with the help of the whole history of the Jedi behind her, but it would have made her evil to do it when he invited her to? I’m sure it makes some sort of sense if you squint. Meanwhile, it turns out Finn is Force-sensitive but absolutely nothing is made of it, Poe does a sexy nod at his bounty hunter girlfriend but they don’t actually get together, and somewhere in the background, Rose gets a hug from a Wookiee, while Lando and the only other black character in the film trade warm quips. I mean, it’s all right, I suppose. Better than the prequels. But the whole sequel trilogy is a downward slide, really.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here. Or, if there’s another film you want to commission, message me directly (or drop a line in the comments) and we can discuss it.