Reading Diary: 2 August – 9 August

This was a format that worked well for quite a long time a few years ago, and maybe it’ll be a little more manageable than a monthly roundup. It’ll also have the distinct advantage of forcing me to a) post more than once a month, so you won’t forget I exist, and b) corral my thoughts about books fairly recently after finishing them, instead of getting to the end of the month and trying to remember it all at once.

The Habsburgs: the Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady: I read this in proof so unfortunately did not get to glory in the finished edition’s excellent front cover. It’s also not necessarily my usual bag, but I picked it up because I knew a lot of my customers would be keen and I wanted to make up my own mind. And it’s excellent! Rady has about nine hundred years of history to distill into <350 pages, and does so masterfully; the occasional confusion about dynasties (so many Ferdinands!), genealogies, and religious affiliations were mostly easily resolved by consulting the multi-century family trees in the front of the book. (A lot of family-tree typos in the proof copy, though; more “Emporers” than you can shake a stick at. Presumably these have been dealt with in the finished version.) The chapters are a perfect length: long enough to provide an overview of a topic or period, short enough to feel manageable and give a pleasing sense of progress. And although Rady is a historian, not a comedian, he clearly has a keen sense of the ridiculous (such as the attempts to cure a particularly mad scion by forcing him to sleep with the mummified corpse of a saint, which–surprise–did not work). His style is light but not lightweight, witty but not intrusive, and intelligent but highly readable. The topic is also less Eurocentric than I’d imagined: the Habsburgs presided over the first genuinely global empire, with outposts in Latin America thanks to their Spanish connection as well as the occasional foray into Southeast Asia (who knew?!) and Africa (likewise). Highly, highly recommended.

Grace Will Lead Us Home, by Jennifer Berry Hawes: This was my next audiobook choice and it was a very good one – I was guided by the fact that it won an Audie Award for Best General Nonfiction. It is an account not only of the massacre of nine Black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2016, but of what followed: the national and local responses, the arrest and trial of Dylann Roof, and the incredibly painful journey of the survivors and the bereaved. This last is probably the most powerful element of the book. Although forgiveness was the watchword that got picked up by media when one of the survivors told Roof she forgave him just days later, this was not an easy or a universal response. Particularly tragic is the story of the husband of one of the murdered women, who returned from a merchant marine job halfway across the world and sank into depression, bitterness and apathy without his wife’s leavening presence. You find yourself unable to blame him, really. Roof is described about as objectively as possible—we learn about him through his actions and his reactions to his family and police—but it is highly evident that there is something wrong with him, perhaps undiagnosable, perhaps simply the manifestation of evil. A hard book but a very necessary one, and one that gives dignity and complexity to all of the actors in this horrible episode in American history.

Lot, by Bryan Washington: Washington’s debut connected-story collection focuses on the lives of Black and Latinx characters in Houston, Texas. About half of them focus on a particular young man who goes unnamed, but whose uneasy relationship with his family and his burgeoning sexuality is the focus of most of the stories in this main thread. Others, like “South Central” and “Waugh”, are snapshots of different individuals struggling to maintain integrity—or just survive—in a city beset by gentrification, poverty and racism. “Waugh” in particular is appallingly moving, its protagonist Poke a young prostitute forced to reckon with his pimp and protector’s HIV-positive status. It’s the story in which a cultural emphasis on the implicit, the unspoken or unarticulated emotion, is most evident. Elsewhere, our unnamed narrator’s uber-masculine brother Javi teaches him “what happens to faggots”, his father takes him on a visit to his “plainer than plain” mistress, his sister marries to get out of the neighborhood, and his mother suffers as gentrification forces her to give up the family restaurant. Washington’s prose style is clipped and succinct, which often creates a perhaps unintentional sense of emotional distance, but the final chapter—in which the narrator at last decides to commit to a romantic relationship with a man instead of the no-strings-attached sex he’s allowed himself up til now—holds out a delicate hope for fulfillment that only a rock could fail to find heartrending.

Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson: The premise here is perhaps cringey to a certain type of reader: in a near future containing “driverless ubers” but no New Zealand (casualty of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, apparently), Jared, a bot who looks exactly like a human but whose brain is a biological computer and who has no emotions, begins to develop feelings, along with a taste for classic movies. Pursued by an incompetent but dogged jobsworth from the Bureau of Robotics, he flees his comfortable, sterile dental practice in Ypsilanti for Los Angeles, intending to write and direct a movie that will change the way the world feels about bots. So far, perhaps, so cute (an impression backed up by Jared’s relentlessly slangy narration: “10/10” and “I cannot!” being but two of his many catchphrases). But what makes this stand out as more than just a big-hearted underdog novel with futuristic set dressing is its obsession, nay its love affair, with film tropes—which are, of course, storytelling tropes—and by way of which Jared comments, both explicitly and unconsciously, upon his own quest. I wrote “underdog” up there, for instance; Jared knows he’s in a quest story, and he knows how the logic of such stories works. He knows that Inspector Ryan Bridges of the Bureau of Robotics is his nemesis, and that (as per RP McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a text he treats with reverence) coincidences should only occur in order to create obstacles, not to smooth the hero’s path. This incredible circular knowingness—a story about stories, and who gets to tell them, and how they can be hijacked (there’s a great subplot about an unscrupulous Hollywood producer), which also knows it’s a story, and comments on that, and the comments are both an integral part of the story and reinforce its thematic meaning—is quite brilliant, and further reinforced by form, as sections of the book are typeset to resemble a film script. If this all sounds a bit precious, please trust me when I say that it is not. There is something perfect and painful about Jared’s first viewing of Blade Runner, for instance—quite deliberately a movie about whether robots are people—or about his being reassured that the people sailing on Lake Michigan during inclement weather probably don’t want rescuing, because humans actually enjoy illogical risk. Not to mention his unexpected side trip to Las Vegas with a lonely, self-deluding fellow train traveler (who happens to hate bots), or the way he falls in love. Set My Heart to Five is poignant, funny, light on its feet, and very, very sharp. By the end, I felt—as Jared hears a famous screenwriter say—as though I’d been “f-worded in the heart”; I can’t recommend it more highly.

Remain Silent, by Susie Steiner: This is the third of Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw novels, and may be her last—she was recently diagnosed with what seems to be (going from her Twitter and the Acknowledgments page here) a pretty aggressive cancer. Bradshaw (or Manon, as most everyone in the books calls her) has always been an extraordinary creation: grumpy, dogged, keen on a custard cream, not so keen on buzzwords or bullshit. Here her smallest child is a toddler, her older boy Fly—adopted in an earlier novel—is about to sit GCSEs, her partner may or may not be terminally ill, and she is staring at the settlings, losses and alterations of middle age. The crime, on the other hand, could hardly be more contemporary: a dead immigrant hanging from a tree in Cambridgeshire, a note reading “The dead cannot speak” pinned to his clothing. Because this is a crime novel, of course nothing about it adds up, and of course Manon is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Steiner tells the story in a pretty effective multi-POV fashion, switching from the present (narrated alternately by Manon and by her deputy, Davy) to “Before” (narrated by Matis, best friend of the dead man, and Elise, a local girl whose father is a frothing xenophobe abetted by, and fawningly besotted with, a Nigel Farage analogue). Davy’s presence in the book is an interesting leaven to what could otherwise easily be a one-note political set-up: we know Manon has no time for Little England, National Front bollocks, for she tells us so frequently and forthrightly, but Davy is a white man of precarious status approaching middle age and his internal monologues often muse on the anger he sees in these men. He doesn’t quite agree with them, but he understands them, and in some moments even sympathizes, and through his eyes we can understand them too. Or at least understand how other people can understand. The solution to the murder is actually quite ingenious: it struck me as both believable and appalling, which is no mean feat for crime fiction. The believability rests on Steiner’s work with characterization, which she’s remarkably good at; if there is a slight wobble of “would someone really…?”, it’s covered by the fact that most of the other characters wonder that, too. If this is the last Manon Bradshaw book, it will be a very great loss: she is really one of the most exceptionally idiosyncratic characters—let alone detective characters—currently being written, and I would miss her. Let’s hope she rides again.

currently reading: Afropean, by Johny Pitts, which I am absolutely loving. No wonder it won the Jhalak Prize. More on that next week.

July Superlatives

A good sixteen books read, in print, e- and audio form, this month! This is hardly a Superlatives post, though, given that I can’t summon up the creative energies to think of the categories. I’ll just do what I normally do—a short paragraph on each book read—without categorizing them, and hope you’ll forgive me. (I’m also thinking of returning to the weekly Reading Diary format; it might be more manageable.)

Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown: A wickedly funny coming-of-age story about a young lesbian in the 1950s, who comes from dirt-poor Southern stock and eventually finds her way to New York City, film school, and freedom. Molly Bolt is the most engaging, uncompromising, self-aware and hilarious protagonist I’ve met for a long time, and her social and sexual escapades make for delightful reading, despite the prejudice she faces.

How To Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi: My problem with this book is not the book; it’s me. And it might not even be me qua me, so much as it is timing. Having already read two very up-to-the-minute nonfiction dissections of racism in twenty-first century Western society, a third hot on their heels felt somewhat repetitive: much of the material, and the general thrust of argument, is the same. This is, however, clearly an excellent book for people eager to learn, and I’d recommend it.

A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips: My first book of Phillips’s, though it won’t be my last, A View of the Empire… is a fictionalized exploration of the life of Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (which I read last month). The constant tension between her Creole upbringing and the expectations of white England infuses the book, and Phillips’s style shows a melancholy restraint that reminds me of earlier English authors like Brookner and Fitzgerald.

The Book of Queer Prophets, ed. Ruth Hunt: Like all anthologies, some entries here are stronger than others, but the concept—queer writers describe how their sexuality and their religious faiths, or lack thereof, affect each other—is a winner. Amrou Al-Kadhi’s piece on becoming a Muslim drag queen is wonderful, but the one that hit me hardest was Jay Hulme’s account of conversion and cathedrals. It’s a magical piece of writing that ties in revelation, suicide, and the appreciation of beauty. He’s a poet, but I would read more of his prose.

Playing Nice, by J.P. Delaney: Delaney is one of our foremost writers of domestic, or psychological, noir, and all his work (I was convinced he was a she for ages, but apparently Delaney is the pseudonym of a male author) is both utterly addictive and really quite good, despite the melodramatic plots. Playing Nice deals with the scary implications of an accidental child swap, and, like many contemporary domestic thrillers, invests in the notion of the common or garden psychopath. The scenes where one character forces/manipulates his way over the boundaries of the others are nauseatingly believable, even if the actual story might not be.

Rainbow Milk, by Paul Mendez: Mendez’s debut, dealing with the trajectory of Jesse from Black Country Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness and closeted homosexual, to rent boy in early ’90s London, to professional waiter—and unexpectedly beloved—in the 2000s, is lush with accent, detail, and a LOT of meticulously described sex between men. Critics have said it’s too autobiographical and doesn’t give its characters enough space, but I loved the authority with which Mendez writes Jesse’s experience (and the restaurant scenes are really, really spot-on).

Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora: Set in a community of former slaves after the American Civil War, Conjure Women deals with the clash between folk medicine/obeah and Christian teaching, as midwife Rue falls under suspicion when the children of the area begin dying. Flashbacks to the era of slavery illuminate goings-on in the narrative’s present day, and Atakora’s depiction of characters forced to make terrible choices is empathetic and moving. Lots about mother-daughter relationships, love and the vulnerability it brings, too.

Lady Sings the Blues, by Billie Holiday: Actually not written by Holiday, but composed by journalist William Dufty from transcripts of interviews he conducted with her. This brings its own set of interpretative and moral difficulties, but the voice that shines through these pages is strong and clear, and it belongs to someone: it’s easy to imagine Holiday holding forth in a hotel room, Dufty recording and scribbling. Much of the autobiographical material is invented or embellished, but on singing in Jim Crow-era America and as a general set of observations on craft, plus for its glimpse into a lost world of glamour, drugs and celebrity, this is hard to beat.

That Reminds Me, by Derek Owusu: My problems with this book, again, are mine alone. That it feels unfocused and underpowered is a subjective assessment; that the periodic invocations of Anansi strike me as slightly mannered is also opinion and not fact. That it tells a story that needs telling—that of a black boy taken into care as a child, and his subsequent mental health issues as an adult—and does so in short, innovative prose-poetic sections, is also the case: and it won the Desmond Elliott Prize. I suspect it might click more upon rereading.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah: I was told this was specifically excellent as an audiobook, so I listened to it, and it absolutely is. Mostly, and unsurprisingly, it’s just fucking funny: Noah tells stories well, and he has good ones to tell here. The section where his grandmother and aunts hold a wailing exorcism for the demon whom they believe has planted human shit in the wastebin (it was, in fact, young Trevor) had me giggling helplessly aloud. It stops before Noah’s comedy career takes off, which is probably a good thing; the final sections, detailing his late teens of DJ-ing/petty crime, are a little repetitive.

Empires in the Sun: the Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by Lawrence James. I really, really struggled with this; I’d hoped for the balance and impartiality that the Literary Review blurb promised, but James instead writes with a kind of blasé Eurocentrism that seems to equate acknowledging atrocities with reparation for them. I can best describe it by saying that for James it’s as though African minds don’t really exist—he certainly doesn’t write about them, only African bodies. A decent overview of the historical events for the beginner, but otherwise, I think, best left.

Zami: a New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde: I’d somehow never actually read Lorde before now, and had developed the idea that she was a slightly scary/po-faced theorist along the lines of Sontag. Zami proves nothing could be further from the truth: a barely fictionalized autobiography, it’s warm, funny, and vivid about Lorde’s feelings of being left out (along multiple axes of race, gender, sexuality, and general oddness) as a child and young woman. A true joy and revelation to read, and a contender for the Best Books of 2020 list.

Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony: Congressman Alexander Paine Wilson awakes one morning to find a stuffed aardvark being delivered to him by FedEx. It’s from his male lover, who has (apparently) just committed suicide. Only, Wilson is in the closet—even to himself—and a rabidly conservative Republican. As the aardvark’s existence begins to unravel Wilson’s life with the relentless rapidity of a nightmare, a second strand focuses on the eighteenth-century taxidermist who stuffed it, and his hidden romantic relationship with the explorer who brought it back. There are some tonal/factual errors which I put down to the author’s American cultural background (the most egregious being that you would never refer to a man named Sir Richard Ostlet as “Sir Ostlet”; he would always be “Sir Richard”). But it’s an extremely funny, surprisingly poignant book, and it basically stole my heart.

The Vanishing Trick, by Jenni Spangler: My first children’s book for many months was… all right? There’s certainly a very cod-Aiken vibe to its supposedly Victorian but much more generic-fantasy-feeling setting, and the horrid Madame Pinchbeck, who traps children’s souls in household objects, is a clear descendant of Miss Slighcarp. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that three child narrators (all in an undifferentiated third person) was at least one too many, and Spangler compounds the issue by spelling out emotion and motive instead of building up character through behaviour and letting us deduce it. The Vanishing Trick is definitely fun, but you can’t compare it to Reeve or Hardinge or Robin Stevens.

A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid. Oh, my days. I’m definitely a scaredycat, but this (randomly picked up as 99p on Kindle and I’d never read McDermid before; I know, I’m sorry) is a really creepy book: not just about the abominable things men do to vulnerable girls, but also about the Wicker Man-esque community of Scardale, which demonstrates a mute solidarity in the face of outside interference (aka a police investigation) that is at least as frightening, in its own way. It’s the sort of book that would never work in these days of wifi and well-maintained roads (though actually, in some parts of the Peaks, mobile reception is still rubbish enough to make this a reasonable plot in 2020).

You People, by Nikita Lalwani: This has definite ambitions to be a state-of-the-nation novel, although its focus is narrow enough (one pizzeria in South London; two point of view characters, Welsh waitress Nia and Sri Lankan pizza chef Shan) that it might be more productive to read it as a London novel. Shan has left behind his wife and child, and is both horribly ashamed and desperate to get them to England; Nia, who’s fled an alcoholic mother, is determined to get to the bottom of restauranteur Tuli’s not-so-legal extracurricular activities (he operates the pizzeria like a safe house for undocumented asylum-seekers). The ending is a touch sentimental, but it provides satisfying narrative closure, and Lalwani’s depiction of the “hostile environment” is thoroughly terrifying.


So that was July; August is shaping up well (though I genuinely cannot believe it’s been four and a half months since I’ve been into the office. We’re going back in, on a rotating once-weekly basis, this week; my first day back is Wednesday. I’ll be lonely, as it’ll only be me from my team, but maybe I’ll get things done.) In the meantime—I’ve got plenty of proofs, having finally been brought my office stash a few weeks ago, plus several remaining new and old purchases, AND I went on a Netgalley spree, like a lunatic. What’ve you been enjoying this past month?

June Superlatives

Hard copies read in June 2020

June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.

best coming-of-age story: Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!

loudest wakeup call: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.

best random acquisition: The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)

most outside my reading habits: Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).

greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.

most illuminating: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.

best London novel: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.

most darkly comedic: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)

best reimagining: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.

least-known (to me) history: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.

most likely to be a modern classic: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.

most terrifyingly prescient: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.

best psychological profile: The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.

most entirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!

most political use of humour: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

June 2020’s e- and audiobook intake

In case there was any confusion

Black lives matter.

Trans women are women.

History is constantly being made, not permanently enshrined in statuary.

Everyone has the right to protest injustice.

The canon of literature in English is characterized by the privileging of white, wealthy, cis, usually male, usually straight voices over those of people from historically oppressed or marginalized groups. Everyone working in publishing, bookselling and academia has a moral obligation to decolonize the canon, the curriculum, and their own industries.

I’m not allowed to say this stuff out loud at work, or through professional social media channels, because reasons (involving capitalism and the nature of marketing to our world’s elite). I’m allowed to say it here because it’s my space. These are the politics of Elle Thinks. They are entirely non-negotiable.

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.

April Superlatives

Book posts are back! Just as Superlatives for now, but who knows what the future holds?

In April I read 10 print books (pictured above) and 4 ebooks, plus listened to 2 full audiobooks (most of which pictured below), which makes 16 in total. The anxieties and slow progress of March have been replaced by a rejuvenation of reading mojo, albeit not a noticeable diminishment of more generalized worry. But I don’t think I’m alone in that.

gateway drug: Michael Christie’s family-saga eco-drama Greenwood started slowly, but quickly compelled me to read on, as it leapfrogs backward into the tangled and hidden histories of a family whose destiny is irrevocably entwined with trees: whether tapping them for sap to sell, cutting them down for timber that fuels the growth of a business empire, or protecting the last stand of virgin growth-forest in the world, only a few decades into the future. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but definitely did the trick.

biggest time-warp: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays started out as columns in The Times, but lovely Persephone Books collected them and put them between beautiful dove-grey covers. Reading them is like experiencing a mad, but not unpleasant, dream, where the correct preparation of Lobster Newburg (eh?) is discussed alongside deeper moral questions (“choosing well is one of the most difficult things in a difficult world”).

most delightful surprise: Briarley, by Aster Glenn Gray, which was my very first ever romance novel and which shocked me by being absolutely excellent. It is a m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in an English village during WWII, featuring a bisexual vicar whose daughter is volunteering for the war effort, and an arrogant landowner who’s been turned into a dragon for his heartlessness. Gray incorporates the classical references you’d expect educated men in the ’40s to have at their fingertips, along with Biblical and literary ones, and the whole tone of the novella is both wistfully fable-like and muscular. Gorgeous, and funny.

best disguise: I’m awarding this to Mistresses by Linda Porter for being, basically, quite enjoyable fluffy chapters on the lives of the major mistresses of Charles II, cunningly hiding in the form of a group historical biography. She does provide political and historical context, and of course the fates of mistresses often parallel the fates of administrations, factions, and fashions, but it’s not highly academic by any means.

steamiest surprise: My second foray into romance was the equally delightful, well-written and tender, but also waaayyy hotter, The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham. I implore you, look past its cover and the title and what is surely a pseudonym, and consider: an ambitious, proud woman trying to make a career as a botanical gardener in a world that despises working women; an emotionally damaged nobleman who can only find the emotional release he needs at the hands of a professional domme; a marriage of convenience; profound misunderstanding; and the beauty of what is possible when people really try with each other. It’s so good on BDSM dynamics without being anachronistic (at least not in any ways that stuck out to me), and I’m so glad I read it.

most fun reread: Two rereads this month, the jolliest of which was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I still find her pacing, especially in the latter third of the book, a little confusing; things seem to happen very quickly but without much consequence, and in the whole chapter where Sophie goes to visit the king, nothing advances. It’s still really fun, though, and the movie is now on Netflix (though I know it’s quite different!)

most anticipated: Sarah Moss’s new novel, Summerwater (not out til August). It’s good, of course—she literally can’t write a bad one at this point—though it doesn’t maintain its sticky tension the way Ghost Wall does. I’m not sure it’s trying to; the reason it loses that claustrophobia despite being set in a small place over one day is that the point of view bounces from character to character each chapter, and what it doesn’t have in dread it makes up for in its miniaturized characterization, each new voice convincing.

best proof that “old” =/= “classic”: The 1830s bestseller Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which takes 600 pages to tell a pretty straightforward story of a young boy who grows up to be a highwayman, his life of crime, the woman he falls for, and their eventual happy ending. It’s not terrible, and there’s value in being able to see that Bulwer-Lytton is aiming for effects that Dickens manages not long after with infinitely more panache and individuality (poor and elderly grotesques with funny accents! Parentage shrouded in mystery!) But the fact that it’s now out of print (after a brint stint as one of a short-lived Penguin series of Victorian Bestsellers) is really a mercy.

second-best surprise: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I started listening to basically on a whim and found myself really sucked into. She’s such an appealing narrator/protagonist: she’s not into politics at all, her self-presentation as a driven, conscientious rule-follower is rueful and funny, and to start with she’s not all that into Barack either. Her dedication to her kids and family life also goes down very well: she’s smart and educated, and has no intention of being a smiling doll-wife, but she also unashamedly loves being a mom. I liked her a lot just from listening to this. The hype is real.

most frustrating: I really wanted to like Holly Watt’s follow-up novel, The Dead Line, which sees her investigative journalist protag Casey Benedict chasing a story about illegal surrogacy in Bangladesh. And for much of it, I did; it’s a page-flipper, even though it’s too long. But there’s a certain authorial sympathy extended to the white British women who constitute the market for this illegal surrogacy and who don’t care how many vulnerable people are hurt as long as they get their baby at the end of it. I think it was meant to be even-handedness, which is admirable in theory—there’s a lot of emotional territory to be explored—but instead it felt like an attempt to equate their sufferings with those of the women forced to carry their babies, and that sits very, very badly with me indeed.

best popcorn books: Two thoroughly trashy YA novels from a series that I was obsessed with as a pre-teen, Fearless FBI: Kill Game and Fearless FBI: Agent Out, by Francine Pascal. Fearless FBI is a follow-up series to Fearless, which is about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene” (teh sciencez!) living in New York who just kicks everyone’s ass vigilante-style because she can. Very ’90s, very girl-power, lots of violence and sexual tension. I was not allowed to read them and therefore had to borrow them in secret from my best friend. In Fearless FBI, our protag Gaia has just graduated from Stanford and joined the FBI (in the first book’s first scene, she saves everyone from a suicide bomber at her college graduation because of course that’s a natural venue for a domestic terrorist). These were written around 2005, and there are definite efforts to integrate some more sophisticated gender politics, but they flounder because Pascal is clearly a lot more comfortable in the “RESPECT WOMEN, YOU DOUCHE [round-house kick] THAT’S RIGHT, GIRLS CAN BE CUTE AND DANGEROUS” zone. They’re quite bad and joyfully these two of the series (vols 1 and 3) are available in ebook form. (Vols 2 and 4 are not, which is a huge disappointment; please get on that, Simon & Schuster, kthanks.)

biggest splash of cold water: After chewing through two of those in one weekend afternoon, I elected to read something more sensible and settled down with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian satire on Taylorian management principles and totalitarian (Soviet) society, We. It’s not masses of fun, and it’s pretty misogynistic, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with things written in the mid-20th century but somehow always is. Not dissimilar to Brave New World (though We came first and Huxley denied the influence), with its classes of citizens, strictly regimented timetables and regulated sexuality, and brutal repression of dissidents. Worth reading if you’ve exhausted Huxley and Orwell, though. It wasn’t published at all until three years after it was written, and then only in English; its first publication in Russian took three more decades.

wait, no, this was the biggest splash of cold water: The audiobook of Garrett M Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. It is, as the title would suggest, sombre. But it’s also incredibly well done; a full cast reads the interviews, which are interleaved with each other and arranged in roughly chronological order, so we get a section called Tuesday Begins followed by Checking In, The First Plane, First Reactions in DC, American Airlines Flight 77, The Military Responds, and so on. It feels like nothing so much as being physically inside a multi-part documentary. The amount of work that went into the writing of the book—fifteen years—let alone the recording, is phenomenal. Did it make me tear up several times? Absolutely, yes. Did it leave me with a profound sense of hope? Also, absolutely, yes. Good to read about acute disasters during a chronic one, in a way.

best reminder to reread more: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which I read at about thirteen and hadn’t revisited since. Liz Dexter (on Instagram I accidentally said it was Clare from Years of Reading Selfishly, I’m so sorry!) prompted me to read this again along with her, and it’s so good. Cather was one of my authors of the year in 2019; in My Ántonia, the story of a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant girl and her family in the American West, her landscape descriptions and her gifts of empathy and grace are on full display.

most alarmingly topical: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, an 800-page novel about… a global pandemic. (There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the ultimate revelation about the pandemic’s source is fairly chilling.) Good, clean, page-turning fun; not as profound as it thinks it’s being, and Wendig has one of my least favourite writing tics (“And with that, [character’s name] [some kind of synonym for “moved out of shot”: “walked away”, “left”, “departed”, “closed the door”, you name it]). It’s kind of sub-The Stand (mind you, I like Stephen King). But absolutely great for this moment in time, if what you want to do with this moment in time is stare into the abyss of it.


currently reading: Shirley, the major Charlotte Brontë novel I hadn’t yet gotten to. (I don’t count The Professor.) For nineteenth-century depictions of industrial unrest, I have to say, I find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South both more sympathetic and less preachy, but Shirley is very readable and moreover is primarily about a close female friendship that doesn’t sour (or hasn’t yet) over a man, which is great.

April 2020 e-and audiobook collage

Pandemic commissions: Monsters University

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Literary analyst extraordinaire and blogging buddy Laura commissioned me to watch and review Monsters University, a sequel to Monsters, Inc. about which I had no great expectations whatsoever. It’s Pixar, so I figured it’d be good, but the movie’s existence seemed inessential. On the whole, watching it just confirmed my thinking, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, and it’s got a heartwarming message, so let’s dive in.

The interesting thing about Monsters University is that it almost feels like fanfic. It fleshes out the world of Monstropolis in ways that the earlier movie didn’t have the time or the inclination to do: it becomes evident, for example, that there’s more than one scaring company, and by extension, there’s more than one institute of higher education. The focus of this film is also very firmly on Mike, who (as I think I mentioned in my review of Monsters, Inc.) has hitherto been presented as a lifelong sidekick. The beating heart of Monsters University is in showing us how no one is a sidekick in their own story, nor should they be. If Monsters, Inc. is about the jocks, the big-time celebrity scarers (developers have described their conception of Sulley as being “like the star quarterback”), Monsters University is–quite literally–about the nerdy weirdos, misfits and outcasts, and it handily dramatizes how short-sighted it is to valorize jocks and popularity culture.

This makes it extremely well suited to be a movie for kids, since popularity is a major concern of every child who attends school. Even if you have no interest in it, it is a force that shapes your kid-life like gravity, and it’s also easy to get caught up in these contests despite your best intentions. Randall Boggs, the villain in Monsters, Inc., is given something of an origin story here: he’s Mike’s roommate at university and starts off as a friendly, hapless nerd with no self-confidence, attending a frat party bearing a box of cupcakes decorated to read BE MY PAL. (During a chase scene, the box is upended and several of the cupcakes fall on Randall’s head, forming the word LAME, which is the sort of thing that both works brilliantly, as a visual gag that appeals to the general emotional cruelty of kids, and has always made me intensely sad. I’ll be your pal, Randall! Cupcakes aren’t lame!) His garden-of-Eden moment comes when the cool guys at elite frat Roar Omega Roar accept him, because his ability to blend in with his environment is considered scary. He’s never seen himself this way before, and popularity is a drug; it goes straight to his head, and he’s no longer friendly to Mike. He’s a cautionary tale: we know how he ends up.

Mike, meanwhile, is a fount of boundless optimism and jollity, and he doesn’t really give a damn who likes him. His sidekick nature in Monsters, Inc.–we see him as Sulley’s coach, personal trainer and cheerleader–is developed in Monsters University; he’s desperately ambitious, if also overly theoretical, and anything that stands in the way of his becoming a scarer is simply an obstacle to be surmounted. Threatened with expulsion, he determines to win the Scare Games, a student-run competition, but can only scrape together a team composed of the frat brothers of Oozma Kappa (yes, it’s abbreviated as OK). They’re wretchedly unscary: round-bodied mature student Don, a former sales manager with a mustache and ’80s glasses; goony (and apparently stoned) arch of purple fluff Art; two-headed Teri and Terry (drama and dance majors, respectively) and monster-version-of-the-kid-from-Up Squishy, whose mom’s house doubles as the frat house. As in all such films, the training montages–Mike attempting to teach them how to roar and sneak and pounce, the OK brothers failing dismally but hilariously–are delights. The real emotional heft of the film, though, is in the discovery that “scary” can be a lot of different things; that people monsters can achieve success by embracing what they have–even their weaknesses–instead of trying to be something that they aren’t. The final round of the Scare Games is a great set piece, but the best bit is when Squishy (who really does just look like an elongated pink potato with legs) achieves the highest score simply by utilizing his ability to appear, absolutely silently, right over someone’s shoulder.

The OK brothers are the best-realized of the new characters. Don’s character arc–from laid-off, middle-aged middle manager with disappointed dreams to newly confident scarer to dating Squishy’s mom (yes!)–is particularly moving; as ever, Pixar is good at bringing out the poignancy of adulthood even while it continues to be brightly coloured, funny, and fast-moving enough for its child audiences. The other new characters are less impressive. Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble, though brilliantly designed (she does look bloody scary; she’s sort of part dragon, part centipede), is basically a stereotype of a stern professor and not particularly believable. Worthington, the president of Roar Omega Roar, is again a jock-y cliché, as is his own sidekick, the intensely stupid and boorish Chet. Alfred Molina plays a Scaring 101 professor who makes virtually no impression, which is a brutal waste of Alfred Molina. Squishy’s mom, gloriously, is a curlers-in-her-hair, minivan-driving housewife who listens to thrash metal, but that’s as much nuance as she gets. (You might say that’s all the nuance she needs. It’s a good joke and the timing is impeccable.) There are sororities as well as fraternities at Monsters U, but they’re weirdly uniform; all the members of Python Nu Kappa look exactly the same, for instance. Sulley’s character arc, though, is very well done. The privileged scion of an ancient scaring family, he appears to regard his position and success as his birthright, an attitude that enrages scrappy, started-from-the-bottom-now-I’m-here Mike. (We still never see their parents or families, though; this must have been a deliberate choice, though I can’t quite work out why.)

It’s a lot of fun, then, Monsters U, although I don’t think it reveals anything particularly new about the world we already know through Monsters, Inc.: it gives us more detail, sure, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. A sequel, instead of a prequel, might very well have done so; there must be serious economic and social implications for the adaptation of the energy industry to the discovery that laughter is ten times more potent than screams. But I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon, and I don’t think it’d be necessary either, even though Sulley and Mike are fun, lovable characters.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 4

I have been reading, a lot. I just don’t want to write about books at the moment. They’re as great as ever and they’re getting me through—from my first forays into really well-written romance with Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley, a tender WWII-era m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast starring an overprivileged aristocrat/dragon and a battle-scarred vicar, to classics like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s socialist dystopia We and Willa Cather’s gorgeously atmospheric My Ántonia (which I’m currently rereading). But right now I want my reading to be just that: mine, private, just for me. And I want to write about silly movies. Things where everyone knows the plot, so I don’t have to do any summary, and can just tell you what works and what doesn’t. Here’s some more.

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Growing up in Virginia in the ’90s, it would have been weird if I wasn’t wildly obsessed with Pocahontas when it came out. Other people seem to have been less affected by it, but a rewatch only confirmed its place in the Disney pantheon for me. Alan Menken’s music is ten for ten, every song evocative, sophisticated and often funny. “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” are the obvious standouts, but there are strong showings from “Mine, Mine, Mine” (which is A PUN, HOW DID I NOT GET THAT AGED THREE) and “Savages”, which uses intercutting shots of Powhatan and Governor Ratcliffe to brilliant metaphorical effect. Speaking of Ratcliffe: contemporary reviewers seem to have thought him a weak villain. I think he’s brilliant: pompous and silly, yet sufficiently unanswerable to anyone else to be dangerous. (His valet, Wiggins, clearly designed as comic relief, is delightfully twinky, and their relationship remarkably queer-coded, if not exactly healthy.) The fact that the animal sidekicks don’t talk is something of a blessed relief; Meeko, the cheeky and permanently hungry raccoon, is perfectly comprehensible with his clicks and purrs, and less grating than the more vocal Disney animals (see Iago in Aladdin, below). Pocahontas herself is a touch Manic Pixie Dream Girl–forever running off to the forest or leaping down waterfalls–but the vast majority of her dialogue with John Smith reveals the astonishing presumption and irony inherent in the Virginia Company’s “civilize the savages” mission; it’s much more directly addressed than I remember, which feels impressive for 1995. And the film is visually stunning, maybe the most beautiful thing Disney has ever made (with the possible exception of The Lion King). The sets are so saturated with colours: pink and purple sunsets, red dawns, green mountains, blue rivers. I could look at it for hours.

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Pixar never seems to fail, but Ratatouille hasn’t historically been among the number of their movies that I feel a particularly strong love for. Rewatching it, though, I couldn’t get over how much I wanted to be in Paris, and as the film progressed, I remembered what a charming piece of work it is. Remy, the gourmet rat with a gift for cookery, is beautifully animated; his little pert nose and expressive ears are used to heartrending effect. The long scenic shots of Paris are, of course, stunning. (Is it possible that Lingini’s apartment has the same blueprint as Sulley and Mike’s from Monsters Inc.? I’m just thinking of that long window…) All of the scenes set in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant are exceptional on a technical level: many of them are shot from above, giving viewers a strong sense of an industrial kitchen as a well-oiled machine, as well as a haven for life’s misfits. (One of my favourite parts of the film is when Colette gives a potted biography of each chef, none of whom has an uninteresting past.) The floating Gusteau force-ghost who periodically appears to Remy, always clarifying that he is “a figment of your imagination”, is a delight. Other than that, I think the human plot is less engaging: hapless young Linguini is sweet when he’s interacting with Remy, but a bit of a waste of space in every other context, and Skinner’s villainy feels a little pantomime-y, although still executed with panache. What surprises me is the fact that the filmmakers make Linguini’s illegitimacy quite explicit: he’s Gusteau’s son, and Gusteau famously never married, but apparently “became close” to Linguini’s mother Renata. As ever with Pixar, an adult concept is treated without either sentimentality or luridness, but it still comes as something of a shock given that their core audience is probably middle America. Their perfect emotional pitch comes to the fore in the treatment of Anton Ego, though: the wordless scene where he eats Remy’s ratatouille and is instantly transported back to the comforting country kitchen of his childhood is worth a thousand words in cookbooks about the mnemonic powers of food and flavour. It never fails to make me cry a bit, actually.

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Famously, the first film I ever “saw” in cinemas was Aladdin, which my parents (clearly more enthusiastic than practical about child-rearing) took me to when I was still an infant. Wildly overstimulated by the lights and noise, I started screaming during “Friend Like Me”, forcing my parents to flee the cinema with me, and didn’t see the film again for probably a decade. Given this inauspicious beginning, though, I’ve always really liked Aladdin, right from the opening shots of waves of dunes and the (somewhat stereotypical) caravan trader who sings “Arabian Nights”, then breaks the fourth wall in a very particular way that I can’t remember another Disney character doing. He’s not perpetrating a smug aside to camera; he’s addressing us directly, molding us into the audience for this particular story. It’s a shame we never come back to this frame device. It’s smart and a little bit sinister; I remember being slightly freaked out by it even as an older kid. There are other genuinely freaky moments too: the appearance of the mysterious elderly prisoner in the dungeons of the sultan; the booming voice of the cave as it rises out of the desert sands. Aladdin himself is a bit bland as a human, but at least he does more than Disney leading men normally do, and he’s a working-class hero. Jasmine is surprisingly resilient and sparky, standing up to powerful men and flirting sarcastically with Aladdin: no one comes close to Mulan for ballsiness, or Meg for sass, but Jasmine is among the most interesting of the Disney princesses. Jafar is SOOOO GAAAYYYY [coughs] dramatic (how many other Disney villains actually get subtitled as “maniacal cackling” more than once in their movies?! It seems to be Jafar’s every other line.) The sultan is utterly adorable and useless, a big baby-man in the vein of Prince Charming’s royal father from Cinderella. The few shots of him dressed up as a puppet jester during Jafar’s brief reign are genuinely pretty horrifying, not to mention the infamously sexy outfit Jasmine has to wear; it’s a surprisingly dark movie in general, with the parrot Iago’s anger management problems exploding in violent verbal fantasies. (Iago is dreadful. He’s banal and unfunny and his voice is grating. Abu is a slight improvement because his dialogue is delivered in what sounds like monkey chatter. Rajah the tiger is lovely, and, not coincidentally, mostly silent.) And Robin Williams as the genie, may he rest in peace, is superb. He makes the movie, no question. The sheer amount of verbal energy he pours into his performance, both sung and spoken, could power a small city. Will Smith could never.

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At last, a toe in the waters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I felt less driven to explore via Disney+ because a lot of its movies have been on Netflix recently, one way or another), with its very first installment, Iron Man. Somehow I had never seen it. Given that my expectations for MCU movies are now a) many explosions, b) extremely dubious faux-ethical hand-wavey explanations for extreme violence, and c) extremely dubious faux-feminist hand-wavey sops to teh wimminz (look, all the lady superheroes fight together for one shot! The battle for equal rights is won!), it’s a pleasant surprise to go back to the start and see that it actually wasn’t terrible. The MCU is always better with single-character-focused movies than with its ensemble pieces, I feel. Iron Man is largely carried by Robert Downey Jr., whose come-to-Jesus trajectory is the plot of the movie: a billionaire genius playboy weapons manufacturer, he changes his life after spending three months in captivity at the hands of a (totally fictitious and implausible) Middle Eastern insurgency group called the Ten Rings who happen to have large amounts of his company’s weapons. (What do they want? What’s their history? Who’s in charge and why? What’s the command structure? How do they recruit? Not only do we never find out, we never get the impression that there even are answers. Bad man Raza muses that with some iron suits, he could “control Asia”; that’s as much as we’re gonna get.) Downey Jr.—sorry, Tony Stark—declares that his company will no longer manufacture weapons, which scares the investors and pisses off his right-hand man, poster boy for nominative determinism Obadiah Stane (played by a bald, bearded, call-me-daddy Jeff Bridges). He then builds an iron suit which is essentially its own weapon, perpetrates what in real life would be acts of treason against the US Air Force that would absolutely get him shot down as a matter of national defense, and saves LA (and his love interest, Gwyneth Paltrow) from Jeff Bridges, who has built his own mech and wants to take over… everything, I guess? I didn’t say it was a great movie, I just said it wasn’t terrible in comparison to later MCU forays. What it has going for it is an extremely realistically-shot first half, which mostly takes place in the mountains of Kandahar Province—it’s easy to see how, twelve years ago, this kind of gritty, current-events-based approach to a superhero story would have felt like a breath of fresh air, especially after nonsense like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies—and a real sense of growth and evangelism in Stark, who is completely thrown and then horrified by the fact that his weapons can in fact be used against America. (Always interesting to check the timing of movies like this. Iron Man came out in 2008, seven years after the 9/11 attacks. The most deadly bombing of the Afghan war happened that year, in Kandahar.) Stark’s not really a heroic kind of guy, but he wants to do the right thing eventually, and that—at least in theory—is the cornerstone for the MCU we’ve come to know.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time requested by Laura, of a sequel I’ve never seen before: Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Monsters, Inc.

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Annabel, British-book-blogging celebrity and webmistress of Shiny New Books, commissioned a review of Monsters, Inc. (2001) last week. This was an utter delight, as it was one of the handful of VHSs my brother and I had as kids and rewatched fairly obsessively, but I hadn’t seen it for over a decade, and it’s a wonderful world to re-enter.

The reason Pixar is so successful—I have theorized—is because every one of their films turns on a premise that is so simple you could summarize it in a sentence, and every one of those premises is simply a flipping or inversion of a situation we (the audience) are intimately familiar with, or encounter daily. The Incredibles: what if two suburban parents having mid-life crises were literally superheroes? Ratatouille: what if the creature most horrifying to find in a kitchen was a really talented cook? Monsters, Inc: what if they’re more scared of the kids than the kids are of them? The exotic and the quotidian don’t just shake hands; they change places. In the case of Monsters, Inc., this means we get to delight in sequences like Mike and Sulley’s walk to work: waving to the neighbourhood kids (who are jumping rope using the enormous sticky tongue of one of them), encountering a co-worker at the pedestrian crossing (albeit a co-worker who’s several storeys tall and of whom we only ever see a single scaly leg), talking about the day’s headlines (an energy crisis engulfing Monstropolis, which of course is the hinge of the plot).

The main characters are a huge part of Monsters, Inc.‘s brilliance. Sulley and Mike’s locker room banter is delightful: Sulley as celebrity wrestler, Mike as hype man. The fact that John Goodman’s and Billy Crystal’s voices so perfectly suit their characters’ physicality and personalities is the icing on the cake; we believe their friendship, we can see right from the start that Mike has always been the sidekick, and we can understand his frustration later when Sulley seems perfectly happy to throw away everything they’ve devoted their lives to. Villainous Randall, who’s voiced by Steve Buscemi, is genuinely scary: his plot to forcibly extract screams from abducted children is one of the more sinister concepts Pixar’s ever introduced, and his character design—sinuous, reptilian, sneering—matches. (I also love virtually all of his dialogues with other characters. He’s much wittier than our heroes, for all that he’s a jerk, and “Shh shh shh, ya hear that? It’s the winds… of change” makes me laugh every time.) The female characters, of course, are still one-dimensional; there are only two of them, beautiful airhead Celia and repulsive late-middle-aged cardigan-wearing Roz, which is an unfortunate reflection of how we still generally seem to feel about women (and, clearly, how we felt about them in 2001). The fact that Roz turns out to be the undercover head of the Child Detection Agency is clever, but doesn’t necessarily make up for anything.

The film’s visuals are its other main strength. It was made at a time when computer-generated animation was just about to really take off, and the way that cloth, fur and hair is rendered here is noticeably more realistic than in earlier movies. (Look at any scene with Sulley in it, for example.) Just as impressive as the more photographic look is the sheer quantity of creative energy on display: every crowd scene in Monstropolis contains bystanders, all of whom had to be invented, drawn and animated. The ensemble shots of scarers entering the scare floor are among my favourites for this: a tall blue monster unsheathing his claws and growling, a short red monster having his enormous sharp teeth brushed, poor hapless orange-and-yellow George! The best sequences, of course, are those in the door vault; I vividly remember seeing those for the first time and being completely blown away by them, and the scenes haven’t lost anything with age. Watching Mike and Sulley sneaking Boo in and out of various childrens’ rooms across the globe, followed closely by Randall—one minute we’re in a wood-fire-lit room in Scandinavia; the next, there’s a curlicue balcony and a window view of the Eiffel Tower—is one of Monsters, Inc.’s greatest joys.

This sentence, however, brings me to Boo, whom I have no memory of disliking as a child but who, upon rewatching, strikes me as one of the oddest, most obnoxious versions of childhood ever animated. It’s hard to tell how old she’s meant to be. Maybe two or three? She can walk on her own, has object permanence and some gross motor skills, and experiences mood swings the way a toddler ought to. And yet for some reason she can barely talk. The only comprehensible words she ever says are “Mike Wazowski” and “kitty”; the rest of her vocalizations are (very high-pitched) shrieks and giggles. It’s as though she’s a sort of Platonic ideal of toddlerdom: the animators and scriptwriters seem to have created her character around a core of what we generally accept to be “cute” behaviour in children, but it feels curiously unreal. More concerningly, it had precisely the opposite effect to the one presumably intended: instead of finding Boo adorable, I cordially hated her. During the scene where Sulley “roars” and scares her—which is meant to tug at our heartstrings! We ought to feel protective of her!—I found myself thinking yes, bitch, cry. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m a psychopath, of course. But surely with a character whose creators are so clearly reaching for a certain reaction from an audience, the failure to elicit that reaction on any level is a problem.

I don’t think Monsters, Inc. is one of Pixar’s best films, honestly, but I think at the time it came out, it probably was. (It was the second of their movies to get an A+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, after Toy Story 2.) Its emotional engagement is fairly superficial, and the comedy is pretty broad. But it’s still astonishingly creative—like watching fireworks in someone’s brain—and the ending is sweet. Definitely worth revisiting.


The next commissioned review—naturally—will be of the follow-up to this film, 2013’s Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!