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!

Pandemic commissions: The Prince of Egypt

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After serious alarm over whether I could find a copy of this to watch without infecting my laptop forever with sketchy maybe-porn and casino sites, the day was saved. (It’s on YouTube.) It’s not a Disney movie, but a Dreamworks one, which makes the inclusion of songs a little unusual. I can only imagine that, in 1998, they were making a bid to steal the animated-musical crown. On the basis of The Prince of Egypt (requested by witty, dedicated blogging buddy Rachel of paceamorelibri), it was a strong effort.

The movie opens with a disclaimer that acknowledges the filmmakers’ “liberties” with the Exodus story, but that hopes they have remained “true to the essence, values and integrity” of their biblical source material. I’m not Jewish, but I was raised Episcopalian, my grandpa was a vicar, and I spent my first fifteen years of Sundays in Sunday School (where, yes, I was an obnoxious question-asker), so I felt reasonably qualified to assess this claim. The most obvious difference, I think, is that the Pharaoh whom Moses has to face is his adopted brother, Rameses, whereas from Egyptian sources it seems most likely that the Pharaoh who served as his adopted father was Akhnaten, and the Pharaoh ruling at the time of the Exodus of the Hebrews was Tutankhamun (who was actually Akhnaten’s son-in-law, not his son). Presumably, however, Rameses the Great has almost equally strong name recognition, and claiming that King Tut (he was the famous one, the one whose tomb Howard Carter opened in the 20s) was Moses’s step-brother was considered off the table. (It’s worth noting that apparently no Egyptian records that survive mention the enslavement of the Israelites, or the Exodus. At all. Which is interesting, and doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. But that’s a historical curiosity for another day.)

Back to the movie! First of all: it has an absolute all-star cast, for apparently no reason. Val Kilmer plays Moses; Rameses is voiced by Ralph Fiennes, of all people, who also does his own (brief) singing. Sandra Bullock is Miriam, Moses’s devout sister; Tzipporah, his wife, is Michelle Pfeiffer. Pharoah Seti, the father of Rameses and adoptive father of Moses, is Patrick Stewart, and his queen is played by Helen Mirren! Neither of them have a great deal to do. In fact, given the state of the cast in general, most of them don’t have a lot to do, and some of the dialogue feels surprisingly wooden. (When Moses flees into the desert after having protected a slave by killing an Egyptian foreman, his farewells with Rameses seem to consist primarily of them repeating each other’s names, which, let’s be honest, no one does in real life with people that close to them.)

If the spoken words are average, though, they’re more than made up for the soundtrack and score, which start off intense and memorable and never become less so. The whole opening chunk of the movie isthe iconic “Deliver Us”, which starts as a (literal) chorus of the Hebrew slaves and becomes a wailing ballad delivered by Moses’s birth mother, Yocheved (played by Ofra Haza, known as the “Israeli Madonna”); it then turns into her lullaby, repeated by Miriam, as Moses floats down the river and is rescued by Pharaoh’s wife. We barely hear a person speak til the queen picks up the baby. And the rest of the songs are equally brilliant. My favourite is “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, delivered mostly by Brian Stokes Mitchell as the singing voice of Jethro, Moses’s future father-in-law; it’s probably the only really upbeat number in the film and it’s animated beautifully as a time-passing montage. It also provides a sense of warmth and belonging that’s curiously lacking in the rest of the film, which overall isn’t very good at engaging our emotions on a character level. It’s mesmerizing because it’s epic, not because we really have a strong sense of most of the human players within it, and in a sense that’s how it should be.

It does, however, mean that the female characters get very short shrift. They are, I think, a good example of where popular feminism was in the late ’90s: strong on girl power, weak on nuance or individualism. Miriam is a strong woman, in the sense that she never, ever doubts her brother’s calling or his ability, even when he does; she’s the psychological MVP of the Hebrews, the one who never stops hoping. Tzipporah is a strong woman, in the fairly limited sense that she’s suicidally defiant when presented as a prize at the Egyptian court and then a little mean to Moses before marrying him, but if Dreamworks were trying to whip up a challenger to, say, Meg from Hercules, they didn’t come close. Queen Tuya, meanwhile, is the biggest waste of Helen Mirren that has ever been perpetrated; there are whole scenes where the character is physically present–animators spent time on her!–but says nothing, and her biggest scene with Moses is a total washout during which she’s given the line “Please try to understand”, but then stops talking, as though Moses is meant to magically guess what her perspective might be.

The one misfire, musically speaking, is “Playing With the Big Boys”, which is so close to being a great song but is hobbled by its baffling slowness. It is clearly a song that’s meant to baffle and bamboozle; it’s sung by the two Egyptian priests Hotep and Huy (also, possibly, attempts to challenge Hercules, since they correspond to the tall and thin/short and fat body types of the latter film’s bumbling comic relief characters, Pain and Panic). Their rhetorical strategy is to throw the entire Egyptian pantheon into battle against Moses’s singular God, and if you want to overwhelm an opponent with quantity, that calls for speed. Instead they’re always a beat and a half behind where you expect them to be, and the effect is to make the song confusing and a little boring. (The words also aren’t very good; the title phrase is made far too much of.)

One final comment: the voice of God in this movie is portrayed, quite softly, by Val Kilmer, who also does Moses’s voice, and it’s one of the smartest, most theologically apt choices they could have made. I asked a lot of obnoxious questions at Sunday School, but I did absorb some things, and one of them was this passage:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lordwas not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lordwas not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lordwas not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

That’s not from Exodus (it’s Kings 19:11-12, for the curious), but it really captures the sense in which the voice of God, or conscience, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, is less to do with resounding trumpets and stentorian pronouncements, and much more to do with the quiet, persistent assertions of our own hearts.

(There will be no comments on “When You Believe” at this time, because its stature is immense and of course it is a ridiculous ballad and an absolute banger at the same time.)


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 3

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So the other week my friend Katie asked if I would watch Brave for her (which sort of sparked the whole idea of commissions). I’d seen it before, so had reasonably strong memories of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good movie; maybe not Pixar’s finest (because, yes, it’s Pixar!) but really fun to spend time with and possessed of an enormous heart. The pre-credits sequence with Mordu works well—I’d completely forgotten it, but it effectively front-loads what we need to understand for the plot to work. The most interesting thing about Brave, of course, is that it’s a mother-daughter love story, with Merida’s independence, uncouth manners and rebelliousness pitted against her mother Elinor’s profound, and probably painfully earned, awareness of the role of women in their society: to wield soft power as peacemakers, diplomats, and, frankly, designated adults. The scene where Elinor walks through a room of fighting chieftains, who immediately stop throwing things and settle down by the mere virtue of the presence of a woman, is perfectly pitched to convey this (and I hope I don’t have to spend much time on the fact that it’s not feminism, given that it relies entirely on the pedestalization of women and the infantilization of men). It’s later mirrored in a scene where Merida throws herself into the centre of the hall to speak to the chieftains, drawing attention to herself and giving Elinor-as-a-bear a chance to move through the room unseen. The fantasy element of the movie is, as they often are, the least compelling aspect, but what the animators manage to do with bear-Elinor is beautiful and convincing, from the way her ears turn down when she’s sad to the way her eyes change when true wildness takes over. (And her final fight with Mordu! Of course animators know their onions, but it’s so exactly what bears look like.) A lot of the comedy in the middle section of the film comes from bear-Elinor pretending she’s still human, and the bittersweet moment when Merida sees her catch a fish like a real bear and is torn between pride at her capable mother and fear that her mother will become truly feral is perfectly judged. The rest of the comedy comes from Merida’s three little brothers, who are probably dividers of opinion; I loved them because I love comedies of scale, and the idea of a tiny menace is never not funny. Likewise, you’ll either find busty and constantly-shrieking nursemaid Maudie tiresome or hilarious; I tend towards the latter, and defy you not to at least giggle when she sees the three little lads in the form of bear cubs. It’s almost as good as the moment when one of the three suitors for Merida’s hand speaks in actual Scots (as opposed to the other characters’ commercially friendly Scottish accents), and no one understands him.

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Moana is the other HUGE Disney success of the 2010s, and it would be unfair of me not to say from the start that I’ve seen it twice already and absolutely love it. Watching it shortly after Frozen is an exercise in comparison; both of them front-load their bangers (a technical term) in a way more reminiscent of a Broadway show/operetta like Les Mis than of the evenly spaced songs characteristic of the earlier films. As my very clever housemate Joe points out, this strategy is way more musically and structurally sophisticated, because it establishes three or four tunes that viewers then recognize when they recur (instrumentally or in vocal reprise) later. (It’s Wagner’s tactic. Yes, I just compared Moana to Wagner. This is the kind of hot take you love.) So, for instance, the song “Where You Are”, which is the second number in the film and happens within the first twenty minutes, comes back when Moana’s Gramma appears to her as a kind of force-ghost (in a scene that always, always makes me cry). Narratively, Gramma’s apparition exists to buck Moana up, remind her of who she is, and inspire her to use her own inner strength. That aim is reinforced by the music; we last heard that tune being sung by her whole village, on her island, and she draws her strength from being a part of that community. It’s a powerful parallel, and it helps that the music is so good (Lin-Manuel Miranda!!) And, my God, this movie has heart. Dwayne “The Rock” “My Future Husband” “Pretty Sure My Boyfriend Has a Man-Crush On Him, Too” Johnson as Maui is magnificently selfish, yet also likeable and funny; Auli’i Cravalho, who was sixteen when she voiced Moana, is vocally gifted and conveys the headstrong determination of a teenager so well. (The lack of a marriage plot means Moana as a character can be younger than Disney heroines usually are, too, which I love; I’d say she’s about fourteen.) The Mad Max coconut pirates and the cabaret crab are kind of weird if you stop and think about them too hard (they feel rather too much like episodic obstacles to be overcome because otherwise it’d be too easy), but both are executed in a way that feels thorough and considered. And OH MY GOD, THE CHICKEN. It’s literally one joke for two hours, but perfect. Solidly in my top five, so far.

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The Star Wars project continues with Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which is the source of almost all the images, memes and incidents I associate with the original trilogy. Luke is still lame and drippy (theory: he, Harry Potter and Frodo comprise the OG Troika of Boring Chosen Ones), but the training montage on Dagobah at least shows some work being done with and around the Force, which is the first time in five movies that anyone has expended any kind of effort in order to wield it. Perhaps the most surprising thing in the film is Yoda, who when we first encounter him is completely chaotic and steals Luke’s flashlight for fun, then shouts “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at R2D2 until Luke lets him have it. He’s a far cry from the gnomic sage of the prequels, and I really much prefer him this way. Perhaps he’s meant to be a bit mad after his long exile?! Leia and Han’s chemistry is on fire (as I said on Twitter, it’s not that on-screen couples have to be fucking irl, but there’s a reason Ford and Fisher work so well together). I like the introduction of Lando Calrissian; we didn’t necessarily need another loveable rogue, but it feels right that Han should have had some handy contacts outside the dynamic trio. (Quartet? Do we count Chewie? I don’t, really; he’s basically useless, although he does put C3PO together again, so that’s nice.) Luke’s showdown with Vader feels like it’s treading water, though—until that line, which is what we’ve all spent the past ten minutes waiting for anyway. And the ending is a great, infuriating cliffhanger.

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…Which meant it was lucky I could carry straight on to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s got Jabba the Hutt, which is a major plus; the scenes in his court are a mix of decadent, horrifying, and absurd, which makes me wonder what life as a Huttian courtier is like. I’m sure there’s fanfic in abundance. Carrie Fisher’s chainmail bikini, and the fact that she’s chained by the neck and reclining on Jabba’s enormous fleshy slug-body, is waaayyy more sexual and simultaneously more disturbing than I remember (though I do remember being very disturbed by it as a nine-year-old. I think the overt sexiness of the bikini somehow suggested to my pre-adolescent mind that she’d Had Sex With Jabba, which I knew in some obscure way would have been coerced and deeply not okay, although I didn’t have the vocabulary or the framework to understand that at the time. For the record, adult me is pretty sure she hasn’t Had Sex With Jabba.) Anyway, the Emperor finally shows up and is horrifying (he’s played by Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine in the prequel trilogies! He was in his early 30s and in heavy makeup when he played the Emperor, and in his 60s when he played him as a “younger” man. Oh, time is so weird.) Ewoks are cute as hell, though I know they divide opinion; I really like them. Vader redeems himself, the ending is touching, blah blah. (I actually was touched by Luke’s final farewell to his father. I know Vader is one of those awful genocide guys whom we like to pardon in our collective cultural consciousness because he sheds a single tear before dying, which apparently, to us, constitutes meaningful remorse, but it is a genuinely moving moment nonetheless.) But the moment that really matters in this movie, maybe the best sixty seconds or so in the entire original trilogy, is right after the death of the Rancor. Everyone runs around screaming and Luke is dragged out of the lair, and in amongst all of this, there are two shots of a guy who’s clearly the Rancor’s keeper, crying. We never get any more of it. We don’t know his name, where he’s from, he doesn’t get a word of dialogue, he never appears again, he’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but for a moment, a profoundly unimportant character’s humanity is fully exposed to us. It’s not too much of a stretch to call this Shakespearean. It reminded me of Aguecheek’s line in Twelfth Night: “I was adored once too.” The audience never gets to know that story, but they know it’s there.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time of Dreamworks’s 1999 political epic, The Prince of Egypt. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Tangled

I’ve been enjoying these write-ups so much, and other people seem to be enjoying them too! So, more in hope than in expectation, there’s now a new element to the process: if you want to, you can tip me £3 (the cost of an average coffee in central London) and I will watch and write a longer-than-usual piece about the Disney, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Star Wars film of your choice (assuming I haven’t already written about it). If you want a film from a different franchise, just send me a message along with your tip and we can work out access. (This has already happened, and I’ll be watching and reviewing that commission soon!) I will also continue to watch and review things at my own pace, and roundups of those slightly shorter reviews will be posted regularly.

For now, though, commission number one came from the ever-supportive, creative and talented Esther, whose three-and-a-half-year old (who happens to be my goddaughter) has just seen Tangled. To Esther’s horror, Bea loves it.

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The most glaring failure of the film is its music, which is aggressively medium roast. Fifteen minutes after I finished it, I couldn’t remember a single tune. (After some thought, “Flower, gleam and glow” came back, but it’s weak sauce as Disney tunes go, and also only four lines long.) Even the prettier songs, like I See the Light, are unmemorable. A big part of that is the lyrics, I think, which can sometimes carry a melody that’s less strong but which in Tangled are generally just anodyne expressions of clichéd feelings. (In Frozen, “the wind is howling like the swirling storm inside” is lifted from potentially being a cliché because of the film’s use of pathetic fallacy, where external weather conditions do mirror a character’s interior feelings; in Tangled, “And at last I see the light/And at last the fog has lifted” doesn’t have the same charge of literal truth and therefore is simply hackneyed.)

The love plot is also a major issue. The story of Tangled, fundamentally, is about Rapunzel’s coming to terms with what amounts to lifelong abuse by someone who she not only trusted, but who was virtually the only other human being she’d ever seen. Her real identity—the long-lost princess in whose memory lanterns are released every year—makes her not only deeply loved and cared for in a way that Gothel specifically denies her, but also the locus of an entire nation’s annually-enacted grief. Her character trajectory ought to be both enormous and primarily centered on her processing of a trauma that the film is happy enough to gesture at, but that turns out to be almost too big, too serious, to actually engage with. I would argue that Rapunzel’s first eighteen years constitute a more profound trauma than Elsa’s and Anna’s, for instance; Gothel’s constant belittling, casual cruelty and thoughtlessness revealed in their dialogues, and her drive for absolute control of a person she sees essentially as a commodity, are classic indicators of an emotionally abusive, narcissistic parent (and that’s not to mention the actual imprisonment). That stuff lasts. It is no small feat to get out from under it. The closest the film gets to acknowledging this is in a sequence just after Rapunzel escapes from her tower; she alternates between merciless self-flagellation (“I’m a despicable human being” as she lies face-down on the forest floor) and hysterical rejoicing (“I’m freeeeee!” as she dashes across the screen, followed by floating yards of golden hair). It’s almost painful in its portrayal of an abused person’s cycle of punishing themselves for wanting the liberty and respect they deserve, but it’s played for laughs—wisely, in a sense, because this really is a movie for children, but also a clear demonstration of how unprepared the film is to explore the very conditions it sets up.

Rapunzel’s story of self-discovery is almost entirely shoved out of the way by the appearance of Flynn Rider, who—let us not forget—is literally the only other person she’s ever met, making it not that surprising that she would imprint her affection upon him, but a little shady of him to willingly accept it from someone so clearly naive. (The moment around their campfire when he finally clocks how badly she’s been treated, though, is tenderly done; Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do convey a surprisingly strong emotional connection.) The film essentially presents us with two plots—Rapunzel’s growing self-confidence, and the growing attraction between her and Flynn—then throws all of its eggs in the basket of the less powerful story. I See the Light starts off as a song during which she realizes a lifelong dream, and (unwittingly) witnesses a ritual that is her heritage; in its second verse, it immediately turns to Flynn and becomes a song about him and his relationship to her. It’s disappointing.

Major plus points, however, for the scene in the Snuggly Duckling, which is so obviously a gay leather bar. (The guy with a hook who wants to be a concert pianist playing show tunes! The guys who knit and crochet and collect ceramic unicorns! THE MIME, FOR GOD’S SAKE, THE MIME. Not to mention the guy whose costume design includes something that can be passed off to kids as “metal helmet with horns”, but to the over-18 eye looks a hell of a lot like a fetish mask.)

Esther’s least favourite part of the film, when I asked her, turned out to be what she described as “the exaggerated movements of the horse”, which I think is kind of a Marmite thing. It’s Disney, and Disney does silly animals. Still, a truly baffling choice comes in the form of Rapunzel’s animal sidekick, which is a chameleon (a tropical animal) named Pascal (a French name), despite the topography of the kingdom, which, though it might charitably be called inconsistent (one moment our protagonists are frolicking in an alpine meadow; the next, they’re in what appears to be a deserted mine from the California Gold Rush), never appears to be set in anything more humid than a temperate climate.

Decidedly not in the top tier of Disney films, then, and probably not even in the second rank. Redeemed primarily by the rather beautiful, delicate emotional treatment given to the king and queen, whose silent reunion with their long-lost daughter is a masterclass in how to animate faces so that they convey as much emotion as real ones do, but other than that? A bit of a mess.


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

just after midnight

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.

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I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?

A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.

Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.

The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.

I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.

The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:

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A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.

reading and listening

(long-ish, sorry)

Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!

This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…

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A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.

Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.

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It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords –  who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.

The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.

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Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.

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The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.

The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)

Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.

also read recently:

  • North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
  • The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
  • A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.

A Monthly Book, #4: The Last Chronicle of Barset

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The Last Chronicle of Barset is a) 900 pages long in this edition, and b) the culmination of a highly involved and interconnected six-book series, Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century Chronicles of Barsetshire. Consequently, I am not confident that a standard review–even one that goes into great thematic detail–will be of much use to most of the people likely to read this post. Instead, I’d like to take a leaf out of the books of some other reviewers I rate (primarily Abigail Nussbaum) and simply make a few comments on the book, which might be more helpful for determining whether it’s the sort of thing you’d like to read.

  • It is just about possible to read this as a standalone novel. Trollope understands human attention spans, and he seeds enough plot reminders from his earlier Barsetshire books for the purposes of basic comprehension. Nevertheless, there are so many recurring characters, and such a large portion of their relationships with each other are callbacks to earlier interactions in the series, that it’s worth having read at least one or two of the preceding books. The catalyst of the plot in this volume is the supposed theft of a cheque by the principled and intelligent, but highly difficult, clergyman Josiah Crawley. Crawley’s guilt or innocence is the talk of the county, which allows Trollope to bring in most of the major characters from the past five books, in the guise of providing an overview of general society’s opinion. Crawley also has direct relationships, both professional and familial, with many of these characters, and most of the mentioned families are directly interrelated through marriage. Being able to follow these connections not only minimizes confusion, but makes it easier to appreciate the thematic richness of the novel in its relation to the other books in the series. (To take one example: Crawley’s daughter Grace is beloved of Major Grantly, the son of the archdeacon; the archdeacon’s wife is the daughter of Septimus Harding, a former warden of the city’s almshouse, who falls under similar suspicions of financial misconduct in the first book of the series, The Warden.)
  • Many elements of The Last Chronicle of Barset are reconsiderations or echoes of themes found in Framley ParsonageAlthough one of the novel’s subplots concerns the disposal in marriage of Lily Dale, whose disposal in marriage was also the primary plot of the preceding Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, it seems to me that The Last Chronicle of Barset is more interested in developing themes that recall Framley ParsonageFP is not the most interesting of the Barsetshire books, but perhaps it’s better in hindsight. Its subplot consists of a potential “inappropriate” marriage (inappropriate on the grounds of unequal social status and wealth, that is) between Lucy Robarts, sister of a vicar who has run into financial difficulties, and Lord Lufton, her brother’s childhood friend. Lufton’s mother prefers Archdeacon Grantly’s cold but higher-status daughter, Griselda, as a potential daughter-in-law, and Lucy must prove her worth through humility (she won’t agree to marry Lufton until his mother consents) and kindness (she provides charity to, amongst others, Josiah Crawley and his family. Do you see what I mean about the level of connectivity?!) There is an obvious parallel in the dilemma of Josiah’s daughter Grace, who, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, refuses several times to marry a man she loves and who loves her, out of fear that her family’s poverty and the very real possibility that her father will be convicted of a crime will “demean” her intended husband. In fact, there’s even a scene where old Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly talk about the situation, and Lady L gives advice from her personal experience. In the end the archdeacon yields, but it is the passive sweetness, seriousness and “nobility” of Grace Crawley’s bearing that wins him over. She is a Good Girl; he even tells her so, in so many words. It’s this element of Trollope’s female characters that I sometimes struggle with–the use of soft power through manipulation and performative femininity is highly praised, while what might be a more honest use of power, as typified by the aggressive Mrs. Proudie, is vilified.
  • The further subplot involving a high society painter is meant to be comic relief. Personally, I think it fails as comedy because none of the characters introduced in these chapters are in any way sincere. Mrs Dobbs Broughton, the wife of a millionaire, is actually something of a tragic figure: bored and shallow, she engages in little flirtations as a way of making herself feel alive. Conway Dalrymple, the painter, is simultaneously mercenary and dense; he’s clever enough to get into an entanglement, but not clever enough to get out again without having work hard at it. Dobbs Broughton is an unsympathetic drunkard, and Mr Musselboro, Dobbs Broughton’s business partner, is initially introduced as vulgar (though it’s hard to shake the conviction that Trollope paints him thus simply because he’s a money man, a City trader), and subsequently proves himself to be scheming. It’s hard to laugh at the romantic and financial misunderstandings of characters who seem themselves to feel as though they’re merely acting.
  • “Honour” is the key to everyone’s behaviour, and also one of the most frustrating elements of this book for a modern reader. Trollope delights in establishing situations for his characters from which they cannot extricate themselves with both happiness and honour intact, and then creating an escape route, usually through death, money, truth, or all three. In this he is hardly alone–Dickens is notorious for implausible dei ex machina–but for Trollope the motivating factor of a gentleman, or a lady, is the maintenance of honour, and honour frequently requires misery. In some characters, an adherence to honour is their defining good quality: Grace’s refusal to injure a man she loves by marrying him is a twisty piece of logic for a twenty-first century reader to follow, but every character in the book approves of her for it (even those who think she should marry her lover anyway), and the narrating voice certainly never censures her for her decision. Where Trollope does like to complicate the honour ethos is through characters whose actions negatively affect others, not just themselves. Josiah Crawley refuses many kindnesses from friends and neighbours out of a sense of honour, among them the use of a horse to get to Barchester and deliveries of fresh food from Framley Parsonage. What this means, in effect, is that the strain of maintaining good relations in the community–as well as the strain of being able to feed and clothe a large and possibly disgraced family on a small income–falls to his wife. She mostly gets around her husband’s refusals, and accepts the assistance that is offered them, but she is forced to do so, to some degree, behind his back, which presents another moral difficulty in a society where wives (not least clergymen’s wives) are to be subordinate to their husband’s wishes. Trollope is a true believer in honour, I think; his good characters are good in part because the moral standards they choose are utterly inflexible. But he is also a subtle enough thinker, and writer, to understand that an honour society is one that often values appearances over the possibility of human suffering. The fact that he wrestles with that is one of the things I prize most about his writing.

Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

40985726The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell: Phwoaarr. Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Mitchell are just. Follows three generations of Zambian families, exploring how chance, genetics, and politics draw them together and fling them apart. Family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, but the structure is less a straight line and more a series of looping ellipses, as characters appear and reappear. Encompassing interracial marriage, Zambian independence, Marxism, Afronauts, hair, microtechnology, HIV/AIDS, and social media activism, The Old Drift is an ambitious and emotionally compelling masterpiece. Serpell writes like someone who’s been doing this for decades.

original_400_600Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy: A memoir of teaching at Oxford Spires Academy, where Clanchy runs a phenomenally successful Poetry Group (they’ve won numerous Foyle’s Young Poet awards). She also writes about her time at schools in post-industrial Essex and Scotland, and multicultural London. Clanchy demonstrates how infuriating and patronizing are government decisions re. teaching, a profession of which most of our legislators know nothing, and she’s magnificent on how creative response to literature can ignite a student’s mind–but is tragically ignored now in most schools because it cannot be quantified in a WALT (We Are Learning To…)

51agaxplvnl._sx324_bo1204203200_My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell: My fourth-grade teacher read this aloud to us, and I was instantly enchanted, not just by Durrell’s idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu (all that time to explore, all those hours in which to lie still and just observe), but by his charmingly absurd family: aspiring novelist Larry (aka Lawrence Durrell), gun-mad Leslie, dippy Margo, and long-suffering Mother. Rereading it as an adult, the most immediately striking thing about it is the sheer richness of Durrell’s prose: he’s interested in colour, texture and sound, the “squeak and clop” of oars digging into a silver-blue sea, the noise of cicadas in the cypress trees.

41mnd2bzqu5l._sx320_bo1204203200_The Perfect Wife, by JP Delaney: Lots to say about this psychological thriller with a technological twist, which–like Delaney’s two other psychological novels–has been marketed according to genre rules while sneaking in a high level of literary sophistication, allusion, and experimentation under the radar. Told alternately from the points of view of “Abbie”, a robot powered by artificial intelligence whose builder has designed her to look exactly like his missing-presumed-dead wife, and a third-person plural voice that represents her husband’s employees, a group of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s not perfect: there are several major reveals at the end, one of which is left hanging; Delaney makes stabs at illustrating the machinic nature of Abbie’s mind, but her thought is articulated in a way less linear and logical than any AI would ever be. Still, he admits in his acknowledgments that he didn’t set out to write a techno-thriller, and there’s plenty to unpack here, probably in a longer post soon.

98665Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaillesby Kathryn Lasky: Another in the Royal Diaries series. Particularly notable is the recreation both of young Archduchess Antonia’s personality–fun-loving and kind, but not especially intellectual–and of Empress Maria Theresa’s relationships with her thirteen children, whom she clearly loved in her own way but each of whom was merely a pawn in the Holy Roman Empire’s consolidation and expansion. Lasky renders the young Antonia relatable and even sympathetic, though also motivated by principles that we no longer really recognize: the honour of an Empire, the pride of nobility.

Currently reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a debut about a Jamaican servant woman accused of killing her mistress in 1820s London.

Diary, Reading and otherwise

I’ve been at my parents’ house in the States for the last week, which coincided with my brother’s college fall break; we’ve been trying to cram the greatest quantity of Organized Fun into six days. This has involved a lot of visits to vineyards and ciderworks, of which there are about 200 in the state of Virginia, as well as a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge, a movie in the little town where my mother works, and an extended family get-together this past weekend. Both my dad’s parents died within twenty-four hours of each other last month, so it felt particularly important to all be together, and particularly nice that I could take part.

But, books! I don’t think I’ve updated since the beginning of the month, which is shocking. Since the 1st of October, I’ve read ten books – not great, but preparing for and staying with my parents always minimizes the available time for reading. Several of the books I’ve read have qualified for the R.I.P. challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril), too. Here’s the first half of this month’s reading:

the_little_stranger_28film29The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: It was very difficult to decide how to feel about this: on the one hand, it’s an extremely atmospheric ghost story, set in decaying Hundreds Hall after the First World War and playing on an obsession with class and tradition that manifests itself in the character of Dr. Faraday. On the other hand, as Abigail Nussbaum points out, Sarah Waters makes genre and realism pull against each other, and therefore neither element is totally successful; the ambiguity of the ending is less richly satisfying and more of a frustration as a result, as though Waters simply can’t be bothered to decide. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is the phrase “the little stranger”: it was a Victorian euphemism for an unborn child, and the entity which knocks from ceilings and scrawls childishly on walls seems to suggest that it is the ghost of Susan, a little girl who died at Hundreds Hall several decades earlier – but there is also a suggestion that ghosts in general are psychic emanations of the people who live in a haunted house, non-physical children, in a sense. It’s the sort of book that will probably need another look. (RIP categories: horror; supernatural.)

51udevpxrxl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It seems fairly evident, simply from watching the news and following the barest minimum of the relevant folks on Twitter, that the experience of being a person of colour in America now – let alone historically – is so quotidianly bizarre as to almost register as a form of science fiction or surrealism. The literary response to this has varied (but think of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or, maybe more relevantly, of the movie Get Out); from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah comes what seems like a natural response, which is a collection of short stories that take the experiences of various black American characters and make of them an anthology that reads like a series of Black Mirror. “The Finkelstein Five”, the collection’s opening story, concerns the trial of a white man who decapitated with a chainsaw five black children (at least one of whom was as young as seven or eight). Adjei-Brenyah’s dialogue in these trial scenes is flawless; the arguments of white men who murder black children, like George Zimmer, barely need exaggerating. In another story, a young black man works at an amusement park which is actually named ZimmerLand, in which patrons confront and “kill” him on a suburban street. Three linked stories, meanwhile, explore the zombie-like horror of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has traditionally been America’s busiest shopping day. What makes Adjei-Brenyah’s most successful stories stand out, instead of merely being exercises in grim, heavy-handed satire, is the moral detail of them. ZimmerLand, for example, gives its customers the option of taking a mobile phone or a gun, or nothing, into their scenario; more than ninety percent of them make the choice to take the gun. The young salesman protagonist of the first Black Friday story wants to win the regional sales competition that day because he wants the chance to bring his mother a nice coat for Christmas; the ludicrous violence and twitching bodies are semi-inevitable and so he continues to work that shift, in that mall, in a neat parallel of the violence and destruction behind most American consumerism, even the relatively restrained kind. Adjei-Brenyah is one to watch, I think. (RIP categories: fantasy; horror.)

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The Trespasser, by Tana French: I won’t subject you to too long a dissection of yet another Tana French novel, partly because I read them pretty regularly and partly because I not only reread a second one of her Dublin Murder Squad books this month, but also read her new standalone, The Witch Elm, which I’ll be talking about later. This is only the second time I’ve read The Trespasser; the first was the weekend after my ex broke up with me last year, so my memories of it were pretty patchy, to say the least. It’s not on quite the same level as her best books (Broken HarbourThe LikenessThe Secret Place, for my money), partly because the motive is less interesting: it circles around a girl called Aislinn Murray, found dead in her home, whose entire life seems to be a blank. Only when the detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, remembers that she’s seen Aislinn before – years ago, asking questions about the father who went missing when she was a child and who was never found – do clues start making sense, but they all point to the one place Conway really doesn’t want to go… As always, French is uniquely excellent at differentiating her detectives, making them individuals whose problems are complex and convincing, far from the dysfunction-by-numbers drunk with marital problems that often seems to pass for a detective in this genre. Conway’s got issues – trust and an absent father among them – but she deals with them in her way, and part of her need to put Aislinn Murray’s case to bed stems from a deep personal irritation with Aislinn’s way of handling problems similar to her own. The writing, also as always, is spectacular, a blend of grit and lyricism that works incredibly well for me. Long may Tana French reign, I say. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

imageA Political History of the World, by Jonathan Holslag: It’s nice to think of oneself as an eclectic reader, and I think for the most part I genuinely am, but recently I’ve been experimenting with reading things that really are very off-brand for me, and a three thousand-year history of global diplomacy and warfare certainly qualifies. Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics in Brussels, which is both an occupation and a locale that would seem to equip him thoroughly to write this book. For the most part, it’s delightfully informative, covering Asian pre-history and antiquity as well as the obvious Western empires. There’s much less about North and South American civilisations, though Holslag acknowledges, occasionally, peoples like the Olmec and the Maya, with the addendum that the documentary evidence for civilisations in these places is thinner on the ground. (This is probably true, although it seems rather weak sauce.) The main problem, though, is that he covers so much in the way of historical event (kingdom A fought kingdom B; kingdom B, forced to defend against kingdoms C through E, declined until its overthrow by kingdom F, which had been quietly amassing strength for decades) that he leaves little room for analysis or exposition regarding diplomacy, which is, in theory, the purpose of the book. It’s of little interest to know about the vacillations of power amongst kingdoms A through F when the rationale, or the psychology, behind those vacillations remains largely unexplained.

51hnj-b63wl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Likeness, by Tana French: The second of my French rereads this month, and my very favourite of all her books, mostly because it’s set amongst a tight-knit group of friends, postgraduates at Trinity who all live in an old and beautiful house out in the countryside surrounding Dublin. I’m increasingly convinced that one of French’s major themes is the dynamics of friendship: how people develop non-sexual intimacy between themselves, what kind of power that intimacy can hold, the potential danger of it, how far someone might go for people who are neither blood relatives nor romantic prospects. The Likeness also, like The Trespasser, contains a detective convinced that her personal issues are under control, who is forced eventually to confront the fact that those very issues are deeply resonant with her case and might well be affecting her judgment. Some of French’s most beautiful writing is in this, and the final paragraph (as I’m sure I’ve said before) makes me cry every time I read it. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

The second half of October’s Reading Diary should be up in the next few days, so keep an eye out… Are any of you participating in the RIP challenge this year?

07. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida

9780571336333One particular risk of having a reading list or challenge is that it’s easily possible to read several books in a row that, while fine, don’t really excite you; that you’re reading because there’s no reason to put them down and they’re doing their job, but which you don’t feel a pang parting from when you reach work, or the end of your lunch break. This has happened to me: MayA Station On the Path…, and The Waters and the Wild all ended up three-star reads, quite all right but not especially haunting, and not propulsive while I was reading them. (Actually, The Waters and the Wild was, but the structure did most of the work; I found that even as I was racing through the final pages, the relentlessly circuitous prose was frustrating.) The upside of a patch of average reading is that when you do find something emotionally compelling, it breaks upon you like a wave of delight. The Madonna of the Mountains is a book like that. It’s quiet, but it’s brilliant.

It starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. She’s twenty-five, alarmingly old to be unmarried. Her papà has gone to find her a husband. He returns with a man – Achille Montanari, tall and strong and wrapped in glory as a result of vaguely-defined heroism in the last war – and they marry. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: her marriage, her children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. It finishes with her family’s eventual emigration to Australia in 1950. In between these events, Valmorbida demonstrates, life goes on: the war isn’t the point of the novel any more than the question of whether Maria Vittoria will have a husband, a question solved in chapter one. As a result of its refusal to be “about” any one particular event, The Madonna of the Mountains feels both universal (fears about infidelity, a child’s health, how to protect your family in uncertain times) and deeply, richly specific: Valmorbida is interested in process, whether that’s washing laundry in the stream, raising silkworms from eggs, or the arduous hunt for, and fiddly preparation of, snails to eat when there’s no other meat.

Because we’re so deeply embedded in its physical world, The Madonna of the Mountains also feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Third-rate historical fiction forces us to care about characters either because we identify with them (often because they have political opinions much like our own, which are suspiciously progressive for their own time, as in The Burning Chambers), or because they’re forced to endure trial after trial, which requires a grudging sort of respect from the reader. Here, neither of those things occurs: Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, a God-fearing Catholic countrywoman whose husband hits her on occasion but whom she will never dream of leaving, who feeds her eldest son first, and who disinherits a daughter with pain but no regret when she brings dishonour to the household. The challenges she faces are both personal and political (indeed, in Fascist Italy, the two are often the same), and in every adversity, her responses are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.