Sorry for the blogging break. It's been a busy few weeks. Good for my bank account, not so good for the blog. But let's jump back into it with a quick run down of a few things I've been enjoying lately.
First, I saw The Last Jedi on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a little long, and some plot elements dragged (too many storylines), but the scenes with Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren/Ben blew me away. They just absolutely shine in this movie and I only wish more screen-time had been devoted to their characters. I'm probably going to see The Last Jedi again just so I can watch more of Mark Hammill. Maybe it's all the voice acting he's done in the last thirty years, but he's become a damn good actor and it wouldn't surprise me if he had a bit of a career renaissance after this movie. Anyway, that's all I want to say because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but go see Star Wars if you haven't already. It's a solid movie with some excellent scenes.
Next up, Alias Grace (the polar opposite of Star Wars). This Netflix miniseries is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid's Tale), about a maid in 19th century Canada who is accused of murdering her employers. The story's told by the maid, Grace (played by the incredible Sarah Gadon), to a psychiatrist while she's serving a life sentence. What we don't know is whether she's telling the truth, lying, or is simply insane. The acting and cinematography completely sucked me into the story and I more or less binge-watched all six episodes. Now I may even have to read the book. It's hard to say exactly what makes it so compelling, because it's a fairly simple plot. A combination of excellent storytelling and acting, I guess. Some of my favorite books and movies are structured around a character telling a story to another character, so that's something to think about...
Anyway, that's two movie/TV show recommendations for you that could not be more different, but both excellent in their own ways.
In terms of reading, the best books I've read lately were Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, both recommendations by my friend who leads our book club. Winesburg Ohio is a series of interconnected vignettes that explore the darkness of small town America and the people who live there. Apple pie Americana this is not. If you want to learn how to write and build characters, and how to use details to surprise and unsettle the reader, then Winesburg Ohio is your book.
Everything I Never Told You is also a character driven novel as well as a thriller about a family grappling with the death of their favorite daughter. As they seek to find out why she died, we see how deferred dreams and wishes have affected the parents and their children, and what it's like to be Asian American and a biracial family in a predominately white community. I really felt something for each character in this book, which speaks to Ng's skill as a writer. My only criticism is that the ending wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, but I think that has more to do with the failings of the thriller genre than anything else. I speed-read this book, so if you're looking for a compelling, well-written novel, Everything I Never Told You would be a great choice.
Well that's it for today. See you again next week and Happy Holidays!
I'm just going to be honest with you, I'm only writing this review in hopes of saving you $15. And before you question my motives, I also want to point out that I am a massive (massive!) Star Wars fan, and I think Carrie Fisher is actually a pretty good writer. But this book is clearly a money grab and you don't need to buy it.
The Princess Diarist received a brief whirlwind of publicity last year when it was published, primarily because in it Fisher (aka Princess Leia) revealed that she and Harrison Ford had a secret affair while making the first Star Wars movie. And if that information alone is enough for you to enjoy a book, then by all means, go ahead and read it. But for anyone else who was hoping for a little more, something that you know a personal diary might actually reveal, I'm afraid you're out of luck.
And if you're interested in how Star Wars was actually made, the first third of the book does provide a few interesting insights from Fisher's perspective, but not nearly enough. For instance, she does explain how she got the part, how she was asked (and failed) to lose weight for it, and boy does she bang on about that hair. But there's not much beyond that. Personally, I would have loved to know what it was like to film the garbage compactor scene, stuff like that, but she never really mentions any that specific from Star Wars.
The diaries themselves don't even appear until about one third of the way through the book, which I found confusing given the way the book was marketed as a diary. But frankly, that had to have been a very conscious decision because these journal entries really weren't worth publishing. I mean, if you like reading pages and pages of vague teenage angst, by all means go ahead. But I found them to be incredibly underwhelming. Mostly they repeated ad nauseam about how little she meant to Ford and how powerless she felt to end things with him. (Because he's Harrison Ford I guess? If nothing else, this book was a good lesson in why it is not ok for a person to mistreat you even if they are ridiculously good-looking.)
Also, when this book came out, both she and the media really glossed over some issues of consent between her and Ford, which is frankly inexcusable. I first heard about this book on NPR's Fresh Air, and as far as I remember, not once did Terry Gross ask Fisher about the night in question. Not ok, Terry.
The final third of the book takes a big leap into the present day, which Fisher spends complaining about her fans. Those comic book conventions you go to in hopes of getting her autograph? She calls them "lap dances," and freely admits she only does them for the money and could not care less about the fans. Actually, that's a nice way of putting it. It's not that she doesn't care about her fans, it's that she has open contempt for them.
I mean, I can kind of see where she's coming from. Yes, it would get obnoxious to have everyone compare your present day appearance to how you looked forty years ago, but did we really need to hear her mocking fans for 30 pages? And if she felt trapped into signing autographs for money, maybe she should have tried spending a little less instead of blaming people for enjoying her performance? It all left a bitter taste in my mouth, and it seemed so completely unconnected to the previous two-thirds of the book that I had to wonder whether this wasn't some massive meta-commentary. Like she was laughing at us, the readers, for buying into her lap dance of a book.
Or maybe, and this would be much worse, this writing is a serious reflection of her self-acknowledged bipolar disorder, in which case I don't feel comfortable having funded such a gross exploitation of her mental health issues. This book really does feel like it was barely edited. I guess why bother, the publisher knew it would sell regardless.
Anyway, I bought and read The Princess Diarist for a book club I just joined, and I was happy to learn that everyone else shared my opinion. We all had been looking forward to this book, and then were really disappointed upon reading it. We felt like we'd been tricked by marketing once again (see Ready Player One and The Martian). Is this phenomena unique to science fiction fans? It seems to keep happening to me. Maybe it's happening in every genre these days. Basically you can sell a lot of crappy books as long as you market them right. The reader might feel cheated at the end, but what do publishers care, they've already got their $15.
Ok, big question today. Han vs. Luke, who do you got?
I ask because recently I read this article by Tiffany Reizs who asked the same question in terms of who is the better hero. She reported being team-Luke as a kid, but switched over to team-Han as an adult. I thought that was so interesting because I had the exact opposite response.
As a kid, I was all about Han. He was the classic anti-hero. The scoundrel. The character who improves as he takes on more burdens. He also had the girl, the sweet space-ship, and the furry friend. He was handsome, capable, and smart; a pilot, mechanic, smuggler, soldier, and generally someone who knew how to get stuff done.
In contrast, Luke seemed like such a strange choice for the hero of Star Wars. He was whinny. He was a little too perfect. And in the end, what was his reward for all that good behavior? A dead mentor, a dead father, and a hands-off sister. Just as his world opens up as he studies to become a Jedi, it collapses again when he loses everything and is left with few options besides the life of a monk in the manner of Obi-Wan. Han arguably got the better deal.
But I re-watched Star Wars recently, as I do every few years, and I was surprised by how differently I responded to the two male leads.
Everything Han did seemed a lot less cute and lot more obnoxious. For the first time ever, I wondered what Leia saw in him. I don't know if it's just because I've gotten older and the bad-boy persona is a lot less attractive to me now, but when you have to deal with all the responsibilities and compromises that come with being an independent adult, it's a lot more obvious that Han is an undesirable mate.
Meanwhile, Luke was someone I felt like I was getting to know for the first time. Without the distraction of Han, the story felt new again. Now it was all about Luke's struggle with the light and dark sides of the force, as I think George Lucas originally intended.
Starting with Luke's training with Yoda, we learn that there's something really dark and horrible inside of him that has the potential to take over. That cave scene? As a kid, I never completely understood that it was Luke's face inside Darth Vader's mask and what that meant.
Then, in Return of the Jedi, when Luke force-chokes the guards at Jabba's palace, it shows again that he's not completely good, nor is he all that different from his father. He straddles an edge. Even as he purports to be on the side of good, I think Luke confuses being on the side of the Rebels with being a force of good. In fact, those are two entirely separate things. It's just as possible he could do terrible things in the name of good. Isn't that exactly what his father thought he was doing when he was Luke's age?
Light and darkness, how much more interesting is that struggle than Han choosing to support the rebels and settle down with a princess? Han never has to fight between whether he wants to be good or evil. He hangs out in that grey area, which is interesting, but lower stakes. For Luke, it's winner take all for his soul. That darkness, when you bother to notice it's always been there, helps balance out a lot of what on the surface comes across as too goody-goody.
Anyway, disagree with me all you want, it's purely an opinion. But I wonder how much growing up effects our understanding of stories we thought we knew so well. I mean, word for word well, and yet, here I am, completely changing my appreciation for Luke Skywalker.
Did your opinions of Star Wars change over time? Did you switch teams?
When I was a kid, my brother and I went to a home day-care. Our babysitter had two sons, so her house was filled with video games and action figures for us to play with. It was pretty much a young nerd's paradise. Lots of Batman, Ninja Turtles, and X-men stuff (this was the early 90's), and of course the ubiquitous Star Wars.
I remember sitting on the floor, watching one of the boys play Street Fighter or something, and strewn in the mess around us was the ripped off back of a Boba Fett action figure box. On this scrap of cardboard was this vague and mysterious description of Boba Fett, which said something about his Madalorian armor and his ties to the Clone Wars. I distinctly remember reading that description, re-reading it again, looking for some kind of clue that I had missed to make sense of his backstory.
Who was this Boba Fett guy? Of course, I recognized him from the movies, but honestly I hadn't given him much thought up to that point. Why was his armor special? What did he do in the Clone Wars? And what were the Clone Wars anyway? I sort of recalled Leia mentioning them in her hologram speech to Obi-wan in the movie, but it struck me then, sitting on the floor of my baby-sitter's basement, that there was this whole previous story to Star Wars, an exposition that was unknown to us except in little pieces and fragments. It blew my mind. Star Wars was more than just a few movies. It was an epic and we'd only (at that point) seen a few chapters.
I was reminded of this thought while listening to The Weekly Planet podcast. In celebration of their hundredth episode, the hosts caved to fan requests to discuss the Star Wars prequels and all the reasons why they don't work (one of my favorite topics). The biggest failure, they cited again and again was the prequels' bizarre need to explain events that take place in the original trilogy; right down to the smallest, stupidest details.
For example, in A New Hope, Luke wears a helmet with the blast shield down to practice his light saber moves and use of the force. It's a fun scene and it stands on its own. But in Attack of the Clones, the youngling Jedi are wearing helmets with blast shields down to practice their own force skills...Why would these Jedi in training be wearing fighter pilot helmets, or something that essentially looks like a pilot's helmet? Why do they have to be doing the exactly same thing as Luke did some thirty years later? Because, for whatever reason, Lucas thought that was an important detail to explain? Even then, it doesn't really make any sense.
This pattern repeats over and over again in the prequels - this tendency to over explain everything at the detriment of the mystery and mythology of the original Star Wars trilogy. What's the force? "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." What a beautiful, simple explanation, one of my favorite speeches for how much information it conveys with so few words. I didn't need to have that ruined by midichlorian pseudoscience. Why couldn't the force just be a mystical thing that we don't entirely understand? Why is it bad to admit a little ignorance?
My ten-year-old self could more than make up her own backstory for Boba Fett. I didn't really need it over-complicated with his father, Jango Fett, who meant nothing to me. The copywriter who wrote that paragraph long description on the back of the action figure box had it right: here's some limited information about Boba Fett, do with it as you will and go wild kids.
This is a lesson that I need to apply to my own fiction. I think there's this common fear among writers that we won't be understood unless we explain everything, every detail. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how the world I'm building manufactures goods...but that's really boring and frankly, it just doesn't matter. Goods are made somehow. I have to stop worrying whether my fictional global economy makes sense. Or sometimes, I'll feel compelled to explain the exact tilt of a character's head; the way they lean against a wall, one knee over the other. Really, it doesn't matter. The reader has an imagination. Trust that they'll use it.
The same holds true for bigger issues like exposition and character backgrounds. I don't need to establish a multi-generational genealogy. I don't need to explain what wars happened fifty years ago. I can mention maybe some basic information and move on without further explanation, because the reader will either use their imagination, or have the intelligence to select what information is important to the story and what can be glossed over without any great loss.
I thought that was one of the biggest problems with The Hunger Games. I only read the first book, but that was more than enough. It just annoyed me the way Katniss kept explaining all this exposition, to herself, in her own head. I mean, who was she talking to? Me? Then where am I in this story? The Hunger Games would have been so much better if she described what she was actually witnessing, which would have been enough to suggest the brutal oppression and poverty without having to tell me everything that led up to it. Then I'd have more fun figuring out what events happened to create this world. Then I'm engaged in the world building and the mystery. Then I'm invested.
So kids, moral of the story, write like the back of the Boba Fett box. Leave your reader a little surprise, something a little strange, something that doesn't entirely make sense. Resist, resist, resist the urge to fill the first fifteen pages with detailed exposition (I'm looking at you Ready Player One). Strunk and White said, "Omit needless words." Let's add to that, "Omit needless story."
T and I are camping this weekend with the dog. We'll see how well she behaves in the tent at night. I think she's going to like camping though since we usually pack some sausages for dinner.
Meanwhile, enjoy these fun reads and links I rounded up on the interwebs this week and have a great weekend!
Ahh, Seattle Star Wars fans, I'm so jealous! You can visit the EMP museum to see an exhibit on the costumes of Star Wars. How did I not hear about this until now? Hope the next tour date is DC...(Smithsonian/Lucas Film)
Have you read the book? They're turning these sci-fi classics into movies and tv shows. I'm not in favor of a Hyperion movie, but yes-yes-yes to The Forever War. (Kirkus via @sfsignal)
How to avoid middle book syndrome. This is exactly why I could never finish The Lord of the Rings! (SF Signal)
Why do we need more women futurists? Or more broadly, why do we need more non-white, non-male futurists? (The Atlantic)
This fancut version of Dune is really cool, but I still think we should start a kickstarter campaign to get Jodorowsky's Dune made. (via SF Signal)
Incidentally, the Nerdist has a Dune book club going on right now. Dune is one of my favorite books and was so worth pushing through some of the slow bits at the beginning. (The Nerdist, via @sfsignal)
I thought these compiled #Fieldworkfail tweets were funny, but I wonder whether we're relegating science to entertainment these days. How are viral tweets and Neil deGrasse Tyson podcasts going to solve the energy crisis? What does#Ifuckinglovescience mean if you don't bother to vote for politicians that are in favor of funding basic science and research? It's an issue close to my heart (and my paycheck). (WaPo)
Great shout-out to Durham, NC from Buzzfeed! In that last ten years, Durham (home of Duke University) has been totally revitalized and is booming with fun activity and food. (Buzzfeed)
What happens when a woman sends her same book back to agents using a male pseudonym? Pretty much exactly what you'd expect. Implicit bias is real, people. (Jezebel, via @JanetUrsel)
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