Review: Sorrow’s Knot

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Sorrow’s Knot
by Erin Bow

★★★★★

2013 • 368 pages • Arthur A. Levine Books

I can’t say I’m totally sorry to have left bookselling in the rearview mirror when I left Denver, especially now that I am gainfully employed once more. (Yes, it’s publishing, no, it’s not trade publishing, and no, I’m not going to talk about it.) It’s really nice to have a predictable schedule and not have to deal with the small, interesting messes that come with working the children’s section. Or any other section, come to think of it.

But I do miss book recommendations simply falling into my lap at work with absolutely no effort. There was always a new shelf talker, bookmark, excited customer, or swag floating around. (This is why I own a City of Bones tee shirt. It lives at my mother’s house, where I wear it to clean.) Sorrow’s Knot was one such recommendation; I found the bookmark while cleaning out my pockets to do laundry. The downside of all of those recommendations, of course, is that there were so many of them that I never got around to them. But now I am very lucky to have a passive commute, where I can have my own sacred reading hour every (work) day.

So, at long last, I’ve come to Sorrow’s Knot, practically sight unseen after the summer I’ve had. Which is really the best way to come at such a hypnotic, archetypical, and yet thoroughly unique novel.

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Review: Scandals of Classic Hollywood

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Scandals of Classic Hollywood
by Anne Helen Petersen

★★★★★

2014 • 304 pages • Plume

I am more than tempted to launch into a modified rendition of one of Mean Girls’ most memetic quotes (“Anne Helen Petersen… how do I begin to explain Anne Helen Petersen?”), but it will suffice it to say that Petersen is one of my favorite writers in my field of dreams, media studies. While I focus more on fandom and Petersen literally has a PhD in celebrity gossip, we’re ultimately trying to answer the same questions—what are people getting out of the narratives that they consume and what does that say about our culture at large? Or, in Petersen’s words:

I think that at any point celebrities are indicative of what matters to us at a certain moment. The images are always either acting out or trying to shore up ideologies under threat. You can look at our stars and see the things we’re trying to, as a society, figure out, in terms of femininity and masculinity and race performance and sexuality. The way we talk about celebrities is so illuminating.

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Page to Screen: Snowpiercer (2013)

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Snowpiercer
based on 
Le Transperceneige 
by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette

  

2013  126 minutes  Moho Films, Opus Pictures

Was there ever such a tale of woe than that of Snowpiercer and its distribution?

This Boston Globe article goes into great detail about that saga, but suffice it to say that the Weinstein Company, who owns the American film rights, has done the film no favors, despite its massive popularity on director Bong Joon-ho’s home turf of South Korea. As a Radius film, American theaters balked at booking the film, given that subsidiary’s heavy involvement with video-on-demand. And when it finally got into a handful of theaters in the United States, excited viewers had to negotiate traveling to out of the way theaters (two hours, in the case of one of my friends) and waiting for it to open a week after some theaters got it. And we Americans are lucky—there are currently no plans for a proper UK release.

All of this sturm und drang was because the Weinstein Company thought that Snowpiercer was too abstract, too weird, and too incomprehensible for middle America. A reedited version was threatened, but never made it past test screenings. Unfamiliar with Bong as a filmmaker, I was prepared for something completely out there.

But nothing can really prepare you for Snowpiercer—not even reading the graphic novel, which tells a different story in the same setting. It manages to be perversely accessible, willfully surreal, truly dark, and utterly… well, itself. My friend Natalya and I have been talking about “passionate cinema” recently, right after we stopped singing “There Can Be Miracles” when we learned that Pacific Rim 2: Kaiju Bluegaloo was go. Passionate cinema is composed of films made by people who truly love the project. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with journeyman filmmaking—everybody’s gotta eat!—but there’s a unique joy to seeing something so wholehearted, so uncompromising, and so trusting of its audience.

Trust might seem an odd word to use, since Snowpiercer’s story is ultimately a simple one. But simple, as Pacific Rim told us last summer, does not mean stupid. Snowpiercer lets character beats occur physically and trusts its audience enough to never yell at them. Many have been tempted to call the film an allegory, the term of choice to elevate a simple story to sophisticated enough heights to, apparently, warrant analysis, but I agree with The Dissolve commenter Adam’s calling it a history, per Tolkien’s definition:

I’m also going to disagree with pretty much everybody I’ve seen writing about this and say that it is not a socialist allegory, not an allegory at all, but what Tolkien referred to as a “history.” In the introduction to LotR, he distinguishes the terms succinctly: “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” An allegory is an essentially limited and controlled parallel reality whose moral purpose is made clear. A history (again, oriented not to our shared reality but to the history of the story’s native reality) opens a world which can be delved into by any number of readers who can all come out having learned different lessons and drawn wholly different parallels.

Snowpiercer, in Bong’s hands, has a purity of narrative. While Curtis, the reluctant leader of the back of the train, originally begins the rebellion to take the front of the train to save his literal class, all of his nobler impulses are stripped away, one by one, until reaching the engine consumes him. After the losses he suffers, the only way is forward. It’s simple. But Bong deconstructs it, by following it to its logical ends. If the only way forward is revolution, then the only way forward is putting the oppressed over the oppressors, perpetuating the broken system. The answer Bong hits upon for this is radical, untidy, and complicated, and best left to the film itself to reveal.

But this film is not a dry political treatise. With these wonderful bones in place, Bong elaborates with stunning concepts, from the sheer madness of the upper classes on the train (who pause a bloody battle in order to celebrate New Year), the self-contained nature of the train, to Curtis himself. Chris Evans has expressed (as much as he can) his discomfort with the claims playing Captain America has his on career, but he’s manipulating that image so well. The film sets up Curtis as the hero, with his chiseled jaw and piercing blue stare, and spends the rest of it painfully disillusioning of that idea. Watching Curtis make increasingly cruel decisions until he finally makes the right decision is the greatest action set piece of the film.

Between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chris Evans has spent this summer in American movie theaters anchoring diverse summer blockbusters. (Snowpiercer deserves to be a blockbuster. If Inception could do it, so can Snowpiercer.) While the rest of the characters do not get as much screentime as Curtis, they’re still just as equally lived in, from Jamie Bell’s eager, painfully young Edgar to Octavia Butler’s determined Tanya to Luke Pasqualino’s tattooed near-mute Grey. But the standouts are Bong regulars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, a father daughter team of drug addicts who can open the various gates to the front. As the film slowly strips itself down to almost nothing, they become the only voices of sanity. Their chemistry and, in particular, Kang-ho’s quiet but blinding charisma anchor the film in its more surreal moments. Despite being an absolute horror wimp, I find myself compelled to seek out Kang-ho and Bong’s previous collaborations.

I saw this film in theaters.

Page to Screen: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower
based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky

★★★★★

I don’t believe in the perfect moment. In my experience, waiting for the perfect moment is, essentially, waiting for Godot—a hopeless exercise doomed to near-violent levels of self-reflection and ennui. The only perfect moment is now, because that’s the only moment you’ve got, quite technically.

Rather, I believe in serendipity. The moments we think of as perfect can’t be snuck up on. Instead, they sneak up on you.

Watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower snuck up on me. I adored the novel in all its universality and specificity, but as soon as the film ended, I found myself crying and laughing uncontrollably into my knees, muttering the solution to a pressing decision into my lap. I’d forgotten that it was May. It was my first May that didn’t involve the end of a school year and all those attendant hopes and fears. I was both nostalgic for what May used to mean and grateful for what May means now—that I am a woman grown (more or less), with her fate in her own hands.

Now that’s a good movie.

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Review: The Devil Finds Work

The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin

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I can’t decide if my reticence in calling The Devil Finds Work more than “just” film criticism lies in my astonishment and admiration for the sheer breadth of of the essay or a falsehood I’ve internalized somewhere that criticism cannot get too far afield from the text it’s critiquing. The first is, if problematic and exceptionalizing, a product of my aching love for this essay; the latter is something to work on. Late in the essay, the reader is asked to question the motives of filmmakers adapting material: “What do the filmmakers wish us to learn?” (112). And the answer, no matter the text, will necessarily engage the reader with their culture and its deepest assumptions, values, and fears. Calling The Devil Finds Work more than film criticism implies that criticism shouldn’t be striving for that truth.

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Review: Bitterblue

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

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As a little kid in the late nineties, my main exposure to fantasy was through watching my brother play video games. Thusly, Warcraft II and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were enormous parts of my childhood. While the former is something I’m fond of revisiting in a fog of nostalgia, it’s the latter that utterly captured my imagination. There’s a lot of reasons for that, from being left-handed to a surprisingly diverse array of female characters for a mainstream video game from the nineties, but the biggest is Princess Zelda herself. Forced into hiding as a child after the murder of her father, she pins her hopes on a wild gambit. She spends seven years becoming a warrior before that gambit can pay off, watching her kingdom crumble around her. When that gambit miraculously works, she bends time to her will to try and give both the hero and herself the childhoods they were denied. And then, without ever knowing if that worked or not (if she killed him or not), she has to rebuild a kingdom from scratch.

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Review: Let’s Talk About Love

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

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While the Thirty-Three and a Third series started in 2003, I distinctly remembering seeing them everywhere last year about this time. The local music shop next to my college boasted a fair few, and even a used bookstore I ventured into miles away during a library conference had a complete set. But I was probably noticing them because I’d just decided to take music as seriously as I took the rest of my popular culture intake. I listened to the Beatles discography for the first time, started a playlist on Spotify entitled “Homework,” and started trying to move away from my singles-focused grazing method of musical appreciation. The series seemed like a great supplement to what I was doing, but Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste seemed the best place to start. Not because of my own musical taste—the more overproduced, cheesy, and artificial, the better, frankly—but because Wilson was tackling something almost antithetical to his own musical identity. An open-minded exploration of musical taste seemed the perfect place to start.

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Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

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I started Tiny Beautiful Things on a Sunday and logged into my library account later that day. Huh, I thought, it’s due tomorrow. I tried to renew it, but was faced with the fact that somebody else wanted to read it as badly as I did. What was a bibliophile in her last weeks of college to do? Why, finish it the next day, of course, neatly avoiding library fines and actual work in one fell swoop. It’s not procrastination if you’re doing something else productive, we all know that.

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Review: Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

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I remember hearing about Team Human when it came out last year on Tor.com and on io9, but it wasn’t until I saw it reviewed by Becky over at Active Voice. At first blush, it had seemed a little too on-the-nose parody of Twilight, and the cover… well, the cover sort of screams every cover design trope for young adult fiction, so it sort of hit a weird uncanny valley for me. But Becky said that it “managed to poke fun at the vampire craze (particularly Twilight) without being nasty or dismissive of the young women who love it.” That’s something that’s pretty important to me—as we’ve discussed in the past—so it finally made the leap to the reading list.

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Reading by Ear: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
read by Jeremy Irons

I think my first exposure to Brideshead Revisited was my mother trying to introduce me to the BBC miniseries and failing—as we watched Charles and Sebastian stroll arm in arm around Oxford, she anxiously assured me that they weren’t gay. Well, then, there’s nothing for me here, young Clare concluded to herself, and cut her losses. But I did eventually read the novel, before the most recent film adaptation came out. I enjoyed both novel and film adaptation immensely, but it had been some years since and, anyways, I finally got my hands on a copy of the audiobook as narrated by one Jeremy Irons. It was time to revisit… okay, that’s so bad I’ll stop myself.

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