Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review: Walking Dead: Walk With Me

I know I’m supposed to be serious and say some stuff about the arc of this series, but I really want to talk about rarr, Michael Rooker. He was used ridiculously badly in the first season, showing up as Daryl’s older, racister brother, given wholly lame scenery chewing speeches about how racist racist racist he was. Racist. But godamn, the man is Michael fucking Rooker, so I’ve been absolutely gagging for him to show back up. As something other than Daryl’s fever dream. Not that that isn’t hot too.

Though I have read the comic compendium that arcs through the Rickocrats sojourn on the farm and the prison, I haven’t really had a problem separating page from screen until now. So many things were different in the beginning, from Shane’s continued survival to general character shuffling. Which is mostly awesome, except for Lori. Andrea and Michonne fall into the sketchy utopia of the Governor’s town, and it’s pretty neat how softly David Morrissey plays a dude who is obviously going to turn out to be evil. But then maybe I’m just saying that because I’ve read the comix?

No, no, for sure, any show has to have an antagonist, and there is only one Rick in the Ricktatorship. As close to the edge as Rick is, the Governor’s calm and soft-spokenness reads as a warning. Seriously, folk, screaming your head off might be the right reaction to the zombie apocalypse, and barring that, as it might draw out the walkers, some eye-bugging might be in order. Anyone drinking tea should be watched.

Which brings us back to the spectacular Merle. He was written for shit first season, but he finally makes sense here as a bigger psychopath’s lap-dog – the “hammer” as he’s characterized by a somewhat wobbly-played mad scientist. Splendid Mr. Rooker’s swaggering and Ash-esque brandishing of his stump is neat within a community of larger, fell purpose, where it wasn’t all by its lonesome on a department store roof. Someone like Merle only makes sense in context. Yeeee haw.

Which brings me to Michonne. I have a several page rampage about how her character arc works out in the comix – most of it boiling down to how badly Kirkman writes women, so when he hits the topic of rape, he trips over his own dick and makes a serious mess – but I loved her character so wholeheartedly. Which is another place I’m finding it hard to separate comic from screen, because I’m bringing my love for a page Michonne to the screen, and I’m pretty sure the screen Michonne doesn’t deserve it yet. Yes, she can glower like a boss, and she is clearly a stupendous badass, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

Andrea’s characterization in the town is a little iffy, I think mostly because the writers are holding Michonne back to lend her more mystery or something. So Andrea’s stuck flirting and asking leading questions, because if she didn’t do it, no one would. I invoke Bechtel way more often than I should, but I think that maybe there is a general problem writing women on this show, because when Andrea berates Michonne a little for not knowing her despite their hanging out in the zombie apocalypse for the last seven months, I think, really? That doesn’t make any sense. The Governor’s town is so obviously overlaid with all this manfolk manliness, and Andrea’s openness and Michonne’s closedness feels a little weird.

But whatever. This episode was much more about sketching the Governor, and we’ll probably get our Michonne episode soon enough. And I liked the Governor sketch much more than in the comix, despite some lame dialogue – Andrea again with her “never say never” – because he’s so much less of a cartoon evil, ahem. They’re playing up his likeness to Rick in an almost ham-handed manner – token Asian guy: go kill that dude! token T-Dog looking guy: have no lines! token brown-haired lady: sleep in his bed! – but that’s what I’m really hoping for this season – a real conflict between just barely unsimilar leaders. And I did catch the barely coded “The South Will Rise Again” stuff, screenwriters. Good job.

Pete: Drinker of Blood: Who’s Got Your Belly?

I was recently telling a friend of mine about Pete, Drinker of Bloodby Scott S. Phillips – a friend who isn’t really big on genre fiction – describing the lovable schlub of a vampire who is our Pete, how he’s the antithesis of cool or fancy or popular, kinda stuck in the 70s classic rock milieu that existed when he turned. (I’ve been joking with my man about how my brain keeps calling this “Pee-Drinker of Blood,” which doesn’t really work grammatically, but the brain wants what it wants. Like Bear Grylls.) And my friend was like, you know? That’s actually really clever.
And it is pretty clever, and I hadn’t really noticed. Vampires in the modern vernacular tend to be these aristocratic fancypantses, whose long life is synonymous with compound interest and vast holdings, the long con of wealth in its longest form. The vamps in urban fantasy or its kissing cousin, paranormal romance – which is UF with sex scenes, as far as I’m concerned – tend to be these tragic, fopsy folk, mired in apologetic noblesse oblige, who get thrown a bang by wide-eyed waitresses and students for being soooo soorrry that they raped and murdered their way into wealth and long life. Let me pull my sexy sadface long enough for the ladies to drop trou.
Which can be awesome, don’t get me wrong. I kinda love the parts in Buffy when Angel gets all emo about how evil he was as Angelus, eating rats all soulful-like. (I might love it more when they flashback to when he was Angelus, because Boreanaz’s really bad Irish accent plus the serious television-budget minimalism of the “gradeur” makes for an unintentionally funny mix.) Nobody really writes blue collar comedies anymore – I think the last one of note was Roseanne, though I don’t really follow sit-coms – but they are especially thin on the ground in UF/PNR. A case could be made for the Sookie books, what with the fangbangers and all the folksiness of Sookie’s Wal*Mart fashions, but that’s not really a comedy, right? Certainly not intentionally, the inherent funniness of banana clips factoring into a love scene with a straight face notwithstanding. 
So, Pete’s a hopeless dork long before he became a vampire, and a hopeless dork for decades after. He’s plugging along in a hopeless job, in a hopeless apartment, with hopeless and moldering interests. And I’m making this sound like a drag, but it’s so not. Pete is finally working up to hitting on a cheerful waitress when the dude who turned him comes back to town with fell and dire purpose. Apparently, killing regular folk isn’t working anymore, so Pete’s sire has to pee-drink the blood of vampires to stay alive. (Or undead, whatever.) Pete’s gotta get the band back together, which means heading to Club Emoglobin (seriously, best vamp club name ever) to deal with the dickweeds who constitute the sire vamp’s gets. Which doesn’t go that well. 
Here’s where the really great class commentary comes in, because there are all of these beautiful, hilarious, bathetic character sketches for hipsters vampires who have self-styled with the douchiest of names, things like Lord Greystoke, only that’s not really one of them. You know what I mean, because I’m not looking it up. Pete woos his lady and does some goat-sucking, drives around in a tragic, classic car, and generally is the kind of dude who has a lot of band tee-shirts and heart. He manages to get a lot of people wearing way too much velvet to go kick some sire ass, and it’s wonderful and simple and ordinary how he comes into his gross new powers and love and stuff. I just want to rub Pete on his belly. Who’s got your belly, Pete?
I was writing along with the installments as Pete, Drinker of Bloodwas coming out as a serial novel – though I understand that the individual parts are coming down now that this is completed and edited for minor continuity errors and the like. Gotta say, I’m jazzed I don’t have to do that anymore, because, boy, does that get spoilerful after about the fourth. Anyway, here’s my disclosure: Scott is a friend, and my man did the layout for the final cover. (And all of the covers for the serializations are collected in the final draft, which is pretty adorable.) Pete, Drinker of Blood is an awesome, hilarious, funny bit of splatterstick horror-comedy, and I just had a blast reading it out over the last whatever months. Halloween is a-coming in. Maybe this’ll do you right. 
genealogywuthring

Wuthering Heights: Lock up Your Dogs!

A quick disclaimer: I betcha there are some spoilers in here, but it’s tough to properly mark spoilers on books this old. Fair warning. 

——

My sister and I recently got into one of those stupid cage matches about which was better: Jane Eyreor Wuthering Heights. Before everyone starts popping their monocles and baying about how this is a stupid comparison & as meaningless as comparing chalk and cheese, I know. I totally know. But five hours in a car will send conversations to really weird places. 

Anyway, I spent some time defending Jane, because I’ve read it three times. I’ve only listened to a shitty books-on-tape version of Wuthering Heights when I was 19, which was *cough* a while ago. While I may read really hard, I listen badly, and even though I wasn’t that distracted – I was on another road trip – I spent a good deal of time spacing out during my listen. Add into this the fact that the guy doing the reading used Dog Voice on all of the women, I don’t remember boo about the book.

A note on Dog Voice: my family may be cracked, but all of the dogs we had growing up had voices. Tessie, who was from Appalachia and was part-hound and part-werewolf, sounded like she had rocks in her mouth. She also sang opera. Kip has gravelly voice and a New York accent. For some weird reason, all of the border collie girl-dogs – I know the correct term is bitches, but I just can’t – have high-pitched girly voices. Nant, who has one blue-eye and one brown, and is crazy as a loon, is almost inaudible. So, Catherine sounded like a border collie dog, and then my brain kept trying to wake up from itself, and the spacing out turned into full on WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? 

So now I’m 75 pages in. This is just the funniest thing I’ve ever read. All the growling and slap-fights! By the 50th page two people had been attacked by dogs! I’m assured it gets even better. I don’t even know how. 

——–

Okay, so I was goofing off when I started this review talking about dogs, but dogs are all over this story. Bitches nurse their whelps in the kitchen; dogs are set on strangers in the yard; people enact the most vigorous cruelties on dogs as a manifestation of their black, black hearts. Mid-way through this novel, I had a conversation with one of my brilliant friends, and she said to watch how characters treat animals, which was smart advice. The scene where Heathcliff absconds/elopes with Isabella and hangs her dog from the neck to be rescued later by Nelly; the scene where Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, running past Hareton while he strangles a litter of unwanted pups: these cruelties bracket a larger brutality enacted between husbands and wives, lovers and friends, parents and children. 

Ir’s not that animals get it worse than people. Whoo boy, not by a stretch. There’s violence everywhere: masters boxing servants, parents beating children, drunks threatening everyone with guns, wife-beating, dog-fights, fist-fights, death-threats, kidnapping, coyly hinted-at marital rape, book-burning – I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The violence also has the ring of real experience – what a mouth looks like filling with blood, how the bruises change over days, how a sucker punch robs you of breath and leaves you gasping like a fish. I wonder how quiet the Brontës home life was, really. The somewhat crappy introduction to my edition, written by Alice Hoffman, indicates that the Brontës’ brother was a gambler and an addict, and then rather sloppily connects the real brother with the character of Catherine’s older brother who gambles away Wuthering Heights. This is too literal a reading by half. This is the story of addicts and abusers all, a shockingly intimate and muscular portrait of vice and obsession, and it’s only because there aren’t needles cast about on the moors that we don’t quickly recognize it as early Romantic Trainspotting

The heart is a muscle. It looks like a fist flayed of skin, stripped of all sensation but pain and bleeding and the need to clench and clench and clench. I don’t know what I expected, pretending as I had to have read this before, but I didn’t expect this series of reprisals and revenge and revenge. I’ve been thinking about Romeo and Julieta bunch recently, because a whole bunch of excellent reviews have gone past on the feed, and I’m struck by all the violence and recriminations that characterize the great romances. (I’m working hard to come up with a witty Shakespearean “die for love” play on words equating sexual climax with death, but I’ve got nothing.) Anyway, as usual, I may be a total whack-job, but for me, the pivotal moment in R&J is when Mercutio gets killed. Up until that point, R&J is a wacky lark of meeting cute and stolen kisses and having the first words a pair of lovers speak to one another resolve into a sonnet. (Squee! So awesome!) But then, oh holy hell, sometimes a sword is just a sword, and then the only person who isn’t a self-involved child gets stabbed, and at this point, just for a flash, I want everyone dead: the lovers, their confidants, their parents, everyone. You wanna see die for love, kids? I’ve got your die for love right here. 

That flash is the plot of Wuthering Heights. Solder the principles of R&J into a lead ball comprised of two houses, some moors, and a visiting goofball and you’ve got it. Oh, our unreliable narrators! Let me freak about them for a moment. Walton from Frankensteinand Lockwood from Wuthering Heightsshould have a battle to determine who is the most in love with the stories unfolding under their noses. I’m going to give Lockwood extra points for being a more comedic fellow; all of his sighing and bitching about being such a misanthrope rings hilariously hollow when he’s confronted by The Prince of Darkness Heathcliff and his sick side-show. He stumbles back to the grange after the first meetings with Heathcliff and begs Nelly to give him the goods, which she does in just the most beatific of self-serving forms. 

New Twilight-esque covers:
You totally wish, Smeyer.

And Nelly. Ah, Nelly. Walton, in Frankensteinwrites to his sister who sits dumb and mum throughout the whole tale. Here there’s no epistolary nightmare, but the outflowing of kitchen gossip: domestic, unlettered, invested, damaged as all get out. Narrators like Nelly make me freak out, because I spend waaaay too much time thinking about what really happened, and then I remember that it’s all fiction, and then I freak out some more. Then there’s the tantalizing parts that Lockwood reads in Catherine’s own words – he spends a night spooking at his shadow at Wuthering Heights, and finds a collection of Catherine’s books, where she has used every unprinted space as a diary. This makes me hyperventilate. I have a whole thing about gothic novels – hell, just novels in general – and the way they reference the form, mostly negatively, a hall of mirrors reflecting influence and anxiety. The governess in The Turn Of The Screw, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey(Catherine’s literary ancestor?) both of these ladies read too much and it made them mad, I tell you, mad. (Well, okay, not exactly mad in Northanger, but v. v. silly.) I love that Catherine writes herself into a novel, limning her words over other stories. I think in some ways the whole latter plot, once Catherine decides to marry the noodle Linton and play at the domestic, could be seen as a revenge fantasy imagined by Catherine herself, written over the more likely scenario of her having her youthful identity ground out of her by a succession of children, drudging women’s work, and the inevitable betrayal of age. 

Let’s just take a moment and think about Heathcliff and Catherine. Let’s just take it on faith that they are the same person, as Catherine most swooningly declares while she dithers about whether to marry someone else, sitcom-like, while Heathcliff feigns sleep in the next room and Nelly prods her on. Heathcliff is Catherine; he’s her wildness and anger and passion. This isn’t some Jekyll/Hyde deal because Catherine, at the start, is as wild as they come, feral, naughty & only partially housebroken. I think it’s important that Heathcliff is a foundling, born out of no one and nothing, his name the compound of two natural places, the heath and the cliff. When Catherine meets the Lintons, she’s attacked by their dog, and spends several weeks convalescing and domesticating. This troubles her relationship with Heathcliff, finally coming to a crisis when she decides to marry Linton. 

Heathcliff storms off – literally! har har – as she forsakes wildness for a certain kind of comfort, choosing the way women had to between love and money. (Of course there’s always secret options b, c, & d: impoverished marriage, servitude or death in childbirth. You can probably come up with an equally unpleasant but likely e, f & g without much trouble too.) But still these are the options more often laid before women in novels: marry for love, marry for money, or not at all. This dramatized simplicity is why I think Pride and Prejudicegets mistaken for a romance novel: finding a rich husband that Lizzie (and Jane too!) also loves smacks of wish-fulfillment. How many times has that actually happened in the history of the world? Like, twice? 

So maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek with its transporter accidents and multiverse theory, but this is where the plot spins off on Track B for me. In some more prosaic world, Cathy marries, gets pregnant, has a baby, and in some real way this kills her younger self. Heathcliff, her rage and freedom, transports into an emotional reality and exacts vengeance for his loss, for her loss, sucking up inheritances, property, lives, decorum, and anything else he can get his mitts on. As each person dies, he swells with life, living by punishment and annihilation. There aren’t many people in this world, and as the plot unfolds, they become fewer and more inbred, with an almost confusing doubling and trebling of names, children, marriages and blood and blood and blood. Lockwood, in the very beginning, notes a series of names carved in the window sill: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton. Read forwards, these names are the trajectory of Catherine’s life; read backwards, they are her daughter’s. After all the death and wreckage, the story comes to a kind of peace, the younger Cathy giggling in a window as she plays slap-and-tickle with her husband. (And those of you who’ve read this: I know they keep referring to Hareton as her cousin, which is gross enough, but isn’t he her uncle? Eww.) 

I have this bad feeling I’ve made this sound like a total drag, and like I didn’t like it at all. No! I’m all for this, and this is funny as hell – literally! har har – I have simply got to stop making that joke. Again, I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t expect how robust and lusty this book was, how muscled the prose, how unflinching and violent. I don’t often go in for romantic - degraded as that term has become – because so often it’s all soft-focus douche-ad that relies on euphemism over viscera. I don’t know what to say about the Jane v. Catherine thunderdome battle, other than this: I want some academic to write a paper about phrenology and the Brontës. Okay, maybe that’s a weird thing to think, but all the descriptions of foreheads and bumps on the skull – did they have some phrenological text in the house or something? Several brilliant friends have recommended I read the third Brontë to throw a folding chair into the ring. I think I will, after I read a bunch of trash, of course. 

Review: Glass Houses

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I go to bed at the usual hour, no problem, and then awake and squint at the clock which reads something between 2 and 4 and think, “Damn.” After I find my glasses, things are clearer, but I’m still awake. The television is no good at this time of night, although I do play a game where I try to count how many stations are running “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials. The record stands at four. (Not that this has anything to do with the review, but this is the thing I don’t get about Joe Francis’s titty empire: if you want to buy porn, then why not just buy porn?)

So I read Glass Housesby Laura J. Mixon in the strange hours between too late and too early, and I was happy for it’s company: not overly taxing, stylish, and driving toward some smaller human truth. My step-mom uses the term “little movies” when she refers to films that set out to accomplish some narrow thing and then succeed; in this way, this book is a “little book.” (And to be clear, this term is not a dig; success on any scale is success, and sometimes art fails because its reach exceeds its grasp.) It was written in the early 90s, and its cyberpunk sensibilities feel worn and frayed, too indebted to its sources to really make the genre new and vital. Mostly, I didn’t mind, but then I like cyberpunk. My real complaint is that the stylishness of the setting, the window-dressing of global warming as global apocalypse, the sense of technology driving the breach between haves and have-nots had little to do with the actual emotional heart of the book. Why dress it as cyberpunk at all?

Our protagonist, an agoraphobic scavenger using a proxy-device, almost rescues a very important man from his rather gruesome death. She steals his newly-written will off of his body, and then decides, due to the assholery of his family, to deliver the will to the rightful heir. Well and good; this will serve as plot. The real story is about her coming to terms with her roommate and sometimes lover Melissa. Her relationship with Melissa is the soul of the book, and the thing I responded to the most, even if the revelations felt forced at times, and the protagonist’s changes incomplete or untrue. I have fallen in love with users. At some point you realize that thee concept of unconditional love is something of a trick designed by people who have been keeping score. It’s not unfair to count the points yourself. 

I say that this is a little book, but I wonder if these things are little at all. It’s hard to say. I read this as my twilight self, companioned by the audible silence of the house and my frustrations with my continued awakeness. This is the odd thing I felt when I finished this book: I might have liked this better had it been billed as young adult, not that I disliked it. It’s fun to complain about marketing; I do it all the time. And I don’t want to fall into the the trap of thinking fiction written for the younger set is somehow smaller and less important. But there is something fundamentally young in the awakenings found within its pages, a young that isn’t naive exactly, but a young that keeps trusting the prostitute she loves despite the obvious metaphorics of her profession. It’s a good first book, worthy of a look at Mixon’s later work. And a good book for the edgy hours before dawn.

Review: Walking Dead: Sick

Spoilers for everything.

The series opener of Walking Dead, Days Gone Bye, starts with our hero, Rick Grimes waking up in a hospital in Atlanta approximately 28 days after the zombie apocalypse. (See what I did there?) He’s the fish out of water, exploring the new normal of the world he inhabits, a normal that unfortunately includes walking cannibal corpses. Beginning in medias res allows the narrative to leapfrog over the action movie histrionics of First Night – histrionics I often enjoy, I’ll have you know – and get down the the dirty business of survival. The boat has sunk. Here’s the raft. Watch him try to patch the leaks.

Rick missed out on the 24 hour news cycles debating, then crying doom, then cutting out, the slowly dawning realization and then adaption to this new environment, watching friends turn, having the electricity cut out, packing the car, running and running and killing and running. He was just thrust into it, and the scene where he pats the floor with his hand, muttering, is this real? Is this real? is the posture d’être for Rick for the next two seasons. Over the next two seasons, he clings to his uniform, to often ineffectual or dangerous senses of order and authority, but it makes a kind of sense. He never got the call that the Twin Towers had fallen and that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. 


In Sick, the uniform has come off. I’ve noticed our merry band of Rickocrats (I know the fanterm is Ricktatorship, but Rickocrats works better for everyone who isn’t Rick) have been elbows deep in grime (Rick grime?) for the season so far. They don’t bother even to wash off the blood anymore, making bloody handprints just like the walkers as they go through their now almost rote survival. It’s a sharp contrast with all the damn bisquit-making and down-home folky farmin’ that was going on last season, clean pretty white curtains fluttering in the breeze. I bitched a fair amount about that, but I’m getting punished for my desire to see Rick Shane up just a little and acknowledge he’s living in a world that demands quick, hard moral choices. It works when he lops off Hershel’s leg, saving his life, but he’s hardened so much that, Rick, man, loosen up. 

In a pretty neat parallelism, Rick & crew find a group of prisoners as ignorant as Rick was at the beginning of the season one. They’ve been locked in a cafeteria for 10 months (28 weeks later, maybe?) and are fully ignorant of the walking dead or the world as it is now. Rick’s short explanation of all they have lost – no phones, no hospitals, no government – is pretty stark, and lays out the stakes in a way I thought was missing in season two. But the prisoners’ ignorance is different from Rick’s – they are not boy scouts – and the way they cling to past methods of survival is going to be different. Much of this is played for both comedy and bathos, which is pretty refreshing in a series with as grim (Rick grim?) a set-up as this one. I didn’t catch his name – that I didn’t catch any name other than Big Tiny, which is a serious bullseye in my book, was a sign I shouldn’t worry too much about these characters’ continued survival – but the way the long-haired leader psycho keeps shiving walkers in the gut was pretty funny. T-Dog and Daryl’s get a load of these idiots looks are priceless. 

But long-haired psycho keeps pulling all this prison yard puffery, going at Rick in a zombie melee in a way that is clumsy and obvious. Shane would never have done something so bald – shit happens, indeed – because he wouldn’t assume that there was an authority other than Rick’s machete in his skull to end that conflict. There’s no guards, no law, nothing to break this conflict up. I’ve had my reservations about Lincoln’s acting, although mostly it was centered in his questionable Southern dialect, but he’s really kicking ass here. You can see him make the decision to kill long-haired psycho, and it’s well before the dude takes a sloppy swipe at Rick. His reaction to leaving the one prisoner out to be eaten by walkers is effective as well, but the choice itself is awful, a total Shane-move that is nowhere near as justified as his killing of long-haired psycho. 

The sparse dialogue, in addition to not treating the secondary (and therefore largely female) characters like completely irrational idiots, continues to be as effective as the season opener, Seed. Which is so encouraging. Lori is our biggest improvement, with her tete a tete with Rick about how fucked their marriage is actually wringing some sympathy for her from me. Her “you should just go out there and murder folk with a clear conscience” speech is maybe more a throwback to old Lori, because it casts her as this big dumb girl, lol, whose conceptualization of how the menfolk are managing their ethical choices is quaint and outmoded. It’s not about ethics, lady. Maybe that’s okay, but Walking Dead has always had a problem writing some seriously regressive shit into the mouths of its ladies. I broke my heel. Carry me! But other ladies are improving as well, with Carol pulling a decidedly not insane (Glenn’s monologue is hilarious) vivisection of a walker to ready her for the coming c-section. Hard choices, you makes ‘em, gurrrl. (Ooo, also, who is watching from the tree??)

By the end of Sick, we’re down to two prisoners – and I’m way hoping for more screen time with pointy mustache prisoner – and Hershel’s up and not a walker, despite some cheap scares. Rick says to Lori that tomorrow they’re going to start cleaning, and I hope that once they wash the blood off, they don’t fall into the farm quagmire of last season. It’s tough in a show predicated on action to take a break and do the character work that it needs to make the action pay off, but given the strength of the first two episodes, I continue to be cautiously optimistic. Oh, and more Michonne, please. Remember Michonne? I sure as hell do. 


We are Wagging the Long Tail: The Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads

In an op-ed in Forbes, you can find the following infographic about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads:

[from These are the Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads]


I’m at #18. And phew, I’m glad I finally changed up my avatar photo to something other than a Tusken Raider hanging out on the beach; that would have been awkward.



I’ve been active on Goodreads since April of 2008, and since then I have written over 400 reviews. One of the more frustrating pastimes on that site is trying to parse why and how reviewers get the votes they do, scrying the top lists for cultural trends and currencies, arguing about populism versus merit, pitching hand-to-hand combats about what reviews have value and why and how. I’ve been around this block enough to know that this top list of reviewers looks verra verra different from what it looked like when I signed on, lo, those many years ago, when my friends list mostly consisted of my mother. It would be an interesting if ultimately brutal timesink of a project to chart the ebbs and flows of who this tiny corner of the booknerdosphere ranked as its most voted reviewers. (Which is what “top reviewer” means – it’s Goodreads reviewers whose reviews have the most votes.) 

I’m feeling a little lazy and tired in my response to this op-ed, so I’m just going to post the reaction I had on facebook:

 I thought the part about finding better business books through sites like Goodreads was a good point, but the stuff about crowdsourcing, traditional critical platforms, and the rest of it was pretty jumbled. I don’t think traditional criticism is dead, or that it is necessarily in conflict with stuff like goodreads or book bloggers – but obviously a lot of people see it that way. (Like the head judge of the Booker prize who stated recently that book bloggers were “harming literature,” which I think is a deeply stupid thing to say.) It is true that sites like Goodreads are wagging the long tail though, which any writer who isn’t a well established litfic or popular fiction writer – and that is pretty much all of them – should really pay attention to. Traditional critical platforms, like newspapers, are having a whole world of hurt right now, but not just because of social media. Some of it is just the calculus of how many reviews a newspaper can write – what is the average number in a Sunday insert? – versus the absolute barrage available online. Sure, lots of those are crap, but the same can be said for the dumbed down or heavily generalized reviews one can find in the paper.  


I’m “friends” with most of the people on that list, actual friends with a smaller number, follow a few of them, and I’ve at least heard of the rest. We’re a tight knit crowd, even if we’re not close friends (or even like each other, in some instances.) We’re definitely watching one another’s critical reactions though, even if those reactions are to books and genres we have zero interest in.So I know their reviews pretty well. Most of those reviewers have a pretty solid focus in one (or two or three) areas – young adult, or scfi, or crime fiction, or whatever – and they are journeyman reviewers – one or two a week for years. (The anomaly being the woman who has over 10,000 votes for her three 50 Shades reviews.) I have no idea how far our influence spreads – not far being my guess – but I think these reviewers are popular because of an expertise, however homespun, in a corner of literature. And those corners are often not represented in traditional media. You won’t find reviews of business books in the NYT, for better or for worse. You don’t really find them so much on Goodreads either, but then there was that one Liberty reviewed that sparked off a pretty big firestorm about writers, reviewers and social media. Wag the long tail, baby.

A friend of mine (who is an academic) challenged my use of the word homespun in regards to expertise, calling it “a spurious distinction much aided by the values of the market culture.” And she is entirely right about that; experts such as Mr. Booker Prize wouldn’t have his monocle in such a twist if his claim to cultural gatekeeping and the arbitration of quality weren’t threatened by the democratization of critical platforms. Amateur – which is by definition unpaid – does not mean inexpert. Especially when it comes to areas of publishing that traditional media have ignored or underrepresented.Though I usually prefer to think of myself as a crank, I honestly think this set of reviewers – even the ones I think are assholes – the new face of criticism, spinning their expertises in the home, because the home is the most logical place to spin them. Reading is a sullen art. I’ve always quipped that the most successful goodreaders have elements of both exhibitionism and introversion in their personalities, desiring to say out loud what we experience in the comfort of our own minds. Criticism is the calculated bleating of those who think too long and too hard about their personal reactions – why do I feel what I feel about this? Or maybe it isn’t, but for sure the whole enterprise is rooted in serious engagement with books and the whole sticky ball of wax that is reaction, process, and – dare I say it? – art.

We are the long tail, and we wag what we can in the ways we know best.It’s entirely possible I’m just all jazzed to have my picture in Forbes though. Thank heavens I’m not represented by that Tusken Raider, cute as he was.

Day by Day: Groundhog Day for Science Fiction Nerds

If you’ve been paying attention to the Mayans and watching a lot of programs on the History Channel about Ancient Aliens – good lord, I love how the History Channel has morphed from all WWII all the time to seriously lunacy – you know that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012. Day by Day by the Brothers Kollin imagines that end of the world as a sort of Groundhog Day writ large: instead of just one man waking up reset on a single day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, it is everyone everywhere. 

This is seriously old school science fiction, and as such, was an absolute treat for me to read. At some point too long ago to remember any googlable details, I read an article about the serious philosophical and psychological implication of Harold Ramis’s little goofy comedy, complete with estimates for how long weatherman Phil Connors would have taken to learn all the skills he does in the film. If you spend any time thinking about it, the idea of being stuck in a single day is an absolute nightmare once you’ve done all the goofing and hedonistic stuff such a scenario presents. 

When I originally watched the film many years ago – though I saw it just again last month, coincidentally – I laughed myself to tears over the suicide sequence. There is something objectively hilarious about a man getting up, ripping a toaster out of the wall in the dining room, and then tossing it into the bath. ZZZt zzt. And it’s funny precisely because the whole situation has so completely destroyed the concept of the meaningful act. I don’t know, because I’m not looking it up, but I would imagine that people who consider suicide tend to work out a series of symbolic acts – this one meal, this last note, a gesture, whatever – and that Phil just wakes up and kills himself without preamble is funny precisely because it’s the godamn worst. Haha, graveyard! I whistle past you! 

Point being, the implication of a whole planet full of people who are stuck in a Groundhog day scenario is the kind of thing that science fiction was made for. I love the thought experiment, love it, and I love it even more when the thought experiments anticipate my “but…what! what about this?” thoughts and then answer them. In a scenario where everyone resets to the same physical situation, but they hold memories from every single reset single day, what happens to babies? What happens to fiction? What about the different time zones? Etc. Etc. All of my questions were answered in a satisfying manner, even if I’m inclined to disagree about certain implications. (Not that I do too much – just, I respect that in a narrative arc, certain things will out, even if they’re not, like, wholly plausible. That they are plausible at all is enough.) 

The other thing I’m grooving on in this story is how topical it is; we’re two months from the Mayan Apocalypse. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the world will not end in any fashion, let alone the one laid out here, on December 21, 2012, but exact date of the end of the world has always been a sucker’s bet. Zero percent of end times’ prophesies have been right so far, though I know it just takes the one. But I love anachronistic science fiction, like the short story collected in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Bagombo Snuff Box written before space flight that imagines the ether around planet earth as filled with the ghosts of our ancestors. And holy god, what a nightmare that is – your mother-in-law able to reach out from beyond the grave and keep telling you what to do. Blah. That this story will be anachronistic fast is delicious, like watching Y2K: The Movie (Planes falling from the sky! Ken Olin’s huge sweater!) in the month before December 31, 1999, only not terribly stupid like that. 

Anyway, get on this short story before the clock expires, nerds who like classically minded science fiction short stories. Or don’t, which could be fun in its own way too, reading this while the zombie hordes bang at the barricades. Haha! Those assholes Kollin got the Mayan doomsday entirely wrong! Could someone hand me a machete? I have to clear the fences again. And by way of full disclosure, Dani Kollin is a friend of mine, and my husband designed the website for his first novel. But we’ll be taking you up on those surfing lessons, Dani, if the world ends in the kind of stasis posited in this thought experiment. If I’ve got nothing but time before the despair sets in, I’m going to get as much as possible in. And I don’t even like being wet all that much. Twss. 

Sharp Teeth: Domestic God and Dogs

Barlow takes the Homeric fire, tosses on a bunch of kerosene, toasts a couple of marshmallows until they bubble blackly, and then eats them with a grin. Then he throws on a couple of tires for good measure and leans back for a long, slow pull on a hip-flask. Man. I’ve been doing the sputtering flail whenever I try to describe Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow to people: it’s a free verse novel! about werewolves! an L.A.! Quit backing away like I’m a crazy person because I’m totally for serious and so is Barlow.

I’m the kind of dork who flips out when I read in one of the blurbs for this book that says it’s written in blank verse. Godamn it, blank verse has meter, my friends, and this does not. This is free verse. I’m also the kind of dork who has an opinion about free verse, generally, which goes something like this: free verse is for the lazy. No, no, calm down; I’m also enough of a dork to defend e. e. cummings with my dying breath for relying on other, cooler, more chthonic prosodic stylins. Sure, he’s kind of responsible for a bunch of lamers thinking it’s okay to just write crap all over the page and call it poetry, but that’s like blaming [some historical figure] for [later, sucky historical movements]. You know what I mean. (And I’m not talking about [Ayn Rand] and [Objectivism], for the record.)

The dorkiness will keep on coming when I try to relate my feelings about the Epic. I’m no Classics major; that train of inquiry more or less ended when a history prof in my freshman year gave the following question as a mid-term exam: Compare the Fall of Greece to the Fall of Rome. Um, does “fuck you” count as an answer? So, my relationship with the Epic begins with John Milton and then terminates in Alexander Pope. It’s been a while since I’ve sung this tune, but let’s see if I can hit the high notes: Milton translated the Epic into the vulgar language of English, and much like the translation of the bible into the vulgar language of English, both ended in a profoundly local sense of divinity and identity. Milton grappled with a Mediterranean God/form in his own tongue, and it changes that form, the God, and the tongue in ways that cannot be counted. 

Pope tootles along almost a century later, and knowing he couldn’t be Milton, broke his Epic musings into two things: he translates Homer’s epic into fucking heroic couplets, which is, like, the most insane thing ever, trust me, and then writes what he calls a “mock epic”:The Rape of the Lock. I don’t really know what to say about The Rape of the Lockother than it makes me seriously nuts on several levels. It’s goofy; it’s in absolutely more heroic couplets; it uses the word “rape” in an already (at the time) archaic sense that means “theft”. It’s been a while since I’ve hefted this tome, but I do know that a thousand proverbs in English come out of The Rape of the Lock. It’s catchy as hell. You can dance to it, even though it kind of pisses you off. So, your English prof would say at this time, the Epic is dead. Long live the Epic.

So. Then. Well. *cough cough* The epic didn’t really die there, and then English got itself transported to America and hit the Pacific ocean and sat down on the California coast and thought, “Oh, fuck, man”. There’s The Golden Gateby Vikram Seth which is a sort of prose poem/epic Tales of the City. Fantastic, and worth a looksee, seriously. It’s funny; it’s light; it’s written in the Onegin stanza which has a kind of loosey-goosey conversational style to it, despite being rhymed-and-metered. The opening: 

To make a start more swift than weighty 
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon 
A time, say, circa 1980, […:]

Ha! Milton may have invoked the wrong muse when he began Paradise Lost, and Seth just sketched her briefly, but Sharp Teeth takes this a step farther. 

Let’s sing about the man there
at the breakfast table

No muse. Let’s just sing. Let’s just boogey it out on this California coast in the twisting idiom of supernatural Noir, which is both tired tired tired like the detritus of the American Dream and open open open like the frontier that ends at the Pacific ocean and breaks into the thousand ethnic neighborhoods. The epic at its heart cares and is concerned about God in its many guises; Sharp Teeth is no different. But since Pope elevated the silly to the profound, the epic in English can throw in the kitchen sink, and Barlow does, in spades. 

I say there are werewolves, but this isn’t the kind of genre fiction that gives a shit about silver bullets and the lame specifications of rule-bound supernaturalism. People become animals. They become these sleek, domestic beings because they are beaten until they change or they share the blood of another werewolf, or because they break with grief after an act of kindness shatters the darkness they have cultivated so closely. There’s a lot here about love, and kindness, about cruelty, about the prime mover and his ineffable indifference and old Wile E. Coyote who lopes into the grand creation and arranges a thousand coincidences that arrange themselves into the doofy haphazardness of our lives. 

I’m in love. I still won’t release my unease with free verse; that’s the fur on my hackles that I simply won’t shave off. This isn’t tight prose, but I like the shaggy dog of its looseness, which says things like:

The secret must stay
and – according to the scientists – 
the love will live.
The heart is quite comfortable with secrets.
After all, its home is a dark wet place
tucked in among all the other organs
who aren’t talking either. 

I’ve run off the end of the cliff. Love is the anvil that will hit me when I drop. Hail Muse. 

The Hidden Goddess: Second Verse, Same as the First!

Second verse, same as the first! 

Just kidding. 

Sort of. 

I liked the first of this series, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, almost despite myself. The opening is rough, like a chainsaw working out the bite into the flesh of the log. But it finds its bite partway through the book in a way that treats American history with respect, even though I wish a little more of that history made it into the book. Or, you know, in a way that mattered. 

Second verse, same as the first. By which I mean, this epilogue starts with some seriously interesting stuff about Grant’s presidency and alt-history stuff about the sources for the American Civil War, and then, and then, well, nevermind all that! I’m not really complaining, I guess, because Hobson took some things about the first book that I really sparkled on and expanded them – like the effects of gender on the credomancy explained in the first book – the magic of belief – in the character of Miss Jesczenka. I almost wanted her to chuck Emily – our heroine from the first book – and focus on the spectacular Miss Jesczenka, who articulates an astonishingly personal and accurate ambivalence about the experience of being a woman in a misogynist society. Just, good Lord, she’s so awesome. 

It’s not even so much that I’m bagging on Emily – she is a fine main character, with her fish-out-of-water folksy ways – but I felt like the inevitable second book issues between Emily and her paramour, Dreadnought (oh, just barf on the names here, even though they are explained better in this outing) fell into a lot of lameness traps. Emily and Dreadnought (ugh) spend a lot of the first book sniping at each other in that antipathy-is-attraction way, while here, they are kept apart by a bunch of logistics and the occasional bullshit misunderstanding. Some of the misunderstandings were valid – Emily’s search for her birth parents, and the varying allegiances and mis-allegiances found and lost by her questings were spot on – but sometimes it was like, ZOMG IMMA MISUNDERSTAND SOMETHING I JUST WALKED IN ON THAT IS EASILY MISCONSTRUED. Bah. 

Emily and Dreadnought’s (ugh) relationship is never anything more that paint-by-numbers – right down to the argument-ending kisses he plants on her more than once – which, I would like to know if that has ever actually worked for a dude irl. I’m not sure why the wisdom is that lovers have to be kept apart in book two, but I’ve see it often enough for it to be a thing. Shame, really, because there were a number of developments that I could easily imagine Dreadnought (ugh) and Emily tackling together, because the implications had more than enough potential for conflict between them to arise – real conflicts, rather that logistical bumbling and iffy misunderstandings. The baddie here is so over the top she’s maybe hard to take seriously, but certain political situations were neat enough to keep me from focusing on the unreality of the bad guy’s motivations. 

It’s been a while, but I felt like the tone of this book was more consistent, and more consistently goofy than the first, though I do not mean that as a dig. A failing of the first book might be that that it expected me to take some very silly stuff seriously, while here there’s some very serious stuff that might have been treated more lightly than it should have been. The question of tone is a tricky one, one that I don’t have an easy answers for, though I get the difficulties of managing a story that is equal parts end-of-the-world, banter-y romance, and alt-history. That the tone is managed as well as it is is certainly something. 

The ending dot dot dots to a certain kind of romantic completeness, which both irritates and satisfies in equal measures. I went to look for the next book in this series – that’s how on the hook I am – and it looks as though the narrative of Emily and her Dreadnought (ugh) will be skipped over to writhe in the stories of their kids. Which, boo a little bit. Given the end, I would like to hear some stuff about how Dreadnought (ugh) deals with…some things, how he copes with losing something fairly vital to his personality. Love is the answer and all, but, as the narrative here says, it’s just a start. Too bad that’s all we get here.

Review: Walking Dead: Seed

(Spoilers for season two.)

Season three of AMC’s The Walking Dead started with what is beginning to be the show’s usual bang up premiere episode. Like the first and second season premieres, “Seed” uses action and set pieces to convey stakes in a spare, compact manner. The opening sequence right before the shrieking violins of the titles has minimal dialogue and no music, a silent evocation of how dire things have become. The members of the Rickocracy – I still haven’t quite forgiven the season two finale’s hammy “This is not a democracy!” speech, delivered in Lincoln’s questionable Southern dialect – are functioning now as a well-oiled (if somewhat oily) team. In the house, walkers down, into the cabinets, collapse on the floor. Season two was eventually a quagmire, despite the masterful zombie herd on the highway sequence it had as opener, so we’ll see if season three can keep up its game.

There are some auspicious changes to our less than merry Rickocrats though. Post-apocalyptic stories tend to have close to their little hearts a commentary about the construction of society, the nature of leadership and the led, an us versus us versus them. These are lifeboat situations writ large, and with teeth. When you get right down to it, the zombies (or walkers – which, why are they never called zombies?) are such formidable creatures because they have no individuality. There are no leaders, no orders, just an infinitely scalable motive-of-one: consume. Survivors survive by being more like them, not by wandering off individually after bickering about shit that doesn’t matter.

In the second season, Rick’s strange deference to Hershel’s insanity, though understandable to a degree because of what we know about Rick, and all that mooning around after undoubtedly zombified children didn’t make for the best of television. All those monologues looking out over the fields with Hershel’s watery, soulful eyes – what we need here is a walker attack. Wake up. But even when we got them, Hershel persisted in a leadership based on fantasy, and it got hard to respect Rick for respecting Hershel. It gets to be a problem when you’re rooting for the bad guy, Shane – though, of course, on some level you’re meant to. But it’s an even bigger problem when Shane’s often cogent critiques of how they were living were buried under a bunch of cartoon villainy.

Hershel, Shane and Rick were three different models of leadership, and it bugs me that Shane’s more reality-based model – he was right a thousand times about the group’s need to sac up and learn some real skills – was run to such ridiculously self-defeating nihilism. Hershel was there to act as counterpoint to Rick’s boy scouting; he clung to the old world so hard that he denied reality itself. Sure, it got most of his family killed and the farm overrun, but it’s not like those characters showed up with anything but bullseyes on them, so it was hard to care. I guess my real problem is in characterization, again and again, where Hershel seemed swathed in this Quaker Oats commercial aura, lending his absolutely indefensible position – this is not happening – a gravitas it didn’t deserve.

In “Seed”, Rick is obviously just holding it together, and the group is exhausted and beset. But they are finally a group, and despite a few questionable decisions, they are not behaving like idiots right and left. And the questionable decisions were obviously made to heighten spectacle, which I don’t really count as a bad thing. Sure, they probably should have just banged at the gates and poked zombies in the head with sticks to clear the yard – ammunition does not grow on trees – but the clearing scene with everyone, including last season’s deadweights (har har), taking down zombies was pretty thrilling, and showed us how much this group has changed. What happens to Hershel though, that was a questionable decision that could have been better played.

Though the finding and clearing of the prison didn’t have much of a narrative arc – in many ways, this felt like a part one – it was heartening to see the minimal dialogue be functional. (And to see T-Dog get any lines at all.) The problems tend to happen on Walking Dead when people open their mouths, with characters espousing positions willy nilly without regards to character. But here, the one monologue was grounded in the situation, working out a number of logical if unpleasant consequences of them all being infected. And it was delivered by Lori(!), whose sole motivation in the past has been “womens be crazy and inconsistent lol.”

There’s a good chance this season will mire in the same crappy characterization and bad dialogue, but this was an exciting beginning. I know that the showrunners have said that the show will not follow the plot of the comics, but given how The Governor played there, the potential for corny cartoon villainy is still very much present. Which would be a shame, really, because having Rick run up against a leader almost, but just not quite like him would be a much richer conflict. It would probably be less badass though, I admit, and the badassery of Walking Dead is certainly its strong point. Viva le Rickocracy.

And speaking of badass, more Michonne please.