Classic Lit Challenge 3: All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months after my father was killed, my mother purged a ton of his books, so when I was at her house searching for something to read, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the bookshelves were as bare as a Venezuelan supermarket. All I found were a few All Quietreligious books, some non-fiction war books and…All Quiet on the Western Front.

I probably grimaced when I pulled it off the shelf. Not only because it was a boring war novel that you’re assigned in high school, but also because on the cover was John Boy from The Waltons TV show. That show bored me to death, as did the character, so I can’t dissociate the actor from the character, or the show.

Nevertheless, I took it with me. It was short enough to meet my classic challenge standard, and I love the history of Germany during the pre-WWII era. So I figured I’d just try to not look too long at John Boy on the cover and give it a try.

I was expecting Erich Maria Remarque’s classic to be boring. It wasn’t. I was also expecting it to be staid and mannered. I was wrong again. All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of Paul, a battle-hardened German soldier fighting along the western front in France during World War One. In his preface, Remarque clearly states that the book is not meant to be anti war. While it could easily be mistaken for a pacifist plea, it’s not. It’s just a detailed account of life as a soldier.

At times the writing is bawdy. He’s not adverse to throwing in a few fart jokes, of all things. In other episodes, Remarque, through the narrator, clearly relays the intense camaraderie that develops among soldiers. This falls just short of romanticization, which makes it even more effective.

One thing that kept coming back to me (which was in contrast to the thirtysomething actor on the book’s cover) was Paul’s age. He and his friends enlist just after high school. He’s 19 during the course of the book. More than once he comments on how disillusioned he and his entire generation have become because of the war, how lost they are, how much they’ve aged. This was one of the most powerful themes for me.

All Quiet on the Western Front is bursting with rich description. Unlike most modern novels, it’s not told in a traditional three-act structure. That’s because it was serialized during the 1920s. I found the episodic nature of the chapters compelling.

All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t go over too well once the Nazis came into power. It was a target of book burnings, and Remarque fled the country. The Nazis are long gone, but his book still persists.

Next up, my first failure.

Classic Lit Challenge, Episode 2: Ethan Frome

Ethan Who??

As I write this I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails — The Day The World Went Away. It fits the mood I was in when I picked up Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and the song’s constrained brutality fits the mood of the book.

I was in a “whole world went away” kind of mood when I rummaged through the stacks of books at the local protestant church’s used book pile (paperbacks for a dollar!). I’d just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand oethan fromef Darkness, still haunted by that resonating line of hers: Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing? I was desperate for another book, one that had some words and meaning that would give me something (what “thing” I couldn’t say). On a shelf full of plays I found a few dozen classics. I sifted through them, and I chose Edith Wharton’s book for only one reason. It was short. Right now I can’t sit through anything longer than 300 pages, and this paperback version was about 100.

Deal.

All I knew of Edith Wharton was that she was a highly regarded American writer from the turn of the last century, that she was rich, and that she wrote books about rich people. I expected Ethan Frome to be a novel about boring rich people and their fussy manners.

I was wrong.

It’s about poor people and their fussy manners. And their inability to set their hearts on a possible thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Ethan Frome. It’s a big story in a little book. It’s a focused narrative that mines deep emotions. It is restrained yet revealing.

The book is about the title character’s doomed, aborted love affair. Wharton does something interesting craft-wise. She opens with an unnamed narrator (who totally doesn’t matter) describing an older Ethan as a crippled man, both physically and emotionally. Eventually the narrator learns how Ethan became so wounded. Years earlier, Ethan, trapped in a loveless marriage with the shrewish Zeena, falls for her cousin Mattie, who is boarding with the Fromes to help Zeena, who is more or less a hypochondriac. Ethan falls in love with Mattie. Zeena, who only seems to love her mysterious malady, plans on sending Mattie away. Ethan grows desperate.

And then the trouble begins.

I won’t reveal what happened, but I was totally caught up in the story. Everyone is trapped in lives and a society that offer no escape. Their choices are severely constrained. Hope is hard to come by.

It fit my mood perfectly.

Ethan Frome is a book to wallow in. I don’t thing Edith Wharton thought highly of marriage, and she had no clue about struggling working class folk. but none of that mattered. She burrowed deep into the hearts of her characters. She churned a whirlpool of tension until the final shocking moments when she revealed exactly how Ethan’s body and spirit were broken.

Next in my literary challenge, another dark and stormy classic.

 

 

Classic Lit Challenge, Episode 1: The Left Hand of Darkness

It’s been a rough couple of months in my world. To deal with the turbulence I’ve turned inside myself. I pulled back from the real world, mainly because I can’t take the triviality, the overload. That might not make sense, but there’s not much else to explain.

I need some other focus. Television and movies aren’t cutting it right now. Too much crap floating around. And modern books are leaving me hungry for quality. So I’m starting on a self-imposed diet of classic works of literature.

First up, Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

As a speculative fiction fan and writer, I am slightly ashamed to say that I’ve never read anything by LeGuin before. She’s a master of the genre. I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness blindly (knowing nothing about it at all), and read it blindly, not even glancing at the back cover copy. Not too far into the book I understood why she’s so revered.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a (male) humanoid emissary to the icy world of Gethen. For Gethen’s humanoid inhabitants, he is their first contact with extraterrestrial life. (Quick recap, which I had to Google to understand: In LeGuin’s fictional universe, there are several humanoid species seeded throughout the universe. These interrelated species are slowly reconnecting with each other).

Gethen is a world unlike any other that Genly Ai has encountered. The people of Gethen are neither male nor female. They are ambisexual, dimorphic. For a few days every month they go into heat, and they become either male or female, depending on their partner, and they mate. when they are not in heat, they revert to an androgynous state.

The story follows Genly Ai’s attempt to understand this strange species of human, as well as influence them to open themselves up to the wider federation of humanoids throughout the universe.

Okay. That’s a lot of explanation on my part, but it’s important to relay the gist of this complicated story. LeGuin does an excellent job of merging storytelling and exposition. She parcels out this info as needed.

All in all I loved this book. The best sci-fi relays a wholly alien experience in a human way. She did this expertly. I did a little research into this book and I discovered that LeGuin is considered a proponent of feminist sci-fi. Unfortunately a lot of well-meaning writers use their platform to preach instead of tell a story. LeGuin did not fall into that trap. Instead she presented the people of Gethen, who were neither male nor female, as being wholly human and relatable. If there was a soapbox, it was well camouflaged.

What surprised me most about The Left Hand of Darkness was that it was written in 1969. Sci-fi tends to comment on the issues of the day. That leaves many sci-fi books feeling dated. Nothing about this book seemed dated. I could have believed it was written last year. LeGuin crafted a timeless tale.

A couple of things I didn’t like (because, alas, no book is perfect): there were tons of wholly alien names thrown around–I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Also, she tends to overdescribe. This was really noticeable during a sequence where two characters were traveling over a snowy landscape. There are only so many interesting ways to describe a snow-covered wilderness.

Next up for my reading challenge is a total 180.

Watch This Movie: The Girl With All The Gifts

Melanie-The-girl-with-all-the-giftsYou think every zombie story has been told?

Well then you haven’t seen The Girl With All The Gifts.

First off, HUGE DISCLAIMER, this started out as an acclaimed book by M. R. Carey, one that I haven’t read. Instead I took the lazy way out and saw the movie. No excuse, but there it is.

So back to the story.

Imagine a tale told from the point of view of one of the monsters, only this monster isn’t all monstrous, and she doesn’t see herself as a monster. That would be Melanie, a young self-aware and cunning (not crazed) creature.

But, alas, Melanie is a monster. One of the Hungries, as their called here, victim of a plague caused by a fungal infection. (Note: the secret of Melanie’s origin is one of the more disturbing in the realm of horror.)

The Girl With All The Gifts opens with her trapped in a military camp among other similar kids. Soon that camp is overrun, and Melanie is among a core group of humans who escape. Together they romp through a ravaged landscape in a desperate attempt to survive, and hopefully defeat the infection before it destroys humanity.

Throughout the movie Melanie is both hero (because of her humanity) and villain (because of her nature), which makes for a thrilling and unexpected ride. For those zombie lovers out there, the zombies are wickedly fast and creepy as hell.

The Girl With All The Gifts is about a child, but this is not a children’s movie. It’s scary and unsettling and well worth your time.

Rogue One: The Second-Best Star Wars Movie

rogue-one

If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you’ve seen Rogue One, the latest film in the franchise and a sort of standalone movie. (If you’re a Star Wars fan and have NOT seen Rogue One, then you’re not a fan — sorry.)

I went into the viewing with low expectations. Why the hell would they make a standalone film? Money, of course. Disney is milking their cash cow. Fine, that’s their right.

My low expectations were totally wrong. For me, Rogue One was the second best of all the Star Wars movies. It was expertly plotted, with a sharp cast who were all believable. Rogue rogue-one-3one managed to capture the slightly dated atmosphere of the originals while keeping a modern tone. The action was very well paced, and the special effects took a backseat to storytelling.

There were two action sequences that I found unbelievable. One involved inhuman jumping. The other, holding on for life in the pouring rain. Both impossible! But for an action film, such is expected.

Other than that, it was fun as hell. We also got Darth Vader and Princess Leia! I’m not complaining.

So here’s my list of the top Star Wars films so far:

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  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Return of the Jedi

Oh, and I’m not including the prequel trilogy. I like to pretend those crappy movies never existed.

jarjar

 

 

 

Wuthering Heights? Vampires? Of Course!

WutheringHsscreenDTI read Emily Bronte’s one and only novel Wuthering Heights back in high school, and it’s a book that stuck with me all these years.

Why? I’m not into romance, or English period dramas, so those weren’t the draws. Instead, it was the strangeness of it all. There was something weird about the book, something supremely off-kilter that I never could identify.

For those who don’t know, Wuthering Heights is a gothic romance about the tortured relationship between the darkly brooding Heathcliff and the spoiled Catherine Earnshaw. Their love (if you can call it that) is charted through fights and marriages to others, and ultimately death — first hers, then his.

The book, while heavy on the melodrama, carries an undercurrent of horror. Dreams are filled with the pleading ghost of Cathy. And the dreams are downright creepy.

I read an article today on Chuck Palahniuk’s website LitReactor that, if correct, makes sense of the weirdness that is Wuthering Heights. According to the writer, Wuthering Heights is secretly…

…a vampire novel.

The article’s writer expertly makes her case, including details regarding the deaths of both Cathy and Heathcliff, details that sound reminiscent of vampire lore.

Another fact she brings up: vampire mythology was well-known and popular in mid 19th century England.

If her theory is correct (and it makes sense to me), then Emily Bronte pulled off a brilliant trick — crafting a vampire novel without ever naming the creatures, or dwelling on their vampirism.

Read the article and judge for yourself.

 

 

Sensuality, Shakespeare and Stranger Things

Where the hell has Winona Ryder been?

Like half my friends, I just finished binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-part sci-fi/horror series that’s partly a homage to the 1980s. Overall it was very good, both addicting and entertaining, once I was able to slide into the story.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Stranger Things is set in 1983, and the directors took great pains to ground the series in that time frame. The senses are constantly distracted by elements from the early ’80s — from music to the clothes and hairstyles to the decor of the houses.

I appreciate the effort, but it was overkill, too much of a good thing, and it distracted from the story. Having been alive and aware in 1983 I kept finding myself questioning how accurate it all was, and it seemed too dated.

Luckily, in a stroke of brilliance, they cast Winona Ryder as the lead. She played against type — the woman who made her name as a quirky everywoman played a worried, desperate, and unstoppable mother.

Winona

Winona Ryder is about my age, and when I was younger a lot of guys I knew had crushes on her. But to me she always seemed unformed. She a girl, not a woman. I didn’t get the attraction, and I never followed her career.

Winona_RyderIn these intervening years she’s had some not-so-secret difficulties, as we all have. And when I look at pictures of her now — she’s hot. She’s a woman now, a fully formed adult with all the complications that brings.

In Stranger Things Ryder was effective not just for her acting, but because, in contrast to the set, she was not stylized. She was gaunt and frail. Ryder’s pixie quality was a strength here, as we saw a woman who’s been beaten down by life in many ways but keeps fighting.

Coincidentally, last week I saw Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. One of the actors listed in that play was David Harbour as Achilles, a rambunctious warrior torn between his fellow soldier/boyfriend and a woman he pines for back home.

Harbour, unfortunately, dropped out two days before I saw the play. He tore his Achilles tendon during a performance (you can’t make that up). However, when I started binge-watching Stranger Things the next day, whose name pops up in the credits?

David Harbour, as Chief Hopper.

david-harbour-stranger-things

Like Winona Ryder, he brought a physicality that rooted the show. In one of his earliest scenes he’s outside shirtless smoking a cigarette after a hard night of drinking. He’s pale with a paunch. He’s tired. He’s hung over. And he’s real in a fully relatable way.

Watching Stranger Things was a totally different experience than watching Troilus and Cressida. Compared with television, it’s harder for me to lose myself while watching a play. I’m hyper aware of the fact that it’s fake. Troilus and Cressida was hard-charging. The actors were loud and physical. There was constant movement — touching, scrapping, fighting. The play used these sensory elements to draw me in.

Stranger Things, while fun, was using the sensory elements of 1983 (or a close approximation) as a wink to the audience, and it was distracting. Luckily they cast Winona Ryder and David Harbour as their leads. They were natural, and by using their physicality to ground the show, they ended up saving it.

 

Friday’s Top Five

Here’s the countdown:

5. Say Hello to the Aliens!

220px-Johannes_Kepler_1610

Thanks to a fantastical machine that would leave its namesake believing in witchcraft, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has pinpointed more than 1,200 new planets in the universe. It’s been estimated there are BILLIONS of planets (I think it was Carl Sagan who said that). So far we’ve only found a few of these billions (and by found, I mean hypothesized based on such magic as the wobbling of light from distant stars). Now we’ve verified a whole lot more. Can’t wait for the day when we actually visit these planets. Well considering I won’t live that long (and neither will you) I’ll just have to settle for exploring via sci-fi. (The dude in the photo is Johannes Kepler, a 17th century German astronomer. NASA stole his name for their pet project. Not sure why.).

4. Throat-biting Rick Grimes

This one’s a throwback. It’s from a few years ago, but it’s a classic. The Walking Dead is a seductive show. It’s a soap opera disguised as a horror show, a soap opera about power, not love. And no one pulls off the melodrama quite like Rick Grimes. The Georgia cop turned reluctant survivalist is a strange hero. On one hand, he’s fearless and crafty, willing to do whatever it takes to keep his makeshift family alive. On the other hand, he’s a melancholy head case (he was getting phone calls from his dead wife!) who is prone to drama. And this scene, where Rick bites the neck out of a man (human, not zombie) is either the pinnacle or the low point of Rickness. But in all fairness, his son was about to get raped. I’m on team Rick here, and that’s why throat-biting Rick Grimes is my spirit animal. No one does tortured crazy like Rick.

3. Music Not Meant for the Masses

I recently stumbled upon John Grant after spending some time descending into a YouTube rabbit hole (something about Prince and Sinead O’Connor…). Grant was being interviewed in Icelandic, then he launching into song with Sinead as his backup singer(!). It turns out this lumberjack-looking American is actually the love child of Karen Carpenter raised by the caretaker of a sanatarium. Not really, but that’s what his voice sounds like. He’s an odd duck unafraid to put his oddities on full display. So as obsessive I get, I’ve been listening to him over and over (along with Gojira, Grimes, Tame Impala, and FKA Twigs – don’t ask). Queen of Denmark is one of my favorites. And apparently Sinead too, since she covered it.

2. May

may

It’s not my favorite month of the year – that would be my birthday month of February. May is a close second, this year especially. Our winter sucked. We got barely any snow, and I only went snowboarding five times. The conditions were…well, sucky. A bad day of snowboarding is still better than any other day, but I expected better. If the winter was too warm, then spring has been too cold — damp, London rainy chill. . That’s all changing now that May is here. It’s turning beautiful : blue skies, sunshine, warmth on the skin. May would have won the week, but it can’t top snow…

1. Jon Snow Has Had Enough of Your Shit, Night’s Watch

Oh, Game of Thrones. Like The Walking Dead, you’re another soap opera disguised as a beautifully written and acted drama with cinematic production values. After you killed off the hero, and then the hero’s wife and son at THE WORST WEDDING EVER, I realized you would never give me the justice I craved. Sure, you killed off the bad seed inbred golden boy Joffrey, but his vile mother Cersei is still alive. Last you killed Jon Snow, he of the resting bitch face and high moral character. Of course he would die, he’s a Stark after all. But in one of the worst kept secrets in GoT fandom, Jon Snow was resurrected by Melisandre (who should never take off that necklace). Finally we had some justice. That alone would be enough to earn the number one spot, but then we got to see Jon preside over the hanging of his murderers, including that surly teenager Ollie. I cheered when the brat’s eyes bulged and his face turned purple. the scene ended with Jon Snow taking off his ugly feather coat off and quitting the Night’s Watch. If you’re going to quit, do it Jon Snow style.