BOOK REVIEW: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the BorderlandsMaps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book consists of 17 essays about reading and writing. As the book’s title–also the title of the second essay–suggests, there’s an analogy drawn between story and a map, but—more importantly– Chabon proposes that the literary domain is a realm with frontiers and hinterlands. The central theme is that there is room for great discoveries if we stray from the center of the map were all is clear and well-defined. Literary fiction is the center. The hinterlands include a range of genres and approaches to story-telling that are often maligned as low-brow—e.g. fan fiction and comic books.

 

The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:

 

-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.

 

-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.

 

-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.

 

-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.

 

-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales–much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.

 

-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.

 

-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.

 

-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.

 

-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.

 

-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.

 

-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”

 

-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.

 

-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.

 

-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.

 

-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.

 

-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.

 

-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.

 

There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.

 

I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought-provoking.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Heir to the Empire is set about five years after the first movie trilogy (by release date, i.e. after Return of the Jedi.) It features many of the principal heroes of the first trilogy including: Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, R2-D2, and C-3PO. Obviously, gone are most of the bad guys from the movies, but in their place has risen Grand Admiral Thrawn—a master strategist who seeks to revive the Empire. Thrawn is portrayed more as a brilliant military man than a dastardly villain. This doesn’t mean he can’t be cold and villainous, but he also brings in a measure of intellect and rationality not seen in the movie universe. While it would appear that Luke is the last of the Jedi Knights, or the first of a new line if one prefers, that turns out to be not entirely true.

I enjoyed this book. I bought it during a Kindle sale on what Amazon considered to be the best Star Wars books. While I’d seen the movies, I hadn’t read any of ancillary works, and so I Googled to find out which of the books on Amazon’s list were considered by fans to be the best. Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and particularly this first installment, seemed to be on every fan’s list.

One of the great plot devices used in this book is a creature whose mere presence can nullify the force. This strips Luke’s powers away through a critical piece of the book. Yes, the introduction of this creature is deus ex machina, but it’s deus ex machina that challenges the protagonist–rather than making life easier for him–so it’s alright by me. Because Luke is the last of the known Jedi, he’s essentially a Superman among mere mortals, and so the book might have become tedious if Luke weren’t stripped to his native intellect and courage devoid of superpowers. Instead, he has to escape from the planet on which these creatures reside and help rescue Han and Lando in the process without any supernatural abilities.

As mentioned, this is the first book of a trilogy, and, therefore, it leaves many major issues unresolved. Multi-part series usually have less satisfying endings than a stand-alone book, and I can’t say it’s not true of this work. However, this first book of the Thrawn trilogy does contain a clear climax and a definitive tactical (battle-level) resolution.

The book intersperses chapters from the hero’s point of view (PoV) with those from the Thrawn’s ship. This book begins with a chapter from the enemy’s PoV, and so for Star Wars neophytes—such as myself—one enters into a whole new territory in which it’s not quite certain when or where one is in the Star Wars universe. However, in subsequent chapters Luke, Leia, and Han are introduced and we learn that Han and Leia are married and that Leia is pregnant, and this gives one insight into the timeline of the book. We also learn that while the Empire seems to have been destroyed, the Republic is on weak footing and is having trouble reestablishing itself.

The book introduces us to a couple of new characters that I understand will become established in the expanded Star Wars universe. The most intriguing and important of these is Mara Jade, the right hand woman of the most powerful smuggler in the known universe. We soon learn that Mara despises Luke Skywalker and wants nothing more than to dance on his grave. However, we don’t learn until much later why it is that she hates him, and we learn after a time during which the two are forced together by circumstances. Mara Jade is a force to be reckoned with. While she might not be a match for Luke the Jedi, she is more than a match for Luke stripped of his powers. It seems clear that Zahn is building a relationship between Luke and Mara with their interaction in this book. Luke is oblivious to why Mara dislikes him, or even who she is until he is explicitly told, but events force them to spend time together under trying circumstances.

All in all, I liked this book. I found it readable, and thought that it did a good job of maintaining tension throughout.

View all my reviews

2014 Superhero Movies

Here’s an overview of the upcoming year’s superhero movies.

 



I, FRANKENSTEIN; January 24th

Frankenstein’s monster may not the usual superhero, but it’s based on a graphic novel and the demon-battling premise seems heroic enough.



ROBOCOP; February 12th

This is also one you might not think of this as a superhero movie, I include it because there was a Marvel comic based on the movie and if Iron Man is a superhero…



CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER; April 4th

The second Captain America installment and the third of the five Marvel Phase II films. After taking on some high level conspiracies, Captain America finds himself battling his old sidekick’s villainous alter ego, i.e. The Winter Soldier.



AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2; May 2nd

The sequel finds Spiderman facing Electro and–to a lesser degree–Rhino.



X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST; May 23rd

As the confusing title implies, this is a time travel story in which events in the past must be changed to avert a grim future. Wolverine is sent back to affect this change.



TRANSFORMERS 4: AGE OF EXTINCTION; June 27th
220px-Transformers4_Teaser_Poster
OK, this is more a toy movie than a superhero movie, but cars that turn into robots seem super in my book. That’s not to say there isn’t a better than average chance the movie will stink.



GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; August 1st
220px-Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_logo
It’s still early. There’s no trailer out as of this posting.



TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES; August 8th
No trailer or images out, and little is known except this is about as ridiculous a premise for a movie as is imaginable.



BIG HERO 6; November 7th
Big_Hero_6_logo
This is an animated Marvel project. A robotics prodigy and his creation team up with amateur crime-fighters to put an end to a nefarious plot.

Are Action Movies Dazzling Us Stupid?

AvengersJust like everyone else, when I first watched The Avengers, I was awed. As I digested the experience, however, I realized how appallingly flawed the story was. Can a film that is visually impressive enough dance over the hard parts of story?

Alright, it’s not just being visually impressive. If it were, then the Transformers movies (I’m thinking particularly of the second one) wouldn’t be so sucktacular. No. Filmmakers also need clever quips. This feeds an inexplicable urge of young people to repeat the witty remarks of movie characters ad infinitum. (Confession: I’ve always longed for an excuse to say, “I’m your Huckleberry,” as per Doc Holliday’s words to Johnny Ringo in Tombstone.) It’s not just that the Hulk bashes a marble floor to dust using Loki’s lanky frame, but that he delivers that witty, two-word rejoinder. Together the CGI and the quip seal the scene in one’s mind.

[Spoilers ahead] If one looks up deus ex machina in the dictionary, one learns that it means: “someone or something that solves a situation that seemed impossible to solve in a sudden and unlikely way, especially in a book, play, movie, etc.” If one’s dictionary is online, one would then probably be treated to a video clip of the scene in which Professor Selvig is knocked on the head, becomes unenslaved, and consciously realizes that his subconscious built a backdoor that will allow him to shut down the portal that were previously told can’t be shut. The clip could then continue through the end of the movie (minus the post-credit shawarma scene.)  The following are key incidents of deus ex machina in this film:

-a bump on the noggin releases one from the mind-control of a god (A “puny god,” indeed.)
-a conscious mind (in a waking and non-meditative state) knows in great detail what happened in the subconscious
-an attack on the mothership disables all troops on the ground, Independence Day style (worst command and control ever.)

One may be thinking that I’m just one of those douches who picks nits, but I’m really not. These flaws are fundamental to how the story is resolved. They are cheats that make everything that happened leading up to the climax irrelevant. Think about it; if the Professor had gotten knocked on the head 20 minutes earlier, the massive Avengers battle through Manhattan would never have been necessary. They could have called the movie “Professor Selvig’s Magical Mind” and left the Avengers out of it all together.

I’m willing to sustain disbelief about the small things. There are plenty of critics who get into the minutiae of continuity gaffes and the like. A couple of my favorites are below.

Lest one think that I’m picking on The Avengers, that’s only because it’s the third highest grossing film ever and first in the superhero genre. If you’re spending hundreds of millions on a film, you’d think you could throw some chump change into good story-building.  I realize that filmmakers have a jaded audience to contend with, and that they have to ramp up the peril to impossible heights to impress. Maybe they are forced to then throw away the resolution of story. Those who read my recent review of The Wolverine, will know that my criticism isn’t restricted to The Avengers.

Well, I’ve got nits to pick.

Cash Cow Disease: or, I Hope The Americans Don’t Get Lost

AmericansTVIn political economy, “Dutch disease” is a term used to describe a situation in which a nation’s windfall successes in one sector lead to everything else going to crap.

Dutch disease reminds me of a phenomenon rife in television today. A series pilot is shown. It’s wildly successful. The writers came in with a clear overall narrative arc, but now the show is a cash cow and they have to extend it out indefinitely. This is a script-writing nightmare. Writers have to give the viewer a new puzzle piece each episode but they’ve got to end the episode with a cliffhanger and they’ve got to be able to tie up all their loose ends at some undefined point when the series becomes a train wreck.

I was aware of this phenomena, let’s call it “Cash Cow disease,” when Lost came on the air. I’d been through it with the X-files.  But damned if I didn’t go and get myself engrossed in Lost. Lost started out with such promise. It seduced me, and even when it became clear that the writers and director might not know where the ship was headed, they kept feeding me tasty bread crumbs.  Then the network said, “Get us off this crazy train, quickly.” So  it was that the show that began with an atomic bang ended with the whimper of one of the worst endings ever.

Having been hurt twice thusly, I’d given up on watching television serial dramas. Then I made the fatal blunder of watching the pilot of The Americans. Why did I do this? Ironically, I probably watched it because I assumed it would be bad. It was, after all, a Cold War show in a post-911 world. Oh, the thwarted expectations. Now, I’m hooked.

The Americans is about a man and wife who are Soviet sleeper spies during the early 1980’s. The couple lives in the suburbs of Washington DC with their oblivious kids, and appear to operate a travel agency (for young readers, there used to be people who booked one’s flights and hotel before the days of Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity.)  In reality, however, the couple are deep cover spies who are attempting to get information about America’s ballistic missile shield, Reagan’s “Star Wars”, and other strategic concerns. The show depicts the cat-and-mouse game of Cold War espionage with great tension.

In an act of coincidence that strains credulity (but which is no stranger than things that actually happened) an FBI counter-intelligence agent moves in right across the street from the couple. The KGB couple and the FBI man are working at cross  purposes without the FBI agent (played by Noah Emmerich) being the wiser. (Emmerich’s character has early suspicions that he dismisses as paranoia after a close call for the KGB couple.) The male lead KGB sleeper spy (played by Matthew Rhys) plays racket-ball with the FBI agent.  This apparent friendship is to the chagrin of the female lead (played by Keri Russell) because she’s not quite sure if her husband is working the FBI man (as he says), or whether he’s facilitating changing sides. Part of the tension of the series stems from the fact that Keri Russell’s character is a dyed-in-the-wool patriot of Mother Russia, but her husband is having second thoughts–he sees himself as a family man first and a patriot second and America is growing on him. This tension is made all the more complicated by the fact that she seems to be just starting to fall in love with him, though he seems to have loved her from the early days of their planned, forced, and in some sense fake relationship.

The signature trait of The Americans is that characters on both sides are sympathetic  but complicated. This is part of a “shades of gray” motif that informs the show. Emmerich’s character, the FBI agent, is a loyal patriot and family man trying to do his best under the pressures of a hectic and tense job. However, we see him torment and rob a suspected Soviet information trafficker. Rhys character, the KGB sleeper, is also quite likable and sympathetic. At one point we see Rhys’s character beat up a pedophile (what’s more likable than that.) Russell’s character is not so likable, but that’s good for the tension. She’s a cold, fanatical Communist, but we can see the outlines of humanity in her character. For example, despite her jingoistic nature, she refuses to report her husband’s second thoughts.   On the FBI side, the most unlikable character is the boss (played by Richard Thomas, aka John Boy.) He’s a rash hot-head who,  in last night’s episode, wrecked an operation through his knee-jerk reaction (or maybe he’ll turn out to be a mole.)

I can already imagine how the wheels may roll off. There’s a supporting character, a mole in the Soviet Embassy (played by Annet Mahendru), that I imagine they intended to kill off to add to the angst of the Emmerich character (the FBI agent cultivated her through “soft-blackmail” and acts as her handler.) However, she’s really an endearing character. In a field of patriots that sometimes approach zealotry on both the US and Soviet sides, she seems to just want to have a peaceful life, but she’s trapped. Despite being manipulated, she’s a strong character. I can imagine her becoming a more central role–not that that’s an inherently bad thing.

I’d like to recommend this show, but I face a dilemma. If fewer people watch, I think it’s more likely to end well.

I Always See the Wrong Movies: or, Post-Oscars Watcher’s Remorse

The one Oscar-Winner I saw

The one Oscar winner I saw

I only watched part of the Oscars last night. At some point I realized it wasn’t worth continuing. I see about three movies in the theater per year, and rarely are any of them Oscar material. At 10:00 pm all I had to show for watching was the chorus of the ditty “We Saw Your Boobs” echoing through my brain.  (Damn you, Seth MacFarlane, for that catchy, clever, melodic jingle that still runs like a gerbil in the rodent-wheel of my mind.)

The three movies I saw in the theaters last year were: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and This is 40. The first two will no doubt convince you that I am a 12-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, and the last will convince you that I have poor judgement. (This is 40 had its humorous moments, but there was far too much screaming for my taste, although we did see Leslie Mann’s boobs– damn you, again, Seth MacFarlane.) I saw another half-dozen 2012 films on long Korean Air flights, but these were equally lowbrow titles (Men in Black 3, Prometheus, and Brave– the latter at least won an Oscar during the hour and a half I was watching, I think it was for Best Animated Makeup Artistry.)

I’m not altogether lowbrow. I will see most of the big winners eventually, when they finally make it to basic cable. For example, I watched The Hurt Locker on Saturday, just one day before the Oscars. So I am only three or four  or five years out of synch.  The Hurt Locker is a particularly fine example of going the other way because I understand its distinction is being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever.

This year’s Best Picture Argo is definitely a film that I will see in the next five years–barring Zombies, the apocalypse, or a Zombie Pandemic Apocalypse. So there’s a 60% chance that I’ll see it. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first historical events that I remember seeing on the news first-hand. Had I been in the country when Argo came out–I might have seen it in the theaters, but probably not.

Part of me thinks that I should grow up and start watching the “right” movies.  However, part of me says, “wait, there’s this one day a year when everybody is talking about these movies, and the other 364 days  they are talking about Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers  So in some sense, I already am watching the “right” movies.