Tag Archives: Books

Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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Why Am I Reading This?

There aren’t a lot of books that take place in Singapore. Wikipedia’s category page for Novels Set in Singapore lists only twenty-six. Now, there are books missing from that list (I added one to the list while writing this), but let’s take this as a sample group. A cursory glance shows that many of these books are not set in contemporary Singapore, but rather around the second World War or before the country was established as it is now. None of them are books you’re probably gonna happen upon, and a few are long out of print.

Point is, not a lot of books about modern Singapore.

Which is why, upon finding it on display in a bookstore in the Village, I added Crazy Rich Asians to my reading list. The blurb sounded interesting enough; a Singaporean-living-in-New-York (Nick) brings his ABC girlfriend (Rachel) to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to meet his parents (who are crazy rich). Should be fun.

Of course, the main reason I picked up the book and read it was because it was a book by a Singaporean about Singapore. I haven’t read a book that would fall into either category since… well, I can’t remember.

And for most of the book, it’s why I kept reading. The prose of Crazy Rich Asians, is passable at its best, perfectly perfunctory and rife with massive chunks of exposition. Most frustrating of all, it is bereft of a voice. It could almost be excused as just lackluster writing, except that we catch glimmers of one in the footnotes used to translate bits of Singlish or explain a reference to a Singaporean institution (but, for some reason, not to excise the paragraphs of stilted exposition that exist in the text). Writer Kevin Kwan does shine through in parts, particular when capturing the idiosyncratic speech pattern of Singaporeans, or small details about the food (and importance thereof) in Singapore. But it is, for the most part, a bit of a dull read.

But I can forgive lackluster prose. Michael A. Stackpole is not the most deft writer, but his X-Wing books are well-plotted and offer a fun, pulpy read with distinct, memorable characters. Crazy Rich Asians, however, has only the barest bones of a plot. Rachel gets a chunk of culture shock when she realizes how rich Nick’s family is, meanwhile Nick’s mother tries to break them up, seeing as Rachel doesn’t come from an established family. There’s also Nick’s cousin who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these plots, except that they’re all stretched out over the book’s five hundred-odd pages, with little development for whole swaths of the book and interspersed with small subplots that offer little insight into characters or the bigger, overacting plots. It’s like an open-world video game with too many sidequests in book form. The big issue, besides the whole pacing thing, is that so much of the conflict is contrived. Which, again, wouldn’t be an issue were the characters interesting; but Nick, Rachel, et al. feel more like ciphers than characters, hollow shells who act and react however best to move the plot along or, more often add to The Drama. When the book finally resolves with the most overdone trope ever, it’s more an eventuality than a culmination. Characters don’t make choices, character’s don’t have inner conflict, characters don’t have character.

So why the hell did I keep reading? Besides, y’know, my aversion to complaining and criticizing material I don’t watch/read/play. Simple answer: Singapore. I’ve spent around half my life in that country at various points and have a complex relationship with the place. There’s a thrill to seeing it in fiction and recognizing places and foods. I suppose for people without a connection to the country would find the book intriguing for the, well, exoticness of Singapore and it’s super-rich elite. It leaves a weird feeling in my gut. To me, Singapore isn’t exotic; it’s pretty normal, so exoticizing someplace like Singapore is odd in and of itself, and downright bizarre when the book’s appeal seems to hang on that hook. We get it, Singapore is a unique place, but you’ve gotta do something with it. Tolkien didn’t just create an encyclopedia of Middle-Earth, he sets epic stories in it to flesh it out. Kwan’s characters never become more interesting than Singapore, and a location, no matter how exotic, shouldn’t be what drives a story.

There are two more books in this series, and I’m mildly curious about whether they improve. But as it stands, Crazy Rich Asians is an immensely frustrating book. I want to see Singapore and all its idiosyncrasies in fiction, I just want to see it done well. I guess I kept reading with the hopes that hey, it’d finish well, but so much for that.

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Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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Book Listening

I’ve been a huge Trevor Noah fan since he showed up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and started ragging on misconceptions of contemporary Africa by comparing it to the rural US. I found his stand-up special, African American, on Netflix and was delighted to hear him cracking jokes about growing up mixed. Though mine was in no way identical, there was enough familiarity there to really connect. Also, he’s funny. So I was one of the five people who was really keen on him taking over The Daily Show and I also got a chance to see him live last fall in New York when he taped his new special.

Point is, I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. So when his book, Born A Crime, was available for free on Audible, I got audible and the free book. And by book I mean audio book. A book you listen to. Not read.

As was made plenty clear last week, I have Many Feelings about the Physicality of Books. I got a hold of the audio book because it was ~free~ with the intention of probably intentionally buying the physical version to actually read.

Because who has time to listen to a book?

When I read I like having my full attention on said reading. If I’m listening to music it’s gonna be instrumental (Current favorite: The Transistor soundtrack). I’m the sort who gets distracted easily and can end up reading a page and a half before realizing I was thinking about what to cook for dinner. So listening seems counterintuitive. A little too easy to get distracted.

That said, I did end up listening to a couple hours of Born A Crime while on a long car ride. It’s a great listen, and as a perk it’s narrated by Noah himself and so rife with accents and proper pronunciation of the Xhosa names. It’s a charming listen, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything I would from reading.

Except for the whole bookiness thing.

Look, I like turning pages. I like glancing back. But one thing that Audible does that I really like is that I can bookmark chunks and write notes down. Well, type notes up. So I can take the recording back to the place where he discusses how his grandmother saw him as being white growing up or how he used language as a kid to jump between social spheres at school. It’s neat, to be sure.

That said, one thing that’s nice-but-daunting is that it clearly says how long each chapter will take you. I’m gearing up to start the next one, but it’s gonna take twenty-two minutes and I don’t know that I have twenty-two minutes. Sure, I could break it up; listen to ten minutes now and twelve later, but it feels like I’m interrupting his train of thought. More so than a book ‘cuz I can’t skim the past couple of pages. I can rewind back a minute or so, but I can’t skim. But I can now consume a book while doing something else, like playing video games. Which is how I usually watch The Daily Show or stand-up anyway. So not all bad – but Born A Crime is a pretty meaty book in some parts, so, again, full attention is better. But hard. Because I’m sitting around doing nothing.

Now, Born A Crime is a bit of an oddity, in that it’s read by Trevor Noah, a person known for talking. Where most audio books are read by someone who’s not the writer, with this we get to actually hear it ‘as intended.’ So does that make it truer to its ideal than the written version? I’m not sure. I lean towards the understanding that if something is presented one way, it is intended to be seen that way. Movie scripts are great and all, but they’re supposed to be movies. A stand-up special doesn’t work as well on the page, for obvious reasons. So does a work that’s meant to be read work as spoken word? Especially if it’s spoken by the dude who wrote it?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m enjoying the book, but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more read. I do know that I will be picking up a physical copy eventually to reread and annotate. Will I listen to another book down the line? Hard to say, ‘cuz half the reason I like reading is, well, the reading part.

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Page Feel

I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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