Devil Red, by Joe R. Lansdale / ****

joelansdaledevilredThe other day, I was raving about Joe Lansdale’s wonderful Hap and Leonard books (Lansdale’s neo-noir series about two best friends living in Texas and the various, shall we say, incidents that arise in their lives) and talking about how I hope the new TV series gets the books more readers. Someone responded to me that they really wanted to, but they just couldn’t handle another series right now.

Not to worry, I explained; the Hap and Leonard books are essentially standalone cases; while some supporting characters and some emotional ramifications carry over from book to book, you can pretty much read each one on its own. Indeed, I explained, I love to space them out, treat each one as a little gift to myself when I need a dose of Lansdale’s hilarious dialogue, rich characters, and more than anything, more time with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two of my favorite characters in books these days. (It’s to Lansdale’s credit that the central dynamic of the book – that Hap is a straight, white former Vietnam war protester who served time for being a conscientious objector, while Leonard is a gay black Vietnam vet, never feels like a contrivance or a hook; instead, the two men just feel like old friends, and Lansdale never lets that friendship be anything less than the central relationship in their lives.)

All of which is a long leadup to saying that, for the first time, Devil Red feels not like a standalone adventure in Hap and Leonard’s lives, but rather, a continuation of an earlier one; it’s a book that feels less like the newest entry in the series, and more like part two of the previous book, Vanilla Ride. And while that’s not entirely a bad thing, it definitely makes Devil Red a little less satisfying on its own terms.

Mind you, this is still Lansdale, and still Hap and Leonard, with all of the joys that that brings with it. (An ongoing character beat involving Leonard’s new choice of headgear never gets any less funny; in fact, it only gets better and better as the novel continues.) And in some ways, the choice to continue on after Vanilla Ride allows Lansdale to follow some intriguing threads – most notably, Hap’s efforts to come to terms with the violence he has been doling out in this series, and how it conflicts – or worse, maybe doesn’t conflict – with the pacifistic beliefs he claims to hold. In Lansdale’s hands, Devil Red ends up being a fantastic exploration of Hap, and how far he’s come over the course of this series – and whether he wants to be that person or not. What’s more, it allows the final quarter of the book – in which Lansdale does something truly shocking for this series, in many ways – to function not only as a climax for the series, but to build off of all of the tensions and violence that’s come before it, and deliver a character-driven payoff that’s far more satisfying as a long-time reader than it might be on its own terms.

Nonetheless, Devil Red doesn’t quite hold its own against the best entries in the series. More than anything else, the plot here feels a bit perfunctory and threadbare; what starts as an intriguing mystery turns out to not have much meat on the bones, and without the twists and turns that Lansdale is so good at (to say nothing of how this entry lacks the usual rich subtext that Lansdale so often brings), it feels a bit less colorful and fun than his best works. Is it still a fun read? Of course – I don’t think Lansdale is capable of anything less than that, and that goes doubly when Hap and Leonard are around. But it doesn’t compare to the peaks of the series, and feels more like an extended epilogue than a true standalone novel.

It’s still a blast, though.


Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders / *****

97808129953431Not all five-star reviews are equal. It’s just a fact of life that you deal with as a reviewer – although grades and ratings are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all. No, the best you can do is choose a rating, and then hope to explain what the book/movie really deserves. And that’s doubly so in the case of George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Because I’ve given five-star rankings on this site, more than a few times, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a book I’ve read in recent years that moved me, floored me, stunned me, and simply blew me away like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s not just the best book of the last several years; it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, period, full stop.

It’s going to be hard to convey the experience of Lincoln in the Bardo in a simple review – at least, in a way that doesn’t either reduce it to its barest outline, or explain it in a way that doesn’t make it sound pretentious and insufferably complicated. Taken at its simplest, Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s time of grief after the death of his young son Willie, near the onset of the Civil War; taken as a novel, it’s a tale told through 100+ narrators, from distorted ghosts to primary sources (letters from the Civil War) to academic texts both real and fictional, all of which work together to tell a story about grief, war, public responsibility, and leadership. The former sounds simple and possibly saccharine; the latter sounds daunting and exhausting.

The truth, as you might imagine, comes somewhere in the middle. It undeniably takes a couple of chapters to get into Saunders’ rhythms, watching as he weaves in and out of his historical texts (both real and imagined), and slowly establishes his various narrators. And yes, as the book builds towards various “big” moments, the result can be overwhelming sometimes, creating a cacophonous effect that’s hard to escape. And yes, more importantly, this is a book about grief in its most primal form, as a man grieves for his son, who died before he ever truly lived.

And yet, none of that comes close to truly capturing the experience of Saunders’ book, which clearly proves the maxim that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Saunders’ miscellaneous excerpts from historical documents and academic texts, for instance, do more than simply setting the stage of the novel; they allow us to immerse ourselves into the difficult political situation of Abraham Lincoln, a president dealing with an unthinkable conflict that was far from popular, as well as the bloody guilt that came with each new battle report. In Saunders’ hands, we don’t just read about the war; we find ourselves plunged into that time period, seeing both the ardent supporters and the fervent opponents of the war, to say nothing of the wide range of opinions on Lincoln, whose beatified reputation is stripped away with a reminder of how he was received by his contemporaries.

But it’s Saunders’ bardo – the transitional state between life and death – in which Lincoln in the Bardo truly soars. Populating his graveyard with a slew of figures unable to leave their lives behind, Saunders fills his pages with Dante-like invention, letting figures be altered by their lives in poetic fashion. (One man, who began to see the beauty of the world as he died, is now entirely composed of eyes looking in every direction; another, who died awaiting his first night with his wife, finds his spectral form to be in a constantly aroused state, to an absurd degree.) Each provides their own unique voice, their own concerns, and Saunders widely allows them to be from all classes, all genders and sexualities, all races, turning this from the story of one man’s grief and into a universal exploration of regret, loss, and life. Whether it’s hearing the stories of regretful suicides, anger at children who abandoned them, concern for their businesses that they built – whatever their loss, Saunders brings it to life, turning the book into something more universal than one man’s story.

And yet, this is Lincoln’s story – and by extension, a fascinatingly American story. Here is a man who is mourning the loss of his son, even as the war he’s overseeing sent so many other people’s childrens to their own deaths – a fact that Lincoln is increasingly unable to forget, and which haunts him. At the same time, this is a father, grieving for his son, and there is something painful and heartrending in how Saunders approaches this, dealing with it in degrees, with both father and son unable to move on from this loss.

All of this makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound daunting, and that’s a shame – not only is it surprisingly accessible, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Saunders’ dry wit and ability to inject silliness and anarchy into his stories often in clear view. And in a lesser book, all of that – the humor, the grief, the Civil War allegories, the personal stories, the slew of narrators, the historical documents, the guilt, the supernatural elements, the poetic justice – might overwhelm the book, or turn it into chaos. But in Saunders’ able hands, all of it works together, creating something that reads and feels like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking; it’s profound and it’s childish; it’s complex and it’s simplistic; it’s universal and it’s incredibly specific. But more than that, it’s also truly, astonishingly beautiful – a work of art that explores grief, loss, and guilt as parts of the human experience. It grapples with big questions about what it all means, and it tries to find answers, and it does so while telling an incredible story and bringing to life a world unlike anything else in fiction.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of the highest order, and one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And I can’t wait to read it all again.


The Lego Batman Movie / ****

cym_yo1w8aqqn_zMuch as was the case with the original Lego Movie, there was really no reason to expect The Lego Batman Movie to be any good. While Will Arnett’s gloriously absurd take on Batman was undeniably a highlight of the original film, the idea of creating a movie that revolved around him…well, let’s just say that such spin-offs don’t have the best track record. But more to the point, don’t we already have enough Batman movies? Did we really need another one?

But really, I should have remembered that I had similar doubts before seeing The Lego Movie, and was pleasantly overjoyed by that experience. And luckily, the same happened here. No, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite as wonderful as its predecessor – it lacks some of that film’s surprising depth and heart – but it more than makes itself worthwhile simply by being so ridiculously, wonderfully fun – an underrated virtue in modern superhero movies.

Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Lego Batman Movie delivers a pretty great superhero story. Playing off of the Joker/Batman dynamic in incredibly silly ways, the movie follows Joker as he finds a new way to threaten Gotham City; meanwhile, Batman finds himself questioning his life of solitude and isolation as he’s forced into working with others. Yes, in broad terms, it’s all stories you’ve seen done before…but in the hands of The Lego Batman Movie, it all feels winning and charming – and, moreover, it handles Batman in interesting ways, feeling like a bit of a tonic after years of grimdark brutality that reached its nadir with Batman v. Superman.

But, really, what’s most wonderful about The Lego Batman Movie is the sheer silliness of it all. From Batman commenting on studio logos in the opening moments, the film’s joyous, anarchic sense of humor is infectious, with a playfulness that extends to non-stop, rapid fire jokes that come both visually, audibly, and through the dialogue. Yes, a lot of them are even better if you’re a comic book fan (seriously, they go deep into the back catalog here, to some justly forgotten villains), but so often, the movie is just poking fun at itself, at its characters, at Batman continuity, at self-important superhero movies, and really, at anything. And while the movie doesn’t go quite as far meta as its predecessor does, there are still some wonderful carryover jokes – I never stopped laughing at the sound effects for guns, or the “worst villains of all time” that the film introduced. And by the time you start layering in all of the parody posters, the Hollywood in-jokes (which range from obvious to incredibly subtle – even some of the casting is based around jokes), the Airplane!-level pace to the jokes, and more, the result is genuinely hilarious. (Really, it’s hard to know who laughed more, me or my kids.)

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular, the way the original Lego Movie was; it “suffers,” I guess, from a refusal to go back to the same well twice, which is admirable, but makes the movie feel a little less substantial than the original. And yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t change a bit of it; it’s an absolute blast, from beginning to end – it’s wonderfully silly, it’s inventive visually, cleverly constructed, and really, just a genuinely great family movie that’s actually fun, without ever being condescending, snarky, or aiming over the heads of kids. What else could you ask for?


The Serpent and the Rainbow / *

the-serpent-and-the-rainbow-movie-poster-1988-1020233686There may be no horror icon whose reputation I feel is less deserved than Wes Craven’s, and that’s frustrating. Not just because I wish I could see what everyone else saw in his films, but because there’s so obviously a rich talent there, so obviously great capabilities…and time and time again, Craven blows up his own films with bad choices or an inability to do what he needs to do. Whether it’s the grotesquely poor efforts at comic relief in The Last House on the Left, the terrible third acts of Red Eye and New Nightmare, the reach exceeding the grasp of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, or the great idea quandered by insanely bad execution of The People Under the Stairs, there’s not a single Craven film that I’ve seen that works all the way through. (The one major Craven horror film I haven’t seen, for what it’s worth, is The Hills Have Eyes, which I know is a hole in my horror viewing; that being said, my mixed feelings on Craven have undeniably played a part in getting me to see it. And, no, I didn’t forget his other big accomplishment; let’s not even get me started on the Scream films, which are so intent on being smarter than everyone else that they forget to be scary and/or good.)

Now comes The Serpent and the Rainbow, which feels like you’re watching a third of a great movie, but one that’s been cut to ribbons by someone without the confidence that the film would be well received. Now, had that been the studio, maybe I could see defending Serpent…but when you find out that the cause of the shredding was Craven himself, who didn’t think his audiences would handle the “talky” version of the film, well, it’s hard to have much sympathy.

The Serpent and the Rainbow doesn’t have a bad premise, per se – while the idea of getting into the “science” behind voodoo zombies doesn’t feel groundbreaking, Serpent sets up some interesting dynamics, plunging into Haitian independence, the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and the role of the secret police in the country, all of which gives some queasy and interesting impact to the story. And even if the rational approach to zombification isn’t exactly virgin territory, there’s still always something engaging to it – I mean, where would Matheson’s I Am Legend be without the way it slowly, scientifically examines vampires? But The Serpent and the Rainbow wants to have its cake and eat it too, diving into a rational grounding for zombification while also playing with all kinds of mystical evil, trapped souls, dream sequences, and more. And while a good film might play with that unease between science and belief, Serpent doesn’t really do much other than shrug at the contradictions and wander off, bored. Nowhere does this become more clear than in the film’s climax(es), where chairs move on their own accord and unleashed souls wreak vengeance.

Mind you, there’s plenty more wrong with The Serpent and the Rainbow. There’s Bill Pullman, woefully out of his depth in a role that requires the appearance of knowledge, and which Pullman plays like a bored surfer. There’s an interracial romance that feels hilariously tacked on. There are numerous characters who come and go, clearly having had more fleshed out roles at some point, but who here impact the plot far more than we have reason to assume they will. Indeed, that’s the main issue with Serpent and the Rainbow – it just doesn’t make any damn sense at all half of the time. (Probably more.)

In other words, once again, my frustration and irritation at Craven wins out again, as once again, he takes an interesting movie and tanks it through his own choices – this time, for not having the patience to actually tell a story, and instead, stringing together a bunch of scenes that feel like “the best bits” of what could have been an interesting movie.


Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley / *****

bravenewworld_firsteditionIt’s been maybe 15-20 years since I first read Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel about a society engineered from birth for stability and calm. At the time I read it, I was a bit disappointed; while the world Huxley created was interesting, I couldn’t help but hold the novel up against Orwell’s 1984 and find it lacking. Mind you, some of that had to be Orwell’s themes of language and words – catnip for an English major – but even so, I largely dismissed Brave New World as a lesser, less interesting book, and moved on.

Coming back to it all this time later (and putting it more in its proper chronology, as a work that could not have helped but to influence Orwell), there’s no denying that I underrated Brave New World in many ways, even if I still don’t love it the way many do. Like many dystopian novels, the central premise of the novel – the astonishing society that Huxley has created – can’t help but overshadow the middling plot, which feels a bit haphazard at times, and undeniably becomes didactic and preachy at others. (Before you say it: re-reading 1984 last year reminded me that Orwell has his own issues with plot and preachiness, to be sure. So I’m well aware of the issues.)

But for all of that, none of it really keeps Brave New World from feeling astonishingly ahead of its time – vivid, modern, and frighteningly relevant in so many ways. From the mass-produced entertainments to a tiered society engineered from birth to keep people in their proper place, from a medicated calm to a need to consume every new product, Brave New World doesn’t just feel relevant; it feels prophetic, hitting hard in ways that I didn’t remember or appreciate on that first read. Much of that, of course, comes to the ways that Huxley spends so many early chapters immersing us in his strange world: touring the birth centers, hearing the methods used to build castes, eavesdropping in on the sleep teachings – all of it helps to build Huxley’s vision of a world dedicated to stability, order, and structure. And that’s before we start dipping our toes into the bizarre sexuality on display at any given point…

So where does Brave New World fall short? For much of the early going, it’s great, giving us a Winston Smith-style hero who doesn’t fit in to this society, and wants to push against it all in ways both quiet and outspoken. It’s when Huxley abruptly shifts us to a new protagonist, I think, that the book stumbles; it ends up feeling like a jarring swap, a bump that throws out our investment in Bernard and this world, and forces us into a new perspective more closely aligned with our own feelings about this place. If anything, this secondary protagonist is a stronger one, and a more gripping one…so why take so long to introduce him, and why leave Bernard behind to the degree that we do? It’s a frustrating choice, and one that I still think holds the book back from being as great as it could be.

But, still, for all that, Brave New World earns its place in the canon and then some, simply by virtue of its rich imagination, and the thoroughness of its world. Even beyond that, there’s the intriguing character beats – I had forgotten, for instance, the way that one character’s dialogue so heavily draws on Shakespearean allusions, but done in such a way that it constantly reflects on the character in ways both direct and indirect. There are the religious themes, the economic comments, the blending of sex and violence – Huxley’s book is nothing if not ambitious, and if it can’t always tie it all together, you can’t help but forgive it for making the attempt in the first place. No, Brave New World doesn’t work flawlessly; no, it doesn’t quite hold up to Orwell’s towering achievement. But taken on its own terms, it’s a fascinating, ambitious, incredibly rich book, and one that’s hard to imagine the current wave of dystopian fiction existing without.


Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.


Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) / *****

52aa7aaba9d84acd43cb72fe41b895e4Evaluating Michael Radford’s 1984 film of George Orwell’s seminal, essential Nineteen Eighty-Four is a difficult task, even setting aside the uncomfortable modern parallels we’re all living through. As a film, in many ways, Radford’s adaptation doesn’t entirely work – it’s glacially slow, it feels like it’s often alluding to its plot rather than letting it directly unfold, and it exposes Orwell’s novel’s story for the weak thread it really is. The result is a film with only the barest story, and instead an entire reliance on mood, tone, and worldbuilding.

But, my God, does it succeed on that front, bringing Orwell’s bleak vision to vivid, haunting life, and slowly crushing the hope out of not only John Hurt’s brittle Winston Smith, but the viewer as well, doing justice to Orwell’s oppressive world and then some.

Radford’s film wastes little time plunging us into Oceania’s politics, opening in the middle of a rally where the crowds are incited into a spitting, sputtering, uncontrollable fury at the face of their hated enemy, only to have that hatred assuaged by the comforting, calm visage of Big Brother, projected onto a massive monitor in front of the crowd. And as the anger instantly fades, followed by loving tears, defiant salutes 1984(salutes which echo the crossed arms of Pink Floyd: The Wall), and belted anthems, the film lets its title cover the screen, as if to say, yes, we’re here now. It’s an effective, immersive opening to our story, emphasizing that the world we’re in is as important – if not more so – than any of our characters. Indeed, it’s some time before we spot Winston Smith in the crowd, doing his best to fit in, even if it might be against his own will. Here, as he will for much of the film, he struggles to stand out, looking like everyone else, from his bland outfit to neutral expression.

That’s more or less the approach Radford takes to much of the film. Everything feels muted and oppressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four – dialogue feels whispered, almost implied, as though every word is a stolen moment. Winston’s internal monologues are largely kept that way – internal – with many of his actions being the only way we can judge him. Every single moment of the film is overlaid with a constant stream of chatter, noise, and reporting from the omnipresent televisions – 1984-john-hurtit becomes inescapable, something you can’t get away from, and making those rare quiet moments all the more powerful.

The result is an odd adaptation of a classic novel, one that I can’t swear works if you’re not already familiar with the text. (It’s part of my classes’ summer reading, so I’ve read it recently.) 1984 is a book in which characters’ motivations are forced to be kept internal, and the film embraces that, telling its story largely through allusions and implications. Moreover, it cuts many of Orwell’s more didactic, lengthy passages, letting the film’s visuals tell much of the story. What that means, though, is that the story may not be accessible for those not already familiar with the book. Is that a problem? Undoubtedly…although, perhaps less so given the book’s ubiquity. Nonetheless, it makes it difficult to recommend as a film on its own terms.

And yet, as an experience, Nineteen Eighty-Four is astonishing, an incredible piece of mood and tone that immerses you in a dystopia more thoroughly perhaps than even the book. In Radford’s hands – and anchored by Hurt’s soulful performance – Oceania is brought to bleak, ravaged life, covered in grime, held together with duct tape and force of will. Big Brother lurks everywhere, and constantly watches. The Thought Police could be anywhere. And everything – everything – is held within and guarded, with a neutral front presented to the world. It’s oppressive, haunting, and disturbing – it’s Brazil without the dark humor, and even less hope of escapism.

The result is a film that should be seen, and experienced, even if I can’t entirely recommend it. It feels like it would almost work better as a music video or a silent film, playing on screens in a club, overshadowed by some ominous techno beat that drowns out the largely minimal dialogue, and lets the faces and performances tell everything. It’s a remarkable, astonishing film, one that stays true to the spirit of Orwell’s book, flaws and all. Should you see it? Yes…but approach it as a powerful work of style, mood, and tone, more than a typical story/plot.