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fragile things. [books.]

If you read this blog regularly, then you’ve probably guessed I’m a sucker for an imagination that intrigues me. The reason I can’t get enough of folks like Guillermo del Toro, C.S. Lewis, Susanna Clarke, J.K. Rowling, Alan Moore or Hayao Miyazaki, is because their imaginations are so rich and beautiful. Their ability to dream up new worlds, creatures, and magics don’t provide mere escapism, they actually help us deal with, understand, and engage our world better. In their stories, we can learn to ask better questions. Their curiosity, which manifests in fantastical worlds of wonder and adventure, can stimulate our own curiosity, that is, if we are looking closely. I love so many imaginations, and I am so happy that our ability to share information at this point in history means I can enter into their dreamworlds with the turn of a page or the click of a few computer keys.

Yet, of all the creators whose imaginations stoke my own fires of curiosity and wonder, there is one who stands above the rest. Mr. Neil Gaiman, writer of so very many wonderful things, including The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline, Stardust, American Gods,and MirrorMask.

Gaiman’s work is dark and beautiful, most often a macabre dance between death and redemption, horror and joy, all the time helping the reader discover that these things are never opposites or enemies, but siblings, or even lovers. At times, his work is adults only, while much of his work is actually “children’s literature.” Yet, the themes and questions that seem to fascinate Gaiman remain consistent throughout, and he has a masterful grasp on the reality that, when written well, children’s literature can be as meaningful and formative for adults as for kids. Gaiman understands his craft well, not just using story toward powerful ends, but also writing about story, and how storytelling changes both the storyteller and the hearer/reader in profound and mysterious ways.

If you’ve never read Gaiman, his collection of short stories, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
probably wouldn’t be a bad place to start. I just finished it last week, and at the end of each story or poem, I would be physically unable to put the book down. I simply had to move on to the next offering.

Sherlock Holmes, the Harlequin, teenage alien tourists, some sort of zombie/vampire hybrid, sabertooth tigers, hell, ghost kids, and a world in which fantasy and reality is reversed… this book has it all. Part of me wants to start a book club just to go through this book, to ruminate over all the brilliant moments and hold all the ideas and questions up to the light.

If you are in the mood for some wonderfully dark and imaginative storytelling, then you should most definitely give this book a try.

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never let me go. [books.]

“A good book is never exhausted. It goes on whispering to you from the wall.” – Anatole Broyard

That quote is on a bookmark I just got with the purchase of a book at the lovely Elliott Bay Book Co. I include it here because of how well it describes Kazuo Ishiguro’s remarkable novel, Never Let Me Go

There are simply some books that haunt me long after I put them down, the feelings and the characters take root deep inside and refuse to be finished with me when I’ve read the last page. This is the epitome of one of those books. I find myself, at random points in my day, feeling again the tragedy and profundity of this bizarre and ordinary story.

It was a book I purchased as a result of my attempt to find the best books of the last decade, which I describe in more detail here. It’s been on my ‘to read’ shelf for a while, but then my friend Kj saw the new movie adaptation and recommended via twitter that everyone go see it. Thus, wanting to read the book first, I pulled it off the shelf. It was the best decision I’ve made in some time, thanks to Kj for the assist.

The story is narrated by Kathy H., who refers to her occupation as a ‘carer,’ and relates to the reader the story of growing up at a secluded boarding school, Hailsham, in Great Britain. The novel follows the coming of age of Kathy H., and the two people closest to her, Tommy and Ruth.

Ishiguro takes a science fiction premise and makes it painfully commonplace, if you absolutely detest sci-fi, you’ll still love this book. I don’t want to spoil what the premise is, although you’ll probably figure out what’s going on pretty early on in the novel. It’s not some sort of twist that enjoyment of the novel hinges on or something, I just don’t want to ruin anyone’s ability to go in fresh.

You really should read this book. It ripped my heart out, but quietly, without melodrama or fanfare.

This was my first encounter with Ishiguro, I assure you it will not be the last.

 

 

 

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the walking dead. [graphic content.]

Have you read The Walking Dead yet? If not, you are in for a big treat my friend. It’s a fantastic comic series written by Robert Kirkman about life after the zombie apocalypse. The main character is a police officer named Rick Grimes who gets shot in the line of duty, goes into a coma, and wakes up after the proverbial shit has hit the fan (a la 28 Days Later). It is the perfect way to introduce the series, because it’s about life after the zombie apocalypse, so using the coma technique is a clean way of allowing us to adjust to the post zombie world along with our hero.

The comic book/graphic novel medium is perfect for exploring this subject matter, because the story goes on and on, and thus it can take us so much deeper into the questions and metaphors inherent in the zombie genre.

There are tons of reasons why zombie stuff is great, but one of the more important reasons is that it is rife with metaphor at the heart of American culture. It wasn’t an accident that Romero set the sequel to Night of the Living Dead at a shopping mall.

At the moment, our culture is in the midst of this bizarre war where a huge portion of the population refuses to let go of American mythology from the 50’s. We have these ideas of what it means to be American, of what “real America” looks like, and while that ideal never existed, it is even more dangerous now because it should have died a long time ago, it’s alive and kicking even though it shouldn’t be, it is undead now. Actually, Bill Willingham used this as a tiny portion of his Fables storyline, and it was utterly brilliant, but Fables must be left for another post.

Zombies represent something terrifying because they are us. They are our fear of death, our fear of our appetites, our fear of the nagging thought in the back of our minds that we are our own worst enemy, that we will bring about our own destruction.

Yet, what are we left with on the other side of that? We play with the zombie genre, and lets say we make it to the other side of the cataclysm, doing our best to survive long term in a world overrun with a horde of the undead. Then what? Well, that’s what The Walking Dead offers a potential answer to. It’s a band of survivors trying to make life work, trying to keep their children safe, trying to fall in love and find a reason to wake up each day. If everything that we think makes up our world is taken from us, where do we go from there?

Kirkman’s writing is fantastic; tense, well paced, and constantly engaging. I almost always buy what characters are doing, how they are treating each other, etc. That’s rare.

Also, it just may be the best panel work I’ve seen. The art is all black and white, and the way Kirkman and Tony Moore, followed by Charlie Adlard, lay out the panels is perfect. It’s sparse, often with very little going on within each page, creating a great relationship between the story and the art. Also, they avoid the common pitfall of accidently giving away a big moment by placing a full panel event on the right page. What I mean is that so often I accidently learn something I don’t want to know when I turn the page, because as your turn a page you see page 35 on your right before you look back to 34 on your left. If there is this huge, full color death scene (or whatever) before my eyes as I turn the page, I can’t help but see it, so even though I haven’t read the stuff on the left, I know what happens on the next page. In The Walking Dead I am consistently impressed that they build up the big moment, and then make you turn the page to see what happened. It seems like it would be a simple, obvious thing to make work, but it is rare in my experience. They take the medium seriously, and realize what the reading experience will be like.

I really love this series. In the coming world, post Z-Day, the undead won’t be our only enemies. Other humans in the world, people in our own group of survivors, even our own sanity and grip on reality becomes tenuous and dangerous. Kirkman engages the potential for story in this realm with great attention to detail, honesty, impressive character psychologies, and gifted artistic help. You should read these! (And watch the show on AMC when it finally arrives in October).

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wolverine: old man logan. [graphic content.]

I love it when people take a well-known, fictional universe, and then imagine a dream or nightmare scenario that turns the whole thing on its head. When this sort of thing is done poorly, it rightfully draws the scorn of those who love said fictional universe. However, when it is done well it can be loads of fun.

This sort of thing happens most often in the wonderful world of comic books. The long-term, serial nature of comics makes them the best medium for asking, “Hey, what do you think would happen if [insert insane hypothetical situation]?” I have my own idea for a just such a situation, a whole story arc that imagines what Bruce Wayne would be like if his parents had lived. What would the ‘world’s greatest detective’ look like without all that misplaced rage, guilt and insane drive to repair what can’t be fixed. Yet, that is for another post.

One of the masters of the sort of imaginings mentioned above is Mr. Mark Millar. He brought us Superman: Red Son, wondering what the Man of Steel, and the world, would be like if Kal-El had landed in the U.S.S.R., instead of the United States. He brought us Civil War, in which the US government passes a law forcing all superheroes to present themselves for registration. Heroes take sides on the pro-reg and anti-reg sides, and all hell breaks loose.

Recently, thanks to the Seattle Public Library, I got my hands on a copy of the fairly recent, Wolverine: Old Man Logan. In this, we move two generations into the future. That is, two generations after the bad guys finally realized there are, like, 20 villains to every one superhero, joined together, and took over the world. We find Logan as a simple farmer and family man in California, or, what used to be California. He does nothing at all to set things right. Why? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

I can’t go into much more detail than that without ruining some enjoyable twists and plot developments. Suffice it to say, it’s a really fun read, albeit, a noticeably darker and more violent one than is often the case, provided by one of the best writers working today, tackling one of the best heroes comics has ever had to offer.

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jonathan strange & mr. norrell.

So, one of our semi-regular posts here on Roused to Mediocrity will be centered on books we love. The posts will include books we’ve just read for the first time, or books that we read when we were twelve. The criteria is that they are the sort of book that we simply need to recommend to everyone who will listen.

My assumption is that for my part, fiction will make up the bulk of my recommendations. That is because, as those who know me can attest, for my money there is nothing that beats stories. Stories are sacred and redemptive, they teach us about who we are. When we hold them up to the light we don’t just learn about the characters in the tale, or the author, we learn about ourselves, about what it means to be human. See, there I go rambling about story when this post is about something else entirely!

Thus far, we have yet to come up with a clever moniker for said posts, and we would love the help of you out there in internet land. What should we call these posts?

The first post fits right in with my prediction, but you didn’t really think that I was going to blog about something else after making a claim like the one above, did you? Anyway, on with the post!

Normally, on a day when I finish a book I am quickly on to another. That is never a reflection on the story, or how much I enjoyed said book. Most often I simply can’t wait to sink my teeth into page one of another tale. The most significant exception I can recall was quite recently, after finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

After finishing the story’s final page I was so hesitant to leave behind the world of alternate history and characters Clarke had created that I actually spent two days deciding whether or not I would start a new book or simply relive the delightful pages with Strange and Norrell again.

Books simply don’t get better than this. It was wonderfully British, subtle and nuanced, consistently hilarious, in short, it was utterly brilliant. Filled with beauty and wonder, darkness and tragedy, and for all its false history it is filled with people who have the depth, faults and authentic frailty of each of us. I quite honestly wished that when I had finished the 850 pages that there were 1000 more at least.

Clarke’s tone of narration was perfect for making the idea utterly believable that, during the Napoleonic War, London saw the reintroduction of magic into everyday life. The alternate world of the story was just like our own, aside from the fact that everyone was well aware of the existence of magic and faeries (and as a side note, faeries in this story are not miniature girls with wings, they are tall, attractive, wildly dangerous and unpredictable creatures of both genders, for whom magic comes as easily as breathing). Clarke tells a tale which feels at every moment appropriately outlandish while at the same time entirely plausible and commonplace.

I loved all the characters. Each had a depth that wasn’t exaggerated, but felt quiet and real. When someone tells us a story in real life, they rarely go out of their way to point out the emotional complexity of the story’s subjects, that is simply present for those who desire to read between the lines. Such is the case for characters like Jonathan and Arabella Strange, Gilbert Norrell, Childermass, Stephen Black, Lord Wellington, the gentleman with thistle-down hair, and even the absent yet always central character of John Uskglass.

Each character wooed my affection, not in spite of their foibles and weaknesses, but because of them. It was in large part their weakness that made them feel so authentic. They held grudges to the point of absurdity, the two main protagonists were fueled by arrogance and fear as often (or more often) as courage and clarity. They were all terrible at communicating, to their own peril. However, it is never in the absurd Lost sort of bad communication that works as a shorthand (read: lazy) way of keeping the plot a mystery (Kate: Sayeed, what’s wrong?!? Sayeed: We are all going to die if you don’t stand on your head whistle the theme song to Hawaii 5-0. [Characters walk off into the jungle, and, end scene] Viewer: Ah, I see, that is the end of the conversation. Not, “Why, Sayeed?” or “What is going to kill us?” or “Why would that help?” or “Take 5 minutes and tell me the short version of what’s going on.” We’ll just leave it at, OK, that vague, mysterious and nonsensical answer works for me, away we go.)

In Clarke’s book the poor communication happened in the way that we are all often terrible at communicating in real life, when a simple uncomfortable conversation might clear everything up but we avoid the tension and vulnerability, where we are unwilling to face the necessary relinquishing of our pride. It is a world where we let misunderstanding hang in the air because we cannot bring ourselves to make the sacrifices necessary for a needed conversation to take place.

Since reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I’ve also loved the hell out of Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is a book of short stories, each taking place in the same alternate history as the novel.

I hope it isn’t long before Clarke unleashes her slightly dark and entirely brilliant imagination on the world with a new book.

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wunderkind: why chloë grace moretz may become my favorite actress before she can legally drive.

Todd: “I think I’m in love with her, dude.”
Marty: “Okay, she looks like she is about 11 or 12 years old, but…”
Todd: “I can wait. I solemnly vow to save myself for her.” *
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Chloë Grace Moretz. Where the hell was she when I was 13? Had she been around, I certainly would have had the largest crush in the history of 13 year old boys. I think the 13 year old deep down inside actually does have a crush on her.

As it stands, I am not 13. However, I think it may be possible that, in an unprecedented perfect storm of talent, charm and the fickle circumstances necessary for good filmmaking, that Ms. Chloë Grace just may be my favorite actress before she can legally drive. Seriously.

It started when she played the knowing, no nonsense little sister in (500) Days of Summer. It was a good start, and set a strong foundation in my movie-watching experience of her. Yet, had that been followed up with nothing more than her performance in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I probably would have forgotten she existed, (In large part because I will never see that movie and all accounts I have read make it sound like it should have been more accurately titled Diary of a Selfish, Unlikeable, Manipulative, Lying Little Asshole).

Had her career following her turn in (500) Days resulted in the all too common relegation to the typical little kid roles, of which she has done plenty, I would have thought of her only in terms of the hopes that she become one of the child star success stories and not one of the horrifying tales we so often hear.

Fortunately, her role in Diary was more a sign of her range than a true sign of what every role she took would look like. Instead, as mentioned above, there is very good reason to think that Chloë Grace Moretz is going to be entertaining the hell out of us for many years to come, and equally good reason to think that, if things fall the right way, she may be my favorite actress by the time she can get her Learner’s Permit.

Scott, that is a pretty bold claim, what are these reasons of which you write? Well, I’m glad I asked myself that, here is my answer.

First is the primary reason I decided to write this post. It is the fact that she stole every single scene in which she appeared in Friday’s remarkably fun Kick-Ass. In a film filled with immensely entertaining characters, she flat out ran away as the most entertaining. Her performance as an actress simply felt older than she was. Her sense of the moment, of the scene, of what makes a line funny or poignant simply reaches beyond her years. Most young folks deliver lines, Moretz acts. This is something that is quickly becoming a common theme for her.

So far, she is my favorite character in my favorite movie this year. That might change thanks to upcoming movies like Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Still, the fact that it is true at the moment is crraaaazzzyyyy!

<As a brief aside, I LOVED Kick-Ass!

I completely understand where some people are coming from in their arguments that the film sexualizes teenagers while placing them in the midst of unbelievable violence and profanity, they are right. However, the reason I still loved the movie is because of my experience when I was a teenager. The film wasn’t a false sexualization, it wasn’t profanity you wouldn’t hear every day at every school in America, and it was a violence fantasized and role-played by every boy and some of the girls I knew. It was indicative of what the brains of America’s youth are really like.

Thus, if the content of Kick-Ass disturbs you, don’t rail against the film. Instead, hug a kid (yours or one you know well enough to hug), take them out for ice cream, become a mentor, tutor a kid, listen to a teenager as they talk about the overwhelming anger and helplessness some of them feel in the face of bullies and circumstances they can do nothing to change, which the movie nailed.

Also, if us adults can learn to fight our own bystander apathy, then kids won’t have to feel like they are the only ones who might change things. However, to go into more detail would require another post, so, back to Chloë Grace.>

Second-of-ly (to quote Tobias Fünke), another reason that I think Ms. Moretz will continue to rock out with her socks out, is great roles on the horizon. Hit Girl was that special confluence of a great role/character and exciting talent. This is something that can be fickle, plenty of great actors and actresses have been cast in doomed roles that make them look like utterly awful actors (the first example that jumps into my head is Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines).

We know Chloë Grace has the talent, but she needs to land the right roles too, and there are some pretty fantastic roles that she has already been cast in, increasing the chances that the future looks bright.

Most obviously, there is her role in the next Scorsese film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This will mean a starring role, in an adaptation of strong source material (the book only takes about an hour to read for those interested), in a Martin Scorsese Picture. Hello! That sounds like a hanging curveball just waiting to be knocked out of the park by Moretz.

There is also Let Me In, the American adaptation of the amazing Norwegian film Let The Right One In (if you haven’t seen Let The Right One In, stop reading my stupid post and go watch it RIGHT NOW, it is available on the instant queue through Netflix. [If you don’t have Netflix… well, I don’t really know how to help you]).

Originally, Moretz being cast in Let Me In wouldn’t fill me with any sort of hope, because Let The Right One In is a movie that should be left alone in its original form. Usually, Americanizing a foreign “horror” film results in gore, stupidity and schlock.

However, like Homer Simpson’s urge to kill, my urge to hope is rising. The Departed proved that an Americanization can be smart and well-crafted. More importantly, a fairly recent interview with the adaptation’s director over at Cinematical gives significant reason to believe he really gets it!

This could mean that her role as the little girl damned to exist eternally as a terrible predator in the form of a child will present another source of dark, poignant, troublingly entertaining material to let Moretz flex her acting muscles. That may be a wonderful prospect.

So much can happen in the next few years. Chloë Grace may decide she doesn’t want to act anymore, or these roles could hit production problems and go the way of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman or At World’s End. However, if her perfomances as a precocious young orphan and a lonely vampire go as well as they could, thus leading to even more great job offers for her, then Chloë Grace Moretz just may join Leonardo DiCaprio, who is probably my favorite actor, as the actress most likely to get me to the theater based purely on her presence. I must admit, I’m rooting for it to happen.

*[quote is paraphrased]

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