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Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation
by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy about the strange.  The premise is delightfully vague — a zone (in the United States?) has become infested with some sort of invading biology that terraforms the land around it, menaces the people living there, and brings the strange in high doses.  Into this forbidden zone, which the residents of the “Southern Reach” (is that the U.S. South? seems like) call “Area X,” goes a team of four specialists: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor.  Things go weird quickly.

A few thoughts:

  • This book is mesmerizing and creepy, but it never really grabbed me.  By the last third of the book I was keen to find out what was going on, but my experience of it never amped up the way I like a book to do, especially one focused so much on mystery/ magic/ or horror.
  • The book’s shifting tone is one of the most interesting aspects of this book; it revels in complex category allegiances.  Like many books of fantasy and weirdness, Annihilation challenges our sense of narrative cohesion and the way we understand what’s happening in the tale.
  • The epistolary form works well given the narrative reveals throughout the story, but at the same time it releases one crucial safety valve, which is whether or not the narrator will make it to the end of the tale.  They must.  That said, I like the way suspense and fear get worked into the story through foreshadowing and flashbacks.
  • There were several moments in reading the novel where I thought of LOST and its attendant weirdnesses throughout the island.  But unlike LOST, Annihilation sticks to a single person’s perspective and a single person’s narrative.  This gives Vandermeer a lot more freedom to include story hooks that do not get resolved, as the limited perspective of the narrator necessarily means that not every bump in the night will get investigated.  (As opposed to LOST, which followed many perspectives and thus suggested that we might eventually get everything explained to us.)
  • The fantastical elements of the novel are pretty out there — a strange mix of surreal and bizarre, worthy of Clive Barker or similar fantasists.  I particularly like the use of a lighthouse as a key location in the story, as that particular kind of structure easily serves a variety of allegorical and storytelling purposes, being isolated, liminal, and kinda creepy.  In that way, this book stands as a strong descendant of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, which often turned on groups of people encountering things beyond comprehension, and wrestling with the madness that could follow.

As I read this book, I also couldn’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 movie about a forbidden zone in Russia where a mysterious force, or set of forces, has taken over and driven out the rightful residents.  The government in that film has banned any incursions into the place, but the narrator joins a black market coyote who specializes in taking trips into the zone. Both Annihilation and Stalker make use of the eerie state created by modern culture that has been taken over by nature (and by something strange).  They both trade on the tendency of the human mind to imagine things hiding in the dark, watching us, and on our propensity for curiosity.  Most significantly to me, both texts make strange the everyday (like a lighthouse) through some actual weirdness and a liberal dose of well-crafted mood.

Weird snow space Wolf and the pond Stalker movie poster Dudes in a room

Overall, Annihilation is a compelling tale of mystery and terror, a weird fantasy story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, with a dose of Clive Barker.  Take someone with you when you read it.

How cold was it?

It’s pretty darn cold in Chicagoland this week.  It’s not like the Minnesota of my childhood, but still.

Old "smoking" engine leaves Chicago's Union Station

I remember walking outside in those Minnesota winters, puffing up into the air like a train. As to whether I still do that on the days when my breath condenses in Chicago’s early morning sun? NO COMMENT.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dad is Fat

Dad Is Fat

Dad Is Fat

Dad is Fat
by Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is funny.  If you didn’t know that, get thee to Netflix! Gaffigan’s book, Dad is Fat, explores the weird, wild world of the father of five who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City with his apparently amazing wife.  It’s a funny book full of brief essays with sharp observations on the parenting life.  It’s funny and earnest and simple, and well written.  A few thoughts:

  • Gaffigan makes a good argument about our society’s happy willingness to comment on other peoples’ lives.  The section on peoples’ reactions to the fact that he has five kids works really well, feeling both earnest and thoughtful.
  • I kept finding myself telling Jenny my favorite bits.  A few quick quips: “I’m the kind of guy who dresses up with for Halloween with his kids.  I wish I’d known how much Captain Hook looks like Captain Morgan, and how much people in New York like rum.” and “Whoever thought up the phrase ‘terrible twos’ must have felt pretty dumb when his kid turned three.”
  • Gaffigan does a great job explaining how a great marriage should work.  He seems like a real partner to Jeannie, and she to him.  It’s interesting to compare his approach to the darker honesty of Michael Ian Black in You’re Not Doing It Right.
  • My favorite section in the book is toward the end, when Gaffigan explains how he takes his family on the road with him in the summer, doing shows at night and using a tour bus to “camp” their way across the country.  It’s heartwarming and amusing.
  • Throughout the book, Gaffigan maintains his self-depreciating humor and clean approach to comedy.  He explores the ups and downs of parenting, of family life in New York, and of parenting-related aspects like babysitters and friendships.

Dad is Fat is a great book, very amusing and earnest and touching.

Tweets from 2014-11-09 to 2014-11-15

Who Put the Roo in the Stew?

Who put the roo in the stew?

“As a fact of life it’s known now,
and we all know that it’s true:
the Colonel put the lickin’ in the chicken,
but who put the roo in the stew?”

The tale of a shady meat dealer, apparently.

The Casual Vacancy – J. R. R. Rowling

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Tom Hollander

When Barry Fairbrother, town counsellor for a tiny English down, dies of an anurysm, the ensuing vicious squabble over the titular opening becomes both intricate, fraught, and nightmarish.  The leading lights of the town and their children are all tightly intertwined, and often at odds with one another.  It’s a book of strong characters and intense experiences, a meditation on the malaise of middle age, and an exercise in cruelty.  It’s also just not a great book.

A few thoughts:

  • Rowling’s biggest strength has always been her ability to create believable characters with intense motivations.  She does so in this book as well — the anger you’ll feel toward some characters and the frustration with others marks Rowling doing what she does best.
  • But it’s as if she needed this book to exercise the restraint built up by seven years of YA fiction, in which the universe needs to make sense, because here awful people just breed more awfulness.
  • I suppose it would be a positive to say that even the best people in the book have serious flaws.  Life is really like that.  But the book turns on people behaving terribly, and continuing to do so.  It’s just not redeeming, nor is it vile enough to enjoy the viciousness the characters perform on one another (like, say, House of Cards).
  • The struggle at the heart of the story, over the fate of “The Fields,” a poor part of town reviled by the snooty people of Pagfoot, is the best part of the book.  The real arguments Rowling’s story makes for competent, useful social services work really well and are the best takeaway of the book.  But then again…
  • …don’t get me started on the end of the book.

It felt a bit like Rowling was “cleaning the pipes” with this book, telling a difficult story so she could move on to better ones.  I’m looking forward to the Robert Galbraith books for just that reason.

In which I pontificate for the Southern Hemisphere

I did an interview with Kenji Sato of Sydney, Australia’s 2ser 107.3, on the nature of zombie stories.  Take a listen.

Keeping my head above water…

Between writing obligations (revisions and editing), family obligations (three swim meets, trips to Minnesota and Florida), PCA obligations (the 2015 conference is rolling along busily), and CCC obligations (two classes to finish now, a program to coordinate, my zombie class, and an intense committee I was just elected to), the next three months look to be very intense around here.  So don’t be surprised if my posting slows down a bit.

Just saying.

Using poems to make shoes

[Evan Jenkins and David Jones, two folk poets from Ffair Rhos, discussing their poems in a cobbler’s workshop]

Evan Jenkins and David Jones in a cobbler's shop

I love the way the cobbler looks in this photo — a mix of malaise and irritation.

Sir Apropos of Nothing

Sir Apropos of NothingSir Apropos of Nothing
by Peter David

From its title and slightly goofy premise, I thought perhaps this book would be silly like a Terry Pratchett book — it’s not quite.  But neither is it as serious as a straight-up fantasy novel like A Game of Thrones.  Instead, it occupies this weird spot where it’s both goofy and serious, which is a good place to be because its protagonist is of an equally-divided mind.  Apropos comes from humble, terrible beginnings, has a cynical outlook on the world, and is really darn clever.  He has adventures, acts both nobly and savagely, and narrates it all humorously.

A few thoughts:

  • It took me a long time to get into this book.  I nearly quit about the page 100 mark, but decided to give it one more reading session and became intrigued enough to away from that cliff.  But I never got so involved in the story that it was driving me or extremely intriguing to me.
  • This book walks just on the edge of pure zaniness, but David edges that line masterfully.  The book never feels ridiculous, even as characters around the hero chuckle about his name.
  • That said, it’s hard to get on board with a character so at odds with himself.  I love a good villain, someone like Frank Underwood (from House of Cards), who schemes and plots, who shows different faces to the world and manipulates everybody.  And at times, Apropos wants to be that villain, but he’s just too good at his core to do it.  This would have been a different book if he’d been that way, but I think I would have liked to read that book.
  • At the same time, he does do some absolutely awful things as well.  And while Apropos feels bad about them, he also laughs them off and the book seems to expect that you would too.  It reminds me a bit of the callous murders of humans that are supposed to be ‘funny’ in Juan of the Dead.
  • I really liked the land this book takes place in.  It’s full of diverse characters and a bit of odd magic that gives it a fantasy bent.  There are unicorns and phoenixes and all harpies and all sorts of great stuff.

Sir Apropos of Nothing is a well-written book with strongly developed characters and a lot of wit.  But for some reason (which I hope I’ve articulated a bit above), it just doesn’t fire on all cylinders.  Maybe other readers will find this untrue, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Juan of the Dead – Zombies Cubano

Juan of the DeadJuan of the Dead is a Cuban zombie movie in the long tradition of the humorous horror film.  Most directly, it reflects Shaun of the Dead in its narrative, but with a distinct Cuban flavor.  Juan and his friends find themselves among the only sensible people surviving in Havanna after the zombie outbreak begins.  So naturally, they start a business clearing zombies out of peoples’ homes.  As things continue to get worse throughout the city, the group decides they need to move on, giving them one more race through the city they need to survive.  A few thoughts:

  • One of the best things about watching movies made in another country is seeing where the slippage in language and humor creates gaps.  In Juan of the Dead, the humor occasionally misses, with lines that are probably funny in Cuba becoming meaningless here, either through the subtitling or through references outside our sphere of knowledge.
  • But a lot of the humor comes from the protagonists’ extreme pragmatism.  Unlike many zombie movies, where the heroes happily go out of their way to help people, Juan of the Dead finds the main characters occasionally killing living people, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, but never really with regret.  At one point, a man in a wheelchair is trying to get away from the zombies, and two of the heroes run to help him, their arms full of cases of liquor.  When they come back, they’re pushing the wheelchair with the cases of liquor on the seat.  When Juan looks at them funny, one says “He died.  We took the wheelchair.”  Then the other mutters, “Not necessarily in that order.”  It plays off funny, but really dark.
  • The biggest disconnect for me is the regular use of homophobic epithets in the film.  While the characters seem happy to accept a transvestite as part of their group, they also regularly bandy about homophobic slurs in the way that some British folk use the “c” word.  Knowing that Latin American cultures have a different attitude toward homosexuality doesn’t make these jokes any less discomfiting to me.
  • Juan of the Dead pays a lot of homage to other zombie films, obviously to Shaun of the Dead with Juan’s boat paddle, and to Dead Alive, with the priest who shouts “I kick ass for the Lord.”
  • I love the way the Cuban philosophy and daily life translates into the film.  The characters’ experiences under communism and the difficulties with the economic life of Cuba come out in the way they talk about what’s going on.  They refer to the zombies as ‘dissidents.’  It’s perhaps my favorite thing about the movie.

Juan and his friends

Overall, Juan of the Dead is an enjoyable middle-of-the-road zombie movie.  It has some neat moments, and it’s pretty funny at times.  The best part of it, though, is the thing that brought it to my attention and probably yours — its roots in the Cuban culture and the way it reflects how people living in that particular corner of the world might think about zombies if they ever show up.

Tweets from 2014-11-02 to 2014-11-08

Are you SHERLOCK worthy? An update from the board gaming hobby

Sherlock Holmes Consulting DetectiveAfter watching Shut up and Sit Down’s amazing review of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, I decided to pick up a copy to use in my detective class.  I’ve got it in my hot little hands now, and I face a conundrum.  It only comes with 10 mystery booklets.  Each one represents a single possible play of the game.  Since it’s about solving a mystery, you can’t re-play it (though I will be able to adjudicate my classes playing it).  Thus, each play becomes more valuable.

I can’t help but think about this episode of Seinfeld:

I worry that playing the game will involve a judicious application of game mechanics to my friendships and gaming groups so that I can enjoy it liberally and not hurt anyone’s feelings.  Of course, once I’ve played through a particular mystery, I can always loan out the game to people who haven’t.  I guess.

Other games in play around the Riley manse:

Pandemic and Castle Panic, two that Finn enjoys playing with me, have both seen some action recently.  We failed to save the world, but we did defend the castle.

– I’ve introduced Finn to Castle Dice as well, so I play that with both kids.  It’s fun, but he’s still trying to get the hang of how to score points.  Avery and I are duking it out every game for the win.

– Avery and I continue to play Netrunner frequently.  I think we’ll buy one of the small expansions this month to add to the cards available.  She has become enamored of the Corp faction, so I’ve been playing a lot of runner, concentrating on figuring out how to do viruses correctly.

– Last night brought a round of Dead of Winter with family friends Paul and Kate.  Good times were had defending our compound from zombies.

On the horizon:

– Several kickstarters are ripening in the next three months, so the mail should yield copies of Epic Resort, [redacted], The Agents Return, Miskatonic School For Girls: Holiday Break, Castle Dice: More Castles, Escape: Big Box, Alahambra: Big Box, and Cthulhu’s Vault.  I reassure Jenny I helped kickstart these games over the course of, well, 18 months, so it’s not like I’m buying a shitload of games all at once.  But I imagine it will take the family months or the better part of next year to digest and get used to this bounty.

Still further off, we have Stuff and Nonsense, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals, and I Hate Zombies (that one is still open).

The Grand Hotel – a spooky place to stay

The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

The Grand Hotel
by Scott Kenemore

*Full disclosure: Scott Kenemore and I have been on convention panels together and he has visited my class several times to speak about his work on zombies.*

The Grand Hotel is a ghost story anthology with a wraparound tale that contextualizes the eleven stories in the context of a creepy old hotel and its unusual residents.  Our narrator is a wizened desk clerk whose relationship with the hotel gets more and more complex as the story progresses.  The stories told by the residents exist on a continuum between a little eerie and downright horrifying.  Kenemore does a great job fashioning authentic voices for each narrator, and in bringing to life the diverse settings these stories inhabit.

A few thoughts:

  • The eleven stories vary in the creepiness and terror they offer, but generally as the story goes along they get more eerie.  My favorites are the tales of the Chef in the abandoned Scotch castle, the Vicar in the old English manor, and the psychiatrist narrating her patient’s case.
  • As always, Kenemore’s style is light and quick, but hefty enough that it doesn’t feel superfluous.  The supernatural elements in the novel are applied with a light touch, allowing the gothic atmosphere of the stories to make the scenes work, rather than just horrific narrative elements as one might find in Clive Barker short stories, for example.
  • The Grand Hotel reflects a positive approach to self-discovery and growth.  One of the themes throughout the novel is the value of telling stories, particularly about one’s own life, to learn and grow.  As a writer, Kenemore consistently uses his fiction to “think through” cultural and social issues within the context of popular genres.  The Grand Hotel advocates for a positive approach to self-discovery work, be it individual, or in a talking-therapy kind of way.
  • One of Kenemore’s best attributes as a writer is the way his stories inhabit their locales so skilfully.  In a novel where he has to construct a dozen locations in a hotel plus nearly another dozen locations for the stories to take place, Kenemore does a fantastic job building realistic worlds for the residents’ stories.  I particularly liked the story about the space mission, which one might think shouldn’t belong in the book, but which fits in quite nicely.
  • I’ve got two minor complaints about the book.  First, with the exception of one character who interacts with the desk clerk, most of the tourists are necessarily abstract.  This keeps the focus on the hotel’s residence, but it also makes the tour seem a bit more staged.  I wonder how it would have worked if we’d known more about the members of the tour.  Second, the novel too strongly telegraphs its conclusion.  Kenemore certainly doesn’t intend for the end of the novel to be a surprise, but elements of the story still act like it was intended to be one.  This is, however, a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, The Grand Hotel is a great spooky story anthology with a solid wraparound tale that provides a unity of purpose that’s quite satisfying.  It isn’t quite as satisfying, for me, as the Zombie State trilogy, but still definitely worth a read. (See also: Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; and Zombie, Indiana).