The Big Short, book and film

My mother hates this movie so much. We watched it for the first time a year ago, and she decided to give up and go to bed half way through. A friend of her’s had a movie night recently, and this was the feature presentation, and god, she was not excited. How much she hates this movie is honestly hilarious, my mild mannered mother gathering up so much disgust for a film.

I love it. I think it’s brilliant. I tried to write about it right after we watched it, but didn’t know what to say. It’s taken some time and rematching to puzzle things out.

It does so many cool weird filmmaking. The way it plays around with music video style is so much fun. Lots of fast cuts, montages, what is basically a rap video thrown in, a couple of characters singing a Nirvana tune out of the blue. It’s brilliant, and I love it. The little asides where Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain explain boring bank things is a great choice to get in necessary information without being dull. It’s a really smart movie that assumes its audience is really smart.

There’s a lot of really good performances. Everyone is great. Everything is great.

I read the book right after watching the movie, and I liked it too. It was informative and well written. It didn’t have the same spark and pizzaz as the movie, limited by being a book, but it was still excellent. The housing crisis is important shit that we should know about. It’s awesome that it’s being presented in an accessible book and incredible movie. I love it.

The Taliban Shuffle, book by Kim Barker, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, movie staring Tina Fey

So, I read this book sometime last year, and decided not to post anything until I also saw the movie. Here is what I wrote about the book just after finishing it:

This is a memoir by a journalist who became a foreign correspondent after 9/11, and her adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barker is a clear writer, and good at presenting the tangled political situation that I think I understood. I learned a lot about the region, and what America was doing there, but what sets this book apart is the personal stories. Barker is covering this hugely important moments, but she’s also a woman with a life, trying to balance career and romance and family. My favorite thing is that she admits she didn’t know what she was walking into, that no one did. It’s obvious that there’s a massive lack of understanding on all levels. The government, the military, the news, all of these different organizations, are all stumbling around, trying to do something huge, but mostly failing.

Basically, it is an alright book, but not great. Having now seen the movie, I can say, it is an alright movie, but not great. The surprising thing is that book and movie had fairly different flaws. Normally weaknesses are consistent through adaptation, but here, not so much.

The weakness of the movie is that it’s sort of clueless, and tries but fails to do a love story. The weakness of the book is mostly that it isn’t very shiny. The movie is possibly too shiny? It is not specific enough. It doesn’t slow down to explain boring but important history or politics. But it also doesn’t go the other way into a more exaggerated world. It’s grounded in a very shallow reality, and that’s a shame. I can imagine a better movie. The book had the makings of a better movie, and the idea of adapting that book to star Tina Fey seemed like a good idea. But then it’s just this. Which is almost boring. Maybe it wouldn’t be if I didn’t know the plot, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s just sort of dull. Pleasant, but dull.

If you’re only going to do one, I’d pick up the book, but honestly, they’re both skippable unless something about the summary really stands out to you.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

A couple of weeks ago I picked up Six of Crows after hearing great things about it from friends. I flew through it, and then immediately had to pick up the sequel. It was an incredibly compelling fantasy adventure about plucky young thieves pulling a daring heist. I loved the characters SO MUCH, which my other complaints about the world building and plot even more frustrating. Characters this great deserve the best sorts of books to inhabit, and this wasn’t quite there.

To be blunt, the world building felt lazy. Identifying the inspiration for the different cities and cultures was too easy. If there’s going to be such obvious parallels, I want it to do something interesting with these relationships, lampshade it in someway that feels clever, instead of just using stand-ins. The mishmash of fantasy and steampunk had the possibility to be awesome, and it is cool, but it never really differentiates itself.

I was also frustrated by the muddled politics of the story. It’s possible that I’ve been reading too much China Mieville lately. Not every book is going to be built out of a strong underlying socialist ideology, nor should it be that way, but having something solid underneath helps. These books had some nice Robin Hood aspirations, and wanting to be damage the profits of those in power instead of the lives of ordinary people, but it’s never clearly articulated. It seemed like Bardugo was trying to make a larger point, but didn’t want to straight out say it, which is very valid, it’s generally not a great idea to have your characters talk about the moral of the story. But because of weak world building and an emphasis on characters the meaning got lost.

The three main ships were obvious from a quarter of the way through the first book, which isn’t a bad thing because I was rooting for all of them. But then only one of the relationships wound up being satisfying for me. I understood why Bardugo left them where she did, but I didn’t like it, and wouldn’t have done it myself. The strength of the book is the relationships, and it felt like they were shortchanged at the end. (Killing a character does not automatically make a story more sophisticated or deeper. I’ve seen this problem in YA before, and it bugs me so much).

The thing is, that despite these complaints, I loved reading both books. They were so much fun, and the characters were so compelling, and I wanted to see what happened next. It’s a very fun adventure to be in, even if some of the underlying mechanics were flawed. Also, I’m reading this as a twenty-four year old writer with an English degree. They’re YA books. If I was the intended audience I bet most of the things that bother me would not have been a problem. They’re very cool books, get them for the kids in your life to read before they grow up to be picky old grumps like me.

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Goldenhand, latest installment of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and it did not disappoint. I love this whole world so much. I read the first book, Sabriel, when I was really young. I think I must have been in fifth grade, and I remember absolutely devouring it in a single sitting. Loral, and Abhorsen built on  the world and the characters in such a brilliant way. Goldenhand picks up not far past the end of Abhorsen, and goes even further, pushing the borders of the map. I loved it. The adventure story is great, the romance was so beautiful. I love relationships between two people who are equally terrible at knowing what to do with feelings. The new characters are cool, and all of my old favorites were back. If you aren’t already an avid reader of this series, what’s wrong with you? Get to it, it isn’t just some of the most interesting YA fantasy around, but one of my absolute favorite things in the whole world.

Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

I really like Jonathan Lethem, and I’m interested in checking out whatever he does. This isn’t his best work, it doesn’t have that punch, but it is interesting, and I did enjoy it.

It’s about a professional backgammon player Bruno, who has a blot in his vision, and I don’t want to say any more than that in case you want to go read it yourself. I hate giving plot summaries, and I’m bad at it. He goes back to where he grew up, and there might be some magical realism, and it’s all very interesting.

There’s a whole part about a t-shirt with the Dude on it. Bruno doesn’t know anything about The Big Lebowski, but the picture of Jeff Bridges’s face with the word abide resonates with him on some level. Abide is such a great work, and playing with that was cool. Also the whole idea of a film creating a thing, the face and the word, which as been so thoroughly contextualized by consumer culture, stuck on things and sold. It’s such an odd specific movie, and obviously it struck a chord with a lot of people to be a cult classic, but nothing can exist only for it’s fans, not just for people who are in on the joke, it’s out there drifting. That’s so weird, and really in sync with the tone of the novel.

It sort of made me want to learn to play backgammon, kind of, and i’m not a board game person AT ALL. If I actually tried I’m sure I’d get bored soon enough, but this book did give the game a certain allure. It’s a pretty cool book, that knows it’s pretty cool.

I don’t love how he wrote the women, but hard to tell if that’s a writer concern or a character pov thing, but generally uncool. There are some weird invocations of anarchism that don’t really work. It gestures to politics, but never gets there in a meaningful/interesting way. (Or, possibly, I’ve been reading too much Mieville and it’s warped my perceptions?)

There’s a magical realism thing that I didn’t appreciate. Bruno might be able to read minds, but maybe he’s just crazy? The novel never makes this clear, which could be an interesting ambiguity if done right, but I just found it frustrating. I know Lethem is someone who likes to play around in genre fiction, which I usually love, but damn, I am not a fan of murky magical realism.

The surgical bits were so perfectly disgusting. Lethem thanks a bunch of doctors in the afterward, and he must have done some serious research to make this so intense and specific and gross.

I want to address the ending, so don’t read the rest of the paragraph if you don’t want spoilers: I think I love how the ending loops back, that things haven’t changed as much as it seemed like they might’ve. That there is something to return to. Alexander Bruno couldn’t return to his actual hometown of Berkley, but he could go back to his world of being a non-person in Singapore, maybe that’s who he actually is.

Overall, I liked it? I think? I didn’t love it, but it gave me plenty to think about, and I enjoy going along with authors I like do different things.

We Won’t See Auschwitz by Jeremie Dres

This was a really interesting well done graphic memoir about two brothers who travel from Paris, to Poland, to see where their Grandmother lived, and examine their Jewish heritage. Dres talks to a lot of different people and gets different perspectives on what it means to be Jewish in Poland. He provides plenty of historical context for the reader. It’s clearly drawn, full of expressive buildings and expressive faces, giving the character of the city and conversation.

Jewish roots are one of the things I’m not sure how to write about. I’m an agnostic, who was raised attending a radical methodist church, but my great grandmother came over from Holland because of Anti-Semitism. I was named after my grandmother, who was named Bessie as an Americanized version of Betje, named after her aunt, who died in Auschwitz. This is a part of my family history,  but not a piece that I’m close to. I think I’m Jewish enough for someone who would have a problem with that, but not enough to claim it for myself.

One aspect of the book was that a lot of young Poles are starting to uncover Jewish heritage that had been neglected or denied. Now, in an environment where it’s more acceptable to acknowledge such things, they’re starting to explore what that means. I feel like this isn’t a thing we talk about when we’re analysing identity, and I think that’s a shame. Even if we know where we come from, what that mean to us can change. It really resonated for me, especially with the world right now.

It’s a good little book that I picked up from the library on a whim, and really got a lot out of.

War of the Foxes by Richard Siken

Richard Siken’s second collection of poems is centered around the idea of painting. Many poems are titled the way paintings would be, and give some description of what the painting might contain, in spirit if not form. He’s using painting as a way to examine self expression, looking at a painting as a way to tell a story, to convey an emotion. It adds another beyond the emotions and stories within Siken’s poems. Siken’s visual language is made less abstract, existing not just as an image in a poem, but as an imagined painting. Adding the act of painting to a poem reminds the reader that the poem is crafted out of a similar impulse. It adds a meta element and a degree of distance at times. The images he creates are lush and precise. I love the way he reads language. I read things to myself, and then read it out loud, because hearing the words in the air adds another dimension. There are poems about war, and about relationships, and about art. There are a lot of birds. It’s marvelous. Siken is absolutely one of my favorite contemporary poets, and this volume was excellent. It’s less violent and bloody than Crush, while still having a strong heartbeat.