Always Be Uncomfortable: Brooke Bolander, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Amal El-Mohtar Talk Writing, History, and The Only Harmless Great Thing

Maria Dahvana Headley, Brooke Bolander, and Amal El-Mohtar. Photo courtesy of Irene Gallo

Brooke Bolander, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Amal El-Mohtar came together at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to discuss Bolander’s new book, The Only Harmless Great Thing, but what began as a book launch became a long, complex discussion of the power of storytelling, the horrors of capitalism, and the power of women who come together to record truth.

Brooke Bolander’s alternate history novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, connects the story of Topsy the Elephant with that of The Radium Girls, two tragedies from the early 20th Century. Topsy was electrocuted publicly after trying to defend herself from a series of abusive trainers; the Radium Girls were factory workers who were poisoned while painting radioluminescent watch dials, because their bosses insisted they wet their brushes in their mouths to save time. The book delves into these two atrocities, while also telling a story of an ancient lineage of elephants, ...

[Spooky Ghost Noises]: Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James

How have I missed M.R. James? I love ghost stories, I grew up reading horror, but somehow I’d never even read James’ most famous story, “Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. But part of my original plan for TBR Stack was to work my way through the teetering towers of tomes that have made my apartment increasingly unlivable awesome, and I finally got to James! I’m not going in any particular order for this column (that way lies madness) but since I’d just read Colin Winnette’s brand new ghost book, The Job of the Wasp, I figured I’d keep the trend going. Luckily among my many stacks of books is the the 1992 Wordsworth Classics edition of James’ Collected Ghost Stories—a collection I greatly enjoyed.

We all agree that telling ghost stories at Christmas is one of the greatest holiday traditions of all ...

When Dragons Slay Reality: Chandler Klang Smith’s The Sky Is Yours

There have been a lot of books heralded as heirs to Infinite Jest, but I can happily say: this is it. I’ve found it.

After all the years of doorstopping tomes writing by white literary fiction males (many of whom I love) and all the years of terrified readers being cornered in coffeeshops by wild-eyed young men (and occasionally, um, me) who needed to explain David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, Chandler Klang Smith has unleashed her own slipstream, genrefluid monster of a book—that also happens to be fun, visceral, heartbreaking, and genuinely funny. The Sky Is Yours is bursting with ideas and characters, and I’d advise you take a break after reading it, because other books are probably going to seem a bit black-and-white for a while.

Here are the basics: Empire City seems to be a far-future and/or alt history Manhattan. After decades as a ...

Attention, Citizens: The Tick Is Getting a Second Season!

Peter Serafinowicz as The Tick

Amazon Studios has announced the latest incarnation of The Tick, created by god-who-writes-as-man Ben Edlund, will be getting a second season on the streaming service. Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick!) and Griffin Newman (Arthur Everest) will both return.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Mighty Blue Justice of the Tick: In a world where superheroes (and villains) are very real, accountant Arthur Everest is doing his best to investigate a conspiracy without succumbing to PTSD and depression. He believes that the world is in danger from The Terror, a supervillain long believed to be dead. When the Tick shows up in his life, the two team up to thwart evil wherever it may appear.

The Tick has appeared in comics, cartoons, and even an earlier live-action outing, but the newest iteration has quickly become my favorite by embracing real life problems, and especially delving into ...

White Knight: Anna Kavan’s Ice

Anna Kavan’s Ice is off like a shot from the first sentence, “I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol.” This haunting novel was one of Anna Cavan’s last works, after an early career writing in a more realistic vein, and a mid-career exploration of insanity and power through experimental fiction. Ice was described as “The Avengers meets Kafka” and I think that sums it up quite nicely—it’s a terrifying work of speculative fiction that could be post-apocalyptic from one angle, and allegorical from another.

We are in an unnamed country, traveling down and icy road in the dark. We soon learn that our narrator (he will never have a name) is searching for a girl he once “loved” (she also remains unnamed) who is now married to an overbearing, possibly abusive man. The girl is ...

The Unstable Nature of Reality: The Job of The Wasp by Colin Winnette

The Job of the Wasp stretches the limits of unreliability. Can you have an unreliable narrator, an unreliable setting, and dozens of unreliable supporting characters, any of whom could turn out to be a villain at any moment—or to be the victim to the villainous narrator? It turns out that you can! Or at least, Colin Winnette can, because this book works marvelously as a spooky horror before suddenly becoming a moving tale of alienation.

We begin in media res, with our narrator being welcomed into an orphanage. We have no idea what year it is, what country we’re in, or what happened to our narrator’s parents. He expresses no emotion for them, and only seems concerned with fitting in with the other children. We are told by the headmaster that there are now 31 children in the facility, rather than the governmentally-mandated 30. We are ...

The Evolution of Religious Iconography in Star Wars

While Star Wars is many things to many people, it is, at its heart, a story about a religious revival. If you look at the films chronologically, the stodgy Jedi Order collapses in spectacular fashion over the course of the Prequel Trilogy, leaving a few scattered Force believers looking for purpose in Rogue One, before a trio of Jedi Knights help restore balance in the Original Trilogy. But the Jedi Order Reboot also collapses spectacularly, and, in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we’re back down to a couple of Force users who might be about to bring the religion back a second time.

I’m fascinated by the way the series uses parallels to real-life religious iconography to tell its story, especially how, in Rogue One and The Last Jedi, the filmmakers used some very specific references to create a richer and more inclusive galaxy far, far ...

Fantasy Creatures Won’t Stop Inviting Me Over for Tea

Mt Tumnus, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

They are mice and bears and things and whenever I stumble into their worlds they are all unfailingly polite.

But maybe I don’t want to have to tea with them. Do I want to have tea with them? Let’s see.

 

Dormouse, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland

Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland

I like you Dormouse. I truly do! There are few things I love more than small sleepy animals. But I like to sit and drink my tea, not engage in impromptu therapy sessions with Hatters. Hence, you sit here, near the bottom of the list, snoring away. Gosh you’re cute.

 

The Depressed Bear, The Magicians

Illustration from The Magicians by Chad White

Illustration from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians by Chad White

Sorry, Bear. You may invite me to hang out at your tavern with plenty of honey-drenched tea, but first of all, you are one lachrymose ursus. Second, you tend to have a pretty one-track mind, and I think we’d ...

Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
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Mr. Tumnus, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
Wind in the Willows illustration by Michael Hague

A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Search for Holiday Truths

Charlie Brown looked into the shining void that is Christmas, and became a hero.

Here was a child who acknowledged the sadness beneath the festivity, the loneliness, the aching search for meaning under tinsel. This half hour met the challenge thrown down by Rudolph, raised the bar for the Grinch, and created the template that has been used by nearly every animated special, sitcom, and even drama since the 1960s. Charlie Brown dispensed with all merriment, demanded to know the meaning of Christmas, and got a perfect answer.

Here’s the entire plot of A Charlie Brown Christmas: Charlie Brown is sad, so Lucy asks him to direct the Christmas pageant. He decides to buy a tree to put on the stage. He buys a tree the kids don’t like, so he is EVEN MORE SAD. They decorate the tree and make up with him. But hung upon that simply, ...

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Have Yourself a Populist Christmas with It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife

Just after World War II two very different films were released, a bare year apart, that attempted to grapple with postwar America. It’s easy to look at It’s a Wonderful Life and either see a heartwarming classic or a pile of treacle begging for a snarky rejoinder, and it’s easy to look at The Bishop’s Wife and see mainstream Christmastime fluff. But both films hide a far more interesting message, which becomes clear when you compare them with other holiday classics.

One of Christmas’ greatest traditions is arguing about how far the holiday has fallen from the pure ideal Christmases of yesteryear. It’s too commercialized! It’s too materialistic! There is a war being waged upon it! And yet, when we actually look back at the history of our most beloved Christmas movies, we see that the holiday has always, with two big exceptions, been shown as a day ...

12 Movies that Embrace a Darker Holiday Spirit

Are you tired of It’s a Wonderful Life? Has the Elf plummeted from the Shelf? I’ve gathered some darker Christmas fare—from Krampus tales to explorations of addiction, from Hideous Laughing Reindeer to machine guns—so allow me to fill your stocking with some twisted holiday classics!

 

Gremlins

The best thing Chris Columbus ever wrote was this script, which Joe Dante subsequently turned into the best thing he’s ever directed. We open on an idyllic town in the Hudson River Valley, positively glowing with snow, and ringing in the Christmas season with one of the greatest carols of all time, “Baby Please Come Home.” But as we zoom in we learn that the town is failing, the people are struggling, and one Potter-esque miser is strangling what few independent businesses remain. And that’s before the monsters show up. The Gremlins themselves are gleeful agents of chaos, truly vicious and evil, ...

Christmas Trees, Toys, and An Epic Battle Between Good and Evil: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

“And now we come to a turning-point in the career of Santa Claus, and it is my duty to relate the most remarkable circumstance that has happened since the world began or mankind was created.”

Histories of Christmas are pretty much endlessly interesting to me. I love piecing together Sinter Klaas, St. Nicholas, Wotan, Three Kings’ Day, Saturnalia, and the Nativity. I love the Krampus. I love Mari Lwyd and Jólakötturinn and the Jólabókaflóð and the Yule Log. Most of all maybe I love Christmas specials, and of all Christmas specials I love those of Rankin/Bass the most. Their decades-long project was to create a single unified theory of Christmas—a Christmas Cinematic Universe, if you will—which included everyone from Rudolph and Frosty to the Little Drummer Boy, and even a few leprechauns for good measure. But best of all were the multiple Santa Claus origin stories, including one ...

Defining Heroism as Vulnerability: How Star Wars Created a New Kind of Action Movie

When I saw The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I tried to figure out what made them so much more compelling to me that the prequel trilogy. After all, I’d gone into The Phantom Menace incredibly excited to see another chapter in the Star Wars story, only to be disappointed by each film, but Force Awakens and  Rogue One both struck me as worthy successors to the original trilogy.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think both films honor a tradition from the Original Trilogy: in the midst of an often cartoonish space opera, it’s the moments of heroic vulnerability—not moments of action—that define the series. This is the emotional undercurrent that kept the trilogy so vital, and the fact that the two latest films embrace this theme is part of their success.

Spoilers for The Force Awakens and Rogue One to follow.

Luke in A New Hope

In A New Hope...

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Why You Watch the Original Mad Max Trilogy

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We all know Fury Road is great, but perhaps you need some convincing that the original Mad Max trilogy is worth your time. Perhaps you missed Beyond Thunderdome each of the many times it was shown on a cable outlet, and are now leery of Tina Turner in a fright wig. Perhaps you think moviemakers couldn’t create a believable post-apocalyptic landscape in the (mostly) CGI-free days of the 1980s. Perhaps you just can’t with Mel Gibson. I understand. (Truly! Especially about that last one.) But I’m here to show you that the original Mad Max trilogy holds many wonders.

There will be people who tell you that the first film is crap, or that the last film is crap. Those people are wrong. The original Mad Max does indeed have long boring stretches, but those patches are interrupted by some of the best chase sequences in all moviedom. And ...

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Children of Women: Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From

Where Canticle for Leibowitz gradually unveiled its catastrophe through a series of unreliable narrators, and The Road meditates on every grim reality of life after a societal collapse, in Megan Hunter’s new novel, The End We Start From, the apocalypse unfolds in the background of the story, refracted through the first few months of a baby’s life.

The unnamed narrator gives birth bare days before floodwaters begin to overtake London. Soon she and her husband are both brand-new parents and refugees seeking higher ground. This gives the story both an urgency, and a haunting, far away feeling, as the narrator can’t think too far beyond the needs of her baby, but she is also terrified at all times that he won’t survive.

It’s a fascinating way to tell this kind of a story, because we get all the details needed to see what’s happening to England, ...

Women are the Champions of the Rebellion Now

There was a moment in Rogue One—a flawed, complicated moment, in a film which many people didn’t like—that fundamentally changed what the Star Wars saga is about.

In the final sequence, instead of focusing on individuals, the camera follows the disc with the Death Star plans pass hand-to-hand as Darth Vader chases it down. Someone watching Rogue One has almost certainly seen a Star War, and thus should know that the plans make it through. But the film approaches this moment from the point of the view of the terrified Rebels who are barely, desperately, keeping the disc one step ahead of the enemy. We see that it reaches Leia with seconds to spare, and then she flees with it. And we know that she’s going to be captured in a few minutes, but that the plans will be safe with R2-D2 by then. The Rebellion will survive. The ...

Playing a Complicated Mage: Amanda Walsh Discusses Her Role in Dirk Gently

There is so much to love about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency! One of the best aspects of the first season was the emphasis on complex, three-dimensional female characters, as Amanda Brotzman (Hannah Marks) and Farah Black (Jade Eshete) both fought evil while also wrestling with a chronic illness and terrible anxiety, respectively, and Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif) defied every societal norm in her life as a holistic assassin. Season 2 has not only maintained that commitment to Amanda and Farah, but has now added two new, equally amazing women: Izzie Steele’s Tina Tevetino, the perpetually high police officer of Bergsberg who’s just trying her best, y’know, and Amanda’s Walsh’s chameleon-like (and Napoleonic) Suzie Boreton.

When we meet Suzie she’s the downtrodden mother to an angry teen and wife to a boorish husband, who trudged off to work each day to handle files for emotionally abusive boss. But then a ...

Growing Up While Unstuck in Time: Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round

It’s hard for me to write about Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round. Part of me just wants to jump and down waving it and saying “It’s just so good you guys!” until you’re all convinced to read it. But that’s not really a review? You’ve come here for critique, right? Scintillating insights into where this book fits into the larger fantasy and/or YA canon?

Well I can start with that: this book fits into the canon. This book belongs on the shelf with your L’Engle and your Earthsea. It has a lot to say about being a teenager, trying to fit in, and dealing with a family situation that, while not abusive, is certainly not supportive or nurturing. There is a great realistic coming-of-age story tucked away in this book. But it’s also about time travel, and that’s where Weave becomes a classic.

Freddy DuChamp ...

Pixar’s Coco Celebrates Life By Diving into Death

Coco is a lovely, effervescent film about death. It explores themes of familial responsibility, death, and loss, but marries those heavy themes with musical numbers and unforced comedy. The animation is uniformly beautiful and the script is often hilarious. But before we get into the details, I’ll just tell you whether you should see it in the theater:

YES.

This is my favorite Pixar film since WALL-E, and while the story follows a fairly typical plot it’s emotionally rich in a way that recalls last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings more than any other film I can think of. Before I go any further, however, I also want to encourage you to check out Remezcla’s round-up of Latino movie critics, and what they have to say about Coco. I have lots of feelings about it, and I’ll discuss them below, but I can’t speak to the cultural ...

My Muse is a Rat: Ratatouille’s Inspiring Message About Art

When I went to see Ratatouille in 2007, I was trapped in a terrible job. I was exhausted all the time, I felt completely uninspired, and spent a sickening amount of energy questioning myself, beating myself up, hating every decision I’d made that led me to that moment in my life, and creating a vomitous feedback loop of self-loathing. When I went to the movie with friends, I was paying for two hours of forgetfulness. Two hours to stop thinking about my life, and lose myself in a cute Pixar story. I remember hoping I liked the short.

And then the film started, and I didn’t get forgetfulness—I got a much-needed slap in the face.

This isn’t a cute Pixar movie—Ratatouille takes every cliche of every artist biopic you’ve ever seen and tweaks them just enough to both honor the idea of the artist, and to challenge it. This ...