Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

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I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales. Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5

Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

High School DXD

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There’s an art to the ecchi genre. Sexual appeal may not require brains to react to, but it requires skill. Not everyone can be a stripper or a sexy dancer even if you have the right body. A good ecchi show would know symbolism and psychology aren’t part of the genre. It would know that it uses sexuality and energy to tell a fun, ridiculous story. High School DXD knows this, but doesn’t work on it.

The characters embodies the strengths and the weaknesses. Rias is worth all the hype and posters they made. You need more than big breasts to make a sexy character. Rias is sexy and not just because of her figure (which isn’t easy to design. See also: Divergence Eve). It’s also little touches like the hair, which is deliberately red. Red is both the color that attracts the most attention. Rias isn’t just meant to be pretty but she symbolizes sexuality.

Her posture, behavior and personality also help express this idea. She’s not a caricature nymphoniac who’ll be a sex slave for our main character. Rather, she’s comfortable in her sexuality. She doesn’t mind being seen naked. She’s in a position of authority that gives her a lot of power but she’s not drunk with it. Power is sexy, but being able to control it is harder and sexier.

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She’s a charismatic, powerful presence that holds the series despite the fact everyone around her is barely half as interesting. What’s weird is that all the failures are females. They’re supposed to be just as attractive as Rias, but they’re dull.

It’s hard to see something in them beyond archetypes. Rias was an embodiment of an idea. Everyone else is a dull archetype. Asia is the complete opposite of Rias, which is something. It’s not used to its advantage. The contrast between the two never appears. We know she’s a nice girl but we only know it. We rarely see it happen. Akeno has no personality whatsoever and Koneco is a quiet loli, which was always a terrible idea and doesn’t improve here.

The designers do have talent. Later in the series a rival group is introduced, and they all have more imaginative designs than the main characters’. It’s almost as if they had two different designers, and the less creative one punished the other. Things in the rivalry team include spiral twintails, X-shaped twintails, a bikini armor and a masked figure. Even at their worst, there’s more spark to their design. Why do the main characters get the generic long hair of Akeno?

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The male characters are actually more entertaining this time. They’re often mindless perverts or boring good guys in such shows. Issei is a combination of both, but it’s one that works. He has these attributes not because it’s convenient to the story but because they can create a personality out of it. Issei becomes both an overblown moral hero who’s just as selfish and horny as the person he goes against.

There’s irony there. It flips the story where two people beat up each other because they disagree and somehow their strength proves their idea right. I wish the irony was more developed though. Issei knows he’d like to be that asshole he’s fighting, the guy with the harem. The anime doesn’t take a step back to laugh at this, at least not enough.

The problem is that it’s not enough to just know you’re making an ecchi series. You still need direction, you need to aim somewhere. What prevents the series from becoming really enjoyable is its lack of direction. Is this about how stupid but kind of cute we are in high school when hormones drive us crazy? Or is this about a hero that’s going to push himself over the edge for a girl because he’s hungry for sex?

If the series would’ve chosen to alternate between the two, it would’ve been fine. Instead, it jumps back and forth between the two. It only gets focused at the end, where it sticks to the epic fight and nothing else. At least it’s victorious there. The fight is well-animated and has a pretty enough scenery to make it exciting. The exaggeration of the characters is also believable enough to make the final conflict feel epic enough.
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The fantasy element is one of the good parts. It’s a cute spin on the Devil/Angel dichotomy that doesn’t pretend to be profound. The idea of devils doing services for people is rife for potential comedy. They play around with it a little and then abandon it. The epic battle was fine, but it was more fun to see Issei trying to do things and being a loser. It’s an opportunity to create odd side-characters who can have their ideas summed up in one episode. There are more seasons and I hope they play around with this more.

Now comes the fatal part, where humiliation is passed off for sexiness. I don’t mind the camera finding its way to changing rooms or how clothes get ripped off during battles in sexy ways. What I don’t understand is, is it necessary to have the characters strip others naked against their will for our enjoyment? It’s not sexy and it’s not humorous.

High School DXD knows what it isn’t, but it also doesn’t know what it is. There is heart here. These people really wanted to make an anime that will capture the fun spirit Ecchi can have, but they didn’t know how. Maybe the next seasons have more focus. I hope so. Rias is too much of a fun character and Issei is a rare Harem protagonist who actually contributes to the story. It’s a fun show, but as crazy as it sounds I think we can do more with Ecchi.

2.5 devils out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Melanie Martinez – Cry Baby

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Melanie is late to the game. There has been a wave of Pop singers who sound like a response to the abundance of empowerment anthems. You know this style has been bled dry when Sia tries to write a vulnerable song about alcoholism and ends up ripping off “Titanium”.

Lana Del Rey was about the darker side of hedonism and hot bad guys. Tove Lo sang about the loneliness that finds even the sexiest women. Although they made great albums, Martinez feels like the true beating this genre needs. Tove Lo and Lana still sang like beautiful people. Melanie is the voice of the outcast.

Thematically, the album has more in common with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Its structure is similar to the famous album by these two. The songs don’t tell a story as much as they show a psychological journey of a character, who starts off as Cry Baby and ends up as Mad Hatter.

This is not the trouble of a beautiful girl who just needs to choose a different environment. Melanie’s protagonist is an outcast who finds rejection wherever she goes. On “Dollhouse”, she finds no warmth in a family that’s fine only on the surface. On “Carousel” and “Soap”, she’s rejected romantically. The former deserves special mention. It’s one of the few songs where the hopelessness of love is considered.

The rejection climaxes in “Pity Party” and “Tag, You’re It”. In the former, Cry Baby realizes she has nobody. On the latter, someone finally notices her and it’s a sexual predator. Eventually, she uses the same innocence and tenderness she had in the title track for rebellion. Poisoned “Milk and Cookies” get rid of the asshole. The ending is optimistic – she rejects society and its superficiality on “Mrs. Potato Head” and finds joy in “Mad Hatter”.

Superficiality is a big deal here, and in Pop music. How we look, in fact, is a plague that still infects women. Female musicians will still get praised more for their looks than men, as if it has any bearings on the quality. On Little Mix’s “Black Magic” music video, a change of clothes suddenly makes the guy interested.

Melanie is obsessed with how we use fancy covers to hide things. Almost every song here involves bad things having a nice cover, from the dollhouse that hides a dysfunctional family to the poisoned milk and cookies. That’s where Melanie’s childish aesthetic comes into play.

The whole album uses childish aesthetic to express dark themes. The music is the same. The melodies have a nursery rhyme-like quality. Nothing is actually aggressive or loud. “Worth It” is more abrasive musically, but then comes the chorus of “Milk and Cookies”.

While this aesthetic is often brilliant and Melanie sounds like a visionary, it also highlights how inexperienced she is. There’s a reason The Downward Spiral wasn’t Reznor’s first album. Melanie swings between being obvious and delivering just the right line. On “Dollhouse”, you get lines like “Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?”. It’s brilliant in the way it creepily hints at sexual harassment. Then she bluntly states her Dad is having an affair.

She doesn’t stray from the concept, and that’s good. Only two songs feel slightly out-of-place. “Training Wheels” is a love song that’s great on its own but lacks the darkness that will connect it to the rest. “Pacify Her” is the sort of thing I’d expect from Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo. For a brief moment Cry Baby is an attractive girl that can steal others’ boyfriends?

“Mrs. Potato Head” has been already highlighted by many as the best song on the album. It should’ve spread like wildfire through Tumblr and become a meme. It’s an even better anti-beauty anthem than that Manson track. It has no subtly, it doesn’t need any. Someone need to sing “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. It’s not about plastic surgery, but about our worship of beauty. We wouldn’t need plastic surgeries if we wouldn’t worship beauty like this. It’s also one of the softest songs on the album, and that only makes it cut deeper.

There will be weirder Pop albums, but Cry Baby is the one we need now the most. Its musical backdrop is unique, but not very attention grabbing. It exists to go along with Melanie’s ideas, but she doesn’t expand on them. The most attention-grabbing thing musically is the bass drop in “Soap”, which uses bubbling sounds. The album doesn’t need an overblown sound. Its smallness fits with the childish atmosphere.

The rough edges prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still a brilliant Pop album. It doesn’t even come close to being a “singles with filler” album. The singles are actually some of the weaker tracks. Melanie manages to create a persona of her own and not just create a collection of great songs, but a sequencing that works. It’s also another step forward from the bland empowerment we’ve been plagued with. I wonder what will replace Melanie’s brand of depressed Pop.

4 dollhouses out of 5

John Corey Whaley – Where Things Come Back

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Someone decided to mix John Green and Chuck Palahniuk. He even decided to place his story in a dead end town that gave Local H their talent and their fear of failure. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all of this before I read the book. The disappointment would’ve hit harder.

Whaley borrows some stylistic choices from Palahniuk, but barely scrapes what made him worthwhile. He doesn’t borrow his shock antics, but that’s not much of a praise. Chuck’s choruses are here, only they’re not as inventive or informing as before. The purpose of this repetition is to inform us about the character. Victor uses the clinical “see also:” because he’s viewing the world in a detached way. Tender kept referring to cleaning because it was in his docile nature.

Cullen is an angry teenager, but this is where his personality ends. As an angry suburban teenager I recognize I was born to privilege, but it doesn’t automatically make for a happy life. You can give your parrot a safe environment and food, but ignore him and you might find that he discovered self-harm without Nine Inch Nails.

There is more to life than physical well-being. The psychological is just as important. Once we don’t have to fight for survival, we still need a reason to keep going. That’s one reason we get all these depressed teenagers. What do you expect when you put them in an isolated community where they spend most time studying and with little human interaction? Do you want to be the parrot who stares at people talking, joking and laughing while never noticing you exist for a second?

Other problems can strike suburban life, but this is a common one that’s easily brushed off as nothing by ignorant people (if they’re your parents, then the situation worsens). Cullen suffers none of that. He’s not a jock who gets all the girls, but he has a best friend with a girlfriend who feels comfortable kissing him. He has sex with two girls in this novel, one is slightly older than him and the other is the town’s main hottie (both of which make the advances). He also had a thing going on with another before the events in the book started.

Cullen’s life is kicking. Why he’s so angry is never made clear. He dislikes people, but no one is an outright asshole. Nothing about him makes him an outcast or a weirdo. He has no weird hobbies or habits. He can’t even get angry over being bored. If girls and driving around are available to you, then you have some joy in your life.

The whole disappearance thing is an external event that isn’t a part of Cullen’s personality. What’s important is not the tragic event but how it affects the character, and we don’t see it. Cullen stays angry without change. He doesn’t become more detached or more social. He manages his sexual opportunities like everything is fine. Sex is a positive force in his life. He’s neither encumbered by sexual frustration or relies on it too much like Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini.

The book is darker than John Green’s novels (excluding the cancer book). Whaley is more comfortable looking at the darkness and the story is less convenient. His characters are also more flawed than quirky. Whaley’s outcasts aren’t odd angels. Lucas has his Green-esque charms, but both he and Cullen are portrayed as stubborn kids who need to expand their horizons a little.

Whaley also questions Cullen’s hatred of everyone. Green tended to cast everyone out, put them on the bleachers so they’ll watch how cool the nerd is. Whaley has moments where we’re exposed to the others’ humanity and their flaws. A great moment like this is with John Barling. Cullen views him as a punching bag, but Barling’s scene shows he’s just another guy trying to find some value in his life. When the bully’s life gets wrecked, Whaley doesn’t celebrate.

In fact, the side characters are the best part here. Each has a little arc of its own, and a novel about them would be more interesting. Barling has a story about escaping failure and trying to do something big. If Quitman starred in his own novel, it could be a revealing one that gives us the bully’s point of view. How Cullen’s parents deal with grief is fascinating. Each deals in his/her own way and these means change with time. This is how Whaley brings a character to life:

“”Yeah, we used to fight over your cookies. And Dad would always come in and say, ‘Now, now, the only way to settle this is for me to eat the last one,’ and he’d snatch it before we could stop him.””

Such deeds can inform us about who these parents are. There are better moments here. If Whaley had so many, why aren’t they the stars of the novel.

It may be the brisk pacing. Every description of Cullen’s parents is insightful, but they’re not lingered on enough. Whaley moves quickly, as if afraid that lingering on characters will somehow boring. His story never resorts to lame action to make us feel something is happening. He knows better than that, but he doesn’t understand that a good enough moment is worth lingering on.

Unnecessary details still find their way in. Whaley gives a biography of a character whose only importance is its death. The specific details of his background, his time in Ethiopia have no effect on the story. Start from the death and drop a few mentions of his harsh family and you’ll have enough. At least Whaley’s antagonist doesn’t fit the role of evil asshole who ruins things for everyone. He couldn’t make the instigator’s madness understandable, though. Cabot felt more like a plot convenience. Again, Whaley should have slowed down and wrote more moments that define who this character is.

Whaley shows potential. His view of Young Adult is more mature. He wants to be up there with Catcher in the Rye (which is name-dropped, of course) and he wants to reach its depth, not just quirkiness. It’s halfway done. Whaley left enough annoying cliches, but the good stuff that remained are just seeds.

2.5 woodpeckers out of 5

Vacation (2015)

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The film opens with a series of photos from a family vacation. Something wrong goes in most of them, something that is supposed to be funny. ‘Going wrong’ here means things like a horse urinating, or a child seeing animals having sex.

I don’t go to movies to look at hot women. If I wanted hot women, there’s plenty of places to see them without distractions. In fact, whenever a film tries to dazzle me with how beautiful the actress is, I get the urge to message a philosophical question to a friend so he’ll entertain me. When I find myself enjoying the presence of a hot woman in a film, it’s clear it has nothing else to offer.

Vacation also has Chris Hemsworth showing off his muscles and lack of fat. I appreciate this stab at equality, but I’m not sure it’s worth sitting through an hour and a half of terrible jokes for. Couldn’t they just shot a short video of him flexing and put it on his Facebook page?

There’s an attempt here to make a dark comedy, only it’s not really dark. Like a lot of shitty comedians who use ‘shocking’ content, they’re afraid of going all the way. They gross you out, but it’s just unpleasant.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either go complete light and pretend it’s not dark. That’s hard to pull off, but it worked brilliantly in Borderlands. You can also confront the darkness. Use the jokes not as a way to cheapen the darkness but to magnify it. Make it both dark and funny. That’s why Catch-22 and the anime series WataMote are funny.

The creators put the characters through a lot of hardships, but none of it is meaningful or interesting. They bath in raw sewage, which goes on for 3 minutes. Someone actually thought that extending that scene to 3 minutes was a good idea. It was kind of funny at first when they didn’t realize it, but the scene goes on and on. We see them rubbing shit over themselves for a few minutes, which feel like they’ll never end. How does that extra length contribute to anything? Even splatter films don’t linger so much on the ugly details.

Some people die in this film, which is supposed to be funny. I’m not sure where the joke is in the scene with the suicidal guide tour. He kills himself after his fiance breaks up with him which is pretty sad, but where’s the joke? Wikipedia has a list of unusual death which is both hilarious and terrifying. What’s funny is not that these people died, but that their circumstances are so absurd.

No situation here even tries to be absurd. Things just go wrong. They want to go to hot springs, and they end up in raw sewage. Debbie tries to prove she’s wild at heart but she vomits pitcher of beer she just downed. The older brother finds a pretty girl and along comes the dad to make things awkward.

What defines absurdity is that it’s unpredictible. How funny can you be when every joke is so obvious? It would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t so cruel, though. When your jokes are cruel but lack wit, you just come off as a sadistic bully. Vacation is no different from the Saw films in that aspect. You see characters having a hard time and trying desperately to get out of it.

There’s no joy in here, no pain. They can’t even rely on joyful/depressing contrast to make jokes. The creators are so cruel they don’t allow the characters even a small victory. At least the Saw film have a unique visual style and a killer soundtrack. Vacation can’t justify all the pain it inflicts on its characters.

Ed Helms tries hard to make something good out of the material. Maybe that’s the joke. Maybe I was supposed to laugh at him trying to be funny with such weak material, but at this point I’m sad. The guy stayed for three Hangover films. Can the Coen Brothers take him to one of their movies now? There’s an almost effective scene where his characters break down. Helms tries to inject a little darkness to that scene. Seeing a character breaking down would’ve been truly shocking, but you can hear one of the executives telling him to stop. We’re here to gross out the audience, the executive says. Then Helms walks away like he should’ve done long ago and the car blows up. That’s a clever metaphore for his career.

There’s no reason for this film to exist. The kid behind me laughed a lot, but I also used to find shit and sex funny when I was younger. Now, I found life to be much more crazier and weirder than just these two subjects. Sex and shit can be funny. I have a personal anecdote involving shit, but it’s not just the shit that itself is funny. Mainstream comedy is just as terrible as it always was.

I can’t believe my friends chose this over Inside Out.

1.5 suicidal guide tours out of 5

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections

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There are three novels fighting for dominaton here. Two of them can have a conversation, while the third one just stands there. There’s an intimate, expansive novel of character exploration, sort of like Atonement. There’s a satirical novel where characters represent stereotypes and Franzen fools around with them. Then there’s one of those ‘hysterical realism’ novels, where the author piles on the details and goes off the deep end. He doesn’t go further enough to make it fantasy, but the weird section in Eastern Europe is far less realistic than that Planescape video game.

Perhaps if Franzen connected these three elements, I could have forgiven the swings of quality. Even if he didn’t connect the first and second novels, there’s enough common ground between them to make it feel they belong together. The third novel sticks out sorely.

Near the end of the book, we get outtakes from a DBC Pierre novel. Franzen hinted it would come to this at the beginning, but dropping it for 300 pages felt like it was because he knew it was hopeless. The decision to start the whole thing is consistent with the character making it, but not with the mood of the novel. Alarm bells dropped the bass when he made that decision, and I could see him turning from a live-action actor to a cartoon.

We’re only given the climax of this arc, which is good. There is something funny and amusing about the idea of putting a country at the stock market, but Franzen establishes himself as a person who writes about characters, not about society’s workings. The climax just shows us the result of this fiasco, which is a dragged out action scene that you could find on any Mystery novel.

This failure doesn’t seem so bad as what comes before it. The idea was doomed from the first line, anyway. Seeing that it’s not that bad is actually fun. It’s the biography of Denise that comes before where Franzen drops the ball at what he does best. Like a lot of male authors, he thinks that females see a random guy, decide they’re attracted to him, and immidiatley have sex. I don’t think that Friend Zone would have been such a big thing if this were real. This is an important part of Denise’s story, and that it makes it worse.

It can’t be anything else other than Franzen’s sex fantasy. It’s the one part he writes like a teenager too busy reading GameSpot to read The Red Pill. Whenever Franzen deals to other topics where he could make a clown out of himself, like lesbian sex or a bladder out of control, he maintains his dignity. The few lesbians scene here are completely different. They make sense for the characters. They don’t just land on them. We see the progress towards sex. When they do get into bed, it’s mostly to show us the dynamic of the relationship.

When Franzen goes scatological, he also displays a maturity so rare you forget we’re dealing with shit and piss. Whenever Alfred loses control of his bladder, the focus is not that there’s piss and that it’s dirty, but how it affects the characters’ lives. Franzen writes it not as the punchline to a joke or as material to captute the attention after so many boring pages, but as a natural part of life.

The best display of Franzen’s skills is at the last 100 pages. The Eastern Europe thing is over, and the arc with the Axon corporation which is gibberish is also done with. Franzen gets all his main characters in one room, and he shines. He jumps from satire to intimacy sometimes jarringly, but he hits the mark at both. His characters feel human and real. They’re messed up and pretty awful to each other, but they each function out of a coherent philosophy. He makes fun both of Enid’s refusal to get back in reality, but gives us plenty of moments to feel compassion for her. Alfred is at once a close-minded douchebag, and a person who just wants to be left alone. Gary is at once responsible, active, and hard working. He’s also sometimes completely blind to other people’s feelings.

If only The Corrections focused on this for all its length. Maybe Franzen should have just chopped half the book and chucked it. The long digression to explain to us all about the economy and Axon corporations and stock market stock market stock market are gibberish. That part could’ve been written in ancient Rapa Nui langauge, and the last 100 pages would still be just as meaningful.

It may have something to do with Franzen’s weak prose. He’s better at creating characters than McEwan, but his writing is much weaker. McEwan always writes like every line is full of meaning, even when the line ends as a gigantic non-sequiter. Franzen’s prose is dull and bumbles like a gorilla in a glassware shop. It’s not too bad when he has the content, but when he tries to write like what people hate about Thomas Pynchon and William Gass, you think maybe they should sue him for defamation.

The Correction is another typical canonical novel. There are brilliant parts, particularly at the end and the beginning. There are awful parts, especially the whole middle. How much it was worth, I’m not sure. The last pages were brilliant, but it took me a long time to burn through the middle. The last time I took such a break in reading was when I read the Game of Thrones series. Now that’s an awful book. This one is much better.

3 deranged families out of 5