The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

Review:

The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators struck a deep chord with me on two levels: as an artist and as best friend to a fellow artist. If you are either, you’ll likely love this novel as I did.

Funny and engaging from the first page, The Animators starts with our narrator, Sharon, in college, where she meets the charismatic Mel Vaught. Both are aspiring animators who are into the same shit and share an aesthetic; both come from poor, rural southern U.S. backgrounds. Many of us in the arts could identify that time when we learn we’re not actually outsiders, that others share our interests; college tends to be a place where we find our tribe.

But this is not a novel about being a college arts student. The narrative quickly brings us to a present where Sharon and Mel have made a successful indie animated feature that centers on Mel’s life. They live together in New York City. Mel drinks and does a lot of drugs; she’s the life of the party. Sharon…is not. She spends a lot of time and emotions angsting over her latest romantic interest, of which there are many.

Tension develops between the two, much of it, from Sharon’s perspective, owing to Mel’s lifestyle. There’s a blowout, followed by a shocking, life-altering health crisis for one of them. It’s a reset that leads them on a path to mining Sharon’s childhood for their next project. This raises very real questions artists face about using their lives in their art in ways that may hurt loved ones. I wasn’t quite satisfied by the resolution to this issue, but I appreciated its being seriously considered.

This book excels at depicting partnerships between women, their working lives as artists, and craft. The prose is engaging, the characters vivid, and there are some heartbreaking and harrowing moments. Even if you’re not an artist or friends with one, I can’t imagine Whitaker’s (first!) novel not winning you over from page one.

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The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Review:

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

It was difficult to read the first half or so of this book because the protagonist (Seth) and his best (and only) friend (Carter) are aggravatingly ignorant of their appropriation of black culture. They’re even more offensive for thinking they’re woke or genuine in their fetishistic consumption of the rarest blues, at least in Carter’s case. Seth is less than sympathetic in his own distinct way; he’s such a follower that he barely has a personality of his own. As little as I could bear the privileged Carter, Seth is consequently even harder for me to care about given that he follows Carter like a puppy. I don’t know what to make of the fact that both have or have had mental health issues. And I don’t know what to make of Seth’s thing for Carter’s sister.

I patiently waited for these guys to get some sort of comeuppance. When it came, it was a whirlwind of genres, a mishmash of past and present, a blurring of identities. Formally, stylistically, this novel took off, grabbing me by the collar. It was hard to put down. I hadn’t known what to expect at the beginning, which is a gift for a reader. I do think at times the cues or signals were overdone; we could have been better trusted to follow the shifts in time and perspective. But what a ride.

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White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Review:

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what’s a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn’t because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters’ situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can’t think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.

In addition to Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that “family sagas” can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.

There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.

I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that’s a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude.

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

The X-Files: Just How “Familiar”?

For the most part, I’ve found the latest (and perhaps final, for realsies) season of the X-Files to be pretty darn good, those typically interminable Chris Carter episodes notwithstanding. I’ve even begun outlining a gigantic post about how the show was my first real fannish obsession, the show that taught me how to be a fan.

One of the things I’ve been appreciating about this season is its clear engagement with our current political, social climate. The original run of episodes, those that told us “The Truth Is Out There,” quite obviously represented the concerns and fears of creators who lived during Watergate and the Cold War. In a time when “the truth” and facts are easily dismissed as “fake news” while lies are defended as “alternative facts,” this season of the show has its characters respond accordingly–even the FBI itself is in the crosshairs of this administration.

This is why I struggled with “Familiar,” the episode from this week. I don’t know when it was written, though it sure looked cold when it was filmed, actors’ breaths visible. I wonder because I couldn’t help reading its metaphorical and literal witch hunt through the lens of #metoo. I’ve developed a pet peeve so peevish it borders on rage when “witch hunt” is evoked to describe the tide of accusations against men in power and to defend them. Of course, it’s not the first time the term’s been used in regards to men–McCarthyism comes to mind. But it’s the first time I’m familiar with where the “hunters” were women, and the “hunt” was global and revolved around misogyny.

“Familiar” also attempts to comment on contemporary concerns, but I struggled to interpret just which, specifically. Mulder associates “witch hunt” with a lack of due process or assumption of innocence, as when the sex offender is beaten by a police officer and crowd, then killed by that same officer. This has also been a criticism of #metoo despite the fact that most consequences accused men have experienced do not involve criminal charges where due process applies.

Later, the officer is let off easy by a judge, which Mulder predicts. One may think of the countless real world law enforcement officers similarly treated when accused of murdering black victims. The judge in the episode, btw, is black. So is the one officer not susceptible to the supernatural madness that has overtaken the town. I don’t know what to make of these representations.

The townsfolk are “taking the law into their own hands,” though the violence begins with a wrong that is not illegal (though cause for divorce) but a sin: marital infidelity. The wife wants to punish the other woman, then her husband. She calls upon a power she can’t control in order to do so instead of, what? Murdering them directly? Getting a divorce? What is the message here? Without a clear real world correlative, a bizarre, offensive response to #metoo is the only commentary I could take away, and the episode might even have been written before the movement.

Chris Carter didn’t write the episode, but I also couldn’t help but remember that time he and Howard Gordon were sued for sexual harassment by a woman who worked on the show.

I didn’t hate the episode. In many ways, it was the most reminiscent of a classic MOTW episode. It also gave us a Scully we haven’t seen as much of as late: the skeptic, scientist Scully, though she apparently still needs a man to defend her point of view when another man questions it.

The X-Files: Just How “Familiar”?

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch

Review:

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

More a novel of ideas than a “yarn,” The Book of Joan‘s characters exist primarily as symbols, vehicles for ideology. This quality brought to mind older modes of storytelling, such as ancient Greek and Roman epics, fairy tales, and didactic poems. Everything is heightened–the language, the stakes, the characters. At first I highlighted many passages, dazzled by the prose, but the lyric language reached a critical mass about a third of the way through, and I became distracted by linguistic tics such as the overuse of “wrong” as an adjective. It could also be hard to read some of the graphically violent passages.

Nevertheless, I applaud this novel’s ingenuity, its reworking of Joan of Arc’s story and interesting notions regarding gender and sex.

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The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch