Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Jason Fry

Review:

The Last Jedi (Star Wars) - Jason Fry

Almost forgot to review this! Like the novelization of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi was mostly worthwhile in terms of the additional context and peek inside characters’ heads not offered in the film. However, I had even more questions about TLJ from the movie than I had for TFA. I also had not re-watched it yet. Moments I thought were not in the film were indeed in there when I eventually re-watched; I was so off in my head through TLJ, I missed a lot!

The most interesting new bits in the novel that I remember from my reading include details about General Hux’s background and those of his fellow First Order officers. Apparently, Hux’s father was also a military man but was crazy; Hux killed him (it’s not revealed how)–it remains dangerous business being a father to a son in the Star Wars universe! Seriously, it’s like being a Roman Caesar. In the film you can see Hux clash with other officers, but the novel clarifies that a few of them also served the Empire; they’re used to doing things a certain way. Hux favors shows of strength rather than utilizing successful strategy.

Some additional scenes were filmed but not part of the final cut (available as deleted scenes in special features) and are described in the novel. These include a serious-turned-funny sequence where Luke tells Rey that newly arriving Caretaker species merchants are raiders who come regularly to steal and kill. Rey rushes down to them only to discover that they’re having a party! Luke lied to make a point about how the Jedi would have taken a no-involvement stance. Something not filmed, though, is Luke inviting Rey to dance; it’s sweet scene.

The biggest questions I had after seeing the film the first time involved Kylo Ren and Rey, of course. It somehow wasn’t clear to me on a first viewing if Ren knew anything about Snoke forming the Force bond between him and Rey; he didn’t. I also wondered if Snoke was telling the truth about that. In the book, before and during his monologue that ends with his death, we get a glimpse of Snoke’s thoughts, and he did indeed bridge their minds (at least HE believes he did). There’s also more about the fight from Rey’s perspective especially; at the beginning she struggles a bit but essentially lets the Force guide her. It’s pretty cool. She also senses Ben/Kylo as he fights and compares him to an animal finally freed from his cage.

Most revealing is why Rey leaves Ren alive once it’s clear he’s not going to turn and they struggle over Luke’s light saber, which splits and knocks them unconscious. He wakes up, but Rey is already gone in the movie. In the book, there’s a little scene where Rey awakens and contemplates what to do. She feels that the Force isn’t done with Ren, and it’s not her place to kill him.

There’s also more about Rose and her sister, which helped me appreciate her more as a character. There’s a bit more romantic tension between her and Finn, from her perspective at least, as she’s annoyed each time he thinks only of Rey, not the larger cause.

And we get more about and from Leia, including her Force training and that moment where she and Ben sense each other as his ship is set to fire on hers. The thing that prevents him from killing her is that what he senses from her is worry–for him, not herself. My heart hurts; excuse me while I go cry over Carrie Fisher again.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Jason Fry

Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith

Review:

Wade in the Water - Tracy K. Smith

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water is her most recent collection and the first I’ve read. I think it makes an excellent introduction to her work and wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you’re new to contemporary poetry. She does not intimidate, nor does her language obfuscate.

The two middle sections engaged me most. The first mines the Civil War era past and makes use of erasure and historical and primary sources in a way that both gives the suffering of African Americans at the time specificity and voice while absolutely illuminating continued injustices in the present. The second also makes poetry out of found materials to focus on contemporary issues such as the environment and racist violence. However, the poems don’t attack; they feel like they come from a place of hope.

A book I’m sure I’ll come back to soon, after I read her other collections, of course. 🙂

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Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith

Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

Review:

Map: Collected and Last Poems - Wisława Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak

Map spans Polish Nobel laureate Szymborska’s work from the 1940s up until 2011. Her poetry is immediately engaging, often funny, and down-to-earth. She writes about the smallest subjects (a cat alone in its owner’s home) and the largest (mortality, time). She’d be an excellent poet to read if one is new to or intimidated by poetry.

The translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak is impressive given that many of Szymborska’s poems play with words and language, though, not knowing Polish myself, I can only give my impressions. I only know that a personable, curious voice comes through.

Here’s a late poem (about this painting) whose beauty brought tears to my eyes:

Vermeer

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

I can’t remember what prompted me to finally read Szymborska’s body of work beyond the occasional anthologized poem, but I’m glad I did. I asked for it last Christmas (I read poetry only in print and often ask for books of poems then; they can be expensive!), and I happened to flip to “Possibilities,” written as a list of preferences, which contains the following lines: “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems / to the absurdity of not writing poems.” Me too.

 

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Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

Another Country, by James Baldwin

Review:

Another Country - James Baldwin

“So what can we really do for each other except–just love each other and be each other’s witness?”

When I finished Another Country, it brought tears to my eyes. There’s so much suffering exquisitely depicted alongside glimmers of love and beauty, such whole, flawed characters. Like the recently read The Fire Next Time, a nonfiction work by Baldwin, it might have been written today. Again, this is both a compliment to Baldwin’s art and his powers of observation but also a lament that so little has changed, particularly regarding race but also gender and sexuality.

Nothing is easy about this book except its gorgeous, lucid prose. It’s not afraid of the dark things in people, the mistakes we make, and what holds us back. I felt deeply for these characters, but the book doesn’t give in to despair, which, at the end, is what made me cry in relief.

I was surprised to be reminded of Virginia Woolf as I read. There are passages where a character’s inability to express “it” or oneself or story are noted. There’s a suicide. There’s also something about the way both Baldwin and Woolf capture fine states of emotion or the way our feelings and attitude can change so quickly, from seemingly small things. And, when we learn Cass’s real name is Clarissa (her husband is Richard), I knew I wasn’t crazy to make these connections!

The book is a landmark queer text, and Baldwin clearly knows how to write sex, the act itself–between men and women and between two men–and desire. Its queerness affected its reception at the time; I’m sure many would prefer Baldwin stick exclusively to race and racism. The quote above is spoken by Vivaldo to Eric, and it is a beautiful and simple idea even as the story proves it may be impossible to live by.

However, Baldwin does privilege love between men and the homosocial above all. Nearly all the central male characters are queer or explore their sexuality with one another; at the very least, platonic love between them is a source of comfort and hope. This is not the case with the women. Women’s sexuality and power emasculate or cannot be known. There appears to be no escape or solution for women and their pain and oppression, whether white or black. If there is one flaw or problematic issue in this book, in my mind it’s that. The love and act of witnessing in the quote seem to be for men only.

 

 

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Another Country, by James Baldwin

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean Foster

Review:

The Force Awakens (Star Wars) - Alan Dean Foster

This is the first book adaptation of a film that I’ve read and the first I’ve ever wanted to. There are of course many Star Wars novels, none of which I’ve read. I wondered what sort of money-grabbing, hastily edited crap I might be delving into. Though in the opening pages there was some awkward language or editing, on the whole those issues didn’t persist, and the book gave me what I wanted, which was a sort of “behind the scenes” look at the story, moments we see on actors’ faces translated into words, “missing scenes,” etc. I got just as emotional reading particular scenes as when I watch the movie and at the same time was interested by some changes or details explained (I believe the adaptation was based on the shooting script).

Some film versus book differences of note:

Unkar Plutt isn’t just a jerk, he’s kind of a creeper, too. There’s a missing scene where he shows up on Takodana for Rey, and Chewie rips his arm(s) off! In addition, Rey comes much closer to selling BB-8 than she appears to in the movie. There it seems her conscience gets the better of her; in the book, she counters Plutt’s offer of 50 portions with 100. When he immediately accepts, that’s when she decides not to sell the droid; it’s like she can’t bear to let him have something he so obviously wants.

I’m a bit confused by the timeline of some things in the films, so it was helpful to learn, for instance, that when Kylo Ren removes his mask when Han directs him to, we discover it’s the first time he’s seen his son “grown.”

There’s a whole lot more on Kylo Ren’s thoughts and his interactions with Snoke. In the film he comes off as moody and prone to anger. This is actually atypical of him, according to the book. He’s all about control and lack of emotion. He even says that revenge is “an adolescent concession to personal vanity,” which is interesting given his focus in <i>The Last Jedi</i>.

The book also provides context that I was unclear on, such as the fact that the Republic still exists, but there’s typical political infighting in the Senate; most believe Leia is blowing things out of proportion concerning the First Order. In addition, there are more details about the First Order, storm troopers, and how that system-destroying weapon works.

There’s more than that, so if you’re a Star Wars fan (aren’t you?!), it’s worth checking out. I’ve already started the next one (by a different author).

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean Foster

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

Review:

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There they (police officers) stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.

Terrible how much this text is still relevant, might have been written today. This would not have surprised Baldwin–he acknowledges more than once that things may never change in America–though I imagine it might have saddened him.

The Fire Next Time contains two separate nonfiction pieces, one a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, the sort of message or discussion African Americans have with their younger family members that white people don’t. The second is an elegant “Letter from a Region in My Mind” that explores the author’s coming to (and leaving) religion as a way to discuss race and racism in America. It is, ostensibly, a solution, though perhaps an impossible one.

I couldn’t possibly capture Baldwin’s argument in a brief synopsis, nor do I want to. His prose is beautiful and crystal clear, unflinching yet humane. He’s my favorite kind of arguer, one who acknowledges from where other points of view are coming while advocating for his own position. It’s been too long since I first read him, and I won’t make that mistake again.

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The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

Review:

After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother’s Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who’s just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother’s gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari’s often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to “grow up,” to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell “stuff” that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there’s a man or not); we’re meant to help each other.

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After Birth, by Elisa Albert