The Sisters Brothers

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Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.

It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.

Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.

But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.

This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.

The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.

The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks

Hide Me Among the Graves

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Hide Me Among the Graves is an intriguing, original and slightly anachronistic take on the Victorian vampire novel. 

It takes something special to rise up above the sea of sameness that is the contemporary vampire novel subgenre. Tim Powers, in Graves, has come up with a compelling mythology of vampirism that both feels fresh while staying somewhat true to the thematic power of the vampire trope – that sanguinary union of love and victimization that is the bloodsucker’s relationship with its thrall.

Vampires in Graves are the muses of their hosts, making them great poets and writers, but they are jealous entities and will kill or at least gravely injure anyone related to them. And the London of the setting is a gothic subterranean conurbation in the tradition of other fantastic depictions of city in its Victorian days, haunted by ghosts in the Thames, slowly drifting out to sea to dissipate into oblivion. It is as compelling a conceit as any I have seen in this subgenre, and Powers lays it out, for the most part, in a calibrated manner that slowly reveals the aspects of his mythos without resorting to expository dumps – the bane of many works of fantasy. 

Graves also features one of Tim Powers’ signature plot elements – the melding of reality and fiction through having his characters be fictionalized versions of middling-famous historical figures. Indeed, almost every character in Graves – save for the protagonist and his daughter – is based on a real denizen of Victorian England. In particular, members of the Rossetti family – a reasonably well-known family of poets and writers – are prominent characters in the book.

Also, Graves is a sequel to a previous novel of his, The Stress of Her Regard, which details the events, only hinted at in Graves, that led to the present condition of its characters, and also features a bevy of historical figures, from Byron to Keats.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I was unaware of both of these facts throughout the entire course of my reading of the book – although there is something to be said about the fact that this did not detract too much from its inherent qualities – though it’d be a bit hard to really appreciate the historical references without being some sort of Victorian-era poetry geek.

The irreality of the book’s faux-historical veneer is complemented by an abiding sense of anachronism. The characters don’t seem to think or talk like Victorians – they’re portrayed as being apart from the rest of society, branded by the knowledge of the deeper occult world, and strangely cavalier about ghosts, dessicated undead children, ouija rituals and carrying songbirds in one’s coat pockets. And there always seems to be a hansom cab about whenever the characters need one, a state of affairs that strikes me as very modern expectation. The bottom-line is that this, while set in a fixed historical moment, feels contemporary in outlook.

All in all, Graves is as good as any Victorian gothic horror novel I’ve seen – with a premise that it at once original but hews to the essence of the classic vampire novel.

I give it: 4 out of 5 hansom cabs

It

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Rambling, hoary and florid, IT is a dense jungle of a book that could use a round of editing, but nevertheless leaves a searing imprint of unease on the psyche.

IT is the quintessential Stephen King classic, the manifestation of what it means to be American horror. The town with a dark secret, a cast of sympathetic misfits, the cosmic horror beyond space and time – you can draw a straight and unbroken line from here to Stranger Things. It’s a funny thing indeed when I watch Stranger Things and it all feels so familiar – and then when I read IT, it all becomes clear from where that feeling stems. IT‘s tropes that have wormed their way into our collective cultural subconscious.

It’s a long and wandering book, repository of multiple storylines, recountings, historical anecdotes, and small character studies, flitting from viewpoint to viewpoint, jumping space and time, a veritable forest of prose. It draws the reader in with its dark complexity, painting, in multifaceted, intricate shades, a picture of Derry – a town steeped in its own twisted history, its citizens pawns in an unending cycle of violence stretching back to the earliest ages of man.

At the centre of it all is the horror that goes by many names: Pennywise, Bob Gray, It – an entity much more than the sum of its depictions in derivative media – a grotesque icon that ignites our most primal fears. A clown, his face covered in paint, holding a red balloon – is an entity profoundly out of place with it surroundings, out of sync with the natural order, a rictus of evil behind a merry, painted facade. Pennywise is an inspired creation of a writer who knows intimately the things that humans fear, down to our lizard brains.

But It is more than just a horror fest – it is also about the humanity that shines out against evil, of both the cosmic and mundane variety, of the tight bonds formed between friends, of the power of innocence and the imagination. In its own way, It is also a celebration of youth, of its wildness and creative power, and the ability of play to serve as a bulwark against the darkness of sober adulthood.

That said, however, It does have its fair share of flaws, some of which are more than a little disturbing. For one, the ending of the book feels somewhat like it’s straining for a neat resolution. Having cast It into a cosmic horror, King seems to have no good way for the villain to be defeated in any satisfying way, so the last few chapters of the book fall into a kind of contrived mysticism that uses a whole lot of arcane plot hijinks to MacGuyver its way towards a conclusion.

Also, It‘s treatment of Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the circle of protagonists, is a bit…problematic. Beverly Marsh is the one character who doesn’t seem to have an independent existence – she is always characterised in respect to some male figure in her life. There is an air of tokenism in terms of her inclusion into the Loser’s club – almost as if she is there to spark the boys’ adolescent development. Throughout, the narrative voice takes an abiding interest in Bev’s adolescent physical traits, and describes her central character tension as a simultaneous love-hate relationship with her loving but violent father, and although part of that is meant to generate unease, it feels like some editorial control might have helped in getting King to rein in some of his more…troubling authorial impulses, such as the infamous scene near the end of the book featuring an utterly out-of-place depiction of adolescent sexuality that makes very little sense in context and seems to have been added there just because.

It is a testament It’s hoary and multifarious power, however, that these problems, while very real, are strands in a tapestry of narrative threads that collectively form a masterpiece of the genre, seething with formless dread, grandiose in its evocation of evil, but strangely comforting in its exaltation of childhood, friendship, and innocence.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 inhalers

Archer (Season #1)

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Archer’s got the sharp writing and comedic chops, but its nihilism makes watching it a bit of a psychological strain.

Archer is billed as a kind of James Bond meets Arrested Development – a sitcom about highly dysfunctional people inside of an organisation – a private intelligence outfit called ISIS – to whose nature they are uniquely ill-suited.

There’s Sterling Archer, the titular superspy whose natural talents at secret agent-ing are often stymied by his amorality, casual bigotry and mother issues. Equally bad is the boss of ISIS and Archer’s mother, Malory, who is essentially a facsimile of Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development infamy, except that here, her callous haughtiness and unhealthily controlling attitude towards her offspring are amped up to even more absurd heights.

The cast is rounded up by a bunch of other characters with their own odd quirks – Cyril, the seemingly staid ISIS comptroller and closet nymphomaniac, Cheryl, a useless secretary with some seriously weird sexual kinks, Pam, the HR director, whose sole purpose in the show seems to be a foil for a deluge of off-color jokes about her weight, and Lana, probably the most put-together of the bunch, an ISIS superspy who often serves as a foil to Archer’s idiocy.

When you put this many people and their dysfunctions in an office environment, especially if their professions happen to involve lots of high-tech gadgetry and lethal weaponry, utter bedlam ensues, and the jokes almost write themselves. The characters of Archer get themselves into every sort of unethical situation possible, through their venality, arrogance, incompetence, pomposity, or any combination of those traits. But it seems to happen in a world where such actions carry no consequences, either in an overarching plotline, or to the reputation of ISIS as an intelligence contractor. Indeed, the world itself is a bit ill-defined – a bag of historical and technological anachronisms – CRT monitors with cellphones, where the KGB still exists and the great superpower rival is still Russia.

But the thing about Archer is that after a while, with each successive episode being the same collection of sociopathic hijinks, without much in the way of character growth or development beyond their stock places in the comedic pantheon, the series starts to get a little tiresome. Archer may be compared to Arrested Development, but at least in the latter, the Bluth family, while plagued with their own issues, were still human and still sympathetic – and they truly cared for each other as a family. In Archer, the titular character is utterly and incorrigibly a twat, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. An inveterate boorish womaniser, spendthrift, cavalier over human life, callous towards his peers, cruel to his servants, selfish to a fault, and plagued with a host of mommy issues – a walking bag of the worst superspy stereotypes, and then some. It’s hard to feel any sort of sympathy for anybody in Archer, since nobody in Archer seems to care about anything in particular except for their self-serving ends.

A show can only go so far on its endless variations of comedic dysfunctional hijinks involving its typecast characters, before it starts to get tiresome. And with Archer, because the jokes depend so much on the self-serving venality of its characters, the show verges into nihilism, but without anything substantive to say beyond its jokes.

I hope Archer grows a soul in later seasons – I won’t spoil myself by checking, but from the looks of the first few episodes of Season 2, I doubt it’ll do so for a while yet.

I give this show: 3/5 out of 5 whiskey glasses

Cooked

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Easily the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked gives voice to something I’ve felt for a very long time – that cooking is more than an act of self-sustenance, but one of creativity, mystique and self-empowerment.

There is a power to the act of cooking. It is ingrained into our history as a species. Cooking unlocked the nutritive potential of our food sources, enabling our ancestors to evolve more quickly and freeing up their time spent foraging and hunting to kickstart a civilisation. In modernity, it remains a last holdout of artisanship in the face of an all-consuming capitalist juggernaut, powered by the cold logic of comparative advantage.

There is therefore a nobility to cooking – it hearkens us back to our roots in the deep past, and is one of the few ways left for ordinary people to create something of value and worth with their own hands – a product that gives creative satisfaction to the creator, pleasure to the partaker, and binds us closer together.

With that frame in mind, Pollan explores four realms of cooking in this book, in four distinct parts related to the classical elements – fire, water, air and earth. Fire, naturally, applies to roasting and smoking. Water is the act of braising and making stews. Air is the act of baking, and earth is the act of fermentation, both in food and drink. There are, of course, overlaps – but in essence the division is a poetic and apt one.

For each part, Pollan interviews and works with masters of each of the four crafts – pig smokers,  sous chefs, bakers, homebrewers, and “fermentation fetishists”, talks about the historical, scientific, nutritional and creative aspects of each process, and eventually describes his attempts to recreate some of what he has learned in his own kitchen. Pollan’s enthusiasm is infectious, his research far-ranging, and his exhortations to try it yourself compelling. For each foodway, he portrays the food, when properly made, as something transcendent in tastes and smell but also nourishing and sustaining from a nutritive, cultural and psychological standpoint. And then, he walks the talk and tries to make it himself – drawing the book back to its fundamental thesis – the need to cook for yourself to reap the multitudinous benefits of the act.

Reading Cooked didn’t change my mind about anything – because I was already convinced of cooking’s value in achieving fulfillment. But it did open up a new dimension of things that I was previously unfamiliar with, and showed me just how interesting the art of food-making can be. The chapter on breadmaking, for example, taught me that it’s possible to make a loaf of healthy, delicious bread in the style of world-class bakeries like Tartine in your own home, using varieties of bacteria that you can cultivate in your own kitchen. The chapter on braising underscored the point that you don’t need expensive cuts of meat to create rich and sustaining stews. The chapter on fermentation taught me the cultural depth that can be found in each culture’s use of bacteria to alter their food to impart unique (and sometimes acquired) tastes and smells.

In essence, cooking, itself, is something that ties us back to our cultural and biological roots, while opening up whole new worlds of experience in the comfort of our own homes. Michael Pollan’s Cooked is, if anything, just about the best tome to evangelise that message. It’s certainly inspired me to want to try all that he does, and more.

I give this book: 5 out of 5 lactobacillus starters

Station Eleven

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This is a book that defies easy description. A post-apocalyptic story that adheres to few of the tropes of the genre; a narrative that wends its way through disparate lives and times, linked only by a single, strange conceit; a book concerned less with the now than with the genealogies of experience that led to it.

The apocalypse is only one part of the grand story, a frame that separates the epochs into before and after. The story starts at the during, opening with the dramatic on-stage death of a noted Shakespearean actor from a heart attack, just as the first victims of the savage, decimating Georgia Flu start to sicken and die. His death would have been lost in the drama of the apocalypse, but it is his story that Mandel focuses on for much of the book, spinning an evocative tale of his storied life.

Through that overarching frame, Mandel writes of other lives, touched, in ways good, ill and strange, by the tides of Leander’s time on the mortal plane. And those other lives – like Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, whose eponymously-titled comic book series becomes another totem that draws the dissipated threads together in complex, unexpected ways.

This book is a veritable tapestry of interconnected lives; surviving, enduring, thriving, in a way that post-apocalyptia makes more true; somehow, the collapse of civilisation sets our best and worst traits in starker contrast. The putative protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, was a child performing in Leander’s last production when the Georgia Flu hit; she survives the plague and lives life as a member of an itinerant troupe, keeping Shakespeare alive in a transformed world. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo turned paramedic, who stalked Leander in his old life and who gives Leander futile CPR as he expires on stage. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who becomes the keeper of a museum of artifacts of civilisation to educate a generation who has never known electricity.

All these stories are barely related to one another except in surprising and tenuous threads of fate, yet they are all compelling in their own way, so much so that I found the main plot – in which Kirsten’s travelling troupe has to deal with an upstart cult – perhaps the least compelling part of the book. And really, in what post apocalyptic tome would that particular plot thread not take centre stage? But in Station Eleven, it is just one of many disparate stories.

As such, there is something refreshing about Station Eleven‘s way of casting its narrative net far and wide, telling many stories amidst many themes – of lives lived in celebrity, female empowerment, of the strange, unfamiliar theme of a younger, post-technological generation carrying the torch of civilisation from an older, technological one.

And, importantly, Station Eleven doesn’t fetishize the apocalypse; it doesn’t commoditize that sense of bleak despair and nihilism that comes with it. Instead, it ends with a tinge of hope – that, contrary to what many post-apocalyptic novels would paint, there is some home for humanity to claw its way out of the dark valley without staining its soul along the way.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 knife tattoos

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol #2

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Watching Marvel nowadays is an act that carries with it a certain sense of ennui.

The modern Marvel movie is the entertainment world’s equivalent of a bottle of Soylent – it has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster, it goes down smooth, and it makes you satiated by its potent cocktail of humor and action. But it also lacks texture and grit.

The Marvel movie is at best, inoffensive, because it is so carefully blended into a mass-market appeal paste. It is candy for the lizard brain. And yet, I keep watching, and I keep wanting to watch, even though I know the next one is going to evoke that feeling of drinking an over-engineered high octane slurry.

Guardians Vol #2 is a carefully-made composite of everything that made the first one such a breakout hit. It’s got the 80s music, it’s got the wacky oddball characters, and it has Baby Groot, who was very early on identified as Marvel’s next great adorable mascot figure, which the film amps up to a barely tolerable eleven. Marvel, as I never tire of explaining, has this down to an exact science.

This time, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his estranged dad, the mysterious and powerful Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to reconnect with Peter for reasons of his own. Suffice to say, things don’t work out and Peter starts to discover the true meaning of fatherhood. Hint: it’s not expecting your son to follow your plans for galactic domination after 27 years of neglect (this lesson was also learned in Star Wars).

The movie is chock-full of the requisite nostalgia, hijinks, prissy alien races that look like regular people painted different colors, impossible planetary configurations, plot contrivances, and paeans about the importance of family. Of which the Guardians are one, albeit, a snarling, ever-at-loggerheads one. And the jokes, of course, of which Guardians has an ample amount, although most of the good ones are pretty much in the trailer and involve Drax. Other notables include a race of gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign whose pomposity is the butt of many jokes. There are the baby Groot jokes that feature baby Groot being adorably silly. Then there’s one joke that involves a ravager with the unfortunate name of Taserface that goes on a little too long for its own good, and one featuring Nebula eating an alien horseradish – some of these jokes telegraph themselves a bit too much, in a laughtrack sitcom sort of way – the equivalent of the film trying to tell you I just made a funny joke! Laugh at me! Then there’s the Peter-Gamorra romance, perhaps one of the most unconvincing in MCU canon – but then again, romance isn’t Marvel’s strong suit, really.

The good-vs-bad plot is pure pulp sf cliche, and not really in a good way – featuring villains with simplistic, all-consuming ambitions that don’t betray any human motivations. It really serves as a vehicle for the Guardians to go on that extended find-thyself pilgrimage through a tightly choreographed dance of spaceships and explosions.

Oddly enough, the most compelling character is Yondu, the blue-skinned ravager of somewhat ambiguous morals who altercated with Peter in a kind of half-friendly way in the first movie. Yondu is a child-trafficking, mass murdering ravager, but he is in many ways the character who receives the most development and serves as the emotional crux of the movie as a kind of tragic figure when he’s not busily massacring people with his telepathic arrow. Although he is the unfortunate subject of one of those contrived moral conundrums – the kind where you have to make a Hobson’s choice between two extremes with no possibility for a win-win improvisation – played for emotional effect, a trope that always gets to me when poorly thought through.

Ultimately, though, jokes and Yondu aside, the chief feeling I could muster when I left the theatre was a sense of great emptiness. Maybe because I had to work the next day, but probably more because Guardians, like many Marvel movies, got it backwards – it built an edifice of entertainment so crowd-friendly that it kind of diffuses into a general kind of ennui-laden satiety. The kind you feel after eating a tubful of Ben & Jerry’s. The movie has its entertaining moments and even its emotional kicks, but at the end of the day, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a loud flashing money-making machine. It just compensates for it better than most other action fare.

I give this: 3.5 Anulax batteries