Monthly Archives: May 2021

Monday Miscellanea, 5/31/21

Programming Note

I’m always tinkering around with my blogging “schedule;” I think reviews work better for me later in the week, so I’m moving my Miscellanea posts to Monday, where also the obvious alliteration is.

From Around the Internet

Via Dominic Noble on YouTube: The First (and Worst) Adaptation of The Hobbit
Oh, the things that are done in the name of retaining rights…

Watching

I didn’t have a Cinema Saturday post because I watched no movies in the past week. Instead I’ve been watching two series.

The first is Intelligence.

This is a Canadian series from 2006, centered around organized crime in Vancouver. The plots are intricate without being baffling; the characters are compelling and articulate. It’s one of my husband’s favorite shows, but this is my first watch-through. It’s currently streaming on Nextflix.

I’m also rewatching The Haunting of Hill House series (2018). Now that I now what’s going on, I can appreciate the non-linear timeline more. I still don’t see the background ghosts though. It turns out that people with face-blindness are less susceptible to pareidolia.

Getting Back to It

Our air conditioning has been on the fritz. Again. There was obviously a refrigerant leak in the system somewhere. They “topped it up” last year, which was fine since it was at the beginning of the pandemic and that was handled without anyone coming into the apartment. When the situation was the same this year, our landlady decided to have the unit replaced. The one we had was a ’95 model, so it was probably time. Apartment #1 in our building had theirs replaced near the end of last summer. The AC guys are here as I write this, so I’m looking forward to a cooler apartment later today and hopefully slightly lower electric bills this summer.

Reading Notes, supplemental (5/27/2021)

Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Willa Cather story for May was “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” This was a deviation from the schedule (a chronological list of Cather’s early works) because this is a bit of a rework of last months story, “A Son of the Celestial.”

Without getting too far into the plot weeds, “A Son of the Celestial” is more of a two-person story focused on how Ponter and Yang change each other and relate to their communities. “The Conversion of Sum Loo” widens the scope, somewhat, while being even moreso about Sum Chin and his wife, Sum Loo. The Ponter character is taken up by Girrard, a young man who is torn between the priesthood and art. The Sums are a fairly successful Chinese immigrant couple, though Sum Loo is much younger than her husband, and more open to the Christian influences in her community. Sum Chin is very concerned about the well-being of his son, possibly his only chance for securing a legacy and making sure that there is a next generation to take care of him and his wife. He does not object to his wife having the baby baptized; the more Gods favoring his child, the better, right? The conclusion of this story was quite the gut-punch.

The two stories were published seven years apart and Cather’s craft has absolutely improved in that time. “A Son of the Celestial” is not much more than a sketch, where “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a more well-rounded story.

Interested in reading along? Short Fiction of Willa Cather, Phase II

Finished Reading

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles

During my second semester as an English major (being my fifth semester as a college student), I took a course called “Stories and the Human Experience.” At the time I worried that it was kind of a useless class because it didn’t fulfill any specific English requirement and I would easily end up having enough non-English department elective credits without it considering the amount of now superfluous math and science I had already taken. (The war between STEM and the humanities has always been strong in me.) But it ended up being a great course. The two sections were taught by different instructors with slightly different syllabi. We’d join up every couple of weeks to jam on what we’d all been reading. (It occurs to me now that my advisor might have been really working to fill the class since it was the first time is was offered and they needed two sections.) I remember that we read King Lear, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a novel I found slightly traumatic), and selections from Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (There were other things on the syllabus, but I don’t remember them. It’s been a while.)

I decided a few years ago that I wanted to revisit Coles and the concepts he presented. On the surface, Coles argues a point that does come up time and again in the STEM vs. humanities debate: stories teach empathy. They present characters who model behaviors both good and bad. They potentially offer insight into characters similar and different from ourselves. Coles presents what the scientific world would call anecdotal evidence. The most compelling portion of the books is reading stories of his students (mostly medical students, but also a few in fields like law and business) who have read a novel or short story and strongly identified with characters and plot situations. These stories have made them think about the morality of their behavior in new ways.

What left me a little cold was the actual talk of morality. Some of the points of view struck me as pretentious and privileged. This might be my own prejudice, but I can’t shake the feeling that Coles and his students (all Harvardians) find people less fortunate than themselves to be, well, unfortunates. Or maybe it’s because all these people are discussing problems that maybe wouldn’t be problems if they were worrying about making the rent. The irony of reading a book about stories and empathy, but not being super empathetic to the people presented in the narrative, is not lost on me.

Also, I wonder what it says about me that the characters that have “lived with me” the most are Schmendrick, Molly Grue, Henry Palace, and a man called Ishmael.


📌 10 Books of Summer ’21 & #TrekAThon

20 Books of Summer is an annual reading extravaganza hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. Now, you might have noticed that I just wrote “20 Books of Summer” but the graphic above reads “10 Books of Summer.” That’s because there are options for us slow and/or indecisive readers. I have a plan, mostly, and it should result in me reading at least 10 books cover to cover between June 1st and September 1st. (Finished Books of Summer are denoted with the ✅.)

So, What’s the Plan, Stan? (Read More)

Cinema Saturday, 5/22/21

Alien

Year: 1979
Runtime: 1h 57m
Rated: R

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt

“You are my lucky star. You… Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky.”

Initial: A rewatch, though I’ve probably only seen Alien once or twice in the past. I’ve seen Alien³ more often.

What Did I Think:
A couple of observations:

I feel like Alien has gained such a reputation as a horror film that it’s thought of disconnected from the science fiction genre. Given the trailer above, that is what they were going for in the marketing in the first place, but first half of the movie does contain many of the “grandeur of space” scenes that I often associate late 1970s science fiction. You can find the same sweeping shots of stars, moons, and planetscapes, accompanied by an appropriately majestic musical score, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and StarTrek: The Motion Picture (1979).

James Cameron does such a good job playing off of small details in the sequel, Aliens. Aliens is such a different movie in style, but it’s the little details that keep the two in the same universe: lighting choices, background sounds, cornbread, suspicious artificial humans… I think I mentioned a similar thing when looking at The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991). The audience knows these details, even if they’re not necessarily things that stick out.


Army of the Dead

Year: 2021
Runtime: 2h 28m
Rated: R

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, Joby Harold

Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera

“Somewhere between leaving your ass and saving my own, I developed a conscience. It’s exhausting.”

Initial: After watching Peninsula (2020) last month, I figured I should watch the other heist zombie movie.

Production Notes: (Spoiler-ish) Everyone probably knows this by now but… Late in production, allegations of sexual misconduct where brought against Chris D’Elia, who had already filmed his scenes. He was digitally replaced *in the entire movie* with actress Tig Notaro, who was filmed in front of a green screen. The replacement ends up being a little awkward in places, mainly because Notaro has a different energy than the rest of the cast in certain scenes. It would have been fun to have seen her as actually part of the cast.

What Did I Think:
I am not a fan of Zack Snyder. I really haven’t ever forgiven him for making the Persians into deviants in 300 (2007). (You don’t read Xenophon as an undergraduate without having opinions about the ancient Persians.) He over-burdens his films. We can’t have Superman without Supes being a conflicted alien, and we can’t have a heist zombie film without it also being about quarantines and confinement camps.

(Seriously, what’s the deal with the quarantine camp? It’s been long enough since the Las Vegas outbreak for Dave Bautista to be given a medal of honor and then go back to being a short-order cook (and for his daughter to grow up?). Shouldn’t all of these former Las Vegans be relocated?)

And the zombies have to be more than zombies. Which I don’t think are as scary as force-of-nature zombies, really. In Peninsula, the zombies are an obstacle, but an obstacle that can be manipulated. Peninsula‘s story does come down to being “man is worse than zombies,” but also that man can help their fellow man. There is an aspect of fun and hope to Peninsula that is (not surprisingly) absent from Army of the Dead.

This film is about an hour longer than it needed to be, but I do give Snyder props for making it with a budget of $70M–90M.

Miscellanea, 5/20/21

(from Jan. 2019, photo by Chikara Kakizawa)

Getting Back to It

Before yesterday, the last time I played ultimate frisbee was March 10, 2020. It was a Tuesday night league game. At the start of the game, it was drizzling, but not windy. The fields were soft, but not muddy. The rain got heavier and for the sake of the grass (something to be appreciated in the Phoenix area), we called the game off with a score of 8–8. Surprisingly, the rain continued on and off for the next couple of days. I cancelled my Wednesday and Friday pickup games and Thursday night’s league games were cancelled too.

And by the next week, COVID happened. I could have probably run my pickup game for a week or two longer. People were willing to play, but no one quite knew what was going on or how big the risks were. And I am not a risk-taker. Not when it comes to other people’s health anyway.

Happily this week, I restarted the WLDisc pickup game. Not coincidentally, I’m two weeks post-vaccine as of Tuesday. Since the game is a fairly closed group, I’ve also requested that everyone be vaccinated. I want the game to be safe and to be relatively worry-free.

I’m not sure I could have planned such an utterly different game than that one in March 2020. Clear skies, hot sun. It was probably around 95F. We played four-on-four, mostly, on a smaller field. And it was great. I had missed it, but also it wasn’t hard to be relaxed in that normal activity. Other than going to a store, it was the most people I had been around in over a year too.

And hopefully I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Reading Notes, 5/17/21

Bout of Books 31 Wrap-up

Last week was actually kind of stressful, despite my optimistic Monday attitude. I had a goal of reading 700 pages for BoB and ended up reading 648 pgs. Considering I got into a big don’t-feel-like-reading mood around Thursday, that’s pretty good.

  • I finished reading A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark (and reviewed it!). I’ll say it again, I definitely recommend it.
  • I also finished Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. It’s her follow-up to Writing Down the Bones. I’ve been reading a chapter or so of a writing-related book every morning for a while now.
  • I made a good start on Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne and read a couple other short stories as well.

Currently Reading


Review ~ A Master of Djinn

An advanced reading copy of A Master of Djinn was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city—or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

Summary via Goodreads

When I reviewed The Haunting of Tram Car 015 last year, I stated that I would definitely be willing to spend more time in Clark’s supernatural/steampunk Cairo. I didn’t realize at the time that a novel was forthcoming!

A Master of Djinn scores high in my three fields of “what makes enjoyable fiction according to Katherine”: setting, characters, and plot.

Obviously, I think very highly of the setting. I love the notion of steampunk, but I think it requires a light touch, especially when magic is also involved. Perhaps 1912 is a little late to be honest-to-goodness steampunk. We have, I suppose, entered the “cog age” by then. The magical elements end up giving the era a technological boost. I’m also a fan of mythical entities that don’t get a lot of play like djinn. (This is what led me to Clark’s fiction in the first place.)

Agent Fatma is possibly one of my favorite characters in fiction. She’s smart, tough, and has a very particular fashion sense. She’s also not perfect and knows when to ask for help, which is kind of important for an investigator. The supporting cast of character are fun and competent but also have their flaws.

The plot is a solid police procedural, though one with trips to djinn-run libraries and interviews with deity-touch informants. There are a few twist and turns (one of which I saw coming) and the conclusion is much bigger than the inciting incident, which is fine. There are of course themes of Fatma being a woman in a man’s world, though for the most part she’s proven herself. More vital to the plot is the casual hypocrisy that happens when an institution says “we’ve hired *a* woman; we’re progressive now!” and how that leads to people in power who believe that their society too is so progressive that there are no more problems of race or class. These aren’t issues that are harped on; Clark doesn’t preach at his reader. But these are issues that are in play and direct certain aspects of the story.

A Master of Djinn is set in the same world as Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili,” and, aforementioned, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. While events from those plots are referenced and there are shared characters, they are not needed to enjoy A Master of Djinn. But then, I’ve read all of them, so it might be hard for me to tell. (The links above will take you to Tor.com where those stories are currently available for free. A no-risk taste, if you are still undecided.)