Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Interrupters


According to the media, Chicago (and the US in general) is erupting in violence. Youth violence is at an all time high, with seemingly hundreds of shootings a year. Despite the relative safety of the world (according to Steven Pinker et al.) the world for an individual in a lower-income neighbourhood, a predominantly black community, the world is not safe at all. People catch stray bullets all the time, and I don't mean in their hands. The Interrupters follows an anti-violence initiative in Chicago over the course of a year; specifically looking at three so-called "interrupters" of violence. Their methodology includes respect earned on the street from their past, training in conflict mediation, and buckets of common sense.

There's something to be said about the type of "art" that energizes the consumer. I normally don't get fired up about films such as Drive or Good Old Fashioned Orgy because they are pablum. They are escapist, an easy way to pass the time. There's nothing inherently wrong with escapism - in fact, one could argue that it is indispensable in helping deal with the turmoil of the world. However, films such as those do not fire me up in a way like Richard Price, George Pelecanos, J. M. Coetzee, or David Simon do. Whenever you engage with writers like that, there's an instantaneous feeling of "this is important" and not in the way Ulysses feels important. Important in the sense that I feel like the world needs changing and there's no way I am going to do it by sitting here, typing on a computer for my blog that less than one hundred people read.

The Interrupters is exactly like that. Let me give you an example. After seeing this documentary, the National Security Minister of Bermuda vowed to implement a similar program to CeaseFire, the anti-violence initiative. You can read about this by clicking this link. This speaks to how powerful a film this is. Politicians are even standing up and noticing.

Why is this film so powerful then? What is it about The Interrupters that causes me to want to quit my job and devote my time to improving the lives of individuals in my own hometown? Part of it is that The Interrupters is well-shot, well-edited and quite effective in demonstrating the talents of the interrupters being documented. The three selected for focus are charismatic, empathetic, street-smart, book-smart, well-spoken, and completely realistic about the world. All three of them come from a history of violence, one spending 14 years for murder, and all three of them share a history of gangbanging in their youth. The sole female of the three, one of the few females in CeaseFire, is the daughter of notorious Chicago gangleader Jeff Fort.

There's a scene in which Aveena, the aforementioned female of the trio, visits a "press conference" held in an neighbourhood by the father of a slain child. The father chastises the media for failing to help, simply observing their grief. As the white people disperse, a large group of black male youths come up the street. Their intent is not clear - are they paying respect, or have they come simply to see what the fuss is about? At this point, Aveena, a short black Muslim, marches up to them and gives them the dressing down of their lives. She excoriates them for even contemplating revenge for this crime. She singles out a boy, and demands to know who he belongs to in the group. When none of the teens admit to watching over them, Aveena gives them another dressing down. She tells them that this boy, this shortie, this baby is watching all of them and is learning from them. The teens are responsible for it.

What makes this most impressive is that Aveena is getting in their faces, shouting, chastising, criticizing, and showing a lack of respect for the men. Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows that most homicides, especially lower-income individuals, is based on a perceived imbalance of respect. The victim was responsible for a grievance or a disrespect that the murderer eventually punishes. The homicide is justified by the perceived grievance. Pinker shows that most homicides are not arbitrary or financially motivated but simply by the intangible and ephemeral concept of honour. The black youths in this film go on and on about having to fight because of perceived honour. The fact that Aveena, a small female, gets in the faces of dozens of strapped angry youths is testament to the fearlessness and courage of the interrupters.

This isn't the only scene like this. There is a scene in which the head of the CeaseFire initiative visits one of his interrupters in the hospital. The man had been shot attempting to talk some youths out of a fight. The director, Tio Hardiman, gets choked up, apologizing to the man, trying to tell him how much he appreciates the sacrifice made. It's quite powerful. It shows that there is no way to "beat" the system of violence, but simply interrupt for moments.

The whole movie is like this. Cobe, the black male of the trio, is a father and a stepfather who lives in the suburbs with his wife, a nurse. However, he came from streetgangs and violence, and went to prison for a decade for attempted murder. He knows exactly what these boys are going through. Near the end of the film, this kid named Mikey gets out of prison for armed robbery. Cobe takes him to the salon where he committed the robbery and has him apologize to the owners. It's an absolutely devastating scene. Mikey takes the verbal punishment from the owner, and she attempts to explain the impact that this decision had on her life, and how he'll never understand. She realizes how big of a deal this is, somebody apologizing for his crime, this takes a lot from a person, she stands up and forgives him, hugs him.

Not everything goes perfectly, though. Throughout the year, Aveena is working closely with a nineteen year old girl who has been released from a youth remand center. She must follow parole, go to school, and stay out of the game. Aveena takes her to a nail salon for a manicure, the first the girl has ever received. Aveena takes her for a ride on a carousel, the first the girl has ever done. Later, the girl is being harassed by some youths, attempting to rile her up and get her to fight, but she wisely calls Aveena, who interrupts the violence over the phone, simply with words. It's stunning. But, when it seems like Aveena has broken through to the girl, things change. It turns out that the girl hadn't been showing up for class, and when Aveena feels personally betrayed, the girl walks away. Less than 24 hours later, she has broken parole and is back in the youth remand center. Aveena visits her in the epilogue, where she is greeted with open arms, but not a clear understanding of why things have gone the way they have.

The film ends on a realistic note, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The reality is that with crime, a lack of police involvement, and the sheer ease of being the game, the idea of violence is too firmly rooted within the culture. One teen tells the camera, while working hard on building a pool, that he could make more money out on the streets, in less time, and be able to do what he wants when he wants. Then he says, "but I have a job" almost incredulously. He doesn't even believe that he's such a sucker. It's this mentality that needs to be interrupted.

The interrupters of CeaseFire are doing amazing work, but it's drops in an ocean. A larger and greater change needs to happen across the country. Pinker borrows from another academician and calls it The Civilizing Process. This doesn't say that black male youths are not "civilized" - far from it. It's simply that a large scale, multi-generational process needs to occur, one in which children are inculcated with empathy from an early age, in which teens understand that violence is an unending cycle, in which everybody is taught to think further into the future.

Pinker demonstrates that part of the medieval era's tenacious hold on violence is that peasants and poor people had no concept of decades down the road. It's impossible to imagine a future when it's too hard to make do on this very day. Part of the government's mandate in eliminating youth violence should be inculcating a concept of the future. Children aren't raised to imagine when they'll be forty. Youths in gang culture are famous for articulating a fatalistic or nihilistic worldview, in which they are predetermined to die young and leave behind a family.

Part of the Civilizing Process is figuring out the possibility of the future and removing this fatalism. Understanding that life goes on, with or without you is integral. If you can visualize yourself with a future, then you're more likely to want to be part of that future. If you have something to live for, you're less likely to take stupid risks such as rumbling in the streets or bringing a gun to a knife fight.

I've been thinking a lot about how to affect change in my hometown of Winnipeg. We have a large gang problem in the North End and inner city and part of it is due to economic factors, as with any inner city problem. Reams of articles and papers have been written on why the inner city develops into a war zone, with some of the blame being assigned to the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs. With the loss of the middle class comes the retreat of specific elements of the local economy and the invasion of spurious elements such as payday loan business, essentially legitimized loansharks.

My short term solution? Quite clever. Banking. Yes, banking. In Canada, banks are protected by the government, therefore they can never fall. (In the US, banks are private enterprises that can and often deteriorate.) What I propose is an initiative that helps bring banking back to the youths, in order for them to a) start appreciating the value of money, and b) start conceptualizing a possible future, one that is financially stable. We do this by taking Aboriginal bank employees and employees of other visible minorities, we take them into the inner cities, give the youths 20 or 50 bucks and help them set up a bank account. However, the trick isn't to simply give them money and have them forget about. These same bank employees have to forge a relationship over time, getting the youths to constantly think about the future. The fact that the same employees return to the same youth will create a sense of stability in the youths, which is fundamentally important to the system.

This plan only works in conjunction with other youth-targeted initiatives, such as the return of the community centre and the return of youth activities outside the home and within a structured system. Structure, stability and comfort are paramount to the web of plans that are needed in order to impact crime. Plus, this financial plan has the bonus of positively impacting the local economy. As an area of town increases in prosperity, so do the surrounding businesses. Once that happens, larger businesses will be attracted. This plan, while small, can have large positive outcomes, but it is on a large time scale. This will be hard to convince people of.

Obviously, I've gotten off topic, talking about my proposal for Winnipeg, considering this is a review of a documentary about Chicago. At the beginning of the review, I mentioned that few things get me fired up like this does. This is the other part of why The Interrupters is so successful (the other reason being the interrupters themselves, as outlined above). This film is a masterpiece not just as a narrative, not just because it's an indictment of the dysfunction of the larger social systems, but because it can cause the viewer to want to help. It's a war cry for peace. As Pinker has shown, peace is possible. It's just not something that can happen over night. You'll be thinking to yourself, "he's starting to sound like a hippie". Well, don't. I'm still realistic about the world and the fact that lower-income neighbourhoods will always attract violence and gangs. It's simply that we have a chance to make change, so why don't we?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Uncharted 3


Almost a year has passed since I have played Uncharted 2, and in my mind, the game continues to rise as one of the best I've ever played. I was terribly excited about the second sequel, due in November '11, but I had not the funds to acquire the game. However, thanks to living rent free, money seems to be no object, as my ever-increasing wardrobe can testify.

Uncharted 3, for those not in the know, follows the pulp-style adventures of one Nathan Drake, the character exclusively controlled by the player, as he searches for treasure, gets mixed up with nefarious villains, and then saves the day. The first two games self-consciously use the template used self-consciously by Indiana Jones. There's globe-trotting, fist fights that go on forever, a strong female presence, some MacGuffin that everybody wants to get their hands on, and then a climax that features the total destruction of the exotic locale. More specifically, Uncharted even uses the plot structure of Indiana Jones, featuring puzzles at the end of the first act and at the end of the second act, and a long action sequence on a convoy that signals the inevitable confrontation between the villain and the hero.

This particular game looks at Sir Francis Drake, supposedly one of Nate's antecedents, figuratively and in a familial way. Drake was sent on an errand by the Queen, and there is some missing time in the chronology of that journey. Nate suspects that Drake found something, the Atlantis of the Sands, and hid it, even from the Queen. Two British people are after the treasure and they employ a seemingly endless army of goons to acquire it and eliminate Drake and his friends.

The major problem that Uncharted 3 has is first and foremost, the villains. In the second game, the villains were well drawn and if you asked the player to name some adjectives or attributes of the villains, they would not hesitate. In the third game, the most I can say about either the Helen Mirren-lookalike or the Gavin Rossdale-lookalike is that they speak with Received Pronunciation. We learn nothing of their motives (beyond the overly simplistic refrain of "they seek power") and we learn nothing about the younger man's attachment to the older lady, whether it be a maternal relationship or romantic or simply business, we never know. This makes the climax a bit of a letdown as it's not satisfying to eventually kill either of them.

Actionbutton.net, one of my video game criticism heroes, calls Uncharted 2 (paraphrasing here) a murder-simulator. Despite the rakish and charming Nate's propensity for humour and lightheartedness, the player spends most of the game dealing out copious amounts of death. In my playthrough of Uncharted 3, I murdered over 700 people, with a variety of guns and explosions. These are men with lives and families, and I murdered over 700 of them. Yes, it is in self-defense, but Uncharted 3 makes an extremely poor decision in highlighting futility of Nate's adventure.

One of the major themes of this game is that Nate is trying to prove something, and gets in friends and himself in danger in order not to seek a treasure, but to solve a mystery, to satisfy a curiosity. He essentially murders hundreds of people (dooming even more in the destruction of the city in the sands) so that he can simply scratch an intellectual itch. It doesn't become clear in the third act that the villains are after something other than money so Drake can't possibly claim that he was doing it to stop the villains. If it was just treasure, he could have let them just do it. After all, they're already rich. As Sully, Drake's friend, and Elena, Drake's romantic interest, keep reminding Nate (and us), these people are out for blood and whatever Nate finds, it's not worth the bloodshed.

Let's just repeat that for a second. Whatever it is, it's not worth the bloodshed. The game is at pains to convey this. We're constantly reminded that Nate is doing this out of pride and curiosity and not out of some altruistic motive. The big cathartic moment comes at the end when Drake helpfully tells the villains (and us) that he no longer has anything to prove.

Oh good, I'm glad. I'm glad that it took a huge massacre of Arabs and Englishmen in order for you to learn a lesson. Not to mention the innocent bystanders who no doubt took a bullet here and there, and the innocent band of Arabs who help Drake get across the vast 500 mile-wide desert.

Of course, ethically speaking, the result is positive. The treasure that the villains seek could be used for terrorism and eventually tyranny, so it is imperative that Drake be the one to stop them. However, like I said before, this doesn't come to light until Drake is already in the endgame.

I loved the game, don't get me wrong, and the only reason why I am criticizing the game for this is because the game is not self-aware of this apparent ethical dilemma. In the second game, not a moment is spared thinking of the hundreds of dead people (including a large amount of civilians), but the game never thought to question Drake's motives. In Uncharted 3, the developers make a large misstep in pointing out Drake's hubris, then putting the murder-simulator in the hands of the player. There is a cognitive dissonance here, a disconnect between the fun pulp-style adventure (that contains important themes of humility) and the nonstop bloodshed of the game itself.

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which I just recently played, but won't review (short version: the game is short but fun, but not as good as the first Modern Warfare), there is no ethical hand-wringing. The Russians are invading; we must stop them. The Russian terrorists are working behind the scene; we must eliminate them. There is a little bit of jingoism and nationalism, but not nearly as much as the second Modern Warfare. All in all, that trilogy of games is morally simple and monochromatic. There are bad guys and there are good guys.

Uncharted 3 makes the mistake of asking if the hero should be doing all this. There's something fundamentally flawed about a video game asking the player if they should play the game.

Or, there's something incredibly ballsy about it. But that's a different review.

Despite my qualms of the storytelling, the gameplay is incredible and the level design is absolutely remarkable. From the the chateau in provincial France to the barfight in England, to the sinking cruise ship, to the immense city under the sands, each scene is exhilarating and in a few cases, fucking breathtaking. The combat is fun, but the aiming is sometimes a little too sensitive. It's hard to use a sniper rifle at a good distance because the analog sticks respond too much. Plus, the game is sometimes annoying when packing on the snipers, the armored shotgun guns, the asshole with the missile launcher, and the countless dudes with rifles - all at the same time. I played on Easy. I can't imagine how difficult Hard or Crushing is.



Another thing. I can't find a good picture of it, but there is a lot of platforming in this game. Not only is it better than the platforming from the second one, but it's also incredibly responsive and intelligent. Drake won't accidentally jump to his doom unless you particularly force it. With the first and second one, sometimes I had to take guesses on what direction I would need to jump, and a lot of the times, Nate would plummet to his doom. This rarely happened in the third game.

Plus, as someone who has recently come into athleticism, I can honestly appreciate that Drake must be fucking ripped. His upperbody strength is unreal. He does all this climbing and hanging from one arm and pulls himself up and over without using his legs. He must have crazy core muscles and the hottest sixpack ever. Yes, I have a bit of a crush on Nate Drake. Who wouldn't? He's smart, funny, good looking and is totally built. He looks like Nathan Fillion but with Ryan Reynolds' body. Drool.

Uncharted 3 isn't the masterpiece that Uncharted 2 is. It's extremely close. The locales are exotic, the melee combat is fantastic, and the setpieces are amazing. What's missing is the dimensionalization of the villains and the bizarre ethical dilemma into which the player is forced.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Steven Pinker would approve

Gawker media is reporting that homicide is no longer in the top 15 causes of death in the United States anymore. That means it's more likely to die of heart disease or choking on your own vomit. I am currently about one quarter of the way through Steven Pinker's mammoth tome The Better Angels of Our Nature and this is exactly the kind of data that his book predicts. Anyways, I wanted to post this so that I would not forget when it is time to review his book. So far? It's fucking incredible.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Sign of Four


Sherlock Holmes and Watson receive the beautiful Miss Marstan who explains that her father or whatever has gone missing for ten years, but she receives a beautiful pearl one a year from a mysterious benefactor. The game is afoot, and Sherlock gets his fill of dirty savages with blowdarts and tiny feet and an ancient Indian treasure. It's an imperialist racism fest!

I'm reading this for my Victorian literature class, and as you can see, I'm certainly reading this in a particular way. In the name of journalistic integrity, I must admit to a particular bias. I'm presenting a seminar on The Sign of Four, and I plan to use Edward Said's book Culture and Imperialism as a way to show that England's dependence on the colonies is what fuels the plot of this novel. Without the economic dependence on India (as symbolized by the treasure) then the beautiful white lady wouldn't be able to be rich! Alas!

Here's my image macro for Sign of Four:


As you can see, I totally expected a classic Sherlock Holmes story with Sherlock going around sniffing out clues and in general, being an autistic jerk who treats Watson poorly. What I received, in addition to the above, was a sweet boat chase and a whole lot of Indian background.

The villain in the story, if there is a villain to be identified, is seeking the Treasure of Agra, which is a bunch of gems and jewels stolen from a rajah just after the sepoy rebellion of 1857 (a subject covered by J G Farrell in The Siege of Krishnapur). Holmes and Watson are fairly unimportant to the plot, to be honest. Holmes does a bit of detecting and deducing at the beginning of the novel, but otherwise, the people just fall into their hands and spill the beans to Holmes.

There are some interesting tidbits to get out of the way before discussing the postcolonial aspect of the novel. First, this is definitely a novel of London. The case takes Holmes and Watson across the city and back, through chases and through detection. Many many many real places are referenced, and the endnotes in the paperback helpfully explain where everything is. I'm sure some insane Sherlock fan has composed a map of their journey in each story, but I'm too lazy to Google such a map. The other thing, connected to the first, is that Holmes appears to know everybody in the city, from the lowest to the middle (the upper class aren't represented in this particular novel, but we can assume he is). Any time they reach an obstacle, Holmes merely identifies himself and gains passage. We find out in this novel that Sherlock was a bare knuckle boxer and was nigh unbeatable (something the atrocious but accurate Guy Ritchie novel picks up). Holmes' connection with the city itself lends him authenticity as a detective. A lot of his deductions are lucky and based on circumstantial evidence, but his true powers lie in networking. The Sign of Four is a masterclass in the usefulness of networking in the modern metropolis. I can totally understand why my professor chose this novel to represent the Victorian era. Not only is there a constant anxiety of dirty foreigners, but there's this arrogance about the superiority of the city, the thriving throbbing city of London, where people do drugs, have boat chases, send superfluous wires and telegrams. Sherlock Holmes without London makes no sense whatsoever. His true formidable prowess comes from the ability to navigate the modern metropolis, something hitherto not as impressive in the pre-Industrial era.

Of course, part of the Industrial Era's power is their dominance of the colonies. In The Sign of Four, the treasure that everybody seeks is the money of the East, symbolized by the gems and emeralds. Notice that even the wealth itself is a form foreign to the Victorians. Instead of inheritances or wills or pages or sterling, the wealth is baubles and shiny stones.

The plot of the novel does not function without the colonies. This grid can be laid onto the dominator/controlled relationship. In a power dynamic, there is always one party that oppresses the other. However it is not a zero sum game. Certainly, the power dynamic swings in a subtle way. England becomes dependent on the wealth gained from India. In return, India develops a power over England. They require the wealth of India just as the plot of Sign of Four requires the wealth of India.

In Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, he lays out a system of interpretation to understand novels such as Kim and Mansfield Park through the relatively new lens of postcolonialism. Without the colonies, the Bertram Estate would not be able to get up to their silly games and even the plot of the novel. In The Sign of Four, the dependence of wealth from the colonies is manifested in form of the plot device, the MacGuffin. Without imperial dominance, the villains would have never had the opportunity to steal the Agra treasure.

Speaking of imperial dominators, we can turn to Watson, our author substitute. He is a military figure, and the cult of the military personality was prominent during the late Victorian era, paraphrasing Said, is about bashing in the heads of those who need bashing. He shoots Tonga, the villain's non-white accomplice, thus asserting imperial dominance. Tonga is an interesting figure in the novel, and Holmes helpfully sums him up for us.

Before turning to Holmes' conception of Tonga, we turn to Said's conception of Orientalism, in which the West dominates and controls the East by simple fact of defining what the East is. The Occidental idea of the Orient serves to replace the actual Orient (as if it could ever be summed up in a word) and thus has power over it. Orientalism is a discourse, an idea borrowed from Foucault, in which the act of defining something gives the defining actor the power over the defined. It is a power dynamic.

Returning to Tonga, Holmes draws on a vast network of Orientalism, the scholarly act of understanding the East, ie various anthropological and scientific texts in order to deduce from the thorn who Tonga is. Based on unscrupulous and biased research, Holmes provides a definition of Tonga (we know he is not a Hindu because Hindus don't have small feet) and this definition serves to replace the conception of Tonga.

Indeed, even when Watson sees Tonga for the first time, he uses the word "it" to refer to Tonga. He calls him a "distorted creature". This distortion is key. Tonga is considered distorted because he is not white. He is a white figure seen through a glass darkly.

Then Watson shoots him.

The Sign of Four isn't a very interesting book beyond the fact that it establishes key elements of Sherlock's mythos, ie the boxing, the cocaine, all these other things. It's not a well told story, as the boat chase isn't exciting, and Holmes doesn't really do much detective work. The Sign of Four is more fascinating as both a proto-detective novel working out the kinks of a soon-to-be essential genre, and as a document of imperial arrogance. I don't really like this novel because it's boring and stilted and the solution is idiotic, but I like this novel because of what I can do with it. Obviously, numerous people have done work on Edward Said and Arthur Conan Doyle (including Said himself!) so I'm not really saying anything world-shaking. However, this just confirms to me that Edward Said might be my favourite literary critic of all time. Sorry, F R Leavis and Harold Bloom, I have a new hero.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Year in Review - Part Two


This is my favourite meme of 2011. Every time I look at it, I get a smile. It's a combination of the dog's ridiculous facial expression and the fact that the response is a confirmation that he or she is indeed "dog". Not a dog. Not the dog. Just dog. Extremely funny.

In other year end roundups, I've detailed movies that I saw, or television that I saw, or video games that I played. I'm going to quickly get those out of the way, so here we go.

Film of the year: Tron: Legacy
TV Show of the year: The League
Video game of the year: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Okay, now on to some other things, such as resolutions. New Year's resolutions are often recipes for failure. The new year is an arbitrary date and often leads to failure due to winter, time, and the exhaustion of the holidays. However, I managed to turn my life around on a purely arbritary day, with no lead up. Just one day, in February, I did it.

This year, I am setting a few resolutions, despite what I just said about the possibility of failure. Number one is to continue working out and eating right. I'd like to lose another ten to fifteen pounds to be honest. I can do it. A corollary of this is that I'd like make sure that this becomes my lifestyle permanently. No more candy, no more junk food. I've been fairly recalcitrant in regards to quitting candy these past few months, and part of this is due to living with my parents, but it's mostly my fault.

My second resolution is to work hard at school. I did the bare minimum last semester. I don't think I did any damage, but I could have done better. This term, I want to excel and not leave everything to the last minute. I just want to do well, make connections and use them in the next year, my last undergrad year.

Thirdly, I would like to sort out my personal life. I don't want to be single anymore, but I also abhor the idea of being in a relationship. I can't imagine having to go through what I went through in 2010. It was awful. Even receiving a text from my ex fills me with loathing. But despite the bad memories and emotions, I still long for a new relationship. Falling in love is actually quite fun. I also don't want a quick fuck or a FWB situation. I don't know what I want and in 2012, I resolve to figure out what I want.

Fourth, sell the physical books that I don't plan on keeping forever. I purchased too many books since I moved in with my parents. It's not good. A corollary to this is that I need to stop buying books. That shouldn't be a problem thanks to my Kobo.

That's 2012 in a nutshell. I think that my resolutions aren't difficult to achieve. In fact, they should be things that I simply do, rather than go to the effort of typing them out as a resolution. Hopefully I can sustain the awesomeness of 2011 into 2012. To be perfectly honest, 2012 is off to a great start. I had a wonderful New Year's Eve hanging out with a super cute girl and last night I had a bit of an informal date with her. So fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Year in Review - Part One

And so, the increasingly difficult task of evaluating quantitatively the novels I read comes around. This year, I am going to do something slightly different. Because I manage to read a few novels published in 2011 itself, I am going to rank them in a separate list, but still allow them to contend in the year's best overall list.

The 2011 List

6 The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
5 The Adults by Alison Espach
4 Palo Alto by James Franco
3 Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris
2 The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
1 The King of the Badgers by Phillip Hensher

However, I did not finish Reamde by Neal Stephenson, even though I'm halfway through, and it would have no doubt replaced Franco's short story collection on this list.

The Best
10 A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
9 Star Trek: Destiny by David Mack*
8 The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarre
7 Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn
6 The Vivisector by Patrick White
5 Oblivion by David Foster Wallace
4 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre
3 The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow
2 The King of the Badgers by Phillip Hensher
1 Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

* ie the entire trilogy

What an amazing year for books. One can track my interests throughout the year just like last year. When I decided to read classics, I did so for a month, and then switched to sci-fi for a couple months. I read a month of novels like Model Home and The Adults, books distinctly in the Franzen subgenre of social realism. Near the end of the year, I slowed down considerably and didn't read as much. Not just due to school but due to exhaustion. I was just tired of reading, I suppose.

This year I definitely took a bigger interests in my stats than last year. I started on Goodreads back in 2009, but it wasn't until the halfway point of 2010 where I started using it obsessively. When 2011 started, I had Goodreads down to a science, learning to quantitatively and qualitatively track everything I read. Goodreads also holds a challenge every year, where you estimate the amount of books you'd like to read, and then you attempt to defeat that number. At the outset of 2011, I set it at 85 books, hoping to tackle some larger books, such as Infinite Jest. I called this, in the blog, the 2011 Challenge, which I will get to in a second.

I hit 85 books back in September. Yes, back in September. Now it's December and I've read over 125 books, some of which were really short and some of which were long, such as Matterhorn.

Here is the distribution of scores in a handy chart.


As one can see, there are a lot of 4 stars books. In fact, they made up 48% of all the novels I read in 2011. That's huge! That means I chose wisely in my reading. Less than 7% of my reading was two stars or less, which I think counts as a huge success. I read more sub-average books in 2010, but in 2011, I handed out five stars like they were candy. I award 5 stars to 20% of the 125 books, whereas in 2010, I only gave 17 out of 94 novels that score. That's a 47% increase in five stars from 2010 to 2011. As you can see, I love stats. According to Goodreads, I read 39,620 pages. Now bear in mind that this site sometimes has incorrect pagination or different editions, even though I try for maximum fidelity. Still, even with a margin of error, we're still talking upwards of 30,000 pages. That's staggering.

Frankly it's amazing that I read so much considering that I was in school or in the gym or out with friends. I had a hugely social year in 2011, and despite that, I manage to obliterate last year's record. There's no way I am going to beat that in 2012.

Okay, so the 2011 Challenge was a bit of a failure. Every time I set out goals, such as "I'm going to read this specific list" I end up failing. It's the same when I set out goals of writing. I have to allow for organic change and whatnot. Here are the books from the 2011 Challenge that I managed to finish:

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott

Pretty dismal showing considering that I set out to read 12 books. That's only 25 percent. That's a failure. Despite this small problem, I feel very good about my reading in 2011. For 2012, I don't plan on setting any reading goals, not even a number. I think 125 is anomalous and will never be repeated for the rest of my life, or at least until I retire. 2011 was a perfect storm of circumstance: no cable, no girlfriend, no responsibility and a desire to get back into school. For goals not related to reading, you'll have to wait for part two of my Year in Review.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dead Sea


A group of construction workers and sailors are traveling across the Atlantic to South America where they will build an airstrip for a mining company. Unfortunately, their ship ends up in a bizarre fog that chokes, in a murky viscous sea almost red, filled with creatures unimaginable and terrible. When their ship sinks, they must fight for survival amongst themselves and amongst the awful things that feed in the fog.

Okay, a couple things first. This is the first novel I read on my brand new Kobo Vox that I received for Christmas. Yay, Mom! I've already put a couple hundred books on the damn thing and I can't stop searching for books I've always wanted to read, but could never find. 2012 will be a year in which I read a bunch of things I never expected to read. I love my Kobo already - I'm pretty excited about it.

Secondly, inspired by 4chan and my post about The Grapes of Wrath, I'm posting another image macro that details "what I read, what I expected and what I got". Instead of using 4chan's template, I made my own that is vastly bigger. This review is the first to have this new template of review, which is to say I will post the image and then expand on it. I'm not saying every review will be like this, but some will. Sometimes I'm exhausted of thinking about books critically and I just want to read something awesome and not to feel guilty about not critically appraising it for my blog that nobody reads. Here is the image for Dead Sea


Some have appraised a picture at excesses of thousands of words. I somewhat concur, but not totally. If I did, I wouldn't have read so damn much. Look for my Year in Review: 2011 in the next couple days. I have to put finishing touches on it.

Dead Sea by Tim Curran. Not a great novel, but certainly not terrible. He set out to tell a Lovecraftian splatterpunk novel (somewhat mutually exclusive, but whatever) and he meant to include sea monsters. I chose this because of... the sea monsters mostly. I just fucking love giant squids. Did I receive a bunch of giant squids? Well some. A good portion of the book is the sailors in a lifeboat just fucking arguing. For pages upon pages upon ages. It felt like forever. But finally, in the third part, things changed, and the sea monsters came out in droves.

Then Curran had to go and ruin by trying to explain shit. He tries to explain that the sailors are stuck in some abortion of a dimension and he employs actual physics to explain it. Yes, the words "Einstein Rosen Bridge" appear in this novel. They should never appear in a Lovecraftian novel. Ever ever ever. I don't want things explained to me, especially not by some guy who has read Brian Greene's Elegant Universe and now thinks he's an expert on theoretical astrophysics that Stephen Hawking doesn't fully understand. Curran's explanations soured a good chunk of the novel, but luckily, all is not lost. The end is fairly killer.

Spoilers

The primary antagonist, Saks, a homophobic bully of a sailor, gets shot in the stomach, but the weird creature that's been growing inside him (unbeknownst to the cast) saves his life, only for one of the other characters to simply, from out of nowhere, bash his brains in with a wrench. Yes, that's how the climactic showdown occurs. And it's fucking fantastic. It received an audible gasp from me while I was reading. It was shocking, and purposefully unHollywood. There was no catharsis or great relief; it was just cold-blooded murder. And it was chilling.

Then, the big baddie appears and something happens. I can't explain in such a short paragraph, but Curran makes it awesome. He finally brings out the true horror, the kind that drives you mad, the kind that makes you tear out your own eyeballs to avoid looking at it. It's good.

But it's at the very end. I went through hundreds of pages of sailors making gay jokes and having fisticuffs. I'm not sure if it was worth it. I'm not sure if I would recommend this to anybody other than hardcore fans of sea monsters. Oh well.

First Kobo novel down - only a million more to go!