So I’m ditching the previous neglected format and stealing my friend David’s idea (davidhasalife.wordpress.com) and pretending I came up with it. I can’t believe he stole my idea.
Being a twenty-four-year-old male who spends life travelling between two distinct rooms, I have a lot of free time. These are the things I consume in that free time. Prepare for monthly chroniclings.
Here is JANUARY.
Books I read
Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson
I read Train Dreams in one sitting, and now I want to read it again. It tells the short and unremarkable story of Robert Grainer, a woodsman and labourer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century, and is the most gorgeously written thing I’ve read in forever.
I’m not sure how it’s so short—it feels like a lot happens, and the prose remains vivid, descriptive, surprising, and idiosyncratic. What seems at first to be a kind of non-plot focused on one man’s life gradually spirals out to encompass that entire American century before dissipating quietly with little resolution beyond simple human decay. I sobbed in the bookshop I was reading it in.
In short, I want to be Denis Johnson.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway
Somehow I’ve only just got around to this. It’s pretty much what I expected. I don’t have anything smart to say, but I do wish I had a male mentor figure who I admired as much as the boy admires the old man.
I also hope to be as good at clubbing sharks as the old man is when I’m a hundred. Honestly, this is the manliest book ever written.
Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad
Awkwardly racist novella rescued somewhat by Marlowe’s first-person narration, but god damn it’s still great. If it wasn’t wildly inappropriate to teach this sort of thing to teenagers in schools, no modernist novel would be better at winning over (white) teenage boys to literature. The thing is full of edgy standalone aphorisms. “We live as we dream: alone.” Sixteen-year-old me would want that on a t-shirt.
Essay idea: Marlowe as Ancient Mariner figure. DISCUSS.
Purgatory (1979) by Raúl Zurita
It’s a book of poems, or perhaps a really long poem. The appeal of Purgatory is that it is real serious shit. When I or any other millennial sits down to write a poem or when we think of our favourite contemporary poets, chances are the worlds those poems exist in or respond to are pretty safe. Even political or activist poetry tends to be written at a safe distance, a fact that makes the common old man/right-wing complaint that liberal arts types exist in their own pretty little worlds rather easy to throw around.
This tired judgement however absolutely cannot be thrown at Zurita. Held and tortured by Pinochet in Chile, Zurita was/is a mad bastard who branded his own face, tried to blind himself with acid, and relied upon art’s ability to transcend suffering in a very real life-or-death sense. Purgatory then is about as intense as you’d expect.
The poetry itself is startling—Zurita flows between multiple voices, dismissing the idea of a monolithic self, and locates transcendence somewhere in the pampas of the Atacama desert. “Night is the insane asylum of the plants,” he writes. Alright then.
Books I’m in the Middle of
Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The first hurdle in my much-maligned push to actually read some books that were published before 1900, Crime and Punishment started out as an absolute drag. I’ve been reading this book for what feels like years.
Thankfully, a couple of days ago, something changed. Maybe it’s because I abandoned the paper edition and started reading it on my Kindle (if the text isn’t modern, at least let the book be modern), but I’ve started to genuinely enjoy Crime and Punishment.
Yes, the style is cripplingly old-fashioned and Dostoyevsky/his translator never got the show, don’t tell memo from their MFA tutors, but the drama is tight, the tension is ever-present, and the characters are superbly drawn.
I’m about 60 percent through—Raskolnikov, his mam Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his sister Dounia, and his buddy Razumihin have just bullied Pyotr Petrovitch from the dinner table and now they’re all having a laugh (except moody old Raskonlikov who, again, sixteen-year-old me would have wanted on a t-shirt).
I’m curious to see what the mysterious Svidrigailov gets up to. Will he shag Dounia? Will he not? WILL RASKOLNIKOV KILL AGAIN?
On Poetry (2012) by Glyn Maxwell
I’ve also been reading this for what feels like years. It’s not that the book isn’t beautifully written—it is—it’s more that the content is so totally discouraging. “Not doing this in your poems? Seriously?” Maxwell seems to say, “You might as well kill yourself lol.”
It doesn’t help that he comes across as a real smug bastard while also fulfilling every stereotype there is about middle-aged male academics.
Basically, I’m too much of a fragile snowflake to face the cold hard truth as expressed by this haggard hair-dying fringe-preserving wine-sipping old bastard.
Postcapitalism (2015) by Paul Mason
I will never finish this book.
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche
I will also never finish this book.
Films I watched
Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)
I liked Rogue One—I thought it learned from The Force Awakens’ mistakes, I thought the scope was sensible, and I thought the story fit the space before A New Hope suspiciously well. Impressively, it made me want to go back and re-watch the original trilogy, which I hadn’t seen since I was ten.
But why was the sci-fi Shaolin monk even in the film? Why butcher your film’s tone so flippantly? Why invite controversy by casting one of the only Asian men in the film as some mountain-dwelling wise man who knows kung-fu and who, despite living in the fucking future, insists on fighting with a stick? Why not throw in the Arab from Soul Plane for good measure?
On top of that, Rogue One still hasn’t quite grasped how to do an engaging female protagonist. Jyn Erso is a step up from Rey, but still comes across as more of a blank template for a non-sexualised, independent, free-thinking, and self-reliant female protagonist than as an actual character with a memorable personality.
At least the baddies are still great—there’s morally weird CGI-restored zombie cheekbones and, at the end, Darth Vader hacking people to pieces on camera for the first time. This is what we signed up for.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Well look at that, I did go back and re-watch the old ones. Despite how adorable baby Mark Hamill is here and despite the near-lethal levels of patented Carrie Fisher sass, I think A New Hope has aged the least well. Sorry.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This is it baby. The best Star Wars film by a long shot. Shit got good, shit got bleak, Han Solo learned about sexual consent, Vader came for dinner, Lando got punched in the face, and then Luke got a robot hand. The drama never stops.
Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983)
The fuck is going on? What are those guinea pigs doing? Why aren’t Luke and Leia horrified about that time they got off? Beyond that, I never realised that the ending was the inspiration for the endings of Nintendo’s Starfox games. Basically, medals and closing circle wipe. Done.
The Master (2012)
My effort to get back to serious movie watching began with The Master, continued with an hour of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, and then petered out when I fell asleep.
I feel sure that The Master is an incredible film—Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are mind-blowingly good and several scenes are the stuff film students’ YouTube reels are made of (“Have you ever had sex with a member of your own family?”).
Cinematography is consistently impressive, though much of the drama is filmed in a strangely detached “floaty” way that slows the pace. With some solid insults thrown in (“PIG FUCK!”) and a cult as the backdrop to the interplay of two warped egos, The Master sets itself up for success.
Not an especially gripping film though—at least not for me. I had to put my phone away and make an effort to sit up and pay attention. I suck.
Green Room (2015)
YEAAAHHHH Nazis and Patrick Stewart and punk rockers getting savaged by dogs. If you want uncomfortable, horribly realistic violence meted out with rusty shed tools, this is the film for you.
Synopsis: young punks go to play a gig at an isolated estate out in the American countryside. Once they get there, they realise it’s a neo-Nazi camp. Still, they’re punk as fuck so they play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and feel like they’ve done their bit in the fight against Trump. BUT after the show they witness a murder and get locked in a room and held at gunpoint and, from there, shit spirals swiftly out of control.
What’s great about how the drama plays out is that [vague spoiler alert] the film seems to delight in instantly murdering the most capable members of the band.
Big muscular dude who isn’t afraid of guns gets cut down by a machete-wielding skinhead during the very first breakout and remorseful renegade Nazi who has a history of violence and a fucking shotgun gets his head blown off before he does anything to begin his redemptive arc.
In the end, we’re left with misunderstood ex-Nazi girl and the wimpy lead singer who had his arm hacked off in the first half-hour of the film. Watching these two discover their absurd badass sides is almost uncomfortably entertaining.
The Ones Below (2015)
An impossibly scandinavian woman and the Governor from The Walking Dead kill a woman, drown a cat, and steal a baby. It’s not a very good film.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Life-changing. Arnold Schwarzenegger is at his stone-faced best. There are one-liners to end all one-liners. There’s a child actor who not only avoids inciting death threats but who is actually occasionally funny. Sarah Connor is perhaps the most badass and complex female lead since Ripley in Alien—one minute she’s snubbing her child (there are some seriously satisfying parental snubs in this film), the next she’s trying to murder the cowering family of a computer programmer, and the next she’s reuniting with her gun-owning desert-dwelling Mexican friends and downing tequila.
She’s a kickass progenitor to Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, but admittedly she does little to deviate from the whole “women are crazy” trope. Anyway, Arnie gets to do the whole tender father thing he does so well in Kindergarten Cop when Connor’s son gets tired of his mother’s snubs, and there are some classic comedy moments when said boy tries to teach Arnie how to be hip.
The action is over-the-top, the effects are great, and there are some surprisingly complex themes touched upon. This is a film that rewards you for what you put it—if you want the best of mindless action movies, you’ve got it, but if you want to sit and think about representation or the implications of advancing technology or how the flow of time affects free will or the morality of whatever then you can do that too.
But at the end of the day, Arnie is the best person in the world and that is why you come, why you stay, why you quote the film afterwards, and why you move to California and vote Republican.
TV I watched
Channel Zero (Season One)
Regretfully, the whole creepypasta phenomenon kind of passed me by, but that’s because sorting through people’s shitty stories in search of the good ones seemed like hard work.
That said, I love the whole internet mythology concept, so when I read on Cracked that Channel Zero was a thing I thought I’d check it out (even though it’s made by ScyFy, who really do not have a good track record).
Season one is a standalone story based on Kris Staub’s excellent creepypasta “Candle Cove,” which is short, sweet, and genuinely chilling, and can be found here. The TV adaptation is, of course, rather more involved.
You know the setup: backwoods American town (Ironton in this case), small community, god-fearing WASPs everywhere. A children’s TV show called Candle Cove, involving puppets, a pirate, and a horrific hooded skull-monster called “The Skin-Taker,” has reappeared on-air for the first time since the ‘80s, and it’s making the children do weird things.
This first series of Channel Zero is, well, pretty good. It takes liberties with the source material, makes the occasional silly jump into the deus ex machina realm of “the supernatural,” and the pacing is all over the place, but the actors do well (even the children) and the central themes of childhood terror and adult neuroses are brought to life in pretty interesting ways.
The central monster is also both grotesque and unusually presented—there’s no skulking in shadows here. The horror is upfront and unadorned, and is all the more chilling for it.
Games I Played
The Beginner’s Guide (PC, 2015)
I was excited to finally play The Beginner’s Guide as I’m all for weird experimental empathy games or anything vaguely artsy that helps me justify spending hours of my life pressing buttons to score points in virtual worlds.
The concept is a strange one—you’re led through a series of games and levels by The Beginner’s Guide’s developer, Davey Wreden, who tells you that these levels are the work of a friend of his named Coda.
Coda, we’re told, is no longer making games, and Wreden has gathered dozens of examples of his friend’s work that he wants to share with the player so as to encourage Coda to start making games again. This scenario is entirely contrived—Wreden created each of the games himself and there is no Coda.
Instead of surface authenticity then, these elements contribute to creating a kind of metafictional essay about narcissism, human frailty, and self-hatred. As I played through The Beginner’s Guide, I realised it wasn’t as clever as it thought it was—it got pretty heavy-handed towards the end and the cracks in the façade began to show. I became determined to be smug and eye-rolly.
But god damn it, the ending: that [spoiler alert] sacrificial beam and the grand ascension and the emotional shoegaze blaring out had me weeping like a child.
It’s a good game and the fears it wears on its sleeve are easy to relate to, particularly if you’re in your twenties and are panicking about your life. Ultimately it doesn’t totally succeed in what it tries to do but it’s absolutely worth playing, if only to broaden your idea of what video games are and what they can be used to communicate.
Inside (PC/PS4/XB1, 2016)
Best game involving pig-baiting of all time.
But seriously, if you’re at all interested in storytelling, art direction, world building, dystopias, or pop philosophy then go and play Inside. It requires no prior video game experience and is one of the most consistently stunning, smart, and atmospheric games I’ve ever played. I don’t want to say anything to spoil it.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Wii, 2008)
It’s a fucking turn-based anime strategy RPG. It’s not artsy. It’s addictive as shit, insanely difficult, and somehow it never ends.
The plot is simultaneously childish in its good/bad morality and bizarrely complex in its German duchy-style political landscape. Female characters all dress in skimpy armour and there are a lot of questionable haircuts and it goes on for FORTY HOURS.
If you’ve played any previous Fire Emblem games you know how terrible it is when your favourite character gets sniped by some fucking baghead with a 26 percent chance-of-hitting longbow and then you have to start again because you can’t bear going on without fucking Rolf because Shinon would be devastated.
As a bonus, playing Radiant Dawn gave me a new appreciation for Ike in Smash Bros Brawl. The man’s a machine.