Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Triad: Kings, Leafs, and Eldritch Horrors + Bonus Film Review

My, these book triad things go a lot faster when you're not reading Cloud Atlas.  Speaking of which, under the book reviews is a review of the film Cloud Atlas!  Timely!
Today's trio of books is:
In the Dust of This Planet: The Horror of Philosophy vol 1 by Eugene Thacker
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healey
Inside Maple Leaf Gardens: The Rise And Fall Of The Toronto Maple Leafs by William Houston

Reviews after the break.

In the Dust of the Planet.  Thacker's book considers the horror of philosophy, how philosophical concepts can be reinterpreted under a more "horrific" lenses if we think of what they would be if we tried to come at them from a non-human perspective. It's basically a branch of object oriented ontology, without using the name. The book is divided into five parts, counting the preface. The preface establishes the basic premise of the book, using the comparison of world, earth, and planet: world describes the world as it exists for humans, earth describes how it exists in itself, and planet describes the world as it exists without us--and the premise is that horror is "a nonphilosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically." The first chapter is three discussions of demonology, as it appears in black metal, what we know about demons, and historically what we've seen of depictions of demonology. Chapter two presents six discussions on occult philosophy, particularly on the concept of the magic circle and how it divides human and supernatural, and what happens when it disappears and the natural and supernatural bleed together in ways beyond our understanding. Chapter three is 9 sections on the horror of theology, with ruminations on Life--with a capital--and life, extinction, Being, and existence. Finally, the last chapter takes as its object of study the text "The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids," which Thacker claims has had a long history of internet circulation (although a google search mostly turns up references to Thacker). The text is used as a launch pad to briefly discuss John of the Cross' The Dark Night, Bohme's Ungrund, Georges Bataille, and the concept of nothing. The book uses a lot of both popular culture and philosophy to make its points; Lovecraft and episodes of the Outer Limits make appearances, as do quite a bit of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Aristotle (though the balance shifts from pop culture to philosophy as the book goes on). Stylistically, it reminds me quite a bit of some of Giorgio Agamben's books, as it shares a similar length and ability to jump from topic to topic. It also shares a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses: a wide variety of topics, but the quick pace means that some things aren't fully explained, or get short shrift. Still, it's easily the most fun I've had reading OOO, and it's interesting to consider how horror touches on the literally unthinkable.

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom.  The book starts with a simple premise: all of those feats done by Prince Charming in the fables were actually done by four separate princes, each a bit annoyed that the bards couldn't get their names right. Through a series of misadventures, they band together and go up against a variety of villains, including a dragon, a giant, the child-aged King of Bandits, and, of course, the wicked witch. The book's biggest strength is the personalities of the four princes, as each is very well-defined: Duncan is kind of loopy, Gustav is gruff and likes resorting to violence, Liam's the typical hero of all trades, and Frederic is concerned with the finer things and proper etiquette. It's the characterization that arises out of the four interacting with each other that gives the book its comedy and its heart. The tone of the book is rather light, as you may expect from a ten year old Bandit King and vegetarian trolls. The story doesn't take itself entirely seriously, and doesn't expect you to either. I'd say it's kind of like a book-version of the Shrek series, but I like it too much for that. It's got its faults; the story is kind of slight, and the action doesn't shift gears quite right--the climax doesn't feel like a climax, for example. And by the end, the author seems a little too concerned with ramping up for the sequel. But all in all, it's a fun, all-ages sort of book. Kudos to the illustrator, who really does a nice job.
Inside Maple Leafs Gardens. This is one of those books where a clear interpretation of title is essential to understanding its focus. It's not really a book about the Leafs, at least, in terms of a break down of players, or games, or so forth. Rather, it's a behind-the-scenes look at the management of the Leafs, with Harold Ballard, the major owner of the Leafs from the 60s to the 90s, at the front and center. As such, it's a weirdly disjointed book, with the first 100 or so pages focusing equally on the Leaf's performance and management. At that point, Chapter 9: Ballard and his Broads, it shifts onto, well, Ballard, and stays on him for the rest. Such an approach is slightly justified, I suppose, as after the 60s Stanley Cup wins, the stuff behind the scenes becomes much more interesting than the Leafs themselves. Houston is frank about his own position on Ballard: they have a number of unpleasant run-ins, to the point where Ballard routinely rejected him on sight. It's hard to say how much that bias colors the book; granted, it's a very unflattering portrayal, but it's rarely an outright attack. The exception is at the end of the book, where Houston bluntly states that the Leafs' continuing failure to advance at a team is due to Ballard's unwillingness to allow the franchise to change beyond his control, and that their financial success is despite him rather than because of him. As someone who has no idea of the history of the Leafs, I found the whole thing fascinating--how one person can come to dominate a sports discussion without setting a foot on the ice. I can't really speak to the validity of Houston's complaints--it seems like Ballard isn't all of the Leafs' problems, since they're still rather terrible--but as a perspective on their woes up to the 90s or so, it's a very interesting read.

I was going to replace the usual discussion of the three together with a movie review of Cloud Atlas, because in this case, there is pretty much zero connection between the three.  Then I remembered that I already wrote an extra paragraph on my response to Thacker's book.  That, combined with the length of the review above, probably says a lot about how much the book impressed me.  Anyway, there's more Thacker below, followed by the Cloud Atlas review. 

This was my second book by Thacker; the first was the previously Networks, his collaboration with Alexander Galloway.  And it too is comparable to the Agamben books I've read: great ideas, lots of ideas, but some could use a little more fleshing out.  It's also the first philosophy book in a long time that I kind of wish I was still doing the full reviews about, as it's a book that really generated a lot of ideas.  It's a nice list of texts to read, both philosophical and pop culture.  And Thacker's discussions on life and theology felt like subjects he talked about before; life, I imagine, is a big player in his book After Life, which I'll be getting to at some point.  Finally, it's unfortunate that he didn't address videogames at all; there's a huge genre of horror games, and they offer something a little different from other types of games.  But given the way games are so focused on centering the player, is an OOO game even possible?  It's a question I brought up during a game studies theory group, and one that I'd like to see pursued--maybe even by myself.

Previously, (like, last week) I reviewed David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the book, just in time to see the film.  The film has not been faring well critically, and it's doing rather worse in the box office.  I think the failure was because the film overshot its scope; its (comparatively) experimental nature meant that it was never going to get wide reception, but its gigantic budget, large cast of major actors, and big name directors meant that it couldn't afford anything less.  As an adaptation, it's excellent.  The novel was most notable, to me, because Mitchell absolutely nailed the six different genres he was writing in.  The film does the same, but translates the literary genres into film genres--the intellectual 1984ish future, for example, is given a sci-fi thriller edge.  And it does a much better job of continuity.  The book had an odd structure: it presents the first half of six stories, then the second half, in reverse order.  The length means that a lot of the resonance between the books doesn't come through.  The film solves this by using traditional methods of scene splicing to juxtapose different stories, and by using the same set of actors for different characters in different stories.    (I've heard the complaint that the six stories are too many and too different to follow; I can't really speak to that, since I went in with the book under my belt, but I think it starts to become clear, if you're willing to give it long enough--it's not like you're going to confuse any of the stories.) Now, the decision to use the same actors is the biggest controversy, because it means you have white actors doing yellowface, and nonwhite actors doing whiteface, and even if you put aside the question of taste in such an act, it's still visually very distracting.  The other problem of the film for me is the same as with the book--it just doesn't stick the landing.  The idea is that these six narratives of individuals defying systems of savagery is supposed to be an uplifting tale of the endurance of the human spirit, but--well, in reality, it's six stories that are well-told, but ultimately genre stories with stock characters, so they're not really great human representatives.  The connections come out a lot clearer than the novel, but it still fails to really resonate with me.  It's a great adaptation, but not a great film.

Two final points though:
1) It was really nice to see Keith David kick ass in the 70s story.  Gargoyles Forever!
2) The last scene of the film (spoiler) has a couple declare their enduring love for each other, then kiss.  Immediately after they kissed, the couple sitting directly below me kissed too.  Awwwwww.

Later Days.

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