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Every now and then you read something that renews your gratitude that there are these things called books that other humans create and that, via the stories they tell, they can illuminate and transform your perception of your own arc and in so doing, affirm that loss and redemption both are threads within the fabric that binds us all together.

My Sunshine Away takes place in 1980’s Baton Rouge.  The pace and language invoke syrupy, languid summers and a sense of deep mysteries hidden just out of sight.  The story begins with a horrible crime and explores the enduring impact it has on the people involved, most notably the victim and the narrator, a teenage boy.

I don’t think it serves the book or its potential readership to further unpack the plot except to say that it’s a coming-of-age story that reaches for deep truth, sad and wise and hopeful, more meditation than mystery.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I really wanted to see what Hollywood did with the “colony starship” trope, a genre staple.  The previews looked promising, as did the high-octane cast (Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne).  I  should have known better.  There will be spoilers ahead but I promise you:  nothing will ruin your experience of this movie more than actually seeing it.  The starship Avalon, its cargo of 5000+ ensconced in cold sleep, encounters a cloud of dust and rocks in deep interstellar space some 30 years into its 120 year journey. The ship’s defense systems deal with most of the debris, but a large rock gets through and the ship suffers some damage.  Implausibly, one of the thousands of suspended animation pods malfunctions, awakening Jim (Pratt), a mid-level techie.  The ship has plenty of amenities and we sit through endless filler scenes of Jim playing basketball, exploring the creepy-shiny Mariott future, and hanging out with an android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), who is a little reminiscent of Lloyd from The Shining with none of the edge and menace.  Of course, Jim gets lonely, grows a scraggly beard, and becomes obsessed with one of the sleeping colonists, Aurora (Lawrence). He figures out how to revive her and, after talking  it over with  Arthur, decides to go ahead with it.

Okay, I thought, I might as well just get up and leave now.  The movie is basically over.  They’re going to try and normalize this horrific violation via the enduring mythology that romantic love can emerge from a raw, brutal exercise of sexist authority if only the right circumstances allow it to flourish.  But, for me, this was such an amoral act, so deeply pathological and wrong, that there was nothing the mechanics of plot could do to make it okay.  You just can’t go back from there.

I didn’t leave, but my instinct was spot on.  He wakes her up, lies to her, fucks her …  the story machine is a goddamn power shovel at this point, digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole.  When she finds out what actually happened, she’s kinda mad!  At one point, she is kicking the shit out of him and reaches for a huge-ass garden implement which surely would have crushed his skull but she sets it down after some deliberation, a huge disappointment.  Then a bunch of other things happen, but it hardly matters.  The ship’s systems are deteriorating.  A crew member, Gus (Fishburne), gets awakened so he can explain some stuff and die.  Aurora’s still mad but she and Jim have to work together to figure out how to fix the failing ship.  Shit gets gnarly and he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her and the ship, which is supposed to redeem his dark, obsessive idealization and objectification of her, his deception, his rape.  (It doesn’t).  The ultimate sacrifice turns out to be not so ultimate since she was able to revive him in the Autodoc.  He figures out how to tweak it to support her (but only her) returning to cold sleep for the rest of the voyage, but she says, no, it’s really okay that you ruined my life and turned me into a fuck doll.  I love you!  They live happily ever after.

This movie fails on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin, but its failure as science fiction is worth underscoring, since that’s the package it’s wrapped in. At its best, SF uses its rich, evolving heritage of tropes to entertain us, to enlighten us, to explore questions about who we are as individuals, as a patchwork of cultures, as a species: where we come from, where we are, where we’re going.  Passengers uses SF’nal eye candy as window dressing to frame a deeply creepy idealization of romantic love that seeks to normalize misogyny and rape.  If you like that sort of thing, check it out.

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-books-we-loved-in-2016

Some interesting stuff here, much of which would not usually cross my path.  Among those that I have read and can also highly recommend are Liz Moore’s The Unseen World,  Rainbow Rowell’s Landline, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds.

And additionally, here are four recommendations from James Wood, none of which I have read, but he is such a smart and interesting writer that I will snag at least a couple of them.

This is dark, scrappy headlong Western Weird, Cormac McCarthy meets Jack Ketchum, with the most awesome heroine since Temple in Alden Bell’s “The Reapers Are The Angels.”   Beautifully written and impossible to put down.

Man, the dude can write. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given decades of rock and roll poetry blazed onto the zeitgeist, but … the dude can write.  The riff on Elvis’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show alone is worth the price of admission.  I’m still pretty early in the book, still in the origin stories, but he made me feel all over again what it was like to be a young teenager in America when rock and roll blew everything wide open.  He’s a little older, and was across the Hudson in Jersey while I was in Manhattan, but I felt it, I was there too, and he nails that sense of sweet disruption and limitless possibility that so many of us of a certain age shared, and some still do.

I’m not even much of a Springsteen junkie.  I like a lot of his work but much of his catalog just doesn’t do much for me.  This book reaches well beyond that.  His writing is generous and wistful, funny, sad, and accurate, cultural archaeology as well as personal memoir.  Whether you’re a Boss fan or not, you should check it out.

Architecture is a challenge built on techno trends
And many tough decision upon which a system bends.
So when I’m asked for my advice by strangers and by friends,
I look them squarely in the eye and answer, “It depends!”

Depends on what app server’s hot,
What the last SVP bought,
The foresnics of this system’s rot,
And other stuff that I forgot.

This project’s benediction —
Is it real or is it fiction?
I can take no firm position.
I am not a geek magician
Blessed with techno-precognition.
So I have no ammunition
For your big Enterprise mission.
I am just a politician
Who, waffling, contends:
“It’s architecture – it depends!”

Depends on who’s been talking smack,
Who has lots and lots of cash,
On who’s been drinking sour mash
Or maybe even smoking crack.

You want to know if you should build a data access bus
Or buy a turnkey product to ameliorate your fuss
But if you ask me what a systems guru recommends,
I’ll look you squarely in the eye and answer, “It depends!”

Depends on what’s your IDE,
Your build procedures currently
And what the process wonks defend.
Let’s just say it all depends.

Those Accenture guys will never leave!  Their project never ends!
That code they wrote!  I’d like to kill them!  Them and all their friends!
You want me to clean up their mess, your disbelief suspends,
I’ll look you squarely in the eye and answer, “It depends!”

Will this pig scale?
It all depends!
This framework hale?
Depends!
Dot NET the Holy Grail?
Depends!
Executives in jail?
Depends!

Maintainable?
It just depends!
Explainable?
Depends!
Production ready?
Well, I’ll tell you

That in my best projection
Based on thorough and professional
Analysis and code dissection,
Testing that’s regressional,

Interviews confessional,
Demos very sleek,
With ducky-horsey Visio,
And Power Point technique,
And thirty six page writeup
Which to reputation lends
I’ll look you boldly in the eye
And tell you, “It depends!”

Dan Marcus (with apologies to John Vorhaus and his excellent book “Killer Poker”)

(reposted from the sad ashes of Posterous)

I will be lurking about most of the weekend, but will be reading from new work at 4:30 PM on Friday in the Santa Rosa room.  See you there.