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6 May 2017

April reading review – I wrote my last post in the hope that we would be seeing the end of the spring rains, but it has rained and/or been cloudy more often than not for the past week. At any rate, it is now time for my April reading review. As I wrote last time, April was a very busy month, so I didn’t get as much reading done as usual, but I still got quite a bit done—I was able to read a lot while traveling to and from Kentucky, for example.

“Thomson manages to write a book about films and make you think about life in general at the same time.”

As usual, there are some minor things (papers, chapters, etc.) that I read in addition to what is below, but I’m going to stick with actual books. The list is rather eclectic, with a film book, a pair of eighteenth-century adventure novels, and a collection of short science fiction. Let’s dive in.

How to Watch a Movie (David Thomson, 2015)

I am not a film nerd. That I did not know who David Thomson was should be evidence of that, I suppose—apparently he is a very famous film critic. Despite not being a film nerd, I like films, and I like books about films. I like reading about Dutch tilts and diegetic sound, and all the little things that go into making a film that you normally don’t think about. I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up, but I know what I like, and I figured I would like it. Spoiler: It was not exactly what I thought it was going to be, but I enjoyed it immensely.

For starters, it is very well written, which means that it is very easy to read (as you probably know by now, if you’ve been following these reading reviews, “hard to read” is the opposite of “well-written” for me). Thomson does indeed talk about films—in fact, he talks about so many films that I felt like a downright cretin for not having seen 95% of the works he mentions. But that did not stop me from enjoying the book. And Thomson also does indeed talk about the different aspects of film, such as shots, cuts, and story. But what made this book immensely enjoyable as opposed to just interesting was that it was not just about watching movies—it was about just watching. Thomson manages to write a book about films and make you think about life in general at the same time.

And I suppose that makes sense. For a critic like Thomson, films are life, and to write about film is to write about life. Reading this book, I was able to see film not as a discrete art form that happens in darkened cinemas, far away from the hustle and bustle of “real life,” but as a part of that hustle and bustle, simultaneously informed by, reflecting, and commenting on life. I’m not sure if this book will change the way I watch movies—although I certainly will have a better appreciation for some aspects of them—but it has already influenced the way I watch life.

Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719)

I’m lumping these two books together, as I read the majority of the former while in Korea, and only picked it up against last month and then read the sequel as well. The first book is more fully titled: “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.” I suppose this is the 18th century equivalent of showing the entire plot of a film in the trailer. The full title of the second book is somewhat more manageable: “The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Being the Second and Last Part of his Life, and Strange Surprizing Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe.” For convenience, I’m just going to refer to them as “the first book” and “the second book” (turns out there’s a third book as well, despite the finality of the second book’s title, although I haven’t read that one yet).

I read the first book quite a long time ago, when I was in grade school, and I remember enjoying it a lot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of that excitement and sense of adventure remains for me even now. It is quite fun to read about a man, shipwrecked and virtually without hope, carve a world for himself out of a hostile environment. Somehow it is just so... satisfying—perhaps because we all wonder how we would fare in such a situation, left only with our wits to keep us alive (and a conveniently wrecked ship to provide us with a whole bunch of stuff from civilization, of course).

Reading the book again now, though, decades later, I noticed things that I think might have passed me by the first time around. For starters, Robinson Crusoe is an idiot. By this I mean that he has a bit of a bug, and whenever things start going well for him, he has to set off on another voyage that inevitably ends in disaster. At a certain point, you start wondering if maybe he has psychological problems. That does temper the triumphant satisfaction of watching him carve out his little empire, the knowledge that, if he had just been happy with what he had, none of this would have happened in the first place. But I guess it wouldn’t have made a very good book if he had just remained in his plantation on Brazil. Or at least it wouldn’t have been the book that Defoe wanted to write.

There’s something else that I picked up on this time around, something more important, and I hinted at it in my use of “empire” above. Especially in the second book, but in the first book as well, it is not Crusoe alone who inhabits the island; there are some other Europeans later on, but the main character beside Crusoe himself is the famous native that Crusoe calls Friday. As I read the book (and its sequel) this time around, Crusoe’s attitude toward the natives in general became a bit uncomfortable. Of course, I am reading this nearly three hundred years after it was written, so attitudes are naturally going to change over time, but let’s just say that Crusoe’s worldview didn’t age very well. There were many cringe-worthy moments when Crusoe interacted with the natives, and even (SPOILER FOR A THREE-HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD BOOK AHEAD!) Friday, presented as the most positive native character in the books, is given short shrift in his death scene. Seriously, it shocked me the way Defoe just haphazardly killed him off. Crusoe, on a ship exploring the coast of Brazil, encounters some hostile natives. Then this happens:

In a short time more they rowed a little farther out to sea, till they came directly broadside with us, and then rowed down straight upon us, till they came so near that they could hear us speak; upon this, I ordered all my men to keep close, lest they should shoot any more arrows, and made all our guns ready; but being so near as to be within hearing, I made Friday go out upon the deck, and call out aloud to them in his language, to know what they meant. Whether they understood him or not, that I knew not; but as soon as he had called to them, six of them, who were in the foremost or nighest boat to us, turned their canoes from us, and stooping down, showed us their naked backs; whether this was a defiance or challenge we knew not, or whether it was done in mere contempt, or as a signal to the rest; but immediately Friday cried out they were going to shoot, and, unhappily for him, poor fellow, they let fly about three hundred of their arrows, and to my inexpressible grief, killed poor Friday, no other man being in their sight. The poor fellow was shot with no less than three arrows, and about three more fell very near him; such unlucky marksmen they were!

True, Crusoe talks about his “inexpressible grief,” and he does spend a few more paragraphs talking about Friday (before never mentioning him again), but the death of the beloved native was just so sudden and random that I couldn’t help but be shocked by it.

Anyway, I still enjoyed the books—the first probably more than the second, as the second takes place after Crusoe’s rescue and is far less about a man surviving on his own and more about him building a little empire on the island—even if parts of them didn’t age too well.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, 2015)

This is another book that I bought at the MLA conference back in January, and I finally started reading it last month. I have not finished it yet, because it is over 1100 pages long, but I have managed to read through 300 pages so far, or 27 of the 105 short stories contain in the book. Just as How to Watch a Movie made me feel like a bit of a film cretin for never having seen nearly all of the films mentioned, this book makes me feel like a short science fiction cretin. I have read science fiction before, of course, but generally novels, and this is a collection of short stories; as far as I know, I’ve only read one of the 105 stories collected here. Of course, that was part of the attraction.

This book being what it is, it’s hard to talk about it as a whole. It begins in the 19th century (with “The Star” by H.G. Wells in 1897) and ends in the 21st century (with “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo in 2002). It consists primarily of works written in English, but also introduces translated works (many newly translated at that) from languages like Russian, Finnish, Bengali, and Spanish. So far I’m enjoying the book, although of course not every story strikes me the same way. One standout in the first three hundred pages was “The Liberation of Earth,” by William Tenn (1953), which was written as a response to the Korean War. I liked the story, but I was also surprised to see science fiction dealing with the Korean War. The other stories range from adventure to horror to philosophical tales, and it is interesting to go from one subgenre to another as I read.

I have continued to read this book this month and am now a hundred pages farther along. It is unlikely I will finish this month, even if it weren’t for the fact that I am going to be traveling for a week or so toward the end of the month and won’t have time to read (and I’m definitely not going to be lugging this book with me!). But I will probably mention my progress, at least in passing, in future reading reviews.

And that about sums it up for April. Now if only these April showers would stop, I’d be much happier.

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