The Top 5 Books I Have Read This Year – 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time for my annual review posts, the first of which being a power ranking of the Top Five Books I’ve Read This Year. This post is always a special one for me, because reading is more important to me than anything else. This blog began as a reading blog, and I’m committed to never straying too far from these literary roots.

I need to clarify a couple things before we begin! Despite my claim that reading is the pastime I treasure the most, this isn’t reflected in the rate I consume various forms of media. I am a keen reader, but also a slow and anxious one. It’s a skill I’m always working on. I consume video games and movies much easier than I do books. Therefore, the Top 5 Books I’ve Read This Year is just that. It’s not a ranking of five books that came out in 2018, and is therefore unlike my annual Top 10 Films of the Year (which I’ll be releasing tomorrow!). I’d love to be able to keep up with current releases and be able to rank contemporary novels and authors the way I do the latest film releases. But my reading game is just not there yet. It’s still too difficult for me- but maybe one day, these posts will evolve into a “Top 5 Books of [insert year]”.

Looking back on the year’s reading I can see I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming the reader I want to be. I’ve read less books than 2017 and I’ve given up on two books this year, which is always depressing. It’s a combination of my less than stellar time management skills, my reading choices, and my crippling addiction to digital media alternatives (looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2). I want to challenge myself to read different kinds of books but also pick books that suit me so as to maintain momentum. So there’s a little hypocrisy at work. A moment of silence is needed for the two novels I couldn’t finish- Love by Péter Nádas (a drug-addled haze too ontological for my tastes) and The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer (a more or less decent novel that failed to compete with RDR2 for my attention).

 


#5 Niki: The Story of a Dog

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Author: Tibor Déry

Published: 1956

Opening Line: “The Dog- we will not yet give it a name- adopted the Ancsas in the spring of 1948.”

Premise: After her husband disappears without a trace during a political crackdown in Communist-ruled Budapest, a middle-aged woman finds her only solace in her friendship with the stray dog she recently adopted.

Why I Loved This Book: If I had to pick one reason above all others as to why I loved this book, it would be the way in which the dog is written about. Even though this novel does pull at your heart-strings, the writing style is profoundly unsentimental. Niki is somehow treated as both a character and just as a dog. The prose is beautiful and lyrical in its descriptions of her, and yet it never loses its scientific grounding.

 

#4 No Country for Old Men

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Author: Cormac McCarthy

Published: 2005

Opening Line: “I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.”

Premise: When a hunter discovers a briefcase full of millions of dollars of drug money, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events that forever alter his life- and the lives of those around him.

Why I Loved This Book: The dialogue in this novel is as good as anything I’ve ever read. It strikes a perfect balance between evoking the dialect of South Texas while not being so realistic that it lacks a sense of rhythm. It’s a cross between the authentic approach of William Faulkner and the crisp, snappy lines of hardboiled noir writers such as James M. Cain.

 

#3 Pages for You

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Author: Sylvia Brownrigg

Published: 2001

Opening Line: “What would happen if I wrote some pages for you?”

Premise: A curious freshman from the West Coast falls in love with her professor, who opens up for her a world of Ivy League culture and sophistication- as well as some truths about herself.

Why I Loved This Book: I loved the scrutiny of small details in this book, and how those small things contributed to the overall narrative of sexual relationships. I’m someone that takes a great interest in concrete details and trivial things, so I enjoyed seeing them examined through the neurotic lens of the protagonist. For example, she treats us to her ruminations on her first experience of holding hands, or being given a loving nickname etc.

 

#2 The Lost Daughter

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Author: Elena Ferrante

Published: 2006

Opening Line: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.”

Premise: After her daughters leave home to pursue a new life in Canada, a single mother decides to take a holiday to a coastal town, where she meets a boisterous family that brings back painful memories of her past.

Why I Loved This Book: More than anything else, I adored this novel for its deep interior monologues. I loved how introspective and reflective the main character is, and we are given a fascinating window into her psyche as a somewhat ambivalent mother in these lengthy passages. This is easily the most interesting (and in some ways, unsettling) portrait of motherhood that I have ever come across. Ferrante is one of the great writers of our time, and it was hard not to give this novel top spot on this list.

 

#1 The Center of Everything

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Author: Laura Moriarty

Published: 2003

Opening Line: “Ronald Reagan is on television, giving a speech because he wants to be president.”

Premise: A young girl tries her best to navigate the throes of teen angst, poverty, and her dysfunctional family in 1980s Kansas.

Why I Loved This Book: The Center of Everything is the best thing I’ve read this year and a worthy follow up to last year’s winner (Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick). I love it because it’s books like this that remind me why I fell in love with literature. In a way, it’s my ideal novel because of the way it’s structured. It follows several characters over the course of a decade or so. Each character is exceptionally well-crafted and we see how their lives change and intertwine with one another’s. I love this format, and I love the way it so well conveys the themes that I’m interested in- which is simply real, ordinary life. Every scene, every word of spoken dialogue, seems to ring true. It’s the type of book I dream of one day writing. If I ever succeed at the creative writing game, it’ll be trying to emulate something like this.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 3 – Cruel, Cruel World (Spoilers)

To continue my series of Red Dead Redemption 2 posts, I’d like to examine the plot and characters in greater detail. You can click here for my review of the gameplay and you can click here for my essay regarding the overall tone of the franchise. Today I’m looking with a more intimate focus at specific scenes in the plot and what they mean. My aim is to give an overview of the narrative and what I thought about it as I was playing it. Needless to say, there are spoilers in this post. If you haven’t played the game yet, you should totally do so- and then come back!

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The narrative of Red Dead Redemption 2 begins in medias res, and does so with great effect. In fact, RDR2 contains one of the most gripping and effective openings of any game I have ever played. Often when I look back at a game, the beginning is rarely if ever my favorite part. It’s such an important component of crafting a story, and yet in the medium of gaming there are so few opening missions that I truly cherish. For the most part they take the form of rigid tutorials, and you just want to get through it and get to the exciting stuff. I remember every time I replayed KOTOR 2 as a teenager I just wanted to rush through Peragus and explore the vibrant galaxy beyond. KOTOR 2 had a subtle, slow boil- which, though well-written- didn’t make for the most memorable introduction to a game. The opposite approach is something like the bukkake of lead that is the opening of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which was so fast-paced my engagement became lost. And then you get the boring and bland openings- as is the case with Skyrim– where the events of the game don’t feel as intense as they really should be. Skyrim is another title like KOTOR 2 where a certain amount of rigmarole is required before the player can enjoy the game proper. The reason I don’t dive back into it more often is because the idea of going through Bleak Falls Barrow one more time makes me want to start cutting myself.

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But Red Dead Redemption 2– in my personal opinion- gets it just right. As I said, it uses the literary technique of beginning in the middle of the action to great effect. Straight away we’re thrust into this situation where we’re part of a desperate caravan of wagons trying to make its way through a mountain range during a blizzard without repeating the tragedy of the Donner Party. We know something big just went down because of references to gang members that had just died- so we’re already curious as to what just happened, but we can’t dwell on it too long because the danger isn’t over. We need to find food and shelter and locate any missing gang members. The immediacy of these problems is brought to life very well, and this is what makes the opening so immersive. To me, the true art of a video game is the art of illusion. If you find yourself invested in these characters and conflicts, and forget that what you’re seeing is just a few lines of code, some digitized images, then the game has succeeded. RDR2 uses authentic dialogue, beautiful graphics, and clever animations to make the struggle of these folks feel real. I was immediately hooked- I had forgotten I was even playing a game in fact. My sole focus was on taking care of the gang. And the art of illusion goes beyond the visual rendering of the world and its inhabitants- it extends to gameplay as well. RDR2’s Chapter One is a tutorial- but it doesn’t feel like one. In hindsight, I can see that it served to get the player used to various aspects of gameplay- you get to grips with horse riding, deer hunting, wolf-killing, area investigation, and inventory management. But I didn’t think that at the time. I was consumed with helping the gang out of its current predicament. It’s funny how, looking back, I know now that if I took my time, veered off-course, or simply met with the game over screen, nothing would have happened. The missions are linear and always follow the same path. But I was under the illusion that if I didn’t catch this deer, the gang would starve. That’s what immersion is- if a game puts its pieces together in the right way, it can make you feel that everything in front of you is real, that you have more agency than you actually do.

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Chapter One exists as a kind of disguised tutorial. When I first looked back on the game and thought about my fondest moments, I actually picked out Chapter One as perhaps my favorite of the six chapters included within the main story. It’s certainly the chapter in which I was the most engaged- but I think that is undoubtedly because it’s the only chapter that is strictly linear. The gripping sense of immediacy that makes Chapter One so effective isn’t really there in the other chapters, because you’re free at any moment to abandon the gang and go hunt an albino moose in the woods. I stated in my gameplay review that the main story is RDR2’s greatest strength. It’s in my top 10 games of all time for its moments of high tension, its twists, its shocking revelations, its nuanced character development, and its scenes of intense drama. But that is not to say that the game is simply a few excellent cutscenes. I wholeheartedly believe that this story is best told through an interactive medium, rather than a movie or TV series. In my opinion, the gameplay informs the story. It exists to enhance our sense of immersion in both its world and its narrative, as opposed to being a set of mechanics that stand on their own. Without the superb writing, the gameplay would probably be considered functional at best.

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I liked Chapter One so much because I was so engaged. Throughout the rest of the chapters, the main story is experienced in these isolated missions that can sometimes result in their events feeling diminished by the open world vacuum. A good example of this is the mission in which Arthur gets captured by the O’Driscolls and tortured. At first I was engaged and excited, wondering what would happen next. But the mission is completely self-contained, and has no real bearing on the rest of the plot. You begin the mission, go through some cutscenes, get captured, escape, go through some more cutscenes, and then you’re dumped back into the open world again. At first there are a few dialogue lines that refer to your capture, but the whole episode felt pointless. I want events to have lasting consequences, and I wasn’t sure what this mission meant in the grand scheme of things. I was hoping it would shake up gameplay or significantly alter the course of the plot. Maybe it will set up a future mission? I wondered. Maybe Arthur’s escape will lead the O’Driscolls back to the camp, and we have a limited time in which to prepare for the assault? Maybe Colm O’Driscoll will have some kind of secret to tell Arthur that brings his loyalty into question? Maybe Arthur overhears something important during his capture? Maybe they cut off Arthur’s hand and we have to play the rest of the game using only one-handed weapons like sawed-off shotguns and tomahawks? But no, none of that happens. Arthur makes his way home and sleeps off his injuries.

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So what I’m arguing here is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong though- a lot of those parts are fantastic, and in keeping with the quality of the overall storyline. Other parts feel like filler, or they just pale in comparison to the main narrative. My least favorite chapter is Chapter Five, where the gang is stranded on the island of Guarma. It’s like Chapter One in the sense that it’s linear, but unlike Chapter One it doesn’t feel very important to the plot at large. What’s great about Chapter One is that it’s this taut, tight narrative with no extraneous details. There’s nothing there for its own sake. You’re in the mountains and you’re trying to survive. Guarma, by contrast, feels like a contrived homage to John’s expedition to Mexico in the first game. I think it would have worked better as one mission rather than a whole chapter. That way it might have worked as this crazy, exotic interlude. But as a whole Chapter Five just isn’t that engaging. The main plot is put on hold while this new slave revolution storyline takes its place. The story of the islanders and their struggles is too far removed from the events of the main story for us to suddenly become invested in. If it was somehow more closely connected to the main story, and had featured an open world that we can revisit any time we want, that would have been much better. All they’d have to do would be to put a boat in the harbor of Saint Denis that takes us there for a fee (kind of like the way you can travel from Novigrad to Ard Skellig in The Witcher 3, or Windhelm to Solstheim in The Elder Scrolls V). Then we could have a port town (think Havana, or perhaps San Juan) that acts as a hub area and trading post, with unique laws, commercial goods, and amenities as compared to the municipalities of the mainland. Add to that a jungle for exploration, with rare flora and fauna- again, distinct from the mainland- and then Guarma would be a worthy follow-up to RDR1’s Mexico. It would also justify Guarma having its own entire chapter.

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I will say though, that I liked the scene in the cave where the old crone pulls a shiv on Dutch and he smashes her face in. I know that sounds creepy, but the reason I like it is because it was a little character moment that highlighted Dutch’s growing appetite for violence. It’s an important scene because it seems to confirm Arthur’s fears that his best friend is not who he thought he was. If Arthur were in his shoes, he would have just disarmed the murderous grandma and told her to fuck off. He’s only as violent as he needs to be, and he doesn’t take pleasure in it. When he sees Dutch drown Angelo Bronte and feed him to an alligator, Arthur is a little disturbed by the savagery of it, but probably assumes this is due to the heat of the moment. Bronte was a revenge killing, and as a fellow criminal, more or less fair game. But the little grandma is different. Even though she’s channeling the foul witch Sycorax- who with age and envy was grown into a hoop- she’s not really much of a threat. Grabbing grannies by the hair and repeatedly smashing them nose-first into a wall until their faces resemble those of 90s polygon graphics seems wholly gratuitous. The way the scene is shot is superb- the claustrophobia of the tight cave and the way the characters’ sweaty faces and raggedy clothes are illuminated by the torchlight contributed to this feeling that our protagonists had crossed into a new realm, both literally and figuratively. They’re somewhere they don’t belong (Guarma) and this shift into unknown territory reflects the moral shift of the gang. As a general rule, the humidity of a tropical jungle is a great literary device to highlight a character’s deteriorating sanity. Jungles are wild and dangerous places, and have a way of pulling us back to our primitive roots. Oftentimes, a story’s protagonist has to become bestial and sacrifice their humanity in order to navigate such an environment. That’s kind of what happens to Dutch. Guarma is an unforgiving jungle, but in a metaphorical sense, so too is the mess the gang is in. And by the end of the game, it changes them.

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There are several narratives at work in Red Dead Redemption 2, and one of the most important ones is that of violence. In a sense, this is the original concept of the game. The entire game is born out of a line from John Marston in RDR1 that he left the Dutch Van der Linde Gang when it became too violent. RDR2 is the story of that moral decay. In Chapter One we are given hints that Dutch killed an innocent woman during a botched robbery. Arthur doesn’t witness it, but the news disturbs him. Chapter Two sees the gang seemingly land back on their feet. At this point there’s a sense of hope and optimism. Everyone assumes life will go on as normal, and they get back to the business of making money from various schemes, be it rustling cattle or robbing banks. Classic outlaw stuff. I enjoyed this chapter because it’s the most classically western in tone. I’d say it’s my second favorite, after Chapter One. Chapter Three sees the gang flee to the swamps of Lemonye in order to lie low. The pressure is on, the mood is more tense, but we haven’t reached a boiling point yet. The Deep South seems like a good place for the gang to hide, so long as it earns its money quietly. Things get a little more desperate in Chapter Four- which for me is one of upheaval. It is perhaps the episode with the most significant changes. It begins with young Jack getting kidnapped by the Mafia, before a devastating assault by the O’Driscolls reveals that Kieran Duffy has been decapitated shortly after having his eyes gouged out, and ends with a disastrous bank heist that leaves Hosea and Lenny dead. A lot of fans consider the end of Chapter Four as a turning point in the gang’s history. It’s the most tumultuous period for the gang and establishes the dividing lines that will tear it apart later on. The death of Hosea is particularly significant, in that he represents the gang’s conscience. His presence had hitherto upheld this code that the gang only kills if it has to, and preys upon the rich. This strange sense of outlaw chivalry is actually rooted in real history, as the James-Younger Gang were known for checking the hands of those they robbed on train heists. If the person’s hands were worn and dirty, they left them alone as they were probably manual workers. If you had immaculate, dainty white hands with smooth, soft skin and slim, delicate fingers, you were buggered. Even though Dutch is the leader and face of the gang, Hosea is the co-founder and the decisions are often jointly-made between them. Hosea is the perfect counter to Dutch’s charisma and willpower, in that he is rational and even-tempered. Without Hosea in the way, the recklessly-violent Micah is free to influence Dutch’s decision-making. Chapter Five shows the effect of this a little bit with the aforementioned granny-bashing scene, but in my opinion drags on too long with pointless action sequences and tower-defense modes. Chapter Six is much better (in my humble estimation). Dutch becomes increasingly reckless as Micah gains his ear, and quickly starts hatching schemes that he never would have with Hosea around. The way Micah slowly emerges as the villain of the game is actually really interesting. Up until Chapter Six he’s a pretty minor character, one that seemingly serves as the token psycho of the group. But I like that his violent nature isn’t just to make him colorful or whacky. It’s a part of the moral dialogue of the narrative. His character is something that’s discussed throughout the game, and it affects the course of events. At first I wondered if he was just included in the game the way Trevor was in GTA V, whose immorality exists for entertainment purposes. But this isn’t the case- he’s a career criminal whose immorality is the product of a troubled upbringing. And what I find really fascinating about Micah is that he doesn’t want to be the leader of the gang- he wants to exploit Dutch’s creativity and charisma to make a big score. It shows how powerful Dutch’s name is- that even years later, when Micah has his own gang, he still wants a lone Dutch to come back and orchestrate things. His attitude toward Dutch is tantamount to a possessive child that wants to be best friends with the popular kid and remain the trusted number two.

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In my previous post I talked about the characters existing as vessels for the themes Rockstar wants to explore. Dutch, as I said, seems to represent the theme of the changing times, as he hopelessly tries to fight a battle that he can’t possibly win. Micah, on the other hand, represents this theme of violence I’ve been referring to. He’s a testament to the brutality of the Old West, in that the source of his violence comes from the life of crime and struggle he was born into. He brings out the worst in Dutch, and his violent nature spreads like a poison, which dismantles the gang from within. All sense of family and loyalty is lost as several members flee for their lives.

Again, the themes are intertwined with the gameplay. Not only do the missions become more violent from Chapter Four onward, but they also become more senselessly violent. Perhaps chief among them is the armed conflict between the Wapiti Indians and the US military. It’s exciting stuff, but it’s also infused with this sense of tragedy. The whole situation feels regrettable and unnecessary, which adds some emotional weight to all the death.

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But of course, the story doesn’t end with the breakdown of the gang and the death of the protagonist. There’s an 8-10 hour epilogue that bridges the gap between RDR2 and RDR1. This epilogue is so well-executed that it deserves its own post. It’s hard to separate the various parts of the story because they’re all so good in their own way. As I said, Chapter One was perhaps my favorite when taking into account each chapter as a working whole- but undoubtedly a lot of my favorite moments take place in Chapters 4 and 6. What about you? I’d love to get a discussion going in the comments! Let me know what your favorite moments were in the game and why you liked them. Thanks for reading!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 2- The Last Days of the Old West (Spoilers)

In my spoiler-free gameplay review of Red Dead Redemption 2 I made the claim that it contained the best story I had ever experienced in a game, surpassing even the likes of The Witcher 3 and Bioshock Infinite. Naturally, dishing out superlatives like that is going to raise a few disbelieving eyebrows. You might think I’m still basking in the afterglow or being hyperbolic. I know I also run the risk of tainting the first playthroughs of people who haven’t played it yet by promising them the unequivocal greatest narrative in gaming history. I want to stress that I thought very carefully about making that claim. I wasn’t just caught up in the moment. I had to sit for a while and think about what made The Witcher 3 so good and recall the emotions it elicited from me at the time of playing. I thought about where that game left me upon completion- considering not just the journeys of its characters but the journey it took me on as a player. I then stacked this against RDR2. And that was when I knew- the way I felt about the characters and my investment in their struggles was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. The main story- with its colorful, flawed characters and nuanced themes of redemption and morality- is in my personal opinion, the finest I have ever experienced as a gamer. In today’s post, I’d like to write about why I think that. Needless to say, what follows contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.

I’ve never been a big fan of prequels. Whenever I hear that something is getting a prequel I usually groan. As a fan of a given franchise, I want to know what happens next. I want to know that events have consequences. The other problem I have with prequels is that they can suffer from a lack of tension when you already know the outcome. However, RDR2 meets both these concerns head-on. The first game ended perfectly- satisfying in that Jack Marston avenges his father, but also leaving us with the dark implication that he might repeat his father’s mistakes. All the other characters are dead, and it would have ruined the effect of that dark implication about Jack’s future to spell it out for us. Also, when the epilogue concludes, the year is 1914- which is already pushing it for a western. Even if the Marston storyline hadn’t been wrapped up perfectly, a direct sequel would have been contemporaneous with World War 1. As far as my other concern regarding prequels, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of tension because we are given control of a new protagonist- Arthur Morgan- as well as being introduced to a slew of new characters to care about.

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Before I played RDR2, I figured it would probably only be loosely connected to the first game, and that the reappearance of established characters was just to show that we’re in the same universe. But this isn’t the case at all. RDR2 feels like it had always existed, as though Rockstar had left out the first half of a singular, cohesive story when they released the first game in 2010. It doesn’t tell a different story with the same characters. It’s the same story, which makes it a little confusing when you consider that Red Dead Redemption 2 comes before Red Dead Redemption 1 in the chronology. The character arcs of Dutch and especially John have their beginnings in RDR2 and now the first game seems incomplete when considered on its own. When given the context of its prequel, the original game seems so much more powerful as a story. That’s one of the things I love about RDR2– it actually enhances the depth and quality of its predecessor. I appreciate the original game so much more now that I see it as belonging to this epic story that spans many years. It also makes the original Red Dead seem a lot more bleak. What few characters survived the events of RDR2 are hardened, cynical, and ruthless. They reflect the changing times and the smallness of the individual in the face of rapid industrial expansion. I’d even go so far as to describe the bleakness of the franchise as Kafkaesque- in that these strong and resourceful outlaws are powerless in the face of the immensity of modern bureaucracy. This is exemplified by the gameplay too; it doesn’t matter how many Pinkertons you kill- the government will just send more. It all adds to this sense that individuals are dictated and controlled by larger forces far beyond their understanding, and to resist those forces is futile. This is especially evident in RDR2– and is why it is so effective as a prequel- because you know that all you can do is buy yourself more time. All roads lead to death. The changing times engulf all of the characters in the end. Whether you get a game-over or complete a given mission successfully, it doesn’t matter in the long run- you know what happens. John Marston gets gunned down in his own home by a posse of government agents. It’s such an effective climax to the series, because it’s the shocking culmination of everything that has been hinted at thus far- the forces of modernity extinguishing the Old West for good. It’s a brilliant conclusion to the John Marston storyline, and it’s one that’s made all the more effective by RDR2.

For instance, when RDR2 starts, the gang are in a tough spot but they’re hopeful. The characters expect to pull through the way they always have. And then, as the game progresses, there are more and more hints that the gang’s way of life is coming to an end. You can see the hope slowly fading- and it’s a very well-written, gradual collapse. The gang can only shoot their way out of a situation so many times. The sophisticated apparatus of modern law enforcement is too much. And in the face of this unstoppable and relentless pursuit, the gang ultimately crumbles from within as their worst instincts are revealed. Arthur Morgan wonders if recent events have corrupted his best friend, or if they have only illuminated what was always there. Dutch was a great leader and companion when things were going well, but as soon as the gang got desperate, he had to call upon the darkness that lived dormant within his soul in his attempt to save the gang. And once he indulged that orgy of violence, the lines blurred and it became more about saving himself than his friends. The little details illustrate Dutch’s unraveling best- at the beginning of the game he stresses that there is a clear distinction between his gang and the O’Driscolls. The latter, he says, stand for nothing; they hire only remorseless cutthroats and are excessively violent. And of course, when we reach Chapters 5 and 6 of RDR2, we see the abandonment of any pretense of honor. In his desperation to save the gang, Dutch’s morality is lost along the way. Each act of reckless savagery begets the next, as Dutch becomes less and less able to convince us that the ends justify the means.

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Once you get to the events of the original Red Dead, the sense of hope is truly gone. RDR1 is- in every facet of its design- from the haunting music to the desolate landscape- a nihilistic and elegiac deconstruction of the western genre. All that’s left is a cynical and weary man- John Marston- trying simply to keep his family. He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s more or less ambivalent towards the few outlaws that remain- he just wants to reunite with his wife and son, and he doesn’t care how he reaches that end. John’s only agency is the six-shooter at his hip. Being a crack shot and ruthless killer doesn’t make him seem that powerful or impressive in the last, dying days of the West- and that to me is key to the franchise’s overarching themes. A gun only buys you another day- if you’re lucky. In this western, the gunslinger doesn’t have the most power or agency; his skills with a revolver don’t count for much. John is the best gunslinger in the series, and if you take all of the events into account, you’d think he ought to be the Legend of the West. But he doesn’t seem legendary or indeed that great. When he dies, he’ll be forgotten.

The point I’m making is, the theme of the franchise is that the true power lies in bureaucratic institutions. John doesn’t want to be running around the country hunting down his former gang members- he does it because he’s got no choice. He keeps pressing forward because playing the government’s game is the only option left to him. Again, the gameplay informs the narrative, as trying to veer off-path during a story mission will result in an instant game-over. The open world isn’t available to you during a mission- and this linear constraint placed on the player is reflective of the constraint placed on John, who has no path to take except the one laid out for him. And when we meet Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, they are nothing like the companions we knew in RDR2. In the prequel they are colorful and not without a little human warmth. Williamson is carefree and simple, he loves to drink, and his tough exterior is peeled back in endearing character-moments, such as when he asks Arthur to get him some pomade for his hair. He’s also extremely loyal to Dutch, and in one scene he reveals how Dutch helped him through a particularly low and difficult point in his life. Escuella is even more likable- he’s passionate and artistic, he’s not recklessly violent, and he often entertains the group with songs and guitar-playing. But by the time of RDR1, they’ve lost all semblance of human warmth. Williamson is terrorizing New Austin with his own gang, and seems less of a big oaf and more of a cold-blooded, remorseless killer. And without Dutch he’s lost that sense of purpose and principle, often throwing his own men at Marston instead of fighting alongside them. He cowardly avoids him throughout the game. Escuella is also without any redeeming qualities, coming across as a self-interested trickster. He tries to charm Marston by appealing to their old sense of brotherhood, but when Marston refuses, we see just how hateful Escuella really is.

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Then, of course, we have Dutch Van der Linde- easily one of the most compelling characters in gaming history. I’m not sure I’d even describe him as a villain. The true villain of the franchise as a whole is Edgar Ross, in my opinion. As for RDR2 on its own, the villain is of course Micah Bell. Dutch simply plays the role of an antagonist at various points in the story. I don’t think he can really be called a villain (even though he does some awful things throughout the series) at least in a narrative sense. The biggest reason for this is that- in my personal opinion, that is- Dutch seems to genuinely believe everything he says, even when those around him can see his hypocrisy. At the end of Chapter 6, Dutch seems distraught at the sight of Micah and Arthur locked in this Cain-and-Abel style wrestling match, covered in mud, clawing at each other, gauging and throttling and head-bashing with pure, unadulterated, animalistic hatred. He won’t kill Arthur, even though he feels betrayed by him. He just seems saddened by what the gang has come to. And during the final showdown atop Mt. Hagen at the end of the Epilogue, Dutch saves Sadie and John by killing Micah. Despite everything, in his own warped mind, Dutch still thinks of John as his son.

The Dutch we see in RDR1– while still charismatic and verbose- is a shell of the cigar-smoking, bowler-hat wearing outlaw-gentleman we see in New Hanover waltzing with Molly in the moonlight, singing arm-in-arm beside the campfire, or espousing his idealistic, anti-capitalist philosophy of life. Hard times have reduced him to this petty murderer- something that Arthur speculated was in him all along. Struggle reveals our true nature. And when we encounter Dutch in RDR1, we see that he’s indulged violence for so long that he’s numb to it. He doesn’t even try to justify it. He has no regard for human life whatsoever. The most powerful scene for me is when Dutch finally meets his end in Tall Trees. It’s not some badass showdown you might expect from a western. You realize in that moment that Dutch isn’t the true villain. He’s just this desperate man fighting a war he cannot win. The design choices are particularly interesting- the Dutch of 1899 always appeared very slick and well-dressed, a man of fine tastes. But in 1911, he’s gray, worn-out, and raggedy-looking. He has no quarrel with John, and spares his former surrogate-son the tough decision of how to handle the situation. Dutch blows his own brains out and tumbles off the precipice into the forest below. It’s such a nuanced conclusion that is so fitting for the bleak tone of the series- that this legendary, elusive outlaw dies unceremoniously and pitifully in a deserted wilderness with no one around. Like with John, the game portrays the outlaws not as heroes, but simply as men- with all the fragility and weakness so often denied them in mainstream cinematic portrayals. Dutch, despite his long career as an unstoppable shootist, is afforded no respect. His corpse is shot several times by Edgar Ross for a laugh. He looks like a bum and he dies like a bum.

To me, Dutch Van der Linde is the embodiment of the dying west. That’s what I love about Rockstar’s approach to creating characters. Instead of going with the easy option of making Dutch a clichéd outlaw villain, they make him a microcosm of the changing times of the turn of the century. The conflict that beats within his heart is the wider conflict that sees the eroding of a way of life in the Old West. It’s masterful- and Dutch isn’t the only character that is a microcosm of the game’s themes and ideas. But we’ll explore more of that in part 3.

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In this post I just wanted to discuss the bleakness of the franchise and how it ties the two games together. As I said earlier, a lot of the themes in the two games are illustrated with little details- in particular the design choices. It’s fitting that the setting for RDR1 is a scorched desert. John’s smallness- and the diminishing existence of outlaws- is reflected by the howling desert all around him. With the exception of the New Elizabeth area, the landscape of the original game is dusty and barren, with a lot of flat, open terrain that accentuates the smallness of the protagonist. The harsh landscape of desert basins, rocky mesas, and jagged canyons in which the last embers of the Old West slowly fade away are reminiscent of the unforgiving country in southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. The prequel, by contrast, is exceptionally green- and this isn’t a coincidence. The colorful, vibrant lands teeming with life evoke the fact that the Old West is still breathing- for now. The epic valleys and mountain ranges of Ambarino are reminiscent of Montana/Idaho, the northern half of West Elizabeth around Strawberry is a gorgeous reimagining of Wyoming, the prairie and bluffs of New Hanover are obviously Nebraska, the swamps of Lemonye owe their sticky atmosphere to Louisiana, and I’m pretty sure the forested hills dotted with coal mines that compose Roanoke Ridge are meant to be an homage to Kentucky and West Virginia. The transition from these green and fertile lands to the dry desert of New Austin is the ideal transition for the story of the Red Dead franchise.

I hope you’ve been able to keep up- it can be quite confusing to constantly refer to the events of the second game as preceding the first. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the bleakness of the Red Dead series and why it’s so effective. In my next piece, I’m going to focus more closely on the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its protagonist Arthur Morgan. Hopefully you are beginning to see why I like the franchise so much.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 1 (No Spoilers)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was for Red Dead Redemption 2. I played the first one in the summer of 2012, several years after its release. I remember being absolutely blown away by its graphics. It was probably the most immersive open world I’d experienced in gaming. The vast empty spaces of the New Austin desert were so important to that sense of immersion, making the game world feel bigger than it was. More than any game I’d played up until that point, it felt truly lived-in. To me, the appeal of the game was as a Wild West simulator. Riding through a landscape so bleak and desolate added to this impression of a fading way of life, which is what the series is all about- the death of the Old West.

I distinctly remember my dad coming in the room as I was driving a stagecoach from MacFarlane’s Ranch to the plateau that overlooks the desert basin.

“Wow,” he remarked. “You’re actually like…in the Wild West. Like it’s real.”

I knew before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 that all these vivid details would be even more effectual than the previous installment. I was hyped to experience what promised to be the most immersive world in gaming history. All the information teased prior to release indicated that Rockstar had become obsessed with tiny details- the most famous of course being the shrinking horse testicles in cold weather environments. I liked that the developer had this artistic vision they were sticking to, that they wanted to go further than any other developer had, and that they prioritized this vision above player convenience.

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And it’s this bold commitment to immersion that will inevitably divide some gamers. For someone like me, the game’s lofty artistic ambitions make it an almost perfect fit. But not all gamers are the same. I’m primarily interested in things like story, artistic design, world-building, and other aesthetic crap. As far as my profile as a gamer goes, the gameplay need only be serviceable. And that’s why it’s difficult to give this game and its components a definitive rating. For example, the fact that fast travel isn’t really a thing doesn’t bother me very much, but it will irk some. It all depends on your tolerance for the aesthetic experiences Rockstar wants you to indulge in.

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The many features that make this game so realistic- such as the long animations involved in skinning dead animals, the fact you can’t run when inside the gang’s camp, and the need to maintain the health of your horse- will certainly put off players. It all depends on what you’re looking for in a game, and that’s why I can’t review those aspects so much- I can only give my personal opinion on them. At first it took a little getting used to realizing that once I got off my horse, I had to remember to remove the specific guns I wanted from my saddle. But in the end, it didn’t ruin my experience. Most story missions will automatically equip the two guns necessary for that particular mission. These little details can’t really be reviewed because it’s mostly a matter of your individual tolerance as a player.

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The missions themselves, however, are a much more interesting subject for review. If you’ve played any Rockstar game, you’ve played this. The gameplay is in stark contrast to the world in which it is set. The world is a stunning example of cutting-edge graphics technology. Everything from the lighting, the ambient sounds, the dynamic weather system, the complex AI of NPCs, the meticulously detailed animations, and so forth, contributes to an atmosphere that is downright spellbinding. The rendering of the world and everything in it is a staggering accomplishment, and it will set the standard for years to come. But as cutting-edge and groundbreaking as the world is, the gameplay itself feels very old. Don’t get me wrong, it’s serviceable, it works, and I had a lot of fun with it. But there’s no sense of advancement in this area of the game. The combat plays exactly the same as a game you might find on the PS2 or the original Xbox. It incorporates everything from GTA, LA: Noire, and the previous Red Dead for better or worse.

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The combat is heavily cover-based. It’s designed around the basic idea that you go from one area of cover to the next, picking off enemies with the auto-aim mechanic as they pop up from their own cover positions, all the while trying to prevent yourself from getting flanked. That’s all you need to know really. Every ground-based firefight will follow this same pattern. And you know exactly what to do in every scenario- the enemy AI has only one goal in mind and that’s to flank you so that you’re flushed out into the open. Cover is everything. And that’s fine for a story-driven game- but it doesn’t have the organic sense of excitement and reward that comes with bringing down the robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or jumping off a high-speed sky-rail and eye-gouging white supremacists in Bioshock: Infinite. I’m not saying that the combat of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t fun- I’m just saying that it doesn’t innovate.

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There are of course, shootouts on horseback and I didn’t like that very much at all. As I said, the combat is very simple and based around this idea of staying in cover. But you can’t do that while riding your horse. So if you’re riding around the bayou and find yourself gang-raped by a posse of bounty hunters, you’ve really got no choice but to haul ass until you’re far enough away that you’ve either lost them, or are able to line them up and pick them off one at a time. Combat on horseback tends to be a lot more fun in missions, because the context of the situation gives it that exhilarating feeling you want from a horse-chase in the Wild West. The missions are also extremely linear and scripted, which means that the enemies appear in convenient positions for you to shoot them, as opposed to ambushing you from multiple angles.

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This leads into another point though, which is the inherent problem of all Rockstar games- and that is the “open world paradox”. While it makes the horseback combat easier, I doubt you were enthralled by my remarks about the missions as being “linear” and “scripted”. The paradox of Rockstar games is that although they take place in open worlds, the missions within are very formulaic. The reason for this is that Rockstar wants to infuse each mission with a cinematic quality. It wants to dazzle you. And it does. It succeeds at what it wants to do, but does it deliver what gamers want? Are the token shootouts the only thing that separates Red Dead Redemption 2 from being a movie? There’s no room within missions to solve a given problem with any creativity. But if that kind of freedom is what you as a gamer want, you’re probably better suited for something like Bloodborne or Doom. And I don’t mean that in a sassy way- what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for organic, open-ended gameplay challenges, you won’t find it here.

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So we have this disconnect between the narrative and the sandbox, which makes Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like two different experiences walled off from one another. Neither half informs the other. The main story consists of a sequence of set pieces which are scripted but nonetheless absorbing and fun. The sandbox, on the other hand, is both beautiful and decadent. What I mean by a word like decadent is that it’s impressive to behold, but exists largely to be admired. It’s not the Elder Scrolls sandbox where you can travel in any direction and stumble across a hidden kingdom of mole-people or a town of lumberjacks with a naughty little secret. And neither is it the Witcher 3 sandbox, where the world is filled with rich, standalone side quests that are as detailed and engaging as the main story itself. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 has a little side content in the form of its Stranger encounters, but they’re each very short and really only exist to enhance the sense of immersion. The actual gameplay involved in the Stranger encounters is tantamount to a tutorial- herding wild horses or shooting a bottle off of a guy’s head for a laugh. So what can you do in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 other than admire it? The organic, repeatable sandbox elements involve being able to play poker in a saloon, go fishing on a lake, hunt wild game through the mountains, rustle cattle across a prairie, and so forth. You can rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains. All of these prove more challenging endeavors than the missions of the main story. But there is no real reward in accomplishing them- each activity exists for its own sake. To me, the open world sandbox half of the game is best described as a Wild West simulator. It all comes back to immersion. It allows you to simulate life as a cowboy, and you can do everything from starting brawls in a saloon to milking cows in a barn.

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My last criticism of the game is one of believability. Although the game is visually realistic- for instance if you fall over in the mud, only the part of you that hits the ground will be muddy- the events and behaviors therein don’t necessarily evoke the same verisimilitude. For example, the outlaw gang you’re a part of is comprised of a couple dozen people, each of them superbly characterized and well-rounded. However, every other gang in the game is composed of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of generic redshirts, most notably the O’Driscolls- who are meant to be a mirror image of the Van der Linde Gang despite being at least ten times the size of their rivals. I guess it’s kind of like it was in GTA, where you’d end up in a shootout with about 50 gangbangers in an abandoned warehouse, and you’d think “If this actually happened, it would be the biggest massacre in US history” and yet the world doesn’t react to this shocking episode of casual violence. But this didn’t bother me so much in GTA because the Grand Theft Auto series isn’t really meant to be taken seriously. The Red Dead franchise is. GTA might be Rockstar’s mainstream moneymaker, but it’s the Red Dead series that stands tall as the pinnacle of the developer’s artistic genius, and its greatest achievement. And it is a tough criticism for me to make, because without these shootouts, Red Dead Redemption 2 would pretty much just be an interactive movie. It breaks my immersion when I see a small cattle town so faithfully reconstructed with historical authenticity suddenly muster up a defense of 50 deputies that all appear at a moment’s notice behind every covered position and strategic balcony to shoot me from every angle. But even though it’s unbelievable, it’s still damn good fun.

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As I said earlier, the combat is simple and feels like it’s from a game made 15 years ago. But it is still thoroughly enjoyable. The weapons feel great and the Dead-Eye system is a hoot. And given how excellent the story is, the simplicity of the combat in conjunction with the context of the narrative (and the fantastic musical score) makes shootouts feel heroic and badass. The story and the characters are so well-written that I’m going to give them their own separate post in a few days’ time. I’ll also be covering many spoilers, so make sure you complete the epilogue before you read it.

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To conclude, I have to think about where Red Dead Redemption 2 stands in my top 10 games of all time. That alone should tell you that I adore this title. The main story I can confidently say is the finest I’ve ever experienced in a game. The characters are so nuanced and their inner journeys are so engrossing. Perhaps best of all is the dialogue. Not only does it sound authentic, but what they say is interesting and original. For me, the story, characters, and themes are superior to that of The Witcher 3. However, The Witcher 3 remains above Red Dead Redemption 2 in my power rankings because it excels in all aspects of its content, which the latter does not. The Witcher 3 has fantastic combat, gameplay variety, side content, and replay value. At the moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks the odds-on favorite to scoop most of 2018’s Game of the Year awards. It’s seen almost universal praise from critics. And I do think this praise is deserved. Even though it falls short of perfection, I am enjoying the success it is receiving. I do think it deserves the title of 2018’s Game of the Year because nothing else comes close to its emotional impact or the scope of its vision. It’s a game that concentrates and excels very heavily in one area, and as such isn’t for everyone. But I want to see more developers take this approach. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a game that was created according to an artist’s vision, rather than pandering to some focus-group-tested, mass-market-appeal anodyne spunk-bucket. It puts to shame cynical AAA yearly-releases whose content is designed around consumer exploitation and income projections, and shows us that quality games are by no means a thing of the past. Ultimately, the nature of the market ensures that real quality will always be in demand- whereas shoddy business practices can only remain economically viable for so long.

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

The next book I read from my “Summer Haul” was The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. As I stated in my previous post, the novels I picked up in July seemed to anticipate my travels and my embracement of the season. They were thin books, foreign books, and all of them focused on relationships of one kind or another. I’ve been meaning to read more non-English language authors, as well as more female authors. Ferrante was the perfect choice. Her novel The Lost Daughter, in particular, is one that fits the season; it is set over a single summer, the narrator is herself on vacation, and the setting is a coastal town in Italy. But don’t get the wrong impression: this book is anything but light and cheery. It’s light in the sense that it’s easy to read, but it’s certainly not light in tone. This novel is one of the darkest, most unflinchingly-sober portraits of the human psyche and all its fascinating grotesquerie that I have ever read. And I love it. This might just be one of the greatest books I have ever read. I don’t really have favorite novelists, whose works I consume one after the other like so many Aunt Sally’s pralinettes. I drift from writer to writer, genre to genre. But Ferrante might just break this attitude of mine. I have to go back. I must go back. This person has something to say. Something unique and important. Ferrante’s insights into human nature are as cutting as they are utterly compelling. I’m going to read more of her work, and do my best not to read all her novels at once, so that I may maintain some basic semblance of variety. Even though Ferrante writes in a way completely different from Cormac McCarthy, they are alike in that they are the only two active writers that make me feel like I’m reading the work of genius. Something about them just seems- at least to me- a cut above the rest.

But who is this mysterious person upon whom I’m lavishing such praise? No fucking idea. You tell me. All that we know about Elena Ferrante is that she’s an Italian woman, born in 1943, raised in Naples, and that she has a degree in Classics. Since her literary career began in 1992, she’s opted to remain anonymous. There’s a lot of curiosity regarding her true identity, which I think is natural. But I nonetheless sympathize with the idea that everything a writer has or desires to say can be found in their work alone. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with someone trying to find out who she is- but what I don’t like is the idea of that person making her identity public. The instinct to know is fine, but the decision to violate her wish for privacy is flat out wrong. It’s egregiously offensive to publish someone’s personal details in the public sphere if they’ve requested anonymity. Besides, it achieves little of anything. We have her body of work in the public domain, and that’s all we need.

A lot of what is commonly believed about Ferrante is inferred from recurring themes in her novels. She writes about motherhood in a strikingly unsentimental way. The theme of ambivalent motherhood is very much at the center of The Lost Daughter– my introduction to Ferrante. In brief, the premise is thus: Leda is a single mom living in Florence, whose two daughters- now in their twenties- have left Italy to live with their father in Canada. At first, Leda feels like a weight has been lifted. With no responsibilities, she decides to take a break for the summer and do something for herself. She rents an apartment in a small coastal town and begins taking her books to the beach each day to study. It’s at this beach that she discovers this loud, brash, uncouth family from Naples that make her feel uneasy. A small crime is committed that brings her path and the Neapolitans’ together. As she becomes obsessed with them, she is forced to confront some dark things from her past.

You’re hooked now, aren’t you? Go out and buy a copy, because it doesn’t disappoint. The novel itself is only 140 pages long and it’s very straightforward. Like the last couple of books I’ve read, it’s not very plot-heavy. The adjective that comes foremost to my mind when describing the tone of this book is “confessional”. The events of the present are interspersed with Leda’s memories of the past. She muses on things and goes on tangents of thought, and much of it reads like an interior monologue. That might not sound exciting, but her thoughts are so raw and interesting that every page grows more addictive. I had to re-read several passages, not because I didn’t understand them, but because I found them so compelling. Every page seems to have a revelation of one kind or another. Like I said, it’s quite easy to read, for the reason that the protagonist is so forthcoming and straightforward. Nothing is dressed up in style, nothing is omitted for us to infer. Everything is conveyed in a very direct manner. But it’s no less profound or complex for being so accessible. The narrative voice suits the story. I’d like to see a creative writing professor try to tell Elena Ferrante she’s “telling and not showing” because to do so would be to invite a verbal truncheoning by every literary critic from here to Bishkek.

I loved this novel, and I can’t wait to read more Elena Ferrante and blog about it here on TumbleweedWrites. It’s a dark story, but it’s not dark in the Gillian Flynn sense of the word. The mothers of Ferrante aren’t poisoning their daughters, they’re just neglecting them. I’m just pointing this out in case you’re a squeamish type. There’s no gore here. Instead, The Lost Daughter’s darkness is manifest in its tone. It’s unsettling. It’s a powerful, challenging look at the relationships between mothers and daughters and the way the sins of the past come back to haunt the present. Anyway, I hope I’ve encouraged some of y’all to give Ferrante a read.

Let me know in the comments what you think of Elena Ferrante!

Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

Before departing for the USA this summer, I decided to head to my local Waterstones and use up a couple gift-cards I had. My purchases really did seem like a “summer book haul”, reflecting the warm weather, travel, and sociability that was sure to come. The haul also reflected my recent reading choices and the desire to change things up. By the end of July I had just got done finishing Niki: The Story of a Dog and No Country for Old Men. One focused on politics, the other on violence. Both were written by men. Cormac McCarthy, in particular, is noted for writing terse, dispassionate, “manly” fiction, with very few female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love McCarthy. He’s a genius. But I like to enjoy a variety of literary voices to freshen things up. Aside from the lack of female characters, McCarthy is noted for his interest in themes such as life & death, justice, violence, and he admits to having a dislike for novelists that focus on love and sex, such as Marcel Proust and Henry James. I more or less like both styles equally. My tastes in literature have become a lot broader in the last two years. I knew that I wanted a different voice to McCarthy before going back to him, but I didn’t know what I’d find when I reached the bookstore. I ended up getting several novels from a table with a sign saying “Summer Reads”, mostly by female authors, all of them foreign, and almost exclusively focusing on emotional themes such as love, desire, relationships, identity, loneliness et cetera. I tend to group these kinds of themes as being “human-oriented”, examining the human condition as it relates to individuals. The opposite approach, the way I see it, is a focus on themes such as society, power, justice, existence, politics, and all that, which I tend to group as being “concept-oriented”. They examine the human condition as it relates to groups of people and institutions. What does our political framework reveal about our nature? I don’t see either stylistic approach as being superior or more profound than the other, and what I choose really does come down to whatever I fancy in a given moment. On this occasion, as I said, I believe my choices reflected the season I was in, and my travels to come.

One of the books in the haul was a novel by the name of Pages for Her, written by American author Sylvia Brownrigg. The cover instantly caught my eye; a beautiful woman, natural-looking and unpretentious, staring off into the distance at something. The color scheme was very effective- there were echoes of pop art that accentuated the curious woman and made the book stick out from the pile. The blurb told me that the book was about a woman who reunites with the professor she had a short (but intense) affair with 20 years ago. It seemed like just the sort of thing I was looking for- something realistic and emotive that went to the heart of the soul. It was only when I got home however, that I discovered this new book (published in 2017) was in fact a sequel. I debated just reading it anyway. I’ve done that sort of thing before. But the book was promising to be a hit with me already, so I ultimately ordered the original- Pages for You– off of Amazon.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post! Pages for You is a novel published in 2001 by Sylvia Brownrigg, that details the rise and fall of a love affair between Flannery, a curious student, and Anne, her sophisticated professor. That might sound like a spoiler, but it’s really not: it’s made clear at the beginning of the book that the narrator, Flannery, is looking back on a relationship that has concluded. In truth, Pages for You isn’t really the kind of novel you can spoil. You know what’s going to happen, and the way it happens doesn’t involve some shocking twist that subverts your expectations. So why read the book at all, if it’s a series of realistic, pre-determined events? I wouldn’t recommend this book to lovers of intricate plots. There’s no suspense here, no revelations, no red herrings. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. I breezed through it like a Liane Moriarty thriller. Pages for You is a character-driven book if ever I’ve seen one. It’s not plot-driven, but it’s no less compelling and addictive. It reads like a memoir, covering Flannery’s freshman year of college. Seeing the world through Flannery’s eyes, interpreted through her unique voice, is the greatest strength of the novel, and the reason I read it so earnestly.

Throughout the novel we are treated to an intimate account of Flannery’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, all of which are in flux. She’s not the same person at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She’s a fish out of water for a start, having traveled alone from her native California to Connecticut for college. She’s intellectually-curious, impulsive, goofy, creative, inelegant, anxious, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s hungry for experiences. She challenges her self-doubt in order to explore and to learn. She’s not got any prior sexual experience to speak of. She unravels, her worldview expands, she discovers nascent truths about herself that catch her off-guard. I love the little details that highlight the clash of cultures between east and west. I love the way her impressions of New York are tied inexorably to the woman she falls in love with. Indeed, one aspect of the book that I have seen so many other readers praise, is its close examination of tiny, seemingly mundane details. Each chapter is about 1-2 pages long, and a given one might focus on her thoughts about nicknames, kissing for the first time, or simply holding hands. The minutiae of life, so often left unexamined by writers, is something that greatly interests me. It interests me because I often find myself fixated on small things, ascribing to them an inflated sense of importance. The sequence of little vignettes that cover Flannery’s freshman year each contribute to the central theme of her coming-of-age; Flannery’s journey to make sense of both herself and the world around her.

The catalyst for this journey is Anne Arden- a woman ten years her senior, whom she crosses paths with one morning in a diner. This event occurs right at the start of the book; it’s with Anne that this story begins and ends for Flannery. In short, the book is about the things Anne awakens in Flannery. Anne represents sophistication, knowledge, and confidence. She’s cultured and ambitious. She has an effortless sense of style and poise. She’s the reason the adjective “wry” was invented. She has a distinctive, mysterious, intoxicating aura that leaves people breathless and intrigued. Her sardonic remarks and sharp tongue can leave people cold, but as Flannery discovers, there’s a big heart underneath her armor. I’ve observed some readers complain that Anne seems one-dimensional, wishing that she were more well-rounded. However, I think the portrayal of Anne is justified because everything in the book is filtered through the lens of Flannery’s desire. It’s not Anne so much as Flannery’s experience of Anne, her image of Anne, the things Anne represents for Flannery. If we were to be given Anne’s perspective of events, then Pages for You would be an entirely different book. It wouldn’t be called Pages for You for a start. I’m hoping that the sequel explores Anne’s character more, because I think there is a lot to work with. It’s made clear throughout the novel that Anne has her own demons, insecurities, and troubled past. She has a life much bigger than just her affair with Flannery, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to the protagonist at the end. And as I said, that’s really what this book is about; Flannery’s affair with this enigmatic woman, and the idea that as big and special as it seems, there is an entire world beyond it.

I enjoyed this book. The format suited the theme very well. Not only did the short chapters and constant breaks help sustain my interest and increase my reading speed, but it gave the book a picaresque feel that I really liked. Each chapter had Flannery documenting a different aspect of her love affair, ruminating on it, musing about it, digesting the experience as a part of her personal growth. She has to come to terms with her obsessive, overwhelming sexual desire. Then she has to get used to the idea that she too, might be an object of desire, that unbeknownst to her she has an eroticism of her own. She describes being naked in front of someone for the first time. She discusses sleeping in the same bed as another person for the first time. She details at length what it feels like to be in a relationship, to feel anchored by someone, to be an anchor to someone. This is the heart of the book, the heart of what makes it a compelling read. What Flannery confides in us is resonant. I think we can all relate to Flannery. Her words touch our own lives and memories. The tangled mix of curiosity, jealousy, anxiety, pride, desire, possessiveness, and confusion that is the tapestry of the human experience. I encourage you to give this novel a try, especially if you are interested in character-driven fiction! I can’t wait to get started on the sequel.

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