#REVIEW: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

I’m going to be honest here— I’m mostly writing this review because I finished this book last night and otherwise I don’t have much of anything to talk about today. We spent $600 on a new snowblower, so northern Indiana has me to thank in a few months when we make it through the winter without a single flake of snow falling. I had Taco Bell for dinner. That’s about all I’ve got.

But yeah. This book. I bought it because Annie Proulx is from Wyoming, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Wyoming at all, but it turns out there are not a lot of authors from there, so I was not exactly presented with an array of riches to choose from here. I could have picked The Shipping News or Brokeback Mountain, but this one sounded a bit more interesting so I went with it.

Barkskins is historical fiction, beginning in what would eventually be Maine in the 1600s and continuing until the modern day, although the majority of the book takes place before the 20th century, much less the 21st. It follows two branches of descendants from the same man, one of which is treated as legitimate and inherits the logging company he creates, and one … well, isn’t and doesn’t. That said, the two groups of people don’t really know about each other for the majority of the book, so it’s not as if the less fortunate family members are grousing about their lack of inheritance or anything like that. This ends up making the book almost more of a history of this fictional company more than it is the actual people, following the people who run the company in some chapters and people affected by the company (and, well, all of the rest of the logging companies) systematically clearcutting and decimating America’s forests on the other. See that quote on the cover about this book being the “greatest environmental novel ever written”? I’m not a hundred percent convinced of the superlative (although I admit I have read precious few “environmental novels”) but the description is certainly accurate.

It’s an interesting read, although at 700+ pages you should be prepared for what you’re getting into. I would think this is probably more valuable to people interested in historical fiction than anything else; you shouldn’t get too attached to any particular character as the book is going to be moving on in 50-60 pages no matter what, and Proulx is not at all shy about abruptly murdering her characters with no particular attention paid to, say, resolving any narrative conflicts associated with them, because, well, sometimes in the 1800s you just stepped on a fucking nail and died and that was all there was to it. Proulx’s writing has enough verisimilitude to it to make one suspect that she has access to a time machine; her command of the little details of living two or three centuries ago is incredibly impressive, especially considering how much of the book is embedded in either French-speaking or Native American Mi’kmaq peoples. It’s really something else. If it were a couple hundred pages shorter I’d be shouting from the rooftops about it, but, well, books this big aren’t for everyone and if you didn’t want to make the time investment necessary for a 700-page novel I would not look askance upon you.

Well, maybe a little, but I wouldn’t say anything about it.

#REVIEW: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I’m going to try to write this review without whining about Avengers: Endgame, which … nope, finishing that sentence would be whining about Endgame. And I’m not doing that. This is an interesting movie; it simultaneously feels more stand-alone than a lot of the MCU’s recent product and is pretty thoroughly tied into the universe, to the point where I keep rewriting this sentence because I can’t come up with a version of it that I feel makes sense. There are a lot of characters in this movie from other MCU films, several of whom we haven’t seen in a long time, and the movie actually reaches back to the MCU’s earliest films in some ways, but the bulk of the film explores a distant enough corner of the MCU that it feels like its own thing.

We finally got around to streaming it last night; we still aren’t doing movie theaters, and it just became available to stream last Friday, when we were out of town.

(stares for ten minutes)

… holy shit, I don’t want to write this.

OK, super short version: this is a good movie. Its ties to the wider MCU only annoyed me twice, both with mentions of that other movie that seems to have completely killed my desire to invest any further emotional energy into this franchise that I used to love. Simu Liu and Awkwafina (who I think I’m not supposed to approve of, but I don’t remember why?) are both delightful, and Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are awesome. It takes a good twenty minutes before a white person gets a line, and it’s like four words long, and I think the guy who has the line is the only white person in the entire movie who ever speaks, which is super cool.

(If you’ve seen the movie, you might be thinking “what about that guy,” who I’m not naming because spoilers, and he’s not white. Look him up if you need to.)

(Okay, there are two cameos at the very end of the movie of other MCU people in the stingers. They count, I suppose.)

This movie does a lot of cool things, and moves in a lot of unexpected ways, to the point where my wife paused it at the halfway point and said, with more than a trace of awe in her voice, that she had not been able to predict even a single thing that had happened in the movie to that point, and that she had no idea where the hell it was going, which was a hell of a thing, especially for a superhero movie. It manages to be a very small, personal movie and have the main character save the world at the end, which doesn’t happen all that often.

And, like, okay, I just said I didn’t want to write the review and then wrote four paragraphs after the words “super short version,” but I can’t escape the feeling that no one really needs anyone else’s opinions on Marvel films anymore. Like, are there people out there who only watch some of these? People who saw, like, Iron Man 2 and Doctor Strange and Black Widow and that was it? Maybe watched the middle two episodes of Loki but otherwise haven’t dipped into the TV shows? You already know you’re going to see Shang-Chi, or you know you’re not going to; there’s no one out there who is going to be, like, “Oh, Luther liked the 30th Marvel movie, so I guess I’ll check it out too.”

I mean, I guess if you aren’t into superheroes but you like martial arts movies, this is worth a look? I don’t think I’d actually call it a martial arts movie despite the main character, but I thought the action was pretty damn well shot– the director has a good sense of space and you can always tell what’s going on and where everyone is relative to everyone else, and there aren’t any scenes where the action is dark and muddled so that it looks Cinematic, which is an absolute plague on moviedom. The movie looks really good, and everyone is very pretty, and ok maybe some of the CG is a little dodgy here and there– there are some lion-things that, frankly, look stuffed– but whatever. And I spent the entire movie wondering if I should have some idea who the character on the far right of that image up there was and never figured it out. But that’s the best I can do in terms of criticisms. The biggest problem with this movie is that it’s a Marvel movie, and the best thing about this movie is that it’s a Marvel movie, and yes those are both true at once, and I’m heading back into being tired again so I’m going to bring this to a close.

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, and in observance of our ancient traditions, I close by presenting you with this:

#REVIEW: Hoa (PS5)

I haven’t written a game review on here in a while, mostly because I’ve been confining most of my gaming to my YouTube channel, but I just finished Hoa last night and I feel like this one deserves a little bit more of a push. The Let’s Play isn’t going to run for a few weeks– the current game I’m playing is going to wrap up on the 30th and there’s a whole other game I want to play before Hoa runs, but I picked it up on sale and more or less on a whim– at $4.95, I’m willing to play ten minutes and decide I made a mistake– and it’s absolutely fucking delightful, and if you’re any kind of gamer at all you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It seems to have launched on basically every available system, so you don’t even have to have any particular device to play it.

Hoa is a platformer/puzzle game, only about two and a half hours in length– it will run five episodes when I stream it– and all of the art assets are entirely hand-drawn. It is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, as you move through (mostly) naturalistic, wooded settings, interacting with fish and insects and other forms of wildlife along with the occasional robotic enemy. The game is divided into five or six zones, and the progression is pretty linear– you collect five butterflies in each level and then turn them in to … well, not a “boss,” because the game doesn’t have any combat at all, but a large denizen of the level, who gives you a new movement ability and sends you on to the next area. There is a story, but it’s kind of bare-bones until all the reveals come at the end, so I’m not going to spoil anything.

This is not a challenging game, and I don’t think it’s meant to be; it’s one of the few games I’ve played where I really feel like relaxation was one of the goals of the game designers, and the piano soundtrack (while occasionally a bit too loud) is just amazing. This is a great game to just play through and chill to, and it’s one of the very rare games where I feel like trying to speed-run it might be fun.

What pushes this game into territory where I’m raving about it is how it handles the ending. There is a big chase scene that is actually handled as a cutscene, which took me by surprise, but then the game does something completely unexpected once the game ends, and the way it handles revealing the parts of the story that had been opaque through endgame cutscenes is really impressive. This was a good game until the last half-hour or so and then shifted into something entirely more notable at that point, and I strongly suggest you play it yourself before watching me do it. It’s a steal at $4.95, and I wouldn’t have felt bad at all if I’d paid the full price. Definitely check it out.

#REVIEW: The Meaning of Names, by Karen Gettert Shoemaker

I’m not entirely sure that my thoughts about this book are going to rise to the level of a full review, but here we go: this book is a story about (mostly) a German immigrant family in Nebraska in 1918, at the tail end of World War I, a war that, let me remind you, was fought over absolutely nothing. It’s kind of astonishing how angry reading about World War I makes me; there is an argument to be made (in another post, mind you) that it was at least one of history’s most pointless wars, and literally not a single soul who died or was injured in that war made that sacrifice for anything at all. Everyone just got involved because they were supposed to, and then suddenly we have thousands of men dying over inches in fields where the mud is so deep the horses are drowning in it. Over nothing.

Anyway.

I said a German immigrant family, mind you, and if you’re suspecting that German speakers might have faced some bigotry in Nebraska during a time when America was at war with Germany, you’d be suspecting correctly. So this book is already about a war that makes me irrationally angry to read about, then drop a load of bigotry on top of that.

And, uh, do you happen to remember what else happened in 1918? Oh, right, a global pandemic caused by an extremely contagious respiratory disease! One that people blamed on … immigrants! Or, at least, they blamed on immigrants when they weren’t pretending the whole thing was a hoax! There’s even a bit where the local doctor tells someone to wear a mask when he’s in public and he scoffs at it.

(The book was written in 2014, by the way, so this parallel was unintentional.)

Now, here’s the thing: the book is good! It’s well-written, and the plot and the characters and all that are well done. But Christ this book was hard to read, and … like, can I get away with saying that the book wasn’t annoying but reading it annoyed me anyway? And in a way that I absolutely don’t blame on the book or the author. Again, this is a good book and you should read it. Just … ignore the fact that I’m probably never picking it up again.


I’m going to be out of town for the next couple of days, as we’re going to the northern Chicago suburbs to have early Thanksgiving dinner with my brother, sister-in-law and my new nephew. There will be the standard view-from-my-hotel post tomorrow, but expect relative quiet. In the meantime, I’ll be up way too late tonight streaming Elden Ring from 10:00 to 1:00 am EST, so you should absolutely check that out.

#REVIEW: THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, by Cristina Henríquez

This is another one of those “made the whole project worth it” books.

You almost certainly know this already if you’ve been a regular reader, but hey, not everybody sees every post, so: my big reading project for 2021 (I am the type of person who has “big reading projects”) was to read one book from every US state plus Puerto Rico and Washington DC, along with as many other countries I could fit in. I’m closing in on finishing the states part of the project, although for a lot of the later states the way I’ve been finding books is by Googling “authors from XXX” and then just … picking something. Some states, as you might guess, have less to choose from than others, and, well, Delaware’s not all that damn big.

I chose well on this one, as The Book of Unknown Americans seems pretty likely to be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. It’s about a small immigrant community– literally an apartment building– in Delaware at the beginning of the Obama administration. You might remember the massive economic upheaval of those years, and trying to survive while the economy is crumbling around you is absolutely a theme of the book. The book uses the multiple-narrators/POVs style that I will forever associate with Game of Thrones and probably ought not to, following ten or so different people from several different families. The common thread is that they’re all Spanish-speaking immigrants (the two main families are from Mexico and Panama, and others are from other places) or first-generation Americans; some of them are legal, some are not, and they all have different reasons for being here. It’s outstandingly well-done across the board, but there are two highlights I wanted to talk about a little bit.

First, I felt like the book really does a great job of capturing the frustration of being an educated and talented person who has moved somewhere where you don’t speak the language and where your skills are either undervalued or no longer useful. One of the families arrives in Delaware as the book begins, and things as simple as trying to figure out where to buy food are many times as complicated as they need to be because of language and cultural barriers. They end up getting food from a gas station for a while (and feeling like they’re being ripped off because of the high prices) until someone else clues them in on better places to go. Later in the book, there’s a scene where a mother has to confront a local shithead who has been abusing her daughter, and all she’s able to say to him is “leave alone.”

Second, and I’m not going to go into details here because I don’t want to spoil anything, but this book contains what might be the best depiction of a first love that I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Maribel and Mayor is astonishingly sweet, and if I say another word about it I’ll spoil stuff, so just trust me.

My only real complaint is the ending; you grow attached to a lot of these characters and want good things to happen to them, and … well. You’re going to have a moment where you realize what’s about to happen and the dread is going to kick in, and then you’re going to find out you were right, and then the book’s going to manage to end on a powerful and hopeful note somehow anyway, but it’s bittersweet as hell and I didn’t want bittersweet, I wanted happy. But damn, this is a hell of a read, and you should go pick it up. I’m sure I’ll be talking about it again in a couple of months.