Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections: Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad

Inferno Squad by Christie Golden
It's been quite a few years since I last read a Star Wars novel.  At one time I had acquired a collection of Star Wars books, such as: Shadows of the Empire, Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, Tales from Jabba's Palace, Truce at Bakura, and even a Star Wars Encyclopedia.  Although I could never claim the same level of passion for Star Wars as some othersI never really got invested in the expanded universe mythologyI certainly consider myself a fan.  With the resurgence of Star Wars in film, books (bye, bye Expanded Universe), and video games, I had played around with the idea of jumping back into the fiction beyond the films.  My daughter gave me Battlefront II: Inferno Squad after attending a book event, and I was ready to take the plunge once again.

I'm very excited to play Battlefront II once the game releases and thought it would be fun to get a little more background on the main characters of that game's story.  The book is readable and totally adequate but not very memorable either.  Many books (and other products) like this appear to be written for the express purpose of promoting the main attraction, in this case the video game.  A journeyman writersomeone like Christie Golden, who has a large and growing number of books credited to heris brought in to bang out a competent but mediocre story to generate buzz and excitement among an already excited swarm of fans. From a marketing perspective it seems to work finewhy else would they do it?but from a storytelling perspective it doesn't exactly seem to promote new works of literary art.

The focus of the upcoming Star Wars game, as well as the book, is Inferno Squad.  The Empire's equivalent of special forces.  It's an interest enough idea; although, Golden takes this elite team in a different direction than I was expecting.  In Inferno Squad the book, the team completes a series of under-cover operations, which seemed strange to me since I had first envisioned these characters as being more akin to Navy Seals than to CIA operatives.  I'm not sure the derivation worked as well as a straight Black Hawk Down-esque type of story would have.  I think the book's story would have been more interesting had it looked a little more like Rogue One, which contained only small elements of undercover tactics.  Due to the course the book takes, the story drags out a little bit too long, albeit Golden makes honest efforts in attempting to complicate the Inferno Squad members' relationships with the several members of the separatist group they have infiltrated.  (The separatist group is known as "The Dreamers," which I thought was an absolutely ridiculous name).  The narrative pay-off comes and goes but doesn't leave too much of an impression.

In addition, I think Inferno Squad the book shows the difficulty of writing a storywhether it's a novel or a video gameabout the bad guys.  Star Wars: A New Hope pretty well establishes that the Empire is evil—through and through.  The other films in the franchise's history do plenty to reinforce this narrative truth.  So how does a writerand the audience for that matternow approach a story about those fighting the Empire's war?  How do you get the audience to like or sympathize with them?  The approach taken in the book makes sense; to wit, the Empire provides order and therefore peace to the galaxy.  Anyone who disrupts that, such as the Rebel Alliance, deserves and needs to be destroyed.  Furthermore, the book doesn't show Inferno Squad systematically murdering Rebel Alliance members, who could presumably be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker's buddies, but targeting corrupt Imperial officials and an extreme separatist sect.  This, I assume, is an attempt to make it a bit more palatable to root for the bad guys.  It partially works but doesn't go far enough.  I would have liked a more nuanced and meticulous exploration of the "order and peace above all" argument.  Hopefully the video game handles this difficult storytelling balancing act more thoroughly and persuasively.

Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad is adequate and forgettable.  It did its job in that I'm just as if not more excited for the upcoming video game.  It was fun to jump back into the expanded universe of Star Wars, and I hope for more stories a little better told.  Star Wars is rich with potential stories of importance and consequence but also ripe for simple, marketing-driven fare.  I would love the former but readers will probably end up with a lot of the latter.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mass Effect: Revelation
Reflections: Ready Player One
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Reflections: The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture

The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon
Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was mesmerizing for me as a child.  In addition, I remember being supremely entertained, albeit somewhat confused, by Adam West's parody of Batman; was Batman the Dark Knight, doling out justice with his bare hands and becoming the terror of criminals everywhere, or was he a farcical (and don't forget campy!) satire of heroism?  Glen Weldon's endlessly fascinating book not only illuminates the nuances of the character of Batman but also his fans and his devotees.

I didn't grow up reading comic books.  My brother had a few, but I never became involved in what I have realized is an almost infinitely complex and circuitous world of storytelling.  Comic book stories arefor better or worsebottomless and never-ending.  Batman is no different.  He arrived in 1939 as a hardly veiled rip-off of The Shadow but has become, especially in his most recent cinematic incarnations, to be a culturally inescapable figure.  Weldon does a masterful job exploring each pivotal re-imagining of the character and the subsequent blow-back and controversy which is unavoidably bounded to every iteration.  Every actor attached the rolefrom Michael Keaton to Ben Affleckhas faced the unmitigated ire of nerds, even though nerds' prophecies of disaster have had only a meager rate of fulfillment.

Speaking of nerds, The Caped Crusade helped me understand the "nerd" culture in a way I have struggled to grasp to this point.  The Nerd Culture, as Weldon calls it, is remarkably protective of their particular vision of their favorite characters and those characters' inexhaustible stories.  I on several occasions have been accused of a certain elitism because I spoke very negatively about the film Captain America: Civil War.  I wrote and still maintain the film was a waste of time since the plot was essentially devoid of any real consequences for the main characters.  No real danger.  No real peril.  No real story.  The nerds defended their own, quickly disregarding my opinion as persnickety.  I didn't appreciate the film for awesome it really was.  How could I not love the airport scene (which I thought was boring)?  How could I not love Black Panther's introduction?  How could I not . . . And so on.  What I didn't appreciate about these types of questions until reading The Caped Crusade is how invested comic book fans are in these seminal stories.  In a very real sense, when you criticize the latest beloved Marvel movie, nerds see it as an ad hominem attack against them.  This is why, for example, when filmmakers, studio executives, or anyone else supposedly gets the characters or their stories wrong (or when critics don't like a film that supposedly "got it right"), nerds can be especially acerbic and venomous in their responsepersonal attacks, wishing of bodily harm, death threats.  Weldon rightly disparages such behavior as he chronicles it.

The Caped Crusade isn't great just because of its subject matter.  Glen Weldon is a very smart and shrewd writer.  The vocabulary utilized in this book rivals many historical works of non-fiction.  I think Weldon understands his subject on a very conceptual level.  There are no superficial conversations to be found here.  Weldon writes about Batman with a highly proficient and critical eye highlighting and exploring the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious.  When exploring an almost ubiquitous character like Batman, there is no shortage of material to discuss; yet, Weldon appears to find that which is most consequential and influential.  The Caped Crusade is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining as it touches upon culture, marketing, storytelling, heroism, satire, and the fan(atic)s who support it all.

Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade is about a lot more than an emotionally unstable man who dresses up like a bat, just as Batman is about a lot more than that as well.  There are reasons we respond so viscerally to a character like Batman, the vigilante hero.  And there are reasons some become almost perversely obsessed with him.  Glen Weldon has written an excellent book which takes its reader on a fun and fascinating journey to figure out The Dark Knight and his caped crusade.

Other Topics of Interest:
Stories for Emma
Reflections: The Iliad
Reflections: World War Z

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Are You Reading? Ep. 1

The first of many episodes of What Are You Reading? Emma and Adam discuss one book they dislike and recommend one book they love. Enjoy!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reflections: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
It's been many years since I last read a John Steinbeck book.  Reading Of Mice and Men reminded me why I stayed away for so long.  The last and only other Steinbeck book I have read is The Pearl.  I still remember the heavy sadness I experienced at that book's end.  Of Mice and Men wasn't much different.

Of Mice and Men isn't a particularly pleasant book to read. The book (novella, really) is short, tense, and bleak.  The cruelty of the characters, including in many ways George's treatment of Lennie, contrasts harshly andin my opinioncynically with Lennie's simple but hopeful dreams.  The outcome of the story seems to be broadcast from the onset, and the reader has to reluctantly drudge their way toward it.  In the final analysis, the reader has to examine what Steinbeck's point might be, regardless of the book's levity or length.

And what is my analysis of the story?  Not having read the myriad commentaries no doubt extant in academic and amateur literary circles, I find myself pushing back against a story like Of Mice and Men.  If the story is perhaps about dreaming, hoping, and accomplishing both, what could we possibly glean from Steinbeck's sardonic story?  There must be more to it than naked hopelessness.  Or perhaps not?  Consider a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which hardly panders to its reader nor obscures the realities of injustice.  And yet, the story, and of course its author, does offer some redemptive but tempered hope.  I dislike Of Mice and Men not because it's sad, but because it's so one-sided.

Speaking of sad endings, author Linda Zern provided a nice defense to sad endings.  Her book, Mooncalf, is tragic in a truly southern literature kind of way; yet, I didn't feel hopeless at the end of her book.  If Steinbeck seeks to make his readers feel that way, then I would say he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do.  A book like Mooncalf stands apart and separate from a book like Of Mice and Men because it has so much more to say worth saying, which makes the heart-rending meaningful and affecting. 

However brief Of Mice and Men may be, it doesn't lack in its ability to leave the reader feeling forlorn and forsaken.  One could argue the story's merit by extolling its unflinching focus on "truth," "the real world," or other high-minded concepts, and I'm sure there is a reasonable argument to be made; I, on the other hand, hope (uh oh) for something elsenot illusion or delusion.  Just a different story, more than likely told by a different author.

Other Topics of Interest:
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction
In Defense of Sad Endings
Reflections: Mooncalf

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Reflections: That Ye May Believe

That Ye May Believe by Neal A. Maxwell
That Ye May Believe has a wonderful premise; to wit, Neal A. Maxwell wanted to write letters to his grandchildren "as if they were older."  He said "while my answers do not now intersect with their present capacity to so ask questions, it seemed desirable to attempt a blend of anticipation, affection, and counsel."  I adore this idea.  In some ways this little book is a blog before blogs came into existence; albeit, a blog written a whole lot better than most.  Neal A. Maxwell's intellect shows through these brief letters, yes, but so does his sentimentality.

That Ye May Believe as a book is somewhat problematic by definition.  These letterssome several pages in length, others only a few paragraphsoften left me wanting more.  Maxwell was a brilliant writer, thinker, and spiritually influential leader.  I loved reading his commentaries on usually ignored topics.  Someone like Maxwell wouldn'tand rightly sofocus on some of the more mundane topics in his public speeches.  However, his insights on dealing with an unkind friend are as interesting to me as are his comments on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, albeit one topic has more eternal significance than the other.  Similar to The Lord's Way, That Ye May Believe pulls the curtain back a bit on the thinking of men who are not only very, very smart and thoughtful but also had (or have) very important ecclesiastical positions, especially for Latter-day Saints.  It's not canonized scripture, but it is certainly worth understanding and appreciating.

I find the idea of That Ye May Believe wonderful.  Writing letters to your grandchildren in anticipation of questions they have not asked yet is a genealogical gem.  Being somewhat of a writer myself, I was immediately attracted to the idea of doing something similar.  In a way, the various blog posts (including my several Thousander Club book reviews) I have written and will write can be letters to posterityno matter how embarrassing some of them might be in a few years!  Reading That Ye May Believe was a nice reminder to think not only of the current generation but of the many generations yet to come.  Rather than being a vanity project to achieve some fa├žade of immortality, a book like That Ye May Believe shows how meaningful a connection to future generations can be.  Those generations won't need to wonder what Maxwell felt or thought on certain topics and issuessome of the most important, such as his belief in God.  That's not vanity.  That's wisdom.

Although it will leave some readers wanting, such as myself, That Ye May Believe is a great little book.  The book and the writing is brief and conciseto a fault.  I wanted more because Maxwell had so many incredible insights to share.  However, what he did write shows very clearly what he did believe.  And for me, as well as his grandchildren I'm sure, Maxwell has helped me believe as well.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith
Reflections: The Great Divorce