content by

Leah Schnelbach

My Muse is a Rat: 10 Years On, Ratatouille Is Still Inspiring

When I went to see Ratatouille in 2007, I was trapped in a terrible job. I was exhausted all the time, I felt completely uninspired, and spent a sickening amount of energy questioning myself, beating myself up, hating every decision I’d made that led me to that moment in my life, and creating a vomitous feedback loop of self-loathing. When I went to the movie with friends, I was paying for two hours of forgetfulness. Two hours to stop thinking about my life, and lose myself in a cute Pixar story. I remember hoping I liked the short.

And then the film started, and I didn’t get forgetfulness—I got a much-needed slap in the face.

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Who Should Direct the Han Solo Spin-Off?

UPDATE: Ron Howard will be popping the clutch and politely requesting that everyone eat his dust as he directs the Han Solo movie! However, there are still more spin-offs on the horizon, and we think any of these fine directorial choices could give us a killer Boba Fett biopic.

Last night the news broke that the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller have departed the Han Solo spin-off movie. A new director has yet to be announced, but after a spirited discussion with my co-workers, I’ve got a few potentially polarizing suggestions for a fresh take on the galaxy far, far away…

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This Fantasy Might Save Your Life: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

It’s easy when the world is falling apart to feel like a tragedy is too big to look at, too dire to capture in words. It’s easy to think that nothing an artist does can possibly matter—you’re just one more small weak meat envelope against an unbeatable system. But of course this is exactly when you have to engage with the world. It’s an artist’s most important job: to look at the world you’d rather hide from, to engage with tragedy, to wring humor and joy out of wretchedness.

In 1988, Tony Kushner began writing a play called Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. It was supposed to be about two hours long, and he wanted it to be about gay men, the AIDS crisis, and Mormonism…and he knew there was an angel in it. He was also choosing to write about what was then the very recent past. The first version of the first half of the play (which ended up being over seven hours long) premiered on stage in London in 1990, and on Broadway in ’93. The play is set in 1985-6—not the neon tinted, shoulder-padded dream of American Psycho, or even the manic hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street, but the desolate, terrifying time in New York when the queer community was fighting AIDS with little recognition from a conservative government, when racial progress was at a standstill, and the increased visibility of the women’s and queer rights movements were under constant attack by the Religious Right.

The easy thing would have been to turn away and write about a lighter topic, but Kushner looked at the attacks on his community and set out to write a play that would offer comfort, inspiration, and even hope to a generation of people.

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Where to Start with the Genre-Hopping Work of Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s career started with literary fiction. He earned an MFA from Columbia’s writing program (he’s now their Acting Fiction Director) and, like a lot of MFAs, published a collection of interconnected short stories as his first foray into the world of a published author. He has won a series of illustrious awards, including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

His own childhood reading, however, was shaped by horror. He loved the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter . As he got older and revisited those stories he saw that some, particularly Lovecraft’s, were riddled with hateful ideas about race and class. In his own work, LaValle has often used Lovecraft’s trick of the hapless every man who realizes he’s trapped in a horror story (the horror story being, you know, the universe) but with an acute sense of racial dynamics, class inequality, and tensions across gender lines. This careful interrogation of the status quo make all of his stories all the more rich and vital for readers who are looking for depth in their horror and fantasy.

When you’re reading an author who hops around genres as much as LaValle, you’re spoiled for choice in where to begin! So whether you’re in the mood for a dark fairy tale, an update on a haunted house story, or a conversation with the Founding Mother of Science Fiction, you’ll find the perfect book to dig into…

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A Sort of Fairy Tale: Victor LaValle’s The Changeling

When I was a child I read every folktale and myth available to me. I loved Goldilocks and Baba Yaga, Br’er Rabbit and Cú Chulainn and Thor and Anansi. I loved them all, and held them all as equally important. I loved their adventures, and I figured they might as well all be real. (I still do.) I imagined myself into their adventures, and if that meant hopping over the barrier between male and female that’s what I did, and that’s how I learned that that barrier was an illusion. I was able to have those adventures in my mind, and it was fine. But what if I had been faced with one of those adventures in life, in corporeal flesh, where people would look at me and make assumptions because of the shape my flesh took? What if my adventure was, repeatedly, interrupted by others’ assumptions about me?

Victor LaValle’s new novel The Changeling is a horror story, a fairy tale, an epic myth, and a modern, urban fiction. It’s about parenthood, and toxic masculinity, and internet privacy, and a horrific world of magic hiding behind a veneer of civilization, and it’s one of the most New York books I’ve ever read. But most of all it’s about what happens when a Black man is the hero of a fairy story. What happens when your quest requires you to venture into a dark forest…but that forest lies beyond a tony white neighborhood patrolled by racist cops? What if your quest means that you must do prison time? What if your quest ends up broadcast on NY1? What if even the most terrifying monsters aren’t as tough as simply surviving in America?

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A Cabinet of Curiosities: Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World

A good short story collection can be an overstuffed attic, a trunk overflowing with costumes and masks, a cabinet of curiosities. Rather than pulling you into one world and making you love a cast of characters over time, as a novel does, a collection can function like a jewel, each surface refracting light in a unique way, showing you a different part of the world or the human mind. Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World is a very good short story collection. Each time you think you’ve hit the bottom of the trunk, there’s one more mask tucked away under a tulle skirt; each time you think you’ve seen every curiosity in the cabinet, you come across a stuffed albino alligator or a preserved bear’s tooth hidden in a corner.

The best part? Sparks never lets you get too comfortable. Do you think you’re in some gossamer-winged fairy story, where true love will prevail? Because you might be in a story with a serial killer, or with an unhinged brother, or with a father who cannot love. Sparks will show you a perfect knife with an intricate blade, make you fall in love with its beauty, and then turn it and slice you right down to the heart before you realize what’s happening.

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Studio Ghibli’s Double Feature of Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro Was a Terrible Idea

For this month’s Ghibli Rewatch I’m changing the format a bit. Rather than going through each film chronologically, I’ll be looking at the shared themes of two Ghibli classics, and discussing how the films changed the studio.

One film is Hayao Miyazaki’s ebullient My Neighbor Totoro; the other is Isao Takahata’s devastating Grave of the Fireflies. The two directors worked on their projects simultaneously, and the films were ultimately released in Japanese theaters in 1988 as a double feature. I have decided to try to watch them back-to-back, to recreate the experience of the unsuspecting Japanese audiences who were about to watch one of the most heartbreaking films of all time, and then meet a creature who would quickly become a new icon of Japanese childhood. Will I get through them both? Will I get emotional whiplash during a double feature? Read on to find out.

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Sometimes, Horror is the Only Fiction That Understands You

“I don’t trust people who look back on high school with fondness; too many of them were part of the overclass, those who were taunters instead of tauntees. […] They are also the ones most likely to suggest that books such as Carrie and The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace be removed from libraries. I submit to you that these people have less interest in reducing the atmosphere of violence in schools than they may have in forgetting how badly some people—they themselves, in some cases—may have behaved while there.”

Stephen King, Vermont Library Conference’s Annual Meeting, 1999

Stephen King has a long and twisty relationship with censorship and book banning. During the 1990s, four of his books turned up on the ALA list of most banned books: Cujo at #49, Carrie at #81, The Dead Zone at #82, and Christine at #95. In 1992, a middle school in Florida pulled The Dead Zone and The Tommyknockers from their library’s shelves, prompting King to write a response in The Bangor Daily News.

King begins by speaking directly to the kids, telling them not to bother fighting, but instead to go to the local library and read the banned book.

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Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz, and Malka Older Talk about the Future at BEA!

Charlie Jane Anders, author of the Nebula Award-winning All the Birds in the Sky, moderated a lively BEA panel, “Women in Science Fiction” featuring Infomocracy author Malka Older and Autonomous author Annalee Newitz. The trio talked about imagining the future, balancing worldbuilding with strong characters, and the experience of first novelist.

Read on!

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Jeff VanderMeer Talks Borne, Hyperobjects, and Florida Wildlife

Jeff VanderMeer is a master of combining ecological concerns with a dark, weird speculative fiction. His Southern Reach Trilogy followed an uncanny event that created “Area X”, and the subsequent expeditions to explore the region, mining Nature itself to find the beauty and horror that comes with a radical shift in ecology. His latest novel, Borne, takes us to a future city, where people attempt to carve out lives after decades of societal collapse and environmental upheaval—you can read Niall Alexander’s review here. Rachel, a young refugee, scavenges for food and tech in order to survive with her partner, a former biotech engineer named Wick. Rachel discovers a particularly mysterious biotech while scavenging, and rather than turning it over to Wick’s experiments, she keeps it, names it Borne, and raises it like a child. Hilarity ensues, as does heartbreak, terror, and musing on the nature of survival and humanity’s role on Earth… and that’s all before you get to the skyscraper-sized flying bear.

VanderMeer is currently on a book tour for Borne, but he graciously took time to answer a few of my questions about the novel, and to discuss his love of the environment and the “New Weird.” He also shared a video of the Florida coastline that inspired Area X.

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Problem Child: First Born by Caroline Thompson

Long before Caroline Thompson wrote the screenplays for Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas, she wrote this dark, deeply weird novel called First Born. She sold director Penelope Spheeris the rights to the film adaptation for $1, and adapted her first novel into her first screenplay. The film was never made, but it launched Thompson on a new career in Hollywood, and she soon met Tim Burton at a studio party. The two bonded over feeling like nerdy outcasts in a room full of Hollywood insiders.

As a lifelong Tim Burton fan, I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I first found out Thompson had written it. It took me a while to track a copy down, but even after I had it I was nervous about cracking it open. Would it be worth it? Does the book offer a glimpse at the writer who would later pen some of my favorite movies? I only knew that the plot concerned abortion, and that it was literary horror.

The book is both more and less than what that description promises.

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A Definitive Ranking of Bryan Fuller’s Greatest Female Characters

The Fullerverse is the fantastic array of televisual delights curated, written, and showrun by one Bryan Fuller. As a writer who has talked about his love of Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, and the Bionic Woman, Fuller has made a point of creating three-dimensional, complex female characters on each of his shows—not just cardboard “strong female characters” or bland ass-kickers, but women with different strengths and weaknesses, beliefs, and, most of all, believable inner lives.

This week saw the premiere of American Gods’ fourth episode, “Git Gone,” which gives Laura Moon a backstory she never had in Neil Gaiman’s novel. It also honors Fuller’s tradition of women who live their lives (and die their deaths) on their own terms. The more I thought about Laura, the more I wanted to look back at more of Fuller’s female characters. They’re all great, but who’s the best?

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They Sent a Poet: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17

Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 has the basic elements of a space opera: interstellar travel, a multi-talented captain, a ragtag crew, a brave pilot, space skirmishes, a few stop-offs on a couple of different planets, high-level espionage, romantic entanglements, and even a James Bond-style battle during an elegant dinner.

It’s where the story subverts a typical space opera that things get really interesting. The captain? A telepathic Chinese woman who happens to be the most famous poet of her age. The espionage? Comes in the form of a language, Babel-17, that reprograms people’s brains as they learn it. The pilot? A man who’s had enough surgery done that he stands ten feet tall, and has the head, paws, and fangs of a Saber-toothed cat. The romantic entanglements? Occur between a variety of people, but never in quite the form you’re expecting.

The most important narrative thread of Babel-17 turns out not to be the ramshackle plot, which bounces us across a couple of different planets and ships, but rather the question of whether communication between two people is possible.

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Hallelujah! American Gods Renewed for Second Season

We’re getting more American Gods! Deadline has reported that Starz renewed the show for a second season, which is expected to premiere in mid-2018. Season one premiered on April 30th to rapturous reviews.

The show, which is being adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, stars Ian McShane as the deceptively charming conman Mr. Wednesday, and Ricky Whittle as his bodyguard/apprentice, Shadow Moon.

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The Quest for Truth and Popsicles: Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel

The original idea for TBR Stack was to read my way through a bunch of books I’ve allowed to pile up on my shelves (and desk, and floor, and dining table, and kitchen counter, and did I mention the floor…) but for the next two installments I will be revisiting books I have already read—I promise I have a good reason, though! This week’s book, Borgel, is a fantastically silly sci-fi by Daniel Pinkwater, who is, in my opinion (not to mention Cory Doctorow’s) not only one of the best YA writers ever, but also a life-changing force in the life of a reader. I decided to reread Borgel for the first time in more than a decade after reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus two weeks ago. I was captivated by Carter’s line, “You can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously” which led me back to Pinkwater.

Now if I was to tell you that this book was about a quest for God, you’d probably run in the other direction, right? So it’s a good thing this is actually a time travel adventure about the quest for a sentient popsicle.

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