04 July 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Perhaps it is because I read (and very much enjoyed) a few novels by Goethe not so long ago that I liked this book so much. Imagine if the Sorrows of Young Werther had been narrated in the third person and been more interested in the riotous dynamic of Lotte's overcrowded family, rather than focusing on her anguished suitor -- you might have ended up with something like The Blue Flower.

Although it's ostensibly the story of the romance between Fritz von Hardenberg (who later became known as Novalis) and a 12 year old girl, what made the book so delightful to me was the way it evoked a whole social universe. I particularly loved the relationship between the siblings (treated with a wonderfully light touch), and the way the novel balanced warmth and wry cynicism, particularly in its handling of German Romantic philosophy and poetry.

But the most remarkable thing about the book was the prose, and especially the way that Fitzgerald gives a hint of German flavor to the English. This is most noticeable in the fact that one of the siblings is referred to as The Bernhard, but it subtly pervades the entire book, and is absolutely masterful. A wonderful read, very much recommended.

(This is, by the way, another recommendation from that Elle piece I mentioned before -- it's really been a goldmine!)

30 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

I do not hate big blockbuster action flicks. I really don't. I am generally willing enough to tolerate Hollywood's ridiculousness as long as it's remotely entertaining, and if a movie is doing something even slightly interesting, or has an enlightened approach to race/gender/etc, I am already 75% won over. But things get dicey when you're facing a film that has some pretensions to actually being a good movie rather than a standard mindless blockbuster, because it becomes hard to decide what kind of standard to judge it by. Edge of Tomorrow is a reasonably intelligent movie with decent special effects and a strong female character who refreshingly breaks with action film conventions. But is not a sparkling, witty film with heaps of panache and emotional complexity, and it is certainly not a "doozy," despite what some critics say. Unfortunately, despite having a lot of things going for it in terms of plotting and character, it's strangely lifeless and somewhat rote. I really, really wanted to like it. But I was decidedly underwhelmed, and honestly, I blame the critics who are pushing this film as a smarter, more interesting blockbuster, because I feel like I would have liked the movie a lot more if my expectations hadn't been over-inflated.

Let me be clear -- the movie really does have a lot going for it. I absolutely agree that Emily Blunt is awesome as a grizzled badass warrior who is basically written like a stock male character except she's female and it works just fine. I don't think that should be mistaken for emotional complexity -- the film is pretty spartan when it comes to feelings, which is also fine by me. Although it occasionally seems interested in delving into the kind of relationship that develops between two people in such a context (is anyone making the 50 First Dates comparison?), a lot of those moments feel pretty cursory. The movie is instead rather single-mindedly focused on achieving its mission of killing the aliens, and figuring out how to do that without dragging the viewer through the tedium of actually repeating the same day over and over.

And it does that quite effectively. In the middle, actually, it starts to get really interesting as it becomes unclear whether a given moment is happening for the first time or not. I haven't seen Groundhog's Day in ages so I have no idea whether it did the same thing or not, and I also think that's entirely beside the point. I tend to find time-travel movies a bit eye-roll-y, but this was the rare film in which the time travel plot points were both exciting and intellectually stimulating. At least until the end, when the writers apparently could not resist busting out what has become the standard cliché ending of any "mind-bending" film. The logistical problems raised by the specific way these particular aliens worked were really quite clever and cool, and I wish the movie had spent more time exploring them because unlike most sci-fi action thrillers, they actually merited deeper consideration.

I am also totally willing to grant that the movie has moments of something like humor, and that Tom Cruise is more likable than usual. Linda Holmes has said that he is more appealing when he's doing something a little bit more smarmy than his full on noble hero act, and I agree, though I might put it a bit differently -- it's when he seems lighter on his feet, more playful (be it for good or evil), that he is more appealing. He does a lot of very earnest stuff. Sometimes (as in Magnolia) that turns into something very interesting, but usually it's heavy and borderline caricature. It's the moments that he's not so serious that we like him, and fortunately, we get a few of those.

But overall, the movie felt heavy and a bit dull to me. There were a couple plot decisions that dragged it down, I think. I've mentioned the stupid ending; the beginning isn't much better. The writer wants to get Tom Cruise to somehow be literally dropped into combat totally unprepared, and he does it with this bizarre lead-up of a p.r. guy getting shanghaid by a general who is angry at him for threatening to tarnish his image (after refusing to...be dropped into combat unprepared... which the general weirdly wanted him to do...so as to provide good p.r.). It's totally absurd, and it really seems like there are better ways to go. Cruise arguably doesn't even need to be so unprepared in the first place -- given the nature of his mission, he'd probably need some additional training anyhow, because lord knows the film REQUIRES a training montage. The point being: the movie felt rather long to me, and this was exacerbated by the feeling that it wasn't using its time effectively.

It's not a bad film. As far as summer blockbusters go, it may well be one of the better ones around. It's unfortunate that it's just good enough to make me actually engage with it mentally and emotionally (unlike, say, the latest X-Men film, which I found entertaining enough because I don't take it at all seriously), but not quite good enough to carry the weight of that attention. I want to reward it for making the effort, but I just didn't find it that entertaining. The problem is, the industry is probably going to draw all the wrong lessons from its low box office numbers.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Readers of this blog are probably well aware of my love for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and will not be surprised to know that I was very, very excited to see this movie. I say this too, so that you realize that I am not at all an objective audience. I liked the movie in large part because I liked the book and enjoyed seeing it on the big screen. It helps that the film is a visual pleasure: lovely backdrops, bright colors, and a borderline ridiculously attractive and extremely talented cast. It also helped that I was watching it at the Siskel, surrounded by Nigerians who laughed, sighed, and murmured recognition throughout the film.

Although it certainly felt a bit rushed at moments, the film does a fairly admirable job in adapting what is after all a 500+ page book. Where the novel wonderfully interweaves several storylines into an effective multiplicity of perspectives, the film centers on one, the relationship between a woman named Olanna and her "revolutionary" lover, set against the backdrop of Nigerian civil war. The film struggles with the novel's impressive balancing between individual lives and big picture history -- news clips are cleverly used to provide information about political events in a non-intrusive and personable way, but any time you have (justly) horrific scenes of political violence, the personal problems rapidly seem paltry in comparison, or worse, melodramatic. It's interesting to consider that novels really might be better at historical fiction than films are, much as we might love watching people prancing around in period costume.

I don't know if the film holds up on its own, absent one's love for the book and sheer, almost physical pleasure of seeing these people and places on the screen. So you should probably go ahead and read the book first =-)

13 June 2014

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black

I was alerted to the existence of this book by this wonderful piece in Elle, where female authors discuss their favorite books by women.  At the time I hadn't read anything by Karen Russell, but I was interested in checking her out, and anyhow, I basically added most of the books mentioned here to my to-read list. I was particularly intrigued by the ones I hadn't heard of before, and this one happened to be easy to get my hands on.

These are interesting stories that take you to places that literature rarely does -- there's a particular interest in observing life with physical handicaps, or in the aftermath of tragedy, for instance. The stories are engrossing and make insightful connections between various aspects of human experience, and the book is overall a quick and largely pleasant read.

My gripe is that after awhile, you start to notice that they're mostly structured in the same way: the story starts off in one time and place. Then there's a sudden jump to a different one; either an earlier moment in the narrator's life, or a story of someone else altogether, and that becomes the main focus, until we reach some kind of awareness that allows us to return to the initial storyline and revisit some kind of culminating or primal scene. Sometimes there are three narrative strands involved instead of two, and the way the pieces fit together isn't identical every time, but the similarity is enough that after awhile, you start to feel a bit manipulated.

Amusingly, when I did read something by Karen Russell, namely her Vampires in the Lemon Grove, my objection to it was not totally dissimilar to my problem with this collection. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking, over and over, "This is just a story that someone made up." That feeling is tracking some kind of quality of these stories, I'm sure -- their arbitrariness? Their lack of realism? -- but I still think that's the best way to capture it.

06 June 2014

Swans are Fat Too, by Michelle Granas

This book is just begging to be made into an incredibly charming rom-com. A very pleasant and surprisingly thoughtful romance, the novel tells the story of Hania, a heavy-set, former concert pianist who returns to her native Poland and gets roped into caring for her cousin's children. She strikes up a friendship with the upstairs neighbor Konstanty, helping him type up his manuscript history of Poland. Chapters of this history are cleverly woven into the story, giving the reader a genuinely interesting tour of Poland's past. Running alongside this narrative, however, is also a really intelligent critique of Poland's ways of reckoning with that past; its problematic national mythos.  These reflections on history are the conversational fodder that gradually draws Konstanty and Halina closer.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book was that the blossoming romance between the couple is an intellectual one. We watch it happen through conversations, and we understand why they enjoy talking to each other so much. This is no actually that common in rom-coms. Usually the attractions between characters is either taken for granted, or it's based on some carefully selected obscure detail or quirk. We have so often been told that this is how you fall in love: it's something about the way she swallowed her gum and almost choked that made you realize that this was the woman for you. So it was neat to watch a slow progression of like minds coming together.

Another thing I liked a lot was that while the plot occasionally drifted towards the somewhat overdone (ie, towards the kind of events you expect to see in movies, not real life), it was refreshingly devoid of melodrama. Someone may think someone else is mad at them because s/he didn't say hello on the stairs that morning, and be very very unhappy about that, but life goes on and then it turns out that actually the other person was just in kind of a hurry and it's really not a big deal. The human tendency to overdramatize is acknowledged but not indulged. The characters may feel sorry for themselves sometimes, but they pull themselves together and don't wallow.

Finally, this is my personal bias, but I loved the way the dialogue was flavored with bits of Polish. In a novel that is somewhat short on descriptions of place -- it is not a visual work at all, which paradoxically may be why I think it would make a good movie -- those occasional phrases were wonderfully evocative, and even made me a little homesick. I have no idea (but I wonder) how a non-Polish speaking reader will experience that aspect.

It's not a literary masterpiece, but it's a very enjoyable read, and would be very pleasant company on a flight or the beach.

06 May 2014

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James

Reading this book is a project. I'm sure people cover selections of it all the time in college classes, and it must be admitted that one could get by with the highlights reel, but the experience of working your way through the entire thing is a special one. It is an ambitious text -- the kind of thing where you can hardly believe that an actual human being wrote it, which seems to sum up a lifetime of learning and reflection. It's the sort of scholarly work that I associate with the humanist masterpieces of the 20th century (another example that comes to mind is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, which is similarly rewarding), in that it is systematic and magisterial but also suffused with personality. You are keenly aware that it is the product of an extended process of thought, and it retains a close connection to the spirit of its maker.

James sets out to understand what religion does to the minds of those who believe in it, in a very pragmatic sort of way. It is very much to be regretted that he did not know more about non-Christian religions; aside from a handful of references to Islam, Buddhism (which he openly admits to not knowing much about), and Hinduism, the book is really a compendium of Christian experience first and foremost. Although his approach could probably be productively applied to other faiths, one would need to find someone knowledgeable to actually do it. I can't exactly blame him for that, but I was disappointed.

The other critique one could make is that it is a bit of a slog at moments, particularly when he gets into piling on more and more examples. Some are fascinating, others are rather less so. You could easily cut 80 pages of the book without great loss. But those occasionally monotonous bits are sort of key to the Stockholm-syndrome-y, I-just-read-a-massively-long-book sense of accomplishment you feel at the end of it.

But overall, it really is an incredible text, and one that offers wonderful material to think with, a framework from which to interrogate your own beliefs -- whatever they may be, and whether or not they include a Supreme Being of some kind. If, for instance, you are looking to find a way to express how math serves some of the same spiritual functions for you that religion does for others, this book gives you a way to do so. And it also, satisfyingly, legitimates that belief, whatever it may be, by noting that whether or not the object of belief is actually real, the belief itself has material effects, and thus confers a certain reality upon its objects. But more generally, The Varieties of Religious Experience is also an inquiry into the nature of belief, the difference between feeling and intellect, and an exploration of different realms of consciousness. Reading it is no small undertaking, but it is most certainly a rewarding one.  

27 April 2014

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by César Aira

This is a deceptively slender book: traversing its scant 87 pages is like crawling through a narrow tunnel and emerging inside an underground cathedral, brilliantly illuminated. It's a stunning work, absolutely enthralling. The story of a landscape painter traveling across Argentina, it becomes a lyrical reflection on landscape, painting, vision, literature, literature, humanity, life... It's completely incredible. You must read it.