06 January 2015

Euphoria, by Lily King

I had a similar experience with this book as I do with many highly acclaimed recent novels: I found the story eminently readable, the writing good and occasionally excellent, and yet... I do not feel compelled to run around handing out copies to people I know (the way I do with books like Boy, Snow, Bird, for instance, or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter). I kind of doubt that I'll think about or even much remember the story a year from now. The plot was interesting -- the story of a love triangle between three young anthropologists studying tribes in the South Pacific -- but King doesn't do as much with the material as she arguably could. Her main focus is the love story, to the extent that everything else seems like backdrop or costume drama. At very least, moments when the three researchers discuss their ideas could have pushed the novel into something deeper. But I also could not help but feel a bit annoyed at the way the novel repeats the very sins of the anthropologists it seemingly critiques, paying lipservice to the devastating effects of their entry into the community, but meanwhile in utter thrall to the drama of their personal lives, leaving the "natives" as mysterious Others to the very end. 

03 January 2015

Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Maybe my hopes for this book were too high, but I found it frustratingly low on both material and analysis. There are plenty of evocative descriptions of tea houses and lush vegetation, but what would ostensibly be the three main topics of the book, namely, how Burma influenced Orwell, how Orwell is perceived in Burma, and what life in Burma is like, all seemed quite vague to me.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way that the author's sense of the political reality in Burma is repeatedly seen through the lens of Orwell's 1984 -- even as s/he* ponders to what extent the novel was a product of Orwell's imagination. There is this fascinating back and forth between fiction and reality, as Larkin struggles to get a sense of what Burma is really like, and can only seem to do so via fiction, but also tries to use those fictions as an entry point into penetrating the mind of their author. I was often annoyed by how much Larkin leaned on Orwell in this regard, repeatedly summarizing parts of both 1984 and Burmese Days without adding much. In other words, I found myself wondering what Larkin was telling me that I hadn't already gotten from Orwell himself.

What I also found fascinating was how many of the current regime's practices -- and probably Orwell's own ideas, which may or may not have been the backbone of 1984 -- were drawn from foundations laid by the British colonialist administration. It is amazing to me that the British get off so lightly in this account. Aside from these very understated observations, the emphasis is mostly on how much worse the current regime is, and moments of criticism are often balanced with more positive counter-claims. I grant that colonialism and its legacies are complex and that its remnants are not 100% negative, but I find it somewhat outrageous that there is not more outrage. I suppose, however, that it is because Larkin treads lightly on the issue that we can calmly notice the intriguing ambivalence of Orwell. Mingled shame, anger, excoriation, but also nostalgia and complicity. 

It is an interesting book and a thought-provoking one. But it did not quite live up to my expectations.

* Emma Larkin is a pseudonym.

02 January 2015

My 10 favorite reads of 2014

I'm too lazy to type out the whole list of what I read any more (sorry), but my 10 favorites (with links to posts if I wrote them):


Artful, by Ali Smith -- an amazing series of essays/stories/lectures/reflections, describing a narrator interacting with the ghost of a lover, and thinking about literature. Dazzlingly creative, highly interesting, and quite beautiful.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck -- Wonderful, gorgeously illustrated graphic novel about a young woman who meets up with the editor of a real advice column in a Yiddish-language newspaper from the 1920s. Lyrical reflection on immigration, memory, and identity.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi -- A re-telling of the Snow White story about an African-American family passing as white in 1950s America. It's astonishing how well it works, but you'll hardly notice, because Oyeyemi's writing is so instantly absorbing.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by C├ęsar Aira -- A throwback to the slender novellas of 19th century German literature, but with the surrealism cranked up a notch. The story of a German landscape painter traveling across Argentina. Incredible.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, by Jamyang Norbu -- A wonderful contribution to Sherlock Holmes lore. It succeeds wonderfully as a Holmes story, but is of particular interest for the way it transports the story to Tibet, and (convincingly) imagines Holmes as fascinated by Buddhism. A totally delightfully marriage of cultural traditions.

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald -- Finally read something of hers this year. It's a toss-up between this and The Blue Flower, both of which were wonderful. Slightly off-kilter stories and gorgeous prose. Read Penelope Fitzgerald. She's brilliant.

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor -- A series of letters O'Connor wrote to God. Quirky and amusing but also a pretty fascinating manifestation of a real struggle with faith. Also visually appealing, thanks to a beautiful edition from FS&G.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay -- Absolutely deserving of all the awards it's gotten, this collection of stories about Iraq and Afghanistan is some of the best war writing I've ever read. Powerful, thoughtful, and often hilarious.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy -- Stunningly original and deeply strange. This book, to me, was an astonishing effort to depict the experience of Being itself (yes, with a capital B), through the story of a man trying to pin it down.

Wave, by Sonyali Deraniyagala -- A woman's memoir about surviving, but losing her entire family to, the 2004 tsunami. Raw, devastating, but also incredibly moving and inspiring. There are all kinds of movies/books that attempt to show you the remarkable tenacity of the human spirit in times of crisis -- this is one of the few that I found convincing, and it blew me away. 

25 December 2014

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor

This is completely amazing. Funny, bizarre, and profound, Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal is more like a series of letters to God. Written while she was working on Wise Blood (which I have not read, but cannot wait to), these anguished missives somewhat paradoxically describe her efforts to be more spiritual. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to ... I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside. O'Connor vacillates between asking God for things she wants, and asking God to help her be more selfless and not want things so much. Occasionally this results in absolutely hilarious formulations such as: Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don't let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it. And other times it verges on completely bizarre, as in one of my favorite moments: at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But throughout, it is intimate, complex, and completely spell-binding. Farrar Straus and Giroux did a lovely job with this edition -- although the introduction is meh (it has a borderline unseemly fascinating with O'Connor's death), the simple artwork on a pristine white cover feels very appropriate, and the inclusion of a facsimile of the entire original notebook is genius. If I had read this a week ago, I'd have been handing it out for Christmas like it was Halloween candy. Go get a copy, stat!

17 December 2014

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Perhaps it is shameful to admit it, but I think this is one of the rare cases where I liked the movie better. Roman Polanski's recent movie, to be more exact, which is not a straightforward adaptation of the text, but rather, a story of a theater director auditioning an actress for a part in his adaptation of the text (meta meta, boioioioing). I really liked the movie, and it reinvigorated a long dormant intention to read the actual book (I once heard Malynne Sternstein talk about an inherent masochism of Eastern Europeans, partly in reference to this text, and I've been intrigued by the notion,  and tracing its manifestations -- there are many -- ever since). Indeed, the book is a curious little work, full of twists and turns and an intriguing late Romantic blend of cynicism and idealism. The problem is, the film is such an interesting perspective on the material, subtly illuminating both the continuities between the book's time and our own and also critiquing the story, both as a relic of a past time AND as an example of what seems to be a rather timeless tradition of portraying women. The book certainly provides ample fodder for the inquiry into gender inflected power dynamics of sexual and romantic relationships, and teasingly gestures towards  some ideas about the relationship between art and life, specifically in relation to love and passion, but the movie develops all these lines of inquiry much more fully. Plus, it's funnier.

But I recommend them both.

09 December 2014

Beyond the Lights

To be honest, I went to see this movie in large part because I wanted to support the director, and more broadly, to support films featuring people of color. I had heard a great interview with the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, on NPR (the film was actually initially brought to my attention by Linda Holmes, whom I trust implicitly and maybe sort of idolize), in which she talks about wanting to get rid of the term "black films" (they're just films!) but also how hard it is to get a film made if the central characters are people of color. So look, not to be all preachy about it, but if you, dear reader, want this to change (and I hope you do!), you need to start shelling out and seeing these movies in theatres. This is a somewhat dour preamble to talking about the movie, I know. But what with various efforts to raise awareness about how #blacklivesmatter this week in wake of all this horrific stuff in the news, I think it's worth pointing out that going to the movies can matter.* Pop culture shapes how people see the world. We need a broader variety of stories about a broader variety of people, and the only way we're gonna get them is by voting with our dollars. But anyhow.

When people say that a movie has heart, this is the kind of movie they're talking about. It's a deeply felt and surprisingly intimate movie, particularly in the love scenes. The story -- about a young female pop star negotiating the demands of fame, who falls in love with a police officer -- is an intelligent look at celebrity culture. It really drives home the intense sexualization of female stars, but manages to do so without ever feeling preachy, which is quite a feat.** Interestingly enough, though the film spends plenty of time appreciating Gug Mbatha-Raw's good looks, it manages to show you how her body is being commodified in a way that doesn't feel as if the film is also participating in that process. It does, however, indulge in quite a lot of ogling at Nate Parker, who is very pleasant to look at. It's funny, much as I appreciate the female body, I rarely enjoy it being displayed on the big screen, because there is so much ideological baggage that goes with it. But this movie reminded me of the pleasures of looking at a fine form, ie, Nate Parker's toned abs. I wonder if that's rampant hypocrisy on my part, or if the film actually produces a respectfully appreciative gaze.

Gina Prince-Bythewood*** clearly cared a lot about this movie. Part of that caring manifests itself as an unwillingness to be as ruthless in making cuts as she maybe should have: the film occasionally feels a bit baggy, and the story is trying to do a little too much. There's an attempt at parallelism in the plot that is intriguing but not particularly convincing in its execution. A domestic violence segment subtly but forcefully reminds viewers that such things do happen to young women in this situation, paradoxically by displacing them onto someone else. But that displacement also makes it seem a bit tacked on. Large chunks of the film, howver, are very well done, enough so that you're willing to give the rest a bit of leeway. In particular, Prince-Bythewood has a real knack for conversations: it's one of those rare films where the characters occasionally just talk about something interesting, rather than only discussing themselves or some aspect of the plot that needs to be moved along.**** Also, the sex scenes are fantastic.

Overall, a worthwhile and heartfelt film from a director that has lot of potential. Looking forward to seeing what she does next.



*Though admittedly, it sometimes feels futile, as anyone who tries to support women in movies can relate to. How much money did Bridesmaids make? And The Heat? And yet, and yet. Though there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on that front. Slowly slowly...

**Certainly something I haven't mastered, as my little preamble makes clear...

***If you search for her on Netflix, you won't find all of her movies in one place -- apparently the system is befuddled by what I presume was a post-marital name-change. I wonder how often this is an issue?

****I could swear I complained about this feature of movies -- and particularly romances -- in an earlier post, but I can't find it anywhere.

19 November 2014

A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe

This is one of Radcliffe's earlier novels, and it's obvious that she is still perfecting her craft. It's a surprisingly creaky book, all seams and stuffing. Abrupt jumps in time and space, people conveniently happening across each other when they were seemingly lost forever (and can in no way be found by other people looking for them), and a rather ineffective effort to make mysterious occurrences seem supernatural. Whereas in later works it will be suggested that her protagonists are border-line delusional, eager to see the supernatural everywhere they look, in this novel the characters strongly RESIST that interpretation, even when it is explicitly suggested. It's the servants who immediately see everything as otherworldly, but other characters specifically deny this view (even when it seems absurd for them to do so). But none of that really matters that much: the real suspense in the story is whether or not Julia will be forced to marry against her will. This further strengthens my sense that the explained supernatural, seemingly Ann Radcliffe's most defining trait, is largely beside the point in her novels. She is much more interested in the moral behavior of her characters, and whether evil is punished by a kind of invisible hand of justice. These are old-school romances with supernatural window-dressing. And this one, to be frank, is one of her weaker efforts.