12 September 2014

Make Believe, by Diana Athill

Athill is not only a good writer, she also comes across as a smart, sympathetic, and uncommonly self-aware sort of woman. Thus, her graceful prose and keen observations are a pleasure to read, and the book feels both warm and intimate, like a really good conversation.

That said, the contents seem more suited to conversation than a book. Chronicling her acquaintance with the increasingly mentally disturbed Hakim Jamal, Athill is basically relating what happened, without drawing much in the way of insight from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- when she does make a move towards more sweeping conclusions, it rings a bit hollow. One is left, instead, with the curiously cynical sense that rather upsetting trajectory of this man's life was bitterly senseless, and that there was not much that anyone could do about it. I was somewhat hoping for more of a thick description of that particular historical moment, and while there is some of that, the book seems much more personal. It does make me want to read more of her writing though.

19 August 2014

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

One somehow doesn't except eighteenth-century authors -- even if they are Mary Shelley -- to have a good sense of what the end of the world might look like. But the apocalypse might be one of those timeless things that can be just as persuasively portrayed in 1814 as in 2014. Although this novel is way too long and has a lot of pretty boring bits, it also anticipates pretty much every 20th/21st century disaster/apocalypse film/novel in really surprising ways. I am Legend, Children of Men, Atlas Shrugged, even This is the End, amusingly, all owe a debt to Mary Shelley's vision of the final days of human life.

Shelley, meanwhile, is clearly drawing on both the idea and the techniques of her father in his bizarro sci-fi novel, St. Leon, particularly in doing a kind of before-and-after, where the novel begins with an (unfortunately lengthy) description of "normal" life -- so as to give you a sense of what is lost (think, too, of films like Cloverfield -- usually this kind of thing is kept down to 20 minutes or so, because it is basically "thick" description with little to no narrative momentum). Both Godwin and Shelley unfortunately produce rather dreary version of a fairly typical romance to do this, and that's just something you have to plow through. Godwin, thankfully, has occasional moments of comic irony, whereas his daughter tends to be somewhat humorless. But Godwin also doesn't have to patience to really follow St. Leon through centuries of his artificially extended life (ie, to take the device to its natural conclusion). Shelley, on the other hand,  is admirably committed to letting the plague destroy the world s l o w l y (which certainly contributes to the realism, though unfortunately the fervent language of Romantic-era passionate feeling is not extremely conducive to suspenseful terror), and to devote to these epic circumstances a monumental amount of pages, letting the text transpire in what comes to feel like an almost inhuman, planetary time. Although it may come across as overwrought, this is arguably one of the few circumstances that actually merits such lofty prose:

Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written "a little lower than the angels;" and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the "paragon of animals," and, lo! we were a "quint-essence of dust." We repined that the pyramids had outlasted the embalmed body of their builder. Alas! the mere shepherd's hut of straw we passed on the road, contained in its structure the principle of greater longevity than the whole race of man. How reconcile this sad change to our past aspirations, to our apparent powers!

At the same time, the book is almost touchingly a product of its own time. Although it's meant to be set in the distant future (2100!), its author simply cannot imagine a time in which the French Revolution will not be a major reference point. Europe is, of course, still battling the savage Orient (the Turk!), and America is  still an uncultivated wilderness. Occasional clumsy references to her own present via things the character has "read about in history books" evoke somewhat condescending smiles in the reader, but they also make the novel a fascinating testament to the central concerns of its own time.

Although it is a real slog, I also think it probably ought to be required reading for scholars of the period.

13 August 2014

Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill

I get frustrated with current fiction, because I read all these reviews that suggest that a book is spectacular, amazing, dazzlingly innovative and tremendously well written, and then I read it and... it's just kind of ok. I guess in the fast-paced world of publishing and book reviews, anything that is better than average is momentous, whereas to me, who does not read much average stuff and reads quite a lot of older, really excellent stuff, it is less noteworthy. But I digress.

Dept. of Speculation is essentially a monologue; a woman's brief reflections over the course of a marriage. It took me awhile to stop being annoyed that she was from Brooklyn (because of course she is. Isn't everyone?), but once I did, I really warmed up to the book. The subtle indicators of the passage of time, the sense of vulnerability and precarious security and happiness, the narcissism of youth -- they're all there, and cleverly and elegantly rendered.

But then DRAMA strikes, and the story becomes strangely much less interesting. Time seems to slow down, the prose feels more cliché, and it just isn't as compelling a narrative. Yes, the struggle to preserve a marriage -- and to figure out if you want to -- is a fascinating topic, but this rendering of it seemed somehow rote to me. The fragmentary nature of the book became an impediment, making it harder for me to get drawn in and really care about what was happening. It is hard to render female rage and woundedness in a compelling way; it often comes across as whiny and self-absorbed. Offhill teeters on the edge of that, and perhaps the brevity of the narrative keeps her just this side of tolerable. After the promise of the early-to-middle third of the book, however, this feels like a let-down. Then there's a little twist at the end, which I still don't know what I think of. It might be a smaller version of the internal deliberations I'm having about the book as a whole. Poignant? Clever? Obnoxious? Gimmicky? Or largely forgettable?

07 August 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob

I got this as a GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. Which was awesome -- I will totally trade a review for a book. Keep 'em coming.

Book clubs are going to devour this one. Multi-generational, moving immigrant story? Yeah.

Which is not to say it's not a good book. Jacob has a fantastic ear for dialogue, and her characters are amazingly well realized. It's been a long time since a work of fiction has made me cry. I cared about these people. I grew extremely attached to them and their flaws and foibles, and I was very invested in what was going to happen to them.

...but that was not enough to prevent me from noticing that what was happening to them would have benefited from the wisdom of an editor who could rein it in a bit. The book is a fast read, but it is also 500 pages, and it would have been better if it were 300. There are 5 major plotlines, and while they add some depth to the characters, they also converge in ways that make you aware of just how neatly everything is coming together. Especially because most of them get wrapped up in the last 30 pages. I actually started to wonder if I had been given a faulty copy as I approached the end because I couldn't see how on earth it could conclude in so little space. It was really irritating, after having stuck with the story for 480 pages, to be whisked out of it in such a fashion.

More frustrating was the novel's tendency to veer towards the rom-com-esque; simplified solutions and an excess of sentimentality. Do we need a scene with that character binge drinking in order to understand how upset she is, or is it just that such scenes are easy shorthand to express trauma (does she really need to be extra traumatized in the first place)? Is a romance plot really necessary, or is a happy ending possible without one? So many things about this book are truly creative and unique, making it all the more disappointing when it slouches into stock plot devices.

Nonetheless -- it's a charming, pleasant book. Give the characters 150 pages and they will almost certainly win you over, even if you do roll your eyes from time to time. And I will definitely look forward to seeing what Mira Jacob does next.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck

This is so, so lovely. A lyrical reflection on immigration, assimilation, and how the second generation grapples with the history and passed-down memories of the old country. But also, or perhaps more so, a wonderful story about life, love, marital problems, troublesome neighbors...

A Bintel Brief is based on archival materials; an advice column in a Yiddish newspaper published in the early 20th century. The novel is framed around the encounter between Finck and the author of the responses to the letters (and maybe some of the letters themselves), Abraham Cahan. It might sound gimmicky but it works beautifully, a playful and subtle reflection on changing times and how we relate to the past. The real stars, of course, are the letters themselves, and their funny, slightly melancholic questions, which give you an astonishingly vibrant glimpse into the lives of their authors. It's a wonderful way of preserving and celebrating a slice of history and way of life that has been mostly lost.

The story is wonderful, and it is beautifully complemented by the gorgeous artwork. I do not always pay as much attention to the visual aspect of graphic novels as I should, because I am impatient to get on with the story, but this one I just sat and looked at, admiring the way that the images conveyed certain aspects or emotional undertones of the story. At one point the narrative pauses to give you a series of portraits based on photographs. Done in grayscale, looking like watercolor with ink detail, perhaps? they are the perfect intersection of realism and abstraction, wonderfully evocative and strangely touching. The book is just a brilliant mixture of image and word, history and invention, humor, sadness, and joy...

It is a wonderful book. Buy it.

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.