25 May 2012

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson

A friend of mine read this in her intro humanities class on modernity last semester, and I was intrigued. The premise is that the author is trying to figure out why he hates Celine Dion, and why so many other people love her, and what this tells us about Celine Dion, music, and taste more generally. I am very open to this idea, because about 8 years ago, I attended a screening of a film about Britney Spears that had been made for a coffee table book about her, which was followed by a conversation with the director, a woman who had made other, more highbrow documentary films, and the experience was nothing short of life changing. So I am pretty much the friendliest audience you can imagine for an in-depth consideration of critically snubbed pop stars. Let's Talk About Love is not an earth shattering book, but it's a pleasant, thoughtful read.

As much as I tend to dismiss biographical criticism, I have to admit that it somehow does make a difference to me to learn that Dion was one of like 14 children who grew up in an extremely poor Catholic Québécois family. Wilson makes a fascinating point, that what seems like Dion's inauthenticity is arguably illegibility; people just don't know how to interpret her cultural signifiers, because they're unfamiliar with her context. Huh. So yes, I learned a lot about Dion herself. I was startled to realize that he is much younger than I thought. In fact, she was roughly my age when she did My Heart Will Go On, a fact I found somewhat horrifying.

The more theoretical stuff, on taste itself, is a mixed bag. Historical overviews of approaches to taste (Kant meets Bourdieu) are somewhat interesting but ultimately not that useful. The more anecdotal discussions of music and coolness are quite compelling, however. And the examination of the ways that taste and identity politics overlap is thoughtful, though bleeding heart liberal enough to induce a few eye rolls. There is this nice moment where Wilson meets a Dion fan and realizes that they are utterly different people, but finds the guy completely likeable, and is just sort of flummoxed by how people with such different tastes can find each other both likeable and mutually incomprehensible. He frames this as each having complete, discrete "taste worlds," and I like this formulation of it being a world, a combination of opinion and life experience.

What I actually found the most intriguing was the discussion of sentimentality and what it's uses are. There's this moment where he tackles the idea of difficult art being seen as a offering a sort of utopian transcendence of everyday life, and then he tries to think through the inverse notion, that "easy" art is a way of plunging you into that everyday world. There is something really fascinating about that. It will stick with me. Amusingly enough, Wilson's impassioned defense of sentimentality can come across as slightly maudlin at times, especially when he's mentioning his feelings about the end of his marriage, but in a way, this is the whole point, an idea of actually existing in the space of the uncomfortable and embarassing. It's kind of neat.

A very pleasant book. Definitely recommended.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Better Half took me to see this last night as a surprise. It's an absolutely lovely documentary about a guy who is probably the world's greatest sushi chef. It's a simple, quiet sort of film (with lots of footage of breathtakingly gorgeous sushi - we immediately followed it up with dinner at Arami, which was phenomenal), but really enjoyable. It's not a biography, really, or even an in-depth look at the restaurant and how it runs, it's more like spending some time with this guy and people connected to him. A very minimalist narrative construction that feels unintrusive and intimate.

What is, perhaps, most inspiring about the film is Jiro's attitude towards his craft. It reminded me of a lecture Arnold Davidson gave a few years back on the idea of spiritual exercises (there's a syllabus online to a class of his on a related topic that I wish I could take, because it would probably be life-changing). It's this notion of repetition of a seemingly simple task until you can achieve perfection - there's something so powerful about this idea. Another wonderful moment in the film is when Jiro says that to be a great chef, you must be a great eater, and longingly says that if he had the palate of this other great French chef (whose name escapes me at the moment), he could probably prepare even better food. It's so touching. One could cynically say that the film taps into all your warm fuzzy feelings about vocation and the making of a masterpiece, but minimizes the self-abasement (which appears here as a gracious humility) and self-discipline (we are told that Jiro was basically not around for most of his son's lives, working from 5am to 10pm) and the costs to others of pursuing your own dreams (we hear nothing about his wife). There is a somewhat careful treatment of his sons and their training - we learn that one of his sons wanted to be a fighter pilot or a race car driver, that both wanted to go to college but their father wanted them to work in the restaurant. Also, we hear about how they will simply never be recognized as having the skill their father does - despite the fact that (and this is actually a bit of a bombshell that the film very subtly drops) it was actually his son who prepared all the food that the Michelin inspectors who awarded the restaurant 3 stars ate. So yes, one could be cynical and look at the realities underlying this kind of perfection, but to be honest, I'd rather just enjoy the pleasant lyricism of the film's rendering of genius. There is simply no question, at any point, as to whether devoting your life to making sushi, or knowing everything about what makes tuna good (actually, one of my favorite characters in the film was an uncompromising tuna buyer, also a master of his craft) is a worthwhile pursuit. I think it helps that Jiro tastes the food as he prepares it, so at least you get the sense that he reaps the benefits of his own labors somewhat.

Anyways, a lovely film, and definitely a new item on the places to eat at some point in my life list.

21 May 2012

Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman

This book is considered a classic in exile autobiography, and I think deservedly so. The writing is lovely, bathed in a gentle nostalgia and longing but lacking the kind of bitterness one often finds in such works. You don't really get a coherent narrative, more like a cast of characters, and even they are seen somewhat obliquely. But they're a lively, intriguing bunch, with their ethnic and class differences and continuous squabbles. His deaf mother is an especially fascinating character, scheming, frustrated, and prone to intense rages.

Curiously, you don't get an especially strong sense of place. I read the novel before going to Alexandria, thinking it would sort of prime me for the trip, but it doesn't really spend much time on descriptions of place. I did appreciate the book more after going to some of the places he mentions, but I didn't visit them with any sense of having met them before - I really didn't know what to expect (of course, it's also probably changed quite a lot since he wrote the book...). But the passionate evocation of place is usually the centerpiece of exile life writing, and here it is largely absent - he's much more interested in the cast.

You learn a bit about the history of his time, what it was like growing up Jewish and somewhat out of place with your surroundings in a tumultuous period of Egyptian history, but again, not that much. I think the book ends up feeling in some ways like a series of sketches. The people described are wonderfully brought to life, but one does rather miss a story that would tie it all together. I think I will try reading one of his novels to see if they work out better.

08 May 2012

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

I have been terribly remiss in my updating of late, partly because I've been traveling a lot, and tearing through books like a fiend. The combination of not being in front of a laptop and having way too much to post about is not such a great one. But I feel a sense of obligation towards my few* faithfully regular readers, so!

I really quite like Ondaatje's prose. And this book is quite beautiful in many ways, effortlessly engaging, occasionally lyrical, and overall quite pleasant. But I also wasn't that taken with it. It kept me reading, yes, but it didn't quite make me actually care about the people. To be fair though, I am generally just less interested in novels where the narrative perspective is that of a child. I tend to find them somewhat cloying. This one had that kind of wistfulness that often irks me - actually more so in the fragments that jumped ahead to the future - but it was just this side of palatable.  However, the somewhat meandering plot, with its nonlinear jumps and multiple storylines, felt a bit strained.** It seemed a bit unsure about what it wanted to do, as a novel. The writing was lovely in many parts, but it just didn't hold together as well as it could have, story-wise.

Overall, I think if you want to read some Ondaatje, there are many superior options to choose from.

* Really just one, so far as I know, but maybe two, if my dad is still checking in. And then there are a few people I know who stop by from time to time. And the occasional random visitor/troll. Sometimes this blog seems like something I do just to keep myself writing something about books when I'm not doing any other writing, other times, it's a way to actually work through my thoughts, and other times, it's really just a way of telling a few people I like about some stuff I've read lately.

** To be fair, I was somewhat strained - I read it at the tail end of an 8 hour book binge, after finishing one book and then reading another one cover-to-cover, so I might have been somewhat burnt out.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

When I started my project of reading all of Zora Neale Hurston's books, I was looking forward to this one. And indeed. It is so, so beautiful. Her prose reaches its greatest heights in this novel. If you've read her other stuff, actually, you'll notice that some scenes from her other works reappear in this book. I don't mind - it's as though she put her absolute best into this one novel. It's a fabulous combination of her ethnography and her literary practice. Yes, there are segments that are basically set-pieces dropped in because she just loves the culture and wants to put some in there. But those parts are pretty great, so while they aren't as neatly integrated as they could be, they are still wonderful.

Once again, the feminist angle: while the novel gets read as one woman's odyssey of self-discovery - which it is - there are also some fairly troubling scenes, as when, for instance, there is this loving reflection on domestic abuse: Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. (...) "Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit you back, neither. Take some uh dese ol' rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn't tell you ever hit 'em. Dat's de reason Ah done quit beatin' mah woman. You can't make no mark on 'em at all. Lawd! wouldn't Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! Ah bet she doesn't even holler. She jus' cries, eh Tea Cake?" (140-141)  And the novel's portrayal of the black community is decidedly ambivalent as well, highlighting petty jealousies and tensions.

But while this book evinces some of the same interest in modernization and reform that her other books do, it also has certain reservations about class mobility and its effects on people. One of Janie's big complaints is that Jodie won't let her have any fun, insisting that she play the role of the proper wealthy wife (well, and work hard). She resents being so cut off from people. Tea Cake initially has the same impulse, but she makes it clear that she wants to share his life in every way. Of course, their way of life is at least partly enabled by the money she's got saved up, but the point holds, I think.

Overall though, the real joy of this book is its absolutely gorgeous language, and its wonderful, moving depiction of love.

Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore. (182)