30 July 2012

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

I got about 300 pages in and gave up and skimmed the rest to find out how it ended. Pamuk's writing has this fascinating quality for me; I find it incredibly vivid and extremely absorbing - when I'm reading it, I'm IN that world to an astonishing extent - but the glacial pace of his plots, and/or the lack of plot at all, drives me bonkers. I've read, or attempted to read, four of his books now, Snow, The White Castle, The New Life, and this one, and the only one I really liked was the one that is totally anomalous style-wise, The White Castle. Snow was great for the first 100 pages, and then it got annoying and self-aggrandizing (because one presume the protagonist is a thinly veiled version of Pamuk himself). Indeed, many of the books have these "clever," transparently autobiographical moments that I find extremely grating. The Museum of Innocence was especially annoying, with scenes where Pamuk himself appears ("then I walked by the Pamuk family table. Orhan their son who wanted to be a writer, was there."). Ugh.

The plot of this book could be summed up in about four sentences. Which is fine, but it's a little bit melodramatic and not that compelling. Pamuk is a fantastic writer. It's just that the stories he tells are rarely all that interesting.

29 July 2012

Tears of the Giraffe, by Alexander McCall Smith

I read the first book in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series quite recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I grabbed the second one to read on a flight. It was pleasant, but not nearly as good as the first. More character-related story, less mystery, and the political subtexts were a lot less sub- this time around, making it seem didactic and preachy rather than intelligent and interesting (I think of this as the Thousand Splendid Suns phenomenon, because I had the same impression of that book). Still though, it was a pleasant read and left me wanting to hear more about Precious Ramotswe and her adventures, so I'll probably read the third one on my flight home...

28 July 2012

To Rome With Love

Midnight in Paris, though not a phenomenal film, had somewhat renewed my hopes that Woody Allen might start making Woody Allen movies again (though I did not dislike his non-Woody Allen movies - Vicky Christina Barcelona was great). Alas, To Rome With Love is a pale shadow of a Woody Allen film. The all star cast seems to have been instructed to tamp down their performances as much as possible (why put Benigni in a movie if you're looking for restraint?), so most of the fun has been throttled out of it. What little spark there is in the largely bland dialogue is stifled after being delivered with what seems like dogged determination and grim resolve. Even Allen himself, back in his usual role, is utterly without energy. As a result, the somewhat absurd plot seems listless and random, without anything to grab on to and care about.

It's a real pity, because it could be a fun movie. Parts of it manage to be entertaining anyhow, and one character, a seemingly chaste young wife, even musters a delightful eroticism that makes adultery seem charming. One of the amusements of Woody Allen's recent movies is watching young actors play stock roles from his catalogue: Jesse Eisenberg does a good turn as the nervously chattering Woody Allen type, but Ellen Paige is rather unfortunately miscast as the quirky crazed pixie fatale. In general, the Italians are better than the Americans, maybe partly just because they're new faces. Another reliable pleasure is setting, and while Rome doesn't get the lavish attention that Paris or New York does, it still looks quite nice.

Overall though, a bland and rather mediocre film. Alas, alas.

24 July 2012

Shut Up and Play the Hits

James Murphy is one of a handful of people in this world who can not only make really awesome art, but can also talk about it in very interesting ways. LCD Soundsystem famously "quit" being a band last year, performing a sold out goodbye concert at Madison Square Gardens. The movie is partly footage of the concert, partly interview footage, and partly just scenes from the life, as it were. It's centered around Murphy - the other members of the band basically never speak. This is unfortunate, because I'd be quite curious to hear what they have to say. And the lack of any discussion of their thoughts and feelings is a rather glaring absence. That said though, it is an extremely warm and intimate look at James Murphy, who has a lot of interesting things to say about music, fame, the band, etc. One of his comments that I found particularly intriguing was the idea that fame or rock star-ness isn't about any sort of specific character traits, but about your position in culture. In other words, not acting like "rock stars"does not make your band any less of a big deal (though one might argue that the other members of the band have actually succeeded at this a bit more, and maybe this is also exactly why they don't want to be in the movie). Not that Murphy hates interviews - as he himself admits, there is a certain desire to keep explaining yourself and your ideas. This, I think, is what makes him so interesting - that he is a genuinely thoughtful person with intellectual curiosity and a certain amount of reflexiveness about what he's doing (the interviewer at one point suggests that this is the band's greatest flaw, their self-consciousness - an intriguing suggestion). But the movie isn't just him being all analytical, it's also quite emotional, occasionally in what feels like a very raw way. The end result is both thought-provoking and moving, and a real treat for any fan of the band.

19 July 2012

We Have a Pope

It's been a long time since I saw a movie I enjoyed as much as this one. Alternately hilarious, touching, and genuinely thought-provoking, it is an utterly charming film. The movie opens with a cardinal being elected Pope and panicking when he is to greet the masses. He escapes to think, and meanwhile, because he has not yet been seen by the public, his election is not officially complete, and the other cardinals still cannot have any contact with the outside world. Of course, some hilarious hijinx ensue, but the movie is in no way dismissive of or offensive towards the Catholic church, I think. Actually, it's a rather profound reflection on what it means to be Pope, and what the Pope's role in the world is. It really made me think. Particularly interesting to consider is the difference between the authority of a Pope and, say, a President, and what it means for someone in either position to express doubt.

I don't want to say too much about the movie, because really, it's such a joy to just experience without knowing much about it beforehand, but by all means, if you have a chance to see it, do.

The Romantic Agony, by Mario Praz

Someone should do a proper reissue of this book. And when they do, they should put in the extra work to fix it up; interpellate the Addenda, and most importantly, provide translations of the quotes. Because the book is basically a pastiche of quotes some of them over a page long, and if you don't know French, you're pretty s.o.l. (amusingly/infuriatingly enough, a lot of the quotes from Poe are given in French). There's a fair amount of Italian in there as well, and some Latin (the German is mostly translated, and the Russian quotes are provided in English. Snobbery much?). I skipped over a lot of the French (I tried to skim most of it at least, but I'm pretty lazy and my French is only so-so), and obviously got a lot less out of the book as a result. The book is mostly structured as a kind of show-and-tell; for example, he has a chapter on the Fatal Beauty as a type, and the whole thing is basically a bunch of quotes that mention evil women. There's very little analysis, unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately, because what does appear is occasionally quite, ahem, dated ("Like Mrs. Radcliffe, other authoresses also adopted the persecuted woman as a character; but there may be nothing more in this than another of the many manifestations of feminine imitativeness." (113)

Nonetheless, the book is definitely a classic, not least in almost encyclopedic collection of sources and quotes. And there is something delightful in its focus on what we might call the ickiest aspects of Romanticism. I mean, my god, those guys were seriously f*#!ed up. By the end, I was fairly well convinced that there is nothing new in the current penchant for ultraviolence, and if we are de-sensitized, maybe we should blame the Romantics. But I suspect that one could produce a similar overview of horrific cruelty and sadism in earlier times just as easily (though inflected differently, maybe).

As far as classics on literary criticism go, this doesn't hold up nearly as well as The Mirror and the Lamp, which I read recently as well (and didn't blog about, sorry...), and which, while a bit dry and long-winded at times, is still pretty incredible. That opening chapter should definitely be required reading in any lit theory class (in the same way the first chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis should be). The Romantic Agony isn't really a must-read, though I'm glad to have done it. And it's perhaps worth noting that it's a surprisingly fast-paced read (maybe more so if you're skipping some of the quotes, heh heh) - the collage-like structure makes it pretty light reading over all, because you're not bogged down in dense analytic prose. But you definitely emerge with a kind of overall sense of some of the darker currents within Romanticism. 

11 July 2012

Bitter Sky, by Zdravka Evtimova

A bizarre, dark, but rather wonderful collection of linked tales. From the very beginning, you realize that this is not a typical book. One of the early stories describes a shopkeeper in a pet store being asked for mole's blood. Not having any, s/he ends up cutting her own wrist to extract some blood. By the end of the story, hordes are coming for the miraculous substance, and the narrator remarks ruefully that "Everyone has a sick person at home and a knife in his hand." It's funny but also disturbing (kind of reminds me of Etgar Keret's stories, actually), and sets the tone wonderfully for the rest of the book, which contains many such tales, often matter-of-factly brutal, and yet strangely warm and human. I really liked it. At the very end it takes a strange turn into sci-fi that I found rather puzzling and somewhat off-putting, but overall, a very interesting read.

The Three-Arched Bridge, by Ismail Kadare

As I was reading this, it reminded me so strongly of Ivo Andric's writing (and especially his novel Bridge on the Drina, and/or his short story "The Bridge on the Zepa;" I read both 8 years ago and they've somewhat run together in my mind) that I actually wondered if there was some plagiarism going on. Maybe I've just read this book before. Or maybe the theme of bridges just runs rampant in Balkan literature, and has an attendant set of tropes with which one describes it, such as the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, the whiteness of stone, and the structure's out-of-place appearance in the landscape. I don't know. But I was so distracted by this sense of deja vu while reading that I didn't really pay as much attention to the book as I should have. But it's an interesting and well written story.

The novel, which progresses in brief chapters that are like short bursts of feeling, describes the construction of a bridge (duh). It's written from the perspective of a monk who is horrified by the looming presence of the Turks and the threat their culture represents. The clash of traditional and modern and Balkan and Turkish cultures is curiously allegorized in some shady back-room dealings, where each side weaves a series of tales, exploiting local legend to accomplish its goals. It's a well written book, and an absorbing one, but several days after reading it, I'm having a hard time remembering much about it. Not exactly a glowing recommendation, but it really is a pretty good book.

04 July 2012

2 Days in New York

My boyfriend and I were roaming the streets of Warsaw and got caught in a sudden downpour, so we ducked into a movie theater just in time to see this. I had actually been looking forward to it - I really liked 2 Days in Paris, and I rewatched Before Sunrise recently on my flight to Poland and found myself enjoying it much more than I'd expected to. So I was primed to enjoy Julie Delpy doing her thing. But 2 Days in New York fell a bit flat.

First off, the film seems insanely rushed. It clocks in around 90 minutes, but it seems like less, partly because it hustles through each scene with awkward jump cuts to remove "unnecessary" moments. A character gets up, and rather than add the one second of them walking to the door, you get this jolting cut to the door closing. Like, oh, ok, I guess we didn't really need to watch that, you're right, let's get to the point. Which is what, exactly?

Not much. The movie trots out the usual culture clash stereotypes. They're amusing - I laughed out loud at several moments - but there's not much that's new here. The plot is just nonsensical enough to be grating, with the curious result that I found myself nitpicking over minor details ("There's no way she would've had time to do that") and letting wildly unlikely things slide. Most problematic is that the "action," namely, the vagaries of the relationship between Chris Rock and Julie Delpy, are largely unconvincing. They're just not believable to me as a couple. There's zero chemistry, and their personalities don't seem to mesh at all. Both of them are kind of difficult and annoying in ways that would likely be an utter disaster in real life. All of their fights seem like somewhat minor kerfuffles, yet the movie occasionally seems to want us to take them seriously as Real Issues.

Overall, it doesn't quite add up. It's entertaining enough to rent, I think, but it's definitely not a must-see.

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, by Isak Dinesen

I LOVE Isak Dinesen's books, and have been gradually working my way through them all, but this was not one of my favorites. I suppose a major barrier is the repeated mention of the "dark races," the mysterious child-like minds of the primitive, etc. Although Dinesen repeatedly says that she loves the Natives, it's still a bit hard to stomach the worldview. In her defense, I do understand how being a foreigner in a different culture does somewhat incline you towards making sweeping generalizations as you try to make sense of this new world. This is what leads to the strange paradox of people who have spent some time in a place may have even more racist and backwards views of it than someone who has never been there. But some descriptions of cultural differences are also genuinely genuinely perceptive and interesting. It's hard to draw a line.

So yes, some of the book is intriguing. The prose is lovely as always, and Dinesen's life has indeed been interesting in many ways. Her gaze is directed outwards rather than inwards - its not an especially intimate book. You don't actually hear about her marriage or divorce, for instance, though the back cover introduces her with them. Rather, you hear about some of the things she did while in Africa, what some of her frustrations were, some amusing anecdotes, etc. In general, I'd say the book is really for die-hard fans only.