30 March 2014

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

I came to this book at the exact right moment of my life to really, really appreciate it. The themes of procrastination, literary appreciation, loneliness and failure really resonated with me, and I really wanted to spend all my time reading it instead of doing my own writing.

At the same time, I can easily see why someone would not like the book. The narrative voice is a bit annoying --  I think if it hadn't been for the fact that a friend recommended the book to me and I read it somewhat through the lens of his appreciation, I might have found it unbearable -- though it does get better after a few chapters. The narrator/protagonist is a bit of a failure, which may irritate some readers. I think Baker manages to keep him from being so pathetic as to be grating, but others may disagree. People may also find his pontificating lectures on poetry obnoxious. I was strangely tolerant of them, even though I didn't always buy into his ideas, and he keeps hammering the same ideas over and over. But it was nice to read someone's strong opinions on what poetry is like and how it works. It was also nice to be reminded of the whole contemporary poetry scene and what a small and inter-connected circle it can be; this group of authors and critics and appreciators who work together to keep poetry going. A few of my good friends in grad school were very much a part of that scene, and I miss having more proximity to it.

I don't think it's an amazing book; actually, I think most people probably would not like it. But it was just right for me right now.

29 March 2014


I was jokingly calling this How Gloria Got Her Groove Back, and it must be acknowledged that the reference is not entirely unwarranted, but fortunately, it's a much more understated and interesting film. An episode in the life of Gloria, a middle aged woman who is not desperately trying to balance love and career, or find someone to love her, or bemoaning old age. Instead, she's a fairly successful (it seems) divorcé who likes to go out dancing and have a good time; whose children have problems of their own which concern but do not consume her; and who is open to the idea of a relationship or maybe just a one night stand. There are not many movies made about women like this. It is so, so refreshing to see a film about a woman who is neither frigid nor desperate, despite being single. And a film about people in their 50s that isn't pitying or condescending to them. The movie is confident enough in the depth of her character that it can include the types of details that would often serve as cliché in films about older single women; her singing along to romantic pop ballads on the radio, or being scared of a strange noise at night. Plot-wise, Gloria is mostly a typical romantic drama, but with an atypical cast: girl meets boy, complications ensue. But it feels wonderfully true-to-life.

It must be admitted, however, that the film does drag a bit. It's on the long side, and there isn't a whole lot going on. I got a little bored during the first 40 minutes, but then I got into it and I started liking Gloria more and more, and appreciating the atypical realism of the plot. It's perhaps worth noting that I think there is probably a really interesting political subtext to the film -- there are various references to the situation in Chile that mostly went over my head, but would probably be quite meaningful to a more informed observer. Anyways, despite our many differences, I felt like I could identify with Gloria. Though some scenes were cringe-worthy, and others were sad, nothing was totally awful or devastating. I am increasingly finding myself drawn to these works of minor tragedy (something I also really liked about the Barbara Pym novel that I read recently). Sometimes bad things happen, and we're sad, and then life goes on.

Definitely a movie worth watching.

28 March 2014

Need for Speed

It is possible that I have a thing for movies about driving fast? I did not actually know this about myself. I assumed that my love for the Fast and Furious franchise had just as much to do with the puns, wryly self-aware campiness, and over-the-top stunts, rather than specifically with the cars. And I mainly saw Rush for Daniel Brühl. In fact, I had no intention of going to see Need for Speed (some crappy Fast and Furious knock-off, I figured), but the only other thing playing right now that I haven't seen is Monuments Men, and if I'm gonna see a bad movie, I'd prefer it to be without any intellectual pretensions. But at some point I realized I was gasping and clutching my throat in terror during one of the racing scenes in this movie. I have a visceral reaction to automobile collisions (maybe everyone does?). So high-speed driving with a sprinkling of smash-ups will definitely keep me on the edge of my seat. So Need for Speed totally worked for me. I have no idea why it got panned so hard in the US. I mean, it's not Fellini, but for what it is, it's pretty great. I've also seen the new 300 movie and Non-Stop in the last week, and neither were anywhere near as entertaining as this.

What is more surprising is that it did so without any discernible sense of irony. They played this movie totally straight. Everybody involved seemed committed to going with it. Even the sassy black friend (plaued by Kid Cudi! What!) was just sassy enough to be, well, sassy, but also a little eye-rollingly not-actually-that-funny. A part of me really appreciated that -- it made him more realistic. Though of course, fast-talking banter is part of what makes comedies so awesome. But I digress. Actually, everyone in this movie was just a little bit sub-par; like a b-list version of the absurdly attractive people you find in most such films. Which I liked about it. Aaron Paul completely won me over as the tormented hero. The role didn't require too much of him, but he supplemented it with his hilarious facial expressions and his winsome blue eyes. Imogen Poots (my god can that really be her name?) was a somewhat gentler version of the typically brutally sharp and devastatingly sexy sidekick/love interest, Dakota Johnson was a largely bland version of the ex-girlfriend, Dominic Cooper was a pedestrian evil villain, and the whole team of friends were all charming and funny and largely forgettable (ok, Rami Malek stripping was somewhat memorable).

The plot, unsurprisingly, is completely absurd. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief going on here. All you really need to know is, Aaron Paul is a really amazing driver, Dominic Cooper is super evil, and they are going to settle this on the track. Meanwhile, it does perk one's interest as to the sentencing guidelines of street-racing, and particularly whether in the real world one is charged with manslaughter or murder in some degree for the kinds of deaths you see in the film. Certainly better not to think too much about that. Or the implications (trying to say this in a non-spoiler way) of the fact that two characters in the film get out of jail at the same time when sentenced for very different things.  But actually, the film does gesture towards some kind of morality in a somewhat predictable but nonetheless vaguely admirable way.

But honestly, the more important thing is -- it's enjoyable as hell.

27 March 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Leading the itinerant life I do, bouncing between Chicago and Ankara with various stops in between and Warsaw glimmering somewhere in the background, there was a lot I could relate to in this book, which offers the reflections of a man returning from New York to Lagos. Cole himself might not agree, but for me the driving question behind this book was how you can know a place. It is this desire to know, or perhaps better to say, to understand, that animates the scattered observations of the text and ties them together. "The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city is dense with story," he says, and some of them get swept into his reflections, even as he know that many others don't. Much of the book is devoted to simply taking in the surroundings and attempting to get some kind of foothold.

There is also the frustration of being in and perhaps even loving a place that seems so infuriatingly broken. This is something I think about often with both Turkey (especially lately) and Poland, and actually, with the US too. But it's harder to talk about the problems of a place that is geopolitically disadvantaged (Cole mentions former President Obasanjo's assertion that "the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by the critics"). It is greatly to Cole's credit that he confronts those problems, both current and past, with an almost brutally unflinching gaze. Histories of slavery, terrifyingly frequent robberies and violence, rampant corruption and poverty. The tricky part is capturing the specific joys that these places also possess, sometimes as a direct consequence of the very things that are wrong with them. Discussing the motorbikes (okadas) that serve as one of the cheapest forms of transportation in Lagos, Cole mentions their cheapness, and their danger, and that women have to hike up their skirts to ride them. He also says they are a "good way to get a feel for the city," but overall, rather skimps on the pleasure they might also afford. Maybe it's my own bias: I can't help it, I know I should know better but I still find motorbikes thrilling, and I love the freedom of the wind on my face and the scenery whizzing by. The many practical day-to-day things that don't work in Turkey are maddening and sometimes dangerous or heartbreaking, but there is some slight compensation in the sense of adventure it gives to the quotidian, and on a good day it gives life a vibrancy that I often miss in the US. As Cole (hilariously) puts it: "It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes."

What is especially intriguing in the book is the way it shifts between the lyrical and the more flatly empirical. Prices are given with a specificity that can almost feel crass, for instance, even as they serve as data points that convey something quite concrete about the realities of Nigerian life. Sometimes facts can obscure feeling, failing to grasp the ethos of a milieu. On the other hand, there is a dangerous slippage between fetishizing or settling for some kind of floating sense or concept (idea l'a need, as a Nigerian might say) and negligence or counterfactuality.

The photographs in the book form serve as a curious middle-ground in this regard; obviously rooted in the empirical world, but with an oneiric quality that belies their ostensibly documentary function. What is striking about them, to me, is how they make me feel that I both see and do not see at the same time; how partial this vision is, how conditioned by Cole's own (lovely) aesthetic. I am unfortunately viewing them on a Kindle -- when I get back to the US, I may have to buy a physical copy so as to be able to flip through the pages and look at them properly.

It is possible that the book will not speak as strongly to people who haven't confronted some of these same questions in their own lives, I really don't know. But I think many will enjoy being carried along in the stream of the narrator's musings in any case.

And incidentally, if you haven't gotten a chance to read it yet, this interview with Cole in the NYTimes is pretty fantastic -- refreshingly unlike so many such interviews. I was particularly delighted by his matter-of-fact response to the question of what book he would like to make the President read, which very much echoes my own feelings, and my frustration with the recent spate of articles on the internet about how reading literature makes you a better person. But that's another thing altogether.

26 March 2014

Zadie Smith interviews Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


You may recall that I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My feelings about Zadie Smith are more ambiguous (I talk about this a little in a footnote to this entry), but I'm steadily coming around, and this interview really helped, actually -- I think there's something about her that I have in the past found incredibly affected, but am realizing really isn't. In any case, I have always also found her a very interesting thinker, so I was quite excited to watch this. And it was everything I hoped for, times a billion. It's just over an hour long, and it's so completely fantastic. Smart, laugh out loud funny, thought-provoking, no-nonsense-straight-up-lay-some-truth-on-it-yessss! kind of great. I was chuckling and nodding and oh interesting!-ing throughout. I loved it. Check it out.

24 March 2014

A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned this as the best book she'd read in 2013, and that was enough to make me want to read it. And I did not regret it. Although it petered out a bit towards the end, I mostly loved every minute. Smart, subtle, and wonderfully funny, with a gently ironic insight into human psychology reminiscent of Austen or Flaubert ("That anyone could doubt my capacity to love! But strangely enough my immediate thought was that I could not bear to go home by bus."). Pym is consistently described as masterfully illustrating the "small" lives of somewhat provincial middle-class women, and indeed, what she lacks in scale she makes up for in depth. It is astonishing, how compelling she makes the vague boredom and somewhat mundane hopes of these characters. There is a delicious balance of primness and subversion -- the wicked humor of Dorothy Parker or Muriel Spark, but never quite so blatant. Although Alexander McCall Smith, in a lovely piece on Pym, says that men are a main focal point, I rather think this novel is more about female friendships and community. Most intriguing to me, actually, is that it's very much about being a member of a church, less in spiritual terms than in social ones, something one rarely sees portrayed in a thoughtful way.
Overall, a delightful book. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of her novels.

19 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I fully expected to hate this, because I generally really don't care for Wes Anderson's movies. But I actually enjoyed it a fair amount, which is not to say that I don't have some complaints. But to start with the good: I found it a lot more visually appealing than his other films. I am not all that wild about his aesthetic most of the time -- the bright colors often seem vaguely garish and just kind of ugly to me -- but this time, I enjoyed it (perhaps the Eastern European-ness helped). More importantly, parts of it were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Ralph Fiennes was great. The preview led me to believe he would be a vaguely obnoxious affected fop for the entire film, but there was just enough mettle under the fabulousness to pull it off and make it a recognizably human character. He absolutely steals the show.

As per usual, however, I found the film completely unengaging emotionally. The story was basically one thing after another, and the randomness, absurdity, and over-the-top caricatured characters made it impossible to believe and thus hard to care. There is nothing really recognizably human to me in these films: it's all spectacle. Which is fair enough, I guess, but what I find obnoxious about it, particularly in something like The Darjeeling Limited or this movie, is the way a foreign culture turns into mere aesthetic backdrop: all style, no substance. World War Two? Excellent for vaguely comical run-ins with pseudo-Nazi soldiers in snazzy uniforms. They're not ACTUAL Nazis, they just look pretty much exactly like them, and speak German, and the movie is set during the time of WWII. But it's not like it really intends to faithfully capture anything about that time period, or take it seriously in any way. It's just a neat looking setting! Call me humorless and oversensitive, but to me that's not only ignorant and distasteful, it's also disrespectful to the millions who died during that period of history. It enraged me in Darjeeling Limited, and it pissed me off in Grand Budapest Hotel. If you want to create an ahistorical fantasy world, create one. Leave actual people and places out of it.

16 March 2014

Zeno's Conscience, by William Weaver

I'd had this on the shelf for ages, but the death of its wonderful translator William Weaver (who also gave English speakers many of Calvino's works) inspired me to finally pick it up. It's wonderful; one of these modernist masterpieces that examine the perverse impossibility of free will by virtue of man's impossibility to do the things he seemingly wants to do and recognizes as best. Dry, absurd hilarity with a maniacal edge reminiscent of Dostoevsky or Gombrowicz. A delightful book.

03 March 2014

Gilgamesh: a Verse Narrative, by Herbert Mason

                                              She made me see 
Things as a man, and a man sees death in things. 
That is what it is to be a man.

 I stumbled across this somewhat randomly, because a student of mine bought the wrong translation of the text. I'm so glad he did, because this is really wonderful. I would never use it to teach, because it strips the original of much of its rich ambiguity -- it is decidedly a subjective version of the story -- but simultaneously, one must admit that it is not only more approachable, it also eloquently brings out the beauty of the book. While I might quibble with some of the interpretive choices, I am grateful to Mason for demonstrating how amenable the text is to such treatment. Given the many re-tellings of the Iliad, it's actually kind of astonishing that there aren't more of these (Dear Anne Carson: please? I know it's not Greek, but I'm confident you can do it anyhow.). A quick read, and a pleasurable one.

Dispatches from the !f Festival

I have to say, it was a bit disappointing this year. I didn't even go to that many movies, because not much really called to me, and then a few things I wanted to see were sold out. Definitely the best thing I saw was I am Divine, which I just wrote up in the previous post. Other than that, in brief, it was:

Night Moves
 I loved Old Joy, and though I thought Wendy and Lucy was only so-so, I was definitely willing to see whatever Kelly Reichardt was doing now. Alas. It was pretty poopy. Her typical understated, quiet, lots of long takes of scenery type thing, but with a somewhat absurdly melodramatic plot that seems all the more ridiculous and cliché when told in such a painstakingly slow way. If you want to see an interesting film about environmentalist terrorists, see The East, which I thought was forgettable when I watched it, but now remember as being quite interesting.

The Grandmaster
We saw the 130 minute festival version, and while it was very long, the extra 10 minutes of the original Chinese version might have come in useful, because there were some major holes in the narrative. My father suggests that it's because the story is so well known to Chinese audiences that they don't need the full plot, but, well, I do. I found this movie gorgeous, but very difficult to follow. As always with Wong Kar-Wai's films, I loved the aesthetic. Particularly of one of the female characters, who strongly calls to mind 1920s gangsters. And Tony Leung is still one of the most beautiful men alive. I had a vague sense that the movie delicately gestured towards the gradual decline of martial arts culture and its shift into cinema, but I'm not sure what gave me that idea. Overall, I liked the movie, but it's definitely flawed.

The Mole Song
I loved 13 Assassins and was terrified but impressed by Audition, so again, I was all aboard for this film, which was described as a comedic jaunt about an undercover cop. It's based on manga, and the early stretches prominently display this heritage, with cut-outs and freeze frames and such. But the constant yelling and over-the-top characters begin to grate after awhile, and the movie goes on WAY too long. It is genuinely moving at moments, and occasionally hilarious, but overall, not all that entertaining.

From the director who brought us Koyaanisqatsi, another series of images set to a Phillip Glass soundtrack. So, for starters, I'm just not wild about Phillip Glass. Watching this film, I felt like I finally understood why he is so often described as middle-brow.  As for the images: the first 45 minutes of the movie alternate between long takes of various people's faces and footage of buildings. As my friend Daniel described it, it presents a sort of challenge -- can you look at this and understand what is interesting about it? And indeed, the faces are kind of fascinating. Daniel pointed out that the long takes, luminous lighting (the entire film is in black and white), and stillness made one sort of teeter between the photographic and the cinematic gaze in somewhat interesting ways. The rest of the film (basically the second half) is mostly footage of swamps and trees, and some groups of people. Actually, the very final segment, droplets of ink in water, was my favorite -- I could have watched that for hours. Overall, the symbolic universe seemed a bit precious and simplistic -- human, gorilla, moon. You found yourself thinking that the film was perhaps willfully "artsy" and aiming for a profundity it could not achieve. I wouldn't really recommend it.

The Stuart Hall Project // I Am Divine

Somewhat randomly, I saw these two documentaries within a day of each other, and they formed an intriguing contrast. I Am Divine is in some ways a fairly typical bio-doc; we get the whole life narrative, from birth to death, with all the main players of Divine's life making an appearance and sharing some thoughts and feelings, and a pretty clear set of messages explaining who Divine was and what his contribution to the world was, generally speaking. And, of course, a fair amount of film footage and photographs of the man himself. The Stuart Hall Project is a much more impressionistic work: fittingly, for a man who argued that identity is "an endless, ever unfinished conversation," and that "I don't think any one thing will tell us any longer who we are," there is very little in the way of narrative. The movie is a collage of footage; tv appearances, home videos, photographs. Despite Hall's work on relational identity, and claim that part of who we are is how others see us, there are no talking heads. Instead, there is a wonderful musical accompaniment of Miles Davis albums. Hall explains, at one point, that "the moods of Miles Davis matched the evolution of my own feelings," and the film takes him at his word, going through Davis' albums one by one (and announcing each new album) as an implicit echo of the Hall material. The result is a wonderful sort of dialectic, where you feel that you understand both Hall and Davis better on some kind of emotional level. Still, you occasionally wish for something a bit more specific and clearly stated: at times, the entry-level requirement of knowledge, both of Stuart Hall and of 20th century history, seemed rather high.

Although I was glad that there were no talking heads in the Hall movie, scoffing that they rarely contribute much anyhow, I kind of loved the various people who spoke about Divine, mostly because some of them were such wonderful characters in their own right. Despite one unfortunate "he ate to fill a void" line, they actually weren't horribly cliché, and you did feel like you learned something about the man as a result. Still though, the best part of the film was obviously the footage: Divine was so completely amazing, it's still somewhat astonishing to see him on screen.

Overall, both very interesting and worthwhile films, about really important and wonderful human beings.