03 December 2015

Another Country, by James Baldwin

The first third or so of this novel is pure fire. Searing, magnetic prose that loops and dives through the most intimate and unsettling aspects of human experience. I don't know if such intensity could possibly be sustained over the course of hundreds of pages, or if one would want it to. In any case: it isn't. The novel reaches a climax and the latter 2/3 of it is essentially exploring the aftermath. The story becomes somewhat less compelling, and even, it must be admitted, a little tedious. What redeems the novel, and is moreover, actually quite stunning about it, is the breadth of emotional understanding in these somewhat rambling explorations.

People talk about the presumption of white authors writing characters of color, or men trying to persuasively write women, etc* -- well, here is Baldwin thumbing his nose at all of them. The narrator sees deep into the hearts of a diverse cast of characters; male, female, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, etc, and seems, impossibly, to understand the millions of subtle ways in which their perspectives are shaped by things that people unlike them simply cannot see, let alone comprehend. It is a dazzling piece of emotional intelligence; a real virtuoso performance. I found myself regretting that the story it was put in the service of was not more meaningful, but on the other hand, maybe that was the point -- that much of life's meaning is simply in this strange constellation of people and relationships that is unique to every individual. Relationships that, even as they shape our lives and interactions, are largely opaque, but also, perhaps, ultimately somewhat mundane, and even uninteresting.


*I am slowly working my way through The Racial Imaginary, a collection of pieces on this topic, and it is really really fascinating and worthwhile.

24 November 2015

Palestine, by Joe Sacco

There are a lot of off-putting things about this book. The subject matter, obviously, is no walk in the park, and you can certainly quibble with whether or not it's a balanced account (or what balance means in such contexts); the artwork is borderline unpleasant; and the narrator is frequently awful, openly concerned with his comic first and foremost in ways that frequently seem exploitative or callous, crossing all kinds of moral lines (example: we get three panels showing a guy in a bed; the narrator wants to photograph him and he says no. No mention of whether he agreed to be drawn), and generally seeming like a pretty gross dude.

But he also obviously chose to portray himself that way, and I wonder if he did so precisely to emphasize that any story comes from a particular perspective. Maybe this is one of the book's strengths. It is willing to be unlikable. The narrator is really not the point, but he is unavoidably in the way, and that is part of the point -- that he always will be, and we should be aware of that.

For the most part, the book is a collection of stories from Palestinians, and this seems to be its main goal, really -- an act of witnessing. Towards the very end, it makes some effort to consider the perspective of the average Israeli, and Sacco notes that he himself has come to see Israelis as occupiers and soldiers first and foremost. Again, not redressing bias per se, but actively pointing it out. Overall, the book absolutely attests to the power of the graphic novel as a genre in really incredible ways, and it is a valuable contribution to a larger conversation about Israel and Palestine. I read it because I was wondering if it would be a good addition to two different courses I'm half dreaming of, one on the graphic novel, the other on the idea of war and how it is represented in different cultures and mediums, and I think it would be an excellent choice for both.

03 October 2015

Black Mass

I don't know why I did not expect to like Black Mass. I guess I figured it would be a fairly stock gangster film, with a lot of really awful, brutal violence, and a bunch of stock cliches and braggadocio. And there is definitely some intense violence in it (though honestly, by today's standards a few strangulations and some blood splats might seem tame), and in many ways a lot of familiar tropes and ideas -- but somehow, they don't come across as cliche. This is doubtless in part because of the superlative acting, but I think cinematography also has a lot to do with it. The stunningly gorgeous shots are very intelligently framed and carefully chosen in way that creates a powerful sense of intimacy, creating a tremendous sense of emotional depth. To me, the movie was an impressive meditation on the emotional effects of the gangster lifestyle.

Johnny Depp is predictably mesmerizing as Whitey Bulger -- but he functions as a kind of simulacra that the films circles around. He is aloof, mysterious, and terrifying: everything, it seems, will happen exactly as he decides. He seems to have an iron control over his emotions: all of his words, actions, motions and mannerisms appear deliberate and considered, even when they are deeply felt. Part of what makes him so menacing is an unpredictable quality -- one has the sense of a profoundly violent and utterly ruthless rage that is constantly just beneath the surface, and can emerge at any moment. And yet, he also seems fundamentally unknowable -- perhaps because he is hardly human. Thus, the emotional work of the narrative is dispersed across the supporting cast, all of whom struggle to manage the emotions that arise from their contact with him -- fear, horror, anger, sadness, guilt. No one, this movie suggests, is innocent, though no one is entirely villainous either. The brilliance of the cinematography is that you regularly feel that you are witnessing a private moment where a given character struggles with his/her feelings about what is happening in the immediate vicinity. It is these quiet battles that make this film so impressive, and very much worth seeing.

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, by Kate Evans

It's always nice to see female intellectuals get some recognition, and I am a sucker for graphic novels about Marxists. I found this one especially pleasant, and found the artwork especially lovely.

Although the book feels unbalanced in various ways -- the pacing is odd; occasional narratorial intrusions are not unwelcome but seem arbitrarily scattered throughout; the tone is sometimes uneven -- at its best moments, you get this wonderfully human sense of Luxemburg's (feisty) personality. I especially loved the various nude scenes, hairy legs and all -- a really excellent example of how graphic novels can portray a woman's body in a way that feels intimate without being objectifying or prurient.


As a biography, it is in many ways a conventional, step-by-step account of the woman's life: the author clearly has no compunctions about zooming past the eventful bits. Although there is a nice moment where Evans steps in to say that she will depart from the convention of defining women's lives through their relationships to men, this doesn't seem like a radically new form of lifewriting . As an intellectual biography, it's slightly disappointing, in that you don't really get a sense of a meaningful connection between biography and thought: you don't really see where her ideas are coming from, or how her life experiences influence them. Indeed, it might not be the most effective introduction to Luxemburg's work -- it's a little hard to get a grasp on her ideas, or more specifically, what her particular innovations or disagreements with others were. But the book does give you a clear sense of her overall beliefs, and -- what is especially nice -- quotes extensively from the woman's own writings.

Overall, a very pleasant, and often quite beautiful (in various ways) book.

04 September 2015

Eugenie Grandet, by Honore Balzac


-->Balzac is fascinating to me, in large part, because of the way he brings together two aspects of the 19th century that I tend to keep separate: high flown melodrama, and the cold, methodical, calculations of finance in an age of burgeoning capitalism. You can see why Lukacs loved him so much: he is basically a one-man Marxist expose, illuminating how the sentimental frolicking of the upper classes is underwritten by money, and more specifically, exploitation, trickery, and other people’s labor. It’s dazzling. So you get these borderline tedious passages of careful accounting, who has how much money per year, in the same narrative voice that brings us the raptured descriptions of the domestic angel and her holy romantic love. Fantastic.

I think, though, that most people love Balzac for his characters, and indeed, they are delightful. Eugenie is not quite as developed as one might wish, but she is more feisty and hard-headed than it would appear at first glance (qualities, of course, that she inherited from her father). The real star is her father, the shrewd, miserly businessman. Surely someone has written a study of the miser in 19th century letters: they have a quality similar to the obsessive drive of the anorexic, a terrifyingly ascetic existence lived among abstract calculations of profit. And there's the long-suffering mother, the loyal housekeeper, the gossiping neighbors, the selfish fop, the calculating mistress... All the types you hope to see in this kind of stuff, and so much fun.

All the same, one must admit that it is a clumsy novel in some ways, and tends rather towards easy solutions to its problems. The pacing is strangely uneven, dilating on several days and then zooming ahead a few years, and the ending is hurried, almost rudely so. Nonetheless, it is a delight to read (or, in my case, listen to) -- in exactly the way that you expect it to be.  

29 August 2015

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Oh blog, how I have neglected you... I will be better. I will, I will. Maybe I will even finish the post I started working on months ago detailing the many things wrong with Jupiter Ascending. Ay caramba.

So, apparently the only Penelope Fitzgerald books I've blogged about (or more accurately, mentioned) on here are The Blue Flower and even more briefly, Offshore. But they so won me over that I've been slowly working my way through her catalogue ever since. She is great. There is a wonderfully blunt, abrupt quality to her stories that totally knocks you off balance. Her characters are utterly strange but they never seem like caricatures, and they inspire sympathy even when they are utterly irrational or idiotic (which they frequently are).Her books are poignant yet funny, dark yet cheerful. You really should read them.

That said, Innocence was not as compelling to me. This is most likely because I was in the midst of packing, moving, unpacking, starting a new semester, and generally living an unsettled and somewhat stressful life. I did greatly appreciate the short chapters and brisk pacing of the story, but it also seemed a bit too random, probably because I wasn't able to properly focus on it. Sometimes it happens; you read books at the wrong moment. Sometimes the moment is wrong for any book at all, but the thing is, not reading anything at all just makes me miserable. Who knows, maybe I'll return to this one again someday and reconsider. For now though, I'd say that there are better Fitzgerald books to be enjoyed.

29 May 2015

First Position

I am deeply skeptical of movies about ballet for some reason, but my parents had recommended this one in glowing terms, and when a person is physically destroyed (aerial conditioning + 20 mile bike ride) it's kind of satisfying to watch other people exert themselves. To my pleasant surprise, however, this movie was fantastic. And did not really depend on a person being into ballet (though I am, I just don't like movies about it), though obviously that helps. The documentary follows a handful of young people who are training to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a major ballet competition. It turns out, real dancers are pretty fascinating. Obviously the filmmakers picked out some particularly interesting people to focus on, but still.

Unlike many sports movies where the point is to win a prize, end of story, here the competition is rather more meaningful: among the prizes (there are more than 20, making it seem less impossible) are scholarships to dance schools and contracts with major companies. So you really get a sense of these kids' future being on the line in a way that isn't always the case in such films.

Also, unlike many stories of children competing, in this movie, one never has the sense that the parents are pushing their kids into something or forcing them to push a hobby into something bigger. Yes, there is one mother who says that she was a failed ballerina and wanted her child to dance, and there is another one who cries when her child decides to quit, but you never see the terrifying stage parents common to other documentaries about gifted children. Instead, you see the (in some ways terrifying) drive and self-discipline of these kids, who work unbelievably hard and make a lot of sacrifices so as to devote themselves to their art. And you also see their parents and siblings make a lot of sacrifices (or others, in some cases -- as one mother points out, when the father moves his office to be closer to the ballet school, all of his employees are affected!), and spend A LOT of money (which surprisingly, does not seem like a racket -- a lot of the things dancers require, like a personal trainer, many many pairs of pointe shoes, and intricate, hand-made tutus and costumes, are just expensive), without getting much in return. When you consider that in many (even most) cases, a dancer's body will be shredded by the time s/he reaches 30, it seems completely insane. The movie in no way romanticizes this, or uses it as a way to make ballet seem more beautiful or noble. All it does is show you footage of different people dancing.

You don't realize how much emotion is in a ballerina's dance until you see two different children give performances, one serviceable, the other phenomenal. In the first, you realize that technical proficiency is not enough -- the je ne sais quoi of a beautiful performance is a certain amount of feeling, and obviously one does not expect an 11 year old to convincingly manifest desire, or heartbreak. But when they do, ie, the latter case, my god, that's a show-stopper. It's not creepy, the way little girls singing sexy songs in talent shows are: it's a moment when they somehow seem to be in possession of an astonishing amount of wisdom and emotional maturity. As one mother puts it, "something happens in her face, and she becomes an adult in those moments."

Now, for me, the moments of truly extraordinary dancing in the film make a very powerful case. Not that it "makes it all worth it," it's obviously more complicated than that, but still -- wow. I think you could very easily watch this movie and not come to that conclusion, without feeling like you were disagreeing with the film, and without diminishing your enjoyment of it. Ultimately, what makes the movie compelling, cheesy as it sounds, are the truly compelling and unique stories of the different people in it, and the way the movie really gives you a sense of them as actual people, rather than a collection of relevant features. It's really an excellent movie, and available on Netflix Instant. Check it out.

27 May 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

It would be very easy not to like this book. The narrator is fairly unpleasant, and his time is alternately spent making bad decisions and reflecting on art in what to many people will seem a fairly pretentious way. It's a tricky question, whether you have to at least partially share his view on poetry to enjoy the novel -- I suspect you do, even if (like me), you didn't necessarily endorse his way of expressing them. But I would wager that what makes the narrator worthwhile, though not necessarily likable, is that he manages to say things about literature that are actually somewhat poignant and interesting. And moreover, that it is entirely believable that such a thoroughly hapless, self-absorbed, and unappealing guy could come up with such insights -- and that his drug-addled, booze-soaked, largely aimless days in Madrid could produce them.

This is not a typical novel: it's a fragmented collection of thoughts, almost akin to a diary, and there is no real narrative arc or resolution. Impressively, however, it feels complete, and is exactly the right length. In many ways, it is structured very much like a poem, but it also has the satisfying, simple feeling of straightforward sentences, things happening.

Frankly, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it.

30 April 2015

The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Gaskell for awhile now, and although this is hardly representative of her style, apparently, it does have the virtue of being quite short. And Gothic, which I'm always interested in, academically at least. It does mean, though, that my reading of it is probably more analytic than usual, so apologies.

The story fascinated me because it's constructed in a strange and unexpected way. For starters, the supernatural elements are just unabashedly supernatural. No lengthy is-it-or-isn't-it suspense, no tortured contortions about whether such a thing is possible, just blammo, there it is. Relatedly, however -- the story spends very little time on it. I don't want to give anything away, so I'm doing some contortions of my own, but when you finally get to the creepy thing -- and it takes quite awhile to get there -- it's established, briefly described, and then it's off to the elaborate process of trying to get rid of it. There's very little description of it, very little exploration of what it's like and it's effects. It's all seen obliquely, from the side as it were. In this sense, it's reminiscent of Clara Reeve's Old English Baron -- the story is much more interested in all the stuff happening around the supernatural, namely, what the humans are going to do to get rid of it, than in the supernatural itself. Which makes for a somewhat drawn out and slightly tedious tale, slightly mechanistic and just not that compelling.

But then, surprisingly, the most interesting thing about the story -- the glimpses of historical context. There's this political turmoil in the background, and drama and conflict and all kinds of excitement, and she sprinkles in a few sentences here and there, and those brief asides are by far the most interesting part of the whole story. To wit: The political state of things became worse than ever, increased to its height by the scarcity of food consequent on many deficient harvests. I saw groups of fierce, squalid men, at every corner of the street, glaring out with wolfish eyes at my sleek skin and handsome clothes. This is essentially a random aside about the state of Antwerp. It has little to no bearing on the story, but don't you want to hear more about it? No wonder the woman is known for her portrayals of society. I'm looking forward to reading her more typical novels.

29 April 2015

Furious 7

I love the Fast and Furious franchise. Not only is each movie better than the last, but with 6 especially, I think they really perfected the formula for a perfect action movie: totally f*@!ing awesome stunts, corny jokes, just a touch of emotional gravitas ("Nothing matters more than family"), and a (diverse) cast that is easy on the eyes. So obviously, I was VERY excited about Furious 7. So excited, in fact, that my man and I rewatched the entire series (minus Tokyo Drift, which is kind of apocryphal, though I intend to rewatch it soon anyhow) in preparation. I was buoyed by the glowing reviews -- the best movie in the franchise! they said. And I believed it, because every new movie in the series is better than the previous one (except for 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is decidedly the weakest link). My excitement was fueled by the insane box office numbers. This was gonna be AWESOME.

But it was not. I mean, ok, I set a high bar going in, so perhaps I was bound to be disappointed. But Furious 7 is not the best movie in the franchise. It's not as good as 6. It's not even as good as 5! I'm not saying it's a terrible movie, because it's got a lot going for it. And as we know, tragic events certainly influenced the final product. But it's just not as good a movie as one would like it to be. The filmmakers seem to have abandoned the formula they had so painstakingly perfected, and the results are decidedly imbalanced.

For starters, WAY too much Vin Diesel. Yes, he's always been the brooding melancholic core of the films, but he was complemented by a broad array of goofiness, badassery, and even some other emotional subplots (Han and Giselle's relationship, Paul Walker's anxieties about fatherhood). With Han and Giselle gone, Vin apparently decides to shoulder the entire emotional weight of the story, such that any time another character is having feelings, they're doing so while in conversation with Vin Diesel. He is so overburdened by all this feeling that he frequently has to go off by himself and emote for awhile. It's boring, and it makes us like him less. The man has a very sexy impish smile, and knowing chuckle, and we don't see nearly enough of it in this movie.

Also, someone apparently decided that audiences are more interested in fight scenes than driving scenes. This has been on a slow increase since the first film -- each one has more fighting. 6 had just the right amount. 7 had too much. Or at least, it felt that way, because it seemed like it came at the cost of awesome driving scenes, which it did not have enough of.

Related to that, the stunts themselves were precariously balanced on the fine line between mind-blowingly badass and absurd. If your action sequence is awesome enough, I don't care if it's realistic. If it's not, I start to ask questions. I particularly start to ask questions about whether something better could have been done with those resources. For instance, if you give me a big set-up about having the fastest car ever, I want to see it go really fast. Soaring through the air is neat, but you don't need the fastest car ever to do that. As we all recall from Speed, even a city bus can do that shit.

The pacing was totally off. The scenes were all very short, which made the movie seem quite rushed, despite the fact that it also felt bloated and way too long. This, in turn, made one notice how uninteresting the plot was. Which is pretty surprising, because I can hardly remember the plots of the other films, and I have no complaints about them whatsoever.

Also, I'm sorry, but CGI Paul Walker is not seamlessly integrated into the film. It's painfully, tragically obvious on a number of occasions that he is being digitally added. And it's very sad, and I sincerely mourn the man's passing (and I quite appreciated the homage at the end, which incidentally is also at the beginning of the dvd of 6, should you rent it), but this was not the greatest way to solve that problem.

I'm sorry to be down on the movie. I wanted to love it. And some of the stunts are great, and some of the fight scenes are pretty badass, and I do love the characters and enjoy seeing them again, but at the end of the day, you're better off re-watching 6.

21 April 2015

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's prose is spell-binding. She can do astonishing things with language; such that you not only see, smell, feel, and taste what she describes, but can somehow simultaneously relish the gorgeous combination of words that she does it with.

But this novel does not quite work. I read the entire thing today in three sittings: the bus ride to work, my lunch break, and the bus ride home, and I was riveted, because that's how good her writing is (well, and, because that's the kind of reader I am). But even as I drank in the language, I couldn't shake various little nagging thoughts, like, wait, will we never hear from that character again? or hmmm, that doesn't really seem like something this character would say, or wait, when is this supposed to be happening? There are some wonderful moments in the novel, but the pieces don't quite add up, and the story doesn't quite come together.

The pervasive theme is child abuse, and how its effects linger and (mis)shape people's lives. But we are told about these things rather than shown them. Morrison doesn't quite seem to get inside any of these characters: they all remain somewhat inchoate and unclear, a collection of features rather than a person. The story meanders as we move from perspective to perspective, and the attention is unevenly and inconsistently distributed, as if certain plot-lines were simply abandoned along the way. Others are suddenly resolved in ways that feel overly tidy and simplistic, and disappointingly typical. Although the book turns its attention to some of the ugliest parts of today's world, it can't seem to bear to plunge fully into them, and ends up stuck somewhat in the middle, not quite telling the story it sets out to find. 

01 April 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations, by Mohsin Hamid

I remember reading an amazing essay about how to write essays (if anyone knows what I'm talking about, PLEASE leave a citation in the comments!!) at some point in high school or college, one that explained but also demonstrated how it was both a very open and a tightly controlled art form, how it had no one particular kind of topic, how it could be serious, or funny, or both, personal or impersonal (I suspect it was written by a Pole, but I could be wrong). My point is: the essay is a noble form. Not all magazine articles are essays. There are many pieces of writing that are quite good as short pieces of writing, but they are not necessarily good essays, and they are perhaps better encountered in a magazine than in a book with other pieces like them. That is, I think, the case with the pieces in this book.

To be clear: I enjoyed reading this book. Hamid's prose is light and pleasant -- not breezy or chatty exactly, but comfortable. The topics covered in the book are reasonably weighty, but the tone is for the most part even and conversational, often with a more personalized, confiding feel. The things he has to say are interesting, and I agreed with pretty much all of them. The problem is -- and it seems awfully demanding to hold this against him -- nothing said here really made me stop and think, or see things in a new way. It all seemed very familiar. Perhaps this is a testament to how clearly and effectively he articulated his ideas, so much so that they instantly seem like things one has already thought! Certainly, it can't be true that I've thought all of those things, because there were plenty of things about Pakistan that I didn't know beforehand (though the political analysis of these new pieces of information essentially validated beliefs I already hold). And yet, for all its musings on culture and identity and dislocation and politics, I think the most memorable piece in the collection is a description of standing next to a woman, a stranger, on a hot day, a very sensual evocation of the intimacy of sweating beside someone. Perhaps it means that Hamid is better at saying things more indirectly, say, in a novel...

In any case, I very much hope that people who haven't thought all these things will read the collection, and come to agree with Hamid and I. And I look forward to reading his fiction.

14 March 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished the novel this morning and am still chewing over it. Certainly a spell-binding, immersive read: in terms of world building, it's an incredible book. The characters wander in a vaguely familiar landscape that is blanketed in a mist of amnesia, groping towards an ill-defined goal, searching for memories, struggling through confused interactions with other people who are equally befuddled. A vague air of menace hangs over everything. It's brilliantly done, and the reading experience is both suspenseful and strangely soothing, and our two main character, Axl and Beatrice, lovingly comfort each other and tread carefully over potential sources of pain or conflict.

As the novel progresses, details of a broader history begin to emerge, and this is where I am lesssure how I feel about the book. Initially, the socio-political commentary that emerges seemed poignant, timely, and interesting. As it developed, however, I found it less compelling, or rather, it didn't seem to go beyond the somewhat obvious in terms of ideas that it developed. But maybe it is me who is not giving the novel its due, ruminating on its peculiar ending and what it means.

Regardless, it is a book worth reading: eerie, engaging, and deeply felt.

11 March 2015

Selma

Gosh, it's been more than 2 weeks since I started writing this post. But you should be seeing more posts on here for awhile at least: my plan to force myself to do academic writing involves starting with 15 minutes of writing for this blog. We'll see how it goes.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Selma after I saw it, sorting out what I thought, pondering what it did well and what it could have done better. The film was certainly quite affecting, but I also found myself frustrated by it in some ways: I could not really decide how "good" a movie it really is. In some sense, it is both easy and impossible to make a good movie about this subject, no? The history is so powerful and moving that it is bound to be a good story, and yet, it is so important, particularly now, that it will of course be under heightened scrutiny, and everyone will have some kind of complaint. And I'm not even talking about the historical accuracy question, which I am not well informed enough to comment on.

Selma avoids, I think, the obvious problems of this kind of film. It does not ride on easy sentimentality, and it is not a hagiography. It does not create an oversimplified narrative or an easy, step-by-step story. Indeed, this is, I think, one of the most impressive things about the film (aside from the cinematography, which is unbelievably gorgeous) -- the way that it presents the lead-up to the march as a series of difficult decisions. One is reminded that this was a political event, first and foremost, and that there were strategical questions to be considered. This is the kind of thing that historical narratives really struggle with: how to convey the tangled confusion of all the different options and possibilities that existed at the time, when to us in the future, certain choices can appear obvious or predetermined.*

But this is also the problem with the film; that in striving to faithfully capture the confusion of the time and avoid simplistic storytelling, it ends up being a somewhat chaotic plot. Because it is corraling all the various moving pieces and considerations into one frame, many of the narrative choices seem arbitrary or haphazard. This is particularly clear at the ending, when we briefly zoom in on a handful of faces and get captions telling us what happened to them next. Some of the people have been central characters throughout, others are minor, or even entirely new. Why them, and not any of the other many people in the crowd?

Finally, as mentioned above, the movie is unbelievably beautiful visually** as well; an aspect of the film that we often forget, but that carries as much weight as the plotting and dialogue. This might be the most successful thing about the film, what it does with image. The composition of the frame is so careful and intentional, it's amazing. The attention to detail is just incredible. It could be argued, perhaps, that this is where the sense of "history" comes in: not in the storyline, which, as I've said, is somewhat jumbled and chaotic, but in the imagery, and the way they convey a sense of dynamism, tension, and prolepsis. Were I writing a more formal piece (instead of a thinking-out-loud blog post), this would be the thrust of my argument, that this is what makes the movie required viewing, and fascinating as an active reflection on the representation of the past: the way that it uses image to create the sense of a broader historical art, and actively refuses to do so on a level of plot and dialogue.


* If this is something that interests you, I refer you to an excellent book on the topic, one that really shaped my thinking: Michael Andre Bernstein's Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History.

** Teju Cole has a wonderful piece on the cinematography, situating it within a history of representations of black skin in photography.

07 March 2015

A Distant Father, by Antonio Skarmeta

This winsome little book is full of surprises. The charming tale of a schoolteacher and translator frustrated by small-time woes and family tragedies; many element seems familiar (two enchanting sisters, a young man yearning to visit a prostitute, a renegade father) but Skarmeta wields them in unexpected ways. The result is a strangely soulful story: sad yet joyful, dreamy yet practical. A very pleasant read.

16 February 2015

Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis

At the center of this collection -- and by far the longest piece in it -- is a story called The Cows. It is a collection of notes that some observer has written about the creatures in a field. It is dry, largely mundane account. Nothing really happens. The descriptions are not especially vivid; the cows do not evoke philosophical contemplation, nor do they seem to have any symbolic meaning. The account goes on for an astonishing, absurd amount of time. Long enough that you pause at least three times to think, I can't believe this is still going. And yet, it is completely riveting.

Davis has a real gift for this kind of thing; these strange, acerbic little fragments that seem so rich with meaning yet so utterly, amazingly flat. The voice has an almost unpleasant detachment, at times seeming bemused and contemptuous, at others, lonely and eager for contact, though unsure how to initiate it. There is a definite kinship to an author she has a clear proclivity for, Flaubert, though their voices are distinct: this collection contains a series of what she calls 'stories from Flaubert' that brilliantly inhabit his worldview, yet stand apart from the other pieces, even if it is difficult to say exactly how.

The queer fragments and Flaubertian tales are the high points of this collection. Somewhat weaker is are texts bearing the subheading of "a dream." Perhaps because I am currently also making my way through The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz, which seems to be a far more successful rendition of a similar idea, I did not find them particularly compelling. But it is when Davis writes about a character that seems, unfortunately, to be rather autobiographical, that I find her completely unbearable. I had this problem with an earlier novel of hers, and it nearly put me off her altogether. There is a middle-aged, neurotic, socially awkward writer and translator who occasionally crops up in her stories and whom I find totally unsympathetic and ungodly self-absorbed. Fortunately, she makes very few appearances in this collection.

Overall, an enjoyable read, one that certainly benefits from a slow, lengthy process of periodically dipping into it. But I think some of the other collections, such as Samuel Johnson is Indignant, are better.

10 February 2015

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

I might just not be a Graham Greene fan. I recall having similar feelings after reading The Quiet American, though I've largely forgotten that book: that while I appreciate his prose, it does not seem to engage me emotionally. The vaguely convoluted, hazy plot combined with a fervent, even anguished sort of emotion serves to alienate me from the characters. I watch them with a sort of detached pity: they seem very unhappy. Perhaps they are not very good people, but maybe nobody really is. Or maybe they actually are quite good, and their apparent sins are not so bad. In Greene's world(s), it's very hard to tell.

This novel tells the story of a priest in Mexico who is on the run from a government that is committed to executing the clergy. He is very unhappy, not only because he is on the run, but also because he is a bad priest. Consumed with both guilt and fear, he almost wants to get caught, just so to end his torment. The Lieutenant who pursues him is also deeply unhappy, because he sees how much the people are suffering, and also because he is taking hostages from among them and executing them in an effort to capture the priest. The people, obviously, are the worst off of all, yet they have an almost bovine stoicism punctuated by occasional flares of annoyance or rage which do nothing to stifle their benevolence and ability to behave with utter selflessness. Or is it stupid superstition; the narrator can't seem to decide.

The attempt to prose the moral depths of Catholicism is not uninteresting, but the idea mostly seemed to be that it is all very murky. The plot had occasional moments of breathless suspense, but also seemed oddly interminable, until, boom, it was over. The denouement had a certain mechanistic quality, as though the pieces were obediently slotting into place.

Like I said: I might just not be a Graham Greene fan.

09 February 2015

Reading the World

This article both inspires, interests, and frustrates me. It certainly reminds me how much I've neglected this blog, for instance. As I've been trying to figure out my job/life situation, I had intended to try doing more writing here as a way of, well, trying out other kinds of writing. But I haven't devoted much time to that, in large part because I continue to (try to) work on academic research. And aside from a handful of translations and a few free reviews for other websites, I haven't done much in the way of actively trying to pursue other kinds of writing.

I have been grousing about the growing popularity of books about books; where people set themselves some kind of arbitrary reading list and then chronicle the process of completing it. This is partly because I am more interested in reading the books themselves, rather than some random person's impressions of them. What makes their thoughts so interesting, eh? It doesn't help that their reading lists are often fairly random or insipid. But of course, what I am probably more frustrated by is that they're doing it (and getting paid to do it) and I'm not.

The thing is, Ann Morgan's project -- reading one books from every country -- really appeals to me. It's not just that it's a more interesting variant of the books-on-books theme: it actually seems like a worthwhile and thought-provoking exercise in its own right. What is more, her blog, A Year of Reading the World, is well-written, and uses the discussions of particular texts and springboards into all kinds of fascinating questions, suggesting that her thoughts might be very interesting indeed. Her book, she explains, is not a pithy summary or review of each book, but an exploration of how the book changed her way of thinking. To quote: "I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest." This is a description that actually makes me want to read the book. And it's also the kind of thing I would love to think and write about. It scratches at all my contemplations of what kind of writing I really want to do in life, not to mention what kind of writing I'm actually good at. To top it off, the article I link to above discusses the kinds of community that Morgan found while working on the project, and the opportunities that came her way because of it, and it all just makes me very, very jealous.

Harrumph. I wonder if someone would at least pay me to review the book...

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 César 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.