31 May 2011

Everything Must Go

I continue to be terrible about updates, so just to get back into the swing of it, there might be some short and not all that interesting entries for a minute until I get my groove back.

So let me say this: Will Ferrell is fantastic in this movie. Really. He's tremendous. I was extremely impressed. Little Biggie (Christopher Wallace) is also quite good, as are basically all the other actors in this movie, except for Michael Pena. It might not be Pena's fault though, because his character is also just not very believable or well written, which makes it harder for him. In any case, the acting is excellent, and generates, for the most part, a very believable emotional atmosphere. Unfortunately, this is not enough to make the movie good.

The thing is, there's not much narrative. An alcoholic loses his wife and job, and, locked out of his house, settles on his front lawn with all of his worldly possessions, ultimately deciding to sell them. The whole film happens over the three days that his yard sale permit (which permits him to spend so much time on the lawn) is good for. So there's not much action, aside from some interactions with other people, namely, a new neighbor, a random kid around the neighborhood, a girl he knew in high school, and his AA sponsor. Pena, as the AA sponsor, doesn't add much to the movie, aside from some basic plot stuff, but he just isn't all that compelling or interesting, and Pena makes him so wooden that we really can't figure out what his deal is anyhow. The other characters/interactions are interesting, and I suppose one could mine them for truths about the human condition, but they don't entirely hold up. They're so brief that we don't really engage with them strongly enough to make them part of the plot. While I appreciate that the movie doesn't make them overdetermined, or hyperbolize them into epiphanies - basically, that it lets them be generally realistic, if somewhat idealized - it also means that there's not really any development to track. So you get kind of bored. The movie ends without any real sense of what will happen next, or even if anything has changed in a meaningful way. So really, all you get from the whole experience is the atmosphere. And like I said - that's fairly effectively done. But it's not really enough to make the whole thing satisfying.

21 May 2011

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk

I suspect that the only way I can read Pamuk's books is quickly. If it takes me more than a day, I will probably get bored and quit. The thing is, there's something grindingly monotonous about his prose. I have a really hard time with it. It seems utterly flat, and I find myself really alienated from the story. I tried reading The New Life awhile ago and gave up, and was kind of ready to give up on Pamuk altogether. But I'm scouting books for a class I'm teaching this summer, and this one was recommended to me, so I figured I'd give him another try. Luckily, the book was on 24 hour reserve at the library, so I was forced to get through it quickly. And as it turned out, by the end I did find the story incredibly compelling, and it sort of changed the way I perceived the entire book (I had the same experience with Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles).

The novel is the story of an Italian who is taken captive by Turks, and ultimately becomes the property of a man he called Hoja (master). Mysteriously, he and Hoja look so much alike as to be twins. This is an important underlying aspect of the novel - you could even say it's the point of the book - and perhaps this is what makes Pamuk so difficult, is that while it comes up frequently, it's almost in passing. In so many scenes, the ostensible focus is something that is almost palpably uninteresting, and meanwhile there are a few scattered sentences that imply that the real point is just under the surface. It makes the prose seem incredibly dense, as though you needed to read it at least twice, and slowly, to actually understand what's going on. And you can't help but wonder if there actually is something going on, or whether it adds up to anything coherent. I think one would need to achieve the perfect balance of pace in reading this book to get the full benefit; fast enough that you don't lose interest, but slow enough that you can actually absorb it.

So the jury is still out on Pamuk, as far as I'm concerned. I did ultimately find this book rewarding, but I'm still skeptical. I'm planning to read Snow soon, so we'll see how I feel after that.

16 May 2011

The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis

My boyfriend read this recently and really enjoyed it, and said that it was less about Michael Oher than it was about football itself, and the increased interest in the left tackle position. This was enough to get me interested, so I picked it up this afternoon. It's a quick read, and a pleasant one. It is indeed very much about the changes in football over the past 30 years, but the Michael Oher story is a major aspect too, and despite my skepticism (largely based on having seen trailers for the movie), I ended up finding it kind of fascinating as well. Not just the story itself, but also the complications that arise from telling it.

The thing is, it's kind of a weird story. I mean, here's this rich white family who takes in a poor black kid and basically invests tons of money into fixing his life - and succeeds at it. Now, in some ways, that's a very inspiring tale about a good deed. In other ways, it's a kind of astonishing account of just how much money can buy. I mean sure, hard work and a certain body type are necessary components, but money is a major, major factor here. Then there's the fact that you could also argue that their investment in the kid payed off in a pretty major way - and there are critics of the book who claim that the pay-off was the primary motive all along. Added to all of that is the fact that the kid is being groomed for life as an athlete, which anyone who's watched Hoop Dreams (and you really should - I think it's an incredible movie) is bound to have mixed feelings about. Lewis is very careful, I think, in the way he tells this tale. He really doesn't push any kind of angle on it, and I think it's a crucial part of what makes the book work. He registers various aspects of the tale, notes the hypocrisies of some of the key players, and is generally careful to avoid sentimentalizing it. But he gives you just enough to invite you to reflect on the questions this kind of story raises, and an afterword emphasizes the point by detailing some of the controversies in the book's reception.

Then there's the football side. Here Lewis is clearly on much more comfortable ground. I haven't read his other books, but you can imagine exactly what they're like - it's basically intelligent journalism. History and analysis written in an eminently readable and easy to understand format. You don't have to know much about football to appreciate what he's saying or why it's interesting - he lays it all out for you. It's not the most elegant writing you've ever encountered, but it's full of very interesting information that is presented clearly and effectively. There's a bit in the early part of the book where his editor must have dozed off, because certain key phrases get repeated way too many times (especially the Japanese automotive factory metaphor), but overall, it's pretty solid, if somewhat formulaic.

And Lewis does have some really interesting things to say about football. What struck me the most, perhaps, was the idea of the emotional versus intellectual play. And the claim that effective strategy could basically overcome any weaknesses of the players - if you plan your game correctly, it doesn't matter if your quarterback is weak, for instance. The integral aspect of the left tackle ascendancy, it seems, is not just a new strategy of play, but the fact of its coinciding with a new way of paying players - basically, the market value of the left tackle shot up as people started to realize their importance, which resulted in everyone realizing their importance. This, incidentally, again makes you think about how much pro sports are really just about money. But it also led me to wonder if five or ten years from now, a new strategy will emerge that will once again change all of this.

The aspect of the book that seemed to resonate with my boyfriend was the idea of a person being, in a sense, fated to do a certain thing. Michael Oher, by virtue of his physique and ability, seemed in some ways "born" to be a left tackle. My reading of the book was actually very different. To begin with, there's the fact that Oher himself actually wanted to be a basketball player. Then there's the fact that the same skill set seems naturally adapted to throwing shot put - but that doesn't pay as much. To my mind, there were a lot of external factors that led Oher to the position he now occupies. At the same time, the book puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of a particular build the position requires, and the fact that it's a rare one, but that pro football has basically devised a fairly effective system for sussing out the people who can do it.

A somewhat intriguing but largely unexplored aspect of the book was a comparison between football and baseball. Lewis, author of Moneyball, probably has a lot of interesting things to say on the topic, and unfortunately, he doesn't get to develop it. He has a few footnotes on that mention, for instance, the huge difference in the kinds of stats and quantitative analysis done in baseball as opposed to football, but doesn't say much more. I'd love to read an essay of his on the topic.

Overall, an interesting book, definitely worth reading.

10 May 2011

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Once again faced with a long plane flight, I decided that I'd had so much fun with Anna Karenina that I should give War and Peace a try. Oh man. Unlike AK, W+P is not at all a quick read. The first 400 or so pages are frankly pretty dull. You don't care much about the characters or the action, and despite the occasional bright spot, it's rough work. What kept me somewhat interested was the auto-ethnographic side of it, this constant "We Russians do things like this", which was kind of intriguing. Also, having devoted a good 6 hours to it I was determined to slog through. The good news is, around page 500 or so, it picks up. The second invasion is where the real action is - from like 550-950, the book is an absolute thrill. Then it starts to wane, and the last 100 pages - basically an essay on the philosophy of history - are pretty turgid.

A few things to say - one, the characters are not nearly as compelling as the ones in Anna Karenina. Curiously, the most exciting personage in the book is actually Napoleon, who is genuinely fascinating and brilliantly drawn. The ostensible heroes, Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov are ok, somewhat interesting, but somehow not fully accessible. The heroines are mostly just irritating - especially Natasha, who is almost unbearable. I did actually really like Andrei's first wife, who was never mentioned without reference to her moustache (!), but she didn't get much airtime, unfortunately. But in any case, as far as social drama goes, the novel is kind of a failure.

What is really curious to me is that while the characters are generally kind of noble, lofty personages, the Afterword kind of knocks them off their pedestals. Marriage seems to turn them into crabby, petty, self-centered, uninteresting people. It's a depressingly accurate portrayal, actually, but it's sort of jarring. It also reminds you that Tolstoy is a genius. After all these completely bland dramas between largely flat and uninteresting characters, suddenly you're plunged into completely mundane everyday life and you're reading it like holy shit this is so well written. Why oh why isn't the whole novel - the "peace" parts I mean - like that?

The portrayal of war, however, is thrilling. And while the concluding essay on the philosophy of history at the end of the book is pretty dull, the reflections on history sprinkled throughout the novel are fascinating. Overall, it's what makes the book a masterpiece - it is jaw-droppingly incredible. It is so detailed and well researched and yet so vividly alive, both giving you the feel of actually being there AND the bird's eye view AND theoretical reflection on why things happen the way they do - it is just mind-blowing. That, my friends, is why the book is a classic. Is it a must-read? Not really. I mean, if you have the time, it's worth doing, and maybe you could kind of skim large portions of it, but I suspect there may be other, equally rewarding portrayals of Napoleonic war, so if you're gonna go Tolstoy, do a different one.

02 May 2011

My friends make neat things

Ok, so I know it's been a long time since I've updated, but guess what: I finished my dissertation. So I think that's a decent excuse. But in any case, hopefully it means I will be posting more ramblings about books and movies soon. I'm more than halfway through War and Peace, so you know, it might take me awhile to finish it, but yeah.

Anyways, in the meantime, allow me to share with you two awesome sites that some friends of mine are doing. One is a web-comic:

and the other is a year of cephalopods.

They are both wonderful.