24 September 2011

Glover's Mistake, by Nick Laird

I adore Nick Laird's prose. It's charming: expressive and friendly but somehow also elegant. It has that British quality of slightly goofy, self-deprecation, but also its sophistication. It's a pleasure to read. With this novel, however, he's set himself the very difficult task of starting with a likable character and chronicling his transformation into a bit of a monster. It's not a very pleasant experience. In fact, everyone in the book becomes less likable, increasingly petty and trivial and thoughtlessly cruel.

The book is told entirely from the main character's perspective, except for a bit at the end that seemingly randomly switches to someone else's. I think that the purpose of the switch is to somewhat redeem that other character, who was starting to look like a complete jerk, and to make you aware of how much your view of the events was con trained by the increasingly limited and small minded vision of the protagonist. It's an interesting move, but it's not entirely successful, precisely because our outlook has already been so poisoned. I suppose, then, that one could see the novel as a kind of cautionary tale about, well, not being a jerk.

Actually, one could go further and say that it's a reflection on how spending too much time on the internet, anonymously blogging your toxic views, can turn you into an asshole. It's not necessarily that your vicious posts will come back around and have hurtful consequences, though sometimes they do. It's more that it affirms you in your viciousness. The novel illustrates this in a sublimely subtle way - it's actually quite masterful.

Thinking about it, then, it's a much more interesting novel than I initially gave it credit for. At the same time, I can't say it was an entirely enjoyable read. I guess I didn't fully realize what I was in for - I picked it up thinking it would be a light-hearted leisure read, like his other novel, Utterly Monkey (which I really enjoyed). And it started off so warm and likable that I kept waiting for it to get back to that. So I guess at the end of the day, I think it's a pretty good book, just be forewarned - it's a pretty dark sort of read.

23 September 2011

Cowboys vs Aliens

My big screen cinema options have been dramatically reduced, and I am learning new things about my self as a result. It turns out that I will no longer go see anything. I will not go see some movie where Kate Hudson plays a woman who finds love as she's dying of cancer, even if Gael Garcia Bernal is in it. No. I will also not see Sarah Jessica Parker in, well, pretty much anything really, but definitely not in some movie where she plays a woman who "can't have it all". I just can't do it. I'd rather stay home and stare at the wall. Nonetheless, I can reliably be counted on to spend 13TL on pretty much any action movie. Hell, I was excited for it. What seemed not worth my time and money in Chicago can appear a lot more exciting when you're new in town, have only a few friends, and don't know the language.

Cowboys vs Aliens did not disappoint. It was actually exactly what I thought it'd be. A plot that clung to whatever scraps of sense it could muster, some melodramatic sentimental treacle, some nasty nasty aliens, and of course, lots of punching and splosions. I noticed, during the opening credits, that there were like ten screenwriters involved in the creation of this masterpiece. I think they may have been slightly at odds with each other. Because the movie is an odd collage of Hollywood tropes, and it only takes about half of them seriously. The script is supremely functional - every character has a purpose. Daniel Craig, of course, is the (anti)hero. He will be badass. He will also be somewhat mysterious because of his amnesia, the main function of which is to move the plot forward via his gradually remembering things. He will also shoulder the burden of romance, but only so that there can be one make-out scene and lots of brooding. Harrison Ford, aka angry cowboy grampa, will be the gruff man who turns out to be a good guy. He will also enact the drama of the broken family that is mended over the course of the film, and that of the greedy rich guy who becomes a benevolent industrious capitalist. Sam Rockwell is there to love his wife and provide comic effect. Etc. The music, too, was ungodly rote and simplistic. I think whoever wrote it hates his/her job.

Sam Rockwell's comic effect is where the movie shines, because it's where it actually plays with Western tropes rather than simply emulating them. Basically, it's where the movie allows itself to have fun. Because Daniel Craig is no fun at all, and Harrison Ford has grown too curmudgeonly to have fun either.

The other big plus of the film are the aliens, who are really, really gross.

Overall, I can't really recommend the movie. I was reasonably entertained, yes. But I'm pretty easy to entertain at the moment. Honestly, this could have been a much better made film if it could just lighten up a little and not take itself so seriously.

21 September 2011

Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel

I knew quite little about Henry VIII (aside from the whole lots of wives, religion run amok thing), and basically nothing about Thomas Cromwell, his right hand man, before starting this book. And to be honest, I can't say that I learned that much about them. Wolf Hall lacks the astonishing density of A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel's novel about the French Revolution. You don't have as clear a sense of the overall historical moment. This kind of frustrated me, because it's such a fascinating historical period, and I'd LIKE to learn more about it. On the other hand, the characters in Wolf Hall are much more vivid and alive than those of Greater Safety. Cromwell, the centerpiece of the novel, is just wonderful. As my friend Ruchama said, you really just want to keep reading because he's so interesting and likeable. Not even really as a historical figure - just as a person. Meditative, sharp, ethical and fierce. He's a really fantastic character, and the main reason to read the book.

The plot arc of the novel, however, is decidedly less satisfying. About 2/3 of the way in, it seems, Mantel decides to make Thomas More into a counterfoil to Cromwell - he's been there all along, but suddenly he seems to be way, way more important. The ending is somewhat abrupt - the book is massively long, but it doesn't really have a plot arc, so there's no compelling reason why it should end at one moment instead of another. There are all kinds of people you know will turn out to be historically important, and are dying to spend more time with - this is where Mantel's skill in characterization sort of works against her - but you don't get to.

The big scandal around this book was that it won the Booker Prize over A.S. Byatt's Little Children. I haven't read the Byatt yet - it's on my shelf - but honestly, I don't think Wolf Hall is quite that spectacular. It's wonderful as a character study, but rather too long to be recommended solely on those grounds.

18 September 2011

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful writer, so even her less fantastic books are a pleasure to read. The Lacuna is a meandering sort of novel, partly because of its form; it's ostensibly a collection of diaries, letters, news articles, and some commentary. But it successfully collates all of this into an overarching narrative, the story of one man's life. When we meet him, Harrison Shephard is a young boy living in Mexico with his mother. He finds himself working for Diego Rivera, mixing plaster, and from there, Forrest Gump like, he becomes a kind of screen onto which various historical forces are projected.

Lukacs argued that the main character of a historical novel ought to be a somewhat mediocre character, so that he could more effectively be the conduit for history, a passive leaf floating on a river, illustrating the currents. I guess the problem with this novel is, perhaps, that Shephard is a bit too interesting. The book can't really make up its mind, whether it wants to be the truth of this man, or the truth of history, and it's not entirely successful at being both. The parts that are more geared towards exploring his own character are the most compelling; the parts where history looms large are decidedly less so. To me at least. A lot of the historical aspect seemed gimmicky and melodramatic. While it's in some ways refreshing to see the supposedly idyllic 50s being painted as a kind of dark ages of hysteria (mostly through the Red Scare), I can't say that I completely buy the paranoid image of life Kingsolver paints. I suppose we are meant to be drawing parallels to our own historical moment, which makes me find it all the more irritating.

Still, it was a pleasant enough read. The diary portions are quite effective in presenting the image of everyday life. I really appreciated the delicate and subtle handling of the more intimate aspects of the main character's life, particularly sex. I read the book over a period of 3 days, but it definitely felt like it dragged at moments. Overall, it's not an especially rewarding book, and definitely not nearly as good as some of her others.

13 September 2011

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

Oh wow. I was feeling guilty about not updating, and then I realized I hadn't posted this, which I wrote like 2 weeks ago, and felt really guilty. In my defense, I did just move to Turkey. So I've been kinda busy.

I felt the same way about this book as I do about a lot of non-fiction - it would have been great as a New Yorker article. Yes, it was interesting enough, decently written, and a worthwhile topic, but there really wasn't enough material to sustain my interest for 242 pages. The basic hook - that the OED was compiled from submissions from volunteers, and one of the prime contributors was a dude in an insane asylum - isn't quite as juicy as the author seems to think. I mean, the stuff about how it was compiled is interesting. The lunatic stuff, not all that much. Honestly, I don't find it at all surprising. Think about it. Who else would have the time and drive to do something like that, other than a well-educated loon?

The descriptions of the guy's insanity are interesting enough, but after awhile, they start to seem kind of gratuitous, like theyre being milked for thrills. That's when you really start to feel like the book has run out of steam and the author is just trying to fill pages. It gets wordy and repetitive and just not that good.

Actually, one of the things that I found most interesting - as did the author apparently, because he spends some time on it, even though it's kind of tangential - is what he has to say about the Civil War. He makes this claim that the Civil War was the first war where military technology vastly outstripped medical technology, meaning that people could inflict particularly heinous physical suffering on one another. Now, I don't think he's right about that, entirely. I mean, I'd say that claim probably holds true for pretty much every war leading up to that point - shit, and maybe even since. Think of gunpowder. And land mines. And nuclear fallout. But I do believe that the Civil War may have been somewhat unique in the particular moment medicine was at, namely, where somewhat more complex medical operations were becoming more standard, but there wasn't any kind of advanced technology for anesthesia or pain control. But I am also basically speculating on that, so someone who knows more about history and medicine should correct me.

Anyways, overall, not at all a must read. I actually left my copy on the el, in hopes that it'd find it's way into the hands of someone who enjoyed it, because I didn't feel like giving it to any of my friends.