30 December 2012

A Changed Man, by Francine Prose

This is not a great novel, but it's a peasant one. The story of a former skinhead who comes to work for a foreign aid program run by a Holocaust survivor, and develops a close relationship with a single mom working there, and her two sons. There's nothing especially earth shattering about it, but it's a pleasant read with credible insight into human nature. Granted, everyone in the book - even the quasi-villain - is basically the nicest, most likeable incarnation of their character type that you could imagine, which somewhat mars the book's pretensions to moral inquiry, but the pleasant feel it gives to the whole is, to me at least, a credible trade-off. It's the kind of view you're tempted to describe as "human" - everyone is flawed, but hey, live and let live. Some readers may find it an anaesthetized take on the world, but what can I say, it made for good airplane reading.

11 December 2012

GeziciFestival, contd

I've been lax about posting because I've actually been doing a lot of academic writing lately, but I do want to get something down about the other things I've been watching/reading, and I feel especially obliged to post about the movies from the festival, because they're relatively less known, so:

a Bosnio-Serbio-Croation comedy about a gay guy and a homophobe who end up working together to organize a Gay Pride parade. Comedy? Yes, really. And uproariously funny no less. Though a ways into it, I thought you know, these are actually serious issues, maybe we shouldn't be treating them so lightly. It seems the makers of the film agreed, because the movie did take a slightly more serious turn. Not an unmerited one, alas. But it really is a charming, funny, and worthwhile film. A fascinating juxtaposition of gay rights and the scene in the former Yugoslavia, which is a tense and complicated place.

ok, when you buy a ticket for a movie about a yearly sheep-washing competition in a Turkish village, what do you expect. Apparently there's some buzz about how Turkey is the next big thing in international film, and maybe that's why there are so many Turkish films with gorgeous cinematography and sparse narratives, these resolutely "foreign" works that seem to simultaneously want to tell you about life in out of way places and render them utterly alien through distanced documentary techniques. In this case, a guy informed us before he movie started that the film is NOT a documentary. Which made its opaque narrative style all the more... curious.
From what I could tell, the premise of the competition is that a shepherd runs down a hill into a river with all his sheep behind him, and the winner is the one whose sheep follow him most faithfully into the water. Oh, but first, some of the sheep are dyed red. There is one old guy in the town who always wins the competition. There are two other guys we semi-follow who also compete. One of them also gets a job in the city at a meat plant for awhile. There is a quarry opening up near the town. The meat plant guy works there for awhile. The old guy who always wins says when you kill/eat an animal you have to bury all its bones, and if you can't find them all, replace the missing ones with pieces of wood. It's a fragmentary sort of film, if you couldn't tell.
Discussing it with friends after, we decided that it was partly a reflection on processes of modernization. Also, that it was a very good thing that it was only 75 minutes long.

Araf (Between):
This is the worst movie I have seen in a long, long time. Distanced documentary techniques, very little dialogue, and yet it manages to have an obnoxiously cliche plot with retrograde political implications, and an offensively disgusting and appallingly inaccurate miscarriage scene. A woman squats over a toilet, spraying blood between her legs, and then plop, out comes a little plastic doll, with a dangling umbilical cord even. I almost walked out of the theatre. I should've. The rest of the movie was just as dumb. Ugh.

02 December 2012

Dispatches from the Festival on Wheels

The Festival on Wheels (moving pictures! Get it?) is in Ankara this week, which gives me the rare opportunity to see foreign (and Turkish!) films with English subtitles. I'm eating it up, though unfortunately I was a little slow getting to the box office, and some of the films were sold out. But here's what I've covered so far...

Şimdiki Zaman / Present Tense
A film about a young woman who is struggling financially, and takes a job as a fortune tellers, reading coffee grounds, in an effort to save enough money for a visa to the States. But every reading she gives seems to be about her own life. It's an interesting premise, but it doesn't quite work. There's not quite enough narrative to give it momentum, and the characters are a little too vague. It is, however, gorgeous, cinematographically.

Babamın Sesi / My Father's Voice
A slow burn. I was impressed when I saw it, but all day today I find myself thinking about it. I have to say, it's pretty politically charged, much more than I would have expected. It's sparse and subtle, but there's a lot going on beneath the surface. The film balances three story lines, in a way - there's a young man who is trying to connect to his mother. She, meanwhile, is obsessed with her other son, Hasan, who has emigrated. Her husband, their father, also lived abroad, and because the woman cannot read or write, they would send each other tapes. These tapes are layered over the narrative, revealing a gradually unfolding past as the children grow up, and Hasan starts getting into trouble. What is startling about the tapes, actually, is how unsentimental they are. Actually, they're often pretty harsh, giving a vivid sense of just how hard life is for this family. It sounds grim, and I guess it is, but its not a depressing film, maybe partly because again, the cinematography is so beautiful. I really hope this one gets wider distribution. It's excellent.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000
Apparently this is a classic of French cinema in the 70s (though it's actually Swiss). It's entertaining in the way all films of that time period are. Lots of bizarre antics and discussions of Marx, not much in the way of storyline. The theatre was hot and stuffy and I dozed a little. But it was enjoyable enough.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
An Italian film from 1970, about a man so respected by his peers that he cannot be found guilty of a crime, despite blatant evidence. Deliriously bizarre and wonderful. An absolute classic. Hilarious and completely insane. Great music, too. I watched it an hour go and I already want to watch it again.

01 December 2012

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

I stumbled across this one somewhat randomly, and I was instantly hooked. It is infectiously delightful, riotously funny, and just overall great. Salinger meets Breakfast at Tiffany's. The madcap adventures of a self-absorbed and slightly ridiculous but strangely lovable young woman in Paris who is living life to the max. Hilarious hijinx galore.

If anyone had put it to me an hour before that I would suddenly find myself in the midst of a bunch of exquisitely mannered seamen whose whole purpose in life was to request the pleasure of my company for the next dance, or see to it that I was constantly supplied with cigarettes and lights and ash trays and pretty compliments, I would have been frankly incredulous (only I wouldn't have used that phrase).

Though Sally Jay Gorce makes some terrible decisions, sometimes out of naivete, sometimes out of sheer idiocy, she also has a certain steely intelligence and resolve. And callow though she may sometimes be, she also has moments of poetic beauty, tossing out phrases like We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed-fire, tangy as the early morning air. It's that combination of jaded disillusion, aw shucks American-ness, and occasional lyricism that calls to mind Salinger, to me at least, but J.D. never really allows his characters to have this much fun.

It is such a wonderful book. Go read it.

25 November 2012

A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine, by Jay McInerney

Soon after I started reading this book, I was marveling over how enjoyable I found it. I don't actually know all that much about wine (other than that I like drinking it). So the various descriptions didn't really conjure up memories of flavors for me. And I realized very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to use the book as an educational tool, or interactive experience, because most of the wines he writes about simply aren't to be found here, at least not in the stores I generally frequent. So why on earth would it be entertaining to read short essays about various obscure types of wine? And yet - it was. McInerney has a wonderfully readable prose style. It's not exactly evocative - it's not that you can actually taste what he's describing (at least I couldn't) - but it's somehow a lot of fun anyhow. What does come across is his personality. He seems like a guy I'd enjoy hanging out with. I don't know that I learned all that much about wine, unless, perhaps, by learning about what it might be like to be someone who knows a lot about wine, but I liked the book a lot, and definitely recommend it to anyone who has even the faintest interest in or appreciation for the noble grape.

20 November 2012

Baby Brother, by 50 Cent and Noire, and Friends with Kids

I put in some good work today, and at some point decided to give myself the rest of the day off and indulge in some light entertainment. I ended up reading Baby Brother and immediately thereafter going to the movies to see Friends with Kids. Pardon my profanity, but what the fuck is wrong with pop culture these days. Friends with Kids features a long-running schtick about picking which awful fate you'd prefer (dying of disease yourself vs watching the love of your life die; getting eaten by alligators or sharks, etc), so taking a page from their book, I'm gonna say that if you have to pick one, go with Baby Brother. But neither choice is an entirely good one.

Baby Brother starts off with a nice dose of pornography (no doubt thanks to Noire, who has penned quite a few entirely decent one-handed reads). It's not the most eloquent erotica I've ever read, but it's graphic and steamy and kind of fun (except for the use of the term "gushy" to describe a woman's genitals. "Her warm gushy." Gross.). But the book isn't all happy sexy time, oh no, it's actually violent as shit and pretty disturbing. I don't know if credit goes to Noire or 50 Cent for this, but the same descriptive powers that bring you the thrills of pleasurable intercourse turn out to be just as vivid when describing rape and ultra-violence. If only they were anywhere near as potent in generating reasonable plot or psychological depth. But alas.

I will give the book credit though, the plot was not entirely predictable. I won't give it away, but about halfway through there's a twist that I was not expecting at all. Meanwhile though, the book suffers from some serious moral paradoxes. It's ostensibly a moralistic tale that seems to want to persuade the troubled youth of the world to get out of the game, but as so many of these things do, it also can't help but glorify some of the more horrific sides of it and basically engineer a state of exception where genuine morality is no longer an acceptable option - the 'monster' must emerge. Sure, he allegedly gets killed off once again and everyone can become upright citizens, but really, how persuasive is that? It's like telling an alcoholic that they can totally go clean, they just need that one last binge first to tie off some loose ends. Right.

Also, seriously, who is the audience for this book? Because for all its ostentatious use of dialect and slang, the language rings unbelievably hollow. It really feels like choice words are being thrown in to give it that "urban" feel, but without actually inhabiting the language. Is this a novel meant for people who actually talk like this? Or is it for suburban white kids looking for thrills?

Weirdly, in some sense the most disturbing scene to me is actually not the rape or ultra-violence, but this one really awful moment where a guy is in a hotel room with a woman he finds completely revolting, but who gives fantastic head. The narrator describes, with excruciatingly painful realism, how the guy is watching this woman and basically trying to get what he wants out of her while giving her as little in return as possible. It's so awful and unpleasant. And, incidentally, a totally unnecessary scene. Unfortunately, it's probably the most genuine moment of psychological portrayal the book has. I hated it.

But for all its flaws, and there are many, the book is kind of a page-turner. I was really sort of interested in what would happen next. I found it interesting as a cultural product, and enjoyed the puzzle of working out how a book like this got written. Not so for Friends with Kids, which I pretty much hated most of the way through.

To start with the strengths, there were some funny moments. They were mostly of the cringe-inducing variety, but in terms of comedies of manners, it has a few good scenes. If you were being really charitable, you could even say that it does a halfway decent job portraying one normal couple. Also, I love Jon Hamm. I can't help it. I just do. Even when he's being a shit. Maya Rudolph was more likeable than usual to me as well, and that dude who was the cop in Bridesmaids was pretty funny. Kristen Wiig, unfortunately, was  at best a wallflower, at worst a downer, for most of the movie. I guess this is because all the annoying aspects of her typical character got displaced onto Jessica Westfeldt, who was completely unbearable. Hated her in Kissing Jessica Stein, hated her in this. Her neurotic, insecure schtick makes me crazy.

The plot of this movie has exactly the same problems Kissing Jessica Stein did, namely, it takes an interesting and complex issue that is in some ways topical and imagines two unbelievably narcissistic characters who have no concept of complexity negotiating the problem. At first everything seems great, as if the world really were as simplistic as they had thought, but then over the course of the movie they come to realize that actually they were all wrong and the most conservative and stodgy line of reasoning is actually the correct one, thus seemingly solving the problem altogether, but actually just denying that it exists. Way to go.

I generally don't like Hollywood romance. But this one was interminable. By the last half hour, my friend and I were pleading with the screen for the torture to end ("Can't we just montage our way out of this?"). You know how it's gonna end, you just wish they'd hurry up and get there. And actually, for a movie that spans 6 years, they actually barrel through the basics pretty quickly, choosing to report on major plot points rather than actually depict them.

Overall - ugh. Mindless fun is not very fun. 

18 November 2012

Cairo Modern, by Naguib Mahfouz

I tend to have somewhat mixed feelings about Mahfouz novels - I like some, others, I don't really connect to. This one fell rather more into the latter camp. I read it pretty quickly, and even enjoyed it in some sense, but it just didn't seem like that great a book. Actually, what was kind of fascinating about it to me was that it read like a fairly typical nineteenth century French naturalist novel that got plopped into a different historical time and place. To be clear, I am not complaining that it seemed like an alien form imposed onto a resistant context, but rather that I'm just not that into nineteenth century naturalism.  Though I am somewhat intrigued by the idea that something about the political context of Egypt in the 1930s seems to call for that literary genre, and curious about the reception of these books in Egypt.

Like other books of Mahfouz's, this one can be somewhat unclear at times if you're not familiar with that political context, but it actually demands less of the reader than his other works. The basic issues are pretty clear, even if you don't know the intricacies of the background (perhaps the book would be more rewarding if you did). The novel starts off tracking a group of friends, but after 40 pages, it abandons all but one of them, focusing instead on his poverty and the marriage of convenience he enters into to escape it. The psychological profile will be familiar to anyone who's read Mahfouz's books; a bitter young man who just can't get ahead, who is cruel and heartless but also somewhat pitiful in his angsty immaturity. His female counterpart is by far the more interesting character, but unfortunately, we don't spend nearly as much time in her head. There is a subtlety to the portrayal of the characters that is easy to miss among the broad brushstrokes that detail their actions and inner states - while it seems somewhat crude when you're first reading it, it gains in retrospect, as you realize that a lot of the scenes were more carefully drawn than they first appeared.

Overall, it's a decent book, but not the place to start with Mahfouz.

15 November 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D

I was kind of enthralled by the first Silent Hill movie, but somehow completely missed all the ones that came after it. Until now.

This one is somewhat less video game like, but nonetheless has a largely nonsensical plot. I still think that it's at its most frightening when it gives you flashbacks of playing the game, except now it's in 3D. Which you know what? Is pretty effing scary. I tend to freak out a little when things jump out at me in movies anyhow, but when they're actually JUMPING OUT at me, it's much, much worse. Silent Hill: Revelation works this angle pretty well, at least in the first three quarters or so. The ending deteriorates into utter absurdity (amusingly, somewhat reminiscent of Harry Potter), which thankfully neutralizes the fear factor some (though I still turned all the lights on as soon as I got home). I will say this for it though, they've definitely got creepy imagery pretty solidly figured out. Stuff is just scary looking. I found myself wondering if ten years from now, the movie will register as cheesy rather than frightening in the same way that old horror flicks do, and what it means for an aesthetic of fear to be culturally shaped in such time-specific ways, but yeah. It's scary looking. Deformed bodies and jerky movements and a nice little bit of gore on top.

Also, what the what? Why is Malcolm McDowell in this movie? Carrie-Ann Moss? Seriously? The main actress is a poor man's Michelle Williams, but those two are the real deal!

My friend Daniel made the really interesting point that, watching this movie here, one wonders how it clicks with a Turkish audience, given the bizarrely Christian undertones of it all. Recently, I've found that a lot of my students have a rather morbid take on Christianity, as of an extremely cruel and cold religion. Kind of intriguing. Movies like this, with all the witch burning and ambiguously parented gods and Spanish Inquisition imagery probably don't help.

Overall: a satisfyingly trashy bit of weeknight entertainment. Just the right amount of scary, but silly enough to (hopefully) not give you nightmares.

06 November 2012

Cloud Atlas

A whole pack of Halle Berrys!

Overall, I liked it. It's weird and mind-bendy and doesn't entirely make sense, but it's certainly entertaining to watch. I will say this - the Matrix-y parts are way too Matrix-y. Come on guys. The Matrix was awesome. Move on. There is a scene in this movie where you're just waiting for a dude to pull out a red pill and a blue pill. Oh, you don't want to be the chosen one? Would a little factory farming of bodies change your mind? It's weird and gross and honestly, kind of offensive. If you think about it too hard, you might notice that the movie kind of equates genocide with stealing someone's symphony. So it's better not to think about it. In fact, it's better not to think about most of the movie too hard, because it doesn't entirely stack up, or maybe it does, but I can't be bothered. I'm sure plenty of academics will be dissecting it for years to come.

Overall, the plot is pretty interesting, though it takes a turn for the grinding sap factor (LOVE, LOVE, LOVE) towards the end. One problem I had with the movie was that there were large chunks where I could barely understand what people were saying to each other, but honestly, even that didn't bother me too much.

Of course, the most entertaining thing about the film is the actors playing multiple roles, sometimes as people of different (or ambiguous) race. Apparently plenty of people on the internet find this wildly offensive, and personally, I think they've got it exactly wrong. I think it's an interesting, avant-garde sort of move. I don't think it's meant to bleep out histories of racial tensions. Does the movie ignore some nuances of race, sure, but it's 6 interconnected stories that already span 3 hours of time - it's just not a nuanced movie. I didn't find it offensive to see people of color playing white people, so why should it be offensive to also have some white people play people of color (or, perhaps, people who live in a futuristic society where race is actually physically different?)?

Anyways. Worth watching. It is not the jaw-dropping, revelatory, mind-bending movie that plenty of people want it to be (so few movies are...), but it's certainly creative and entertaining, and at this point, that's pretty darn good as far as I'm concerned.

03 November 2012

Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead

Couldn't do it. I made it through 2-3 chapters and decided that life is too short to read that much description. Then we went to the living room [insert several paragraphs, lovingly teeming with VERY EXPRESSIVE adjectives, about the living room]. I thought about making myself some lunch [insert multiple paragraphs about what he likes for lunch, what his brother likes, why Campbell's Homestyle Chicken Soup with Egg Noodles is the best, etc. No seriously. "It was the Cadillac of canned soup, the noodles firm yet pliant on the tongue, the ratio of celery and carrots consistent and reliable. The tiny amber globules of fat shimmered on the surface in an enticing display, to delight the eye."]. Who is this guy's editor?

Have you ever taken a creative writing class? Do you remember the first piece you wrote, and how proud of it you were, and how your classmates were like "Dude, that's an awesome description of a football field. I really felt like I was there." And your your teacher said "well yes, it's very nice, but there is no plot." When you first try your hand at fiction, you describe the ever loving shit out of everything. I think it's because that's what you think of as 'literary,' or maybe it's just that it comes easily and makes things seem vivid, I don't know. And when someone tells you to cut your fantastic portrayal of autumn leaves, you think to yourself that they clearly don't appreciate your genius. Well, the first few chapters of this novel finally made me understand why those teachers tell you to cut the descriptions down. Nobody cares that you can clearly depict a can of Homestyle Chicken Soup if your plot is completely stagnant. There was absolutely nothing happening in this book that I cared about. Admittedly, this is partly because I'm not very interested in coming-of-age stories. I hated adolescence. I have no desire to relive it by reading about someone else's. So the narrator fretting over how his life is changing, and whether there would be enough seats in the car for him to go to the beach, and of course, will he ever get laid, is just not that compelling to me. The book is slightly more interesting because the protagonist is black, so at least there's some exploration of racial identity, but that's not innovative enough to make me want to read it instead of something else.

There's definitely a little voice in the back of my head that is chiding me for giving up on this book - though it chides me for giving up on any book, so it's opinion isn't entirely credible - but I think I'll get over it.

21 October 2012

This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

I had extremely high expectations for this one, because I was so completely blown away by Oscar Wao. But I might have considered that I didn't especially care for Drown. It may be that I like Diaz as a novelist more than as a storyteller. The impressive thing about Oscar Wao is the architecture of the plot, which swoops and shifts and evolves in an absolutely incredible way (and delivers a serious punch to the guts, emotionally speaking, in the process). You really can't do that in a short story, even in a series of stories about the same character (plus one random story with a female narrator, which was utterly unconvincing, to an extent that I was vaguely offended).

The best moments of this book were really excellent, but they were also rather sparse. To be honest, I think I find Diaz's prose style a bit grating. I also get tired of the main character, who can't quite get his shit together and make a relationship work. You start to lose sympathy, after awhile. There wasn't much actual insight into love or relationships in this collection - it was more like a bunch of sob stories. After the tenth time the protagonist falls madly in love at first sight, it seems a lot less believable. Nonetheless, some of the stories were compelling (the first one, I think, was the best). But overall, it was a let-down.

08 October 2012

Treasure Island!!!, by Sara Levine

I hated this book at first. I've always said that I have a hard time with novels if I don't like the main character (especially if it's the first person narrator), and the one in this book is absolutely vile. Just a terrible, stupid, inconsiderate, vicious person. But somehow, 1/3 of the way in or so, her cruelty became almost baroque in its senselessness and absurdity, and the book began to grow on me. I found myself enjoying it in spite of myself. It's a dark, bizarre novel, but there's something kind of mesmerizing about it.

The blurb on the back says it's about how a recent college grad reads Treasure Island and decides to model her life after it. This is, strictly speaking, true, but it's a misleading way to see the book. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it's a kind of retooled Confederacy of Dunces - the emotional impact was extremely similar. It's a wacky book, but an interesting read. Not for the faint of heart, but not a bad way to pass a few hours.

06 October 2012

The City and the City, by China Mieville

Reflecting recently, I realized that the most popular genres of fiction (ones that reliably populate best seller lists) are mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, historical novels, and romance. And that those are the very the genres that I tend not to like very much. There are exceptions, of course, but I often find that the formula behind those genres is a little bit too visible to me. I am a lot more sensitive to the scaffolding behind the story, and a lot more irritated by it. In sci-fi novels, for instance, the endless exposition grates at me. In mysteries, the controlling way the author doles out information and/or actively misleads me gets on my nerves. I say all this in order to explain my skepticism about The City and the City, and why I liked it less than a lot of other people did or would. A mystery novel set in a strange place where two cities basically exist in the same place but the people in each must "unsee" the other is just not really my cup of tea. The made up names (many vaguely Hungarian) irritated me, as did the occasional references to our world, daring you to try and place the cities in space and time relative to our reality, or the scant allusions to the early history of the place, which in no way explained what happened.

But I did like it. It's a well-written, absorbing read. The language is vivid and rarely stoops to crime cliché. The premise of the two cities is a creative one, and it's executed quite well. I started slow, but once I got about halfway in, I finished the book in two long, breathless sittings.

Did I love it? No. But it was an enjoyable read. And there's a distinct pleasure, to me, in reading a book that has been recommended to me by good friends, and read by lots of people I know. It makes you feel more connected somehow.

01 October 2012

North by Northwest

It is entirely possible that Hitchcock, much like raw oysters, capers, and martinis, is something you need to acquire a taste for. I am happy to report that I think I have arrived: my palate has finally matured enough to genuinely enjoy his films. I used to find them somewhat dull, and really didn't like the way he told stories. But in the last year or so, something changed, and now I find him absolutely mesmerizing. Last night, my friend Daniel and I watched North by Northwest. I had been totally unimpressed by it the first time I saw it, but this time, I was enthralled. Cary Grant plus Hitchcock - what a pair!

I'm not going to spend too much time analyzing the plot, because as everyone knows, Hitchcock movies are essentially the basis of all film theory anyhow. North by Northwest is a delightful reflection on identity and how it can change (the fluid boundaries between the everyman and the spy), and has plenty of Freudian drama, but mostly, it's just an entertaining movie. Visually, it's stunning - wonderful geometric compositions that are strongly reminiscent of Orson Welles, and of course, a deliriously decadent (though slightly ridiculous) final sequence on Mt Rushmore.

What really struck me about the movie though, was how incredibly sexy it is. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are sizzling in the train scene, and their witty banter is some of the most erotically charged dialogue I've seen in quite a long time - you would never imagine that you'd hear it in a movie released in 1959. It's pretty fabulous. The other thing I enjoyed was an early scene of drunkenness - I tell you what, those old classic movies did drunk right. Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart - they are some of the most hilarious yet accurate drunks you will ever see on screen. Great fun.

I'm looking forward to watching a lot more Hitchcock. It's like a whole new world of pleasures has opened up before me.

24 September 2012

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk

A very impressive book, though it falls short of the greatness I'd hoped for. Monk's stated intention is to write an intellectual biography, to combine a description of Wittgenstein's ideas with an account of his life, and try to see how the two are related. He doesn't succeed as well as James Knowlson does in his magisterial biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame (seriously? I never posted about that incredible book?), but certainly, this book is a detailed story of Wittgenstein's life, and provides a remarkably clear overview of his thinking.

My main gripe was that the book is plagued with teensy repetitions, phrases that reappear like mosquitoes after a few pages. It's so minor and seems to nit-picky, but it really irked me. Otherwise though, it was a highly absorbing read - you can really get lost in it. It has a slightly melancholy feel - the man was rather tormented - but is also quite inspiring in some ways, the way that all stories of great thinkers tend to be. That single-minded passion, the fierce pursuit of this abstract idea - I can't help wishing for it myself. Reading things like this leads to resolutions to write more and read less - to be undertaken as soon as I finish reading them.

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

I've been sort of fascinated by Muriel Spark ever since I read this review of a biography of her, which included this amazing quote:

Spark, a late bloomer, didn’t publish her first novel, “The Comforters,” until 1957, when she was 39. It was based in part on a nervous breakdown she had suffered a few years earlier, brought on, apparently, by eating poorly, reading the complete works of Cardinal Newman and popping Dexedrine until she began to believe that T. S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages.

Doesn't that just make you want to find every book she's written and read it?

This one, alas, isn't as good as some of the others. In terms of narrative structure, it's very similar to the vastly superior Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, weaving drunkenly in time, stitching together various characters (also mostly young women), ominously circling tragedy. It's short, 150 pages or so, but it wasn't until around page 80 that I really got into it. Still though, there is something in the way it chronicles the end days of World War Two in London in this almost blithe, background sort of way. It's not a must-read, but it certainly contributes to my sense that reading Spark's entire oeuvre is a worthy endeavor.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

I've been inspired to read more Orwell since I started teaching two of his essays, "Why I Write" and "A Hanging," on a regular basis, and I must say, it's a rewarding experience. My friend Russ had told me that this book (which he very much admires) is about how petty differences can divide groups that are struggling against a common enemy (I believe we were discussing liberals in the US at the time). It's interesting, in that while I see how one could read the book and take that away from it, that hardly seemed central to me.

Orwell's writing is wonderfully crisp and vivid. You really do feel as though you know what it's like to be there in the trenches beside him. In "Why I Write," he talks about how he loves description, and would have been content, in another age, to write poems about flowers, so it's not really surprising that some of the most wonderful parts of this book were about mud. I particularly enjoyed the description of getting shot - fascinating stuff. Apparently the bullet basically kills surrounding nerve endings, so the bullet hole itself doesn't hurt, but whatever other damage it causes very much does. Orwell has this way of addressing the reader directly, but without any smugness or self-righteousness. It's extremely appealing.

As for the story itself - I know very little about the Spanish civil war, and to be honest, most of what I got out of this book is how very difficult it is to actually know something about it. Orwell really emphasizes this - how murky and unclear things were, and especially, how inefficient the spread of information was. Quite a contrast, one imagines, to modern day warfare. At least, one hopes. One of his major points throughout is that journalists completely misrepresented the whole thing (because they often didn't know what was going on, and were reporting second-hand information) and actually exacerbated the conflicts, turning various sides against each other. He registers his outrage over what seem like senseless deaths (he does not see death on the battlefield as senseless), but without getting overly hysterical or melodramatic (it's quite an English book, in that way).

Basically, if you're going to read one book about the Spanish civil war, this is not a bad choice. If you're going to read one Orwell book, this would not be my first pick, but it's nonetheless pleasurable.

16 September 2012

The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

Let me say up front that I read this book knowing almost nothing about the plot beforehand, and that this lack of knowledge, though it initially made for some confusion, was ultimately a very rewarding way to experience the story, because what is so impressive about the book is the way it constructs the plot. And that's what I'm going to talk about in this blog post, so if you haven't read it, you might want to stop here.

Let me also say up front that the book definitely reflects the weird anti-Semitism of its time. It is occasionally distasteful, and I imagine that plenty of ink has been spilled deliberating over just how messed up it really is. I am not all that interested in continuing that debate, but I do think one needs to at least acknowledge that the characters in the book have a worldview that is sometimes pretty gross.

So, having gotten those preliminaries out of the way: it took me awhile to warm up to this book. The prose isn't as beautiful as that of Bowen's other works; it has that carefully wrought quality, but it just doesn't rise to the same level. What it does have though, is the trademark Bowen tip-of-the-iceberg quality, where what seems like a drawing room story turns out to have quite the murky depths. In essence, the book is about a set of tangled relationships, which produce an illegitimate child. The genius of the book though, is that rather than telling it in chronological order, the book begins with a completely different, unrelated child who happens to be the casual bystanders (one might say collateral damage) of a day of reckoning years later. So as you read, you're focused on this other child, Henrietta, who has very little to do with the 'actual' story. This makes the story a really interesting reflection on children and how they deal with the adult world (and how the adult world deals with them). It vaguely made me think of both Ian McEwan's Atonement and A. S. Byatt's Children's Book.

There's also this weird gothic quality to the novel. It's slightly overdramatic in some ways - I think it would have been more effective if it had been left subtler - but it's decidedly creepy and quite interesting. One might reflect on how the theme of hereditary curse gets reworked here; it's not quite supernatural, except inasofar as any person who is so toxic to everyone around them seems profoundly evil in a not-of-this-world sort of way. The terrifying figure of the resentful, lonely, tyrannical woman, yowzers.

Elizabeth Bowen really is vastly underappreciated. She belongs in the modernist canon as one of the greats, I think, but you rarely see her mentioned there. This is not her finest work, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.

10 September 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I don't read mysteries all that often, but this one came so highly recommended by a friend of mine that I decided to check it out. The description also said that it was a compelling exploration of the ups and downs of a marriage, which seemed promising. And indeed, the book delivered. It's a terrific, gripping read, though it does peter out somewhat at the end.

I don't want to give anything away - and by the by, try to avoid reading or even glancing at the table of contents, because it does give a lot away, which is frustrating - so I won't say much about the plot. The basic story is that a guy's wife disappears suddenly, and the book begins by interspersing his account of her disappearance with her diary entries. Their marriage has been somewhat rocky, and the novel is heart wrenching in its portrayal of a floundering relationship. That, more than the disappearance, is what makes the book so absorbing, though the mystery is what makes it a page turner.

Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the final 1/3 or so didn't live up to the rest of the book - the psychology of it suddenly turned simplistic and not at all believable. Right as you're hurtling towards the end, when the thrill of suspense should be at its max, it starts to seem... juvenile? Prurient? It not only failed to convince me, all of the characters suddenly flattened into cliches. Disappointing, especially because the first 2/3 are so much fun. Still though - worth the read. Especially well suited for beaches or long flights.

07 September 2012

The Radeztky March, by Joseph Roth

Such a beautiful novel. It's atmospheric, yet moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, sometimes jumping years ahead with little to no warning. The characters are opaque in some sense yet deeply familiar and sympathetic. It is simultaneously a large scale historical novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a rather moving portrait of a father-son relationship. The prose, to me at least, is just breathtaking. Here, a passage chosen at random:

She plunged into the acrid coal fumes, the whistles and steam of the shunting locomotives, the busy ringing of the signals. She was wearing a short traveling veil. She had the feeling such veils had been in fashion fifteen years ago. She was wrong: it was actually twenty five years - not even twenty! How she loved waiting on station platforms. (273)

It reminds me somewhat of Flaubert (not just because this passage could easily have come from Madame Bovary). The translator, Michael Hoffman (apparently he is a poet?) has done an absolutely incredible job. Interesting as the novel is as a portrayal of historical milieu, the real reason to read it is to bathe in the sentences, let them roll over you. So, so wonderful.

31 August 2012

Havy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A Study of An Early Arabic Impact on English Literature, by Nawal Muhammad Hassan

This is definitely not your everyday read, but I feel compelled to post about it because the material it covers is just fascinating. The book does not quite do its subject justice, by which I mean, it is a pretty basic academic treatment of the matter, and refrains from milking its content for excitement - or from indulging in reflection on broader implications.

I should perhaps first explain that this book came to my hands after I stumbled across a reference to it in Srinivas Aramadun's Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (also an interesting book, worth reading for anyone in 18th century studies, or working on the development of the novel, I think). Aramadun essentially summarizes the critical study in in two pages, explaining that there exists a 12th century Arabic text called Havy bin Yaqzan that was translated, first into Hebrew, then Latin, then English. It achieved some measure of popularity among 17th and 18th century Brits, and may have been an influence on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. A footnote then cites this study. For whatever reason, I decided I needed to read it. Or at least look it over. Thanks to interlibrary loan, one of the world's best services, I was able to read the University of Pennsylvania's copy. The book itself appears to be a typewritten manuscript - a dissertation perhaps? - that was published in Baghdad (by the Al_Raschid House of Publication) in 1980. Which was just kind of awesome. If that intrigues you, read on - I'm gonna put in a jump, because I think this post is gonna get long.

30 August 2012

he Guide, by R.K. Narayan

A few years ago, I was in a friend's apartment for the first time, perusing his bookshelves (as I am wont to do) and discovered a whole row of Narayan's books. I had vaguely heard of the author before, but not in details, so the quantity of his texts on display piqued my interest. Of all of them, for some reason this is the one that especially called to me. As the back of the book described it, "Mistaken for a holy man, [the protagonist] plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju's newfound sanctity to the test."As far as one sentence summaries go, that one seems about right. As I read, I kept being reminded of Tadeusz Konwicki's Minor Apocalypse, which is also a kind of reluctant holy man tale. I guess it's been done many a time (We Have a Pope, which I watched awhile ago and LOVED, also comes to mind), but there's something about the trope that appeals to me. Unlike those other two, in this one the devoted followers play a more crucial role, which makes the book a somewhat more interesting variant (who is the more holy, the pretender or the one who can muster faith? Have you been tricked if your faith is so strong as to make someone else holy? Is divinity an essence or a function of the relationship between people?).

What I also found sort of intriguing about this book was the narrative style, which combined the first and the third person voices, interspersed - a narrator telling the story, and then the memories of the main character, interwoven. I guess it's not so uncommon a device, but for some reason I found it somewhat jarring in this work, the way it blithely moved between the two all like "I can tell this story however I want, so there!" But I may have been oversensitive as a result of reading all these various texts hunting for things to teach (see previous entry).

Anyhow, overall, an interesting and enjoyable book - somewhat on the dry side, and not a must-read, but I definitely enjoyed it.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver

I'm planning the syllabus for an introductory lit class I'm teaching that will include a unit on short stories, so I'm reading around trying to find some good ones. "Give 'em some Raymond Carver," says my friend Jonathan. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, everyone will love that book. It's amazing." I have to admit, I was kind of dubious, but I checked it out of the library - and devoured it. My god. It really is incredible. Absolutely riveting. I've read some Carver here and there in my life, but this collection hit me like a freight train. It's taut, melodic, and quietly devastating in a strangely pleasurable way. Highly recommended.

PS - If you're wondering, I will be including the two version he wrote of one story, "Popular Mechanics," in the syllabus of that class - it's only two pages, and the subtle differences between the two versions are a good discussion point. I also decided to include the title story in my other class as an accompaniment to Plato's Symposium. I think it'll work well. I generally love pairing ancient texts with modern works (we're doing Beowulf and Grendel in the other class, for instance) and trying to think through their different modes of representation, I think it's a great exercise. 

24 August 2012

Shortcomings, by Adriane Tomine

I picked this up after seeing it on a list of Best Graphic Novels.* I don't think it'd make my top 10 list, but it was a quick, enjoyable read. it vaguely reminded me of I'm Through With White Girls (which I liked, though maybe not as much as this post seems to suggest), Love Jones, and Medicine for Melancholy (which apparently I never wrote about? But really liked.) - mainly because of the way it deals with relationships, but also race and distance. And it's partly set in San Francisco. The plot isn't especially gripping, but Tomine really succeeds at capturing interactions between people in an amazing way. In four sparse frames, you get a fully realized fight between a couple that is so apt that it's kind of painful. Or there's a scene of the main guy having lunch with his lesbian best friend, who is hitting on the server, and it's like, yes! That is EXACTLY what hanging out with your single friend who's making on the server is like! Not that these scenes are especially earth-shattering, or reveal some profound truths about human nature, but there is a distinct pleasure to seeing them so accurately rendered. It really makes you appreciate the graphic novel as a genre. I wasn't blown away by the art, or so I thought, because it wasn't all that visually appealing, but in retrospect, it's pretty fantastic as far as representation goes.

Also, it's one of those rare works that has a protagonist who is unsympathetic in many ways, and basically gets what he deserves (in my opinion), yet you have a kind of sympathy for him. He's human. I think it helps that so many other characters in the novel are noticeably annoyed by him, and that he has a best friend who loves him despite his faults. Actually, the friend - and the other characters - aren't exactly angels either. It's a cast of flawed, somewhat irritating people, but it manages to convey its awareness of their flaws without judging them. Impressive stuff.

The racial commentary is nothing new really, but I'm generally appreciative any time a relatively light, fun work manages to smuggle in some intelligent awareness of racial issues without being preachy. In this case, it's just this side of too much, but it manages to find other things to talk about without getting completely stuck on the issue.

All in all, a pleasant book, but not a must-read.

*I like explaining how I discovered a book/movie, partly to remind myself, and partly because I'm always interested to hear how other people hear about new stuff. Also, I guess, because it gives you a sense of the kinds of expectations I brought to the work in question.

21 August 2012

Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

Go to the store, buy a bottle of decent or even good red wine (not too good, otherwise it will command all of your attention), then find a balcony, or seat near an open window at least, and read this book.* You'll finish it before the wine is gone. It's a lovely book, strange, funny, contemplative and touching, but in a light and playful sort of way. It almost reads like a prose poem, with certain phrases and ideas recurring periodically, sometimes with slight variations. It's basically a monologue about a guy who works as a trash compactor, pulping books, but as is often the case with excellent works of literature, that summary tells you very little about it. It's a beautifully realized mind that you spend time in, one could say. A wonderful read.

*You could perhaps swap the wine for tea or coffee or hot chocolate, and the balcony for your bed, or a comfy armchair, or a park bench. What is essential though, is that you find a 2 hour window of time in which you can read the entire book in one go - I think it simply wouldn't work as well without complete immersion.

19 August 2012

Killer Joe

I didn't realize that this movie was NC-17 before I saw it, but this is one of the few films that I think legitimately deserves the rating. It's adult. Not because it has lots of nudity, not even because of the gore, really, but because there are some pretty dark, twisted, and messed up segments. I'm somewhat sensitive to scenes of cruelty/humiliation and it was just this side of tolerable for me at times.* That said - I really, really enjoyed it. It reminded me of Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Black humor, violence that teeters between cartoonish and horrifying, gorgeous landscapes, quirky characters and best of all, plenty of good old fashioned storytelling. It's a wonderful thing, the way cinema can occasionally capture the simple art of a lone individual spinning a good yarn.

Astonishingly, everyone in the movie manages to be sympathetic and interesting despite being arguably rather vile. What is even more impressive, they are quirky yet believable, recognizable types without being cliches. The acting is wonderful, the dialogue is a delight, and it's a fantastic, atmospheric film. Much recommended.

*I think its important to warn people of that before they see it (I was not warned about the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I walked out of the theatre, and resented everyone who had recommended it to me without mentioning how brutal it was).

06 August 2012

A good blog

I just stumbled across this blog somewhat randomly: A Course of Steady Reading. If you enjoy my blog, you might like this one as well; it's focused on somewhat more obscure works from the seventeenth century onwards. The posts are much, much longer and more detailed than mine, I'm ashamed to say, and much more interesting. 

05 August 2012

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

I mainly read this because I'm working on a paper about cross-cultural marriage in some early 19th century Irish fiction, so I was curious how this somewhat well-known Scottish novel handled the issue. It was an entertaining read, though rather too long, with chunks that were pretty unnecessary. The pacing is weird, suddenly rocketing ahead in time, or briskly dispensing with plot segments you'd expect it to linger over. But it's an entertaining enough read, if you like 19th century novels.

The book surprised me in several ways. As far as cross-cultural relationships go, it's actually kind of fudging the issue, because there are no clear-cut cases of a Scottish person marrying a British person. Or rather, the differences between the nationalities are not as explicitly marked as in the Irish fiction of the time, where they really are seen as being wildly different and highly incompatible. Here, you have some extreme cases of whack-a-doodle Scottish relatives, or random eccentrics, but at one point a character explicitly tells another one that these weirdos shouldn't be seen as representative. In fact, thinking back on it, there's a lot of material in there on the question of representation; with people having varying preconceived notions about what Scotland is like, and the nation itself turning about to be (surprise surprise) pretty diverse. Though there was a lot of emphasis on the landscape in certain parts being breathtakingly gorgeous, there wasn't a strong unified message in regards to other factors, nor were there lengthy disquisitions on the history or culture.

What really surprised me though, was that there were so many characters in the book who were extremely unlikeable. I would even venture to say - most of them. It's been awhile, I think, since I read a novel in which so many people were portrayed as vile without being villainous. Petty, selfish, unpleasant - but without that having much effect, really, on the story. One of the main characters in particular is pretty thoroughly despicable, and everyone basically seems in agreement on how awful she is - but it really doesn't matter that much. Despite being in many ways central, she is also kind of irrelevant. It's sort of fascinating. Likewise, the eccentric Scottish family, who would, in Irish novels of this kind, generally be portrayed as weird yet lovable, are here rather explicitly depicted as kind of lovable but also actually pretty unbearable - even as they're milked for comic effect. At one point, a character is forced to acknowledge that it's nostalgia that makes her think of them with fondness, because in person they're almost intolerable. Quite surprising, and seemed rather harsh.

I don't know how interesting this book would be to someone who isn't reading it for academic reasons, but if you're a fan of 18/19th century lit, you could certainly do worse.

Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman

I'd been sort of intrigued by Ayelet Waldman ever since I heard about the whole kerfuffle over her saying that she loved her husband more than her kids. I thought it was a bold thing to say, and one I totally agreed with, and I was curious to read more of her stuff. I ended up buying this book along with her husband's essays on fatherhood (which I liked, but did not love, not that it really seems appropriate/fair to compare them). Maybe because I was not so blown away by Chabon's book, I didn't really expect to appreciate this one. To my surprise, I actually kind of was.

The opening salvo, about how most women feel like bad mothers, and take it out on other women by policing their mothering, struck me as true but not that compelling, but as the book went on, I got more and more into it. Waldman wrestles with a lot of things that I've spent a lot of time thinking about - and I generally agree with most of what she says about it, and appreciated her perspective in helping me think about it. It's actually somewhat unfortunate that the book is framed as being primarily about motherhood, because I think it's more broadly about being a woman and trying to figure out what feminism means to you, and how to live your life, balance work, love and family, etc. Sure, it's a little trite or sappy at moments, but at others - like the essay about learning that the child she was pregnant with was likely to have birth defects, and deciding what to do next - were incredibly moving and poignant. And brave. Waldman really bares her soul at a lot of moments moments in this book, but manages to find that sweet spot (that she explicitly describes searching for) where it comes across as intimate and open but not narcissistic or exhibitionist.

It's an excellent book. Definitely makes for a good gift for that woman in her late 20s/early 30s in your life. I'm actually quite glad I read it now, not having gone through pregnancy/motherhood myself - I kind of feel like I got more out of it now than I might later. 

30 July 2012

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

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

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

29 July 2012

Tears of the Giraffe, by Alexander McCall Smith

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

28 July 2012

To Rome With Love

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

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

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

24 July 2012

Shut Up and Play the Hits

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

19 July 2012

We Have a Pope

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

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

The Romantic Agony, by Mario Praz

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

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

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

11 July 2012

Bitter Sky, by Zdravka Evtimova

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

The Three-Arched Bridge, by Ismail Kadare

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

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

04 July 2012

2 Days in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2012

Jeff Who Lives at Home

I saw this on a recent flight and as I was watching, it occurred to me that there is a certain type of movie whose plot arc follows this pattern: you are introduced to a cast of characters who seem like fairly typical suburban types. But you start to realize rather quickly that in fact, they are all incredibly unhappy, and as the movie progresses, various things occur that serve not only to illuminate their misery, but also to increase it. Then, about halfway through the film, things start to improve, and by the end, they've all basically achieved fulfillment, or at least are well on their way to doing so. It's kind of a strange formula, when you think about it. And an interesting commentary on American society (because I think this is typically a narrative found in American independent films in particular).

Anyways, as you can guess, that's the basic formula for Jeff Lives at Home - sorry to give it away, but honestly, are you surprised? No. Because it really is that typical a plot line. Which is fine, but overall, the movie is not an especially interesting take on the formula - it feels a little too tidy. It's pleasant enough to watch, but everything fits together so well that you stop believing it. The danger appears early on, when we learn that Jeff is obsessed with patterns, signs, and the idea of destiny, and is out to seek his. Right away you figure that whatever whackadoodle adventure he undertakes will turn out to be freighted with significance, and sure enough. In fact, the movie doesn't even twist itself into particularly arduous contortions to get you there - it's almost blunt in its willingness to cut to the chase.

Jason Segal and Susan Sarandon both give enjoyable performances, as do the other leads, whose names I've forgotten. In some strange way, everyone in the movie seems to be giving a solid version of their standard role - even if you don't know who they are. I wonder what gives me that impression; if it's a feature of the director or what. There's just something very stolid about everyone in the movie, I dunno.

Overall, meh. It's definitely enjoyable for a rental or an in-flight feature, but I wouldn't rush to the cineplex.

14 June 2012

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

De-lightful. I read it with pleasure in one day, on the recommendation of my boyfriend. I'm often somewhat resistant to mystery novels, but this, which was more like a collection of short stories, was a lots of fun. They weren't exactly mysteries - there was little to no suspense, or whodunit type stuff. It's more the enjoyment of seeing how our hero will tackle the problem, watching her interact with people, etc. So it's a kind of fun, folksy story, but with some startlingly complex reflections on modernity, life in Africa as opposed to the west, gender, etc. Beach reading, but with a brain.

12 June 2012

Creaturely and Other Essays, by Devin Johnston

This book is an interesting case study in the definition of the prose poem as a genre. There is indeed something poetic about the way the ideas are strung together, a kind of precarious layering of associations that doesn't quite amount to an argument so much as a cluster of related thoughts that mutually shape and inflect each other. Some of the observations are really interesting and thought-provoking. I read the whole thing in one sitting (during a 45 minute bus ride), but wished that I'd spent more time on it and chewed over the ideas a bit more.

Simultaneously, however, I hated the language. Perhaps because it was described on the back as a series of prose poems, I expected the language to be incredibly beautiful, but instead it was... I can't even explain. A mealy mouthful of gristle. It was so weird, because there is something incredibly vivid and evocative in the imagery, but you're so keenly aware of the tortured medium that's conveying it to you. I don't know if this example can convey it, but perhaps?

 Dark begins to fall. Beside a picnic shelter, a drunk man vomits violently, doubled over in his camouflage jacket. The owls seem to pay him no heed; but suddenly, the female opens her wings and enters a long swoop, the field pouring away in her wake. (100)

I can see it all so clearly. But the alliteration of the violently vomiting man, the assonance of away and wake, honestly, even the amount of syllables - there is no musicality to it. Is it just me?

The whole book is like that. Slightly precious, a little bit cliché, and strangely ugly - but also kind of lovely and interesting in both its imagery and its ideas.


Fun fact: if you go to see a Polish movie in theatres (or a Polish-French movie), you are basically guaranteed to see at least one Polish person there. And I don't mean just me, I mean someone in addition to me.

This is in some sense exactly what you'd expect from a (Polish-)French movie about prostitutes, but it's actually quite well done. Juliette Binoche plays a journalist doing a feature on working girls for a magazine. The film combines scenes from her life with scenes from theirs, along with some footage of their interviews. The two girls, one French and one Polish, are kind of an interesting contrast. There's a way in which the acts that the Polish one engages in seem rather more debasing, but she also seems a lot more into it all than the French one, who is more of the sweet and submissive type. And she seems to get humiliated and abused more. I'm not sure if the film is intentionally skewing things in that way or if that's just how it came across to me, but it was an interesting contrast. The Polish girl seems to have a kind of strange genius for becoming embodying other people's fantasies.

Meanwhile, Binoche's home life is sort of grim in that somewhat cliche bourgeois sort of way; successful, sex-less, somewhat neurotic career woman with a teenage child who openly disrespects her and a husband she resents. This would be annoyingly predictable, but it's done with a somewhat light touch, and somehow, it works.

Overall, while it's kind of cliche and predictable in some ways, there's also something kind of interesting and original in the way that it's done. It's definitely not a must-see, but it's not a bad movie either.

11 June 2012

Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Interesting from a literary history/theoretical perspective, but otherwise pretty dull. Caleb Williams is the story of a young servant who becomes very curious about his master's past. He ends up learning the man's dark secret, and the rest of the novel is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Falkland, the master, is a virtuous guy, but he also doesn't want his secret to get out, and doesn't feel he can fully trust Caleb. So he can't kill him or just let him go, which means they are initially sort of chained together, making each other's lives miserable. But then Caleb attempts escape, upping the ante. An interesting premise, and the way that events play out isn't predictable - it's just kind of blah. There's a good bit of railing against the conditions of society, especially prisons and the justice system as such, which makes the novel feel both preachy and dated (though some - even most! - of its criticisms probably still apply). Perhaps the problem I had with it was the characters - the mechanics of the plot were quite interesting and well done, but the moral ambiguity of the characters actually made them kind of hard to track emotionally. Or maybe it's just that I read the book in fits and starts and didn't get into it properly. Who knows. 

10 June 2012

Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amelie Nothomb

I liked this book less than her others, but I enjoy Nothomb's prose style enough that even a more outlandish book, like this one, is entertaining. The most patently fictional of her books that I've encountered, this is the story of an aged, Nobel prize-winning author who is interviewed by a series of journalists, torturing them with fiendish spite, until he meets his match in a typical Nothomb heroine; a cool, witty woman.

The viciousness of the author, Pretextat Tach, allows Nothomb to revel in a bit of sadistic glee. You can tell that she loves Tach in some ways; an unabashedly arrogant and dogmatic gourmande, monstrously fat and repulsive but with beautiful hands. It's the kind of sadism you find in Houllebecq or Michael Haneke, but in Nothomb's works it feels less heartless somehow, more like a celebration of the grotesque a la Bataille than an enjoyment of human suffering. But maybe I'm deceiving myself.

The story, while amusing enough to read, is not entirely successful. It is a bit too neatly constructed to be believable, which makes it seem somewhat gratuitously lurid and somewhat juvenile. The reflections on reading are interesting but come across as a bit trite by virtue of their context. Overall, an entertaining enough book, but not a must-read.

25 May 2012

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson

A friend of mine read this in her intro humanities class on modernity last semester, and I was intrigued. The premise is that the author is trying to figure out why he hates Celine Dion, and why so many other people love her, and what this tells us about Celine Dion, music, and taste more generally. I am very open to this idea, because about 8 years ago, I attended a screening of a film about Britney Spears that had been made for a coffee table book about her, which was followed by a conversation with the director, a woman who had made other, more highbrow documentary films, and the experience was nothing short of life changing. So I am pretty much the friendliest audience you can imagine for an in-depth consideration of critically snubbed pop stars. Let's Talk About Love is not an earth shattering book, but it's a pleasant, thoughtful read.

As much as I tend to dismiss biographical criticism, I have to admit that it somehow does make a difference to me to learn that Dion was one of like 14 children who grew up in an extremely poor Catholic Québécois family. Wilson makes a fascinating point, that what seems like Dion's inauthenticity is arguably illegibility; people just don't know how to interpret her cultural signifiers, because they're unfamiliar with her context. Huh. So yes, I learned a lot about Dion herself. I was startled to realize that he is much younger than I thought. In fact, she was roughly my age when she did My Heart Will Go On, a fact I found somewhat horrifying.

The more theoretical stuff, on taste itself, is a mixed bag. Historical overviews of approaches to taste (Kant meets Bourdieu) are somewhat interesting but ultimately not that useful. The more anecdotal discussions of music and coolness are quite compelling, however. And the examination of the ways that taste and identity politics overlap is thoughtful, though bleeding heart liberal enough to induce a few eye rolls. There is this nice moment where Wilson meets a Dion fan and realizes that they are utterly different people, but finds the guy completely likeable, and is just sort of flummoxed by how people with such different tastes can find each other both likeable and mutually incomprehensible. He frames this as each having complete, discrete "taste worlds," and I like this formulation of it being a world, a combination of opinion and life experience.

What I actually found the most intriguing was the discussion of sentimentality and what it's uses are. There's this moment where he tackles the idea of difficult art being seen as a offering a sort of utopian transcendence of everyday life, and then he tries to think through the inverse notion, that "easy" art is a way of plunging you into that everyday world. There is something really fascinating about that. It will stick with me. Amusingly enough, Wilson's impassioned defense of sentimentality can come across as slightly maudlin at times, especially when he's mentioning his feelings about the end of his marriage, but in a way, this is the whole point, an idea of actually existing in the space of the uncomfortable and embarassing. It's kind of neat.

A very pleasant book. Definitely recommended.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Better Half took me to see this last night as a surprise. It's an absolutely lovely documentary about a guy who is probably the world's greatest sushi chef. It's a simple, quiet sort of film (with lots of footage of breathtakingly gorgeous sushi - we immediately followed it up with dinner at Arami, which was phenomenal), but really enjoyable. It's not a biography, really, or even an in-depth look at the restaurant and how it runs, it's more like spending some time with this guy and people connected to him. A very minimalist narrative construction that feels unintrusive and intimate.

What is, perhaps, most inspiring about the film is Jiro's attitude towards his craft. It reminded me of a lecture Arnold Davidson gave a few years back on the idea of spiritual exercises (there's a syllabus online to a class of his on a related topic that I wish I could take, because it would probably be life-changing). It's this notion of repetition of a seemingly simple task until you can achieve perfection - there's something so powerful about this idea. Another wonderful moment in the film is when Jiro says that to be a great chef, you must be a great eater, and longingly says that if he had the palate of this other great French chef (whose name escapes me at the moment), he could probably prepare even better food. It's so touching. One could cynically say that the film taps into all your warm fuzzy feelings about vocation and the making of a masterpiece, but minimizes the self-abasement (which appears here as a gracious humility) and self-discipline (we are told that Jiro was basically not around for most of his son's lives, working from 5am to 10pm) and the costs to others of pursuing your own dreams (we hear nothing about his wife). There is a somewhat careful treatment of his sons and their training - we learn that one of his sons wanted to be a fighter pilot or a race car driver, that both wanted to go to college but their father wanted them to work in the restaurant. Also, we hear about how they will simply never be recognized as having the skill their father does - despite the fact that (and this is actually a bit of a bombshell that the film very subtly drops) it was actually his son who prepared all the food that the Michelin inspectors who awarded the restaurant 3 stars ate. So yes, one could be cynical and look at the realities underlying this kind of perfection, but to be honest, I'd rather just enjoy the pleasant lyricism of the film's rendering of genius. There is simply no question, at any point, as to whether devoting your life to making sushi, or knowing everything about what makes tuna good (actually, one of my favorite characters in the film was an uncompromising tuna buyer, also a master of his craft) is a worthwhile pursuit. I think it helps that Jiro tastes the food as he prepares it, so at least you get the sense that he reaps the benefits of his own labors somewhat.

Anyways, a lovely film, and definitely a new item on the places to eat at some point in my life list.

21 May 2012

Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman

This book is considered a classic in exile autobiography, and I think deservedly so. The writing is lovely, bathed in a gentle nostalgia and longing but lacking the kind of bitterness one often finds in such works. You don't really get a coherent narrative, more like a cast of characters, and even they are seen somewhat obliquely. But they're a lively, intriguing bunch, with their ethnic and class differences and continuous squabbles. His deaf mother is an especially fascinating character, scheming, frustrated, and prone to intense rages.

Curiously, you don't get an especially strong sense of place. I read the novel before going to Alexandria, thinking it would sort of prime me for the trip, but it doesn't really spend much time on descriptions of place. I did appreciate the book more after going to some of the places he mentions, but I didn't visit them with any sense of having met them before - I really didn't know what to expect (of course, it's also probably changed quite a lot since he wrote the book...). But the passionate evocation of place is usually the centerpiece of exile life writing, and here it is largely absent - he's much more interested in the cast.

You learn a bit about the history of his time, what it was like growing up Jewish and somewhat out of place with your surroundings in a tumultuous period of Egyptian history, but again, not that much. I think the book ends up feeling in some ways like a series of sketches. The people described are wonderfully brought to life, but one does rather miss a story that would tie it all together. I think I will try reading one of his novels to see if they work out better.

08 May 2012

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

I have been terribly remiss in my updating of late, partly because I've been traveling a lot, and tearing through books like a fiend. The combination of not being in front of a laptop and having way too much to post about is not such a great one. But I feel a sense of obligation towards my few* faithfully regular readers, so!

I really quite like Ondaatje's prose. And this book is quite beautiful in many ways, effortlessly engaging, occasionally lyrical, and overall quite pleasant. But I also wasn't that taken with it. It kept me reading, yes, but it didn't quite make me actually care about the people. To be fair though, I am generally just less interested in novels where the narrative perspective is that of a child. I tend to find them somewhat cloying. This one had that kind of wistfulness that often irks me - actually more so in the fragments that jumped ahead to the future - but it was just this side of palatable.  However, the somewhat meandering plot, with its nonlinear jumps and multiple storylines, felt a bit strained.** It seemed a bit unsure about what it wanted to do, as a novel. The writing was lovely in many parts, but it just didn't hold together as well as it could have, story-wise.

Overall, I think if you want to read some Ondaatje, there are many superior options to choose from.

* Really just one, so far as I know, but maybe two, if my dad is still checking in. And then there are a few people I know who stop by from time to time. And the occasional random visitor/troll. Sometimes this blog seems like something I do just to keep myself writing something about books when I'm not doing any other writing, other times, it's a way to actually work through my thoughts, and other times, it's really just a way of telling a few people I like about some stuff I've read lately.

** To be fair, I was somewhat strained - I read it at the tail end of an 8 hour book binge, after finishing one book and then reading another one cover-to-cover, so I might have been somewhat burnt out.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

When I started my project of reading all of Zora Neale Hurston's books, I was looking forward to this one. And indeed. It is so, so beautiful. Her prose reaches its greatest heights in this novel. If you've read her other stuff, actually, you'll notice that some scenes from her other works reappear in this book. I don't mind - it's as though she put her absolute best into this one novel. It's a fabulous combination of her ethnography and her literary practice. Yes, there are segments that are basically set-pieces dropped in because she just loves the culture and wants to put some in there. But those parts are pretty great, so while they aren't as neatly integrated as they could be, they are still wonderful.

Once again, the feminist angle: while the novel gets read as one woman's odyssey of self-discovery - which it is - there are also some fairly troubling scenes, as when, for instance, there is this loving reflection on domestic abuse: Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. (...) "Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit you back, neither. Take some uh dese ol' rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn't tell you ever hit 'em. Dat's de reason Ah done quit beatin' mah woman. You can't make no mark on 'em at all. Lawd! wouldn't Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! Ah bet she doesn't even holler. She jus' cries, eh Tea Cake?" (140-141)  And the novel's portrayal of the black community is decidedly ambivalent as well, highlighting petty jealousies and tensions.

But while this book evinces some of the same interest in modernization and reform that her other books do, it also has certain reservations about class mobility and its effects on people. One of Janie's big complaints is that Jodie won't let her have any fun, insisting that she play the role of the proper wealthy wife (well, and work hard). She resents being so cut off from people. Tea Cake initially has the same impulse, but she makes it clear that she wants to share his life in every way. Of course, their way of life is at least partly enabled by the money she's got saved up, but the point holds, I think.

Overall though, the real joy of this book is its absolutely gorgeous language, and its wonderful, moving depiction of love.

Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore. (182)

26 April 2012

Jonah's Gourd Vine, by Zora Neale Hurston

Language-wise, this is one of Hurston's richer works, filled with gorgeous aphorisms and idioms, and beautiful narration. Plot-wise it's a bit thin. The intro tries to cast it as a Bildungsroman, but the strange thing about the book is how much of it seems to happen off-stage, how little we really know about the main character's thoughts. He leaves home, falls in love, but continues to have a chain of affairs. We never know why, or even how it happens. It's almost as if the narrator doesn't want to tarnish our sympathy for the guy, even when he's doing something flagrantly awful. Oddly enough, it's a somewhat effective strategy. His wife, who could have been a fascinating central character, fades into the background, passively putting up with her husband's horrible ways. As the book progresses, oddly, the reader seems to be expected to continue to sympathize with the hero and hope that he can avoid the consequences of his actions. It's really kind of odd.

More curious, perhaps, is the ethnographic angle. For instance, there is no tension between Christianity and voodoo in the text; they co-exist without any discernible contradiction. Even more noteworthy is a scene where the main character, a preacher, refuses to out someone as a voodoo practitioner in court, because he doesn't want "the white folks" knowing so much about black culture. Moments like this are part of why Hurston is such a fascinating but problematic writer; she makes you actively confront these questions of the ethical implications of publishing this kind of information at that particular moment in time. To me, it's part of a broader constellation of issues connected to the politics of her work; how she squares an interest in folk culture with an interest in modernization and reform. As I've mentioned before, Hurston is not necessarily someone you want to hold up as a political hero, especially when it comes to women in her works. But she is a fascinating case study. Actually, apropos modernization, one of the best moments in this novel, I think, is this fantastic scene when John first sees a train, and is totally enthralled by it. His perspective on this gigantic creature and its panting noises are pretty wonderful.

To be honest though, I'd say this is a book for die-hard Hurston fans or people studying her work, rather than for a general audience. The language is wonderful, but she's written much, much better books.


One of my students told me about this movie, a recently released Turkish adaptation of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, which we read this semester. By some miraculous twist of fate, it was showing with English subtitles (why? Who knows!), which meant I could fully appreciate the film, and work on my Turkish! Perhaps it is because the book is one of my all-time favorites, and I've read it very recently, but I was quite impressed by the movie. I think it stands alone pretty well though; my friend who saw it with me, who hadn't read the book in years, also enjoyed it.

The book is not at all an easy one to adapt - the first part is a 40 page monologue, sometimes considered a masterpiece of Existentialist thought, a man deliberating about the nature of freedom. The second half describes some of his adventures in the world. It is, in some sense, a necessary addition to the text, providing a kind of practice for the theory of the first portion, or perhaps, an illustration of its impracticability. The movie, in some sense, takes the next step in this direction, making these interactions even more concrete, and translating them into present day Ankara. It is impressively successful in making a decidedly oddball character completely believable - no small feat.

While the movie does not, unfortunately, give you a full taste of the narrator's philosophical dilemmas, it does make for a great companion piece to the film, particularly with the addition of a new character (and plotline), the cleaning lady. She's a really thought-provoking cipher for some of the questions the book raises; an intriguing addition. I'd love to hear more about the screenplay author's reasons for including her. Another interesting aspect of the film was this addition of a kind of side plot about dogs. I was particularly tickled by this because I had given my students a paper prompt asking them to discuss the human-animal dichotomy in either The Metamorphosis or Notes from Underground - an extremely difficult question to bring to the novel, but reading it alongside Kafka suggested it to me, and two of my students were in fact so brave as to attempt it. So I was delighted to see this subtext developed more fully, and in really interesting ways.

Overall, a really enjoyable film, an impressive adaptation of a wonderful but fiendishly uncinematic book that actually brings it persuasively into a contemporary context.