28 February 2012

The Hidden Force, by Louis Couperus

I was somewhat less taken with this one than I was with Eline Vere, maybe because I wasn't able to find the newer version that Patrick Murtha recommended to me, but possibly it was more that Couperus' weaknesses seemed somewhat more in evidence than his strengths. It is definitely a fascinating novel that should absolutely be on any colonial lit syllabus, but the psychological exploration isn't quite up to the standard of Eline Vere, I thought.

The novel describes this family in Dutch Java; a colonial administrator, his (second) wife and his children from both marriages. The wife, Leonie, is a kind of bizarre and fascinating creature with voracious sexual appetites and a sense of utter indifference to the world. She's basically a sociopath. The book doesn't quite say that it's Java that has caused her sexual deviance, but as is often the case in colonial novels, there's certainly some kind of link between the environment and moral trespass. What makes Couperus so interesting is the strong suggestion that it is the colonizers who have brought this immorality, rather than it being a native product. What makes him slightly off-putting is the sense of this dark evil lurking in the land, and perhaps also in the hearts of the brown people who calmly await the destruction of the whites. Also, for me at least, the hyper-sexualized-ness of it approached caricature. In that though, one could say it verged on being a somewhat interesting parody of the social novel of European Realism, which in some sense are intensely focused on the question of who gets to have sex with whom. It makes me want to read Nana, which I still haven't gotten around to...

I was particularly intrigued by the supernatural aspect of the novel (I thought it would be straight up Gothic), which was kind of downplayed, but fascinating for its ambiguity. At some point, the house of the family becomes haunted. It is unclear whether the causes are supernatural (the narrator pushes that angle a bit, with repeated mentions of a hadji dressed in white who another character tells us is a ghost) or simply the locals playing pranks as punishment for the perversions of the household. The climactic supernatural moments are indeed terrifying, but here Couperus' mode of plotting frustrated me once again (as it did at another point later in the book) - in moments of tension, he has a tendency to suddenly jump-cut to the next scene. It's one way of dealing with a basically unresolvable and shocking situation - just skip ahead to what happens next - but it sometimes feels like a cop-out. One could say that it cleverly refuses to dispel the tension it generates, but the ultimate effect is a vague sense of dissatisfaction that isn't necessarily productive.

Overall, an interesting novel, and definitely a must-read for the colonial crowd, but perhaps less gripping for others.

22 February 2012

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

Before I tell you about how much I loved this book, I cannot resist describing to you the incredible chain of coincidences that bound me to it. My first conscious awareness of the text came from the Bilkent News, where a student had written a review describing the experience of reading it while himself traveling, and how Batuman's adventures came to blend with his own. This being a pet delight of mine - reading and traveling, new places being strangely inflected with the books you read there and vice versa - I was instantly intrigued, not least because that, the student said, was what Batuman's book was itself about (leading him to write his review as if his trip was some kind of mind-blowing meta-meta experience, quite charming). A few weeks later, I was looking up this article in the New Yorker about a restaurant in Istanbul that serves a kind of classic Turkish food that Turkey itself has forgotten, so that my friend visiting Istanbul could go, and lo and behold! the author was none other than Elif Batuman. I had read this article back when it came out in 2010, and was absolutely enthralled by it. I vowed to go to Istanbul just to eat at this amazing place, and it was one of the first things I thought of when I got this job. Incidentally, I have since been to the restaurant, and it really is incredible. Pretty minor coincidence, you might think, but wait! There's more! A few short days after that - this really did happen in an astonishingly abbreviated amount of time - I was reading the introduction of a book co-edited by a professor I'm friends with, and in a fascinating footnote about modern detective fiction and Satan as master criminal I find this aside: "Credit for this interpretation may belong to Elif Batuman and/or to the editors, but no one concerned is entirely certain of its provenance."Yes! Elif Batuman in fact studied with a professor I think of as one of my mentors! In grad school terms (well, in math grad school terms,, I don't know if humanities people actually do this), that makes us related! Given that it wasn't my actual advisor, we're more like cousins than sisters, but in any case, it's neat. I think.

This lengthy digression into my personal connection with the book (and its author) seems warranted because reading this book was such a wonderfully familiar experience. Batuman is not exactly your typical graduate student, but that is what makes her the ideal person to write a book like this. She can capture some essential aspect of grad student life, but she can also spend a lot of time describing parts of her experience that were far more interesting than that of most grad students. Very few literary scholars end up in a place like Uzbekistan for the summer - most of them just aren't that adventurous. Batuman has a kind of curiosity about life and willingness to pursue it that you only find in the best kinds of people. She is also ferociously intelligent, and a very talented writer. In other words, she not only goes to these places, but she has interesting thoughts about her experiences there, which make the book an example of the best features of travel memoir. And the places she goes really are fascinating. I knew absolutely nothing about Uzbekistan before I read this book, and I learned all kinds of bizarre and interesting things about it. I think the most amazing is this absolutely sublime poem by Alisher Navoi, which is so astonishing that I have to quote it in full:

Was it my heart - a bird - that was caught in your
   locks that unfortunate night,
   Or was it bats of some kind?
Remember, the sultan dooms to death even his
   closest friend
If he learn the latter has secreted away money from
   the treasury.
Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled you
   soul --
Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?

An underlying subplot is also this broader question about academia and what literary scholars do. So far as I can tell from the internetz, Batuman is now a full-time writer rather than a literary scholar, strictly speaking - I can't tell how much academic work she actually does (I feel guilty writing that, because my own parents get so upset when I tell them they are NOT math professors anymore). This makes sense. Again, I want to be careful how I phrase this, because I think Batuman is probably a very capable and talented scholar of literature - actually, I'm sure she is - but she also seems capable of something that I am tempted to say is more interesting, and something that not everyone can do well. Let me explain: I remember various moments in grad school, reading certain theoretical works and struggling to understand them, and suddenly seeing my life in their terms, and concocting these theories that united, say, Mary J Blige and Walter Benjamin, and thinking how unfair it was that I couldn't write my papers about things like that. As it turns out - Batuman does get to (it actually makes me think that maybe I could too...). At the same time, unlike a lot of people writing about academia who are at some remove from it, Batuman doesn't disparage the profession. There are some tender mockeries of the absurdity of academics, especially academics collected in one place, the point of which is not to say that people studying literature are basically con artists, but simply to show you what it's like - and trust me, that is exactly what it's like. Ultimately though, as Batuman herself puts it, "If I could start over again today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them" (290).

The book is basically a series of linked essays, and to be totally just, the transition is occasionally a little bumpy, and they don't entirely make a seamless whole, but the overall effect is nonetheless wonderful. I don't know whether people outside academia will appreciate this book to the extent that I did - maybe you need a thrill of recognition to fully love it - but I think the travel memoir portion should be of interest to pretty much anyone. Honestly, I don't know whether people who  aren't me will love it - I suspect they will. But this is one of those books that spoke to me on an intensely personal level at just the right moment in my life - I'm very glad to have read it.

20 February 2012

In a Glass Darkly, by Sheridan LeFanu

I read Carmilla not that long ago and thought it was kind of interesting, and Uncle Silas long before that, which I was not so into when I read but now think was better than I'd given it credit for, so it was high time to investigate what LeFanu is, I think, more well known for - the short stories*. What was most interesting to me was how few of these stories are actually supernatural in nature, and what's more, how little it matters, even if they are. The trademark of Gothic/fantastic fiction is allegedly the hesitation between rational and supernatural expalantion (says Todorov, but others too), but that is actually a very minor part of these stories. In fact, there's only one story where that hesitation exists and is maintained throughout, but again, it's largely irrelevant, because the issue isn't whether or not the thing tormenting the protagonist is actually a ghost, it's the fact that he's being tormented. The other stories leave it mostly ambiguous whether the other-worldly was involved (though they tend to lean strongly in one direction or the other), but it feels like lip-service.
  Meanwhile, the stories are very interested in modern science, and this is a noticeable and interesting feature. There is, for instance, a long digression on how bodies can be identified years after their death, or how certain vapors that link the heart and mind can open the third eye, etc. This makes sense, because the stories are allegedly found among the papers of a doctor, but it gives you a strong sense of a certain kind of world-view which is worth exploring.
  A final aspect that is intriguing is precisely this "found manuscript" device - what is called the pseudofactual mode by Barbara Foley and, more recently, Nicholas Paige. This is a pretty late work to still feel the need to deploy that device (though I suspect the pseudofactual pretense lingered a lot longer in Gothic fiction, which is an interesting point), but what is more notable is how ridiculous it is, in terms of how the text works. The stories are meant to be documents found among the doctor's paper by his secretary. Many of them are actually taken from letters the doctor wrote to other people (who were not doctors, which is why there is no scientific jargon, we are told) - but some - like Carmilla are actually reports written by people involved. Others switch narrators. In a lot of the stories, the narrator is basically your standard third person omniscient type, and completely parts ways with the framing of the tale, knowing things the character telling the story couldn't, etc. That's actually a fascinating aspect of the book, and one I intend to explore more.
  Overall though, I can't say I strongly recommend this one. LeFanu just doesn't really do it for me, style wise. I'm inclined to say that if you're interested in late 19th century literature, there's a lot of interest going on here, but if you're looking for a spooky story pleasure read, keep it moving.

*Well, that and The House by the Church-yard, which is mostly famous because it was important for Finnegan's Wake. It's free in the amazon Kindle store, so I'll get around to reading it at some point.

19 February 2012

The Future

I loved Me You and Everyone We Know, and I liked the book of Miranda July short stories I read (though they did feel a bit one-trick-pony-ish after awhile), so I was looking forward to seeing The Future, though I had my doubts about how good it'd be. I figured July could easily have gotten either too weird or too precious for me to enjoy her as much I had earlier, and as it turns out, she kind of did. But I enjoyed The Future anyhow. I don't think it's a great movie, but I do think you can tell, watching it, that she's a talented and interesting person (it's kind of the same way I felt about Shame, actually). Though the film is kind of odd and not that fantastic, there are some really wonderful scenes, and something about her overall vision that is just really interesting.

The movie does have one really major flaw though, which is that there's a talking cat, and it's voice makes you want to put a bullet in your head. The fact that it's very clearly Miranda July's voice just makes it that much more annoying. I fucking hated that cat. What it was saying was actually kind of interesting, and had some elegant parallels to other aspects of the film, but all of that was largely irrelevant, because every time that fucking cat appeared on screen, I wanted to punch someone.

Safe House

This is basically a totally standard political thriller. There's pretty much nothing unique or different about it, except for the fact that Denzel Washington is in it and he's great. And he really is great. I could watch him for days. The man has the most wonderful hypnotic voice. Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, always looks kind of moronic to me, and is utterly uninteresting on screen (though I will give him props for speaking Portugese with what sounded like surprisingly decent pronunciation). So far as I can tell, the man has two facial expressions that he alternates between. Him and Channing Tatum. I just don't get it. They look like mouth breathers.

I don't want to give away the plot or anything, although you can probably guess exactly how it's gonna go, because so far as I can tell, most movies like this are basically the same. This, to my mind, makes their attempts at moral exploration utterly unconvincing. Is there anyone working for the CIA who is really surprised to find out that the government does some shady shit?

I will say that the movie moves at a fairly brisk pace, the action sequences are pretty quality, and I was not bored. But yeah, no need to rush out and see this one.

18 February 2012

The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox

I had been looking forward to reading this for quite awhile, and all the more so after reading (and very much enjoying) Lennox's Henrietta. But this book kind of let me down. It's not terrible, it's just not at all the rollicking, reflective read I was hoping for. The protagonist, Arabella, gets pretty annoying after awhile, and the overall narrative comes across as somewhat prissy and humorless. It's actually kind of a disturbing read, in a way - the story of this genuinely delusional woman.

One problem with the novel is that it's just way too long. The first three quarters are repetitive and tiresome - the same effects could have been accomplished in 1/3 of the pages. Which would have helped, because by the end she's rushing through to finish - I honestly thought the e-book version I had must be incomplete, because it seemed inconceivable to me that it would end so abruptly.

More importantly though, the tone of the novel is all wrong. It can't quite find the balance (that Don Quixote so masterfully achieves) between humor and repulsion - perhaps because the absurdity is not quite played up enough, or maybe because Arabella is too fully realized as a character for us to be fully comfortable with her making such an utter ass of herself. Lennox tries to compensate for this by having strangers be so overwhelmed by Arabella's natural beauty and grace that they can ignore the fact that she seems to be insane, but it's a pretty thin ploy. Most women are immune to this charm - in fact, the catty bitches generally resent her charm and thus are all the more eager to villify her, which makes us like them less, yes, but also makes for a lot of really unpleasant moments. While we initially feel frustrated with Glanville's unwillingness to even read the romances Arabella loves so much, as the novel progresses, we pity him for his genuine dilemma in being in love with a maniac.

Ultimately, of course, Arabella is cured of her folly. What I found odd was that it was not by the friendly Countess who had herself loved romances and thus was able to reach Arabella on her own level - the novel seems to offer this solution, only to hastily retract it as the Countess is randomly called away on business, never to return. Instead, it takes a stern talking to from a doctor, who basically just reasons with her. Why didn't anyone try that before, you might wonder. There is something kind of unpleasant about it though. I mean, it feels like abasement. This is perhaps not entirely unfair, given that in her version of the romance world, Arabella is an absolute tyrant, but still, it's not the best note to end on - especially when she basically apologizes to Glanville and gives herself to him, if he'll have her. I mean sure, the novel has a final final end by telling us that they were super in love, but the stark power differential is a bit unappealing.

15 February 2012

My Week With Marilyn

A thoroughly mediocre film. It was, we decided, basically a paint-by-numbers, made-for-tv kind of script - there was a half-hearted attempt at a plot arc, which one appreciated for its restraint, in that it didn't work itself up into some kind of emotional hyperbole, but the result was utterly monotonous. The main pleasure to be found in such a movie is watching somewhat well known actors try their hand at impersonating historical icons. Kenneth Branaugh was vaguely interesting as the aging Laurence Olivier, negotiating the difference between theatre and film, but he came across as rather cliche. Michelle Williams acquitted herself well as Marilyn - initially I thought, oh no, this will never work, but as the movie ambled on, she did become more persuasive. Still, it's hard for me to believe her as a glamorous, heart-stopping kind of beauty when I generally think of her as a somewhat droopy eyed, lumpen, downtrodden kind of creature. I think my main complaint is that her voice is just all wrong. Overall - a completely skippable movie.

The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels

I will not go so far as to say I hated this book. I can, in fact, imagine a reader who would love it. In fact, I know one such reader; the friend who recommended the book to me, and she is a great person with excellent taste in literature. Reading this novel, I could kind of understand what she loved about it. In some ways, it is distinctly reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's style (maybe it's a Canadians writing about Africa kind of thing). Parts of it are quite beautiful, prose wise. There is definitely a certain poignancy in the evocations of villages destroyed by water projects. But here already, the book began to set my teeth on edge. I am quite wary of novels that wax lyrical about devastating events. It can be done well, but if it's not, it feels like a rather disgusting aestheticization of suffering. This novel didn't quite go that far, but it definitely toed the line. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to it because in the second portion, this extends to descriptions of Poland during the Second World War, and I'm more likely to be hypercritical of someone writing fiction about it when they didn't personally experience it.

 But the real problem with the book, for me, was that the story and characters were utterly unconvincing. I simply cannot believe that these people exist, or that if they did, they would behave the way they did. It just made no sense. Their emotional lives were rather iceberg-like in that they rarely communicated with each other and were generally opaque, even to the narrator, but we were clearly meant to believe that they had rich inner worlds of some sort. Avery, the male lead, makes some amount of sense, but Jean, his wife, is a total black box, and not an especially appealing one.

This is one of those books that I am tempted to pass on to someone else, because I do think other people will probably like it a lot, but I feel really weird about doing so, given how much I disliked it. "Here! Read this! I didn't like it, but I'll bet you will!"

04 February 2012

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis

I really liked The Blind Side, so when I watched Moneyball awhile back, I immediately found myself wanting to read the book, hoping it would be as good - that it would have all the best parts of the movie and more. This did not turn out to be the case, oddly enough. The book didn't have any of the cheesy family stuff that to my mind basically spoiled the movie - no wife, no daughter, no sappy singing - so that was a plus. It also didn't really have any characters at all. I mean, there was some Billy Beane, but he didn't come to life on the page at all. Kind of makes you wonder how the filmmakers made all the characters as compelling as they did, honestly. Also, to my great surprise, all that fantastic dialogue in the movie is hardly to be found in the book. There are a few moments of the scouts talking, but they fall totally flat as compared to the sparkling hilarity of those scenes in the movie.

Even more surprising is the fact that the book doesn't have much to say about the "system" that you didn't know from the movie! I thought there would be extended reflections on it, how it changes the game, what it means - but no! There was a lot more ire about the "establishment," and the money angle, but that was pretty much it. You learn more about Bill James and how everyone ignored him for a long time, but Lewis seems to expect that this fill you with righteous indignation and basically carry the emotional weight of the book - and it just didn't. At least for me. In general, I was surprised by just how terrible the writing was. I mean, Lewis is no Proust, but this time I found myself getting really annoyed by the trite, formulaic writing.

 The movie does take some insane liberties as far as truth goes, at least, if the book is taken as the true story. The biggest injustice, I think, is the portrayal of the A's manager, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the movie, he's the last hold-out, the guy who refuses to play Billy's way. In the book, he's basically hired to do what Billy says. I wonder how Art Howe felt about the movie. Apparently Paul Podesta refused to be part of the movie, but the character that replaces him doesn't seem that different, functionally speaking.

Overall, the book was annoyingly repetitive and not especially informative. It's not something I say often but - the movie is actually better. Despite the family sap and the constant punching things. Give the book a miss and watch it on video.

Fear and Trembling, by Amelie Nothomb

A friend of mine recommended this to me not so long ago, and I read it this morning during an ill-fated mission to buy train tickets to Istanbul (the Istanbul train station is closed for 2 years while they build the high speed rail. Huh.) - which gives you an idea of how short it is - you can get through it in an hour, tops. And oh man is it great. Absolutely sublime.

The novel tells the story of a young woman (who shares the author's name) working at a Japanese company for one year. It is a hilariously funny but oddly moving and beautiful tale of masochism. There is a strangely simple transcendence to be found in the grinding misery of corporate life: "My mind was not that of a conqueror, but that of a cow that spends its life chewing contentedly in the meadow of invoices, waiting for the train of eternal grace to pass by. How good it felt to exist without pride or ambition. To live in hibernation." (41) Nothomb does not paint a pretty picture of Japanese culture - there is an especially devastating interlude where the author describes the life of Japanese women, and the virtues of suicide. The novel decidedly confirms a lot of negative stereotypes about Japan and the seething horror of a life essentially sold to business. It would actually make an amazing companion piece to Kafka's Metamorphosis, I wish I'd read it early enough to put it on my syllabus. Fear and Trembling is a grim look at modern (Japanese) life, but it is also wonderful and funny and interesting. Much recommended.

03 February 2012

36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is one of those rare novelists who can weave incredibly complex intellectual ideas into fictional narratives. As is often the case with such books (it's also true of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and 7 Types of Ambiguity), the ideas are slightly more compelling that the fictional narrative, to me at least, but in 36 Arguments the story definitely gives the ideas a run for their money. The characters are wonderfully vivid and lifelike, particularly the women. But the various narrative strands - while quite interesting - don't quite coalesce as strongly as one might like. And you do get a 20 page long segment of philosophical debate a la Ayn Rand, though it's a compelling debate at least. Still, it's an impressive novel, particularly in its timeliness - I honestly can't recall ever reading a book that was so clearly written for this particular moment in time, and that captured current issues so insightfully.

The central character of the book is a guy named Cass, who has just achieved huge professional success with a book on atheism. The appendix, which contains 36 arguments for the existence of God and refutations of them, is included in the end of this novel. My mom thought it was unnecessary, but I was quite impressed by it. It's an impressive academic work, definitely on the dry side, but very interesting. In general, I don't know that I've ever read a more persuasiveand sympathetic argument for atheism. I read the appendix after finishing the first chapter of the book, which I think was a good way to go about it, timing wise - there are references to it later, and it's nice to have it all clear in your mind. But it's also not necessary reading, unless you're really interested in atheism as a philosophical/psychological problem. I do think that reading it enhances your experience of the novel though.

Anyhow - so that's one piece, Cass the successful atheist and his academic career. Then there's his girlfriend Lucinda, also an academic, whose career has suffered a blow, and who is rather bitter about it. I thought her character was especially well done, in that she's just barely likeable, but remains kind of human and understandable. Then there's Cass' past, particularly his encounters with a former teacher, who is a kind of religious... figure. Hard to describe, but very well captured. And his fellow students, and an ex-girlfriend, also well done - annoying at times but highly lovable. Then there is a Hasidic shtetl and a young mathematical prodigy there. Which is thrilling and has some marvelous scenes that bring together math and religion in really fascinating ways, but otherwise kind of peters out.

Overall though, a really interesting work, with a thoughtful interlacing of religion, math, and love - I suspect I'll find myself returning to it mentally.