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.

20 April 2012


I think Steven Soderbergh has a thing for deadpan women. Though maybe it's not fair to generalize on the basis of the two examples that come to my mind, namely, this and The Girlfriend Experience. But seriously, Gina Carano was basically monotone for the entire movie, to the point where you almost wonder if it's meant to be absurd when a guy comes onto her. Yes, she's attractive, but come on, she's like a brick wall. How do even flirt with such a creature?

Perhaps her utter lack of any sort of emotion is partly to blame for why this movie feels so utterly flat. It's unbelievably blah, a kind of drab paratactic structure that suddenly tries to double back on itself and be a complex thriller with an intricate plot (but wait! you saw this thing happen but now let's jump back in time and make it seem more COMPLICATED!). So, first off, that shit annoys me. If I didn't care the first time around, I'm not going to suddenly start caring more when you show it to me again. I'm not sure why, but I just don't care if secret agents are being betrayed. Doesn't that come with the territory of being a secret agent? What did you expect?

The main thing I found interesting about the movie was the fight scenes. Carano is not a big woman, and she isn't especially believable as a muscular one (unlike, say, Sarah Connor). The movie frequently pits her against guys who clearly outweigh her by a good 50 pounds, and usually have better weapons. She does a reasonably persuasive job beating them up - at very least, you've got to admit that she can take a punch. And she does. A lot of them. It's a pretty violent movie, or maybe it seems more so because it's a woman getting her head slammed into things, and you don't see that as often. But what I couldn't help but notice was that the action scenes did have her punching a lot. And I felt keenly aware of the fact that given her size, she's just not gonna be able to punch as hard as these dudes can (which also makes me question whether anyone punches as hard as people in movies. I bet not...). What maybe makes you notice it more - or maybe is the film's attempt at some degree of realism - is that she tends to get a running start. Or to give herself one by backing up and then taking a leap forward. It's an interesting strategy. I will try it next time I'm battling Better Half, I think.

17 April 2012

The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obrecht

It's been awhile since I read a book that was simultaneously so alien and so absorbing. Knowing nothing about the book in advance, I was delighted by the way the plot unfolded, becoming a series of connected tales that were a fascinating blend of an occasionally brutal realism and spellbinding legend. It's really quite a remarkable book, a devastating portrayal of conflict in the Balkans combined with a really wonderful mythic quality that is not at all the well-worn magical realism one that I, for one, am a little fed up with. I loved the way that all the stories and characters were eventually tied together (without making a big deal about it), and how there were these openings left to connect them to other stories; gaps that the text leaves hanging in this wonderfully suggestive fashion, evoking a dense tapestry of narrative - ie, the world itself.

15 April 2012

Morning and Evening Talk, Naguib Mahfouz

I'm going to Cairo for a week in May, so in preparation, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide (only much later did I notice that it's from 2008...) and this novel (dorky, I know. Even dorkier, I actually got another Mahfouz book as well, and I already had Andre Aciman's memoir, Out of Egypt, waiting on my shelf. Immersion!). I'd read Mahfouz before (and liked some of his books more than I liked others - though my first encounter with him was more than 5 years ago, maybe I'd feel differently now), and this novel, a later work of his, looked intriguing. It's a kind of biographical dictionary, alphabetically organized, with short accounts of the person's life. The people described come from three interconnected families, and the book spans from Napoleonic times to the 1980s. I thought to myself that it would either be amazing or annoyingly contrived, and it turns out to be decidedly more of the former. It's incredible how absorbing a 1-2 page dictionary entry on a person can be! And how wonderfully the pieces begin to form a whole, an world of interrelated characters as dense as any realist novel. I definitely do not know enough about Egyptian history (early on in my reading of the book I did some quick research, ie, read the wiki entry and the Lonely Planet rundown) to fully appreciate what the novel was doing - and unlike many realist novels, this book won't really teach you the history its set in. On the other hand, its like 120 pages, instead of the 350-500 of most realist classics. But you are clearly aware that your ignorance is depriving you of a proper appreciation of this book - its like listening to music on your iPod with only one earphone in. Still, I definitely recommend it - even if you're not getting the full richness, it's still a pretty wonderful book.

12 April 2012

Suddenly, Last Summer

Oh man, Tennessee Williams plus Katherine Hepburn AND Elizabeth Taylor? Yes. Yes yes yes. This movie is fantastic. The acting is great, the story is totally bizarre, somewhat campy but also quite chilling, and the language is just gorgeous. There are these amazing monologues, laden with repetitions ("the debris, the debris") and bizarrely evocative imagery, culminating in these thundering crescendoes that absolutely take your breath away. De-lightful.

Intriguing to me, because I'm on a Gothic kick (ahem research project) was the Southern Gothic of it. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that while you kind of know that there must be some dark secret at the heart of it all, holy shit the primal scene in this is intense. I mean wow. I was also surprised by the blatant exotic primitivism the movie rallied; I kind of figured such things would be outré at that point, but apparently not. Also, the bizarre technology bit, as embodied by Katherine Hepburn's a-mazing elevator. That is a paper waiting to be written. God it's sublime.

My friend who I was watching it with noted how bizarre and interesting the fascination with psychoanalysis is, which is absolutely right. Actually, it makes me think; psychoanalysis and the Gothic obviously have a long-standing and rich connection, but how does it evolve with the changes in the field? I'm sure someone has written on this.

But thats the nerdier angle. The regular viewer (well, you do have to enjoy classic cinema, I suppose) will find plenty to delight in aside from all these intriguing theoretical issues. It's really a terrific film.

The Vampyre, by Polidori

Fans of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein recall that the novel came out of a kind of parlor game, three people sitting around and deciding to write competing ghost stories. Well, The Vampyre was one of the other stories. And there's a reason you've probably never heard of it - it's not very good. I believe its primary claim to fame, aside from its origins, is that it is one of the first vampire novels? In any case - it certainly ain't one of the better ones.

Spoilers ahead, FYI.

I suppose part of what makes it intriguing is how sparse it is. There is only one scene of actual vampiricism, and it's thwarted. After that, though the reader is of course like omg duh that dude is a vampire, the evidence is, curiously enough, a weapon left at the scene of the crime - an odd move, when you think about it, given that a vampire is theoretically a walking weapon. What is also curious is that even in this early text, there is already the trope of the main character who has read so many supernatural texts that his judgment is not to be trusted because he's probably imagining things.

The novel does feature some good old eastern exoticism, but then has a return to England (just like Dracula!), where the plot gets pretty ridiculously convoluted, and then ends in a pretty absurdly hasty way.

Not a must read.

10 April 2012


In my personal opinion, Chan-wook Park films are wildly inconsistent. Some (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) are excellent, others (Lady Vengeance) are just weird and boring. Thirst is somewhere in between. I'd been curious about it for awhile, and I've been reading a lot of vampire fiction lately, and bemoaning my inability to see foreign films in theatres, so it seemed like an appropriate choice. Verdict? I'm really not sure. Not especially recommended? I don't quite know what to make of it. It doesn't really seem to know what to make of itself, to be honest. The movie starts off as a vampire film, a priest accidentally becomes a vampire, goes around carefully sucking blood without killing people, etc, then the film becomes a seriously weird love story/family drama as he meets a young woman, her idiot husband, and his drunken mother. He falls in love with her, they develop a passionate relationship (the sex scenes are... unusual. Kind of hot, kind of weird. Nothing really shocking, just kind of strange.). From there, it takes a turn for the really bizarre. I don't want to give it away, though honestly, it really does seem quite random to me, and like the movie is actually 3 different narrative tropes crammed into one. Also, there are these interpellated flashes of scenes that I really didn't understand - did they actually happen? What were they doing there?

Despite the plot being borderline nonsensical (yet strangely cliche), and not all that interesting, and most of the characters being kind of terrifyingly inhuman, there are quite a few oddly poignant moments in the film. Certain moments of human interaction just seem so wonderfully captured. And some of the more jarringly strange and extreme facial expressions or gestures do have a weird artistic resonance that's somehow striking. Visually, it's often quite beautiful (as Park's movies tend to be), though the gore in this case occasionally feels more campy than elegant. Overall though - yeah, I couldn't really make sense of it. And I was kind of bored. 

03 April 2012

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

I actually finished this weeks ago and never got around to writing about it, but there's one aspect that keeps coming back to me and seems worth recording here. There are a lot of interesting things about this book - it's one of those texts that could be used to introduce students to critical theory, because it will yield fruitful results to almost any approach. It's also a really fun read. What impressed me about it this time though, was how skillfully the formal presentation of it is handled. The book is a collage of testimony; various people's letters and diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. Jennifer Wicke has written a really interesting piece about that aspect and the idea of technologies of writing, but on a basic level, what makes the novel work so well is the mass of stuff in it that is totally unrelated to Count Dracula - its chattiness. The characters have all kinds of thoughts about a variety of topics, some intellectual, others wholly superficial, but all lively and full of spirit. Reading it is actually like reading a well-written diary. I was really struck by how well Stoker managed to captures variety of voices and make them both engaging and believable. It's not an aspect of the book that gets much attention, but I think it's really central to its continuing appeal.

Tokyo Fiancée, by Amélie Nothomb

I don't receive comments on this blog all that often, and when I do, they're usually pretty negative, but once in awhile I get very lucky and someone leaves one with a book recommendation. That's how I first came to read Nothomb - a friend of mine recommended her. I loved Fear and Trembling, so when I found myself in a bookstore again, I headed for the Ns to see if I could find The Color of Rain. It wasn't available, so I bought Tokyo Fiancée instead, and managed to wait all of two days before reading it. It's not quite as fantastic as Fear and Trembling, but it's pretty wonderful nonetheless.

Nothomb writes with a wonderfully dry, witty style that is both moving and hilarious. She describes Japanese culture in a fond way that manages to be loving without smoothing over how incredibly alien it occasionally seems. It's an impressive feat, and a very appealing one. I knew that the Japanese worshipped Sartre, and found him terribly exotic: to feel nauseous upon contemplating a pebble polished by the sea was so contrary to prevailing Japanese attitudes, and something so very strange could not fail to fascinate. I find sentences like this utterly charming and very, very funny. If you don't, you probably won't like this book.

This book is the chronicle of a love affair. An amiable, sweet, and really touching portrayal of a non-typical cross-cultural relationship. I will not go into detail so as to avoid spoilers, but overall, it's a really original and interesting depiction of love. Not at all cliche, often totally unfamiliar yet somehow recognizable. It reminded me somewhat of Tove Jansson's Fair Play, in that, if you're used to saccharine, arm and fuzzy depictions of love, this one can seem harsh or cold. One rarely encounters stories of love where a person's desire for independence or solitude doesn't come across as neurotic or pathological.

Overall, a wonderful read. As soon as I get to another US bookstore, I'll once again be hedging straight to the Ns.

I married you for happiness, by Lily Tuck

I will not go so far as to say that I hated this book, but I came close. About halfway through I was going to quit, but I ended up skimming the rest - which is easy to do; the book is basically a series of loosely connected paragraphs, not even scenes, more like moments. The overall premise is that a man dies and his wife is lying in bed next to him, remembering their life together. Her memories are so cliche and predictable that you can easily skim them without missing much. Actually, come to think of it, that's not right - the memories themselves are somewhat predictable (affair, abortion, their first meeting, their proposal), what makes them seem totally cliche is the writing style. The writing is atrocious.

How do I describe it? Perhaps a few sample sentences will demonstrate:

It must be late, she decides.
She needs to get more wine. This time she will bring the bottle back upstairs.
He won't mind, she thinks.


He claims to know a member of her family who is distantly related to him by marriage.
At the time, she does not believe him.
A line, she thinks.


Linda, she whispers.
Linda, she says a little bit louder.
There is no answer.

I suspect it's the line breaks that I find so infuriating. The portentous pause of pseudo-profundity. Every other paragraph ends like this. Perhaps it is meant to evoke the pace of scattered, semi-articulate reminiscence, but I find it incredibly irritating.

I found it even more obnoxious, I think, because I was really annoyed by the the aspect of the book that had originally inspired my interest in it, namely, the bits of math (the husband is a mathematician). The book features all the standard cliches one finds in works that are designed to persuade someone that math can be beautiful. They are scattered throughout (as is everything in the book), and always feel like a crude attempt at some kind of grander meaning. Nothing about their context or the way they are presented adds anything to their interest or beauty.

To be totally fair, there were some paragraphs that I liked. Maybe as many as 20% of the book, though that's a very generous estimate. Some of the sex scenes were nice. Were I in a more generous mood, I might praise the book for its portrayal of a relationship that isn't especially idealized. At the same time though, there's a part of me that is annoyed by how unoriginal the overall narrative seems (especially in contrast to Tokyo Fiancée, a strikingly original story of a relationship that I read right before this, and which I'll post about momentarily). I resent the way the that this book seems to conform to a pattern of narrativizing love that I find, overall, bland.

The problem, and difficulty, of portraying relationships with problems is that the problems are often someone's fault, and it's hard not to blame that someone. Or to wonder if the two of them wouldn't be better off apart. Its difficult to tell the story without devolving into the stock tropes of love gone sour. Jumping around in time is a potential solution, as is not delving too deeply into any one moment, just sort of skimming the surface for a bird's eye view of the thing, but what you're left with, in this case, is a rather wan portrayal of a vaguely annoying woman and a husband who remains somewhat opaque, simultaneously idealized and under-appreciated.