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.