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.