25 December 2014

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor

This is completely amazing. Funny, bizarre, and profound, Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal is more like a series of letters to God. Written while she was working on Wise Blood (which I have not read, but cannot wait to), these anguished missives somewhat paradoxically describe her efforts to be more spiritual. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to ... I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside. O'Connor vacillates between asking God for things she wants, and asking God to help her be more selfless and not want things so much. Occasionally this results in absolutely hilarious formulations such as: Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don't let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it. And other times it verges on completely bizarre, as in one of my favorite moments: at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But throughout, it is intimate, complex, and completely spell-binding. Farrar Straus and Giroux did a lovely job with this edition -- although the introduction is meh (it has a borderline unseemly fascinating with O'Connor's death), the simple artwork on a pristine white cover feels very appropriate, and the inclusion of a facsimile of the entire original notebook is genius. If I had read this a week ago, I'd have been handing it out for Christmas like it was Halloween candy. Go get a copy, stat!

17 December 2014

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Perhaps it is shameful to admit it, but I think this is one of the rare cases where I liked the movie better. Roman Polanski's recent movie, to be more exact, which is not a straightforward adaptation of the text, but rather, a story of a theater director auditioning an actress for a part in his adaptation of the text (meta meta, boioioioing). I really liked the movie, and it reinvigorated a long dormant intention to read the actual book (I once heard Malynne Sternstein talk about an inherent masochism of Eastern Europeans, partly in reference to this text, and I've been intrigued by the notion,  and tracing its manifestations -- there are many -- ever since). Indeed, the book is a curious little work, full of twists and turns and an intriguing late Romantic blend of cynicism and idealism. The problem is, the film is such an interesting perspective on the material, subtly illuminating both the continuities between the book's time and our own and also critiquing the story, both as a relic of a past time AND as an example of what seems to be a rather timeless tradition of portraying women. The book certainly provides ample fodder for the inquiry into gender inflected power dynamics of sexual and romantic relationships, and teasingly gestures towards  some ideas about the relationship between art and life, specifically in relation to love and passion, but the movie develops all these lines of inquiry much more fully. Plus, it's funnier.

But I recommend them both.

09 December 2014

Beyond the Lights

To be honest, I went to see this movie in large part because I wanted to support the director, and more broadly, to support films featuring people of color. I had heard a great interview with the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, on NPR (the film was actually initially brought to my attention by Linda Holmes, whom I trust implicitly and maybe sort of idolize), in which she talks about wanting to get rid of the term "black films" (they're just films!) but also how hard it is to get a film made if the central characters are people of color. So look, not to be all preachy about it, but if you, dear reader, want this to change (and I hope you do!), you need to start shelling out and seeing these movies in theatres. This is a somewhat dour preamble to talking about the movie, I know. But what with various efforts to raise awareness about how #blacklivesmatter this week in wake of all this horrific stuff in the news, I think it's worth pointing out that going to the movies can matter.* Pop culture shapes how people see the world. We need a broader variety of stories about a broader variety of people, and the only way we're gonna get them is by voting with our dollars. But anyhow.

When people say that a movie has heart, this is the kind of movie they're talking about. It's a deeply felt and surprisingly intimate movie, particularly in the love scenes. The story -- about a young female pop star negotiating the demands of fame, who falls in love with a police officer -- is an intelligent look at celebrity culture. It really drives home the intense sexualization of female stars, but manages to do so without ever feeling preachy, which is quite a feat.** Interestingly enough, though the film spends plenty of time appreciating Gug Mbatha-Raw's good looks, it manages to show you how her body is being commodified in a way that doesn't feel as if the film is also participating in that process. It does, however, indulge in quite a lot of ogling at Nate Parker, who is very pleasant to look at. It's funny, much as I appreciate the female body, I rarely enjoy it being displayed on the big screen, because there is so much ideological baggage that goes with it. But this movie reminded me of the pleasures of looking at a fine form, ie, Nate Parker's toned abs. I wonder if that's rampant hypocrisy on my part, or if the film actually produces a respectfully appreciative gaze.

Gina Prince-Bythewood*** clearly cared a lot about this movie. Part of that caring manifests itself as an unwillingness to be as ruthless in making cuts as she maybe should have: the film occasionally feels a bit baggy, and the story is trying to do a little too much. There's an attempt at parallelism in the plot that is intriguing but not particularly convincing in its execution. A domestic violence segment subtly but forcefully reminds viewers that such things do happen to young women in this situation, paradoxically by displacing them onto someone else. But that displacement also makes it seem a bit tacked on. Large chunks of the film, howver, are very well done, enough so that you're willing to give the rest a bit of leeway. In particular, Prince-Bythewood has a real knack for conversations: it's one of those rare films where the characters occasionally just talk about something interesting, rather than only discussing themselves or some aspect of the plot that needs to be moved along.**** Also, the sex scenes are fantastic.

Overall, a worthwhile and heartfelt film from a director that has lot of potential. Looking forward to seeing what she does next.

*Though admittedly, it sometimes feels futile, as anyone who tries to support women in movies can relate to. How much money did Bridesmaids make? And The Heat? And yet, and yet. Though there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on that front. Slowly slowly...

**Certainly something I haven't mastered, as my little preamble makes clear...

***If you search for her on Netflix, you won't find all of her movies in one place -- apparently the system is befuddled by what I presume was a post-marital name-change. I wonder how often this is an issue?

****I could swear I complained about this feature of movies -- and particularly romances -- in an earlier post, but I can't find it anywhere.

19 November 2014

A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe

This is one of Radcliffe's earlier novels, and it's obvious that she is still perfecting her craft. It's a surprisingly creaky book, all seams and stuffing. Abrupt jumps in time and space, people conveniently happening across each other when they were seemingly lost forever (and can in no way be found by other people looking for them), and a rather ineffective effort to make mysterious occurrences seem supernatural. Whereas in later works it will be suggested that her protagonists are border-line delusional, eager to see the supernatural everywhere they look, in this novel the characters strongly RESIST that interpretation, even when it is explicitly suggested. It's the servants who immediately see everything as otherworldly, but other characters specifically deny this view (even when it seems absurd for them to do so). But none of that really matters that much: the real suspense in the story is whether or not Julia will be forced to marry against her will. This further strengthens my sense that the explained supernatural, seemingly Ann Radcliffe's most defining trait, is largely beside the point in her novels. She is much more interested in the moral behavior of her characters, and whether evil is punished by a kind of invisible hand of justice. These are old-school romances with supernatural window-dressing. And this one, to be frank, is one of her weaker efforts.

18 November 2014

Artful, by Ali Smith

This collections of lectures -- or should I say essays -- or should I say stories -- or should I say, well, I just don't know, because it is such a dazzlingly creative work that I haven't the faintest idea how one would characterize it. A narrator is visited by (or imagines the return of) her dead lover, who was a lecturer in literature. She discusses things like time and plot and form, and is also well-versed in poetry, or maybe she is just relating the lover's lectures, or maybe both. Occasionally she inserts bits of poetry or quotes from Oliver Twist and it is stunning, how something about the context makes you stop and read them so carefully, and marvel at the density of expression, how tightly packed a poem is. The observations about literature are mostly quite pleasant and interesting, as are the interactions, or are they imagined? with the lover, and the musings about love and loss and getting on with your life.

All in all, a wonderful tribute to art and relationships. Just incredible. Savour it.


Calvary begins quite dramatically: a man comes to confession, tells the priest there that he was molested by a priest for many years as a child, that the man who did it is dead, and that he intends to kill his current confessor -- precisely because he has never done anyone wrong. Killing a bad priest is old news, he says. But a good, one, now that'll get people talking. The man gives the priest time to say his goodbyes and set his affairs in order, saying that he'll expect to meet him on the beach in a week's time.

The film then chronicles the priest's doings during that suspenseful week, as he goes about his business in his village. What made the movie so fantastic, to me, is the way it subtly transforms into a meditation on the Catholic church's role -- both good and bad -- in society. It does not excuse or shy away from the extreme suffering the Church has caused, not only in the sexual abuses, but also more simply, through ignorance or dogmatism. The main character's fellow priest is a narrow-minded idiot, quick to condemn, close-minded and greedy. Many of the villagers openly despise the church, and in their interactions with the priest, one gets a sense of past harms they have suffered at its hands.

At the same time, however, our hero seems like a genuinely good man, one who is imperfect but thoughtful, and who mostly strives to do the right thing. It is this, combined with his genuine interest in and concern for others, that makes him a kind of moral anchor in his small but chaotic world. If a person is lost or struggling, they will have someone to turn to, no matter what. At one point there's a great bit of dialogue between the two priests, where one notes that the sins people confess are increasingly horrific and bizarre, and that he even had to look a word up recently to understand the depravity being described. It's a nice nod to both the psychological toll that the work of being a confessor would exact, but also an interesting way of raising the question as to whether someone who lives largely apart from the everyday world is qualified (perhaps is best qualified, mind you) to listen to the woes of someone embroiled in it.

What is striking about the film, to me, is the way that it also emphasizes personal responsibility. My boyfriend felt that the priest didn't seem to want to help most of the people in the movie, but to me it rather seemed like he wasn't willing to do the work for them, or be a quick fix. If someone genuinely felt remorse and wanted to make a change, he was there. If they simply wanted a stamp of approval, he refused it. It was in some ways a very passive role in terms of moral leadership, but simultaneously, the very presence of a priest is in some ways a visible instantiation of a moral beacon, or at least a reminder of sorts, giving people something to aspire to.

Overall, a very interesting film, often quite funny and occasionally very moving. Also just unbelievably gorgeous to look at -- stunning cinematography. Very much worth seeing.

21 October 2014

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

This book feels much more like guilty pleasure reading than I'd expected. Not because of all the graphic sex -- although there is plenty of that, it never feels gratuitous. This is one of those rare books in which the sex is explicitly (and beautifully) described in ways that tell you things about the characters and their relationships, in addition to being quite titillating. No, what makes this book feel a bit trashy (and maybe this is my bias) is the way it cycles through so many tropes of Victorian role-playing fantasy. It's all the sexiest parts of the what we often think of as the stuffiest and most uptight era, and thus most enjoy imagining with its hair down. So, I can't help but feel a tinge of embarrassment over my enjoyment of reading descriptions of elaborately tailored clothing and thrilling plays on the master-servant relationship. I guess in my mind, there is something suspicious and middle-brow about a lot of historical fiction?  It might also be some of the melodrama in certain stock tropes of lesbian stories.

But it must be said that this is a smart novel, and one that cleverly weaves in all kinds of issues circulating in the 1890s. It's also a mostly compelling story, though it tends towards the larger-than-life and perhaps goes on a little too long. Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and it's not like intelligent, sexy books about lesbians are a dime a dozen, so it's nice to see someone who manages to be taken seriously when writing them.

20 October 2014

Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

(translated by Chris Andrews)

While I was shelving the other day, one of my co-workers walked by, plucked this out of a stack and said "This is a great, weird book." So of course I bought it, and indeed. The story of a bookseller who becomes obsessed with a beautiful and mysterious shoplifter, it turns out to be a surprising, but quite pleasing, love story.

I have limited patience with tales of men stalking beautiful women they know nothing about, but this one is effective, perhaps because it is so short, one, because it strikes the right balance of sentimentality and a sort of emotional flatness, two, and because it does not idolize the young woman, three. Even while in her thrall, the narrator seems perfectly able to see her flaws, and their relationship is one of compromise and resignation. The plot is just strange enough to make the story feel a bit unhinged, but not so off-the-rails as to seem entirely silly.

A small book that will grab you, shake you a few times, set you down, pat you on the head, and walk away.

14 October 2014

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an interesting figure in the contemporary literary landscape. She is increasingly perceived as an important author, but she is perhaps a little bit too prolific to be comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of greats. A Thousand Acres is a masterpiece -- really an absolutely phenomenal novel. None of her other books quite achieves its heights, though most of them are warm, wonderful, and highly pleasant reads (I quite liked both Horse Heaven and Moo). She puts them out at a surprisingly reliable pace, about one every three years (with some young adult novels, which I am unfamiliar with, in between). Although one wonders if a better editor and maybe a little more time wouldn't help these texts ripen a bit, it must also be admitted that there is something wonderful about her energetic willingness to explore all kinds of different ideas and settings (clearly gravitating, however, towards the rural, particularly the Iowan).

Some Luck is a chronicle of the life of an Iowa family, year by year. We are told it is the first in a trilogy, one that will take us into 2020; an idea that gives me pause (I try to be open-minded about sci-fi, but I tend to find it dull and transparently ideological. I'm sorry.). In a lesser writer's hands, this format of jumping between characters and gathering up stories big and small as well as sundry bits of fluff could easily have resulted in a disconnected, dull, and overly cliche narrative. But Jane Smiley is such a masterful creator of characters that I was completely engrossed, and found myself deeply caring about the different people in the story. It's an interesting thing, one that makes me want to ponder the relationship between readers and characters and the reality effects at work, in that I was tempted to say that the characters are realistic, but that's not quite right. It's not that I form a relationship to them the way I do to actual people. It's also not that I come to feel like I know them as well as I know my closest friends -- though Smiley really is brilliant at "showing" you her characters rather than telling you about then, and also once again deploys her trademark move of getting into the mind of a being (in this case, a baby) that we generally see as unknowable. But I develop a certain intimacy and familiarity with them, and a sense of them 'coming to life,' that I don't often get elsewhere.

It is not a perfect book -- Smiley occasionally tends towards corn-fed folksiness, and some of the plot turns feel more contrived than others. But it is a very enjoyable read. You can certainly wait for it to come out in paperback, at which point, perhaps, the next installment won't be too far off.

03 October 2014

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

The reviews and general buzz around this book had led me to think it would be a bitter, angry bit of grousing at the absurdity of university bureaucracy, an attack on institutions of higher learning from within. To my pleased surprise, however, it was a quite affable, and often very funny sort of book. And curiously enough -- a powerful advocate for the very institutions it seemingly pokes fun at.

The book is a collection of letters of recommendation. Many of these are for positions within academia; students trying to get into graduate school, professors seeking tenure, etc. But one of the charms of the book is that a good quarter or more are for former students seeking regular jobs in the "normal" world -- data entry clerks, paintball park supervisors, high-profile corporate types. It is an interesting reminder of just how many people a college professor educates, and how varied are the paths they take from there. At moments, the protagonist goes even further, offering explicit arguments for the merits of English majors. I'm biased, of course, but I very much appreciated the novel's subtle bid to argue for the relevance and importance of literature and creative writing programs.

Perhaps I should be somewhat concerned that I found the main character, whom others have described as a pompous, self-centered jerk, to be fairly sympathetic. I had a similar experience when I read The Anthologist -- I was surprised, later, to learn how much people despised the narrator. Look, nobody is perfect. We are all trying. I guess I am more tolerant of people, even flawed people who have been total jerks to people who love them, if they are aware of and regret their mistakes, and  deeply care about many other humans, even those not especially close to them. And I think this character does.

Although the back story woven into the letters feels a bit shoe-horned in at times, and the plot makes some overly extreme moves, it is overall an entertaining, thought-provoking, and even somewhat moving book, a light read that stays with you after it's over.

30 September 2014

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

The first 50 pages of this novel are some of the best I've read in a long time. It's a marvelous set-up -- the narrator meets a man on a train and, with a wonderfully detached sort of bemusement, is gradually drawn into the orbit of this mysterious, bizarre character. I wasn't completely taken with what Isherwood decided to do with the story from there (it was quite literally on page 50 where I suddenly thought, oh, hmmm. Ok.), but his prose is so archly fantastic that you're happy to go along for the ride ("She could drink most of the English journalists under the table, and sometimes did so, but more as a matter of principle than because she enjoyed it.").

It's a kind of sub-genre, I think, the story of a narrator who meets a strange person and becomes somewhat entangled in an utterly unfamiliar and not entirely appealing world, ultimately managing to retreat, usually mostly unscathed, as the hurricane of this strange individual passes by. Diana Athill's Make Believe, which I read recently, actually follows a similar model. There is something not entirely satisfying to me about the narrative form -- it places you in the perspective of the ipso facto less interesting character, who is meant to be the screen that displays the crazed meanderings of the real point of interest, who always remains a little bit mysterious and is vaguely being judged as flighty, immature, unstable, etc, whereas the milquetoast narrator gets to be the sensible, wise, responsible one. Or, alternatively, the wildcard ends up seeming like such a self-centered monster that you both despise him/her and blame the narrator for putting up with this nonsense for so long. Either way, my interest is often tempered by a sense of indignation.

Isherwood ameliorates the problem somewhat by giving us a narrator who is a bit of a cad, just aware enough of his tendency to romanticize deadbeats as to allow us to feel comfortable doing the same, and willing to go along with the craziness enough to clear him of the charge of priggishness or prudery (there is a particularly delightful scene where he gets rip roaring drunk and floats along through scenes of chaotic decadence: "Here one of the anaesthetic periods of my evening supervened. How the Baron got me upstairs, I don't know. It was quite painless."). What is more, Isherwood cleverly inserts several other judgmental characters, friends of the narrator's who warn him that Mr Norris is not to be trusted, leaving it open as to whether they are close-minded or sensible.

Two things that make this novel, which was written in 1935, particularly interesting are the ways in which it handles the rise of Nazism and the gay subculture of Berlin. I haven't read many novels written in the 30s that actively portray life in Germany in the 30s (are there many?), where there is no awareness of the tragedy that will follow (or is there, is of course the question). Not knowing what is to come, the book leaves all possibilities open (what Michael André Bernstein, in a very smart book, called 'side-shadowing'), so the sense one has is of a vague undercurrent, not explicitly discussed. The book's treatment of homosexuality, strangely, seems similar -- it seems completely apparent, I think, to a modern-day reader, but one wonders whether Isherwood's contemporaries were slower to catch on (I vaguely seem to recall reading something where a person mentioned being very surprised to realize it). Only once in the novel is it made completely explicit that a character is gay (when one character asks another if he knew that someone was "a fairy"); there is an amusingly euphemistic quality to the rest of the novel, where two men will disappear together for a few hours and resurface later, rather like the fireworks scenes of films from the time.

In any case, I certainly look forward to reading more of Isherwood's writing.

The Thin Man

Tonight was a homecoming of sorts -- after a day of working at the bookstore, I went to my beloved Doc Films. I went at least once a week while I was in graduate school, and it was soooo good to be back. I've always loved movies, but going to Doc regularly really shaped my tastes. Although I grew up going to arthouse theatres and watching independent and foreign films, I got to know and love a lot more classic movies -- especially noir and stuff from the 30s. In many ways, it was like taking a film studies course, except I didn't have a teacher to tell me what I was supposed to appreciate about the movies, so I have ended up with more of the naive enthusiasm and idiosyncratic knowledge of the autodidact. But I digress.

It is often considered blasphemous to say that a movie is as good as the book it is based on, but in the case of The Thin Man (and, I would wager, a lot of other film noir), it really is true. I read the book last summer and very much enjoyed it, but the movie is equally entertaining, and in some ways, better.

One of the great strengths of the novel is the delightful banter between the hero, Nick, and his wife Nora. The film captures it wonderfully, even improves it with a dash of physical comedy and some truly wonderful facial expressions. What is more, while one certainly notices how much the characters drink in the novel, in the film version you can actually tell how drunk Nick is -- he lurches and teeters and looks a bit dazed, even as he is figuring out the intricacies of the case.

Another advantage of the movie is that it's much easier to keep the characters and plot lines straight when you can match a face to the name. Granted, there are an awful lot of blondes in the movie, which made it a little bit more difficult, but I wasn't nearly as muddled as I was when reading the text. At the same time, the movie does hustle through the story somewhat, probably cutting quite a bit of the storyline (not that I missed it), and zooming past the end without really bothering to flesh it out, thereby reinforcing the sense -- which one also has when reading -- that the mystery is rather beside the point.

It isn't the greatest social comedy or the best mystery you'll ever see, but on the big screen at your favorite local theatre, it sure is a treat.

24 September 2014

Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac

I taught On the Road a few times and grew to love it, mostly for its prose* but also for its wild, somewhat desperate adventure. I happened upon Tristessa somewhat randomly in a used bookstore and was totally captivated by the description on the back, written by Ginsberg: "a narrative meditation studying a hen, a rooster, a dove, a cat, a chihuaha dog, family meat, and a ravishing, ravished junky lady, first in their crowded bedroom, then out to drunken streets, taco stands, & pads at dawn in Mexico City slums." Don't you want to read that book? I do. Unfortunately, Tristessa is not that book.

So, it may be that Kerouac's charm has somewhat worn off for me, or it may be that I just wasn't in the mood for it at the moment. But despite occasional moments of beauty, the book did not quite work for me. There would be these lovely sequences where the hum of the novel's rushed prose lifted into music and swept me up into the ride, and then a sudden clunk would pull me out and make me think gosh, I'll bet Kerouac was kind of an annoying blowhard if you actually hung out with him. There are these moments where you become vividly aware that these are the inflated ramblings of a spoiled white boy looking for thrills in Mexico, romanticizing the local drug addicts even as he remains somewhat contemptuous of them. It's kind of gross.

*Turns out I wrote this oddly contemplative blog review of it at the time -- I guess this blog used to be a lot more personal? Perhaps it will be again; life has been taking some unexpected turns lately and I want to explore various kinds of writing more...

19 September 2014

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

I am a big fan of Muriel Spark -- even though very few of her novels are truly great (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie most certainly is though), they are always bizarre and strangely fascinating and never a waste of time. Even the rather bad ones are kind of wonderful. Loitering with Intent is pretty excellent, but it's also a book that you will appreciate more if you know something about Spark's life, and feel some attachment to her as a person. Because the novel feels very autobiographical, an effect that is wonderfully complemented by the way the plot plays with a gradual blurring between fiction and reality, describing the adventures of a young woman who is writing her first novel and finding it coming to life, partly in mysterious or uncanny ways, partly because someone is actively imitating it. It's a very weird story, but if also has a curious plaintive quality rather than the usual droll flatness of her other books.

12 September 2014

Make Believe, by Diana Athill

Athill is not only a good writer, she also comes across as a smart, sympathetic, and uncommonly self-aware sort of woman. Thus, her graceful prose and keen observations are a pleasure to read, and the book feels both warm and intimate, like a really good conversation.

That said, the contents seem more suited to conversation than a book. Chronicling her acquaintance with the increasingly mentally disturbed Hakim Jamal, Athill is basically relating what happened, without drawing much in the way of insight from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- when she does make a move towards more sweeping conclusions, it rings a bit hollow. One is left, instead, with the curiously cynical sense that rather upsetting trajectory of this man's life was bitterly senseless, and that there was not much that anyone could do about it. I was somewhat hoping for more of a thick description of that particular historical moment, and while there is some of that, the book seems much more personal. It does make me want to read more of her writing though.

19 August 2014

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

One somehow doesn't except eighteenth-century authors -- even if they are Mary Shelley -- to have a good sense of what the end of the world might look like. But the apocalypse might be one of those timeless things that can be just as persuasively portrayed in 1814 as in 2014. Although this novel is way too long and has a lot of pretty boring bits, it also anticipates pretty much every 20th/21st century disaster/apocalypse film/novel in really surprising ways. I am Legend, Children of Men, Atlas Shrugged, even This is the End, amusingly, all owe a debt to Mary Shelley's vision of the final days of human life.

Shelley, meanwhile, is clearly drawing on both the idea and the techniques of her father in his bizarro sci-fi novel, St. Leon, particularly in doing a kind of before-and-after, where the novel begins with an (unfortunately lengthy) description of "normal" life -- so as to give you a sense of what is lost (think, too, of films like Cloverfield -- usually this kind of thing is kept down to 20 minutes or so, because it is basically "thick" description with little to no narrative momentum). Both Godwin and Shelley unfortunately produce rather dreary version of a fairly typical romance to do this, and that's just something you have to plow through. Godwin, thankfully, has occasional moments of comic irony, whereas his daughter tends to be somewhat humorless. But Godwin also doesn't have to patience to really follow St. Leon through centuries of his artificially extended life (ie, to take the device to its natural conclusion). Shelley, on the other hand,  is admirably committed to letting the plague destroy the world s l o w l y (which certainly contributes to the realism, though unfortunately the fervent language of Romantic-era passionate feeling is not extremely conducive to suspenseful terror), and to devote to these epic circumstances a monumental amount of pages, letting the text transpire in what comes to feel like an almost inhuman, planetary time. Although it may come across as overwrought, this is arguably one of the few circumstances that actually merits such lofty prose:

Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written "a little lower than the angels;" and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the "paragon of animals," and, lo! we were a "quint-essence of dust." We repined that the pyramids had outlasted the embalmed body of their builder. Alas! the mere shepherd's hut of straw we passed on the road, contained in its structure the principle of greater longevity than the whole race of man. How reconcile this sad change to our past aspirations, to our apparent powers!

At the same time, the book is almost touchingly a product of its own time. Although it's meant to be set in the distant future (2100!), its author simply cannot imagine a time in which the French Revolution will not be a major reference point. Europe is, of course, still battling the savage Orient (the Turk!), and America is  still an uncultivated wilderness. Occasional clumsy references to her own present via things the character has "read about in history books" evoke somewhat condescending smiles in the reader, but they also make the novel a fascinating testament to the central concerns of its own time.

Although it is a real slog, I also think it probably ought to be required reading for scholars of the period.

13 August 2014

Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill

I get frustrated with current fiction, because I read all these reviews that suggest that a book is spectacular, amazing, dazzlingly innovative and tremendously well written, and then I read it and... it's just kind of ok. I guess in the fast-paced world of publishing and book reviews, anything that is better than average is momentous, whereas to me, who does not read much average stuff and reads quite a lot of older, really excellent stuff, it is less noteworthy. But I digress.

Dept. of Speculation is essentially a monologue; a woman's brief reflections over the course of a marriage. It took me awhile to stop being annoyed that she was from Brooklyn (because of course she is. Isn't everyone?), but once I did, I really warmed up to the book. The subtle indicators of the passage of time, the sense of vulnerability and precarious security and happiness, the narcissism of youth -- they're all there, and cleverly and elegantly rendered.

But then DRAMA strikes, and the story becomes strangely much less interesting. Time seems to slow down, the prose feels more cliché, and it just isn't as compelling a narrative. Yes, the struggle to preserve a marriage -- and to figure out if you want to -- is a fascinating topic, but this rendering of it seemed somehow rote to me. The fragmentary nature of the book became an impediment, making it harder for me to get drawn in and really care about what was happening. It is hard to render female rage and woundedness in a compelling way; it often comes across as whiny and self-absorbed. Offhill teeters on the edge of that, and perhaps the brevity of the narrative keeps her just this side of tolerable. After the promise of the early-to-middle third of the book, however, this feels like a let-down. Then there's a little twist at the end, which I still don't know what I think of. It might be a smaller version of the internal deliberations I'm having about the book as a whole. Poignant? Clever? Obnoxious? Gimmicky? Or largely forgettable?

07 August 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob

I got this as a GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. Which was awesome -- I will totally trade a review for a book. Keep 'em coming.

Book clubs are going to devour this one. Multi-generational, moving immigrant story? Yeah.

Which is not to say it's not a good book. Jacob has a fantastic ear for dialogue, and her characters are amazingly well realized. It's been a long time since a work of fiction has made me cry. I cared about these people. I grew extremely attached to them and their flaws and foibles, and I was very invested in what was going to happen to them.

...but that was not enough to prevent me from noticing that what was happening to them would have benefited from the wisdom of an editor who could rein it in a bit. The book is a fast read, but it is also 500 pages, and it would have been better if it were 300. There are 5 major plotlines, and while they add some depth to the characters, they also converge in ways that make you aware of just how neatly everything is coming together. Especially because most of them get wrapped up in the last 30 pages. I actually started to wonder if I had been given a faulty copy as I approached the end because I couldn't see how on earth it could conclude in so little space. It was really irritating, after having stuck with the story for 480 pages, to be whisked out of it in such a fashion.

More frustrating was the novel's tendency to veer towards the rom-com-esque; simplified solutions and an excess of sentimentality. Do we need a scene with that character binge drinking in order to understand how upset she is, or is it just that such scenes are easy shorthand to express trauma (does she really need to be extra traumatized in the first place)? Is a romance plot really necessary, or is a happy ending possible without one? So many things about this book are truly creative and unique, making it all the more disappointing when it slouches into stock plot devices.

Nonetheless -- it's a charming, pleasant book. Give the characters 150 pages and they will almost certainly win you over, even if you do roll your eyes from time to time. And I will definitely look forward to seeing what Mira Jacob does next.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck

This is so, so lovely. A lyrical reflection on immigration, assimilation, and how the second generation grapples with the history and passed-down memories of the old country. But also, or perhaps more so, a wonderful story about life, love, marital problems, troublesome neighbors...

A Bintel Brief is based on archival materials; an advice column in a Yiddish newspaper published in the early 20th century. The novel is framed around the encounter between Finck and the author of the responses to the letters (and maybe some of the letters themselves), Abraham Cahan. It might sound gimmicky but it works beautifully, a playful and subtle reflection on changing times and how we relate to the past. The real stars, of course, are the letters themselves, and their funny, slightly melancholic questions, which give you an astonishingly vibrant glimpse into the lives of their authors. It's a wonderful way of preserving and celebrating a slice of history and way of life that has been mostly lost.

The story is wonderful, and it is beautifully complemented by the gorgeous artwork. I do not always pay as much attention to the visual aspect of graphic novels as I should, because I am impatient to get on with the story, but this one I just sat and looked at, admiring the way that the images conveyed certain aspects or emotional undertones of the story. At one point the narrative pauses to give you a series of portraits based on photographs. Done in grayscale, looking like watercolor with ink detail, perhaps? they are the perfect intersection of realism and abstraction, wonderfully evocative and strangely touching. The book is just a brilliant mixture of image and word, history and invention, humor, sadness, and joy...

It is a wonderful book. Buy it.

04 July 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Perhaps it is because I read (and very much enjoyed) a few novels by Goethe not so long ago that I liked this book so much. Imagine if the Sorrows of Young Werther had been narrated in the third person and been more interested in the riotous dynamic of Lotte's overcrowded family, rather than focusing on her anguished suitor -- you might have ended up with something like The Blue Flower.

Although it's ostensibly the story of the romance between Fritz von Hardenberg (who later became known as Novalis) and a 12 year old girl, what made the book so delightful to me was the way it evoked a whole social universe. I particularly loved the relationship between the siblings (treated with a wonderfully light touch), and the way the novel balanced warmth and wry cynicism, particularly in its handling of German Romantic philosophy and poetry.

But the most remarkable thing about the book was the prose, and especially the way that Fitzgerald gives a hint of German flavor to the English. This is most noticeable in the fact that one of the siblings is referred to as The Bernhard, but it subtly pervades the entire book, and is absolutely masterful. A wonderful read, very much recommended.

(This is, by the way, another recommendation from that Elle piece I mentioned before -- it's really been a goldmine!)

30 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

I do not hate big blockbuster action flicks. I really don't. I am generally willing enough to tolerate Hollywood's ridiculousness as long as it's remotely entertaining, and if a movie is doing something even slightly interesting, or has an enlightened approach to race/gender/etc, I am already 75% won over. But things get dicey when you're facing a film that has some pretensions to actually being a good movie rather than a standard mindless blockbuster, because it becomes hard to decide what kind of standard to judge it by. Edge of Tomorrow is a reasonably intelligent movie with decent special effects and a strong female character who refreshingly breaks with action film conventions. But is not a sparkling, witty film with heaps of panache and emotional complexity, and it is certainly not a "doozy," despite what some critics say. Unfortunately, despite having a lot of things going for it in terms of plotting and character, it's strangely lifeless and somewhat rote. I really, really wanted to like it. But I was decidedly underwhelmed, and honestly, I blame the critics who are pushing this film as a smarter, more interesting blockbuster, because I feel like I would have liked the movie a lot more if my expectations hadn't been over-inflated.

Let me be clear -- the movie really does have a lot going for it. I absolutely agree that Emily Blunt is awesome as a grizzled badass warrior who is basically written like a stock male character except she's female and it works just fine. I don't think that should be mistaken for emotional complexity -- the film is pretty spartan when it comes to feelings, which is also fine by me. Although it occasionally seems interested in delving into the kind of relationship that develops between two people in such a context (is anyone making the 50 First Dates comparison?), a lot of those moments feel pretty cursory. The movie is instead rather single-mindedly focused on achieving its mission of killing the aliens, and figuring out how to do that without dragging the viewer through the tedium of actually repeating the same day over and over.

And it does that quite effectively. In the middle, actually, it starts to get really interesting as it becomes unclear whether a given moment is happening for the first time or not. I haven't seen Groundhog's Day in ages so I have no idea whether it did the same thing or not, and I also think that's entirely beside the point. I tend to find time-travel movies a bit eye-roll-y, but this was the rare film in which the time travel plot points were both exciting and intellectually stimulating. At least until the end, when the writers apparently could not resist busting out what has become the standard cliché ending of any "mind-bending" film. The logistical problems raised by the specific way these particular aliens worked were really quite clever and cool, and I wish the movie had spent more time exploring them because unlike most sci-fi action thrillers, they actually merited deeper consideration.

I am also totally willing to grant that the movie has moments of something like humor, and that Tom Cruise is more likable than usual. Linda Holmes has said that he is more appealing when he's doing something a little bit more smarmy than his full on noble hero act, and I agree, though I might put it a bit differently -- it's when he seems lighter on his feet, more playful (be it for good or evil), that he is more appealing. He does a lot of very earnest stuff. Sometimes (as in Magnolia) that turns into something very interesting, but usually it's heavy and borderline caricature. It's the moments that he's not so serious that we like him, and fortunately, we get a few of those.

But overall, the movie felt heavy and a bit dull to me. There were a couple plot decisions that dragged it down, I think. I've mentioned the stupid ending; the beginning isn't much better. The writer wants to get Tom Cruise to somehow be literally dropped into combat totally unprepared, and he does it with this bizarre lead-up of a p.r. guy getting shanghaid by a general who is angry at him for threatening to tarnish his image (after refusing to...be dropped into combat unprepared... which the general weirdly wanted him to do...so as to provide good p.r.). It's totally absurd, and it really seems like there are better ways to go. Cruise arguably doesn't even need to be so unprepared in the first place -- given the nature of his mission, he'd probably need some additional training anyhow, because lord knows the film REQUIRES a training montage. The point being: the movie felt rather long to me, and this was exacerbated by the feeling that it wasn't using its time effectively.

It's not a bad film. As far as summer blockbusters go, it may well be one of the better ones around. It's unfortunate that it's just good enough to make me actually engage with it mentally and emotionally (unlike, say, the latest X-Men film, which I found entertaining enough because I don't take it at all seriously), but not quite good enough to carry the weight of that attention. I want to reward it for making the effort, but I just didn't find it that entertaining. The problem is, the industry is probably going to draw all the wrong lessons from its low box office numbers.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Readers of this blog are probably well aware of my love for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and will not be surprised to know that I was very, very excited to see this movie. I say this too, so that you realize that I am not at all an objective audience. I liked the movie in large part because I liked the book and enjoyed seeing it on the big screen. It helps that the film is a visual pleasure: lovely backdrops, bright colors, and a borderline ridiculously attractive and extremely talented cast. It also helped that I was watching it at the Siskel, surrounded by Nigerians who laughed, sighed, and murmured recognition throughout the film.

Although it certainly felt a bit rushed at moments, the film does a fairly admirable job in adapting what is after all a 500+ page book. Where the novel wonderfully interweaves several storylines into an effective multiplicity of perspectives, the film centers on one, the relationship between a woman named Olanna and her "revolutionary" lover, set against the backdrop of Nigerian civil war. The film struggles with the novel's impressive balancing between individual lives and big picture history -- news clips are cleverly used to provide information about political events in a non-intrusive and personable way, but any time you have (justly) horrific scenes of political violence, the personal problems rapidly seem paltry in comparison, or worse, melodramatic. It's interesting to consider that novels really might be better at historical fiction than films are, much as we might love watching people prancing around in period costume.

I don't know if the film holds up on its own, absent one's love for the book and sheer, almost physical pleasure of seeing these people and places on the screen. So you should probably go ahead and read the book first =-)

13 June 2014

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black

I was alerted to the existence of this book by this wonderful piece in Elle, where female authors discuss their favorite books by women.  At the time I hadn't read anything by Karen Russell, but I was interested in checking her out, and anyhow, I basically added most of the books mentioned here to my to-read list. I was particularly intrigued by the ones I hadn't heard of before, and this one happened to be easy to get my hands on.

These are interesting stories that take you to places that literature rarely does -- there's a particular interest in observing life with physical handicaps, or in the aftermath of tragedy, for instance. The stories are engrossing and make insightful connections between various aspects of human experience, and the book is overall a quick and largely pleasant read.

My gripe is that after awhile, you start to notice that they're mostly structured in the same way: the story starts off in one time and place. Then there's a sudden jump to a different one; either an earlier moment in the narrator's life, or a story of someone else altogether, and that becomes the main focus, until we reach some kind of awareness that allows us to return to the initial storyline and revisit some kind of culminating or primal scene. Sometimes there are three narrative strands involved instead of two, and the way the pieces fit together isn't identical every time, but the similarity is enough that after awhile, you start to feel a bit manipulated.

Amusingly, when I did read something by Karen Russell, namely her Vampires in the Lemon Grove, my objection to it was not totally dissimilar to my problem with this collection. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking, over and over, "This is just a story that someone made up." That feeling is tracking some kind of quality of these stories, I'm sure -- their arbitrariness? Their lack of realism? -- but I still think that's the best way to capture it.

06 June 2014

Swans are Fat Too, by Michelle Granas

This book is just begging to be made into an incredibly charming rom-com. A very pleasant and surprisingly thoughtful romance, the novel tells the story of Hania, a heavy-set, former concert pianist who returns to her native Poland and gets roped into caring for her cousin's children. She strikes up a friendship with the upstairs neighbor Konstanty, helping him type up his manuscript history of Poland. Chapters of this history are cleverly woven into the story, giving the reader a genuinely interesting tour of Poland's past. Running alongside this narrative, however, is also a really intelligent critique of Poland's ways of reckoning with that past; its problematic national mythos.  These reflections on history are the conversational fodder that gradually draws Konstanty and Halina closer.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book was that the blossoming romance between the couple is an intellectual one. We watch it happen through conversations, and we understand why they enjoy talking to each other so much. This is no actually that common in rom-coms. Usually the attractions between characters is either taken for granted, or it's based on some carefully selected obscure detail or quirk. We have so often been told that this is how you fall in love: it's something about the way she swallowed her gum and almost choked that made you realize that this was the woman for you. So it was neat to watch a slow progression of like minds coming together.

Another thing I liked a lot was that while the plot occasionally drifted towards the somewhat overdone (ie, towards the kind of events you expect to see in movies, not real life), it was refreshingly devoid of melodrama. Someone may think someone else is mad at them because s/he didn't say hello on the stairs that morning, and be very very unhappy about that, but life goes on and then it turns out that actually the other person was just in kind of a hurry and it's really not a big deal. The human tendency to overdramatize is acknowledged but not indulged. The characters may feel sorry for themselves sometimes, but they pull themselves together and don't wallow.

Finally, this is my personal bias, but I loved the way the dialogue was flavored with bits of Polish. In a novel that is somewhat short on descriptions of place -- it is not a visual work at all, which paradoxically may be why I think it would make a good movie -- those occasional phrases were wonderfully evocative, and even made me a little homesick. I have no idea (but I wonder) how a non-Polish speaking reader will experience that aspect.

It's not a literary masterpiece, but it's a very enjoyable read, and would be very pleasant company on a flight or the beach.

06 May 2014

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James

Reading this book is a project. I'm sure people cover selections of it all the time in college classes, and it must be admitted that one could get by with the highlights reel, but the experience of working your way through the entire thing is a special one. It is an ambitious text -- the kind of thing where you can hardly believe that an actual human being wrote it, which seems to sum up a lifetime of learning and reflection. It's the sort of scholarly work that I associate with the humanist masterpieces of the 20th century (another example that comes to mind is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, which is similarly rewarding), in that it is systematic and magisterial but also suffused with personality. You are keenly aware that it is the product of an extended process of thought, and it retains a close connection to the spirit of its maker.

James sets out to understand what religion does to the minds of those who believe in it, in a very pragmatic sort of way. It is very much to be regretted that he did not know more about non-Christian religions; aside from a handful of references to Islam, Buddhism (which he openly admits to not knowing much about), and Hinduism, the book is really a compendium of Christian experience first and foremost. Although his approach could probably be productively applied to other faiths, one would need to find someone knowledgeable to actually do it. I can't exactly blame him for that, but I was disappointed.

The other critique one could make is that it is a bit of a slog at moments, particularly when he gets into piling on more and more examples. Some are fascinating, others are rather less so. You could easily cut 80 pages of the book without great loss. But those occasionally monotonous bits are sort of key to the Stockholm-syndrome-y, I-just-read-a-massively-long-book sense of accomplishment you feel at the end of it.

But overall, it really is an incredible text, and one that offers wonderful material to think with, a framework from which to interrogate your own beliefs -- whatever they may be, and whether or not they include a Supreme Being of some kind. If, for instance, you are looking to find a way to express how math serves some of the same spiritual functions for you that religion does for others, this book gives you a way to do so. And it also, satisfyingly, legitimates that belief, whatever it may be, by noting that whether or not the object of belief is actually real, the belief itself has material effects, and thus confers a certain reality upon its objects. But more generally, The Varieties of Religious Experience is also an inquiry into the nature of belief, the difference between feeling and intellect, and an exploration of different realms of consciousness. Reading it is no small undertaking, but it is most certainly a rewarding one.  

27 April 2014

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by César Aira

This is a deceptively slender book: traversing its scant 87 pages is like crawling through a narrow tunnel and emerging inside an underground cathedral, brilliantly illuminated. It's a stunning work, absolutely enthralling. The story of a landscape painter traveling across Argentina, it becomes a lyrical reflection on landscape, painting, vision, literature, literature, humanity, life... It's completely incredible. You must read it.

08 April 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

Retellings of fairy tales can easily feel somewhat gimmicky, but this one is absolutely dazzling. Snow White re-imagined as a story about a black family passing as white in the American 1950s. What? you think. How? Indeed. And yet, in Oyeyemi's telling, it makes sense. 

What is particularly wise about it, I think, is the way it handles -- and even becomes a reflection on -- the problem of evil. Often, when we're hearing the story from the villain's side we're being asked to see that they were actually kind of justified, that it really wasn't their fault, that the good guy wasn't actually that good, etc. Oyeyemi indeed humanizes the characters, but retains a chilling possibility of something absolutely dark and seethingly alive. Whether it is in the characters themselves or the world they inhabit is a question left open in this fascinating and utterly engrossing book.

30 March 2014

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

I came to this book at the exact right moment of my life to really, really appreciate it. The themes of procrastination, literary appreciation, loneliness and failure really resonated with me, and I really wanted to spend all my time reading it instead of doing my own writing.

At the same time, I can easily see why someone would not like the book. The narrative voice is a bit annoying --  I think if it hadn't been for the fact that a friend recommended the book to me and I read it somewhat through the lens of his appreciation, I might have found it unbearable -- though it does get better after a few chapters. The narrator/protagonist is a bit of a failure, which may irritate some readers. I think Baker manages to keep him from being so pathetic as to be grating, but others may disagree. People may also find his pontificating lectures on poetry obnoxious. I was strangely tolerant of them, even though I didn't always buy into his ideas, and he keeps hammering the same ideas over and over. But it was nice to read someone's strong opinions on what poetry is like and how it works. It was also nice to be reminded of the whole contemporary poetry scene and what a small and inter-connected circle it can be; this group of authors and critics and appreciators who work together to keep poetry going. A few of my good friends in grad school were very much a part of that scene, and I miss having more proximity to it.

I don't think it's an amazing book; actually, I think most people probably would not like it. But it was just right for me right now.

29 March 2014


I was jokingly calling this How Gloria Got Her Groove Back, and it must be acknowledged that the reference is not entirely unwarranted, but fortunately, it's a much more understated and interesting film. An episode in the life of Gloria, a middle aged woman who is not desperately trying to balance love and career, or find someone to love her, or bemoaning old age. Instead, she's a fairly successful (it seems) divorcé who likes to go out dancing and have a good time; whose children have problems of their own which concern but do not consume her; and who is open to the idea of a relationship or maybe just a one night stand. There are not many movies made about women like this. It is so, so refreshing to see a film about a woman who is neither frigid nor desperate, despite being single. And a film about people in their 50s that isn't pitying or condescending to them. The movie is confident enough in the depth of her character that it can include the types of details that would often serve as cliché in films about older single women; her singing along to romantic pop ballads on the radio, or being scared of a strange noise at night. Plot-wise, Gloria is mostly a typical romantic drama, but with an atypical cast: girl meets boy, complications ensue. But it feels wonderfully true-to-life.

It must be admitted, however, that the film does drag a bit. It's on the long side, and there isn't a whole lot going on. I got a little bored during the first 40 minutes, but then I got into it and I started liking Gloria more and more, and appreciating the atypical realism of the plot. It's perhaps worth noting that I think there is probably a really interesting political subtext to the film -- there are various references to the situation in Chile that mostly went over my head, but would probably be quite meaningful to a more informed observer. Anyways, despite our many differences, I felt like I could identify with Gloria. Though some scenes were cringe-worthy, and others were sad, nothing was totally awful or devastating. I am increasingly finding myself drawn to these works of minor tragedy (something I also really liked about the Barbara Pym novel that I read recently). Sometimes bad things happen, and we're sad, and then life goes on.

Definitely a movie worth watching.

28 March 2014

Need for Speed

It is possible that I have a thing for movies about driving fast? I did not actually know this about myself. I assumed that my love for the Fast and Furious franchise had just as much to do with the puns, wryly self-aware campiness, and over-the-top stunts, rather than specifically with the cars. And I mainly saw Rush for Daniel Brühl. In fact, I had no intention of going to see Need for Speed (some crappy Fast and Furious knock-off, I figured), but the only other thing playing right now that I haven't seen is Monuments Men, and if I'm gonna see a bad movie, I'd prefer it to be without any intellectual pretensions. But at some point I realized I was gasping and clutching my throat in terror during one of the racing scenes in this movie. I have a visceral reaction to automobile collisions (maybe everyone does?). So high-speed driving with a sprinkling of smash-ups will definitely keep me on the edge of my seat. So Need for Speed totally worked for me. I have no idea why it got panned so hard in the US. I mean, it's not Fellini, but for what it is, it's pretty great. I've also seen the new 300 movie and Non-Stop in the last week, and neither were anywhere near as entertaining as this.

What is more surprising is that it did so without any discernible sense of irony. They played this movie totally straight. Everybody involved seemed committed to going with it. Even the sassy black friend (plaued by Kid Cudi! What!) was just sassy enough to be, well, sassy, but also a little eye-rollingly not-actually-that-funny. A part of me really appreciated that -- it made him more realistic. Though of course, fast-talking banter is part of what makes comedies so awesome. But I digress. Actually, everyone in this movie was just a little bit sub-par; like a b-list version of the absurdly attractive people you find in most such films. Which I liked about it. Aaron Paul completely won me over as the tormented hero. The role didn't require too much of him, but he supplemented it with his hilarious facial expressions and his winsome blue eyes. Imogen Poots (my god can that really be her name?) was a somewhat gentler version of the typically brutally sharp and devastatingly sexy sidekick/love interest, Dakota Johnson was a largely bland version of the ex-girlfriend, Dominic Cooper was a pedestrian evil villain, and the whole team of friends were all charming and funny and largely forgettable (ok, Rami Malek stripping was somewhat memorable).

The plot, unsurprisingly, is completely absurd. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief going on here. All you really need to know is, Aaron Paul is a really amazing driver, Dominic Cooper is super evil, and they are going to settle this on the track. Meanwhile, it does perk one's interest as to the sentencing guidelines of street-racing, and particularly whether in the real world one is charged with manslaughter or murder in some degree for the kinds of deaths you see in the film. Certainly better not to think too much about that. Or the implications (trying to say this in a non-spoiler way) of the fact that two characters in the film get out of jail at the same time when sentenced for very different things.  But actually, the film does gesture towards some kind of morality in a somewhat predictable but nonetheless vaguely admirable way.

But honestly, the more important thing is -- it's enjoyable as hell.

27 March 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Leading the itinerant life I do, bouncing between Chicago and Ankara with various stops in between and Warsaw glimmering somewhere in the background, there was a lot I could relate to in this book, which offers the reflections of a man returning from New York to Lagos. Cole himself might not agree, but for me the driving question behind this book was how you can know a place. It is this desire to know, or perhaps better to say, to understand, that animates the scattered observations of the text and ties them together. "The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city is dense with story," he says, and some of them get swept into his reflections, even as he know that many others don't. Much of the book is devoted to simply taking in the surroundings and attempting to get some kind of foothold.

There is also the frustration of being in and perhaps even loving a place that seems so infuriatingly broken. This is something I think about often with both Turkey (especially lately) and Poland, and actually, with the US too. But it's harder to talk about the problems of a place that is geopolitically disadvantaged (Cole mentions former President Obasanjo's assertion that "the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by the critics"). It is greatly to Cole's credit that he confronts those problems, both current and past, with an almost brutally unflinching gaze. Histories of slavery, terrifyingly frequent robberies and violence, rampant corruption and poverty. The tricky part is capturing the specific joys that these places also possess, sometimes as a direct consequence of the very things that are wrong with them. Discussing the motorbikes (okadas) that serve as one of the cheapest forms of transportation in Lagos, Cole mentions their cheapness, and their danger, and that women have to hike up their skirts to ride them. He also says they are a "good way to get a feel for the city," but overall, rather skimps on the pleasure they might also afford. Maybe it's my own bias: I can't help it, I know I should know better but I still find motorbikes thrilling, and I love the freedom of the wind on my face and the scenery whizzing by. The many practical day-to-day things that don't work in Turkey are maddening and sometimes dangerous or heartbreaking, but there is some slight compensation in the sense of adventure it gives to the quotidian, and on a good day it gives life a vibrancy that I often miss in the US. As Cole (hilariously) puts it: "It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes."

What is especially intriguing in the book is the way it shifts between the lyrical and the more flatly empirical. Prices are given with a specificity that can almost feel crass, for instance, even as they serve as data points that convey something quite concrete about the realities of Nigerian life. Sometimes facts can obscure feeling, failing to grasp the ethos of a milieu. On the other hand, there is a dangerous slippage between fetishizing or settling for some kind of floating sense or concept (idea l'a need, as a Nigerian might say) and negligence or counterfactuality.

The photographs in the book form serve as a curious middle-ground in this regard; obviously rooted in the empirical world, but with an oneiric quality that belies their ostensibly documentary function. What is striking about them, to me, is how they make me feel that I both see and do not see at the same time; how partial this vision is, how conditioned by Cole's own (lovely) aesthetic. I am unfortunately viewing them on a Kindle -- when I get back to the US, I may have to buy a physical copy so as to be able to flip through the pages and look at them properly.

It is possible that the book will not speak as strongly to people who haven't confronted some of these same questions in their own lives, I really don't know. But I think many will enjoy being carried along in the stream of the narrator's musings in any case.

And incidentally, if you haven't gotten a chance to read it yet, this interview with Cole in the NYTimes is pretty fantastic -- refreshingly unlike so many such interviews. I was particularly delighted by his matter-of-fact response to the question of what book he would like to make the President read, which very much echoes my own feelings, and my frustration with the recent spate of articles on the internet about how reading literature makes you a better person. But that's another thing altogether.

26 March 2014

Zadie Smith interviews Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


You may recall that I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My feelings about Zadie Smith are more ambiguous (I talk about this a little in a footnote to this entry), but I'm steadily coming around, and this interview really helped, actually -- I think there's something about her that I have in the past found incredibly affected, but am realizing really isn't. In any case, I have always also found her a very interesting thinker, so I was quite excited to watch this. And it was everything I hoped for, times a billion. It's just over an hour long, and it's so completely fantastic. Smart, laugh out loud funny, thought-provoking, no-nonsense-straight-up-lay-some-truth-on-it-yessss! kind of great. I was chuckling and nodding and oh interesting!-ing throughout. I loved it. Check it out.

24 March 2014

A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned this as the best book she'd read in 2013, and that was enough to make me want to read it. And I did not regret it. Although it petered out a bit towards the end, I mostly loved every minute. Smart, subtle, and wonderfully funny, with a gently ironic insight into human psychology reminiscent of Austen or Flaubert ("That anyone could doubt my capacity to love! But strangely enough my immediate thought was that I could not bear to go home by bus."). Pym is consistently described as masterfully illustrating the "small" lives of somewhat provincial middle-class women, and indeed, what she lacks in scale she makes up for in depth. It is astonishing, how compelling she makes the vague boredom and somewhat mundane hopes of these characters. There is a delicious balance of primness and subversion -- the wicked humor of Dorothy Parker or Muriel Spark, but never quite so blatant. Although Alexander McCall Smith, in a lovely piece on Pym, says that men are a main focal point, I rather think this novel is more about female friendships and community. Most intriguing to me, actually, is that it's very much about being a member of a church, less in spiritual terms than in social ones, something one rarely sees portrayed in a thoughtful way.
Overall, a delightful book. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of her novels.

19 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I fully expected to hate this, because I generally really don't care for Wes Anderson's movies. But I actually enjoyed it a fair amount, which is not to say that I don't have some complaints. But to start with the good: I found it a lot more visually appealing than his other films. I am not all that wild about his aesthetic most of the time -- the bright colors often seem vaguely garish and just kind of ugly to me -- but this time, I enjoyed it (perhaps the Eastern European-ness helped). More importantly, parts of it were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Ralph Fiennes was great. The preview led me to believe he would be a vaguely obnoxious affected fop for the entire film, but there was just enough mettle under the fabulousness to pull it off and make it a recognizably human character. He absolutely steals the show.

As per usual, however, I found the film completely unengaging emotionally. The story was basically one thing after another, and the randomness, absurdity, and over-the-top caricatured characters made it impossible to believe and thus hard to care. There is nothing really recognizably human to me in these films: it's all spectacle. Which is fair enough, I guess, but what I find obnoxious about it, particularly in something like The Darjeeling Limited or this movie, is the way a foreign culture turns into mere aesthetic backdrop: all style, no substance. World War Two? Excellent for vaguely comical run-ins with pseudo-Nazi soldiers in snazzy uniforms. They're not ACTUAL Nazis, they just look pretty much exactly like them, and speak German, and the movie is set during the time of WWII. But it's not like it really intends to faithfully capture anything about that time period, or take it seriously in any way. It's just a neat looking setting! Call me humorless and oversensitive, but to me that's not only ignorant and distasteful, it's also disrespectful to the millions who died during that period of history. It enraged me in Darjeeling Limited, and it pissed me off in Grand Budapest Hotel. If you want to create an ahistorical fantasy world, create one. Leave actual people and places out of it.

16 March 2014

Zeno's Conscience, by William Weaver

I'd had this on the shelf for ages, but the death of its wonderful translator William Weaver (who also gave English speakers many of Calvino's works) inspired me to finally pick it up. It's wonderful; one of these modernist masterpieces that examine the perverse impossibility of free will by virtue of man's impossibility to do the things he seemingly wants to do and recognizes as best. Dry, absurd hilarity with a maniacal edge reminiscent of Dostoevsky or Gombrowicz. A delightful book.

03 March 2014

Gilgamesh: a Verse Narrative, by Herbert Mason

                                              She made me see 
Things as a man, and a man sees death in things. 
That is what it is to be a man.

 I stumbled across this somewhat randomly, because a student of mine bought the wrong translation of the text. I'm so glad he did, because this is really wonderful. I would never use it to teach, because it strips the original of much of its rich ambiguity -- it is decidedly a subjective version of the story -- but simultaneously, one must admit that it is not only more approachable, it also eloquently brings out the beauty of the book. While I might quibble with some of the interpretive choices, I am grateful to Mason for demonstrating how amenable the text is to such treatment. Given the many re-tellings of the Iliad, it's actually kind of astonishing that there aren't more of these (Dear Anne Carson: please? I know it's not Greek, but I'm confident you can do it anyhow.). A quick read, and a pleasurable one.

Dispatches from the !f Festival

I have to say, it was a bit disappointing this year. I didn't even go to that many movies, because not much really called to me, and then a few things I wanted to see were sold out. Definitely the best thing I saw was I am Divine, which I just wrote up in the previous post. Other than that, in brief, it was:

Night Moves
 I loved Old Joy, and though I thought Wendy and Lucy was only so-so, I was definitely willing to see whatever Kelly Reichardt was doing now. Alas. It was pretty poopy. Her typical understated, quiet, lots of long takes of scenery type thing, but with a somewhat absurdly melodramatic plot that seems all the more ridiculous and cliché when told in such a painstakingly slow way. If you want to see an interesting film about environmentalist terrorists, see The East, which I thought was forgettable when I watched it, but now remember as being quite interesting.

The Grandmaster
We saw the 130 minute festival version, and while it was very long, the extra 10 minutes of the original Chinese version might have come in useful, because there were some major holes in the narrative. My father suggests that it's because the story is so well known to Chinese audiences that they don't need the full plot, but, well, I do. I found this movie gorgeous, but very difficult to follow. As always with Wong Kar-Wai's films, I loved the aesthetic. Particularly of one of the female characters, who strongly calls to mind 1920s gangsters. And Tony Leung is still one of the most beautiful men alive. I had a vague sense that the movie delicately gestured towards the gradual decline of martial arts culture and its shift into cinema, but I'm not sure what gave me that idea. Overall, I liked the movie, but it's definitely flawed.

The Mole Song
I loved 13 Assassins and was terrified but impressed by Audition, so again, I was all aboard for this film, which was described as a comedic jaunt about an undercover cop. It's based on manga, and the early stretches prominently display this heritage, with cut-outs and freeze frames and such. But the constant yelling and over-the-top characters begin to grate after awhile, and the movie goes on WAY too long. It is genuinely moving at moments, and occasionally hilarious, but overall, not all that entertaining.

From the director who brought us Koyaanisqatsi, another series of images set to a Phillip Glass soundtrack. So, for starters, I'm just not wild about Phillip Glass. Watching this film, I felt like I finally understood why he is so often described as middle-brow.  As for the images: the first 45 minutes of the movie alternate between long takes of various people's faces and footage of buildings. As my friend Daniel described it, it presents a sort of challenge -- can you look at this and understand what is interesting about it? And indeed, the faces are kind of fascinating. Daniel pointed out that the long takes, luminous lighting (the entire film is in black and white), and stillness made one sort of teeter between the photographic and the cinematic gaze in somewhat interesting ways. The rest of the film (basically the second half) is mostly footage of swamps and trees, and some groups of people. Actually, the very final segment, droplets of ink in water, was my favorite -- I could have watched that for hours. Overall, the symbolic universe seemed a bit precious and simplistic -- human, gorilla, moon. You found yourself thinking that the film was perhaps willfully "artsy" and aiming for a profundity it could not achieve. I wouldn't really recommend it.

The Stuart Hall Project // I Am Divine

Somewhat randomly, I saw these two documentaries within a day of each other, and they formed an intriguing contrast. I Am Divine is in some ways a fairly typical bio-doc; we get the whole life narrative, from birth to death, with all the main players of Divine's life making an appearance and sharing some thoughts and feelings, and a pretty clear set of messages explaining who Divine was and what his contribution to the world was, generally speaking. And, of course, a fair amount of film footage and photographs of the man himself. The Stuart Hall Project is a much more impressionistic work: fittingly, for a man who argued that identity is "an endless, ever unfinished conversation," and that "I don't think any one thing will tell us any longer who we are," there is very little in the way of narrative. The movie is a collage of footage; tv appearances, home videos, photographs. Despite Hall's work on relational identity, and claim that part of who we are is how others see us, there are no talking heads. Instead, there is a wonderful musical accompaniment of Miles Davis albums. Hall explains, at one point, that "the moods of Miles Davis matched the evolution of my own feelings," and the film takes him at his word, going through Davis' albums one by one (and announcing each new album) as an implicit echo of the Hall material. The result is a wonderful sort of dialectic, where you feel that you understand both Hall and Davis better on some kind of emotional level. Still, you occasionally wish for something a bit more specific and clearly stated: at times, the entry-level requirement of knowledge, both of Stuart Hall and of 20th century history, seemed rather high.

Although I was glad that there were no talking heads in the Hall movie, scoffing that they rarely contribute much anyhow, I kind of loved the various people who spoke about Divine, mostly because some of them were such wonderful characters in their own right. Despite one unfortunate "he ate to fill a void" line, they actually weren't horribly cliché, and you did feel like you learned something about the man as a result. Still though, the best part of the film was obviously the footage: Divine was so completely amazing, it's still somewhat astonishing to see him on screen.

Overall, both very interesting and worthwhile films, about really important and wonderful human beings.

10 February 2014


It is always at least a little bit impressive to see Kristin Scott Thomas speak French -- although there are plenty of American movies where actors are using their second (third, fourth, who knows) language, there's something surprising about seeing it in a non-anglophone film. But the movie doesn't offer much else, aside from a few great sex scenes, and the always dazzling ability Thomas has to let her face be a conduit for flickering emotions. Thomas plays a woman who falls in love with a construction worker who is helping to renovate her home office. She wants a divorce from her husband, and he not only doesn't want to give her one, he does everything in his power to starve the lovers out -- so that she will come back to him. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't end well. 

The film mostly trucks in melodrama and cliche, without really developing the characters (surprisingly, it's the lover who is most realized psychologically, despite being highly unrealistic). The movie wants to be a daring take on forbidden love across class lines, but there's just not much to it. Utterly skippable.

08 February 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

I can't really make up my mind about this movie. It's definitely thought-provoking. I wouldn't be surprised if Leo finally gets his Oscar -- he does a great job. Though I will say, sure the guy has a baby face, but I'm sorry, 22 year olds don't have those kinds of lines on their foreheads. That distracted the hell out of me. But whatever. Jonah Hill is good, but the Oscar nomination is overdoing it, if you ask me. But to get to the point: during the intermission (ah, the joys of the cinema experience in Turkey!), my friend and I were remarking that the movie felt totally soul-less. We found ourselves not really caring what happened to the character -- would he get caught? Would he get away with it? Would his crazy drug-addled lifestyle have horrific consequences?

By the end of the movie, I'd decided that its sense of detachment is crucial to its success. If it had in any way pushed me towards a specific emotional reaction, be it sympathy or outrage, I would have bridled, but the flatness of the film allows you to passively take in the completely disgusting scenes before you with some measure of amusement and interest. You feel somehow insulated from it. And indeed, there are some completely hilarious moments (though also some very unpleasant ones, though they are typically seen from afar -- when Leo slaps his wife, for instance, you view the scene from the end of a hallway. You are literally distanced from it, and it makes a huge difference in its emotional impact.). Actually, it reminded me of the discussions about alcoholism in movies that were happening (well, maybe only on NPR) when Arthur came out, about how it used to be ok to have lovable, or at least comical, scenes of substance abuse in movies. For some reason, it is totally hilarious when DiCaprio is so bombed on 'ludes that he enters into what he calls "the palsy stage." This is again making me wish I'd posted about Flight, by the way, which has a similarly gleeful portrayal of drug abuse, though it balances it with an unbelievably heavy-handed (and deeply hypocritical) moralizing message.

Anyways, the real point of The Wolf of Wall Street is, of course, the debauched excesses of untrammeled Wall Street living. This is where the morality of the film is so bizarrely ambiguous. We never see the victims of the protagonist's frauds, and they're only briefly alluded to. On the other hand, it occasionally seems that perhaps we are meant to share his self-pity; a fairly offensive notion. It isn't entirely clear whether we are to be repulsed by the scenes of utter hedonism, or somewhat envious of them. Is the take-away point here that the problem with Wall Street schemes is that they don't even make the perpetrators happy? Because the film is largely lacking in any sense of social responsibility.

But of course, maybe that's what the audience is meant to provide. In this regard, what I find perhaps most intriguing about the film is the way in which it is aggressively dated in the past. Occasionally we get scenes of tv footage, for instance, and it is so grainy and obviously outmoded, that you're jarred into remembering that this is not happening in the present. What really drives this effect home is the soundtrack, which is insistently grounded in the 90s, to an almost surreal extent. People dance to Baby's Got Back at a wedding; the Lemonheads' cover of Mrs Robinson plays at one point, and in the most climactic example, a scene on the yacht is set to a Foo Fighters track. Yes, it's thematically appropriate ("gotta promise not to stop when I say when"), but it's also rather charmingly dated. Now, you ask yourself, why on earth would a film that is so clearly timely and related to the present moment of backlash against Wall Street and luxury living* so relentlessly remind you that it is NOT talking about the present? My theory is: because it really isn't. What this movie quietly wants you to realize, I suggest, is that it is obsolete. What looks like outrageous excess and absurd amounts of money is simply laughable in comparison to the kinds of profits those types of people are making nowadays. Although Leo's world looks like another planet to us, one of unimaginable, unfathomable extravagance, it is but the tip of the iceberg. We literally cannot imagine the opulence and astonishing greed and power of comparable characters in our own time.

Or maybe I'm giving the movie too much credit. Maybe I'm projecting all my thinking about income inequality and cinematic glorification of opulence onto this film, and it's much less interesting than I think. Maybe its emotional flatness is a failure rather than an intentional decision. At three hours, it definitely feels self-indulgent, though on the other hand, I'm not sure that I'd know what, if anything, to cut. Whenever you start to think, ok, I see where this is going, some new dynamic emerges; the film makes an odd move in a totally unexpected direction, illuminating some entirely different aspect of the interactions between the characters. It's actually quite remarkable. So in the grand scheme of things, yes it's worth seeing, and on the big screen, for the full effect. I think you need total immersion in this world in order to suspend your sense of repulsion -- not entirely; just enough to sit through the damn thing.

*On a sidenote, I was really intrigued by all the anger at the Maserati commercial during the Superbowl (most obvious example, that is maybe cheating as far as making the point because it's so half-assed). Because as far as I can tell, the critique isn't so much about the commercial itself, as about the fact that they had the nerve to air a commercial for a luxury car that 99% of the audience could not afford. And to top it off, they didn't make it look like the typical commercial for an absurdly luxurious item: the galling thing, it seems, is that they made it look just like any other commercial. Even worse, they used an aesthetic pulled directly from a popular film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) about poor people. If you're going to advertise luxury cars -- and you probably shouldn't, during the Super Bowl, seems to be the sentiment, at least not if they're that luxurious -- then at least have the decency to let us know from the jump that you're telling us about something we can never have! You jerks! What?

06 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The curious thing about this movie is that it's structured like a short story: it begins in media res, and ends without any sort of resolution. There is some gesturing towards a potential development, but it's open-ended: this could be a climactic shift, or it could be just another thing in a series. Actually, I just realized -- (and I think it doesn't give anything away to say that) the movie's final scene actually strongly reinforces an anti-developmental plot. The final words are literally about recurrence and return; although it verges on heavy-handed, it's actually kind of clever. Anyways, point being, most of the sub-plots (and mysteries) the film develops are left in process, nor do we ever learn how they started.  It's kind of refreshing.

The movie depicts a few chaotic and adventure-filled days in the life of a struggling musician, evoking a thick tangle of struggles and disasters. The film treads lightly on the question of "selling out," and gives it some pleasing nuance (Llewyn may be revolted by the idea of joining a trio just to make a living, but when asked to play for a group of friends he angrily protests that this is his living, not something he does for free). Being on the academic job market myself, I couldn't help but relate to the underlying questions of career versus vocation, and the trials of a talented man who just can't seem to make it.

The movie is also, subtly, a musical. Each one of the performances does major work in developing the characters and moving the story along. And, it's worth mentioning: they are really, really wonderful. I was surprised to learn that the actors actually did the singing. Of course you recognize Justin Timberlake's voice, but I had no idea that Carey Mulligan had such singing chops (I vaguely remember her performance in Shame, but it didn't leave that strong an impression).

It's also a great cast. It's just fun to see those specific people gathered together. Two of the guys from Girls (especially funny, given this piece pointing out the double-standard in receptions of Dunham's character vs this movie's protagonist), Timberlake, John Goodman (who was surprisingly restrained, especially in contrast to his recent turn in Flight -- did I seriously not post about that movie? I had SO many things to say about it! Weird.), Garrett Hedlund, who I have a weird fondness for, etc. But the real star of the film, for me at least, was an orange tabby cat (variously played by a few different cats, as it turns out from the wiki entry). The opening segment, where the cat watches the city go by outside the subway window, is up there with Woody Allen's best in terms of homages to New York.

It definitely doesn't have the humor or the verve of other Coen brothers movies, but it's an interesting film.