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Thursday, December 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Hello and welcome back to the blog! (Said mostly for myself) It's been a long three months since I posted something on this site, and what a coincidence, it's been three months since I started my job. It's amazing what a job and a commute to go with it will do to your free-time and your eagerness to share opinions with strangers.

But, despite a currently, and hopefully continually, out of date title, the blog might as well go on. I've recently started up a Netflix account again and try to read on the bus, so it's just a matter of finding the requisite time and energy to put my thoughts down in this space.

It's been too long a break to go back and let you know what I've been reading/watching, but quickly: Mad Men is pretty much what it's cracked up to be. Lolita was great but would've been even better if the stupid annotations (not Nabokov's) hadn't ruined the suspense. John Irving's latest novel Last Night in Twisted River was an appealing look at how fiction writers blend autobiography and creativity. Wes Anderson is a pretty damn good director, and Royal Tenenbaums might be the best Gene Hackman performance I've ever seen. Children of Men the book took a great idea and ran it right into the ground, where Alfonso Cuaron picked it up and turned it into one of the best movies of the decade.

There's more, but let's get on to the principal review:

(500) Days of Summer is not a movie driven by plot. The story is really your standard developing relationship story propped by a number of amusing gimmicks such as playing with the timeline and self-conciously shattering the illusion that what you're seeing on screen is something that is really happening. Rather, the movie is sustained by its knowledge of human emotions and vulnerabilities. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom is an Everyman, who finds what he believes is a singular woman, Zooey Deschanel's Summer Finn, and is alternately driven to ecstasy and despair by her seemingly inconsistent position on their relationship and love in general.

The movie gets so many things right about the inherent awkwardness of any relationship between two people, each of whom have their own goals, motivations, and ideas of what their relationship should be. Summer wants to keep their relationship fun and avoid any semblance of a serious relationship, while Tom is so entranced by this girl that he figures it must be heading that way no matter what she has to say about it.

There's a scene in a bar, when Tom and Summer's relationship is already deteriorating, when a creep starts hitting on Summer and, once rejected, begins mocking Tom along the lines of "this guy's your boyfriend?" After Tom punches the guy (and gets knocked out in return) he tries to tell Summer that he did it for her, but the truth is obvious: he was upset that Summer wouldn't use the word "boyfriend" to describe him.

The supporting cast is truly secondary in this two-person show, but Tom's two best friends are there for some comic relief, as is his spunky, romance-wise tween sister, an allowable cliche who provides Tom with maybe the best advice any liberal arts grad could ever be given. When Tom tells his sister how he and Summer both love The Smiths and J.D. Salinger's story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", she says, "Just because a girl loves the same bizarro crap that you do doesn't mean she's the one." Really, I think that should be the tagline for the movie, and maybe engraved on marble somewhere for large numbers of people to see.

Some critics complained about Summer's "underdeveloped" personality, but I think that misses the point. By the end of the movie it's clear that Tom never really had any idea who Summer was or what she was thinking or feeling. He took one look at her and said "dreamgirl" and never went deeper than that. This is something the movie claims is universal: a very funny bit shows Summer improving record sales by quoting a song in her yearbook and causing immense profits at the ice cream parlor where she worked. Deschanel is thus perfectly cast, she is either extremely adept at playing, to quote The Sound of Music, "an empty page, which men will want to write on" or she has no personality whatsoever, and was genetically designed to give hipster doofuses and English majors heart palpitations.

I've read many complaints about the ending of the movie, but as I was watching it the ending that occurs seemed like the only possible way to end the movie. I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say that the ending is neither as saccharine sweet nor as much of a cop-out as its detractors seem to think. It seems to this observer that the film ends by stating the relatively simple premise that relationships begin and end, begin and end many times, and some times they suck and sometimes only one person thinks they suck and that, well, sucks for the other person, but there's really only one thing you can do, isn't there? (Short of the movie turning much darker than it was intended to be, of course.)

(500) Days of Summer is something that you don't seem to find much these days, a romantic comedy that attempts to appeal to both men and women and that deals with relationships in a way that normal human beings might actually recognize from their daily lives. That alone makes it a refreshing departure from a tired genre. On top of that it includes two fine performances at its center, some witty gadgets and gimmicks (my favorite being a split-screen between Tom's expectations of what will happen at a party and what really happens), a few musical numbers, and the chance to look at Zooey Deschanel for 90 minutes. For all that it gets 8.8 out of 10.

Next? Well, I've got Inglourious Basterds at home, and I'm reading another Michael Chabon book, Gentlemen of the Road.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ABC Wednesday

I feel a little guilty for having watched two hours of ABC programming last night, and not just because a quarter of that time was spent viewing something called "Cougar Town". When ABC made the decision to cancel Pushing Daisies I realized that it meant I would have no reason to turn on the channel for the foreseeable future. (I've never gotten into LOST and besides that, tell me exactly when a reasonable male would turn on the network that depends on Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives for its few ratings successes?)

But I never formally launched a boycott, because I'm emotionally mature enough (just enough) to know that such a course of action would have no practical impact. And so when I heard all the advance buzz for Modern Family I decided to give ABC another shot at taking over my Wednesday nights. And then due to inertia I wound up watching Cougar Town and Eastwick as well. Some thoughts:

Modern Family showed great promise. The show follows three branches of a "modern American family" whatever that is. Ed O'Neill is the patriarch Jay Pritchett, and is newly married to a much younger Colombian woman. She's played by Sofia Vergara with a little bit hackneyed Latina fire, but she delivers some of the best lines, and it's more than possible that her character is intended as a parody more than a cliche. Jay's daughter Claire (played by Julie Bowen of "Ed" fame)is part of a supposedly more typical family, married for 16 years and with three kids. Her husband Phil is trying too hard to be cool, and she worries that her daughters will make the same mistakes she did. Speaking of the older daughter she says, "If she never wakes up half-naked on a beach in Florida, I'll have done my job."

The third branch is a gay couple who at episode's open are returning from Vietnam with an adopted baby in tow, a baby Mitchell Pritchett has yet to tell the rest of his family about. I was impressed with the way Modern Family treated its gay characters. There wasn't as much boosterism or kid-gloves treatment of them. In fact the only political moment arises when Mitchell launches into a speech about the many shapes of love after a woman says "look at that baby with those cream puffs" (the baby was actually holding cream puffs.)

Modern Family seems to be a reaction to years of rigid family archetypes on television. With it's broad cast of characters it makes the point that families encompass a lot more than just a Mom, a Dad, and two or three kids. I'm curious how it will handle it's large ensemble in future episodes.

The best part of Modern Family may have been the children. Jay's stepson Manny a prematurely passionate boy who is in love with a 16-year old mall kiosk worker. He is constantly picking flowers and writing love poems, to Jay's consternation and his mother's delight. Of his rejection, Manny says, "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a drawing of myself as an Old West sheriff." Phil and Claire's children are very funny as well, especially the easily exasperated middle daughter, who delights in wondering what the family would do if her older sister got pregnant. ("Would you pretend she has mono and hold her out of school for a few months, and then claim the baby was yours?")

I highly recommend giving Modern Family a chance. Comparisons to Arrested Development are perhaps overblown and based more on the single-camera style than objective reality but this is a worthwhile attempt at reimagining the family sitcom.

Cougar Town is a watchable sitcom, and if you watch Modern Family you're kind of stuck since everything else from 9-10 are hour long shows. (This assumes other options, like reading or something, are out of the question.) Courteney Cox is a game comedienne, willing to go pretty far for a laugh. She gets quite a few in the pilot, but the premise of this show seems so thin that it's hard to imagine it lasting. The show is also fairly vulgar, with clear implications of fellatio and other sex acts. This wouldn't be so potentially disturbing except for the candid discussions between Cox's character and her teenage son, who is tortured by having a hot Mom out on the prowl. The show is better than its atrocious title, but not by much.

Eastwick is kind of a mess. It feels a lot like a lot of other shows, only worse. It's a little bit Charmed, mixed with the female bonhomie of something like Sex and the City. It's based on the movie The Witches of Eastwick, from the John Updike book of the same name, and centers on three women granted magical powers through the intervention of a mysterious male benefactor. I'm not usually one to criticize entertainment on a political basis, but the sexual politics of this show are just absurdly inaccurate and presumably offensive to any thinking woman. The idea that women can only fully realize their potential by becoming more like men is disturbing and just plain wrong. The performances of the three main leads range all the way from pedestrian to middling, and the writing is pretty terrible in places. (One character's evil husband is cartoonish, and a scene where a previously kind boyfriend turns rapist within 90 seconds means this show officially hates men and women alike.)

This is not an original thought, but Eastwick really does feel like something that even the executives at the CW would pass on. The three female leads are pretty to look at, but that's about all this show offers.

So, ABC, you're going to get my eyeballs for about half-an-hour to an hour a week again (depending on my level of lethargy.) Sorry, but I don't have a Nielsen box.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo is a novelist with a immense knowledge of people. His fictional characters come equipped with the resentments, entanglements, unwanted obligations and tortured memories of real human beings. This gift for creating round characters is how Russo is able to create such memorable fiction out of the lives of ordinary men and women. He gets at the universal nature of unhappiness and portrays with stunning insight and sympathy.

Russo's newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, utilizes this knowledge of human folly further than any of his other works. There is also a greater sense of bitterness and sorrow than ever before. At times That Old Cape Magic feels like its holding up a mirror to all the ugliness in the reader's soul. Everyone can recognize themselves in Russo's Jack Griffin, a married man who often knows he is about to say the wrong thing and says it anyway, sometimes intending to inflict the damage he causes.

The novel breaks neatly into two sections, each surrounding a wedding. In between the two Jack and his wife of thirty years separate, and both show up to their daughter's wedding with dates. Russo somberly traces the dissolution of their marriage, as they fail to deal with the emotional problems facing them and instead lash out at each other.

As always, family, especially parents, play a huge role in the tension. Jack hates his parents, snobbish English professors consigned to mediocrity in the "Mid-fucking-west" with their only escape a yearly vacation to Cape Cod, even though he is more like them than he cares to admit. The way Jack most resembles his parents is in his petty dislike of his wife's family and their Protestant values.

Russo's command of the story is as impressive as always, and the number of characters and memorable set pieces he manages to include is rather amazing considering the books brevity and breeziness. Despite being at times rather uncomfortable to read, a trainwreck on paper, if you will, That Old Cape Magic is, in its own way, an enjoyable read.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Politics in the Novel

There are many reasons to write a novel. Among the worst are to prove a point or settle a score. Philip Roth tries to do both with I Married A Communist, a lengthy, invective-loaded tirade published under the guise of a novel.

I Married A Communist takes place during the peak of the McCarthy era, and concerns itself primarily with the treacherous, life-ruining betrayals of that time. This is not exactly new territory. American writers have been beating this time-period and its ills to death since the immediate aftermath of the hearings and blacklists. Some of these efforts are intelligent rebuttals to a time of madness, but Roth seems to be using the era as an excuse to proudly exclaim his own radicalism and to slander his ex-wife.

The story centers on radio actor Ira Ringold (Iron Rinn to his fans) and his openly secret allegiance to Marxian economics. Roth's narrator/alterego is the reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who is talking over the tragedy of Ira Ringold with Ira's brother and Nathan's former teacher Murray, over forty years later. This frame-story device has a distancing effect and causes the story to meander and drag needlessly. There is less focus on events and chronology than there should be. Also, the age of the two interlocutors causes the reader to find their perfect memories of names, dates, and even whole conversations incredulous.

Ira Ringold is a surprisingly one-note character. Roth is rightly regarded as an American master, but here he supplies his protagonist with little more than an overgrown child's sense of fairness and geopolitics. Ira's political rants are so repetitive that the reader loses the capacity to feel sympathy for him.

The novel follows Ira's story as he marries Eve Frame, an American actress on the downside of her career, and navigates the increasingly conspicuous relationship between his wife and her daughter. This is where the novel starts to run off the rails of literary work and into the territory of personal vendetta. At the time of this novel's publication Roth had just endured his own divorce, followed by his ex-wife's tell-all in which she described him as a petty tyrant and a vindictive psychopath. In the novel, Ira's life is ruined by a dishonest tell-all memoir written by his wife. Roth makes Eve a pathetic cartoon of self-loathing, anti-Semitism, and unrequited mother love that it is hard to keep reading passage after passage of his obvious contempt for the character representing his own former wife.

The idea of Roth, one of the foremost authors of our time, writing about an incredibly interesting, if over-covered, period of American history, was a thrilling prospect. It is indeed unfortunate that his personal troubles and need to prove himself right got in the way of what could have been an interesting novel.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

My father has a history major's appreciation of chronology. This extends even into his reading in fiction. He does not like to read novels out of order, whether or not the books are serial or not. After reading Michael Chabon's first novel, written as his MFA thesis and published when the author was 24 years old, I have realized the true wisdom of my father's seemingly capricious stance.

Great first novels are so mythologized, i.e. To Kill A Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, that it can often be forgotten that authors, like other professionals, can and do get better with experience. This certainly hold true with Chabon, whose other novels, even Wonder Boys, which I disliked, far outpace The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in terms of plotting, complexity and character development.

There is, naturally, ample evidence of the author's talent on display. Chabon writes sentences with apparent effortless grace, an enviable ability. He has a talent for creating memorable moments and distinguishing features. And if one makes allowances for age and inexperience the novel can truly be said to be almost annoyingly well-written.

Still there is a lot wanting in this story of one summer in the life of a gangster's son, a summer spent carousing, and sleeping with, an unsavory assortment of delinquents and airily artificial college graduates. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is that this assortment of partners includes members of both genders. Here Chabon seems to go astray, narrator Art Bechstein's vacillation between women and men never seems either authentic or sympathetic, but then I've never been sympathetic to literary characters who intentionally subvert their romantic relationships, especially to female characters as appealing as Phlox, the French major and film-buff Bechstein deserts.

I wonder especially what gay readers of the novel think of Chabon's treatment in this novel. Bechstein's male lover Arthur Lecomte comes across as a sort of homosexual Svengali, manipulating our hero into wayward sex. In a somewhat bold authorial move Chabon has Phlox, a more or less sympathetic character, display a pathological homophobia. It is my understanding that Chabon had at this age already been romantically involved with both men and women, so the lack of authenticity I perceived is surprising, unless I am just so unfamiliar as to be unable to be perceptive.

Chabon raises some interesting possibilities with the intriguing backstory of Bechstein's family life. His father is a money-man for the mafia and his mother was assassinated in message killing, and her death seems to haunt the sensitive, lachrymose Bechstein, but Chabon denies, whether through intent or lack of developed skill, his readers any moment of revelation or insight. The novel's down-note ending leaves the reader unssatisfied and curiously unmoved by the plight of the main characters.

If you've read and enjoyed other novels by Michael Chabon, including the wonderful Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, perhaps you would be better off consigning The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to the bin of rough drafts or promising debuts. As a novel to be read it is unsatisfactory.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The End of the Affair

The problem with having a reputation as a Catholic novelist is that inevitably your novels will be judged on a basis greater than literary. Whether or not the story works or holds together takes a back seat to whether the novel presents an appealing and workable version of Catholicism. Catholic readers want their faith upheld for its virtues while religious skeptics may be looking for the author to make the case for the existence of God.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is considered a classic of Catholic literature, but for the life of me I don't understand why. This may be a personal shortcoming but to me the version of religious belief presented by Greene is a scary and false perversion of what Christianity should be.

The End of the Affair centers on a love triangle, which becomes a square when God enters the picture. Novelist Maurice Bendrix has a passionate affair with Sarah, who is married to Henry Miles. Henry's stodginess and prudishness drive Sarah to Maurice's arms, and she loves him despite his jealous nature. During a bombing (the setting is WWII London) Maurice is trapped under rubble and Sarah, thinking him dead, prays to God, promising to leave Maurice if God will let him live.

Of course, Maurice isn't dead and is perplexed when Sarah leaves him with no explanation. Convinced there is another man, he hires a detective to follow Sarah, eventually learning of her pledge when the private eye steals her diary.

The novel then follows Maurice's attempts to get Sarah back, and her refusals due to her new-found religious belief.

As a story the novel is slightly above average. Greene is good at establishing characters, and though the plot is thin even for such a short novel it is well-constructed.

But as a work of Catholicism is inherently flawed. Sarah's reason for believing, despite the fact that she desperately wants Maurice back, is a shallow and insupportable faith. The novel establishes the shallowness as a virtue in the last few pages, when several inexplicable miracles occur, ostensibly due to Sarah's belief in God.

I don't feel like getting into it, but this kind of thing upsets me, and I believe that it should upset thinking Catholics as well. It's tough to grade the novel, as it's not clear to me whether or not Greene intended his book to be representative of a true Catholicism or whether that has just been ascribed to him. Overall, I'm just having trouble imagining who I would recommend this book to.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Redux)

When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was in its initial run on ABC it quickly became a family ritual in the Everett household. I remember watching it down in my Nana's room with her and my father, even when it was on four nights a week and fewer and fewer people were tuning in. I remember my father dialing in to try and get a spot at an audition. I remember my father being upset that the first million-dollar winner did so on what he considered a remarkably easy question. (Who wouldn't know that Richard Nixon did Laugh-In? he complained.) The show was something I always enjoyed, and those nights watching the show have a special place in my memory.

I watch the syndicated version of Millionaire occasionally (I am unemployed, after all.) But it's just not the same. Meredith Viera isn't half the host Regis was, and no one has won the big prize in quite a while. So I was ecstatic when I heard a few months ago that Regis was coming back for a limited run in prime-time.

However the 10th Anniversary Edition premiered Sunday night to such little fanfare that I forget to watch it. Back during the show's original run, this was something that never happened. Disappointed with myself, I made sure to watch the second night of the limited run, and it is with heavy heart that I report that this revival is a pretty sad affair.

For one thing, they are using the inferior daytime version's new rules, and that is clearly confusing Regis, and who can blame him? He's 78 and hasn't done this in ten years, and on top of all that you're going to switch all the rules around? Last night on a $100 question Regis clearly forget that the contestant is on a clock. He started chatting and laughing during the question, using up almost the whole 15 seconds. The contestant didn't realize the clock had started and she only barely got out her answer.

That incident clearly shook Regis, and for the rest of the show he was speeding through the questions and answers until he was nearly unintelligible. Now, I hate it when Meredith talks to the contestants on the syndicated version, but that's because she's a terrible host and the contestants, who don't have to answer a fastest-finger, are generally dumber than the general population. Regis is, or at least was, a great game-show host, and it used to be fun to watch him gently mock contestants while they thought out their answers.

The worst part of the show was the arbitrary shoe-horning of celebrities into the telecast. Last night at 7:46 central, a contestant had just won $25,000. This is when the show generally gets really interesting, but no, tonight this contestant was shuffled off until the next broadcast so that ABC could promote Ugly Betty by bringing out Vanessa Williams to play for charity. Then they went to a six-minute commercial break (seriously, six minutes) and gave Vanessa one question to answer, for $50,000 to give to her charity, guaranteeing her $25,000 even if she missed. The worst part is that they didn't put a clock on Vanessa, who tried to think out a question that she didn't know (and which could not possibly be "thought out") for the rest of the show before miraculously picking the right answer. It was unexciting, awful television.

Tonight the celebrity guest is Sherri Shepherd of The View, who once admitted to a national television audience that she wasn't sure whether the world is flat or not. Thanks for crapping on my memories ABC.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moving Along

No picture because the google image search for Freehold, New Jersey is even worse than I thought it would be.

That's right, it's time for me to get out of the big city and go home with my non-existent tail between my legs. The occasion for my departure? Well, this isn't quite as bad as the last time. I actually have a few job interviews scheduled in New York during the last half of August, so hopefully something will work out. Most of these are for internships, but they are in publishing, which is what I want to do, so there's that, at least.

My flight leaves next Monday, the 17th, which is absurdly soon, but luckily I don't exactly have a lot to do or finish up before I leave Chicago. I actually have one interview here before I go, so I suppose it's not impossible that I will be back before long, but if I had a choice in the matter, which is certainly not guaranteed or even likely given my track record, I'd like to get one of the New York opportunities. It's a better place to get into publishing.

So if you're in Chicago over the next week give me a call because I don't know when I'll be back this way again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Downtown Owl

I am going to try to write a review of Chuck Klosterman's debut novel "Downtown Owl" without sounding like a snob. I am going to fail, but it's worth the attempt.

Downtown Owl is set in the fictional small-town of Owl, North Dakota during the winter of 1983-1984 and the book interweaves the unconnected and seemingly unconnectable stories of three of its residents. Fifteen-year-old Mitch struggles to read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for his football coach's English class and can't understand why his friends like Van Halen and ZZ Top so much. Twenty-four-year-old Julia (Jules to her friends) is starting to like being the only passably attractive single girl in town, if only for the free drinks. The novel's third main character, seventy-three-year-old Horace, spends his time divided between a lonely house filled with thoughts of the wife he loved but does not miss and the Cafe where he gets his coffee and conversation with older elderly farmers.

Klosterman is an entertaining writer, and he creates a lot of funny situations and side characters. However he doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from going too far, whether it's making his character's life-stories too inconceivable, their nicknames too complex, or their personal philosophies too ripe for mockery.

He also doesn't do enough to distant himself from the type of writing he's most famous for. Granted, there are times when references to popular music or culture can be constructive in a work of fiction, but too frequently that is not the case here. It is off-putting to read Klosterman get inside a character's head but then break the spell, so to speak, because he just has to name drop a record that even within the body of the text is something he admits the character would be unfamiliar.

What Klosterman does best is explore the inherent uncertainty of human interaction, often in meta-fictional or inventive sections of the text. At one point he writes the dialogue between Julia and a man she is falling for (and who has fallen for her, though neither of them have any idea about the other) twice, once is the 'actual' conversation, the other is what each was really trying to say.

There is a lot that Klosterman gets about writing a novel. His characters are distinct and well-developed, and his sense of place (obviously crucial to a novel like this) is excellent. Near the end of the novel he even showcases the ability to create dramatic tension, something that had been decidedly lacking for the first nine-tenths of the book. The conclusion was unexpectedly gripping, but it leaves the reader hollow in the aftermath. It feels almost like a cheat, well-written though it may be. Klosterman may be able to create interesting characters and write with an admirable verve, but it is far from proven that he knows what to do with any of it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Free Speech and Demonstrations

This is not an essay on the righteousness of a particular health care plan. I am afraid that I must admit that the intricacies of public policy are rather beyond my expertise. (This puts me in dubious company, as I'm not sure how many of our representatives understand it either.)

Rather, I'd like to take the time to address the protests currently going on around the country. It being August, and congressmen apparently being only slightly better than schoolchildren, our representatives are using their summer vacation to pound the pavement in support or opposition to the President's agenda. At many of the town halls organized to discuss healthcare reform throngs of angry protesters have waved signs, shouted slogans and tried their best to disrupt the proceedings. Liberal members of the media and the blogosphere have done their best to discredit these demonstrators, highlighting their alleged corporate backing and their self-interest in ensuring that the status quo remains unchanged. These charges have been parried by conservatives cheering the protests as demonstrating free speech and every American's right to advocate for their position.

Both sides are, as usual, being disingenuous. Many of the liberals who are criticizing right-wingers for painting Hitler mustaches on Obama signs are the same people who never managed to summon the nerve to chastise their own for the repeated Bush-Hitler comparisons. Meanwhile, the Glenn Beck types at Fox et al are the same people who denounced college students for shouting down Ann Coulter and David Horowitz at scheduled lectures.

There's a million-dollar question at the heart of all this, and that's really the one that I want to ask, even though I don't know the answer, or even if there is an answer. Does free speech extend to the right to shout down somebody else?

Before you answer, take the current context out of it. If you want healthcare reform you probably don't like the protesters very much. If you think Obama is a reckless spender than you probably support them. But what if your pet cause was being shouted down by an angry throng? Or, what if something you thought was pure evil was being advocated in public?

A lot of people would say that it depends, which is a less honest way of saying they have no idea. Well, I have no idea.

One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the scene in which the patrons at Rick's Cafe Americain sing "Le Marseillaise" to drown out the Germans "Die Wacht am Rhein". It's a stirring moment where an oppressed group takes on evil fearlessly and wins.

But look at that painting above. If you don't recognize it, it's one of Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms paintings, based on the speech by FDR. The title, of course, is freedom of speech. The man in the painting is rising at a town hall meeting to say his piece. From his body language it seems possible to infer that he has a strong opinion on the subject, and going further, that his opinion may be in the minority. But the people around him are sitting quietly and letting him have his say.

It may be that there are times which call for us to break the code of decorum and drown out evil with our voices. It may be that there are things worthy of such behavior, but surely they are few and far between. Can't we try, the rest of the time, to live up to the ideal expressed in that painting? As I said before I don't know much about the various healthcare plans that are being bandied about on Capitol Hill, but surely there is no deliberate malignancy in any of them.

If you don't like Obama's healthcare plan and want to express your opinion publicly, I applaud you for being engaged with the issues, but please, wait your turn, state your case, and then sit down and let the next person say theirs. It's the patriotic thing to do.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Risk Pool

Richard Russo's second novel at times reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction. That's a testament to how wonderfully complex and life-like Russo's characters are. Russo tells the story of his narrator from the first person, and so well that you can forget that there is an author directing the scene.

The narrator, Ned Hall, has the type of dysfunctional family life that must appeal to modern readers, if the non-fiction bestseller lists are any indication. His parents are separated because his father is an immature and irresponsible man-about-town. But Sam Hall takes offense, and spends years bothering Ned's mother, eventually leading her to have a nervous breakdown. With nowhere else to go Ned moves in to his father's apartment, which just happens to be across the street from his father's favorite bar.

The bulk of the novel deals with Ned's relationship with his father as he begins to grow fond of the man despite his mother's warnings and the man's own atrocious behavior. Russo masterfully depicts the underlying charm of Sam Hall, and gradually the reader understands why the man has made so many friends and earned the love of his son.

Like any Russo novel there are dozens of supporting characters of varying importance but all are drawn in a life-like manner no matter how quickly. In The Risk Pool these include a disillusioned heiress and Ned's first love, Sam's waitress girfriend and her son, a muscle-bound proto-Marxist out to harm the town's wealthy few, and a love-struck lawyer intent on marrying Ned's mother as soon as he can get her far enough away from Sam. There are also an innumerable quantity of drinking buddies, and in passages in the town bars Russo shows his uncanny ability to mimic the speech patterns of drunks worldwide, the boastfulness, the crudity, and the fear to be anywhere near their wives. Russo is able to introduce a character's personality through dialogue or habits unlike any writer I've read besides (and this is one of those comparisons that people don't believe, but it's true) Charles Dickens.

Plot takes a slight backseat in every Russo novel I've read (this is my fifth, not including a book of short stories.) The focus is so strongly on the characters and you get the sense that Russo would rather just let you roam around in their world for awhile. But things have to happen, and Russo ably creates memorable set-pieces, including quite a few automobile accidents (the title comes from the fact that Sam Hall can only buy insurance from the risk pool due to his many accidents) and a few bar-fights, especially between Sam and his girlfriend's son.

The Risk Pool is a genuinely funny novel which movingly explores family relationships in an understanding and sympathetic way. It is nothing more than a happy coincidence that I happen to finish this novel just as a new Russo novel is released, but I am pleased that I am not any closer to being finished with his body of work than I was when I started this book. I hope he keeps writing books, because I plan to keep reading them, and I won't like when there aren't any more to pick up.

Next? I'm not going to dive into Russo's new one just yet. I've got Downtown Owl by culture-critic Chuck Klosterman and Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien both sitting on my shelf.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remakes (Sorry Duarte)

Rather surprisingly, I got into it a bit today via Twitter with my good friend and loyal reader Jose Duarte. My friend took exemption to my admittedly curmudgeonly disgust at the news of Steven Spielberg's planned Harvey remake. The discussion provoked a well-mannered argument over the Hollywood remake in general, its necessity, its value, its possible status as an eighth deadly sin. That discussion continued in a private chat, but I'd like to state my position clearly in an open forum, to let you all know that my displeasure at the news of this and nearly every remake is more than just some cantankerous manifestation of my latent elderly persona loosed upon anyone who cares to listen.

I believe that in a perfect world, which will never exist, there would be no need for movie remakes nor any desire to produce them. In a perfect world everyone would see them as a waste of time. This would be because in the perfect world of my envisioning people would have a greater respect for film older than they are, and would not need someone to come along and remake them in order for them to be palatable.

I believe that movies should tell stories, and tell it well. That's what I think books should do too, the only differences I see between the two are incidental to their mediums. Books have the advantages of length and depth, but movies are admittedly a more sensory experience. My preference for books to movies is an individual preference and not the result of any philosophy.

The point is that remakes are simply retelling old stories, and doing so in a generally poorer and less fulfilling manner. I don't care who Spielberg casts or who he hires to write his remake, it can't be better than the original Harvey. For one thing, the mere fact that it came first gives the Jimmy Stewart version a nearly insurmountable edge. The fact that it stars Jimmy Stewart makes it a sure thing.

Okay, so a decent to bad movie comes out and it's got the same name and general story line as a classic. Who cares, right? No one's forcing you to go see it, so why can't you just let it go?

The short answer is that I could, maybe. But there are things about this incessant need to remake things that worry me. For one thing, there is the fact that a new version of a movie means that many people are much less likely to ever see the original. (I understand that some people may reach out and see it, like I did with the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) The product of this is that over time the remake becomes the more well-known version, it gets shown on TV a year after its release, runs about 3000 times on the various HBO stations for a month and no one ever sees the old one again. This has happened to a lot of films, the foremost example in my head being The Bad News Bears. The awful and clearly unnecessary Billy Bob Thornton version is shown all the time while the '70s classic, which I remember watching on TBS multiple times as a kid, is never on.

The second thing is that while no one can make me go see a remake, the sad truth is that there is only so much money, talent, and time in the world, and every remake is taking the spot of what could be an original film getting made. As a society we need to tell stories, and the disturbing lack of care in ensuring that new stories get told is upsetting to me. When half the movies that get made these days are either sequels or prequels or reboots or remakes then we are really crowding out a lot of material. We are shutting off possibilities to the point that I truly believe that this generation will have less to pass on in terms of meaningful and celebrated achievement in film than our preceding generations.

You can argue that I'm taking this far too seriously, which I may be, and you can tell me that in the old days of Hollywood they remade movies all the time, which is true, with the mitigating factor that they didn't have TV or VHS or DVD to keep old movies alive in people's homes. What does it say about us that we have an unprecedented ability to preserve the best efforts of previous generations, and instead we relegate them to the dustbins, eschewing them just because they aren't in color, or seem "dated"? Of course they're dated! They were made at an earlier date! That doesn't mean that they don't have anything to tell us, in fact it might just mean the opposite.

Alright, I'm done old-man ranting. Just know this, whenever someone tells me that they can't watch a movie in black and white, I immediately move them down three circles on my nine circles of judgment.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


William Kennedy's Ironweed, Pulitzer Prize winner for 1983, is a novel that has been growing on me ever since I finished it the other day. As I was reading it, I didn't think all that much of this thin, rather spare novel. But in the days since I have developed something akin to a fondness for this little book, and I'm trying to figure out why.

One thing I really like about the book, and liked from the start, was that it had a definite sense of both time and place. Ironweed is set in Albany, in 1938, and deals with the memories of Francis Phelan, an ex-baseball player and current bum. Kennedy captures both Phelan's current life as a man who would likely be a bum even without the Depression and also the early twentieth century life that brought him to his degradation. Francis has lead a deadly and death-filled life, as a labor protester who caused the death of a scab, as a violent drunk who killed a fellow vagrant in a fight, and as a negligent father who dropped his infant son and caused his death. Throughout the novel these and other dead men appear to Francis and confront him. This was an authorial device I didn't take to right away, but as the novel went along these interludes made more sense and seemed to humanize Francis in a crucial way.

Kennedy does run into a problem of excess, an odd problem for such a short novel, but a problem nonetheless. Occasionally, and too infrequently not to be jarring, Kennedy will break into the narrative and seem to be talking to the audience directly. It's like he's shouting at you to pay attention because he really likes these sentences more than the others, and it's a rather unnecessary and regrettable choice.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Ironweed is something I wasn't really aware of until after I had finished it. During the novel there are several promising plotlines that are seemingly abandoned, including a juicy bit about Francis' son Billy being involved in a kidnapping. It seems almost unconscionable that Kennedy would leave these avenues unexplored, but it turns out that Kennedy has written other novels with these characters.

This is something I wish authors would do more often. I love when authors use the same characters throughout their works. Faulkner did it often with the prominent families of Yoknapatopha County and Salinger did it with the Glass Family. It really allows for greater development of characters. Kennedy's Albany Cycle (the name given to all his novels about these characters) apparently stretches back to the Civil War and includes novels about several characters only briefly mentioned in Ironweed.

Ironweed paints a disturbing account of what's its like to be hopeless and downtrodden without being able or willing to change it. It's also about the unbelievable will to go on living a life that is full of humiliation and despair. It is above all, a novel that will stick with you.

Next? Well, as much as I'd like to read Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (the novel which explores the kidnapping) I've already started on Richard Russo's The Risk Pool.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Next Ann Landers

I was reading the Chicago Tribune's advice column today, and I realized that I might be a perfect fit for that profession, mainly because I am always right.

So if you want your day-to-day problems, relationship issues, or existential crises solved by yours truly, drop me a comment on this post, that way you can do so while protecting your anonymity if you prefer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

I stole a book today.

Well, sort of. Whether or not I committed literary larceny depends on your definition of two terms. The first is "stealing" and the second is "book".

Confused? Today I walked into Borders, picked up the volume pictured above, and read the whole thing before I left.

I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. It's Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author, and the whole thing was only 79 pages of double-spaced type, and there's no way, job or no job, that I'm paying ten dollars for a book that size. I really only picked it up to see what it was all about, but before I knew it I was halfway done, and it just seemed silly not to finish.

God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian isn't much of a book, really, even allowing for its brevity. In 1998 and 1999 Vonnegut did a series of 90-second pieces for radio station WNYC (try to guess where the station is located) in which he pretended that Dr. Kevorkian helped him die "three-quarters of the way" so that he could stand outside the pearly gates and interview dead people. The book is just a printed collection of these pieces, making it a blatant cash grab, but since Vonnegut donated the money to the radio station, I suppose it's at least a noble cash grab, if such a creature can exist.

Some of the pieces are pretty funny, especially when Vonnegut interviews less famous people. Probably the best is one in which he interviews a construction worker who was killed while saving his dog from a pit-bull attack. Vonnegut asks him how it feels to have died to save a schnauzer, and the man responds that it feels better than it would to have died for nothing in the Viet Nam War.

That's Vonnegut's black humor, which is frequently on display in this narrow volume, along with his intense distrust of governments and institutions, and his playful but deadly serious mockery of religion.

Definitely only for committed fans of Vonnegut, but an enjoyable way to cheat Borders out of my money.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite and Our Fractured Media Landscape

I was watching a little bit of MSNBC's coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite, and for a while there they had Dan Rather, who was Cronkite's successor, in the studio and Tom Brokaw on the phone. At one point, Brokaw mentioned the respect he, Rather, and the late Peter Jennings all shared for Cronkite. That got me thinking about how much has changed about the way we get our news.

What's changed the most is that there are no longer widely respected cultural institutions imparting the news to us, but instead a vast and unknown plethora of personalities, often with known biases or unsavory reputations as journalists.

Walter Cronkite's image is synonymous with several of the biggest stories of the 20th century. Taking off his glasses and pausing before breaking the story of JFK's assassination. Telling Americans, in a then rare display of opinion in news, that the Vietnam War was spinning out of control. It was Walter Cronkite that most people watched narrate the events on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

Even when people of my age were younger, there was a sense of this same instituionalism in the network news anchors, except it was more evenly split among Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather. All three were trusted journalists with wide audiences. (In my house we watched Jennings purely because his telecast preceded Jeopardy!)

With the advent of cable news and 24-hour reporting, the prominence of the network anchors took a hit, but the even more disturbing element is the slivercasting going on in news. Slivercasting means broadcasting to appeal to a narrow constituency, and it's obviously common among cable channels, where you have a whole channel devoted to game shows, or what have you. But in news, it means you can tailor your newscast to the people you expect to watch it. This enables people to seek out news that agrees with their own preconceptions, and this is a bad idea plain and simple. I don't care how often you agree with Keith Olbermann, it's not healthy to hear your own ideas regurgitated back to you. Even if you never change your mind, you need to have it challenged every once in a while.

With the fracturing of news, we no longer have a core touchstone of recognized and verified journalists informing us the way we need them to. What does it say that arguably the most powerful person in the media today is a guy who was once the third male lead in Death to Smoochy?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Favorite Authors, Part 3 (The Exciting Conclusion)

Okay, even I'm getting bored with this, so let's try to wrap it quickly.

7. Agatha Christie. See, I'm not sexist, I read books written by women, so come on ladies, date me already. Granted, there isn't much that is feminine in Christie's Golden Age mysteries, not even the ones featuring Miss Marple. In my younger days I was greatly partial to the Poirot stories, but over time I've become nearly equally fond of Marple. At last count I'd read exactly 50 Agatha Christie novels, an astonishing and frankly somewhat embarrassing figure. Even being as big a fan as I am, I am all too willing to admit that the majority are ultimately forgettable and disposable. However, there are quite a few real classics in there that make it worth the investment of time. Christie recycled plots plenty of times, especially in her later years, but some of them were true originals which captivate and surprise even the most experienced mystery reader.

What should you read?: And Then They Were None, though it doesn't feature either of her two famous detectives, is her most famous novel for a reason. It's a compelling story in addition to being a perfectly unsolvable mystery. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is probably the best Poirot novel, and is in addition one of the most controversial mystery novels ever. Other standout titles include The Mysterious Affair at Styles, A Murder is Announced, The Mirror Crack'd, and The ABC Murders. A good rule of thumb at first would be to check the publication date and stick to the earlier novels. Christie really lost it near the end, and tried to stay socially relevant despite not having any idea what younger people were really like.

8. Raymond Chandler. Same genre, vastly different style. Chandler is the apex of the American hard-boiled detective story, and his hero Philip Marlowe is an iconic figure thanks in large part to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in The Big Sleep. Marlowe's wise-cracks, tough-guy veneer and inability to keep himself out of trouble make Chandler's novels an absolute joy to read, even if the complicated plots confused everyone, including the author, who famously couldn't remember "whodunit" when asked for clarification by film people working on The Big Sleep adaptation.

What should you read?: The Big Sleep is one of the best detective novels ever, no question. The Long Goodbye is also very good, and I enjoyed The Little Sister, which seems to be lesser known because it isn't a popular film.

9. Dashiell Hammett. Chandler's equal in popular acclaim is just a notch below on this list. Hammett and Chandler are very similar and people debate the question of who was better, or who came first all the time, but I don't really care about stuff like that. I read Chandler first, and if anything, that's probably the reason he comes out one spot ahead. Interestingly, Hammett's most famous detective was also played by Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. Unlike Chandler, Hammett mixed it up, with multiple detectives, including the nameless Continental Op and the constantly smashed Nick and Nora Charles.

What should you read?: The Maltese Falcon is the obvious choice, but if you've already seen the movie (and you absolutely should) you might check out Red Harvest, an under-appreciated classic. The Thin Man is also a good read.

10. Tie. It's too hard to pick just one author to fill this spot. So here's a list of authors in contention for it, as well as one representative work I'm recommending by each.

William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Rex Stout (And Be a Villain), Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), John Updike (Rabbit Run), E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime), Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Nick Hornby (A Long Way Down) and George Orwell (Animal Farm or any of his essays).

There you have it, truly an exciting moment for all of us, I'm sure.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Favorite Authors, Part 2

4. Philip Roth, the handsome devil pictured above. I've only read seven of Roth's novels, less than a quarter of his remarkable output, but each was a great read. Roth is often chided for the repetitiveness of his storylines, featuring the invariable Jewish protagonist, the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, occasionally repulsive and graphic sexuality, and at times an unabashedly liberal viewpoint. But Roth is capable of such great humor and insight that you don't mind hearing the same backstory over and over again.

What should you read?: American Pastoral is an unassailable masterwork, a portrait of American values and the decline thereof set against the turbulent 1960s. I Married A Communist is an intriguing exploration of McCarthyism, and The Great American Novel is a comic ode to baseball, which any fan will appreciate. If you're prudish, I'd stay the hell away from Portnoy's Complaint, which is incredibly filthy in the most literate way possible.

5. Richard Russo. I've read four of Russo's novels and a collection of his short stories. Russo is adept at spinning a multifaceted narrative full of memorable and yet entirely believable characters. The influence of Dickens is obvious and appreciated in an era when too many books are more interested in style than story. Russo knows small-town Northeast America well, and his novels capture it entirely.

What should you read?: Any of his novels would make a fine starting point, but I can not recommend the short stories to anyone but the most ardent of completists. Russo is best when he is expansive, filling in what many would consider the unnecessary details that make his work so rich. That sense is lost in most of his stories. Empire Falls is the best known of his novels because it won the Pulitzer, which it fully deserves, but I like Nobody's Fool just a bit more. It's the story of an injured and aging laborer dealing with his ex-wife, the married woman he's been seeing for over a decade, the son he practically abandoned and about a thousand other details that combine to make for one raucous and enjoyable ride.

6. John Irving. Another writer who wears his allegiance to Dickens on his sleeve. I've read seven Irving novels, and while they are not without their flaws I have enjoyed six of them very much. Irving is great at constructing elaborate situations and memorable set pieces. He gives his characters unique backgrounds and traits and throws them all together in grand style. Irving is chastised for his over-reliance of quirkiness and sexual deviance (transvestites and other unsavory proclivities recur frequently) but he has found a niche that works for him, and his stories are usually pretty damn entertaining.

What should you read?: Everyone should read The World According to Garp, which is a truly great novel that even Irving's foremost critics recognize as such. The Hotel New Hampshire is a fun book, although it contains one of the more unfortunate passages in literary history, and The Cider House Rules is good so long as you don't mind a book taking an unapologetic pro-choice stance. The only Irving novel I didn't enjoy was A Son of the Circus, which is over-long, and fails to convince the reader that Irving actually knows anything about India.

Okay, four more to go, but I'll have to finish this in part three. Stay tuned, because I know you're all eagerly awaiting the exciting conclusion. Right?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Are My Favorite Authors, You Ask?

"You" in this case being a fictitious creation of my own design: a fawning and dedicated reader of this blog with an unending desire to know more about me and my thoughts, needs, desires, and opinions (and who looks like Mary-Louise Parker, only younger.)

So young Mary-Louise, in light of the question brought up by my statement in the post below this one that Cormac McCarthy may not be one of my favorite authors, I have decided to see if that is truly the case, by preparing a list of my 10 favorite novelists.

Some ground rules, before we get started. a. In order to be considered, I must have read more than one work by the author. No matter how much you may like a book, if it hasn't caused you to seek out more of that author's work, than how good could it have been really? I suppose a reasonable exception could be made for folks like Harper Lee and John Kennedy Toole, who both have only one novel (not counting the money grab that is The Neon Bible, a work Toole did not feel was worth publishing.) While I enjoyed both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, these exceptions will not be needed in my list.

b. As a corollary, number of books read will not be used as an inflexible measure of comparison. (This is due to differences of length and style which make reading four books by one author the equivalent of reading fourteen by another.) That is to say, the fact that I've read two or twenty of a certain author's works will only work for or against them when I decide it will. If this seems arbitrary, that's because it is.

That seems like all that is necessary in the way of ground rules, so let's get started.

1. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The picture is there for a reason. I've read all 14 of Vonnegut's novels as well as a collection of his short stories and two of his other collections of writings. He is the only author about whom I've felt compelled to read everything he wrote. When Vonnegut died it affected me more than may seem reasonable. When I heard the news I ran to the campus library and checked out all the books of his that I hadn't yet read, even though finals were approaching. When I finished Galapagos last year, meaning that I would never again read a Vonnegut novel for the first time, it was a bittersweet moment.

What should you read?: I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every single one of his works, but newcomers should obviously not start with the collections of essays and opinions. I started with Slaughterhouse-Five and I think that works as an introduction to Vonnegut. I would not suggest starting with his first novel, an admittedly mediocre sci-fi called Player Piano. Other works you should consider: Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions, Hocus Pocus, and Bluebeard are all great reads. The others are good also, but are more easily appreciated by someone familiar with Vonnegut and his style.

2. Mark Twain.
Vonnegut's personal hero is also one of mine. I have read six of Twain's novels and an incalculable amount of his short stories and other writings. Twain is perhaps as famous for his sayings as he is for his books, and I enjoy his quotes as well, especially his frequent disparaging of Jane Austen (A library without any books at all would be improved by the absence of Jane Austen.) Twain is violently funny, fearlessly skeptical, and tormented by the vanities and foolishness of human beings.

What should you read?: It's heard to pick a good starting point for Twain. Tom Sawyer's chief appeal is to young readers, especially boys, because of the book's focus on adventure and childhood. It's a book which may strike older readers as immature or not worthy of their attention. But I think it is an absolute precondition to reading and appreciating the much greater Huckleberry Finn. Though Huck Finn as a sequel is not so dependent on the plot of its predecessor, the failings of Tom Sawyer are what ultimately drove Twain to make slavery and the real world of evil more present in Huck Finn. Other works I recommend: Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Mysterious Stranger, short stories (esp. The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg) and any of his criticism (esp. Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.)

3. Charles Dickens
I've only read four of Dickens' novels, and really only loved three of them, but he belongs on this list and high on it due to the influence he has had on several other favorite authors of mine (more on them later.) Dickens spins stories of incredible complexity, filled with memorable characters and brought together by plots which feature the utmost tragedy and the most uproarious comedy. There is so much life in what Dickens does that it transcends the page and makes you grateful to him for having decided to share the story with you. Dickens is a true genius, and despite the prohibitive length of most of his novels I am going to be making a concerted effort to get to as many of them as I can.

What should you read?: Easy, David Copperfield. This book might be the most impressive I have ever read. It is filled to the brim with that which makes Dickens great. A full year after reading it, there is so much I remember fondly about the experience. From Wilkins Micawber, the man always looking for "something to turn up" to the "'umble" and utterly detestable Uriah Heep, Dickens' characters will stay with you long after the novel ends. I also strongly recommend Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. I was not such a big fan of Great Expectations, but I think this may have been a question of mood and plan to revisit the novel at a later date.

Okay, this is turning into a longer project than I envisioned, young Mary-Louise. If you don't mind, maybe we could continue this discussion later. I promise I'll finish the full Top 10, don't worry.

All the Pretty Horses

I find that it is difficult to state for certain my opinion on Cormac McCarthy and his novels, of which All the Pretty Horses is the third that I have read. McCarthy's novels are strongly influenced by some of the true greats of 20th century literature: Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway. The problem is that this results in an occasionally chaotic and frightening jumble of styles, such as when he uses the arcana of Joyce, the obfuscation and esoterica of Faulkner and the choppy uber-manly dialogue of Papa Ernest.

There is also, and this is a more personal objection, a disconnect in terms of subject. As you might be able to guess this novel features horses in a central role, in a manner which is often exclusionary to those of us who aren't cowboys or ranchers, often to the point of being tedious and sleep-inducing. (There is a span of about 30 pages in the first-half of this novel which deal in the majority with the simple training and riding of horses and which nearly caused me to quit this novel due to worries that my snoring would disturb others.)

McCarthy's style can also be so rugged at times to be comical. Sometimes, as in No Country for Old Men, this is intentional, as Llewellyn Moss's defiance of peril is meant to be darkly absurd. Here however it often seems like McCarthy is shoe-horning in philosophical opinions into the novel through the poorly-chose mouthpieces of his characters. Young ranchers John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins seemingly can not sit by a fire without having a terse but loaded discussion about God and the nature of man. Hearing complicated questions put aside in five words or less with salt-of-the-earth diction gets a little overwrought after a while.

All those objections aside, when McCarthy is good, he's one of the best around. All the Pretty Horses features a spare but well-constructed plot. After his grandfather dies and his mother, fed-up with the lifestyle, sells the family ranch, John Grady Cole splits for Mexico, convincing his friend Lacey to go with him. On their way they encounter a young boy riding a horse much too fine to be his, and packing a six-shooter he is uncomfortably good with. The exploits and troubles the boy leads Cole and Rawlins into are deadly and have long-lasting consequences.

All the Pretty Horses also features a surprisingly well-written forbidden romance between Cole and the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher and a memorable and chilling set-piece of life in a Mexican jail. In these scenes McCarthy's prose reads like Faulkner's prose filtered through the sieve of Hemingway, and draws the reader onward, compelling attention and dazzling with his command over the situation.

I'm still not sure if McCarthy will ever be one of my favorite authors, but I have great respect for his talent, if not always for the way he uses it. All the Pretty Horses is a good read with some notable exceptions, and it gets 7.2 out of 10.

Thoughts on Billy Wilder and The Apartment

If, for the rest of your life, you could only watch one director's films, who would you choose? Spielberg, so you could keep the Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park and others? Scorsese for Goodfellas et al? Hitchcock for all the great suspense?

I think I have to go with Billy Wilder. Listen to this line-up: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, One Two Three!, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, and Stalag 17. Every one of those films is an undisputed masterpiece, and they run the full gamut from stylish film noir (Double Indemnity) to raucous farce (Some Like it Hot) and touch on every note in between. It's truly a resume to marvel at.

I first thought about this when I stumbled across One Two Three last month, a movie I discussed at length in the "Screwball Comedy" post. Wilder's position at the forefront was cemented with my re-viewing of The Apartment tonight. A surprise Best Picture winner in 1960, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as a office worker who gets ahead by loaning out his bachelor pad to his philandering superiors, including the top man, Fred MacMurray.

(MacMurray may have the greatest disparity between memorable roles of any actor in history. He is utterly convincing as the loving dad in My Three Sons and endearing as The Absent-Minded Professor, but equally believable as the murderous Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and here as an unpardonable heel, stringing along mistresses, and thinking of no one but himself.)

The Apartment may well be the culmination of all of Wilder's talent. If not necessarily his best film (there are many possibilities to pick from) it is the one which incorporates the most elements and the most life. The Apartment is generally labeled a comedy but also features compelling drama, tragedy, and one of the most touching and yet realistic and mature romances I've ever seen in a movie. It is unerring in it's attempt to portray a complete human drama. The characters are remarkably well-drawn, giving further testament to Wilder's acumen as a screenwriter.

Much of the success of The Apartment is due to the performances of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon is perfect as the sweet, well-meaning but still flawed C.C. Baxter. Lemmon is so good that he can make you root for a character that pathetically plays up an unfounded reputation as a playboy and spends much of the movie scheming to get ahead. MacLaine is also phenomenal in a role that could all too easily have turned melodramatic in the wrong hands. As the love-crossed Fran Kubilek, MacLaine plays a woman conflicted by her disastrous romantic past, unwilling or unable to keep from falling in love with the wrong man.

Wilder's script is well-plotted and very tight, with everything occurring for a reason and no wasted moments. His ability to use dialogue to explore characters is unmatched. Lemmon's repeated use of the unnecessary suffix -wise ("That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise")is humorous and revelatory, as is MacLaine's adoption of it halfway through the movie.

All in all, The Apartment is a centerpiece in Billy Wilder's remarkable canon. 9.6 out of 10.

Friday, July 3, 2009


There may not be a problem with Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex so much as there is a problem with that nebulous creature we call "literary fiction" or more specifically, the coming-of-age story. If you've read any of this type before, you'll notice that for all it's markings of supposed oddity and outrageousness, Middlesex is really a very conventional and straightforward text. Eugenides does not do enough to distinguish his work from that of other practitioners of the bildungsroman such as Michael Chabon, Salman Rushdie, John Irving, or reaching further back, Mark Twain.

Like all coming-of-age stories, Middlesex provides us with a background to draw us into the characters. However, unlike more readable and successful novels, the background overwhelms the novel's main story, in this case the story of an Intersex American named Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides. Cal's birth opens the novel, but from there we are whisked back to Smyrna, in 1922, to get Eugenides' laborious and uncomfortable introduction of incest amid disaster. It is hundreds of pages before we get back to Cal's birth, and our only glimpses of the narrator are in sputtering, useless scenes of his present life as a cultural attache in Berlin. These infrequent interludes are boring, and what's worse, are sometimes used merely for infuriating artifice, i.e. delaying big reveals in the plot, chopping up the timeline and so on. In short, they are a finger in the eye from the author, reminding us that he is in charge of the story.

Contemporary literary fiction is beset by unlikely and increasingly silly situations. I am thinking of such novels as Chabon's "Kavalier and Klay" where Josef Kavalier spends World War II in Antarctica as the sole survivor at a distant naval station, or Midnight's Children, where Saleem Sinai joins the Pakistan Army as a scent-sniffing dog. In the right hands these interludes can be revelatory not just of the characters, but of the place and time when they are set. Chabon is particularly capable in this regard. Other authors are masters at creating set pieces of memorable levity and wit, such as John Irving or Richard Russo. Unfortunately for Middlesex, Mr. Eugenides is not in either of these sets. His farcical situations are entirely too dry, too inexplicable, and too detached from the overall plot of the novel to do much besides inflate the number of pages. A section of the novel which sees Cal's grandmother Desdemona go to work for the Nation of Islam is especially egregious in this regard.

In a similar light, Mr. Eugenides is so eager to include the historical markers of his and Cal's lifespan that the effect is rather more of a shoehorn of names and events a la Forrest Gump instead of an exploration or consideration of any of them. The Detroit race riots take place early in Cal's life, but aside from some vague and cryptic statements, there is no attempt to reconcile the fear of white landowners with the destructive anger of the looting protesters. Without taking a side, or at least exploring the sides, this monumental event is reduced to a mere vehicle for the plot of the story (as Cal's father's insurance enables him to open a chain of restaurants and move to the suburbs.)

When the novel finally does get to Calliope, or Cal, it is too late. Mr. Eugenides does not invest enough of his time in creating a real life behind his central character. Instead he/she emerges as an unrealistic, and unrealistically well-informed, chronicler of things untold, of conversations and events outside her possible knowledge, and as an oddly convincing man or woman, and unidentifiable as any kind of third column, as it were. The novel ends more or less with Cal as a 15-year-old, only shortly after the decision to live as a man, and denies the reader any look at how Cal developed into the man narrating the story from the present day. One suspects this was more a product of a lack of imaginative prowess than any artistic consideration.

Middlesex is a novel short on memorable images, on eye-catching sentences, and short on likeable characters (Desdemona in particular is a maddening stereotype, the overly superstitious and pious immigrant who refuses to assimilate.) It gives the reader too much of a story they don't need, without bothering to tell the story that would be of infinitely more interest. Mr. Eugenides has a fair gift for dreaming up wildly implausible scenarios, but there is little else to recommend about this over-lauded novel. 3.5 out of 10.

Next? Well, I'm waiting to discover our Book Club pick for August, but I have All the Pretty Horses sitting on my shelf if I get the urge to pick it up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Screwball Comedy

When I got Netflix, one of the things I enjoyed most was seeing which movies and tv shows the service recommended to me most highly, based on my ratings of those I had already seen. While it is a little unnerving to have a machine know so much about your tastes and perhaps extension your personality, the advantages of discovering new titles never heard-of beforehand is adequate consolation.

One of the movies most highly recommended was "One, Two, Three!" a 1961 comedy by Billy Wilder starring Jimmy Cagney. I'd never heard of it before, but was intrigued enough to put it far down on my queue. The other day, fate intervened and I came across it on TV. It was marvelous.

Cagney plays Coca-Cola's head man in West Berlin, in the days of partition but before the construction of the wall. He's put in a jam when his boss's daughter, left to his protection, runs off and marries an East German communist. Cagney schemes to get the groom arrested and the marriage expunged from the records, but the girl's pregnancy and the protestations of his own wife make him reconsider. Cagney is further put-upon when his red-hating boss announces that, having heard about the marriage (but not the groom's politics) from Cagney's wife, he is flying to Berlin himself to meet his son-in-law.

What follows is a farce that hits the highest highs of screwball comedy. In dizzying fashion Cagney sets about converting the groom into a capitalist in good standing, and a German aristocrat to boot. After a mad rush of tailors and elocution lessons, the film climaxes with a mad rush to the airport, involving the groom trying on a dozen hats, a painter hanging out the window putting the groom's new coat of arms on the side door, a tailor sewing his torn pants, and Cagney frenetically warning him about phrases to avoid with his father-in-law while tallying up all that he's owed for the suits, hats, and the family name he has gone to the trouble to procure.

It's a testament to the madcap nature of the film that it constantly employs the classic "man spinning plates on sticks" music and that those familiar strains never feel out of place.

Seeing the movie made me wish that screwball comedies were still in vogue. I was surprised by this movie's 1961 release, because despite the film's topical subject, it belongs to an earlier era. The heyday of screwball was in the late '30s and early '40s. Films like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby featured incredibly complicated plots and fired off jokes at a mile-a-minute pace. To watch them is to marvel at the ability of the people who wrote them to come up with so much material.

I wish there was still a place for a little screwball in the comedy world right now, there are obviously some very talented people in the comedy business now and I'd love to see what they could do with something like "One, Two, Three!" Unfortunately, knowing Hollywood, they'd rather remake a screwball, dumb down and slow down the jokes, and completely suck the charm right out of it. Oh well.

Midnight's Children

Note: I feel bad about my lack of posts, so I'm hoping to quick blitz a bunch over the next few days. They will all be short and are shameless attempts to cover up the large gaps between my older posts from June and May.

I said on Twitter, (yes, I have a Twitter account, jeverett15 if you care to follow) that I didn't feel up to writing a review of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Here's a shot anyway.

It took me about a month to read the book, because I had to detour to read Love in the Time of Cholera for a book club. But it would have taken a long time anyway, because the work is massive. Here is a sentence that I think will sum up my opinion of the novel:

Midnight's Children is clearly the work of a genius, but I don't know if he's a genius I'd ever care to read again.

There is a curious distance to the novel, in my humble, non-genius opinion. Rushdie knows what he's doing from the start. Throughout the novel he makes it clear that the plot is all worked out, that he has it figured out and you're just going to have to come along for the ride. But he also makes it abundantly clear through the personal deficiencies of his narrator Saleem Sinai that he doesn't care as much for the complex story he so effortlessly weaves as for the underlying statement about the nature of fiction and narrative itself. Thus there is a missing element in Midnight's Children, and I think that it is joy. Once you've caught on to Saleem's failures, the rest of the novel becomes an aggravating game of watching Rushdie finish out his pre-destined plot. The only surprise comes from his utter side-swiping of Indira Gandhi in the novel's last hundred pages or so. This feels less pre-ordained and more risky, and more frisky than the rest of the novel.

It would take a genius to write a book like Midnight's Children, but one that probably doesn't care too much about his readers. I don't care to grade Midnight's Children, and I'm not going to recommend it either.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Away We Go

Has any film suffered a critical revision as quick and abrupt as the one currently being performed on Juno? When Juno came out, and this is just an impression, but a strong one, it was heralded near universally for its quirkiness, originality and candidness about teen pregnancy. When it gathered momentum heading into Oscar season the Academy was congratulated for recognizing it despite its meager budget and lack of big-name stars.

Now just a few short years later films are derided for "sounding like Juno", "being quirky just like that ball of pretension Juno" and so on and so forth. Wha' happened?

This Juno-bashing reached a height it had not yet seen with the release of Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by popular novelists/husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. There was much wailing and wringing of hands over the films depiction of "hipsters" replete with vintage clothes and lack of financial stability, there was excessive dismay over the films employment of a soundtrack loaded with unpopular college-radio rock songs, and there great consternation over its use of outrageous and silly side characters, as though it were a crime for a comedy to be unrealistic. The movie was castigated for its similarity to Juno on the sole basis that each movie features a pregnant female.

The thing about all of this is that it just isn't very accurate. Away We Go isn't Juno, and it is more than possible that whatever opinion you had of that film, you might think the exact opposite of this one.

For one thing, the couple at the heart of Away We Go are in their mid-thirties, and despite not having kids or a great big house and such, they mostly act like it. Burt (John Krasinski) holds down a job selling insurance futures, and despite his goofy-looking beard-and-black-rimmed glasses combo, he is very professional. Verona (Maya Rudolph) earns a living as an illustrator of medical textbooks. Despite the preconceived notions of America's armchair film critics, they do not think they're better than anyone else, they don't put down hard work, and they are not some easily categorized stereotype.

What they are is a couple very much in love, and about to have a baby. When Burt's parents announce an impending move to Belgium, the couple decides that they need to find a new place to raise their child. The movie thus takes the form of a road trip to see old friends and relations, in Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and with another surprise trip that I won't spoil here.

These first few of these encounters are comedic in tone, and extremely well done. Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan are hilarious as Verona's ex-coworker and her husband. Janney is a profane, uninhibited harridan and Gaffigan is bitter at being rejected by all the local country clubs. In Madison, Burt's cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a New Age mother who won't use a stroller because she doesn't want to push her children away from her.

It's here in Madison that the film thwarts the snap judgments of those who haven't seen it. Rather than go along with the craziness in a live-and-let-live manner, Burt and Verona actively confront the inanity of the character's parenting habits. It's a feel-good moment for the audience, because Gyllenhaal is so good at making the character unbearable.

In Montreal the film takes a more dramatic turn, and confronts like few other comedies would, the realities of loss, unhappiness and despair. There are some gripping and disturbingly real moments near the end of the film, and while it does end on an up note it is not a trite one or an unearned one.

The real treat of this movie is the pairing at its center. It is refreshing to see a movie treat as realistic the possibility of total and unadulterated love between two people. Krasinski and Rudolph are great at establishing their characters' intimacy and need for each other. Their inability to stay mad at or even effectively criticize each other is adorable, and makes for some very funny moments, especially after Verona complains that Burt never gets mad about anything, and he spends the rest of the movie intermittently exploding into mock outrage.

Away We Go is a small movie, but a very touching and endearing one. It does not sink into a quagmire of quirkiness or intricate itself too deeply into an "indie" sensibility. It is the kind of movie that could be enjoyed by a mass, mainstream audience, if that audience would stop comparing it to a movie based on inaccurate prejudices and surface similarities. Away We Go gets a 7.4 out of 10.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is an impressive display of commitment to a bit. The novel is told from the perspective of a classically-trained English butler, as he reflects back on his years of service to a tarnished lord. Ishiguro's narrator Stevens is a perfect exemplar of the unreliable narrator, blinded by his loyalty and unwilling to admit the truth about anything. By the end of the novel, he will have almost unwittingly revealed the true nature of his employer to the reader. But that's not at all what he's trying to do.

Stevens is writing what amounts to a dissertation of the butler profession, spliced with his reminiscences of the pre-war days at Darlington Hall, when Lord Darlington would host the most influential figures in Europe, and it was up to Stevens and the housemaid, Miss Kenton, to ensure that all went smoothly.

What Ishiguro accomplishes through his unusual narrative is impressive, but it is of questionable entertainment value. The problem with a narrator who is unwilling to tell you the story you want to hear is that the book becomes weighed down with nearly unbearable (and unbearably repetitive) digressions on the "dignity" of Steven's profession, of the worthiness of him and his father, also a butler, and the relative merits of certain brands of silver polish. It can be extraordinarily frustrating to read Stevens dither on about the most inane thing while wishing that he would just tell you what it is that caused Lord Darlington's downfall.

All in all, even though this question (and others arising throughout the novel) are answered by the end, the book winds up falling into the impressive but un-enjoyable category. Ishiguro is clearly a talented author, one worthy of further reading, but this does not quite rise to the level of its writer. 5.2 out of 10.

Next? I will either circle back and finish Midnight's Children, read All the Pretty Horses or pick up my next Book Club book, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

At the heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel is the provocative idea that love is not an ennobling or redemptive aspect of the human condition, but rather that is a cause of our dreadful state. Marquez is nothing short of cruel as he spends a hundred pages or more building a love story so enchanting that it might belong with the great romances of all time, only to pinprick it to death with stunning revelations about the integrity of his characters and the loathsome capabilities of the human soul.

The novel centers around a love triangle of sorts. As a young man Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza, a beautiful girl from a middle-class family. Fermina's father manages to arrange things so that his daughter marries the aristocratic Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and Florentino sinks into despair, waiting for the chance to declare his love for Fermina again.

If that makes you go "Awww" it is understandable, and at the end of 100 pages, even permissible, but not so at page 348. Over the course of the novel we see that the pairing of Love and Cholera in the novel's title is no mere curiosity. It is a deliberate evocation of the similarity of love to a corrupting and lethal pox on the human condition. For love Florentino Ariza mistreats hundreds of women in the fifty-one years he waits for Fermina. For love he leads several others to disaster through his recklessness. And for love he is blind to the despicable state into which he has fallen.

Mr. Marquez is so talented a writer, he describes our own notions of romantic love so prettily, that it is many pages indeed before one catches on to his actual point. A passage where Florentino spies his love across a crowded marketplace speaks our universal idea of attraction in words better than we could ever hope for ourselves: "To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell."

That is a beautiful thought wonderfully expressed. That Marquez is capable of writing like that but chooses instead to focus on the hopelessness of the very love he so convincingly creates makes him a writer with uncommon fortitude and daring. That he does so and still manages to captivate the reader, who may almost rightfully feel tricked and abused, is a testament to his genius.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a book that will have you cursing the power of narrative as you sing the praises of its creator. For that it gets a 9.5 out of 10.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Remakes for Dummies

Look at those two pictures above. One is the villain from the 1974 thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123. The other is a picture of Grease star John Travolta if he were a motorcylist with a meth addiction. Actually, that's a pic of Travolta in Tony Scott's upcoming remake of "Pelham". Now, I hate to be thought of as someone who makes uninformed decisions or judges the book by the cover, but I think those two pictures encapsulate why so many people cringe reflexively when they hear the word "remake" and it's new euphemistic cousins "re-imagining" "revision" or "reboot."

I had never seen the original Pelham, and actually had never heard of it before reading an article on the new movie. The underlying premise (four men hijack a subway car, demanding $1million in ransom, while the police have no idea how they plan to get away with it) sounded interesting, and any movie with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in it must have something going for it, so I recently watched it on TV. What I saw was a cool, off-kilter, understated but very suspenseful thriller. The script was crisp and captured perfectly the dialogue and inflection of New York City officials and citizens. At the heart of the movie was Matthau's gruff but competent transit police officer and Shaw's eerily calm killer. Their interactions for the large part take place over a radio, and the film's conclusion is rather less violent and action-packed than you'd expect.

Obviously I haven't seen the new version, but I'm not shy about saying that I don't think I will. The trailers I have seen and every article I've read about it lead me to think that this is just another case where they are going to take a good movie and jazz it up with more explosions, more CGI and less, you know, plot. I caught an article in Esquire wherein the writer watched both movies, and it basically boiled down to "Me like new film, more things go boom-boom. Not so much talky-talk." The writer goes to great pains to include the fact that he watched a dusty VHS tape of the original. ("Oh my God, it's so old, how could anybody like it!)

All of this brings me to my long-held view of remakes. Every time Hollywood does this they take a movie that was at least pretty good, if not great, and in 99 times out of 100 they make it worse, often significantly. Why don't they find movies that didn't work and try to make them better? This idea has clear advantages. For one thing no one would really be mad that they were remaking Howard the Duck or Battlefield Earth, and Hollywood would get a chance to right some of their more egregious mistakes. At any rate we as a society wouldn't be subjected to the farce that is sure to be Travolta in Robert Shaw's place.