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Monday, April 30, 2012

City of Glass by Paul Auster

There's something so disingenuous and smug about post-modernism. The shallow bag of tricks, the meta-narration, the insertion of the author, all of it stinks of desperation.

From the opening pages of City of Glass, the first third of his New York Trilogy, Paul Auster demonstrates his ability to write crackling good prose, the kind that has thrilled readers for ages. He quickly and seemingly effortlessly engages the reader in the odd occurences in the life of his protagonist, Daniel Quinn.

Quinn is a former poet reduced to writing pulp mysteries under a pseudonym and still grieving over the deaths of his wife and son. Then his phone starts ringing in the middle of the night, and a stranger keeps asking for Paul Auster.

Unfortunately, once Quinn assumes the identity of this second Paul Auster, the novel loses itself in Mr. Auster's love of esoteric literary and philosophical discussions and silly wordplay. Quinn, as Auster, hires himself out as a guard for Peter Stillman, Jr. a man whose life and vocabulary have been fractured due to the childhood mistreatment of his father, a religious scholar who lost his grip on reality.

Even these early departures from the norms of detective fiction are very interesting, insofar as they hold a sort of funhouse-mirror up to the familiar patterns of hard-boiled detective novels. Peter Stillman is the cracked, bizarro-world version of Philip Marlowe's rich and eccentric clients. His off-putting patois, the result of his father's cruel experiment, is fascinating even as it drags on for far too long.

However, Mr. Auster can not sustain such gimmickry for long, a fact he seems to realize, since the novel runs only 133 pages. These pages follow Quinn as he encounters both the elder Stillman and a writer named Paul Auster. Quinn soon begins to lose his own hold on reality, and at that point the book becomes a tedious chore, as Mr. Auster makes whatever indecipherable point he has in mind about the nature of identity.

I was planning on writing combining the three short novels of The New York Trilogy into one review, but at this juncture I do not want to commit to having to read all three.

Mad Men: "At the Codfish Ball"

Mad Men has never been accused of being anything like the failed NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but tonight I started to wonder whether the two shows might have a similar problem. If any of you remember Studio 60, you likely remember how the show's major flaw was that all the characters kept insisting that the late night variety show they were working on was breaking new ground in comedy, while every part of the show within the show was lame and unoriginal.

However, Mad Men is obviously a bit more thought out than Studio 60, so I trust that Matt Weiner wanted the audience to question Megan Calvet Draper's pitch to Heinz. Was it really that great an idea, or was Don just buying it because Megan is his wife and he kind of owes it to her after the whole Howard Johnson's thing?Sure, Stan and Ginsberg seem to think the idea is good, and Heinz buys it right away, especially after Megan makes it seem like it was almost all Don's idea. So at least we know Megan is better at reading the client than Peggy is. But is she really a talented copywriter? After all, we've been told repeatedly that Heinz has no taste when it comes to this sort of thing.

I think maybe the more interesting thing is that, even when they admit her idea is better, Stan and Ginsberg resent Megan for having it. It means more work for them, and her preferential treatment rankles no matter how well-deserved. Most of "At the Codfish Ball" seemed to consist of moving the pieces into place for further revelations. Most of the stories introduced are resolved only in ways that promise more to come. Roger seems recharged and is practically working on the LSD account pro-bono. He's also speaking to his ex-wife again and using her contacts to reinvest himself in the business. Peggy is expecting a proposal after Abe calls her away to dinner, but instead he just wants to move in, to her place. Joan is kind, caring, and surprisingly supportive, but it seems doubtful that Peggy's unconventional (for the time) living arrangement will result in domestic bliss.

As for Sally, well, the show has been teasing a major catastrophe with her for a while. Sally's problem is that she doesn't have a strong adult role model. It seems like her basic instincts are okay, for instance in her calm reaction to Pauline's fall, but her learned behavior is entirely self-serving and dishonest, like blaming the fall on one of her brother's toys when it was really the phone line she had stretched into her room. Tonight, it was tragic to watch her latch on to the utterly charming Roger, only to have the positive effect (she tried the fish!) ruined by catching him and Mrs. Calvet engaged in a sex act which I doubt Sally even understands at her age. So much for that.

What's to become of Sally? Will she and Creepy Glen, who to be fair seems largely de-creepified at his prep school, run off together and live a vagrant life? Will Sally stop eating and get addicted to Pauline's Seconal tablets? Will she poison Betty's ice cream sundaes? (Please?)

Overall, a bit of a let-down after the last three weeks. But then again just about anything would have been.

Other thoughts:

-The dinner scene with the Heinz couple was a nice comic setpiece as the Drapers and the Cosgroves struggled to get on the same page after Megan tells Don they're going to lose the account. I especially enjoyed Ken getting angry with his wife for interrupting Don's pitch. He didn't want her to break the spell.

-They didn't follow up on it in the episode itself, but Abe's move-in proposal sure seemed like a power play to get Peggy more under his thumb. He sure felt threatened by Peggy's comfort level with Stan and Ginsberg's dirty talk.

-Business-wise, the biggest development is probably the fact that despite awarding him an honor for his cigarettes-are-evil letter, Ray Wise clues Don in to the fact that none of the members of the board will let their corporations hire Don. After all, how can they trust that they won't wind up the subject of a similar letter?

-The actor playing Emile Calvet had a great episode, and I especially loved his malaprop (Freudian slip?) about Sally spreading her legs and flying away.

-Still, Roger probably takes line of the night honors with: "For all we know, Jesus was just trying to land the loaves and fishes account."

-In other portentous developments, what are we to make of Emile's disappointment with Megan's new life? When he referred to her dreams, was he talking about her acting, or something else?

-Harry Crane is back, if only to try and tell a story about something he wasn't there to see.

-No Betty (yay!) No Lane (boo!)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Parks and Recreation: "The Debate"

Amy Poehler wrote and directed "The Debate", her second stint as writer and first in the director's chair. Her previous script, "The Fight" is one of the best Parks and Recreation episodes ever, so I had no trepidation about seeing another episode from her. And for the most part, "The Debate" was a very strong showing. I was a little put off by the obvious flaw in Newport's debate "surprise" (the idea of Sweetums moving seemed so obviously like a threat that Leslie's response seemed more like an inevitability than a stroke of genius) but all was forgiven during Leslie's sincerely moving closing statement, and I was too busy laughing my ass off at Bobby Newport's reaction (Holy sh*t, Leslie, that was great!) to care whether it was plausible that a killer campaign manager like Kathryn Hahn's character would've ever lobbed such a softball Leslie's way. (Only really believable if you think a. she was trying to throw the election b. she thought the people of Pawnee were such rubes she could get away with it c. it's a TV show, you can't act like internal politics are supposed to make sense.) Poehler's scripted debate was quite good at placing Lesie in uncomfortable positions, especially with Adult Film Star Brandi Maxxxx trying to establish similarities between the two of them. I also loved the long sequence where we just saw the candidates answers to questions we hadn't heard, especially for Bobby Newport apparently flip-flopping on the issue of the best James Bond. As for the other plots, I didn't get much out of the Tom-Ann-Chris love triangle, but I appreciated that it seemed to wrap up some of it by the end of the half-hour. I especially appreciated that while Ann was moved by Tom's confession of how he really feels, she didn't take him back right away. Tom's behavior was jerky enough, especially at the debate where he could've hurt Leslie's campaign, that he needed to be put in place. Much more fun was to be found at April and Andy's party for Leslie's big donors, from Andy trying to fit in with Pawnee's moneyed class to his stalling for time by acting out Road House. And any time Ron Swanson sings it's bound to be great. Michael Schur has insisted that Leslie could either win or lose this election, but it's hard to imagine her losing after a performance like that.

Community: "Basic Lupine Urology"

I'm sometimes overly critical of Community because I know that the show can be incredibly funny when it's not seemingly intentionally alienating a larger audience. "Basic Lupine Urology" felt like an episode you could actually use to convince skeptics to tune in to the show. Of course, at this point it's really too late for the show to actually build on its audience, but it was just nice to see an episode where Community pulls out everything in the bag of tricks to service a funny, relatable, but still hilariously absurd little plot.

One of the things I liked best was how immediately we get placed into the Law and Order pastiche, and how quickly the characters pick it up and run with it. Of course Abed knows what's going on, but here he, and Shirley, in a humorous twist, are able to use their extensive knowledge of the form to their advantage. They make for surprisingly good cops, even if Abed and Troy have to fight over which one gets to have the last zinger.

I could probably take up thousands of words gushing over all the little details that made the episode so enjoyable. From the janitor's inane conversation prior to discovering the "body", to Britta's attempts to "enhance" the crime scene photos, to the last second reversal of the real culprit. Everything was just spot on. When Annie is poring through the files at night with Chinese food on her desk, check out her coffee cup, it's the exact Greek cup that is always seen on Law & Order. And because Community can never really do just one pastiche, we also got a little "A Few Good Men" thrown in for good measure, with the return of Big Head Todd, the annoyingly perfect war hero.

"Basic Lupine Urology" is one of the few episodes from this season of Community that I know right now I'll be able to watch again and again and still find myself laughing. I can't ask for more than that.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Politics tends to distort more than it enhances, and nowhere is that more true than in literature. Novels and stories should be focused on character and plot, and everything else should flow from those springs. But when you decide to write a novel with a specific point in mind, you wind up massaging everything else to conform to your message. The Handmaid’s Tale suffers from a comparison to a more recent dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games Trilogy. In those novels, the reasons behind the dissolution of North America and the brutality of the Capitol’s governance were kept vague, allowing the reader’s attention to be wholly focused on Katniss and her struggles. I enjoyed The Hunger Games so much because I was invested in Katniss, and the only stumble the trilogy took was in Mockingjay, when politics started encroaching into the narrative. Margaret Atwood’s novel is told from the point-of-view of “Offred, or Of Fred” a handmaid in a near-future America where women’s rights have been stripped back basically to prehistoric levels. Declining birth rights and secular immorality have emboldened the fervent into establishing a new order, where women’s only prized commodity is the ability to give birth. This state has streamlined the process, essentially turning women of child-bearing age into sex-slaves for powerful men. Atwood is a fantastic writer, The Blind Assassin is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, but here the heavy-handed nature of her political arguments overwhelms the story of “Offred.” So many of the rules of Atwood’s futuristic society are designed just to reinforce her arguments for women’s rights, and not as a realistic vision of the chilling consequences of inequality. On the whole it is difficult to imagine any insurgent political movement actually embracing and promoting such implausible ideas. The Handmaid’s Tale will probably have a long life as a staple of Women’s Studies lit classes, and the issues it talks about are indeed important, and sort of shockingly relevant, given the recent outbreak of odd, unreasonable, and downright unscientific laws passed by state legislatures. But as a novel it leaves much to be desired. Atwood’s chief sin may be in punting at the ending. With her political points made, she neglected to service her readers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men: "Far Away Places"

Who the hell are these people? That seems like the best place to start with tonight’s unusual installment of Mad Men, which featured a lot of experimentation, from the narrative tricks of the storytelling, to the sexual adventures of girl-about-town Peggy Olsen, and of course the psychedelic trip of Mr. and Mrs. Sterling. Let’s start with the fragmented timeline. Usually when shows resort to such a thing it is with the idea of playing up the inter-connectedness of the plots and overlaying some Easter eggs in the early storylines only to have them pay off later on in a satisfying conclusion. I’m thinking especially of Coupling, which did this kind of thing extremely well, and of How I Met Your Mother, which has had more scattershot results when reaching into the big bag of narrative trickery. There is also a tremendous early-run episode of House titled “3 Stories” that sort of plays the same game. But what did Mad Men gain from this unprecedented departure? I was shocked when I realized that Roger Sterling walking into Don’s office was in fact on the morning of the day we just spent with Peggy. But the only real moment where the stories intersected was in Don’s frantic phone call to Peggy, which made me spend the rest of the episode wondering if Don had crashed a car and killed his wife or somehow murdered a hooker at the Howard Johnson’s. What about the title? What “Far Away Places” are we talking about here? Peggy’s movie promises a journey to the distant plains of Africa, but Peggy is barely paying attention toking up and giving a handy to her neighbor. In a chilling conversation with Peggy, Ginsberg claims to be a Martian, because it’s the only way he can bear to reveal his terrifying history as a baby born in a concentration camp. (I’m a little worried that Mad Men might overdo it with Dawn and Ginsberg, making them a little too representative of their races without making them complex characters like the rest of the ensemble, but damn if that wasn’t a great scene.) The closest thing Don gets to a far away place is a Howard Johnson’s upstate, where the eager manager is sorry about the pool but eager to push the clams. Don’s mind goes to some dark places when Megan disappears from the lodge after their childish argument ends with him driving away in the car to cool off for a while, and then later he flashes back to the ride home after the trip to Disney from “Tomorrowland” when he and Megan first got engaged. As for Roger, well, he never let Manhattan, but probably took the furthest trip of all. Jane’s “friends” turn out to be a troop of drug experimenters led by the famous Dr. Timothy Leary, an early proponent of LSD. Rogers drops out just to please his unhappy wife, and ends up hearing opera when he opens champagne, hallucinating Bert Cooper onto currency, and seeing the Black Sox throw the World Series from his bathtub. (Interesting coincidence: Yesterday was Jack Nicholson’s 75th birthday, and Sterling’s World Series hallucination was reminiscent of the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy imagines the World Series into existence to the delight of his fellow inmates.) And know to ask the most annoying question: What did it all mean? And what did we learn? We learned that Abe’s swinging ‘60s attitude doesn’t extend so far as to be fine with Peggy loving her work as much or more than him. That was one of the episode’s more interesting parallels, as Abe and Don both acted with the same condescension to their partner’s work life. We learned that Megan Draper is fairly immature, even as she raises some fair point in her arguments with Don. It’s absolutely true that Don treats her work like a hobby that he’s indulging, but perhaps she could have handled her anger better than mock-enjoying an orange sherbet just to embarrass him. We learned that Bert Cooper still gives a damn. Which is surprising, given his lack of an office. Even Don seems to have forgotten that, yes, this is his business. Also, he still thinks of Peggy as a little girl. No idea how much time has passed, but Pete looked fully recovered when he pulled Peggy off the Heinz account. LSD sure seems to have cleared Roger’s mind, as he serenely ends his ill-considered marriage to Jane the morning after their little trip. I’m very curious to see if the show follows up on this. Will Roger keep dropping acid? Will the show maintain its positive portrayal of drug use, or will we get Sterling having flashbacks? We learned that the Drapers have a really fucked up marriage. Seriously, that scene in the apartment was deeply disturbing, but the most disturbing part was probably how quickly Megan seemed to forgive Don for his brutality. Indeed, Megan seemed almost touched that Don cared enough to kick down the door, chase her all over their apartment, and tackle her hard onto the floor. I think this is going to end even worse than Don’s first marriage. Oh, and we learned that you have to try the clams at Howard Johnson’s. Yeah, I think I’ll pass.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mad Men: "Signal 30"

Poor Lane. Even when he wins the fight, he doesn't get the girl. And since he was sort of condescending to Joan, implying that his job was unimportant merely because Joan could do it herself, maybe he doesn't deserve her. Most of Signal 30 had to do with machismo, with men comparing themselves to others and finding themselves coming up short. There's Lane, pretending (quite well) to be as into football as the other men at the pub, and then trying to expand his role at SCDP by bringing in a big account. There's Roger, who seems to be resigned to his lower position in the ranks of the company that bears his name, and who seems to strike out at Ken Cosgrove's budding science-fiction career out of little more than authorial jealousy. And of course, when we talk about male insecurity, we have to talk about Pete Campbell. Smarmy, selfish, utterly unlikable. Pete Cambell is a hard character to root for, and other shows would be content to leave him flatly evil. But Matthew Weiner and the minds behind Mad Men have taken pains to show us the psychological scars and family dynamics that make Pete Campbell tick. All of which makes us in the audience feel much more justified when we still want to punch that ingrateful little piss-ant right in the nose. Signal 30 was largely centered around Pete. The title is taken from the name of the driving instruction films Pete is forced to watch. Pete feels trapped in his marriage and suburbia, just see the overly mannered way he conducts his conversation at the little party he throws for the Cosgroves and the Drapers. (I loved Cosgrove's exasperated responses to Pete's bragging about his stereo system. "Wilt Chamberlain could lie down in it." "Why would he do that?") For a while it looks like Pete is going to be seducing one of the high-schoolers in his driver's ed class, until Suburgatory's Ryan Shay shows up to win the young lady away. That and Don Draper proving himself a much better plumber, and apparently a much better husband, and it's enough to see why Pete was so eager to prove his manliness when Lane demanded satisfaction. Some other thoughts: -I thought the directing by John Slattery was just a little off, with too many quick cuts, dissolves and the like. Less is more. -I guess we're meant to assume that Pete ratted out Cosgrove (It's what Ken himself assumes, after all) but I'm guessing that someone else did the deed. I just hope it wasn't Peggy, that seems too far out of character for her. -Speaking of Peggy, I wonder what will come out of her pact with Cosgrove, whether or not she sold out Ben Hargrove. (Love that Ken's nom de plume only alters 4 letters in his name.) -Don's sport coat, purchased for him by Megan, was hilariously hideous. -Loved the little moment where Don has to correct Ken about the Austin sniper's last name, which is of course, the same as his real last name. -I honestly thought Pete was going to rough up that prostitute. (And great range that actress showed playing all the angles until she found what Pete needed.) -Everything you need to know about Pete Campbell you can learn by his scene in the taxicab with Don. Petulant, whiny, totally in denial of his own wrongdoing. -Even though Slattery must have been busy in the director's chair, Roger Sterling didn't exactly suffer in the quality lines department. Loved his line before the fight: "I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who really wants to see this?" Felt kind of like an audience stand-in at that point, where we all know this is kind of unlikely, but do you really want it to stop before Pete get's one right in the kisser? -No Betty, fat or otherwise. Yay!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

I almost never read works by the same author back-to-back, it just seems to invite unfair comparisons. But I so thoroughly enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars that I decided to start one of his earlier books right away. At 17, Colin Singleton is already kind of washed-up. A child prodigy without much in the way of actual ability, Colin struggles to find a way to make his life matter. Colin's situation becomes unbearable when he is dumped by his girlfriend Katherine just after high school graduation, for the nineteenth time. That's nineteen girls named Katherine, not just the one Katherine nineteen times. It's an admittedly unlikely premise, but it's one that the book managed to wring for everything it's worth without aggravating the reader. It helps that Colin is such an arresting protagonist, obsessive, closed-off, generally good-natured but obviously self-centered. His high aptitude for languages, for anagrams, and for mathematical formulae combine to make him an unusual and interesting character. To get over his break-up Colin and his foul-mouthed best friend Hassan set off on a misguided and calamitous road trip which comes to a sudden stop in Gutshot, Tennessee. There the duo becomes invoved with the daughter of a local factory owner and her meathead boyfriend. The comic misadventures manage to avoid relying on easy stereotypes of rural Southerners for the most part, and also manage to teach Colin some valuable lessons without being too heavy-handed. The chief pleasure in An Abundance of Katherines lies in the inventiveness and playful spirit of John Green. His obvious joy in the use of anagrams, silly puns, and the shenanigans of nerdy teenage boys is infectious.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mad Men: "Mystery Date"

"Mystery Date" is one of those episodes of television that prove to be divisive because what some people will regard as brilliant and clever others will regard as over-written, on-the-nose and trite. For the most part I found the episode enthralling, but even I thought there where a few moments when the show strained too far to make one more connection between its interwoven themes. But how can you not marvel at the minds which made all those connections between sex, violence and fear, and all through a few ordinary symbols like women's shoes and the area under the bed. Under the bed is where the lone survivor of nurse-killer Richard Speck hid while he brutally murdered eight of her colleagues. The horrors those women experienced are the backbone of "Mystery Date", first as office gossip (do we think Ginsberg's over-reaction will be explained at a later date?) and then chillingly and inappropriately retold to Sally Draper when she can't sleep. (Poor Sally, so headstrong and inquisitive, but without a single stable figure to serve as a guide. I fear she has many more pills to take and meals to reject.) Of course, under the bed is also where Don stuffs Andrea after brutally strangling her in his fever-dream, with one red shoe sticking out, presumably as some sort of sign that Don can never really hide who he truly is. (A touch obvious, but still nicely rendered.) I was fairly sure as Don was strangling Andrea that it was all a dream (a. Don really looked horribly sick b. how would that women have known his address?) but I must admit that in the moment I wasn't totally sure. It's definitely for the best that Don woke up without that woman's shoe sticking out from under his bed, but I would have admired the boldness of such a plot twist. Now I suppose the next question is how much Megan might have either overheard of Don's dream-state. The aura of fear also paid off in the scene where a late-working Peggy becomes concerned by a noise in the halls of the deserted SCDP offices, only to find Dawn sleeping on her boss's couch, afraid to take the subway to Harlem this late at night. Some aspects of this scene bothered me, as I felt they were hitting the idea of Peggy as oblivious to racial tension too hard, but Elisabeth Moss acted the hell out of her conversation with Dawn back the apartment. Her asking Dawn if she thought that Peggy acted like too much of a man at work was a great moment (am I nuts, or was there sexual tension there? The show has sort of teased the idea of Peggy as repressed.), and Moss really acted the hell out of the awkward bit with the purse. I do think it's a little annoying that so far Dawn has been used more as a prop than as a person, but it's still early on in her career, so perhaps with time the show will open her up a little. If there was one area of the episode that went a little too far toward achieving thematic unity, it was Ginsberg's Cinderella speech, which felt over-written as it was happening, and extremely implausible, especially in how quickly the client bought into it. The new man at SCDP is lucky that Don was not in top shape, or that warning would have been a lot worse. The Joan and Dr. Rape plot seemed a little disconnected from the rest of the show (although I'm not as much of a genius for connecting plots as Matthew Weiner) but it still worked for me. Greg really did seem like the kind of man who would flourish in the army and flounder outside it, and it was obvious from the get-go that he had volunteered to return. It was almost cathartic to see Joan kick him out, even bringing up the rape in Season 2 to point out that he's not a good person, even if he is going off to war. All in all a fascinating hour of Mad Men, even if there weren't any dead bodies under the bed.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

"The Fault in Our Stars" is the kind of book that makes you want to buy a bunch of copies and press them into the hands of everyone you know. Of course, since I read this on my Kindle, I can't even lend my copy to anyone. But still, the feeling is there.

Now, "The Fault in Our Stars" is technically a Cancer Book, but as the narrator Hazel Grace Lannister points out, "Cancer Books suck." Hazel's point-of-view is refreshing in its lack of sentimentality or cliched emotion. She's anything but a normal teenage girl, but that doesn't mean she can't have teenage-girl thoughts.

Hazel has thyroid cancer that has migrated to her lungs, making them "suck at being lungs" in her parlance. She's too sick for high school so she spends most of her time reading or watching Bravo marathons. After her mother insists that she spend more time out of the house, Hazel starts attending a support group for cancer-stricken teenagers. Of course, Hazel hates the group, with its sickening reliance on cliched ideas of battling cancer and its overuse of inspirational maxims.

But it is there that Hazel meets Augustus Waters, a former basketball star who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. Despite her need to not become a "grenade" who will blow up the lives of all who love her when she dies, Hazel can't deny her attraction to Augustus, and his persistence eventually wears her down.

Augustus is an amazing fictional creation. He's a teenager who is obsessed with metaphors and metaphysics. Even when playing his favorite video game he insists on acting nobly and dying for a cause greater than himself. But he's also a kid in love, and his awkward attempts to get Hazel to like him are endearing.

The Fault in Our Stars follows Hazel and Augustus's budding relationship as they deal with the awkwardness of their both being sick, and how they handle allowing new people into their life. There is also the more concrete plot of trying to track down Hazel's favorite author, a reclusive Dutchman who has written the only Cancer Book that Hazel ever found to be honest about her disease. This aspect of the book almost feels unnecessary. It would have been enough just to spend time with Hazel and Augustus.

Eventually, of course, there is an upsetting revelation and a tragic end, but the story handles the process of death and grief with compassion and surprising realism. The author, John Green, seems to have a limitless supply of ways to think about life and death.

The Fault in Our Stars is a daring, fascinating look at a subject that is too often made maudlin and cheap by excess sentiment. I can't afford to buy you a copy, but I really do think you should read it.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

"The Sisters Brothers" has a such a unique premise that it seems destined to be a great novel, but alas, Mr. DeWitt's imagination and creativity are not up to the task. The novel is hurt by its lack of memorable episodes or incidents, and is something of a bore.

Charlie and Eli Sisters are Old West hitmen under the employ of a mysterious figure known only as The Commodore. Older brother Charlie is a ruthless killer whose path was set when as a young man he was forced to kill his father in order to save his mother. Eli is a more reluctant gunman who is just accustomed to following his brother's lead.

The plot of the novel is set in motion by The Commodore's latest assignment for the brothers. They are to travel to Sacramento and kill a man with the improbable name of Herman Kermit Warm. After some diversions of only middling amusement, the Sisters Brothers discover the true reasons for The Commodore wanting Warm killed, and they are plunged into an ethical and personal dilemma.

Unfortunately, the resolution of this dilemma is almost grossly unsatisfying. As a novel, "The Sisters Brothers" suffers from a lack of insight and a startling reluctance to fully portray the world of its characters. There are only occasional hints that the author has any idea what life in the Old West during the Gold Rush was actually like.

It's always a shame when a dynamite premise falls into the wrong hands. "The Sisters Brothers" had all the makings of a great novel. It's too bad that novel wasn't the one that was written.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Muppets

I finally got around to seeing The Muppets the other night. Here are some quick thoughts:

Jason Segel and his collaborators managed to strike just the right note between silly humor and sly, knowing reference style humor. I loved the way The Muppets played with the style of previous Muppet output without ever being cynical about it. I loved the gags about "traveling by map", the "time-saving montage" and such. Also, basically every appearance by '80s Robot cracked me up. I also appreciated the constant references to the fact that all the characters knew they were in a movie, which felt very reminiscent of the original Muppet Movie.

I was a bit disappointed with the movie's music, though. They did an excellent job integrating the music within the plot, especially for the Oscar winning Best Song, "Man or Muppet?" but most of the original songs were unmemorable, with the possible exception of "Life's a Happy Song" which, though saccharine, was very catchy. I also would have appreciated if they had made space for the full version of "Rainbow Connection."

The celebrity cameos were a little underwhelming also. Maybe they will grow in retrospect, but it feels like the older Muppet movies attracted a higher class of celebrity. The cameos in The Muppets were mostly TV stars and friends of Segel. Much better were the stars who actually had roles to play, like Emily Blunt as Miss Piggy's icy receptionist and Rashida Jones playing against type as a ruthless TV executive.

I also had some problems with Amy Adams' role. I feel like it's too facile and common a trope to introduce conflict through the wet-blanket girlfriend. Segel seems to have learned this first-hand at the Apatow academy. Plus, Adams is such a likeable screen presence that it's hard not to concede that she has a really good point about Segel's Gary.

Still, these are nitpicks. The Muppets features Muppets, so it really couldn't go too far off-track. Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and the gang are so enjoyable that it was almost enough just to see them on screen again. The fact that they were given so many nice gags and punchlines was the cherry on top of the sundae.

Community: "Pillows and Blankets"

I'm called a snob so often that it barely even rankles me anymore, even though I do resist the classification. One place where I've never considered myself elitist is in the area of television, especially sitcoms. While I don't like every sitcom on air (sorry, 2 Broke Girls, I really tried) I am far less judgmental of them than I am with other artforms. While I can distinguish between the innovative and the lazy, and appreciate the former for its daring, even moderately well-done conventional sitcoms can make me laugh and get me to keep watching.

Still, I don't approach those middle-of-the-road shows with the same fervor as I do Community. Case in point, even though I didn't get home until very late last night I knew I had to watch "Pillows and Blankets" before I went to bed, other wise I would be antsy about not having watched it, especially since I'm going home for the weekend and wouldn't be able to see it until Monday.

What I saw was a severe disappointment to me. I can appreciate the cleverness of the Ken Burns parody, and can call out exactly what tropes they are re-appropriating and mocking, but these touches did not fill me with mirth, and I think I know why. Community episodes like "Pillows and Blankets" depict a facet of the show I've never really cared for. Dan Harmon and the staff at Community occasionally allow themselves to fall into the trap of only pleasing the true believers, the people who love Community no matter what. The microscopic ratings have lead to an insular mentality, which can make it easy to say screw it and write just for the narrow audience of uncritical acolytes.

To me, comedy is about bringing people together and having a good time. Studies have shown that people are far more likely to laugh at something when they are in a group than alone. The best episodes of Community are funny enough that I laugh watching at home by myself, and feel like I'm sharing a common experience with others. "Pillows and Blankets" on the other hand seemed to expect me to feel good about being one of the few people who watches Community. Instead that just made me feel even lonelier.

Maybe this show has passed me by. I certainly didn't care for very many of the jokes last night. (Notable exception: everything involving Leonard.) I hated the whole pillow fight, it seemed so childishly stupid in an unclever way. I hated Chang's Army because it seemed entirely implausible, even for Greendale. I hated how quickly Troy and Abed's feud went away, because it seemed like something from a lesser sitcom.

Just as with "Critical Film Studies", I seem to be on something of an island on this episode, judging by the critical reaction. Todd Van Der Werff of the AV Club gave this episode an A, but he seems to be so in the tank for Team Harmon that it's hard to take him seriously. If Community only wants to preach to the choir, they can probably count on a lot of empty seats.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mad Men: "Tea Leaves"

“Tea Leaves” played with the audience in a lot of unsatisfying ways, from the minor (though I knew the show would never do it, I wondered if they would allow Don and Harry to actually meet The Stones on-screen) to the major (everyone’s least favorite character gets a cancer scare that is quickly resolved.) Matt Weiner also indulged in one of his least laudable habits, the excessive, winking use of dramatic irony, where he allows the audience to use their knowledge of future events to feel superior to the characters. This episode featured Henry Francis calling “Romney” a clown (referring to the current GOP candidate’s father), which will surely result in at least 17 Fox News segments referring to the show as liberal propaganda.

All this playing with the audience, and for what? “Tea Leaves” was one of the few Mad Men episodes I’d go so far as to call badly written. Every point was made clumsily and obviously. Pete’s little speech at the end was ineptly petty, even for Pete Campbell. Every Betty conversation felt like Matt Weiner screaming at us about Betty’s deficiencies as a human being. Even Jon Hamm, perhaps distracted by having to direct this mess, couldn’t save the scene where Don is forced to face his impending irrelevance in the form of a teenage Brian Jones fan. (Another use of dramatic irony, as we know that Jones will be joining the famous “27 club” in the near future.)

Of course, this is Mad Men, so there was still a lot of good stuff packed in there. For as little as I cared for the cancer scare plot, it led to a fantastic phone call between Betty and Don, though please, please don’t let that be a tease toward a reunion. I can’t take more Betty. I also enjoyed both the conflict between Roger and Pete, and the way it nicely paralleled Stan’s advice to Peggy about the new hire. That Roger himself made the connection at the end of the episode sealed it.

However, that new hire, Michael Ginsburg, is a bit of a mystery so far. Incredibly arrogant and unlikable in his first interview with Peggy (whom he assumes is Don’s secretary) and then very professional but blunt with Don, and finally sympathetic in his humble home life with an aging Jewish father. Even the actor didn’t seem to really have a handle on the character, but we’ll have to wait a few episodes to really see.

And next week, can we please have the old Don back, even for just a little while? This guy who indulges the client’s inane idea to have The Rolling Stones sing about beans has got to go.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Women by Charles Bukowski

As soon as I finished reading this book I got up and threw it in the trash. It felt like I was returning it where it belonged.

Charles Bukowski's protagonist, alcoholic poet Henry Chinaski, is known to be an autobiographical alter-ego of the author himself. So I can only assume that Mr. Bukowski is just as much of an asshole as his narrator.

"Women" follows Chinaski, a former post office clerk turned poet experiencing some late-in-life success, as he uses his new found fame to sleep with and mistreat as many women as he can. That's the whole plot. On it's own it would merely be repetitive and disinteresting, but the real travesty is not in the way Chinaski treats women but in the way the author does. Bukowski treats the women of this story exactly as Chinaski does. To him they are all alike, all crazy and, maddeningly, all worthy of the atrocious treatment they receive.

People like Chinaski, and I must assume Bukowski, are neanderthals. They believe that human beings are just base animals, and that they are being brave and honest by admitting it and giving in to it. Humanity is a joke to people like them.

If anyone told me that Bukowski was their favorite author I would walk away from that person immediately.