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Thursday, January 31, 2013


Erik Larson is most famous for his book Devil in the White City, but that wasn't the one sitting on the free books table at my office. Thunderstruck tells two stories, which don't seem particularly intertwined until the very end of the book, when what had theretofore been a somewhat tedious examination becomes a gripping potboiler.

Thunderstruck forms around two men, Guglielmo Marconi, the man who invented wireless telegraphy, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American expatriate who committed one of the most infamous British murders this side of Jack the Ripper.

One of the problems with the book's construction is that Marconi's story takes more time to develop, as his technology experiences many setbacks in its infancy, as well as serious challenges from the world's scientific community. Crippen is really only notable for one act, but in the name of trying to parallel the stories his sections can seem rather padded. After going through Crippen's background, Larson pores over a few years of his life in excruciating detail. It is much more interesting to read about the doubt surrounding Marconi and his wireless, though even that tale could often get bogged down and repetitive.

Thunderstruck gives the distinct impression that it would be much better as a long-ish magazine article than as a full-fledged book. Larson over-reaches in trying to maintain the reader's attention through constant use of foreshadowing via phrases like "more on that later" or "that would have sever consequences, as we shall see." Overall, the book may be worth reading almost solely for the thrilling last section, which ties together the two threads and tells a story that actually is quite fascinating, how wireless communication helped catch a notorious criminal while the world watched on in suspense.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

When you read a lot of fiction it can be easy to get jaded and bored, and forget why you even read so much of it in the first place. The reason is because occasionally, no matter how rarely, you come across a work of magic such as Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

The novel, a contemporary example of the epistolary form, composed mainly of emails and other primary documents, is a wonder. Set mostly in Seattle, the story contains multitudes. At its heart, it is about the relationship a person has with their own mind and the struggle to communicate with other people. But that makes it sound pretentious. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is an exuberant, gripping, book that grabs you and makes you care for the characters and worry about them. It’s been a while since I found myself so invested in the futures of fictional characters.

Our main character, and the compiler of the documents which form the text, is Bee Branch, fifteen-year-old prodigy and daughter of Elgin Branch, a bigshot at Microsoft, and Bernadette Fox, a former architect losing her grip on sanity. Bee shares with us the story of her mother’s plight as a disaffected person struggling with even the most basic social interactions. Bernadette’s loathing of Seattle, of the other parents at Bee’s private school, and the pointlessness of everyday life have led her to live mostly as a recluse, conducting most of her affairs with the help of an online personal assistant.

As the novel gets underway, Bee is leveraging her perfect grades to guilt trip her parents into taking her on a trip to Antarctica. The dread of taking a long sea voyage on rough waters, in close confinement with other people, is the tipping point for Bernadette, who begins behaving more and more erratically, provoking pernicious gossip among the parents at Bee’s school. Two of these parents, Audrey Griffin and Soo-Lin Lee-Segal, trade jokes at Bernadette’s expense while they serve as queen bees of the private school’s parent set. Semple’s narrative eventually envelops both of them as well, in ways that are sympathetic and understanding.

There’s a lot going on in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? but Semple handles it all so gracefully that the whole thing seems quite natural. Semple is an agile mimic and deftly paces the revelations that make her novel so gripping. The truths about Bernadette’s past failures and of Bee’s birth are moving and real.

This is a remarkable novel that will delight and devastate all but the most heartless of readers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 is the work of a petulant genius, someone for whom the run-of-the-mill literary formats are too simplistic. Pynchon reacts violently against convention and ordinariness, inviting the reader to look inside his overly-active mind and staggering talents as he name drops obscure historical incidents, abstruse scientific concepts, and bewildering philosophical arguments. He also composes plausible pop songs about pedophilia and an intricately plotted Jacobean drama.

All of that sounds like it might be a lot of fun, but Pynchon's genius is, in this outing, too much of the smug, superior kind that doesn't particularly care if your having nearly as much fun as he is. Plot and character may seem like proletarian concerns to a mind like Pynchon's, but their absence from this narrative makes the whole thing jarringly pointless and rather juvenile when you come right down to it.

The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipa Maas, a bored housewife who is named co-executor of the estate of her ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. (If these names strike you as too implausible, I implore you to stay away from Pynchon.) As Oedipa strives to sort out Pierce's holdings, she becomes ensnared in a historical conspiracy with the goal of subverting governmental postal services, with roots stretching to the fifteenth century.

The conspiracy is known as the Tristero, and it's symbol of a muted horn (the image on the cover above) begins to haunt Oedipa, following her all over California. The mysterious nature of the Tristero has all the makings of an intriguing tale, but Pynchon doesn't really care about the mystery, or about Oedipa, or about you. The Tristero is just a convenient vehicle for him to flaunt his extensive knowledge.

Lest you think I'm being too hard on the book, you should know that the famously reclusive Pynchon has disavowed the novel as well, saying that to him it feels like a diminished effort, as though he had unlearned the lessons of his earlier novels. Why the author's own view has not been enough to keep literary critics from overpraising this off-putting novel is a mystery much more sinister than the Tristero.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh's debut novel is a remarkably assured, deftly plotted, incredibly funny look at the inanity of the ingrained class system in Britain. It is compulsively readable and charged with frenetic energy thanks to the manic absurdity of the plot.

Waugh's protagonist, the mild-mannered, unassuming Paul Pennyfeather, is a scholarship student kicked out of Oxford and disinherited under false pretenses. Over the course of the novel he bounces around Great Britain and Wales, falling into one predicament after another as he just tries to mind his own business without success.

Waugh delights in tweaking the unearned pretentiousness of the upper-crust and their unshakable, unproven convictions. The Lords and Ladies of the novel are certain their wealth and privilege are the right and proper nature of things, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can penetrate their thick skulls.

The humor is especially wicked while Paul is employed as a schoolmaster at a private boys' school in Wales. The school and its founder aspire to the highest ideals, but in reality serves as a shelter for the lazy, incurious sons of nobility. Waugh's boldness is especially evident in his use of a a boy's unfortunate accident and subsequent declining health as a recurring joke. Waugh is lampooning the unshakable reserve of the elites, and though the joke is rather shocking, it is also shockingly funny.

Waugh is perhaps best known for his serious, Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, but he was equally proficient at satire, as this fine novel amply proves.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Miserables

The problem with reviewing a movie like Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is that it is not really one movie. This is a problem inherit to the structure of the stage show. A large number of the songs are solos, separating one of the characters apart from the others and letting them have the spotlight all to themselves. Here the flaw is exacerbated by the unequal distribution of singing talent among the cast, making it easy for the viewer to veer back and forth across the entire range of emotions. Certain songs create a well-spring of genuine feeling. There are songs of anguish, heartbreak, and loss which in the right hands are otherworldly effective. There are songs with rousing choruses which stir the blood quite capably. Unfortunately, there are also songs that provoke a response quite opposite to that which is intended. The film is ultimately too inconsistent to be as truly as great as its occasional moments of greatness, though luckily it is nowhere near as bad as its worst moments either.

Even at 158 minutes, the plot of Les Miserables often feels hurried. There isn't a lot of time for quiet contemplation as the viewer is bandied about between different characters singing their hearts out. Succinctly, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, after being warned by the steadfast Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that his past will follow him wherever he goes. Jackman is adept at portraying Valjean's bitterness and hate for the world which he feels now owes him retribution. After being shown the error of his ways by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway), Valjean resolves to begin life anew. However, to do so he must escape from his past, breaking his parole and assuming a new identity.

Years later we catch up with Valjean and find him running a factory and serving as the mayor of a little town. By the type of coincidence only allowed in 19th century novels, Javert is transferred to the same town, arriving at a unfortunate moment which causes Valjean to ignore the plight of Fantine (Anne Hathaway). When her fellow workers discover that Fantine has a child out of wedlock that she has left in the care of some Parisian innkeepers, they spread ugly rumors about her and cost her the job.

The rest of the plot revolves around the consequences of Fantine's plight, and Valjean's remorse over being responsible, plus it would take too long to explain, so let's get back to the review.

Given the multitudinous nature of the film, it's probably more informative to talk in terms of performances. As I mentioned before, they were quite varied. Jackman is very good as Valjean, both before and after his spiritual awakening. His singing is also quite good. Even when I disagreed with his singing choices (he had a tendency to downplay some notes which I thought could stand to be bellowed) I respected them for dramatic reasons. He really did inhabit the character.

Unfortunately, his counterpart Inspector Javert was not portrayed nearly as successfully. Russell Crowe was perhaps not as bad as the universally negative reviews had prepared me to expect, but his lapses can not be ignored. Crowe actually did a fair job capturing the intensity and commitment of Javert, although he was surprisingly unmenacing. Musically, Crowe was obviously far more comfortable playing off his fellow actors. He was much stronger in The Confrontation, in which he trades verses with Jackman, than he was in solo songs such as Stars, a song he butchered and rushed through so badly it can not be forgiven. At times he just looked plain nervous. His casting has to be considered a mistake.

The most buzzed-about performance is Anne Hathaway's, which is being talked about as an Oscar certainty. In truth, it took me a while to warm up to her acting, which at points seemed a little too technically precise, even during her big solo, I Dreamed a Dream. During this very evocative song, I was mostly observing her performance instead of being moved by it. However, I was completely won over by Hathaway's version of Come to Me, which was very moving and for which I'll agree she is awards-worthy.

The love triangle of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Eponine (Samantha Barks) is mostly successful. Seyfried has a rather lovely voice but at the high end of the register she has an unfortunate tendency to warble. Redmayne looks a little too much like a Muppet for me to really take him seriously, but he was mostly fine in a thankless role. Samantha Barks has played Eponine on stage, so her belting of On My Own is one of the more impressive vocal achievements in the film, however, her character seems to be a victim of the films hurried pace. The pain of her unrequited love for Marius doesn't get enough time to really connect with the audience.

The film's most disruptive, damaging performances are actually turned in by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who adopted Cosette and commit thefts to supplement their meager income. In the stage show they are meant for comic relief, which means they are exaggerated eccentrics. This works alright on stage, but on film their grotesque over-the-top appearance is distracting and breaks the rhythm of the film entirely. Though both are game for anything, they have been miscast and poorly applied to the story.

Hooper, who won an undeserved Oscar for directing The King's Speech, does a mixed job on this film as well. His extreme close-ups aren't so much distracting as they are unnecessary. It's as though Hooper sought to give fans of the theater a closer view than they could get of the stage version, forgetting that movie screens are big enough to see human faces clearly in the wide-shot.

Les Miserables is a messy, brassy, sentimental show, and that makes for an uneven application to the film. Maybe no one could have made a completely satisfying movie out of the show, but it still stings that this isn't as great as it so clearly could have been. As it is, it still has moments of fantastic power and soaring strength. It will probably be one of my 5-10 favorite movies of the year. But its flaws are so visible that there will be others, less predisposed in the movie's favor, who will be far less forgiving. And they won't be wrong.