Saturday, October 5, 2013

The End of the Affair - book review

My rating: 2/5

A man has an affair with a married woman, who then abruptly breaks it off for reasons unspecified. The woman's husband is worried about her, so the man, being a good friend, has her tailed by a private investigator. Her behavior patterns suggest a new lover, until the detective manages to steal the woman's diary, and suddenly all is revealed.

Then, a long dissertation about love, faith and God, and to shift the cards in faith's favor the woman accomplishes miracles from beyond the grave, thus qualifying herself for sainthood.

The novel reads as the sophisticated attempt of an intellectually powerful writer to convey a realistic image of God's presence among us, through flawed characters whose reattachment to faith become that much more convincing. But for it to work, the reader must be either already convinced or young/impressionable.

To me, the narrative rings false. The basic requirement I have of a story is that I can believe it happened, whether in my universe or some parallel one that resembles my own. In this case, I can't. Halfway through the novel I felt I was being lied to, that the story was being thrust forward on a proselytist agenda and not inspired by legitimate experience or fantasy.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Human Stain - book review

Rating: 4/5

My first out-loud-laugh in this read:
"When we drink Organic Livestock milk, our body, soul, and spirit are getting nourished as a whole. Various organs in our body receive this wholeness and appreciate it in a way we may not perceive.” Sentences like that, sentences with which otherwise sensible adults, liberated from whatever vexation had driven them from New York or Hartford or Boston, can spend a pleasant few minutes at the desk pretending that they are seven years old."

Nathan Zuckerman, back in this novel about a friend he makes in his late sixties, disgraced Professor and ex-dean Coleman Silk who used the word “spooks” in a classroom to describe two absentee students who happened to be African Americans. It happened at the height of political correctness, over the backdrop of late 90’s America and the Clinton-Lewinski affair. Nathan befriends this man with whom he seems to have a lot in common, but Coleman’s past is shrouded in a secret and he has been, for half a century, hiding in plain sight. Eyes are upon him in this novel, Nathan’s as narrator, his 34-year-old illiterate mistress Faunia, Faunia’s Vietnam vet and PTSD victim ex-husband Les, a lonely and bewildered ex-colleague Delphine, and Coleman himself trying to hold his own life to his scrutiny in a failed attempt at defending himself from the howls of political correctness in novel form.

I really liked Nathan’s wisdom in this book. Nathan’s come a long way from the bumbling man he used to be in other books to the self-assured senior he is here, delving almost effortlessly into the psyches and languages of all the characters as he pieces together Coleman’s past and the forces hurtling him to his own peril. The writing is lyrical and evocative, at times blisteringly smart and never shying from the opprobrious or the cringeworthy.

When writing from the point-of-view of the Vietnam Vet, you can really feel the impotent, violent rage of the ex-soldier who doesn’t know what to be anymore, who needs to train at eating at a Chinese restaurant to be able to be around asian people without flipping a switch and going berserk. When in Faunia’s perspective, he paints a wonderful portrait of a woman who can’t read, will never make any sense of her life and whose fascination tends toward crows. And of course Coleman himself…

A great book. Not a word too much or too little, some amazing perspectives on a man whose life is at a dead end yet who feels sufficient indignation to follow Coleman’s story to its’ end and try to blow some justice into it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Warm bodies - book review

Warm bodies - book review

My rating: 1/5

This book started off rather well. First-person zombie account. Zombie walking around doing aimless zombie things. Zombism as a metaphor for leading a numb, deadened, routine existence (Zombies are always metaphors for something. That's what's interesting in the zombie genre: find the metaphor).

But then, suddenly! It devolves into trite sentimentalism. Like the author decided he didn't want to write a novel, what he really wanted to do was make a pop music video about feeling alive, and in love, and long lists of things separated by commas that bring you to the core of existence, bla bla bla.

Add to that a mechanistic plot, carefully obvious twists, a vapidly brave female character who appears to be a stand-in for the mother figure, and there you have a tepid zombie novel. The message of the novel is that we can all learn to just shrug off our torpor (the zombie comes alive by the powah of love) given that we find some shallow blond dramatically teen girlfriend to bring meaning into our previously meaningless lives. If you don't have the physique to woo such a babe, you can also just piggy-back off someone else's love affair and heal your incipient zombism through a proxy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Master - film review

So here’s a film review for a change, having seen The Master.

I don’t do many film reviews, mostly because there’s little reason to do so given the relatively small number of films that command our attention in comparison to books. Plus, books are more fun to review because they elicit wildly different subjective experiences, and monopolize a greater chunk of our time, per unit, in consumption.

I won’t bother describing the plot of The Master in any great detail. Suffice to write that a man leaves WWII an alcoholic and drifts a while before being taken in by the charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause.

Now, this is interesting, because a) the film is set in the 1950’s, and any movement called The Cause has manifestly not survived to today, so we watch the main character’s rapt involvement in The Cause with the constant apprehension that he is being had, and b) the technique of regression hypnosis that members of The Cause use to enable people to connect to past lives. We’ve seen it before. We think we know where this is headed. Except we don’t.

The Master subverts expectation at every possible turn. And as it does so, we, ok I, as viewer am reminded that, guru or no guru, sect or legitimate organization, helpful movement or large-scale fraud, these distinctions are interpretive and distort any image we may have of the internal workings of a closed society. And as the film developed, I realized that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, had made a potent and clever choice: he wasn’t going to answer the obvious question of The Cause’s legitimacy.

And, making that choice, he took the film off the rails of a predetermined narrative. The rest is just humans doing as humans do, in the large range of personalities that thrive in such an environment.

There is a wife to The Cause’s head. You are confounded if you expect the self-erased, diffident, preening woman-child. We are presented here with a true queen, just a step back from the position of power and commanding it as much as he, albeit from the vantage of an ostensibly supportive role.

There are children, a son and a daughter, privy to the inner workings of the organization but also assertively developed individuals whose presence in The Cause is not predetermined nor cordoned off.

And of course there is the latest comer, the main character, struggling with himself, struggling with his past and the ghost of a woman he has loved and left for reasons that he himself cannot explain, and whose presence in The Cause is as much a surprise to himself as it is to us, ok me, the viewer. Because, of course, he is our proxy, he is us investigating himself through the lens of the organization, sincerely curious as to whether it is indeed possible that he can be cured of his internal strife through some revealed truth.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - book review

my rating: 5/5

This is a review not of the book, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”, but the essay itself, which is contained in the book and accompanies a few other essays which I have not read.

This, hands down, the most powerful essay I have ever read. By that I mean that it resonated powerfully within me, and totally upended my conception of what first-person journalism could be. I’d already been profoundly wowed reading the account of eating lobster in his essay “Consider the Lobster” , but this, this –

One always expects a journalist to be critical. He or she are our eyes and ears in the field, there to ask the tough questions and scratch at official answers and accepted truths. David Foster Wallace here goes much, much further. Written as a memoir of a cruise vacation in the Caribbean, Wallace is as critical of himself as he is of his surroundings, and readily accepts that the surroundings themselves: the luxury, the ease, the service (oh my, the service!), the trimmings, all work terribly well in the first sense at providing an scarcely imaginable level of comfort to the people who go on these cruises. And they work on Wallace, and he graciously accepts his own weakness and malleability. But then he goes further, and shines an unforgiving light on what is being conveyed by the opulence of the ship: the subtext, that which is being picked up by his subconscious and making him sadder every day that he spends in his cabin on the Nadir and at all the myriad activities proposed for the fun and amusement of the passengers.

It’s an exploration of the self as much as the world of cruises, his self as an American tourist (that he tries unsuccessfully to escape from), his self as a self-proclaimed semi-agoraphobe, his self as a man of letters with pretensions of self-discipline incapable of foregoing cabin service…

An incredible read.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Le Grand Coeur - book review

My rating : 3/5
Jacques Coeur was a rich 15th Century French merchant. He made his wealth by trading with the great cities of the Mediterranean, and amassed such a fortune that he could afford to finance whole wars led by then king Charles VII to reclaim France from English invaders and against rebellious princes. That’s the historical fact part.

In this novel, the author sets out to flesh up Jacques and show the man behind the historical figure, propose a believable substance that could account for the multifarious opinions that France has held about him, at the time and since.

As such, I found it a little hard to swallow.

For one, Jacques is filthy rich, the richest man in France, but presents himself as someone who never cared for money and just saw it as a means to favour exchange with the orient and bring France kicking and screaming into the cultural limelight. To this I call bullshit: I don’t believe for a second that you can get filthy rich without enjoying filthy richness, at least to a point.

Also, his attraction to the Orient is explained by his having once seen a leopard.

I found this a little weak.

He is portrayed as an atheist, which I found to be difficult to accept from a 15th century merchant with little to do with philosophers and much to do with politics.

Then, there’s the matter of Agnès Sorel, the king’s first mistress, who a “close” friend of Jacques. We’re supposed to believe that their friendship went as far as sharing a bed on numerous occasions, all the while remaining chaste and brotherly.

No way. Does not compute.

Jacques’ star rises and eventually falls when his immense wealth sparks the king’s jealousy. He is accused of various acts of treason by scheming merchants and nobles close to the king and winds up brought to justice. Here, he shows himself noble to the end and barely even protests when they start to torture him. He then readily signs his confession and formulates a plan to escape, without bloodshed. It fails, of course, and in his escape he has a guard killed, but this is shown to be coincidental and the guard in question is described as a bad, bad man anyways.
I found the whole portraiture to be contrived. I understand that the author, born and raised in Bourges not far from Jacques Coeur’s palace, felt an innate kinship to the historical figure and wished to show Jacques’ valour and high-mindedness. I think a better approach would have been to accept the failings of the character and show the man blemishes-and-all.

About the writing style: I read the book in French, and the writing is pleasantly (and surprisingly) straightforward for a book written by a member of the French Académie. It’s a pleasant, though sometimes dry and mostly humourless, read.