The Big Sleep filled my yearly quota of misogyny and homophobia in one shocking shot.
I read this years and years ago, watching it somewhen around theThe Big Sleep filled my yearly quota of misogyny and homophobia in one shocking shot.
I read this years and years ago, watching it somewhen around the time I watched Bogie and Bacall in Howard Hawke's adaptation, although I can't remember in what order I read/watched the two versions. I do remember loving the book, though, and I have since seen the film a dozen times over thirty-some years. I remembered the hard-bitten cynicism of Philip Marlowe, I remembered Vivian Sternwood's languorous sexiness (although it turns out this is much more Bacall's performance as Vivian than Raymond Chandler's character). I also remembered the general nuts and bolts of the story. What I didn't remember, what I had no sense of at all, was just how normalized the disdain for women and homosexuals was in this book.
It is virulent.
Women are to be avoided at all costs. They are either the devil herself, or succubi there to tempt men into their own downfall. They are incapable. They are weak. They are irresponsible. They are foolish. They are objects in the worst ways. They are infantile. They are spoiled. And they are flat (which might not be saying much considering that every character in this story, including Philip Marlowe, is static and without a hint of growth). To read it now (or to listen to it, as I did) is to feel every moment of misogyny as a pinch to the nervous system. At least that's how it felt to me.
But then there is the homophobia, which isn't omnipresent like the misogyny (since women abound in the story) but is no less disgusting. The homophobia carries with it the stain of disgust that homosexuality carried with it in our general popular culture well into the nineties (and in so many places still today), and the gay characters in The Big Sleep are the worst kind of humanity. They are positioned as no better than vermin, and homosexuality is discussed in the book the way that child molestation is discussed today.
If the misogyny was a pinch to my nerves, the homophobia was a Vulcan nerve pinch to my bisexual mind (it's no wonder it took me so long to come to terms with my sexuality with such stories shaping my mind as a child).
Yet for all my anger and disgust over the misogyny and homophobia, I find myself guiltily admitting that I really enjoyed The Big Sleep all the same. I should probably be ashamed of myself, and I assure you part of me is ashamed, but Raymond Chandler could sure tell a tale. The dialogue was crisp, the pacing was taut, the story was compelling, the setting of 1930s' LA was everything my mind has come to imagine it to be, and The Big Sleep kept me so riveted I found myself setting aside the misogyny and homophobia as just a product of the time (yeah ... I know. I am guilty as charged).
I feel like there is more to say about all this, more I should say, and much self-criticism that I should ponder (and I will), but for now I will stop, and let you make of my guilt what you will.
One last thing, I listened to the Audible audio version, narrated by Ray Porter, and his performance was one of those uneven performances that drive me mad. His vocal feel for Marlowe and the other men in the book was spot on, and he really nailed the cadence of Chandler's dialogue, but his vocals for the female characters made Chandler's misogyny audibly tangible. He cannot do women's voices, so that every woman in the story sounds like the worst possible version of themselves. It is one of those cases where a shared narration with a woman performing the female dialogue would have elevated the production far beyond what it achieved. I will be avoiding Ray Porter narrations in the future. ...more
Anders Winroth delivered exactly what I expected in his book The Age of the Vikings, but he also delivered a little something more, and it was the surAnders Winroth delivered exactly what I expected in his book The Age of the Vikings, but he also delivered a little something more, and it was the surprise of that that little something more that filled me with a hint of wonder, rekindling my dreams of my career that never was.
Winroth's overview of the Viking Age was broken up into precisely the categories I hoped, addressing the stereotypes and our shared knowledge of what the Vikings were with a desire to dispel the myths and mistakes embedded in the knowledge we think we have. For instance, his discussion of our vision of the Vikings as bloodthirsty raiders takes on the witnesses who have passed this image down to us by analyzing much of the overlooked evidence that points to countless motives that go beyond mere bloodlust, and uncovering the many times the Vikings turned their ships around and went home when they were paid off by the "targets" of their raids. Then he takes his argument a step further, pointing out that much of the reports of Viking savagery come from the priests living under the incredibly bloody -- and genocidal -- reign of Charlemagne (a man celebrated today for his enlightenment despite the enormous death toll he amassed).
This deconstruction of our perceptions is at the heart of Winroth's history of the Viking Age, and it reveals that theirs was a culture of complexity, flexibility and durability that was much, much more than a band of violent raiders, pillagers, and plunderers.
But then there is that extra little thing that Anders Winroth delivers in The Age of the Vikings. It has to do with a commentary on history (and the places from which history draws its evidence -- archaeology, literature, religion, anthropology. Winroth's unstated thesis is that ultimately we just don't know the way things were, in any age, and we can't. All of our sources are biased, or speculative, or flawed, and that maybe the best any historian can do is eliminate things we know a time was not. That and give the best guess without pretending it is an absolute truth.
This idea brought me back to my sideways love of archaeology, of my desire, long held but never acted upon, to become an archeologist. And right here, near my home, I have one of the richest Viking finds connected to a school I love's archaeology department, and maybe 45 is not too old to just go ahead and start digging in the wet, cold soil and turning my speculative mind to the evidence of a thousand years ago. I like that. I like being reminded of those paths long overgrown but always waiting to be returned to....more
I have been known to argue against hope. To argue that hope is evervating. That it leads to apathy and inaction. That it is anathema to change. I haveI have been known to argue against hope. To argue that hope is evervating. That it leads to apathy and inaction. That it is anathema to change. I have argued these things and probably will again, so it is particularly strange that one of my all time favourite books should be a book so filled with hope, so about hope.
In this age of fantasy books great and not so great getting their own shows on HBO or Netflix or MTV, my most fervent wish is to see The Lions of al-Rassan on screen. Not only do I think it would make an insanely entertaining show, but I think it could be the most important show of its kind in our popular culture precisely because of its message of hope.
Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of al-Rassan offers a slightly veiled take on the al-Andalusian period in medieval Spain, replacing the Catholic Spanish with the Jaddites, the Jewish diaspora with the Kindath, and the Muslims with the Asharites. Amongst these groups are individuals capable of almost any atrocity, but there are also individuals capable of almost any sacrifice or goodness too. It is from these benevolent moments, springing out of two cultures of fundamentalism, superstition and ever changing power, that Kay delivers us his message of hope. That there are men and women -- no matter what surrounds them -- who strive to make their world and their lives and the lives of those around them better, and that they can come from the same culture (and religious background) and ethical structure that creates the ugliest expressions of humanity.
Some of the criticism I have read of the Lions of al-Rassan, takes Kay to task for both the almost superhuman skills of his main players, and what is often seen as the black and white of their beliefs and actions. And while I can see that this is present (more in their talents than in their belief systems), I do think that these qualities are purposefully present so that Kay can make his greater case for hope. Jehane, the brilliant Kindath physician, and the two men she loves, the poet-assassin-swordsmen-general Ammar ibn Khairan and the swordsman-general-leader Rodrigo Belmonte, are great at all the things they do, and they each embody what could be best about their peoples. These archetypes are employed to point a way to greatness of spirit as much as greatness in the individual, to offer us inspiration in a trio of characters deserving of our love.
For all their archetypal greatness, however, I am and always have been most impressed by their complexity. Each of them contains beliefs that can't help but create internal conflict in a world of mixed loyalty, religious complexity, cultural inertia and extreme violence. So many of the feelings they have are in direct opposition to the things they are told they should feel, so many of the things they are contravene the standards of the day, and rarely are they faced with easy decisions, and when they are they don't always make what we may consider the best or right decisions. Yet through it all they -- and even many of the supporting characters -- remain self-aware, and that it is within that self-awareness that the good of all the characters, even the most blatantly villainous, can be found.
And that is the place from which the hope of The Lions of al-Rassan springs. It is a beautiful message, and we need it now more than ever. So long as it doesn't make us believe that it can be done by anyone other than ourselves. ...more
It's been a long while since I read a book about the First World War, but I've read many and was always going to find my way back to its histories inIt's been a long while since I read a book about the First World War, but I've read many and was always going to find my way back to its histories in this Centennial period of the conflict. The one book I had long wanted to read but had never gotten around to was Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August.
I have heard of its excellence from many folks I trust, and their praise was mostly borne out --especially when it came to The Guns of August's two major strengths.
First is Tuchman's decision to focus on the leaders who brought the world to war, and the generals and decision makers who fought the war during that fateful August. It was a decision that turned The Guns of August into a dramatic character piece. It was told, at times, with a fiction writer's flair for her characters' strengths and weaknesses, their passions and foibles, their hatreds and loyalties. Ludendorff and Hindenburg loom large on the Eastern Front for the Germans; King Alfred of Belgium takes on heroic proportions as he saves his nation in the first weeks of the conflict; Franchet d'Esperey and Gallieni are the decisive figures that pull France back from the brink; John French, the commander of the BEF, comes off as a man out of his depth; while Joseph Joffre sits above them all as the calm, unflappable saviour of the Allied cause. It's all wildly entertaining, satisfying the craving to read about great people doing great things.
Second is Tuchman's microscopic focus on a tiny period of the First World War. No grand overviews for The Guns of August. This is, as the title states, a look at that first August of the war. We see how many (but not all) of the pieces fit together to lead inexorably to the conflict, and Tuchman delivers an thrilling account of all of August's engagements -- from Germany's almost victory and near capture of Paris to France's almost repulsion of the Huns and their near ending of the war in only a month. It all takes place before the trenches that have become synonymous with WWI are dug, before the war is mud and gas and horror and attrition, before hindsight could clarify and taint the decisions made by the great decision makers. As with her focus on great men, Tuchman's narrow focus lends itself compelling narrative, and reading this book is a thrill.
For all of its quality, however, The Guns of August has flaws, and the flaws are also rooted in the books strengths. Tuchman's focus on the great leaders makes perfect sense to her history book, to the history it's trying to tell, but it also leads too easily to her own biases (which is something I find myself saying about nearly every historian. Sorry historians). It is too easy to tell who the people are that she most admires (a KitKat of French generals top the list), too easy to tell whose side she is on (England's) and which side she despises and blames (the Germans). These biases lack subtlety, and once they are put together with her narrow focus, their lack of subtlety are compounded by a tendency to oversimplification -- and increase of black and white, of contrast, and the decrease of shades of grey.
Regardless of its flaws, The Guns of August is an excellent piece of work, especially if you are knowledgeable about the First World War, but have taken a break from studying this decidedly depressing period and need a way back in.
p.s. Nadia May's narration of the audio version is perfect. She delivers light versions of all the accents, which work beautifully without any silly attempts at impersonation, and she sounds just like Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey's Isobel Crawley (amongst other roles), which is a blast for any fan of Downton who loves Matthew's Mum. ...more
I am a sucker for Swedish Noir, all Swedish Noir as it turns out, but for all my enjoyment of Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm, it's really not that good a boI am a sucker for Swedish Noir, all Swedish Noir as it turns out, but for all my enjoyment of Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm, it's really not that good a book. It doesn't rank anywhere near the books of Sjowall & Wahloo nor Mankell nor even Stieg Larsson, although Åsa Larsson is comparable in talent to the last of the Swedish crime writing elite. It is good for giving the brain a rest, good for late night time killing, and a great way to kill time in a waiting room, but there is better out there to be had.
But perhaps I am being unfair. The thing is that this first Rebecka Martinsson has some excellent elements within. Rebecka, herself, is a tax lawyer rather than a detective or journalist or even a criminal lawyer, and she has no professional business being wrapped up in the brutal murder of Viktor Strandgard (a born again Christian who has died, gone to heaven and returned to tell the tale), but Ms Larsson avoids the cliches that would usually accompany either a young lawyer or an amateur investigator, and what she delivers is really much more a thriller than a mystery, and we spend zero time in court.
She also introduces us to a number of fascinating characters, and even if we never see them in any future books, she does well in breathing life to her cast with very little room to do the breathing.
Yet it is that same claustrophobic space her story inhabits that is its most serious weakness. Brevity can be a benefit, but not in the case of Sun Storm. Martinsson's story, and the stories of those she comes in contact with, need more time -- both for us, the reader, and them. Yes she makes some of the characters compelling, but that just puts her failure to flesh them and their stories out even more disappointing.
Whatever the shortcomings of the book, however, I am sure this could be made into a fantastic film, and I understand there is a Swedish version out there somewhere. If only I could get my Netflix from Sweden, I might be able to see if it turned out as well as I imagine. ...more
We found a vestige of our creation on Saturday night, a fight club buried in the bowels beneath a Chinese restaurant.
ProjeWe are Jack's hollow soul.
We found a vestige of our creation on Saturday night, a fight club buried in the bowels beneath a Chinese restaurant.
Project Mayhem long dead. The uniform leaves scattered to the wind. Returned to desperation, ineffectuality, servitude. A new breed populated that basement, and we were the skeletal old man, that frightening combination of tight muscles and bone and rage, smiling our Joker smile as we tagged the nearest recovering junkie.
It was our "first night" at fight club, so we had to fight.
We weren't what we used to be, but we were more than enough for the Apple Genius who we'd spotted with the split lip and black eye two days before. His nose cracked like a creme brulee beneath our fork. We had his arms pinned beneath our knees and only after the blood coated our knuckles was he able to tap out with his fingers and wrist. He grabbed us in a tearful embrace when we all rose from the cement.
It wasn't the same. They're further gone than we were, tempered by years of Oprah and Hillary, too deep in their self loathing to do anything but shoot up schools when they're not eating Cheetos in their parent's basements. There's no saving them.
There's probably no saving us. Shopping carts and Vodka are our only hope. ...more
I've not been in the happiest places in literature as of late. I spent a few books in Vietnam, reading all about their history, and also about the dirI've not been in the happiest places in literature as of late. I spent a few books in Vietnam, reading all about their history, and also about the dirty U.S. business there and in Cambodia and Laos. I was getting pretty damn bummed out, yet even so I started reading DeLillo's Libra. I finished one chapter before I was turtled in bed.
Luckily I had a trip to town scheduled with my loved ones, and I went looking for something lighter, less depressing. I sort of found that with Joe Abercrombie's Half a King. Sort of.
Half a King is a simple story (and maybe that's why if felt lighter and less depressing) and vastly less intense than Abercrombie's more adult fair, but if this is meant to be a YA novel it only manages to be YA through a reduction of sex and violence and a slightly less complex plot.
Half a King is emotionally satisfying in the way that all revenge fantasies are. We meet our “heroes” we meet our “villains” and our “heroes” seek vengeance as we cheer them on. I cheered on Yarvi and his crew as they sought vengeance. How could I not? It’s what we’re meant to do, and when I put the book down I was thoroughly sold on its excellence. I put it down with a smile and a sigh and thought, “That was a rip roaring adventure.”
But then I let it sit for a while, and I started connecting it to other revenge fantasies and the joy of the revenge fantasy -- that inescapable tale of our time that inures us to all forms of violence and torture and bad governmental behaviour because the vengeance seeker has been wronged and we now equate vengeance with justice -- slipped away from me, making Half a King just another drop in the sea of ugliness we offer our children. It is why I prefer Superman to Batman (against the seemingly ever-increasing wave of Kal-El haters). The latter seeks “justice” through revenge; the former seeks to make things better for the sake of bettering us all.
For now, though, revenge fantasy is here to stay. And because of that I would like to make a plea: if your child loves Batman or other vengeance seekers, please talk to them after they watch their cartoons or read their comics or watch their movies. Please talk to them and explain that we don’t need more vengeance. We need more forgiveness. ...more
As a big fan of Henning Mankell's Wallander series, I had high hopes for this story on the periphery of Wallander's Sweden, since it is one of MankellAs a big fan of Henning Mankell's Wallander series, I had high hopes for this story on the periphery of Wallander's Sweden, since it is one of Mankell's highest profile non-Wallander books, but while it was okay, I found myself mostly annoyed.
My annoyance was easy to pin down. Mankell is wearing his politics like a big old Groucho Marx nose on this one. It's not that I disagree with his politics. I don't. But there was a complete and utter lack of subtlety in his anti-Nazi, anti-neo-Fascist diatribes, and they reached a point where I felt his message lost power, nearly making some of the Nazis, particularly the one at the heart of the tale, almost sympathetic.
Mankell lacked the ability to weave his message into the tale, to hold onto his message, to win over the reader while having his characters overtly discuss their concerns. This ability was the hallmark of two of his greatest influences, Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, and it certainly felt like their ability to be politically critical while keeping us engaged with the plot and the characters was something Mankell was striving for here. He was striving, but he didn't reach his goal.
It was an interesting enough mystery, but the heavy handed preaching took its toll -- on me at least.
I was pleased, however, to see how Mankell tied this story into the greater Wallander-verse. It was a nice touch. A light touch. Not overdone at all. Too bad he didn't apply that lightness to the whole tale. ...more
Stanley Karnow was a journalist before and during America's war in Vietnam, so he comes at his subject with all the biases of his era, his job and hisStanley Karnow was a journalist before and during America's war in Vietnam, so he comes at his subject with all the biases of his era, his job and his country (and admits as much in his Prologue), yet he still manages, for the most part, to present a balanced view of the history he is undertaking -- a history of Vietnam's wars rather than America's Vietnam War.
The title suggests that the book is going to be a history of Vietnam, an informative overview of its entire history. The title is misleading. Karnow has written an overview, it's true, but it is an overview of conflict. Once the minor disappointment over the focus of the book passes, however, it is easy to appreciate what Karnow has done.
I think this is a great starting point for anyone really interested in understanding how South East Asia become one of the most important moments in the history of a country so far removed from its shores. By tracing Vietnam's long history of warfare, from its attempts to dominate its Laosian and Cambodian neighbours and its prolonged attempt to hold off the influence of the menacing Chinese power to the north, to its disdain for French Colonial dominance and their ultimate war against (or use of) US Imperialism, the Vietnamese history of conflict shows us that wars, all of them, were likely inevitable, and that anyone taking the fight to them in their land was doomed to failure.
Karnow's best moments, however, are when the book leaves behind the jungles and cities and towns of South East Asia and returns to the machinations of the US politicians during the Vietnam Era. He addresses Kennedy's shortsightedness and belligerence (suggesting, to me at least, that his unsavoury role in Vietnam is one in a series of shortcomings his assassination have mystified for the public), Johnson's morass, Nixon's downright villainy and nuclear sabre rattling (which is a form of mental terrorism if there ever was one, and it was standard Nixon policy, actually called the "Madman" policy), and all the fucking about the other US players engaged in to prolong or fight or avoid or pull out of a war that should never have been engaged in but could not be avoided.
A good read. And a good start for anyone interested in understanding an important moment in time. ...more
I've been waiting a long time to read first Linda Wallander mystery. I've always liked her character, particularly in the BBC version of the WallanderI've been waiting a long time to read first Linda Wallander mystery. I've always liked her character, particularly in the BBC version of the Wallander mysteries, and I was worried Henning Mankell's elevating of Linda to a place of prominence would be diminishing for me. That seems paradoxical, I know, but there are some characters who just shouldn't be leads. My fears that Linda was such a character were misplaced.
In fact, having so much prior knowledge of Linda made for a much richer "first novel" for the main character. Mankell wasn't starting from scratch, and neither were we. Her back story was already established in depth, and that story was allowed to form and shape her actions in Before the Frost in ways that loyal readers could trace. That familiarity was actually comforting.
But really, what I loved most about my familiarity with Linda was what that allowed me (and us, I imagine) to see in Kurt Wallander, her father. It's one thing to have fan authors or future authors or even members of an author's family offer different perspectives on a beloved character, but it is something else entirely -- and something entirely superior -- when the original author of a beloved character offers a different perspective on their beloved character through the distinct perspective of another character who we would expect to know them best.
I feel like I know Kurt (and Linda too) better now than I ever have before. I saw more flaws, I saw more blemishes, I saw more reality, and all of these things made me love them more. Both father and daughter are genuine people in my brain now, and it makes me even sadder than I already was that Henning Mankell's struggle with cancer is going to cut short his gift of their lives to us.
I must mention one thing about the audio performance of Cassandra Campbell. As Linda Wallander she was everything I hoped she would be, but as Kurt Wallander she was thoroughly one note, and disappointingly so. Mankell's writing was strong enough to overcome this, but Campbell's unwavering crankiness as Kurt Wallander conjured more than a few sighs from my tired old lungs. Since I am basing my rating on this edition of the book, just know that the stars also reflect Campbell's performance, not just Mankell's writing....more
The kindest thing I can say about Andy Weir's The Martian is that it is going to make an excellent Ridley Scott film. I will be thoroughly shocked ifThe kindest thing I can say about Andy Weir's The Martian is that it is going to make an excellent Ridley Scott film. I will be thoroughly shocked if the film is worse than the novel. I expect it to be much, much better on screen. This may sound like an insult, but I truly mean it as a compliment because from the beginning of the story until the end, I felt Andy Weir's fingers deliberately tapping out a tale for sale to Hollywood -- and good for him for succeeding so well.
The Martian is, essentially, a retelling of the real life Apollo 13 drama, but reset on Mars, with a botanist/engineer (oh what a happy and joyful confluence of skills) doing everything he can, both with and without help NASA, to survive.
The story glides gleefully all over the place, from the titular Martian's computer journal and his communications with Earth to some standard prose concerning what's going on at NASA, what's going on with the Martian's former crew mates, and what happens in the final, daring rescue mission.
It's a good story, and one of the more compelling audiobooks I've heard (in fact, it is the fastest I have ever blasted through an audiobook, a format I am not terribly fond of most of the time, but listen to through necessity), but by the end it feels much too happy. It is not a spoiler to say that the Martian is saved -- that is a foregone conclusion -- and if you are someone who actually thought he might not make it, then I'm guessing you didn't know the movie was coming soon or that you didn't recognize Andrew Weir's ultimate destination for the story. Hollywood wouldn't want a dead Martian.
I am looking forward to this in the theatre, although my greatest hope is that Ridley Scott and co. have given us something a little darker, a little less happy, a little more dangerous on the big screen. I doubt it, but it would be nice. ...more