Long essays are probably best suited to magazines, except for the fact that there really aren't magazines anymore; longform articles aren't great forLong essays are probably best suited to magazines, except for the fact that there really aren't magazines anymore; longform articles aren't great for the short attention-span of the net, and they certainly aren't very good when stretched out to book length. Here we have a case of the latter.
An intriguing premise-- that there is an alternate way to contextualize our habitat, through the eyes of the burglar, the intruder, the outsider-- gets any reader right into the thick of the discussion. 'Architects love to think they’re the only ones truly concerned about the built environment. It is equal parts self-pity and arrogance, despair and pride. If architects are to be believed, no one but them pays any attention to the buildings around them. But what became increasingly clear during my research for this book is that some of the most interesting responses to a building, whether it’s a high-rise apartment or an art museum, don’t come from architects at all, but from the people who are hoping to rob it. The people who case its doors and windows, who slink down its halls looking for surveillance cameras, who wait at all odd hours of the day and night to find rhythms of vulnerability in the way a building is used or guarded...'
Really very interesting, and various publications and magazines have hosted excerpts of Manaugh's book already, more manageably in article format. Where we go wrong here is in the inevitable stretching-out procedure that gets a one-trick magazine article into book form. While the factoids and micro-bits of info are there, as we may expect, in force, the sheer size seems to promise more. The language employed virtually seems to guarantee it. We have the expectation of unlocking secret back alleyways of the built world, and maybe even uncovering some buried hypothesis that is hiding in plain sight, written right on the surface of our dense civilization's elaborate exteriors. Or interiors.
'Burglary has an uncanny spatial power, forcing us to rethink fundamental beliefs we might have about the built environment, from how we define a house to the way we might choose to move from one floor to another within a building. This is because burglary, as we’ve seen, requires architecture: without an inside and an outside, there is no such thing as burglary...'
Yes. Very good from the moving-deck-chairs-around perspective, but not much actually gets said as the pages turn and turn. Mr. Manaugh seems in awe of the casually-deployed metaphor, and just can't stop riding one hobby horse in particular: in nearly every paragraph of the book the word 'architecture' is reused, reinterpreted in some new and presumably daring way to mean the universal built environment while specifically describing some small facet of same. Or of something entirely unrelated. An umbrella term for all weather, that becomes neither more meaningful nor more clever with every redeployment.
Brighter spots are found with the smaller fare--those factoids and historical blips that research has turned up: '...Marc Weber Tobias points out, for example, that older combination locks had a significant vibrational vulnerability—they could be vibrated into opening. “This was such a pervasive problem,” he writes, that during long ocean crossings, these “safes used to open themselves on some ships.” The “constant engine tremors” would simply be “transmitted to wheel packs through the metal of the vessel,” and the safes would just swing open, as if picked by the swaying of the waves...'
Another interesting segment concerns itself with the way that commercial environment designers have learned to lead the consumer through a maze that suits their needs: 'The question of how deep architectural interiors can be monitored and controlled extends far beyond the realm of the residential. Museums, hotels, and casinos, not mention pieces of urban infrastructure, such as subways, train stations, and even streets themselves, have almost imperceptibly been transformed into unwitting film studios, recorded not by Hollywood equipment but the high tech gear of the security industry. Surveillance cameras blur the line not just between public and private, but between architectural structures and optical installations, turning entire casino interiors, for example, into carefully designed stage sets specifically meant to steer you in front of the lens...' Even here, though, Manaugh cannot resist the umbrella-metaphor he'd like to impose. The Hollywood movie. Okay. Sort of.
A more action packed-- okay the only action packed-- segment finds Manaugh in a police helicopter roving above Los Angeles at night: '... This was the anticipatory geography of crime, where the helicopter crew’s job was to preempt any possibility of escape: to guess where the suspect might go next and to have police officers there waiting. This looked like a particularly interesting case because the street grid here was “out of sync,” in the tactical flight officer’s words, with the rest of the city...' Manaugh refuses to miss an opportunity to wrap an already interesting narrative in a metaphor of his own devising, meant to enhance but in the end looking a little desperate to rearrange and do imaginative analysis when the facts alone are sufficient.
This would have been a great succession of long articles in a serious magazine of the nineties; awkwardly stretched into book form and repeatedly forced into the cracks of a fuzzy thesis, it's a bit infuriating. Must be 'the architectural geography of linear thinking' or something. Hmpf....more
And then one day, one memorable day in the early evening, I stumbled across the Champs-Élysées. I know it seems crazy to say, but before I actually stAnd then one day, one memorable day in the early evening, I stumbled across the Champs-Élysées. I know it seems crazy to say, but before I actually stepped onto it, I had not been aware of its existence. No, I swear it... All at once I found myself standing there gazing down that enchanted boulevard in the blue, blue, evening. Everything seemed to fall into place. Here was all the gaiety and glory and sparkle I knew was going to be life if I could just grasp it. I began floating down those Elysian Fields three inches off the ground, as easily as a Cocteau character floats thru Hell...
Knowing, mocking send-up, of the adventurous innocent-abroad genre... happily knowing that the mocking is often naïve, and also that the target of the joke is going to be the narrator. This is the first of two Elaine Dundy books, both fictionalized memoirs about being young, cocky, smart-assed and fragile. Notwithstanding its title, 'The Dud Avocado' feels fresh, brightly unaware of itself, and unaware of the trickery in store for its heroine.
In the present volume she will negotiate expat life on the Left Bank, new love, deceit and French waiters, all without smudging much mascara:
The waiters at the Select comported themselves with that slightly theatrical mixture of charm, complicity and contempt that one would expect from servants in Hell. All you had to do was sit there at the beginning of an evening, feeling pristine and crisp, combed and scented, and order your very first drink (it could be something as innocent as a lemonade), for them to indicate by the slightest flicker of their merry eyes that they were aware as you that you were taking the fatal step down the road to ruin... all this they could predict for you as relentlessly as any Delphic Oracle, while at the same time it all struck them as so irresistibly funny they couldn't help chuckling...
Adventures keep everything jangling along and what eventually transpires is that self-told tale of the graduate Ingenue, a wittily antic amble through the foothills of (what emerges as) adulthood. Holly Golightly, but written by an actual woman. From here, move right along to the better book, The Old Man And Me, where concision and polish tighten the screws on the same rocky ride. ...more
Let's get at this obliquely. There is no courtroom scene in this book, but there is something about courtroom scenes. The first something is that I haLet's get at this obliquely. There is no courtroom scene in this book, but there is something about courtroom scenes. The first something is that I hate them, more in novels than in movies, because they are a flat tire for any pacing or drive that the narrative may have developed. A courtroom scene --by nature the very definition of a place where nothing new or original will happen, slows things to a crawl. It will always be a recap, a methodical rehash. Exceptions exist, but not in the generic run of the mill.
The author of In A Dark Dark Wood--the redundancy in the title is a guarantee of what awaits within--gives us not a courtroom scene but worse, an Extended First Person Hospital Stay. In the middle of what could have been exhibiting some nice dramatic buildup, we go with a no-atmosphere, nothing-new rehash sequence, right in the center of the story, and it is deadly to the pacing. The first-person hospital bed always brings hand wringing and remorse, and no surprise, introducing slow-moving anxiety totally dissipates the energy of the book. Pages of monologue-- "what if it's true?" ... "why can't I remember?" ... are no help.
Ruth Ware's novel elsewhere has (just) enough mystery and plot development to have comprised something that would have met the bottom-line requirements of the contemporary 3oo page hardback release. On the positive side of the ledger, the sheer mechanics of the overall plot are fairly good. There was a solid master plan for this, at some point.
Another positive is the well-drawn Nina character, who comes thru the fluff as somewhat real and three dimensional. The trick of introducing all characters at a cocktail party, though, is that it's actually harder to differentiate and develop them. Yes a tour de force when done brilliantly, but a high bar to meet when attempting a debut novel. Most of the characters in the Wood emerge as sketchy, untried shapes and placeholders.
There are surface problems, first that her snarky cast of sophisticates-- she wants to have a 'Blithe Spirit' or 'Rope' sort of affair, cocktails and dangerous banter-- really don't come off as very sophisticated. A slick, fizzy Noël Coward outing-- this is not. A lesser problem is that she wants to have aspirational, attractive characters who are smooth but human, trendy but interesting, too. Fail. Mentioning the status of both of the main characters' bustlines, in the early exposition, doesn't quite suggest depth or interest. (She peered down her top. "No, we're all good. Double D's all present and correct.") Is it there for the eventual casting director in the movie version?
Giving this two stars rather than one because it seems a wholehearted attempt, and there is always that debut novel thing to get past. Well okay, then, this is past. Next?
Have to search out a copy of this novel, haven't read this since sometime in the mid-8os. Think my hardback may have gone missing in a house of worshiHave to search out a copy of this novel, haven't read this since sometime in the mid-8os. Think my hardback may have gone missing in a house of worship in Harlem, or a gumbo hut in Louisiana. Maybe I can make a deal to get it back. Hm, where to look ..?...more
In Hollywood, anything can happen, anything at all.
One of the core Chandler books, and one that holds up just perfectly. A variation of the heiress-inIn Hollywood, anything can happen, anything at all.
One of the core Chandler books, and one that holds up just perfectly. A variation of the heiress-in-trouble mode, this one features the guy-who-married-the-heiress just to reverse a few of the standard options.
Noir works best when the investigator operates in the middle ground in society, not aligned or attached to anyone in particular; the haves and the have-nots are no particular home team for him. Chandler's Marlowe is the ambassador who visits the foreign countries that live together in Los Angeles, interwoven, interactive, but never happily so. The Long Goodbye actually manages to look at the social justice aspects pretty closely, and in doing so arrives at the beginning of the vexing problem: it doesn't add up.
We'll leave the specifics of the case to the reader, but it's worth admiring the scenery as we get to that final brick wall at the end, the brick wall that is a mirror. As long as he stays neutral, Mr Marlowe is the perfect observer of the location and its contours, on both sides of the divide. Hell is Los Angeles, of course, but it is also the postwar banality of Anycity USA, the shadows and vague opacities expertly painted by Edward Hopper:
I paid my check, left my car where it was, and walked the north side of the street to the Stockwell Building. It was an antique with a cigar counter in the entrance and a manually operated elevator that lurched and hated to level off. The corridor of the sixth floor was narrow and the doors had frosted glass panels. It was older and much dirtier than my own building. It was loaded with doctors, dentists, Christian Science practitioners not doing too good, the kind of lawyers you hope the other fellow has, the kind of doctors and dentists who just scrape along. In a building like that there will always be a few guys making real money, but they don't look it. They fit into the shabby background, which is protective coloring for them...
Stepping into the blinding glare of the midday sun will always locate the reader, and also happens to obscure the shadowy regions of the hell that we're exploring, just to keep things interesting. Since we're investigating both sides of the divide, though, there is relief in sight, when the long shadows of the palms turn bluish purple and the neon begins to glow:
I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar--that's wonderful...
We don't even need to ask if there will be A Dame. That would be like asking will there be a smoggy dust blowing through town, or if there will be palm trees, or a corpse. Yes, the Dame will appear, Blonde Ex Machina and with violet eyes. You get the impression that it hurts Marlowe worse than any precinct-room beating he's gotten, and he gets those regularly. There are blondes, and there are blondes, he notes.
What you may not notice at first are the period niceties, the fact that a manual elevator must be levelled by the rider, or that bartenders generally wear ties. No matter. This is beautiful, effortless, high-baroque noir. And the reader simply doesn't care, by midway or so, where the macguffin may be, or who is guilty. We're all guilty, all of us in our way, and this is Hell. Did you forget that part, pal..? ...more
Whether cop story or spy story, the idea of undercover work is always compelling in novels. Generally handled from a first-person perspective, the uniWhether cop story or spy story, the idea of undercover work is always compelling in novels. Generally handled from a first-person perspective, the unique view conveyed by an undercover operative is unlike normal narration, but yet-- not all that different from any interior monologue. What are the impressions the narrator is making, will he or she stay safely behind the mask or be revealed... What are the signs that the disguise is being penetrated, what clues are available for an effective counter-strategy... Who notices what, and how will things turn out...
All very jolly, and properly implemented can tilt toward suspense, adventure, paranoia, dystopia, or even an evolving nightmare scenario, where norms and identities become uncertain. Here we get to the nervy and disturbing world of Greene, of Ambler, of le Carré. Your basic 'bleak landscape of moral ambiguity' sort of thing, where you get so wrapped up in the intersecting moral dilemmas that you may not even have time for the chase and the showdown at the end. At its best, it's Kafka with concealed weapons and dead drops. And when emulated for form's sake because it's so trippy and cool--well, then it's the kind of thing we have here.
Author Atir would like to do the moral ambiguity bit, and would like to frame it with an undercover-story-gone-wrong. No problem there, sounds intriguing enough to hold up a novel. Surround that with atmosphere that is already electrified--the modern capitol of an Arab country in the Mideast, and that's a winning formula. But somewhere or other, author or translator has dropped a stitch or two; things don't evolve naturally, plausibly, never are we given the sense that anything is inevitably so. Characters are stiff and wooden for long passages but then go effusive and romantically purple on unexpected occasions.
Doing the deep-cover espionage narrative and doing it in cinematic, Hitchcockian logic-- is no simple matter, no matter how well the jigsaw seems to fit once assembled. Adding to it the Graham Greene sense of rueful, conscience-stricken propriety, compounded with the restraint & poise of the veteran secret service officer-- even trickier. Making it seem inevitable-- well, harder still. Reading the jacket blurbs on this book, you'd think this was Shakespeare In A Trenchcoat, a brilliant new conception of espionage thriller, but with scruples. Nope....more
Fred Vargas is a woman, and a mystery writer who sets her oblique, enchanted murder stories in the familiar frame of the policier format.
Which is a hFred Vargas is a woman, and a mystery writer who sets her oblique, enchanted murder stories in the familiar frame of the policier format.
Which is a help, because what she's really after is more of an Alice In Wonderland trajectory. Tracking a generally plausible crime holds the story on the tracks. The standard elements of the policier-- the rustling sounds and stifled scream at midnight in the hedgerows, the discovery of the body, the notification of the detectives, the "police-line-do-not-cross" tape fluttering in the breeze, the arrival of the medical examiner. We know it all by heart.
Ms Vargas will allow no easy ride to the finish, however, and by this outing in the series, it is as much the chaotic group of investigators that complicates the route as it is the mystery itself. First among equals, though, is her central Chief Inspector-- Commissaire in the French context-- a quirky man named Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who runs the department and works the investigation in a roundabout fashion. Call it non-linear.
The indications and clues appear to the reader as incomprehensible, which is fine, because generally the whole of the department finds it that way too, with the exception of the Commissaire. Who wanders and gropes intuitively in the baffling forest the author has prepared. Like the famous Mr. Holmes, the hunt conducted by Adamsberg appears to be pretty unhinged to any onlooker, but persistence and letting the imagination take over begins to find a path; there is method, seemingly, to the madness.
And here the author unfailingly throws another bewildering curve into the mix; it is her delight, and ours, to see the truly ridiculous begin to make sense, followed by yet another contradictory bolt from the blue. Which we will have to chase down to its own conclusions. And so that is our Cat And Mouse game for the Adamsberg novels-- conducted by the author with methodical aplomb, but combined at every turn with the intent of deviously bedazzling the reader.
It's worth it to say that I tried to find a suitable passage to show how this all fits together, but really could not. Vargas weaves the page-by-page facts into the expectations and guesswork of the reader pretty seamlessly, and all games are long games. No aha moments, really, and to be fair, I guessed the villain early on--but no matter. The beauty of it is in the layered weave of reader's intuition versus author's architecture, which is built to intercept, and manage those intuitions. So, then, a literary palimpsest. A thing I had to look up; basically a text with overlays that do not sync up, but which may certainly reference each other.
Possibly I've made this all sound like work, or some inscrutable college course at an obscure école de logique, but no, not at all. Once grounded in the personalities and quirks of the criminal investigation department, everything proceeds along those familiar policier lines, dictated by practice and custom. The characters are good, the logic is breathtaking, and it's all fairly humorous, if you go along for the ride. ________________________________
Fellow travelers: Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Umberto Eco. ...more