Simon Gray’s play The Common Pursuit depicts a group of Cambridge students intent on starting a literary magazine. At first, they are full of hope andSimon Gray’s play The Common Pursuit depicts a group of Cambridge students intent on starting a literary magazine. At first, they are full of hope and bravado, committed to their high ideals… And then you know exactly where this is going. It takes twenty years to get there, with few surprises on the road to self-delusion and disappointment in the world and others.
It’s not that Gray doesn’t have a sturdy sense of structure. In fact, his problem is too much structure. I was dearly hoping for more surprise. Also, nothing about this is particularly theatrical in the sense of connecting to the live audience, using uniquely theatrical conventions, or delighting. Oh, sure there, a sweet sort of Anglophile itch that can be scratched by the witty repartee. There’s also a comfort in the lack of shock – that sort of comfort is not really why I go to plays.
The characters are pleasant enough, but they are more stereotypes than fully fleshed human beings. They might be relatively interesting for actors to play – especially in figuring out how to fill out what are basically clichéd personalities. They’d definitely be less interesting for me to watch.
It’s not the worst play ever written, but it isn’t the best. It has a sort of solid, predictable architecture that is – from a traditionalist standpoint – impressive. As a piece of living, breathing theater, it just doesn’t have enough fire or creativity to do more than merely distract an audience for a couple hours. ...more
The Year We Left Home is about a family between two wars – Vietnam and Iraq. It’s also about them fighting between two ideas; traditionalism and moderThe Year We Left Home is about a family between two wars – Vietnam and Iraq. It’s also about them fighting between two ideas; traditionalism and modernism. The Erickson family are born and raised in small Grenada, Iowa – a farm town. They are the product of strict, industrious Norwegian stock. The Ericksons' old life is pulling apart at the seams as kids leave Iowa, as the family navigates tragedies, and as modern life inserts itself into their DNA.
The idea of telling an entire novel in vignettes isn’t new, but it’s a gimmick that has really caught hold as people’s attention spans shorten. With her skill as a short story writer, author Jean Thompson seems adept to turn in the next great American novel. She covers 3 decades of this family's life with episodes, leaving the reader to connect the lines between the chapters.
This is a good book, but it feels lacking.
It starts off so promisingly, with an early 70s Iowa wedding. Ryan is watching his older sister Anita tie the knot, when cousin Chip – a loner and damaged Vietnam vet – comes out of the woodwork. Here, Thompson shows not only her keen ability to paint a picture with words; she also has a sense of humor:
Ryan thinks of his lineage, the Peersons: “If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you call someone else.”
That sense of humor seems to leave her for most of the rest of the book.
On top of that, the vignettes aren’t always as powerful or as memorable as they should be, like when Anita goes to a family farm auction. Her husband is a banker; her family is being foreclosed on. The tension is magnificent; not all the other stories have this.
Finally, Thomson gives short shrift to a few characters – the dad, the mom, the younger sister and brother – for Ryan, Anita, and Chip. To me, the brother Blake, who decides to stay in Iowa, has just as fascinating motives as his brother and cousin who left.
Buried in The Year We Left Home are a lot of intriguing ideas – some not fully formed. One is the changing of the guard from family farms to corporate farms in America’s heartland. (I am from Iowa, too, so I know it goes beyond Farm Aid.) Secondly, the sense of who they are as a family and as a subculture is never fully realized. About half the chapters plod on instead of diving into these themes.
Thompson has some great moments: Ryan bringing a college girlfriend home to meet the family, Anita confronting her husband’s alcoholism, Chip roping Ryan into a Wild West scheme. Other chapters, Blake’s business and Ryan’s family’s trip to Italy, just seem to sit in their place in the book, marking out a space and time before the next chapter. I can honestly say that the end of the book wasn’t interesting at all, as if the goal was just to wrap the whole thing up and move on. ...more
Lila is a beautifully written testament to Robinson’s power with language. It also may be a little frustrating in that there isn’t a plot that drivesLila is a beautifully written testament to Robinson’s power with language. It also may be a little frustrating in that there isn’t a plot that drives everything forward, forcing you to devour page after page. More importantly, the protagonist withholds information from the reader for no reason - except for the author to draw the book out. It’s the third novel after Gilead (the Pulitzer Prize winner) and Home.
Our story is set in the mid-1950s, mostly, with flashbacks to the early century, the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Lila is the second wife of Iowa Reverend Ames – she’s a homeless migrant worker who wandered into the small Iowa town of Gilead one spring; She and the elderly Rev. John Ames meet and fell in love and marry even before they sense the full breadth of connection to each other – how each other fulfills the other’s loneliness and need for home.
Lila’s not very educated, and she likes to dismiss things that are too esoteric, not about work or tangible life. As a sick, small child, she was stolen from her family’s neglectful care. Another migrant worker, a hard-edged and deformed woman named Doll who wanted something to care for, raised Lila. Lila and Doll lived on the road and in the wilderness with other migrant workers. They settled down for short times (to get Lila some education) and they suffered through the Depression and the Dust Bowl traveling across the middle of the United States.
Now that she is married to Reverend Ames, Lila cannot reconcile her life of wanderlust and hard living with the grace and small-town religiosity. She struggles through the meanings of the Bible, and she rankles against the kindness of the Iowans around her. Their grace and mercy confuse her. (In this sense, Lila reminds us of the second book in the Gilead series, the wonderful Home.)
A lot of Robinson’s exploration is about God’s grace and mercy. There’s the highly educated theological talk and its connection and disconnection with common living – Calvin meets making food, planting gardens, keeping body and soul together. In this sense, Robinson shines. We feel the author’s own spirituality and her struggles; we know her research and how she makes academic things more human.
Where the novel failed for me was in the withholding of information. Most of this story is told within the head of Lila, our protagonist. She would know the stuff she withholds till the end. She would live her whole history. Instead, this feels like the author doling it out instead of Lila. I wish Robinson had taken an approach more like Home, where we stood outside of Lila a bit. It doesn’t make sense to be in her head and not have all the information she has. It just seems a gimmick to draw the book out. From a protagonist’s perspective – and from the reader’s – it fails the lithmus test of uniformity, and it feels unfair to the reader.
The book doesn’t have much of a plot, either, and that can thrill or frustrate people. It goes along at its own pace, concerned with its own things – specifically if Lila will stay with the Reverend, and if she will allow herself to be “tamed” by the community’s grace and mercy. Because Robinson is so gifted a writer, it’s worth it page by page, even with the protagonist keeping secrets from the readers wandering in her head. ...more
Linchpin is merely a cheerleading book, very repetitive, and sort of vague on specific steps. It wants you out of the system, but it also says it's vaLinchpin is merely a cheerleading book, very repetitive, and sort of vague on specific steps. It wants you out of the system, but it also says it's vague because there are no specific rules to breaking away from being a cog in a corporate machine and becoming a genius who doesn't have to work so much. This book would make a better blog post or commencement address...if it was edited down....more
Wow, do Mamet’s characters know how to talk! I mean that as both a good quality and a bad. Mamet’s characters are people who find their motives as theWow, do Mamet’s characters know how to talk! I mean that as both a good quality and a bad. Mamet’s characters are people who find their motives as their mouths move – through declarative sentences, tiny pauses, and instant redirections. His famous plays – including Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and Boston Marriage – are chock full of curses, fancy words, odd turns of phrases, and pop reference.
Speed-the-Plow is a quick-fire three-person play about Hollywood (a theme he’d revisit in some part in his film Wag the Dog). Bobby Gould is a recently promoted film producer. Charlie Fox is Gould’s friend, confidante, and sometimes protégé and employee. One day, Fox brings to Gould a stellar deal – a big-budget action hero actor will leave another studio to come work for them if they do a prison film. If they pitch it to studio head Richard Ross, there’s bound to be celebration all around – with over-the-title billing for Fox and Gould and big paychecks for everyone involved.
Gould is also assigned a courtesy read by his boss Ross (whom we never see). The courtesy read is of a recent book about radiation, and how it is part of humanity’s continued evolution – an almost impossible concept to film. Gould gives the task to his temporary secretary Karen in hopes that when they discuss it, he can take her to bed. In fact, he is so confident that he can shtupp Karen, he lays a bet with Fox on it.
Karen turns out to be more convincing than either Gould and Fox perceive. She reads the radiation book and loves it, and in being wooed by Gould, woos him to consider producing a movie about it.
Speed-the-Plow (a title that refers to the good work of constant industry) is full of sexual stereotyping, power plays, and egos. It’s also full of words, separated occasionally by commas, overlapping, and ellipses, and even more infrequently, periods.
The problem that I’ve had with early and middle Mamet – and this is middle Mamet (1988) – is the lack of defining character. Actors can find Mamet’s unique speech, but Mamet’s characters on the page are almost always a little bland; they talk like each other. You don’t walk out of the theater clearly remembering any of them unless the actors themselves are phenomenal – Mamet leaves that work entirely to the creative team. Mamet is also famous for lack of writer description of how to deliver the lines – leaving that up to actors and directors, too.
He is certainly a playwright to see performed (i.e.: he is a difficult read, because of the verbosity and lack of finished thoughts). When you see him, it’s hopefully by professional and creative actors and directors – or he sort of sucks. His scripts can come across as only verbose, cruel, and bitter. If actors don’t get his patter – and if they cannot find a way to define their own characters more sharply – the audience is going to suffer. The plot is there just to support the endless talking; one can sense how this would seem horrible stuff in the hands of amateurs. Mamet always attacks naivety, and he always suspects duplicity. His world is not a kind one at all; his comedies are all decidedly dark. His jokes emerge accidentally, and only if the actors know how to play them.
Still, I could see this in the right hands being an enjoyable, riveting night of theater. Maybe not the favorite on anyone’s lists of plays, but certainly worth the price of admission. ...more
Apparently an audience from 1951 to this book in the mid-70s found misprints hilarious. They're mildly amusing at best. The cartoons by R. Taylor areApparently an audience from 1951 to this book in the mid-70s found misprints hilarious. They're mildly amusing at best. The cartoons by R. Taylor are good; he picks the funniest of this ho-hum stuff to illustrate....more
There is a lot of fascinating stuff here, but some of this is BS - the idea that a playwright putting any notes on how to deliver a line is robbing thThere is a lot of fascinating stuff here, but some of this is BS - the idea that a playwright putting any notes on how to deliver a line is robbing the director and actors of their work... Um, there are several ways I could say "Good idea." To deny a playwright to power of tone is ludicrous. We always say it's not what you say, it's how you say it - that is a vital tool for playwrights! Her hatred of gerund titles...why? Her idea that plays don't need story or arc or tension or conflict, just interesting moments...that's called stand-up... Plays can break rules and they can tell stories, but to say they shouldn't do one of those things in the interest of the other is just dumb.
She does have a lot of good ideas here, and some just plain moronic ones, too....more
If you put Weiss's play within the context of theater history, you can see how significant it is. He forwards Shakespeare's and Brecht's "play withinIf you put Weiss's play within the context of theater history, you can see how significant it is. He forwards Shakespeare's and Brecht's "play within a play" alienation in a more modern play. He created a sort of staging that allowed theater to separate itself from film, the be particularly theatrical.
The residents of a French asylum reenact the demise and assassination of one of their great revolutionary leaders, Jean-Paul Marat. The director of the asylum is using this art to rehabilitate these very lunatic people. The problem is that he's put the play's writing and producing into the hands of Marquis de Sade - the French nobleman jailed for most of his life for writing indecent, pornographic works. (His works are filled with blood and violence and sex - he is where we get the word Sadism.)
Sade knew Marat, and he casts himself as a character who steps into the play to make his points. Also, when the play turns violent, Sade and the director of the asylum debate. Sade also uses the actors to debate. The director's wife and child - there for political reason, to show that the inmates are safe - sit at the side, watching the play.
Sade's basic premise - and possibly Weiss's - is that there are no successful formal revolutions - that all true revolutions must be bloody, violent destruction of the old to keep the patterns from re-emerging in the new regimes. He espouses total anarchy. Marat argues for war that will lead to peace - planned destruction for the sake of construction. Sade says that even attempting this is madness - using proof of Napoleon's despotic rise to power as proof. Of course, it gets ugly in the asylum.
One of the ironies is that Sade was a nobleman saved from beheading in the revolution by his passionate speech for a fallen French hero. The truth is, that if Sade weren't so eloquent, he would've face the guillotine just like most other French nobles.
There is much talk about the alienation of the play. I disagree that this is strictly Brechtian alienation - the actors do not reveal themselves outside of their characters. This is more play-within-a-play. Weiss writes copious notes at how the cast creates elaborate scenery using their bodies for door and the various asylum bathroom accoutrement for props.
That being said, there is a certain formalism to the play - in the words and their presentation. There is also a datedness in the language - this feels like a play of the 1960s. The mad people in the cast are given text and action that let them wildly act out their craziness instead of grounding their mental illnesses and maladies in reality - it's very showy stuff. If I were to direct Marat/Sade (as it's called in short) - I would work to bring more realism, naturalism that slowly boils down into mental instability as the play wears on. The play is also probably a little longer than it needs to be - being written at a time where people felt that a two-hour brilliant play was good but a two-and-a-half-hour brilliant play was getting their money's worth.
Overall, it's a play worth reading (or see the 1967 film version) for any theater person, to understand its significance in moving from formal realism of 1950s theater into a more stage-oriented and imaginative work....more
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) write very elaborate long books - like several novellas strung together. He's a great writer. I just wish there was moreDavid Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) write very elaborate long books - like several novellas strung together. He's a great writer. I just wish there was more unity in everything I read. Most of the stories only have a passing connection to the two factions fighting for control of humans. The rest of this is taken up with 80s finance, the Persian Gulf war, the destruction of the Earth by global warming, etc. The main story is Clive Barker territory; the rest is a group of well-written tangents....more
I have to say there’s something utterly fascinating and different here. Murakami uses clean, tight sentences to describe Tokyo at night. He narrates eI have to say there’s something utterly fascinating and different here. Murakami uses clean, tight sentences to describe Tokyo at night. He narrates everything as if we’re watching a film. So, there’s very little going into characters’ heads, understanding their thoughts and feelings. There is mostly narration, describing what we see, our point of view – how our eyes like cameras moves around scenes and characters. This will frustrate some people, the lack of emotion. I found it intriguing, and it made for a very breezy, easy read.
There are reasons I wouldn’t give this five stars. I think sometimes the translation from Japanese to English is frequently clunky. I feel a better translator would’ve reorganized some of the phrases so they wouldn’t sound clunky. Secondly, Murakami breaks his own rule a couple of times, actually briefly going into the thoughts of his characters for reasons I couldn’t fathom – the moments were big but they broke up his narrative trick, and these moments weren’t thematically relevant to the larger story. I also felt that some threads and stories weren’t entirely closed up, but I think Murakami was aiming for that. There is, truthfully, less emotional involvement in this writing style, so I don’t think it has the power to let the reader get swept up.
I still think it’s a nifty read. This is my first Murakami, and I think I get the world’s fascination with him. I will be trying more of his stuff! ...more
More from David Sedaris – he still makes me laugh every so often. I actually appreciate when he goes darker and weirder – like his visit to a creepy EMore from David Sedaris – he still makes me laugh every so often. I actually appreciate when he goes darker and weirder – like his visit to a creepy English taxidermist, Sedaris’ reaction is hilarious and unexpected. His letters in other characters’ voices are also very funny. It’s a quick read....more
There’s no doubt Glass writes some beautiful sentences - “Saints are merely tyrants in the kingdom of virtue.” However, this new novel, which borrowsThere’s no doubt Glass writes some beautiful sentences - “Saints are merely tyrants in the kingdom of virtue.” However, this new novel, which borrows characters from her National Book Award winner Three Junes, just doesn’t gel.
First of all, the main character isn’t compelling; his struggles in unemployment are apparently caused by not knowing who his father is. I didn’t ever sense the connection between his unknown father and his unemployment or that his search would solve anything in his life.
Secondly, Glass jumps from this protagonist’s story to others repeatedly, so the book meanders far off course. The main “problem” seems pushed to the side so often, I was wondering if Glass would ever get back to it. When she does, the culmination is sort of a letdown – a bit of deus ex machine.
I sense Glass was trying to explore something about how families are formed – how we overlap, how we create these connections. It’s a noble thought, but it’s also simple, having been explored many times before. (I would suggest Armistead Maupin explored this way better decades ago.)
I loved Three Junes and I See You Everywhere. All of her other books I found at least enjoyable. Glass has loads of talent, a real gift with language, but I wish she’d made a more compelling conflict, raised more difficult questions, and stuck more closely to the main story here. This is, unfortunately, the first book of hers I wouldn’t recommend. ...more
Like all of his other books, Michael Cunningham's The Snow Queen has such a rich, eloquent use of language. This is a short novel about two brothers aLike all of his other books, Michael Cunningham's The Snow Queen has such a rich, eloquent use of language. This is a short novel about two brothers and the women in their lives, all searching for transcendent experiences. My issue is that this urbane, little novel doesn't have enough depth to it. Lots of people talking to themselves and each other, not much else.
Tyler uses drugs to help him write music and deal with the fact that his fiancé Beth is dying of cancer. He's in his mid-forties, still hoping for a career in music. Barrett, his smart, gay, witty, but lackadaisical younger brother, fails both at romance and career. However, Barrett has an amazing experience walking home one night; a light seems to descend from heaven and envelop Barrett for a moment. Does this have to do with saintly Beth, dying of cancer? The men both confide their stories in Beth's best friend and business partner, Liz, a no-nonsense woman in her early 50s, using younger men for thrills and sexual release.
I love that the novel is quintessentially NYC (like Cunningham's last short novel, Before Nightfall). I also love that Cunningham leaves so much of the fantastic element up to the readers' interpretation.
Tyler, the drug-addicted musician, may be one of Cunningham's best characters ever. Alternately lying to himself about his drug use, ignoring his grief, and struggling for creativity, Tyler seems fully realized.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the characters and the plot. Barrett's story lacks arc - only three or four things cross his path the entire five years of this novel. The women, unfortunately fare worse - falling into iconography as angels or whores. It feels like these females aren't living fully without enough story - plot and want - to propel them.
The plot as a whole is also a little too thin; novels can be about extraordinary ordinary things, but there needs to be more to the characters and storyline to drive things forward. Too much here is related in disjointed internal monologue, told in third person. Small, beautiful moments - like Barrett's with a young, nervous bride-to-be - are absolutely lovely, but they don't have any attachment to the larger story. The imagery from Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen runs throughout, but it also seems disjointed to the larger story. It's as if Cunningham didn't only leave the interpretation of spirituality and connectedness up to the reader; he threw in small, unattached happenstance to see if the reader would create meaning to this, also.
I love Cunningham. His sentences are beautiful. I just wish there was more character and plot to this book, less random internal monologue, more drive....more
I totally get why this is a classic, a comment on the changing of philosophy between generations, and the longing to not give up one's youthful vigorI totally get why this is a classic, a comment on the changing of philosophy between generations, and the longing to not give up one's youthful vigor for age. I was a little frustrated at the long arguments about nihilism, but I understand that is a conceit of this book and certainly gives this book its specific place in history. I also love what it says about the affairs and romances of Russians in the 1800s - men were considered for their beauty almost as much as women, and men could romance women even if those women were married or attached to the romancer's brother. Fun read!...more