The past couple of months, two activities have dominated my leisure time: reading and watching NBA hoops. After reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I...moreThe past couple of months, two activities have dominated my leisure time: reading and watching NBA hoops. After reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I was reminded of a hoops argument that I think should carry over to modern literature as well. The argument has to deal with the unceasing quest for the so-called next Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan was the transcendent athlete, if not public figure, of my childhood. There are a generation of kids who still drink Gatorade, buy Nikes, and wear Hanes solely because at some point in their childhood they wanted to be like Mike. Whenever I play a pickup game, or even just shoot around I find my tongue subconsciously hanging out of my mouth when I drive to the basket. What separates Jordan from similar figures is he actually justified this adulation. Watching Jordan was watching a real life folk hero. I remember my Dad, who isn't an NBA fan, during the MLB strike of 1994 ranting about how all professional athletes are overpaid, then pausing and adding "with the exception of Michael Jordan. This is a guy who averaged a couple grand a minute during the late '90s. The Flu Game, The Shrug Game, The Blindfolded Dunk, The final shot of the 1998 Finals. No other athlete since Babe Ruth has been able to summon similar myth-making moments.
Yet as soon as he retired (for the second time) the media and basketball fans have become obsessed with finding the "Next Jordan." Around a dozen guys have been nominated as candidates, and while these guys are all extremely talented, it's doing them a disservice to compare them to Jordan. Jordan is Gretzky, Young Sandy Koufax, Mohammed Ali before the draft, and The Beatles combined, a truly once in a lifetime talent.
I've started to notice a similar thing going on in literature concerning David Foster Wallace. More and more it seems the DFW comparisons are used talking about contemporary authors. For Christmas, I received two books explicitly name checked Wallace on the back cover. This really doesn't bother me, and I don't think it causes the reader or the publishing industry any harm. When I think about it, there's nothing like a good DFW comparison to get me interested in a newly published book. But at the same time, I worry a little bit about it. The problem with the next Jordan controversy is that while Vince Carter has (or more aptly once had) the capacity for in-air improvisation that Jordan had, Dwyane Wade has the ability to put a team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly win playoff series, and Kobe has the clutch instincts and competitive intensity Jordan had, none of these guys are on MJ's level. While these guys, and others I haven't mentioned are very good to extraordinarily good at individual faucets of the game of basketball, Jordan was the best at everything you can ask a shooting guard to be good at.I wouldn't go so far as to completely equate the respective greatness of MJ and DFW, but there is an analogy here. Because, let's face it, anybody who reads an author expecting a David Foster Wallace doppelgänger is probably going to be disappointed as those who expected Harold Miner to be the next Michael Jordan.
Now that that's said, while this argument came to me while I was reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I'm not sure this review is the best place to expound upon it. For starters, George Saunders writing style and story telling are both fundamentally different from DFW's. If you were to make a Venn Diagram of George Saunders and DFW, the overlapping segments of the circles would be a mere sliver, at least based on this book. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if Saunders never read any Wallace before he wrote any of these stories. There are certain traits that Saunders and Wallace share. Both are able to write about a world that is fundamentally different from ours in very profound ways, but, at the same, make the reader feel some sense of almost eerie familiarity. Be it descriptions of wheelchair bound Quebecois assassins who were disabled in a bizarre rail-jumping ritual, or an account of an employee at a Civil War Era theme park seeking advice from the ghosts of an actual Civil War era family, both writers have an uncanny ability to treat the other-worldly in a causal manner. They both have incredible imaginations, but are able to resist what must be an overwhelming urge to let the "otherness" of their narratives overly dominate the storytelling.
I feel like I'm doing people a disservice when I tell them what the plot of Infinite Jest is about. While the world Wallace constructs is unbelievably intriguing, that's not what the book is "about." If you go into the book expecting to learn about The Entertainment and find out what's wrong with Hal, you're going to be somewhat disappointed. I feel similarly about the stories here. While the settings might suggest genre fiction, Saunders' writing reminded me more of Raymond Carver than Philip K. Dick or DFW. My one quibble may be is that while Saunders is definitely a unique storyteller, and I enjoyed all of the stories, there is nothing that really resonated with me or kept me up thinking at night. Beyond the polish of the background, I'm not sure exactly how much is new there.
I haven't come close to reading the complete DFW bibliography (or Saunders'), but it still pisses me off to no end that one day that wells going to run prematurely dry. Because, just as there was nothing like watching Jordan in his prime, there is nothing out there quite like reading David Foster Wallace. What makes experiencing greatness so extraordinary is the uniqueness inherent in it's nature. Like I said, I'm not sure how far anybody has ever gone with the Wallace comparisons to Saunders, so I'm not sure if any of this applies. And there's nothing wrong with comparing recent experiences with fondly recalled past experiences. But I worry that holding something to the level of past greatness, be it MJ, DFW, The Beatles, Brando, Scorsese, etc., does a diservices to both the new experience by holding it up to a standard that is impossible to reach without some glimmer of nostalgia, and the old experience by causing us to forget how unique the first was. (less)
I don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are...moreI don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are a member of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But you're a fool if you let a smaller share of comparative appreciation get in your way. I mean, I can't let the fact that I'm middle class and white distract me from the fact that I enjoy listening to Public Enemy. I'm not comfortable with the idea that anything is beyond my empathy. What I'm saying here, however inelegantly, is that I don't want my background fucking with the way I react to novels or movies or music. I say all this because, although I enjoyed The Finkler Question, my background totally kept getting in the way and kept me from giving it a higher recommendation.
Let's start here. The Finkler Question is about three friends. Two are middle aged, one is elderly. Two are Jewish, one is a gentile who is obsessed with Jewishness / convinced of his Jewishness / attempting to transcend Jewishness and become some sort of uber-Jew. Two are recently widowed, the other aspires to widowerhood. All three are Londoners. I was aware of most of this going in, as I am similarly aware that some of this might not absolutely resonate with me, a 20-something, single, American, Irish-Catholic agnostic. Although, like Treslove (the gentile) I sometimes feel like certain tastes, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could be better explained if there were some trace Semitic branches in my family tree. Nobody wants to just interact with fictional characters exactly like themselves. But you do want some relatable sentiment. For me, through no fault of Howard Jacobson, there was a lack of this. And there are certainly parts of the novel that I throughly enjoyed. But a lot of it left me feeling like a witness to an engaging debate whose interference would be unwelcome. The best way I can put it is this: the table next to you at a restaurant is having a intriguing but non-obtrusive family argument. Even if you want to put your two-cents in, it would be wildly inappropriate, and it's likely they could give a shit about your two cents. While this argument of strangers may be engaging, you still can't really relate to it.
As of now, there aren't a ton of reviews on this site, so let me go into greater details gist-wise, if anybody's interested. - There isn't really a plot to speak of, and the elements of plot present don't matter. - The novel is mainly concerned with the relationship its characters have with Judaism and "Jewishness."The novel explores what it means to belong to a group, what obligations you have to this group, and what obligations this group has to you. A lot of this can be implied to anything, such as country, religion, family ect. - Jacobson is very talented, and often funny. He deals with serious issues but never loses grasp of his sense of humor. - I'm from the South, where all forms of bigotry and prejudice haven't exactly been eradicated. However, I was somewhat shocked at this novel's depiction of London's contemporary anti-Semitism. I mean, I know it's not extinct or even close to it, but I had no idea it was as prevalent as Jacobson depicts it. - Israel is almost the MacGuffin of the novel. Jacobson gives an interesting cross-section of how the policies of Israel both unite and divide the Jewish community.
I'm not wildly enthused, with this review, it's not particularly well-thought out, and I've feel like I've spent too much time worrying about, to steal a joke from Always Sunny. dropping the "hard J." but I've spent too much time on the damn thing to scrap it. Let me try to somehow tidily sum up what I'm basically saying. It's not that you have to be Jewish & English & middle aged & widowed to enjoy this novel. I'm none of those things, and I did enjoy it on many levels. However, this book actively seeks a certain intellectual engagement that can only come through fully with a sense of relation. Therefore, any lack of relatable feelings might compromise your enjoyment of this book.
Ugh, look don't take my word for it. I don't regret spending time on this and it has giving me a good share of things to ponder on. Maybe you guys should figure this one out for yourself. (less)
Exile on Main St. might not be the greatest album of all time*, but it is, without a doubt the greatest rock 'n' roll album of all time. Note that I...moreExile on Main St. might not be the greatest album of all time*, but it is, without a doubt the greatest rock 'n' roll album of all time. Note that I don't include any qualifier on the preceding sentence limiting it to my opinion. That's because it's an incontrovertible fact. Exile is the Great American Record**, the inevitable culmination of Berry, Charles, Richard, Lewis, ect. ect. Tom Waits put it best when he said that the album was "a tree of life...the watering hole."
I've read about ten of these 33 1/3 books and generally they're quick and entertaining reads that enhances enjoyment of records. The volume on Exile is no exception. Bill Janovitz, of the band Buffalo Tom, isn't a writer, and this both helps and hurts the book. So much of the making of the album is enshrined in legend to aficionados. Exile is one of those albums, perhaps sterling example, where the recording process is almost inseparable from the album itself. The whole, "hey let's take the band and our closest friends, move to a house, do a lot of drugs, and make some incredible music," has been often imitated but never duplicated. When Janovitz covers this it often sounds book reporty.
Where Janovitz really shines is when he starts examining the record song-by-song. I like to read these books while listening to the album, and Janovitz gives an excellent "listening tour" to Exile. He gives you the details of the recordings, who subbed in for Charlie on this track, which parts were overdubbed in L.A., which tracks Gram Parsons allegedly sung harmonies on, ect. But he's studio experience helps you notice things you might have missed after dozens of close listenings. For instance, Janowitz directing me towards Jimmy Miller's piano part on "Ventilator Blues" has forever changed the track for me. Also, I never noticed that Mick drops the C bomb in "Rocks Off."
It's hard to separate the album and the book in determining a rating. In truth the book, using the goodreads star system, is a three star book, but it makes a six star album a seven star one, so it gets a bonus star.
* But then again, it might be.
** Possible disputants: Highway 61, The Basement Tapes,Songs in the Key of Life? Any ideas?
The news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize prompted me to move this book a couple spots up my queue and go ahead and check it out from the l...moreThe news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize prompted me to move this book a couple spots up my queue and go ahead and check it out from the library instead of waiting to when I can afford to buy a copy.
A New York Times article quoted and linked to an essay Vargas Llosa wrote for the NYT review of books in 1984 entitled "Is Fiction the Art of Living?"This piece by itself convinced me that I will love The Feast of the Goat and, in all likelihood, eventually have to read everything that Vargas Llosa has committed to page. The essay, which concerns the nature of truth in fiction, gives the most beautiful and skilled vindication of literature I've ever encountered:
When we read novels, we aren’t only who we are but, in addition, we are the bewitched beings into whose midst the novelist transfers us. The transfer is a metamorphosis – the asphyxiating constriction of our lives opens up and we sally fort to be others, to have vicarious experiences which fiction converts into our own. A wondrous, dream, a fantasy incarnate, fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand. The gap between real life and the desires and fantasies demanding that it be richer and more varied is the realm of fiction.
The entire essay is mind-blowingly good and contains a handful of quotes that deserve to be singled out. I highly recommend giving it a read. (less)
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this...moreWow....
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this book, I'm saying something equivalent to "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player" or "Richard Nixon had a decent amount of issues." This book is not only on the short list of best novels ever, it was there a century before my birth. But, hey, this thing is a beast, and it feels like a real accomplishment finishing it, so I'm going safely deposit my thoughts here rather than pestering my friends and family.
First a quick note. I never fully realized the value of a well-done translation before reading this book. So I need to add my endorsement to the cacophony of praise I've seen for Pevear and Volokhonsky. I happened to have a Barnes and Noble Edition that I purchased years ago for comparison purposes. The difference is striking. The public domain translation often appears to be a summary of Tolstoy's writing, while this edition is a translation in the truest sense. It not only translates the text, it translates the writing. Also, the old edition was abridged. Maybe this specific abridgment was particularly chopped up, but it really mangled the thing. With a lot of work that was originally serialized, you can tell that some of the material there is to provide filler for current issue. Here, even the chapters that may not be essential to the narrative or the overall thesis of the novel are essential to the feel of the work. Any abridgment of War and Peace is, nevertheless, going to leave the prospective reader with a tall stack of papers. When it comes down to it, if your going to attempt to tackle this beast, you might as well try to get your arms around this whole thing. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Tolstoy goes on tangents and diversions, but holy shit, he's Leo Fucking Tolstoy, he should have been encouraged write whatever he wants, and there isn't a thing that is not worthwhile. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation also includes the original French (with English translations in footnotes) where Tolstoy used it. While this may appear to be an unnecessary inconvenience, it serves a definite character and storytelling purpose. Again, it's Count Leo Tolstoy, his choices are somewhat credible. Finally, this edition includes extremely helpful citations to endnotes mostly dealing with historical background and also a historical index that is pretty useful.*
I've been aware of War and Peace for a long time. Maybe it's because it serves as the stereotypical overlong book. Maybe I heard a joke about reading War and Peace cover to cover three times while waiting at the DMV, but the novel has been in my conscience for a long time. And ever since I was a kid, trying to read Grisham books because I wanted to be "grownup," I knew a reckoning with this monster was bound to happen sooner or later.
Now that it's over, I think it's a real shame that War and Peace is best known for its length. The novel is a daunting, but not a difficult read. With perhaps the exception of the Second part of the Epilogue, the read is actually easy. The characters are relatable, the prose is easily enjoyable, and the pace of the plot is engaging.** Tolstoy does go on digressions, he often drops the narrative and goes into ruminations on the true nature of history, but he is able to do this in a seamless manner. It all fits together at the end, but it's not particularly jarring as you go along.
For me, the best single word modifier of War and Peace isn't long, it's full. For example, the television show The Wire***, a show that has been described as Tolstoy-ish, is nominally about the efforts of a Baltimore police unit to counter the drug trade in West Baltimore. But if you watched this show you know that this doesn't begin to adequately label what the show is about. The show was about modern American life, race relations, the failings of democracy, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the burdens of family, and more. Put simply, it's about America. Similarly, the narrative of War and Peace concerns the travails of two upper class Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. If the novel was solely limited to this, it would be a fantastic historical novel. But Tolstoy uses this narrative to do so much more. He criticizes established theories of history and ruminates on the true force that causes events to happen. And in the midst of both of these strands, Tolstoy, through his characters and his narrative voice, ruminates on man's search for purpose, both on the individual and collective level.
The narrative thread of the book considered by itself is a supreme achievement. For all the criticisms he gives them, Tolstoy himself is an excellent historian. He's fantastic at capturing the feel of what it how the times felt. The cultural gap between an early 21st century American reader and the early 18th century Russian nobility is needless to say jarring. But Tolstoy never lets things get too uncomfortable. There are very few anecdotes or passages that are overwhelmingly foreign to the modern reader. Like I said above, the narrative is rarely, if ever, difficult or dull.
Isaak Babel spoke the truth, in his reaction to War and Peace. "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Although little aspects of Tolstoy pop up every now and then, his narrative is impressive for his omnipresence. Much has been made of Tolstoy's realism, but those considerations behind the novel is the most humane piece of art I've encountered. Don't let the historical novel label or the publication date scare you off. Sure, the book was first published in the first year of the Grant administration and was about events that took place generations before publication. Notwithstanding these facts, the book is stunningly relatable. I guarantee you that there will be at least one passage that will leave you convinced that Tolstoy somehow traveled through time to plagiarize your dream journal. All the character, no matter how drastically times and customs have changed, remain at a certain level easily recognizable, familiar, and always viscerally real. Tolstoy, like no other author I've encountered, explores the parameters and comes close to nailing the essence of this state of being that we call being alive. Multiple lifetimes of wisdom and experience seep out of the pages. I know this is getting hokey, but I feel that strongly. Infinite Jest is still my favorite novel, but War and Peace has taken its place as the best novel I've ever read. It's one of those rare books that work as a (extremely long) mantra. As you contemplate and consider the novel you experience a transcendental feeling of deeper awareness. War and Peacereads like it should have been brought down from a mountaintop chiseled on stone plates****. Read it today... or whenever you have a good bit of time on your hands.
* This book is maybe the prime example of why nearly one year into my Kindle experience I'm conflicted. For fiction, I prefer the actual experience of holding a bound group of pages and miss the ability to easily flip back to prior passages. Also, I kinda regret that I won't be able to display on my bookshelf. I feel like the electronic edition should come with some plaque or certificate you can display. Also, sometimes it was a hassle to navigate considering the ubiquitous French translations and endnotes which are numbered separately. On the one hand, it was extremely nice not having to lug around a 1200+ page book and having the option of reading this book on the go. If I had to choose again, I'm not sure which one I'd go with.
** Again, please do yourself a favor and avoid public domain translations. I love raiding Project Gutenberg for free books, but this was totally worth the extra cash.
***AKA the best television show ever, and, perhaps, the best example of narrative storytelling of the best decade. I am an unrepentant whore for The Wire.
**** Except this would require a small army of stone haulers and quarry workers, and may severely reduce the world's supply of rock. (less)
A lot of times I feel like my preconceived notions of a novel plays a disproportionate role in my eventual reaction to the book. For instance, I'll re...moreA lot of times I feel like my preconceived notions of a novel plays a disproportionate role in my eventual reaction to the book. For instance, I'll read a book like Lolita and I go into it knowing that it's one of the major works of the 20th century, and that Nabokov is a master of English prose. The same is true with novels that I hear criticism of. If reviewers I tend to a agree with disparage a book, I'll find myself prone a somewhat hidden wish to confirm their opinion. I don't think this is is necessarily good or bad, if anything it's natural.But it's something that I find myself thinking about when I read. I could guess a rating before I start most books and there would be a high correlation with my eventual ratings. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy Lolita, or that you can never really appreciate classic works of art once a definite critical group-think has been set. I just sometimes have a hard time sorting any bias that I bring to the reading experience by a semi-conscious wish to see my preconceived notions confirmed from any truly sincere reactions to the novel. Again, I think this is natural, but it still concerns me.
However, every once in a while, I'll read a book that surprises me. When a book that I expect to be great disappoints, me I can get pretty vindictive, as seen here. On the other hand, every once in a while a book will be unexpectedly knock my socks off. Either way, the unexpected reaction gives a certain additional power to my overall feelings about the book. Edwin Mullhouse is an example of the pleasant surprise.
The full title really jumps out at you and is probably what inspired me to pick up a copy. Yes, the book is really the biography of a Edwin Mullhouse, deceased eleven year old novelist. The writer of the biography, Edwin's closest friend and neighbor Jeffery Cartwright, is convinced that Edwin has produced a work of transcendent genius, and fills it his destiny to tell Edwin's life story. However, Cartwright is apparently writing his friends biography in the month's after his untimely demise, when he's not busy being a sixth grader.
This could have been gimmicky piece of po-mo, excessively 'cute,' and/or any of the other hazards that modern writers sometimes succumb to. But Millhauser creates Jeffery's voice in a way that avoids any of these pitfalls. Edwin, and especially Jeffery, are not average children. For instance, Jeffery can recall distinct details of his first meeting with Edwin when he was six months old. However, in their relationship there are hints and glimpses of being a kid that are familiar but are, as Millhauser puts it, 'scrupulously distorted.' Parts of the novel surfaced memories of my childhood that I hadn't thought of in years.* The undeniably alien-Edwin's career as a novelist-is confined to the last quarter of the book. At it heart, Edwin Mullhouse is a artfully told and strangely familiar coming of age story, despite the unique narration concept and any scrupulous distortions.**
The narrative device Millhauser uses allows him to do really cool things with the distinctions between childhood and adulthood. Edwin and Jeffery appear in many ways to be almost unrealistically precocious but there are hints of immaturity. I'm not sure if I'm making sense so let me put it this way. Despite the fact that the narrator has a great hand for prose and would be unusually sophisticated for an adult, once you get into the novel you have no problem accepting the premise that the chronicler of the tale is a 12 year old, an exceptionally bizarre and unique 12 year old, but a 12 year old nonetheless.
Edwin Mullhouse is a really multi-faceted novel, and there are other themes that I could dwell on. For instance the novel is also a portrait of Post-War America and a deconstructive critique and parody of the genre of biographies. Let me just close with a spoiler-free note on the ending. I'm pretty good at picking up narrative clues and hints, but there is a twist in the last quarter of the book that I did not see coming. At first it jarred me, and it still does. But after some reflection, the twist can't be said to be inconsistent with the narrative or themes of the novel. Moreover, it does fit in with my thoughts on the power of the pleasant surprise.
* Let me illustrate by an example. Edwin Mullhouse is without a doubt a novel for adults but for some reasons it reminds me of a book I last read around 15 years ago and haven't thought about in who knows how long: Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Edwin and Jeffery's adventures at Franklin Pierce Elementary for some inconceivable reason made me think of this book. There's a sense of gonzo shadows of the reality of being a pre-teen kid in both Edwin Mullhouse and (at least my hazy recollections of) Sideways Stories.
** I would further explain the term, but the passage that it's featured really a linchpin of the actual read and is one of those things that should be encountered in the way the author meant it to be, so I'll refrain. (less)
Interesting story that collapses under the weight of its own momentum and fails to deliver on its early promise in the final quarter of the novel. I'm...moreInteresting story that collapses under the weight of its own momentum and fails to deliver on its early promise in the final quarter of the novel. I'm not sure what Shteyngart is trying to say. I mean sure, we're a materialistic, technology obsessed, increasingly depraved, ADD-stricken society, but c'mon, that's critique has been done. Iif these themes had been built as background to a larger point, it would be one thing, but it seems that these were Shteyngart's main points. The novel is clever at times, in a silent chuckle to yourself kind of way. But it takes itself a little too seriously for my taste in satire. And the novels final third seems rushed, and not thought out. Almost like the author realized he had a deadline and decided to start wrapping things up.
That being said, in the first half of the novel there are some pretty ingenious set pieces that should be a hallmark of modern dystopian fiction. While I think Shteyngart does not do anything groundbreaking, there is no denying that he is an extremely creative writer. While the emotional impact of the titular love story didn't deeply impress me, Shteyngart does provide interesting portraits of modern second generation Americans, the role of family, and the inevitability of death.* And if nothing else, it made me paranoid about reading it on my Kindle.
* The next time you're at a bookstore, or If you can download a sample for your e-reader, do yourself a favor and read the first section of the first chapter. It's one the most immediately engaging and enterting opening passages I've read in a while. (less)
My thoughts on Easy Riders, Raging Bulls can be summarized by two comparisons:
1. Game Change: Both books let gossip get in the way of solid storytelli...moreMy thoughts on Easy Riders, Raging Bulls can be summarized by two comparisons:
1. Game Change: Both books let gossip get in the way of solid storytelling. Game Change would give paragraphs of great accounts of political strategy (which is right in my wheelhouse) then get sidetracked with anecdotes of how Elizabeth Edwards is a bitch, John Edwards is a dandy, and what Hilary Clinton wore at a particular campaign event. Not all of it was completely useless, and some of it was quite fun, but it cheapened the value of the work in my mind.
Biskind's use of gossip is a bit more justifiable. One of the main themes of the book is the hubristic rise and fall of a generation of filmakers that rose to prominence in the '70s. Tales of personal degradation fit into this. And after all, it is Hollywood. And if you want to read a tabloid-like account of Tinsel Town in the '70s, I can recommend this. But I was expecting, and Biskind tries to deliver, something different. Which brings us to the second comparison....
2. Pictures at a Revolution: This comparison is unfair, Pictures is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, but the comparison begs to be made. The two books cover many of the same themes and feature many of the same figures and films. And Pictures at a Revolution is better in every single way. Pictures isn't just about how movies changed, its about how very root understandings of American culture changed and the effect the two revolutions had on each other. It's a great story and a hella good read.
Mark Harris gives well-known celebrities like Warren Beatty, Sidney Poitier, Mike Nichols and Rex Harrison into complex, and (sometimes) sympathetic characters. In contrast, Biskind's portraits resemble stereotypical caricatures. Beatty likes to fuck alot. Gee, that Altman guy sure is surely. Wow, Francis Ford Coppola is a prima donna. Who would've thought George Lucas was so antisocial?
Like Game Change this information can be intriguing and often fun.But it gets in the way of the movies. Biskind doesn't do a great job of providing film analysis. I think good writing about film should be like a great commentary track on DVDs. Yeah, I like amusing anecdotes, but I want to hear about the film. Harris writes about the movies, Biskind writes about people who makes the movies and the fucked up shit they do.
But this is supposed to be a review of Easy Rider, Raging Bull, so back on topic. Two things in it's defense in light of the comparison: (1) Biskind doesn't share identical goals with Mark Harris; and (2) and Easy Rider, Ring Bull's scope is (kinda) broader than Pictures.' Biskind succeeds at certain levels. He tells an entertaining story about a group of young, extremely creative people whoe were given the power to create and how they eventually self-imploded. But he doesn't saying much of any significance about the films of the '70s, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. (less)
Three Things I Learned About Evelyn Waugh From the Everyman's Library Edition That Contributed to my Reading of Brideshead Revisited.
1. Waugh sought a...moreThree Things I Learned About Evelyn Waugh From the Everyman's Library Edition That Contributed to my Reading of Brideshead Revisited.
1. Waugh sought a three month's leave of absence in the midst of World War II for the specific purpose of writing this book.
He didn't use another excuse. There was fake family or personal emergency. He requested a three monts leave of absence from the English Army in early 1944 for the explicit purpose of writing a novel. And it was granted! I think this may be the most English fact I've ever heard.
You must have a sense of humor to be able to pull this off, and Brideshead is chock full of exhibitions of Waugh's humor. I knew the book was humorous, but I didn't expect the book to be so funny (If that makes sense). There are several passages that had me giggling to myself, a habit I usually try to avoid. Just to give an example, the account of Rex's attempted catechism lessons was have been the funniest thing I've read in a while.
2. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, and was a strict Catholic until his death.
As a lapsed Catholic, I find it somewhat surprising that the the best examination of Catholic guilt I've ever read was written by someone who was converted! Did he not know what he was getting into? The ending makes the Catholic Church, or religion as a whole, the unblemished protagonist of the story, which is a little uninteresting if you ask me. For example, the protagonist, a life-long agnostic, observes this family sacrificing happiness and healthy familial relationships, while torturing themselves for decades, and by the end of the novel he appears to be willing to sign up for the root cause behind it.
Thinking back on it, I really think Waugh was not completely comfortable with his religious beliefs and it shows in this book. Maybe it's my callous, agnostic heart, but the redemption of the characters at the end of the book seemed unbelievable, and somewhat heartbreaking.
3. Waugh's first wife's name was... you guessed it, Evelyn.
This didn't really help me appreciate Brideshead Revisited any more, but hasn't stopped giving me delight. (less)
Cloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and added...moreCloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and added clarity to the themes of his novel. These final paragraphs both moved and surprised me. Overall I would say it's one of the most effective conclusions to a book I can remember. Let me get back to this in a second.
For those who aren't aware, the novel is comprised of six stories, five interrupted one's mirrored by a sixth 'mirror.' The stories are seemingly unrelated, but share common themes and traces of a single over-arching narrative. Taken by themselves, each of the narratives represent a well-crafted, if not particularly mind-blowing, example of genre fiction. But what makes Cloud Atlas unlike anything I've ever read is how the stories are simultaneously both distinct and analogous. Mitchell doesn't merely hop between characters, or location, or time periods. A mid 18th century voyage narrative bookends pulp mystery, corporate dystopia, and more. Mitchell isn't the first person who has used such a framework, but I haven't read any other examples.* Therefore, I can't really say whether it was my inexperience or the work itself that knocked my socks off, but Cloud Atlas really floored me.
Greg's review, which really influenced my reading experience, brings up the interesting question of a book's difficulty and the work expected of the reader. Cloud Atlas isn't a slow or tough read at all. The stories themselves are relatively straightforward. You're not scurrying to a dictionary or Wikipedia to pick up on unmentioned context. But Mitchell doesn't hold your hand, in fact he blindfolds you, spins you around several times, then tells you to go whack the fucking piñata. Greg puts it better by relating how the structure "creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold." It's this disorientation that makes the novel 'difficult.'
This literary Tilt-A-Whirl wouldn’t be effective if Mitchell wasn’t such a talented mimic. I don’t mean that to be derogatory at all. Each story is amazingly unique. Their not unique in terms of work in the same genre As I mentioned above, the individual stories are all enjoyable and well-written, but not particularly mind-blowing or genre defining. What I mean is their uniqueness to the author. For example, if Charles Dickens decided to write a sci-fi novel, I bet it would read like a dystopian novel written by Charles Dickens. Likewise, if Philip K. Dick wrote a Victorian novel about an orphan, I bet it would read like a Victorian novel about an orphan. This goes beyond stylistic calling cards. Even if they write in a new voice and avoid stylistic and thematic giveaways, people tend to write like they write. If I read more of his stuff I may pick up more cues, but David Mitchell is a literary chameleon. The stories are so effective in their imitations of different genres they read like they give the impression that they could be written by six different authors. In fact, I feel like I need to read something else by Mitchell to get an adequate grasp on what I think of him as a writer.
Mitchell consciously creates a sense of disorientation, and still demands two types of reader participation. The first, more conventional type, relates to the structure binding the stories together. Each of the six narratives have a direct relationship to the preceding one. I'll spare spoiling how this is done, but it is definitely thought provoking. Moreover, there are subtle hints allusions to other stories sprinkled throughout the novel. Now that I think of it, it really reminds of the first season of Lost, when it was a cross between Twins Peak and Hitchcock, before it got too metaphysical and sci-fi.**. If you watched back then, remember how the show kept slipping clues into the episodes. For instance, the cursed numbers kept on popping up, or one of the castaways would pop up in the background of another's flashback. In my recollection, this was done very subtly, a viewer may not catch it on the first viewing. These devices create the impression that there was some sort of connection behind the characters and encouraged viewers to thoroughly analyze each episode. Thousands and thousands of words were written examining the smallest details and theorizing on the implications of it all. Mitchell uses the same devices, but even in a more subtle way. I caught several hints and I'm sure I missed many more.
Trying to figure out how the narratives relate to each other in terms of the overall plot is good old-fashioned fun. Mitchell never promises, a precise flow chart detailing what's going on, but that's what makes Cloud Atlas more intellectually engaging than your standard supermarket mystery. You're left to think about answers to "what happened" on your own. This is definitely a book that you want to discuss with someone as soon as you finish.
This leaves the question of why I found the final passage so effective. When you are taught how to give a persuasive speech or write a paper you are taught to use a basic structure:
1. I’m going to tell you that my thesis is true because of supporting arguments A, B, and C. 2. supporting arguments, A, B, and C. 3. I just told you that because of supporting arguments A, B, and C , my thesis is true.
An argument is made more effective by having a wide array of examples. For a crude example, if my thesis is “Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of all time,” my argument would be weakened if all of my supporting arguments were about how great Highway 61 Revisited is. If I mentioned the early protest folk of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the country throwbacks of Nashville Skylines and the mature introspection of Blood on the Tracks, my argument would be strengthened.
This structure is akin to what Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas, except, he doesn’t give you the opening paragraph. He just launches you into the supporting arguments and leaves the reader to figure out exactly what he’s trying to prove. This is the second aspect of reader participation required. A lot of the pleasure in the read is trying to figure out exactly what Mitchell is trying to say. And while you really don't get a flow chart for the interconnections between the plot, the final two pages provide a powerful closing of the thematic interconnections between the stories.
It would be a mistake to consider Cloud Atlas a collection of stories. Like I said before, the stories are very good, but the total is worth more than the sum of the individual parts. It's this that makes Cloud Atlas a cohesive and powerful novel.
*Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is on my wish list.
**For the record, I like some science fiction and stuff that touches on metaphysical questions. But, much how the second Matrix movie was a flawed, but enjoyable movie that was done-in by the terrible third film, my opinion of the last several seasons of Lost fell after the final season, which I view as a failure. (less)
I'm struggling with transferring my thoughts of this book to actual concepts, so I'm cheating a bit. Basically, I...moreConcept: A
Plot Execution: B-
I'm struggling with transferring my thoughts of this book to actual concepts, so I'm cheating a bit. Basically, I thought American Gods was entertaining, but somewhat disappointing. Gaiman creates an awe-inspiringly creative universe. But I thought that many parts of the novel were very reflective of his comic book background. I'm not trying to bash that form or anything, but sometimes he seemed to rely on some of the frustrating aspects of comic-book storytelling. For instance, the characters often resembled comic book characters. Look, I realize that that isn't very persuasive, but to paraphrase Potter Stewart, I don't know what the definition of a comic book character, but I know one when I see one.
Also, Gaiman isn't an unbelievably talented writer. Of course, neither am I. I don't want to make it sound like I'm being too harsh on the novel, because I did enjoy it more than I didn't. Maybe I'm being unfair in demanding something more than an author provides, but hey, its my review.
Let me try to sum up my scattershot thoughts the best way I can. For me, a great book should in some way, even very slightly, change the way you think about things. I love books that I think about for weeks after I finish. When I talk to someone has read one of these books, it automatically leads to a great conversation. For me, the longer the conversation is, the better the book. I really couldn't imagine any long conversation about American Gods. Maybe, I'm incorrect, but the most damning thing I can say about the novel is I can't really think of what to say about it. (less)