Books catch up: The Leopard, My Happy Days in Hell, Middlesex, Kafka on the Shore

Two more admissions of failure: one for not updating this blog each time I finish a book in the last few months; and the other for not finishing a particular book. But we’ll get to that. Here are the four (or three and a half) books I’ve read recently:

Book 21: The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa

I came extremely close to giving up on The Leopard, but it was short enough and occasionally interesting enough to power through. I can see its appeal for the politically-minded, but I found that, for every witty and enlightening description of the human condition, there were two more verbose descriptions of wallpaper or wood panelling – and it was this attention to seemingly insignificant detail that completely turned me off.

Book 22: My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy

I’d read quite a section of My Happy Days in Hell before I discovered it was not fiction but autobiography. The author is a poet, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that his prose is quite lyrical, giving off the aura of a novel. He’s also distinctly unlikeable, which seems so much easier to accept in a work of fiction than in a true story. And, like The Leopard, this is a novel flitting between two styles: on the one hand, an interesting examination of humanity; on the other, accounts of extremely dull conversations about communism and other political topics. I tried, I really tried, but I just couldn’t sit this one out.

Book 23: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

What can I say about Middlesex that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, so here are some quotations with which I agree:

“A vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace” – Pulitzer Board.

“Thrilling in the scope of its imagination and surprising in its tenderness” – Tami Hoag.

“Epic and wondrous” – Andrew O’Hehir

Book 24: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Really, I have no idea what happened in Kafka on the Shore, and despite incorrectly assuming it was drawing towards a satisfying explanation, I really quite enjoyed reading it. The conversations Murakami’s characters have sometimes veer towards the inanity I so disliked in Paulo Coelho’s attempts at profundity, yet somehow always save themselves, revealed to be poetically fascinating instead. I’d still like to know what happened, but I had a good time nonetheless.

Two books to go…

Film review: Liberal Arts

Have you ever watched a poor magician? Spotted them shoving cards up their sleeves, tugging on invisible threads and swapping props when they thought you weren’t looking? Hopefully not. But you can imagine how it rather spoils the magic.

Watching a poor film can be a similar experience. When characters, or the fates themselves, behave not because that’s how they would in reality, but because the filmmakers are clearly trying to push the film or the audience in a certain direction – when you can see the sleeve-shoving, the prop-swapping and the invisible threads as the filmmakers desperately try to make you feel a certain way or, sillier, make characters act out of character to further the plot – it rather spoils the magic of the film. You feel cheated. When I see such a fudged attempt at manipulation, it’s just as difficult to engage and enjoy on screen as it is at that magic show.

Writer-director-star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is full of such poor sleight of hand:

  • When conflict arises it’s clumsy and unnatural – clearly written in because the writer desired conflict, not because it was inevitable or even likely in the scene in question.
  • Characters dispense (dubious) wisdom not because the moment is appropriate, but because the writer wanted to make a film Full of Wisdom.
  • And then there are the Close-Ups at Emotional Moments. You’ve seen them before. Liberal Arts presents them without shame; there you are passively staring at a pedestrian medium shot, when the director wants you to notice that the characters are experiencing something Emotionally Poignant, and suddenly their faces are in yours, ten feet tall. This cut is your cue, audience: care!

But, of course, it’s almost impossible to care when someone is incessantly shouting “care!” at you. Liberal Arts breaks the golden rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Show me why I should care and I will. Tell me to care and I can’t.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins play their parts gracefully. Olsen is believable as a confident, wiser-than-her-years young go-getter, though her role as the innocent virgin the older man must decide not to dirty makes for uncomfortable gender politics. Jenkins is winning as a professor who changes his mind about retiring, but his is a pointless subplot with no resolution. Radnor the actor encounters three other minor characters:

  • Zac Efron pretending to be wacky (clues: he wears a woolly hat and does martial arts at inappropriate moments), an obviously marked deck who exists solely to deliver Radnor the bland epiphany that “everything is okay”
  • Allison Janney as a nihilistic professor who unconvincingly seduces our hero – as usual Janney is great value but her impact on the film or our hero is almost invisible
  • And a suicidal student who I think exists only to make Radnor the actor feel even better about the character he’s playing. None of these characters has any bearing on the plot or themes of the film; they act solely as disappointing distractions.

Radnor the director attempts a couple of cinematic showpieces but they don’t hit any high notes – a montage of New York shots set to classical music turns out to be just a montage of New York shots set to classical music; a scene where opera makes everyone appear more beautiful is more amusing. The rest of the film is taken up with characters navel gazing at one another (but really at the audience); there’s not much to look at, if there’s anything to listen to.

Then there’s the plot itself: Radnor the writer spends most of the film building up a relationship between two well-matched characters, in typical rom com style (the awkward first meeting – featuring I-like-you-lots Close-Ups; the adorable first few dates; the disapproving minor characters; the relationship-jeopardising tiff; the reckless revenge; the grown-up make-up), then in the last 20 minutes discards it for something else altogether. I suspect he’s trying to impart a lesson about growing up or moving on, but it’s difficult to care, I’m so thrown by the fact that what started as a card trick has turned into a juggling act – and so disappointed that he’s made such a poor effort to make me believe in it in the first place.

Books catch up: The Emigrants, Ghostwritten, Long Walk to Freedom, The Book Thief

Sorry, sorry, sorry for the lack of blogs recently. I know just how disruptive my apathy can be to the lives of my million-odd readers. Some of you have emailed to complain of panic attacks, shortness of breath and hysteria. I can only apologise and, by way of repentance, offer a blog about four books (four thoroughly enjoyable books) at once:

Book 17: The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

A misleadingly chunky book, this is one of the easiest reads I’ve had this year – despite being set variously in the 19th century in rural Sweden and the Atlantic ocean. I’ve barely been in either of those places ever, let alone in the 19th century. But it’s such a pleasantly and simply told story, you can’t fail to enjoy it. I’m only sad that The Emigrants is the first part of four books the final three of which, until next year, I won’t have time to read.

Book 18: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

This one of only a few contemporary-set novels I’ve read this year, and it was a refreshing departure. David Mitchell has an astonishing talent for covering a multitude of voices (the novel is told in the first-person by nine unique characters) and to match it a gift for clever, convoluted plots. This is one to read quickly but carefully.

Book 19: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The only non-fiction book, – indeed the only (auto)biography – on my list. There’s not much I can say to add to the multitude of compliments this book has been paid; only that I began reading wary of a tale so inextricably connected with history, politics and geography – three things to which I’m not very good at paying attention – and was delightfully welcomed by its human warmth and clarity.

Book 20: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Several pages into The Book Thief I really didn’t expect to enjoy the subsequent 500; it has a tone and a style that takes a few moments to embrace; at first seeming a little twee, a little contrived. But so very quickly it wins you over with quiet aplomb. A story narrated by death, a character who every day encounters humans at their best and worst, but will never fully understand them; what a shining manner in which to explore Nazi Germany: a time and a place when humans encountered death so much, and did things so difficult even for humans themselves to understand.

Next up: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

Film review: The Dark Knight Rises

Let’s play a game. How many action movie clichés can you name? Write them down and we’ll come back to them later.

Christopher Nolan did a great thing with Batman Begins, and an even greater thing with The Dark Knight. For all its horribly duff dialogue, the first film in Nolan’s trilogy turned the superhero film into a respectable yarn with a complex narrative and identifiable characters in whom it was worth investing some time to explore. The Dark Knight was arguably as good as a superhero film could be, gracing the world with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker and introducing Nolan’s subtly brilliant plots and set pieces.

Expectations, then, were high for the culmination of the trilogy. It would be unfair to judge The Dark Knight Rises by the outstanding success of The Dark Knight. To what, then should we compare it? Batman Begins is a much better film. Tim Burton’s Batman? A better film. A summer’s day, which by dint of being entirely incomparable with a blockbuster movie shouldn’t even be on the same chart, is unequivocally far superior to The Dark Knight Rises; Nolan’s latest film, alas, is neither lovely nor temperate; its lease hath all too long a date.

Plot holes are the first and easiest flaw to haul up in the trial of The Dark Knight Rises. Why would it take days to prove that a share purchase made during an infamous raid of the stock exchange was fraudulent? Could there really exist only one person in Gotham capable of disarming a nuclear bomb? Why does Bane spend the first 90 minutes going to many elaborate lengths to get hold of such a bomb when he’s plainly capable of doing so by military force alone – as evidenced by the fact that, later on, he does? Where has the smartness and conspiratorial wit of The Dark Knight gone?

Expecting your audience to disregard lazy writing is the second flaw. Bruce Wayne is sent to a prison regarded as “Hell on Earth”. Here he dwells in a sunny open plan environment decorated with keepsakes and knick knacks, chats with friendly, supportive inmates, and is treated by his own personal chiropractor. It’s more like South Kensington than Hell. Wayne also randomly and unconvincingly falls in love with two emotionally undesirable women, one of whom had the potential to be a strong, independent female character and is instead reduced to a latex clad love interest; later – while wearing his full protective Batman outfit – he succumbs to a knife wound, only to later survive a nuclear explosion almost literally in his arse.

There are some pleasing moments. Ironically, given the blockbuster criticisms to follow, the best scene is one in which, simply, everything blows up. Alfred and Wayne have an unexpectedly moving quiet exchange which is almost certainly the film’s only positively memorable piece of writing. It’s all beautifully shot. And there’s a wonderfully restrained, powerful moment in which brutish antagonist Bane places his little finger on an indignant character’s shoulder and asks him, “Do you feel in charge?” If the film ever feels too long, it’s not because it drags or is paced badly – it’s just because it’s not very good.

Indeed, most of the film is thoroughly disheartening. Upon Batman’s appearance at the final fight, Bane remarks with an admirable attempt at wit, “So, you came back to die with your city”. Batman’s brilliant response is, “No. I came back to stop you.” This disappointingly lacklustre, boring retort is sadly indicative of the whole film. So much promise; so much expectation; and a flat payoff that seems to have taken the filmmakers the minimum time and effort to concoct. Batman – and the film – are the dweeby schoolkid you so desperately want to smirk, “even artichokes have hearts”, but instead giggles into his Coke and trips into the doorframe.

So, to that list. How many action movie clichés could you think of? Remember as you read my list that the director of this film is the man who wrote the blisteringly engaging and challenging Inception. Herein is revealed the heart of my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises; for all of the following lazy, silly, frustrating vices – glaring hallmarks of a film made in haste, lethargy or ignorance – are painfully present:

  • Bad guys locking up good guys to die slowly. I thought Austin Powers dealt with this trope 15 years ago (“I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death”).
  • Good guys turning out to be bad guys without the filmmakers leaving any clues to their double identity.
  • Good guys dying in nuclear explosions then inexplicably turning out to be fine after all.
  • Bad guys putting their most devious plans on hold purely so that they coincide with the movie’s dramatic peak.
  • Characters randomly falling in love because it’s exciting for the audience.
  • Liam Neeson as a ghost.
  • The line, “This device, which a few moments ago was decidedly not a nuclear bomb, is now a nuclear bomb.” (I have paraphrased, but do not underestimate the cinema-wide laughter that the accurate rendition of this line prompted.)

Leave me your action movie tropes in the comments. I bet they’re in The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t believe Nolan’s lost his powers, and I can’t wait for him to get back to his exemplary filmmaking and deliver another Inception, Insomnia or Memento. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to forget this strange blip in the career of a usually brilliant artist.

2012 books challenge: Half-year review

A lot of people have remarked that they’d like to see me write retrospectively about (or review) the books I’m reading. I must admit I don’t feel much of a natural urge to review books, nor do I think I have much experience or skill on which to draw to do so (I’m much more arrogant about films…).

Having said that, a) I can see that posting a blog before I read each book means I’m essentially just publishing a list of books, which isn’t terribly exciting; and b) we’re more than half way through the year, which seems like an ideal time to do a brief review of the 21 books I’ve read so far in 2012.

The very good

Until recently I wasn’t prepared to say I had a favourite book of the year. I’ve read some very good books and begun some very bad ones, but none stood out as the all-defeating grandaddy of the selection so far. Then I read Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven. It’s difficult to say exactly what mesmerised, moved and enthralled me so much about this meandering, knowing tale of humanity’s clueless adherence to fate and attempts to find meaning in an unexpectedly meaningful reality. Some combination of the sharp insights into human philosophy, the tragicomic fatalism and the fascinating, rhythmic prose just won me over in a big way. This, more than any other so far, has been the book my hands didn’t want to put down and my brain couldn’t, the book I’ve recommended to everyone who’s asked.

The very bad

Since January I’ve probably talked to people about Paulo Coelho more than all the other authors on my list put together. He seems to be a rather divisive figure. People either hate his writing, or they just hate The Zahir (with the exception of Jeroen, who has effectively done penance for suggesting I read The Zahir by suggesting I read The Discovery of Heaven). As a well-meaning joke (I think) Wes bought me Coelho’s most famous and celebrated book, The Alchemist, for my birthday. I’ve recently finished it and (sorry Wes) I appear to fall into the category of those for whom Coleho does absolutely nothing. I can see the appeal for some of his simple, parable-like style, but for me it felt like reading a Ladybird book about the worst (and most predictable) kind of fatalistic, fantastic bunkum.

The very unexpected

I was all set to be miserable slogging through Great Expectations. The last time I tried to read Dickens (a good ten years ago) I was hopelessly impatient with the overlong sentences, the extravagant prose, the constant overegging of the etymological pudding. Great Expectations couldn’t have proven a greater surprise. I craved and loved every last syllable.

With only eight books left on my 2012 reading list, I’m starting to think about what I’ll read next year. Do you have any recommendations based on my experiences so far? What books have surprised you?

Your advice, please, on soliciting tomatoes

Last year we had a SillSurfer called Tom for several months. He loved to sit in the sunshine and grew very big and we loved him very much, but he wasn’t very good with the rent (he gave us about five rather piddly tomatoes).

This year we have a new SillSurfer – Tim. He’s very young and quite shy; does anyone have any advice on how to gently encourage him to pay his way a little better than Tom did? (Payment in tomatoes is fine.)