Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

This is going to be one of those promised short reviews.

All kinds of people recommended and loved this collection of “humorous” autobiographical essays. I find this a little disturbing. I suppose it’s just another example of how out of sync I am with… well, most people.

To me, he came off as quite mean and rather off-putting personality-wise. Like those clever, cruel kids in the schoolyard. The others laughed because they were terrified that if they didn’t they would be the next target. He’s obviously a very sharp fellow, but seems quite proud of the fact that he makes little or no effort.

He appears to be a member of the “ironic” crowd. This largely involves being sarcastic, looking down on everyone and everything and embracing kitsch.

At a recent reading he was recommending a book that told you how to zombie-proof your house. Why anyone would waste two seconds of their life on this is beyond me. It’s not even mildly entertaining. It’s just dumb.

Then there’s his comments about the Louvre:

The last person to ask the author a question inquired whether or not he’d been to the Louvre yet. Sedaris had once written that he wouldn’t go to said art museum because they didn’t allow smoking.

“I’ve been in Paris for eight years and I’ve never been to the Louvre,” Sedaris said. “Now it’s like it’s almost too late to go.”

His logic was that after holding out this long he doesn’t want to give up being the only person living in Paris who hasn’t been to the famous museum. Instead, he prefers things like local art auctions.

“I just like art better when there’s a price tag on it,” he said. “Even if you can’t understand it, you can make sense of it if there’s a price tag.”

If this is humour, I certainly don’t get it. I’ll end with a quotation from this book; for me, it sums it all up.

“…like all my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character…”

Now that’s funny — whether it was intentional or not.

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Regeneration by Pat Barker

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

(First of a trilogy, it’s followed by The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road .)

I wanted so badly to like this. World War I poets, post-traumatic stress, early psychiatry… how could you go wrong? I read them over Christmas. It was this or Milton, I couldn’t make up my mind. Should have gone with Milton.

The whole trilogy suffers from "historical fiction" disease: very thoroughly researched, but the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue stiff, the plot stagey. The first book is the best, but that’s not saying much. At least it centers on the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The second and third books center on the least interesting character who does some not-so-believable things, shows all known symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (look at my research! cries the writer) and who becomes increasingly tiresome to the point that you are hoping he will die in a gruesome fashion. When I reached the end of the third book I was ridiculously happy that I was rid of him.

The awkwardness of the writing is downright painful and the clichés are embarrassingly plentiful. She also seems to take a real relish in the graphic details of the horrors of war. This sort of thing can be extremely effective, of course, but here it just feels gratuitous. As does her obsession with homosexual sex. Again, it feels added on. Why? Maybe in an attempt to make the books more "edgy" and therefore more likely to be considered literary fiction? That’s my cynical guess. If it’s something else, it’s between her and her therapist. Anyhow, it doesn’t add anything to the story.

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning I would say the whole experience was pretty forgettable, except that a few months later, rooting about in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a novel entitled The Middle Parts of Fortune . It was written by Frederic Manning, an Australian who fought in the First World War.

As far as I can tell, this is not a widely known book. A limited edition was published privately in 1929, but when it was published for general circulation in 1930 (under the extremely regrettable new title of Her Privates We ), the editors heavily censored and re-worked it to make it "less offensive" to the ever-delicate general public. Amazingly, the novel wasn’t published in its original form until 1977! (I guess by then people stopped passing out and hitting their heads on the furniture at the sight of the word fuck .)

Remember that tiresome character of Pat Barker’s that I mentioned? The one who became the primary character in the final two books of her trilogy? Well, he bears a striking resemblance to the main character in Manning’s book. Very striking. Only in his book, this character is developed and revealed in subtle and interesting ways. There is, of course, graphic violence, but it is an integral part of the story that’s being told. It really is hard to get over the number of similarities. One difference: The Middle Parts of Fortune is well-written and moving. The sad thing is no one talks about it.

P.S. A couple hours later, shuffling the book piles into order, I was feeling a little sheepish about what I wrote here: insinuating that Pat Barker may have nicked characters, scenes, etc. from an obscure novel written by a WWI soldier. What’s the matter with me? I thought. I’m getting way too suspicious, too quick to accuse. What do I know, maybe Barker’s talked all about Frederic Manning, said what an inspiration he was, how much she owed him.

I decided I’d delete my insinuations and just say Manning’s novel was better. Leave it at that. As I came to this conclusion, I was flipping through Barker’s "The Eye in the Door" one last time before I was put it into the "off to the second-hand shop" pile. And that’s when something caught my eye. I’d completely forgotten the name of a secondary character: Charles Manning. A rather masochistic sex partner of Barker’s protagonist.

This is all too much. This is how it must feel to think you’ve seen a UFO. I have no idea what it means. Common name? Coincidence? Very strange hommage? Am I making too big a deal out it? Too much shoddy contemporary fiction may have finally driven me over the edge. I am open to suggestions.

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High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

This was good. Not great, but good.

The plot: the yuppie universe implodes.

The setting: a monstrous apartment tower that immediately brings to mind Le Corbusier’s plan for central Paris. (”Eighteen, sixty-story cruciform towers” each of them home to 40,000 inhabitants. Alain de Botton talks about it in his wonderful book “The Architecture of Happiness“, which I highly recommend.)

Ballard has a wonderful eye for little details of behavior and personality; however, the weakness of the book, I feel, is in the lack of character arcs. People may devolve, but they do not change — their essential personality merely regresses to its crudest form. So, instead of an arc, we have a straight line into a brick wall. I think you have to accept the fact that this is not a realistic novel about believable characters in a particular situation; it’s bigger in scope than that, more parable-like.

There are scenes in this book that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Many of them. Brutally visceral and full of dark truths, they have this epic, symbolic quality to them without straining for it. Worth reading.

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Unused brains and the curse of “nice”

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.

HR: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”

BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?

HR: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head? Or people’ll say that they don’t want to see any negative emotions. They don’t want to see unpleasantness.”

-Harold Ramis [writer/director] (screenplay for Groundhog Day )
Believer interview, March 2006

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