Writing and Other Afflictions

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Category Archives: review

Thoughts on American Sniper

My reaction when I heard the slate of Best Picture nominees was “UGH FINE I will go see American Sniper.” Mark and I try to see all the Best Picture nominees every year, and while some of them are a challenge, we had no excuse for missing this one. It’s going to be in theaters well into February. So last night I bit the bullet (ha ha) and went to see it with a couple friends (Mark, who was working, promised to see it later).

There is probably a very good movie to be made about the life of Chris Kyle, the titular sniper, and it would cover the space between two scenes about 125 minutes into this 134-minute movie. The story of overcoming the impact of spending the better part of a decade in Iraq killing people to come home and adjust to normal life is a fascinating one, and maybe even more so when you’ve become exalted as a hero as Kyle was. To put it another way: most of “American Sniper” should have been the five-minute prologue to the movie about Chris Kyle.

The faults of the movie have been well documented: it’s very loosely based on an autobiography that was factually questionable to begin with (though perhaps not so much about his actual tours in Iraq). It ventures into the comic-bookish realm with an invented villain who might as well be named “Drill-Man” and an enemy sniper who was barely mentioned in Kyle’s account of his own life but who becomes his main foil. It shows a lot of violence–yes, in a movie about the guy credited with more kills than any other sniper in U.S. military history, you expect to see gunshots and violence, but the violence here is fetishized to a disturbing extent. The U.S. involvement in Iraq is painted in broad black and white strokes: Kyle is there to protect “our boys” from the “savages,” and while there are occasionally Iraqis who (reluctantly) help Kyle, the motivation of the people he’s fighting is never explored. Kyle’s wife is introduced as a strong woman who shoots down (sorry) a guy trying to pick her up, only to fall for Kyle’s charms; she spends the rest of the movie begging him to come back to his family.

It is the worst Best Picture nominee I can remember seeing. I’ll give Bradley Cooper credit for his performance; other people have criticized it because his natural charm and exuberance are leashed, but I admire him for being able to slip into another character that way. Technical awards, sure. It’s a beautiful movie in many places and I give them a lot of credit for never losing Cooper among all the similarly uniformed soldiers. The action scenes are filmed tautly and are easy to follow, and the sound is terrific. No, the nomination that bothers me the most is for its dull, mediocre screenplay. Stealing from Mark Harris of Grantland in his review of the Oscar nominations, it is stunning to me that this was nominated over Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for “Gone Girl.” That was a well-written, gripping film (and written by the author of the source material; maybe part of the reason for the snub is that she’s not a career screenwriter, while Jason Hall is at least an actor and has two other screenplays to his name); this was basically a war piece that verged on propaganda, and not even clever propaganda.

So anyway. If you’re an Oscar completist, go ahead and see the movie. Otherwise I don’t think most people reading this blog will care much for it.

Story reviewed!

As I tweeted earlier, my story “Erzulie Dantor” published in Apex  was reviewed by Lois Tilton in Locus. And it got a “Recommended” rating! That is really cool–Locus is the place many people go to figure out what’s hot, what’s cool, what they should read out of all the wonderful stuff being published out there. So it is really nice to see my story on someone’s short list. And what’s just as cool is to see my fellow Narwolf Brooke Wonders recommended as well, for her Clarkesworld story “Everything Must Go.” If you have not read it, you should go do that. It will break your heart but in such a beautiful way that you won’t care.

Review: The Book of Basketball

The Book of Basketball,” by Bill Simmons
9/10, a thorough review of the history of basketball in the NBA

All sports are, at their heart, human stories. We like to reduce them to box scores and statistics, but the best stories are the ones about the people behind the numbers. Simmons has been following the NBA up close for over thirty years, and he knows the people as well as the numbers. Better yet, he knows how the people and the numbers go together. Take the NBA’s most famous debate: Chamberlain or Russell?

Well, Simmons grew up in Boston watching the Celtics. So you can guess which side of that debate he lands on. But he backs up his conclusion, not just with numbers, but with stories and quotes from people who played the game with both.

His love for the game and the players shines through on every page, and because he cares so deeply, he uncovers stories. You can feel his pain in talking about Bernard King’s knees, or Chris Webber’s head. You can feel the joy he feels in talking about transcendent players he’s seen or watched on TV: Jordan, Walton, Bird, Magic. The majority of the book is dedicated to ranking the top 96 players ever, an admittedly futile exercise, because within months of the book’s publication, the 2009 playoffs had thrown a half-dozen of his rankings into disarray.

Each of the 96 rankings leads with statistics about the player. Each one then goes into that player’s story, encapsulated in two or three pages. His highlights, lowlights, what other people said about him. The tragedy of the black players who had to play in towns where they couldn’t stay in the hotels. The drugs that nearly ruined the NBA of the 70s and early 80s. The me-first mentality that threatened to do the same in the late 90s. Players who landed in the perfect situation; players who never reached their full potential. These are human stories, human tragedies, projected into the black-and-white world of basketball.

His chapter on Shaq is one of the most fascinating. Shaq, one of the most dominant players of the 00s, could have been much better, in Simmons’ opinion. Instead, he chose to be merely very good–and pursue other things he loved doing. He wasn’t all about basketball, and he made sure to live life while he played the game. Ultimately, Simmons regrets not having seen the best Shaq had to offer, but he has to admit by the end of Shaq’s section that in his place, he might’ve done the same thing.

If you have any interest in basketball, you should absolutely buy this book. Simmons is a talented writer and a sports fan, and he has managed to walk a delicate line between being a fan and being an insider. Early in his career with ESPN, he seemed star-struck with the access he had, and played it up too much. Now, he is back in his fan mentality, sharing stories about stars not in a “look what I did” way, but as a friend telling you about the cool things that happened to him. The implication is that he wishes you coulda been there. You can’t, but you can do the next best thing. Buy his book.

Review: Empire Falls

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
7.5/10, a well-written but sprawling Small-Town Drama

It seems odd to be disappointed in a Pulitzer winner, especially one recommended by a friend, but I think expectations were just high. The story of Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, is an epic drama about the lives of people in a dying small town. Miles himself, at the center of the drama, is undergoing a divorce (while subjected to his ex-wife’s new fiance’s blunt attempts at friendship), pining over a years-long unrequited love, fending off a years-long unwanted love, resisting pressure from his brother to upgrade the diner, and dealing with the memories of his childhood that suggest, strongly, that he should have made more of his life.

If that seems like a handful, well, just wait until you meet the other characters: the town’s matriarch and owner of the Grill; the waitress who is the object of Miles’ affections; his high-school classmate, now an aggressive policeman; his daughter’s classmates, from the vapid girl to the popular bully to the silent loner; his crippled brother; the matriarch’s daughter, still in love with him; his ex-wife; her annoying fiance, later husband; not to mention all the characters from memory who intrude and add texture to the experiences of Miles and the others.

Miles and Tick occupy the bulk of the narrative, though his ex-wife has a bit of her own story going on, never really resolved. In fact, most of the issue I had with the book was that few of the storylines are resolved. There’s a climax at the end, which wraps up some things quickly and neatly; others persist through the end of the book. You all know how I feel about endings; this one bothered me a little.

The other issue I had with the book was stylistic. In a Pulitzer winner, I expected a little better than some of the awkward, heavy-handed description that I found in “Empire Falls.” There were a few compelling story arcs, but they weren’t that compelling. A lot of the description was telling rather than showing.

That said, there was a lot of good writing in it. There were passages that made me laugh out loud. Russo has a good sense of irony, and a great talent for description and imagery. I thought the characters were distinctive and interesting, so there’s definitely a lot to recommend the book, here. It just felt like it could’ve been better, which is not a feeling I got from the other Pulitzer winner I read recently, “The Age of Innocence”. Still, it’s worthwhile, though I understand the movie is pretty good, too. Maybe you should just rent that.

Review: Self-Help

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
8/10, an evocative collection of short stories with wonderful language but little story

I first heard of Lorrie Moore in a writing class, because of her short story “How To Become A Writer,” included in this collection. It’s a wry look at the writer’s life in the second person (“Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin.”), a format that most of the stories in this collection follow.

They’re much more than just a gimmick, though. Moore has a real gift for language and description, real situations and three-dimensional characters. The stories are all rather depressing in tone, but the writing is lovely and immersive. Moore creates a world rich with detail, full of characters and places, and her eye for the important details is terrific.

What I missed from this collection was some sense of resolution to the stories. Moore’s characters move through their situations, changing and reacting, but their situations rarely come to any character resolution. While the stories themselves are engaging and quite well written, a real pleasure to read, none of them stayed with me long after reading the book.

To study the craft of writing, Moore is a great read. Learning how to pace a story, what details to include, how to build characters and situations, all of that is here in these stories. But it’s harder to figure out what to take away from the stories. Don’t worry too much about that and you’ll enjoy this collection.

Review: Number 9 Dream

Number 9 Dream, by David Mitchell
8.5/10, a surreal multi-layered coming-of-age adventure

The beginning of “Number 9 Dream” is tough to get into. Eiji Miyake, a young man in Tokyo for the first time, is searching for clues to the identity of his father, but sorting out his fantasies from reality is challenging; like the flood that overtakes him (or does it?), we are plunged into his narrative with little preparation or context. But the story eventually sorts itself out, the magical realism elements fall into their place, and Eiji’s story moves along.

Each of the first eight sections of “Number 9 Dream” is split between the present day narrative and some other narrative, whether youthful fantasies, dreams, letters or memories from the past, or something else. In most cases, the “background” narrative provides support and foundation for the ongoing one. In a couple of the chapters, the foreground narrative actually becomes more bizarre than the background. Through all of it, Mitchell explores the lines of reality and fantasy, desire and expectation, promise and hope with all the skill you’d expect from his other works.

One of the reasons I think he likes to play with split narratives (“Black Swan Green” is his only single-narrator book) is that he is so good at character voice. Eiji has a distinctive voice, but so do his fantasies, so do the memories and the other characters he encounters, and so, in fact, does each setting he passes through, from his job at the train station to the gleaming corporate tower where his father’s attorney works to his filthy apartment with its transient feline roommate to the countryside where he grew up.

If there is one flaw in “Number 9 Dream,” it is that, being used to Mitchell’s transcendant endings, the finale of this one does not quite measure up. Either it requires a bit more study and thought than I’ve put into it, or it simply leaves the narrative somewhat unresolved–which, given the rest of the story and the style, is fine. I’m not sure what I was expecting, only that “Ghostwritten,” “Cloud Atlas,” and “<a href="
http://timsusman.blogspot.com/2009/05/review-black-swan-green.html”>Black Swan Green” all had terrific endings, with “Cloud Atlas” and “Black Swan Green” among the best in modern fiction.

Still, as with a few creators like Kazuo Ishiguro, Pixar, and the Beatles, the weakest of Mitchell’s books is still a delightful, thoughtful experience, well worth picking up and enjoyable from beginning to end. Its complexity makes it probably the first of his books I would want to re-read, if only because of the feeling that there were connections between the various parts that I’d missed. If nothing else, it’s instructive to see him develop the techniques that allowed him to write “Cloud Atlas,” and to see parts of the stories begun in “Ghostwritten” continued here.

Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a beautiful, haunting tragedy of a woman reminiscing about her life in Japan

I’ve made no secret of my writer-crush on Ishiguro in reviews of An Artist of the Floating World, Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans, and even The Unconsoled. “Pale View” was the last of Ishiguro’s published books on my list at the time I read it (he has a new collection out now), and it was his first published novel.

Some of the rough edges show, the techniques he would perfect in “Remains of the Day.” The narrative is by no means straightforward, skipping back and forth between present day in the West and many years ago in Japan. Etsuko, the main character, has gotten a visit from her daughter, which begins her reminisces of her years in Japan and a young woman she befriended there with her recalcitrant daughter, Mariko. As the narrative winds its way through the past and present, without the urgency of “Artist of the Floating World” or “Remains of the Day,” it is still engaging and fascinating, and it includes an element those later books did not: a touch of horror. Especially in the interactions between Mariko and Etsuko, Mariko behaves oddly (even for an Ishiguro child) and has a creepy fixation on odd details.

Mariko turned over her hand and the spider crawled into her palm. She closed her other hand over it so that it was imprisoned.
“Mariko, put that down.”
“It’s not poisonous,” she said, coming closer to me.
“No, but it’s dirty. Put it back in the corner.”
“It’s not poisonous, though.”
She stood in front of me, the spider inside her cupped hands. Through a gap in her fingers, I could see a leg moving slowly and rhythmically.
“Put it back in the corner, Mariko.”
“What would happen if I ate it? It’s not poisonous.”
“You’d be very sick. Now, Mariko, put it back in the corner.”
Mariko brought the spider closer to her face and parted her lips.

Despite the odd, semi-fantastical nature of the reminisces, Ishiguro still manages to build up to a revelatory climax that is emotional and shattering. Though this isn’t the most masterful of his works, and it takes a good bit of thought to read through, it’s still a terrific, skilful work. And it depresses me that it was his first book because it’s still really good.

Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
7.5/10, a dry but fascinating tale of family and mistaken identity in 1500s France

This story was published as a way to document the second ever documented case of circumstantial evidence, but Janet Lewis finds a human drama within the case as well. Bertrande de Rols is married to Martin Guerre at the age of eleven, and returns to live with him a few years later. His father, a stern disciplinarian, has rubbed off on Martin to some extent, but also bred in him a rebellious streak. After one particularly daring act of rebellion, fearing reprisals from his father, Martin flees, promising Bertrande and their young son that he will return soon.

Years go by. Martin’s father never forgives him for his transgression, not until he dies. And the year following his death, Martin returns, looking much different and acting more considerate and erudite. Perhaps the years have softened him? Bertrande welcomes him back into her bed; her family welcomes him as head of the farm. But as the years go by, she becomes convinced he is not truly the Martin who left her. She can only convince one old uncle that she is right, but when a soldier appears who seems to back her story, she gains enough credence to bring her returned husband to court to prove his identity.

Lewis hews closely to the facts of the case as they were presented, elaborating on some of the human interactions and the feelings of Bertrande. Bertrande’s sense of justice and propriety may seem a little outdated to us, but they’re important to her sense of honor, and they form the basis of her character. The story is short but clear, and the twists and turns are the more engaging for being real, or at least based in reality.

The story ends somewhat abruptly, but that’s where the reality of the story really takes hold. It would have been nice to have a clean wrap-up and a more emotionally satisfying conclusion, but all the ending does is remind you that these were real events and real people. After the conclusion of the case, there was no need to keep track of the litigants, so there are no records, and Lewis is forced to speculate. Though brief, her thoughts really tie up the narrative.

This was made into a movie, which I haven’t seen, but the premise itself is fascinating. For as long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the nature of identity and personality, and this story speaks strongly to those themes.

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
9/10, a wonderful tale that brings fantasy and magic into the real world

“Harry Potter for grown-ups.” An odd thing to say, since most of the Harry Potter fans I know are over 21. “Like a real-world Narnia.” Another odd thing to say, because Narnia was supposed to be based in the real world of 1940s England, from which the Pevensies escape to Narnia. But those phrases do aptly describe “The Magicians,” the most accomplished modern fantasy in years.

Quentin has just graduated from high school and is preparing for his alumni interview with Princeton. When his interviewer turns up dead, he gets another mysterious invitation and finds himself in a large exam room taking an exam that he doesn’t fully understand. After some on-the-spot interviews, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills, a school for magicians hidden away in upstate New York.

It’s not Hogwarts. The students drink, use drugs, have sex, and make mistakes. Magic, like many flashy things, is a lot more tedious on the inside, requiring not only talent, but dedication and attention to detail. Quentin makes friends and enemies, and graduates with little idea what he wants to do in life. Then one of his friends comes by with the bizarre claim that he knows how to get to the magical land of Fillory, the subject of a popular set of children’s books.

From there, the story goes on, but even in the magical fantasy land, it doesn’t get any less “real.” And besides the engaging journey, the book leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards. The characters learn more than magic; as we follow them through school, we watch them learn that the point of an education is not the learning, it’s what you do with it.

Grossman (who is on Twitter as @leverus and is entertaining to follow) writes well and creates a fascinating cast of characters, a terrific world to explore, and an engaging and thought-provoking plot. He eschews or subverts the conventions of fantasy, making pointed references to quidditch at one point, but the book stands on its own even if you’re one of the three people who’s unfamiliar with both “Harry Potter” and “Narnia.”

“The Magicians” is a terrific read from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it for anyone who liked “Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” or any other contemporary fantasy. It’ll leave you with a wistful longing, but only because it feels so difficult to say good-bye to the characters after having been with them through so much.

Review: Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín
8/10, a melancholy collection of stories of Irish families

Tóibín, author of Brooklyn, penned this collection of stories about families in Ireland. Loosely following the theme of mothers and sons, he tracks happy and sad families–but mostly sad.

The overriding theme, actually, seems to be “things aren’t great, but we’d rather they not change.” The characters in the stories are presented with opportunities to change their lives, to learn something, and in nearly every case, they put aside that chance.

That doesn’t make the stories bad. They’re engaging and interesting, written with Tóibín’s lovely touch with language, if not the humor of “Brooklyn.”

Every day he had planned his return [from military service], longed for it in detail, lived in the ordinary future where the smallest domestic detail–the sound of a jeep starting up, a chainsaw, a hunter’s gun, or a dog’s bark–would signify that he had returned, that he had survived. He had imagined this homecoming in all its satisfying comfort and freedom so closely that he had put no thought into how soon [his younger brother] Jordi’s turn would come, how soon his brother would have to submit himself to the humiliation of the haircut and the standing in the cold waiting for the lorry to take him to Lerida. Miquel knew how bad it would be for his brother, and it was as though some more vulnerable and innocent part of him were going to have the haircut, leaving an empty bed behind.

I have remarked before on the uniqueness of Irish writing. If you enjoy it, then this collection will not disappoint you. It’s a beautifully-written, sad world that is worth visiting.