Writing and Other Afflictions

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Review: Amsterdam


Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
7/10, a technically competent story that falls short of actual meaning

After seeing “Atonement“, I became curious about Ian McEwan’s stories. I found “Amsterdam,” recommended in various places as a “dark comedy tour de force,” or variations thereon, and I thought it’d be worth a read.

Certainly, McEwan creates memorable characters and extraordinary situations. The setup for “Amsterdam,” loosely, is two friends reminiscing over affairs with a woman at her funeral, and mutually despising a politician with whom she was most recently taking up. The friends are a newspaper editor and a composer, and their lives become further disrupted when some photos of the politician surface that might be embarrassing. Over the seemingly minor question of whether the editor has a moral obligation to publish the photos, the two friends have a falling-out, which leads to further extraordinary situations and a fairly unbelievable ending.

It might be called “dark humor”; I find that a lot of people who attempt dark humor end up sliding too far to the “dark” and not including enough “humor.” That’s the case here, where a macabre and grotesque situation is supposed to be funny simply because it exists. There isn’t enough time given to the setup of the two men and their friendships for us to appreciate the quick twists and turns of the story, and the extremes to which they go seem incongruous with the rest of the world they inhabit. Without giving too much away, the hinge of the whole moral dilemma seems weak, but perhaps that’s just my unfamiliarity with British customs and traditions as regards their politicians. Still, in a country that outdoes the U.S.A. for tabloids, I find it hard to believe that there would be that much furor over embarrassing photos.

I do have a thing about endings, and the head-shaking nature of this one rather ruined the experience for me. It’s possible that McEwan’s other books are more worthwhile, but I wouldn’t recommend this one.

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Movie Review: Up In The Air

Since taking some screenwriting classes, our standards for movies have risen, slowly but surely. We pick at plot holes more, we attack dialogue, we scorn useless characters and sometimes entire movies (“Benjamin Button”). Yes, movies have been somewhat ruined, as our teacher warned us, but on the other hand, when we find a movie that really shines, the reward is that much greater.

“Up In The Air” is one of those rewards. It succeeds in a variety of areas: snappy dialogue, great acting, a great premise and imagery, good direction, and a story that makes you think for a while after you leave the theater.

It’s suited to our modern times. George Clooney plays a contract firer, a person hired to travel around the country and announce layoffs to people for companies that don’t want to make the announcement themselves. He has seen all kinds of reaction from the people he’s laying off, and he knows how to deal with it all. He loves to travel, and he loves the life he’s living.

Enter Anna Kendrick, playing a young business school grad who’s come to Omaha to change the company. She thinks the company can cut costs by firing people over webcam–which would mean Clooney would no longer be required, or permitted, to travel.

Also enter Vera Farmiga, a fellow traveler with whom Clooney shares a passionate night. They have an amusing moment of trying to synch up their travel schedules so they can meet again, and she seems the perfect companion for him.

Between these two women, Clooney’s world is in for some drastic changes, some of which he’ll handle better than others. But the movie is subversive: Anna has a steady boyfriend and expounds on the joys of stable relationships, and Clooney is required at one point to attend his sister’s wedding, leading one to think that this is going to be just another parable about the benefits of a family and how lonely the single life is. And then it turns it all on its head.

What this movie is about, as Clooney says eloquently in a speech to J.K. Simmons, is opportunity. Choices. Not limiting yourself to one thing, whether that thing be family, a job, or a way of life that keeps you on the road. In its own way, his addiction to travel is as confining as his sister’s complete inability to travel. And the movie is artfully done, with subtle touches and great performances from Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga, not to mention Simmons, Jason Bateman, and a host of other small parts.

The dialogue snaps and crackles, as good as the dialogue Clooney delivered with such panache in “Ocean’s 11.” Toward the later part of the movie, it becomes less amusing and more serious, but it never drags.

Along with “Up,” coincidentally, this is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s not getting much attention–perhaps Clooney, in his third movie in as many months, is overexposed–but it deserves an Oscar nom.

Revew: Ghostwritten


Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell
9/10, a sprawling lovely tapestry that presages “Cloud Atlas

I’ve made little secret of my admiration for “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell’s award-winning novel. “Ghostwritten” was his first, and in it you can see the elements he later wove more successfully into “Cloud Atlas”: the global setting with specific and eloquently described locations; distinct and wonderful character voices; a unifying theme rather than an overarching plot; a rather dramatic conclusion.

But “Ghostwritten” is not as complete a book as “Cloud Atlas,” lacking depth in many of its component parts. It spans the globe rather than time, traveling from Okinawa to Tokyo, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, London, Ireland, and New York. In “Cloud Atlas,” the stories were linked with sometimes-thin devices; here, too, the linking feels forced at times, the more so because it’s not always clear what the stories have to do with each other. They all share a theme of power and brutality, like the stories in “Cloud Atlas,” but here Mitchell takes the theme in a decidedly different direction.

In some cases, the protagonists of the stories are the ones with power; in other cases they believe they have power; in some cases they are merely victims. But in all cases, Mitchell displays the marvelous gift for voice and description that made “Cloud Atlas” stand out to me, and even if some segments dragged a little, I never felt bored, never wanted to put the book down.

It’s not a quick read, but it’s a worthwhile one. As I’ve said in the past, if you want to learn about character voice, there are few people you could pick up lessons from better qualified than David Mitchell. So far, none of his books have disappointed, and if you’ve finished “Cloud Atlas” and are looking for something to remind you of it (complete with recurring characters such as Luisa Rey), pick up “Ghostwritten.”

Review: Un Lun Dun


Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
10/10, a brilliant, engaging “otherworld” adventure

My only previous exposure to China Mieville had been a short story read in our fabulist class, about a pile of garbage that comes to life through the devices of a shaman, and staring at the spine of “Perdido Street Station” in our bookshelf for five years. “Un Lun Dun” had gotten some good buzz, and when I picked it up in the bookstore and saw that the first chapter was titled, “The Respectful Fox,” well, it was like Mr. Mieville was reaching into my pocket and taking out nine dollars.

And you know what? I don’t mind at all. The fox only appears in the first chapter and then is gone, but I didn’t care. He bows to Zanna, the latest in a series of odd incidents that have occurred to the young British girl, and soon she and her friend Deeba are in Un Lun Dun–from “Un-London,” one of a multitude of “abcities,” where all the refuse and unwanted things from the real cities end up, along with some people and animals, and some things in between.

Zanna, it turns out, is the “Shwazzy,” destined to save Un Lun Dun from the horrible Smog. The quest she and Deeba set out on takes them to a town of ghosts, a large market where they meet a man who sews clothes from books, a ride on an old double-decker bus, to a bridge that has no fixed location, but joins any two places you can think of. That’s where they meet the Propheseers and the Book, which contains all information known about the world, and is happy to share it smugly. They also meet the master of un-brellas (broken umbrellas) and a cadre of ninja-like garbage bins.

And from there, things get weird.

I can’t share any more about the plot, because discovering it is part of the joy of the book. But there are so many other joys: the beautiful writing that manages to be both cinematic and literary (one of the side jokes I loved was in the Library of Un Lun Dun, where they keep all the books that haven’t been written, one of the Librarians mentions going on a search for “Oh, All Right Then: Bartleby Returns”), the imaginative characters Mieville invents, the personalities and problems they all have, the illustrations (provided by the author), the humorous moments…

This book reminds me of curling up in bed at the age of ten with a fantasy novel. The way all fantasy feels to you at that age is the way this novel feels to me now. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It owes a lot to Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” but it is lighter than Gaiman, brighter without being less sound. I enjoyed “Neverwhere.” I loved “Un Lun Dun.”

Review: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
9/10, a funny, insightful, and engaging look into class and society in late-1800s New York

The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was Edith Wharton in 1921, for this novel. “The Age of Innocence” is the story of Archer Newland, a young man in New York society in the late 1800s, engaged to be married to May Welland (note the names: New-land, Well-land). She is everything he could want in a society wife: she always knows just the right thing to say and do. And yet, sometimes he feels dissatisfied, because he knows she is only saying what Society has scripted for her. He feels he will never get to know the “real” woman.

Enter Countess Olenska, Ellen, a scion of the family who has fled an abusive marriage. She knows little of New York Society, but after a couple faux pas (attending the party of a common artist! where there is dancing!), she is accepted into their ranks. Archer falls in love with her free spirit and sees in her the same desire he himself has, to show the Society folks how much of a sham their posturing and elegant disguises are, to show that they are insulating themselves from life.

And yet, and yet…every time he steps boldly toward Ellen, she retreats; when she makes a move in his direction, he seeks the shelter of the familiar. But they grow closer and closer to running away together even as his wedding to May grows nearer and nearer.

Wharton’s grasp of character and story is marvelous. Archer is a tortured and complicated person, no less so than Ellen, but the side characters are simply wonderful: the old dowager who defied expectations to become highly respected and influential, who now is too large to get upstairs in her own house and now has the unconventional arrangement of having her bedroom on the ground floor; the van Luydens, one of the most influential families in Society by birth who nonetheless seem to prefer solitude to the company of people; the lynchpin of society, the aging dandy who knows all the gossip because everyone invites him everywhere to hear the gossip he knows, and in the process he learns theirs (and he lives with his unmarried sister, whom he sometimes sends to the less important engagements)…it’s a marvelous cast of characters, and it makes for a terrific story.

Through it all, as through this review, runs the thread of Society, the unwritten code by which Archer and his peers say certain things and leave others understood; do certain things and leave others undone. Archer continues to question Society, pointing out to himself the ridiculousness of it even as he digs himself deeper into its grip.

A highly enjoyable and most recommended read. I will certainly be looking up more of Edith Wharton’s work.

Review: Strange Itineraries


Strange Itineraries, by Tim Powers
7.5/10, an inventive collection of short stories

Continuing with my summer of reading my favorite authors, I took this Christmas present off my book stack. I’d already read The Drawing of the Dark, an early Tim Powers novel, and I was hoping for more of the same.

When it comes to imagination, Powers never disappoints. All the stories in the collection are based off brilliant ideas, and the writing is generally quite good. He has a way of introducing the protagonist’s problem in very matter-of-fact language, where ordinary tasks pose huge issues or carry immense weight: the picking up of a baby’s bottle, for instance, or walking across a closed bedroom.

But the stories lack the coherence and drive of his novels, for the most part. “Where They Are Hid” is the best of the bunch, a gripping time-travel story in which consequences and actions are mingled and unfold with perfect precision. Many of the others settle for being weird, which is just fine–Powers does weird with his own particular touch, and I love reading it. I’m just used to his stories having more texture and depth, and perhaps that’s a limitation of the short story form.

Because they’re short stories, though, they don’t require a large investment of time to read. If you’re looking for a taste of Tim Powers and you don’t want to embark on one of the novels, this isn’t a bad place to start.

Review: An Artist of the Floating World


An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a journey through the past and present of post-war Japan from the point of view of an elderly painter

Masuji Ono, a retired painter living in post-war Japan, is anxious for his younger daughter, Noriko, to be married. She is twenty-six, and one set of negotiations has already fallen through. Setsuko, his elder daughter, is happily married with a son, and the two of them visit Noriko and Ono frequently. Ono was a painter of high regard before the Second World War, but has not worked since the disastrous ending of the war.

We learn about this in flashback and memory, as Ono tries to understand the cause of his daughters’ attitudes toward him through his memory of events. He frequents a local bar and has some friends there, but slowly they all disappear. He remembers his break from his own teacher, who wanted only to paint images of pleasurable areas in the entertainment district–the so-called “Floating World.” Ono prefers to paint images of important things, things that will help Japan on the path to greatness, and in fact that path leads him to some recognition and prominence.

But the war has changed everything. We don’t learn this in plain revelation; instead, we have to come to understand it in the way Ono does. We begin with his preconceptions and we see, perhaps somewhat before he does, that they are no longer valid. Ultimately, he finds, his own world was no more permanent than the “floating world” he derided.

As with most of Ishiguro’s work, the journey is the real pleasure. There are many similarities between “Floating World” and his next novel, “The Remains Of The Day,” both being reminisces of men after wartime whose certainty in their decisions slowly erodes. But where “Remains” has a powerful revelatory ending (one of my favorite things in any book ever), “Floating World” leaves the revelation up to the reader to parse.

It is, as always, a marvel that this narrative holds together as well as it does, given how much it rambles and wanders. Ishiguro never loses track of what’s important, though, and he establishes his characters with swift, sure strokes, building up mystery around them. Does Ono’s prize pupil hate him for his pre-war work, or is there another reason? Ono’s wife and son were killed in the war, but who feels that more acutely, himself or his daughters? What is the reason the marriage negotiations broke down for Noriko, and will the current ones go well?

Some of the lesser questions go unanswered, but not in Ono’s mind. He is a beautifully drawn character struggling to accept the changes in his world and to bear his responsibility for them. While this is not quite up to “Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go,” it is certainly a worthwhile and engaging read.

Review: Brooklyn


Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
9/10, a beautiful story about a young Irish emigrant to New York

I saw Colm Tóibín read a passage from Brooklyn a year and a half ago, and promised then that I would buy it when it came out. I fulfilled my promise when I saw it on the shelf recently, and I’m pleased to say that the book lives up to the promise of the reading.

It’s the story of Eilis, an Irish girl who emigrates to America in her late teens or early twenties. She builds a life there on her own, and then a tragedy calls her back to Ireland (it’s very like The Dive From Clausen’s Pier in that way).

Like William Trevor, Tóibín writes in what I can only describe as a very Irish way. He writes lyrically, in a narrative that has direction but not urgency, in which things happen in their own time and the pleasure is in the journey. We meet people and get to know them, and they’re all important in Eilis’s life in one way or another. But I don’t get the sense that each incident is necessary to explain the progression of the story–it’s not critical to show that she spends Christmas Day helping in the parish, or her attitude toward the African-American women who come in to the store. What each little incident does is build up the picture of her life in America, to contrast with her life in Ireland, and it’s in these pictures that the story comes to life.

I do love William Trevor, but Tóibín might be a little ahead of him in my bookshelf now. Although they write with the same lyricism, Tóibín writes with a lighter touch. The scene with Eilis’s first Atlantic crossing, which he read at Stanford, involves their neighbors locking the door to the shared bathroom, and poor Eilis not only forced to pee in a mop bucket, but becoming violently seasick later in the night. Fortunately, her feisty companion comes to the rescue, showing her how to pick the lock on the bathroom door and really lock the neighbors out, with the aid of a heavy steamer trunk.

Brooklyn is a joy to read, and it moves along quickly. Eilis is, surprisingly, not always a sympathetic protagonist. She does occasionally behave cruelly, and is unapologetic about it (rather than thanking her landlady for a nice gesture, she is suspicious of the motive behind it and remains cold, so that she won’t be in the lady’s debt). But if you don’t always agree with her choices, Tóibín gives you enough of a wide window into her thoughts that you always understand them. It is particularly interesting to contrast the people in Ireland, whom he tinges with a sort of inborn hopelessness, with the people Eilis meets in America, who are some of them Irish, some Italian, and some simply American: open to possibilities and bright with energy. It’s no accident that the Italian family she grows close to is planning to buy property on Long Island and set up a homebuilding business, while all her friends in Ireland see no further than continuing the family business, doing what their parents have done and their parents before them. And that, ultimately, is the choice Eilis must make.

Review: The Drawing Of The Dark

The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers
8/10, a somewhat scattered supernatural adventure in medieval Europe

It is a fairly well-established fact that I am a huge Tim Powers fan. I haven’t posted reviews of all his books–I read “Expiration Date,” “Earthquake Weather,” and “Last Call” before starting this blog–but I have reviewed The Anubis Gates, one of my favorite time-travel “Olde Worlde” stories.

So I was looking forward to “The Drawing of the Dark,” another chapter in his Fisher King universe, which is just like ours except for the supernatural/occult world that underlies it, a world ruled by Kings, in the east and the west. In Vienna in the 1600s, the West is weak, and the King of the East, wielding the Turkish army like a sword, intends to strike at its heart.

None of this is known to Irish mercenary Brian Duffy. All he knows is that he’s hungry and friendless in Venice, until a mysterious old man offers him the job of bouncer at a tavern in Vienna. He sees some strange things on the road to Vienna, but arrives there safely, to find that Epiphany, the girl he loved many years ago, is now a widow working in the kitchen. The tavern is a converted monastery, and also a brewery, whose famous Herzwesten Bock beer is due to be released in Easter.

Strange things continue to swirl around Duffy, from a ship of Vikings sailing down the Danau to hideous flying creatures attacking him. When the old man joins Duffy in the tavern, he reveals that the Herzwesten Dark beer, due to be drawn on All Hallow’s Eve, is actually a source of power and renewal for the Western King, and that the Turkish army’s attack has been planned to steal the Dark, or corrupt it if that is not possible.

Duffy himself is excellently drawn as the reluctant hero, though there is more hero in him than he knows. Powers paints a vivid picture of medieval Vienna, with his usual cast of eccentric and delightful characters, and the ins and outs of magic are as well thought-out as usual. But Duffy’s reluctance to get involved and distance from the center of the action makes him a difficult vantage point to narrate the story from. In “Last Call,” Powers has a similar hero, but his own story is more compelling in this case, and he is much more of a central figure. All Duffy wants is for things to quiet down so he can rest.

While the story is still engaging and tense, with several twists and turns, it isn’t quite up to the rest of Powers’ works. For a completist (like me), it’s definitely worth reading, but if you’re looking for an introduction to Powers, try The Anubis Gates, Last Call, or Declare.

Review: Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
10/10, a coming-of-age story that is evocative and engaging

Life is tough when you’re thirteen, and nobody knows that better than Jason Taylor. In the English parish of Black Swan Green, we are introduced to the ranks of Jason’s class of schoolboys through an afternoon on a frozen lake, in a game of British Bulldogs, played thus: they split into two sides, and when the non-Bulldogs capture a Bulldog, he has to join their side on the next attack. Jason hates this game, not just because of the physical nature of the attacks, but because you’re forced to turn and betray your friends.

Jason peppers his narrative with observations like that, coming across as a thirteen-year-old making discoveries about life. He walks us through the life of a boy who not only has to navigate the perilous social strata of the schoolyard, but also a tumultuous family life and a personal issue, a stammer that comes up so subtly that he almost sneaks it up on us. He personifies the directions in which his teenaged pysche pulls him, assigning a personality to each of his impulses. One of the strongest is the Hangman, the one who seizes his tongue and makes him stammer. It’s no coincidence that his biggest fear is his stammer being discovered.

Cloud Atlas proved Mitchell to be gifted at narrative voice. We see that gift here, not only in Jason, but in the personalities of his world in Black Swan Green parish. And although the story reads at first like a series of diary entries, it soon acquires a coherence thanks to the different plot threads that recur: his sister’s boyfriends and transition to law school; his parents’ struggle to maintain their marriage; his own personal trauma involving his grandfather’s watch; the odd social stratification in the parish that is rarely brought to the surface but always lurks just beneath it.

But Black Swan Green is much more than simply an exercise in character. It’s a full-fledged story, engaging enough to bring me back to it night after night, with (a rarity) a believable and satisfying (and beautiful) ending. You might find the slang difficult to follow at first, but Mitchell knows just how to use it with enough context to give you the meaning, and eventually you won’t even ask what “poncy” or “sarky” mean.

If you thought Cloud Atlas was too esoteric, give this one a whirl. It’s more accessible and just as good.