Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: The Mysteries of Paris (1842) by Eugene Sue

There should be a literary dating site to match up readers seeking a long-term reading commitment with novels that suit their preferences. A website like eHarmony or Lavalife that lets you know if your tastes and interests are suitable for a serious relationship with door stoppers such as War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or the collected works of James Patterson. The Mysteries of Paris is over 1,300 pages of melodrama, sentimentality, granite-jawed heroism, pathos, unrepentant villainy, and strident social commentary. Like many 19th century novels it began life as a newspaper serial, running in 150 installments in a Paris newspaper. According to the novel's introduction, Mysteries was probably the biggest bestseller of all time, and it inspired a score of copycat versions set in other cities and countries, and also influenced the writing of Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo. This is what made me read it. I'm a sucker for a novel with a dating profile that reveals it's influenced a host of other writers.

There are a battalion of characters in the novel, but the two that count are Rodolphe and Songbird. The former is a wealthy German count who likes to skulk around Paris posing as a labourer in order to right wrongs and punish evildoers, while the latter is a teenage prostitute with the soul of saint. The story begins with Rodolphe rescuing Songbird (also called Fleur de Mairie) from her life on the streets. It turns out that the two have a connection both are unaware of, but before that is revealed, Rodolphe and Songbird have to battle against the plots and schemes of characters with names such as the Owl, Red-Arm, She-Wolf, the Schoolmaster, and the Gimp. If this sounds like a cabal of Batman villains, the comparison is a valid one. Rodolphe may be the first superhero. He's wealthy, he's unbeatable in a fight, he goes about in disguise, and he fights bad guys just for the hell of it. Now who does that sound like? And there's no denying that the writing and characterization isn't much more sophisticated than what's found in most comic books.

I probably shouldn't have invested the time required to read all 1,300+ pages of The Mysteries of Paris, but the plotting was hard to resist. Eugene Sue wasn't a master of prose, but he did an amazing job of weaving multiple plots and sub-plots together without losing the thread. And he can't be faulted on the bad guy front. Nineteenth century literature's villains are usually far more memorable than the heroes and heroines, and this novel is no exception. The novel's most powerful scene is actually shared by three of its villains, the Owl, the Schoolmaster, and the Gimp, as one of the three is slowly murdered in a pitch black cellar. Sue also creates a couple of comic relief characters that Charles Dickens would have approved of. Of course the downside to many novels of this era is that the heroes and heroines are, well, so noble and pure and sweet (with extra whipped cream on top), that they fully engage the reader's gag reflex every time they step on the scene. All is not lost, however; Sue brings to his novel a fiery anger at the way the poor are treated by the state and capitalism, although he doesn't use words like "state" or "capitalism." Where Dickens often merely pitied the poor in his novels and begged for more charity for them, Sue turns parts of his novel into agitprop for structural changes in society to benefit the working classes. It's not a call to arms or The Communist Manifesto, but it's a bracing change from Sue's contemporaries. Also, it's a damn sight better than Les Miserables, which now seems like the work of a plagiarist.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: The Vienna Melody (1944) by Ernst Lothar

Now this is what I call a national literary epic. In this case the country is Austria, and like any NLE worth its salt, the action of the novel takes place over several generations and is bound up with key historical moments in the country's past. The setting is Vienna and the central characters are members of the Alt dynasty, a haute bourgeoisie family who have lived in an imposing home in one of Vienna's better districts since the late 1700s. The Alts made their fortune as piano makers to the stars, as it were; Mozart performed The Magic Flute on an Alt piano. The Alt home at 10 Seillerstatte is really a small apartment building that holds several branches of the family, all of whom are well-connected and respected in Viennese society.

The story begins in 1888 with Franz Alt, heir to the Alt piano company, marrying Henriette Stein, the daughter of a university professor and an opera singer. The other Alts are mildly scandalized by this union. Henriette is half-Jewish and, what might be worse, Franz wants to add a fourth floor to the Alt house to accommodate his new bride. Henriette is not in love with Franz, she's simply marrying because that's what's expected of her. She's actually having an affair (platonic, so far) with Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On her wedding day Rudolf kills himself and his mistress at Mayerling, the country retreat of the Habsburgs. This symbolic event marks the beginning of the decline and fall of both the Alt family and Austria over the next fifty years.

Henriette's first child is Hans, born in 1890, and it's Hans and his mother who become the main characters in the novel. Henriette is a rebel against the stunted, circumscribed emotional lives of Vienna's upper classes. Her tragedy is that her rebellion finds expression in an adulterous affair that ends in a fatal duel, and, what might be worse, a love for her four children that isn't shared out equally. The children she loves most are Hans and her last child, Martha Monica, the latter being the result of her illicit affair. Hans is also a rebel, although, like his mother, a rather ineffectual one. He doesn't want to join the family firm but can't really find a place for himself in the defeated and ruined Austria that emerges after World War One.  Both characters sense and want change, but, like their country, they're trapped in the amber of tradition, social respectability and obedience to authority.

Lothar is a wonderful writer, and it seems odd this book isn't more famous. He's able to switch effortlessly from micro to macro views of Vienna and Austria, the characters are brilliantly realized, the plot is inventive and unpredictable, the era's political changes are smoothly described, and he even manages to incorporate actual characters from history such as Hitler and Freud without any awkwardness. He also created two exceptionally fascinating female characters in Henriette and Selma, Hans' wife; in fact, the pair of them are probably the most interesting and complex characters in the novel. It's also a nice touch that the Alts are in the piano business, since, in symbolic terms, music represents the heart of Austrian culture. The Vienna Melody would also be a great companion piece to The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (my review), an epic about the Austro-Hungarian Empire set in the decade before World War One.

A word of warning: I read the Europa Editions (picture above) translation of The Vienna Melody, and it was absolutely stuffed with typos. A world record, in fact. Misspelled words, transpositions, words repeated, errant capitalization, it had a little bit of everything. This was either the product of a corrupted Word file or a proofreader suffering a nervous breakdown. It was quite distracting, so if you can find it from another publisher, go for it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

It's about time someone made a good Star Wars movie. It's taken nearly forty years, but director J.J. Abrams has finally made an entry in this franchise that I could watch without wincing. To be fair, The Empire Strikes Back was pretty good, but that was because George Lucas handed the directing chores to Irvin Kershner, an old pro with a solid, if unspectacular, filmography. Three of the next four films were directed by Lucas and the results proved that George was something of an alchemist; he was able to turn the base metal of his negligible talent into box office gold.

As you may have guessed, I've never cared for the Star Wars films. I didn't see the original film until 1979, two years after it came out. I was twenty-two, had one year of film school under my belt, my favourite directors were Sidney Lumet and Sergio Leone, and I may have been a film snob. When I finally saw Star Wars I was astounded by the special effects and utterly gobsmacked by the bad acting, rubbish dialogue, and spastic action sequences. The subsequent films directed by Lucas added more proof to my conviction that he shouldn't be allowed near actors, a typewriter or a Panaflex camera.

The Force Awakens is, more or less, a reboot of the first film in the series, with the Death Star being upsized to a Death Planet. The Empire (now called the First Order) is a firm believer in the "go big or go home" adage when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, although after this latest expensive setback they'll probably be considering using Death Uber. Anyway, if you've seen the first one you've pretty much seen The Force Awakens. What makes this one such a pleasure is that is everything about the film that requires imaginative skill is done with wit, energy and professionalism. The acting is almost uniformly excellent, the script is smart, witty and lean, and Abrams, unlike Lucas, knows how to choreograph the non-space action scenes. The actors are led by Daisy Ridley as Rey, who I like to think of as Keira Knightley 2.0. That's a compliment. John Boyega as Finn, the renegade strormtrooper, was a revelation to me. I hated him in Attack the Block, but here he steals just about every scene he's in. Harrison Ford is reliably grumpy and cocky. And all the actors get dialogue that's blissfully unclunky and frequently funny

One aspect of the previous films that remains untouched is the determined avoidance of anything to do with sexuality or romantic relationships. The Stars Wars universe is a chaste universe, almost Victorian, in fact. Across the seven films in the franchise there's been some mild flirting, a very few kisses, and only one out and out romance: the union between Annakin and Padme that results in Luke's birth. This last episode is also notorious as perhaps the most badly written, acted and directed section in any of the films. You get the feeling Lucas hated having to film this subject matter. Not that Lucas is a prude. His American Graffitti is all about rambunctious teenage hormones. What Lucas probably realized was that part of the appeal of his films was that they offer a universe free from the angst, terror, tension and embarrassment of desire. This is a universe in which the characters (and the audience) only have to be concerned with issues of bravery, loyalty, resourcefulness, and derring-do. No one worries about being popular or loved. I think this is the ingredient x that made these films such a massive hit with the 8-24 demographic. Star Wars was, and is, their "safe place," a world that offers a holiday from the scary land of personal relationships.

There are some problems. The latest R2D2 iteration, a droid called BB-8, apparently comes with an algorithm that forces it to do something cute every second time it appears on screen. This got old very fast and for the next film I hope our lovable little droid is clubbed into scrap with the cold, dead body of an Ewok. The chief bad guy and Darth Vader fanboy is Kylo Ren, who (SPOILER AHEAD) turns out to be the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. This seems like a colossal case of bad parenting, but the whole issue is kind of glossed over. Oh well, every family's got to have at least one world-destroying megalomaniac with a helmet fetish. Finally, Oscar Isaac gets the role of Poe Dameron, a gung ho fighter pilot who whoops and hollers as he goes into combat. You get the idea that his role will be expanded in the next film, but what they're starting with is pretty poor. Poe is a grab bag of cliches, and it wastes Isaac's talents in a big way. Also, what's up with that name? Am I missing some in-joke or connection to Con Air? The Nicolas Cage character in that film was named Cameron Poe. Is this a hint that Cage will be the big reveal in the next film? Will he be pulling off a helmet and announcing that he's somebody's long-lost relative? Please let him be Han Solo's younger, crazier, weird-ass brother--Charlie Solo.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Film Review: Two Days, One Night (2014)

In addition to run-of-the-mill critical commentary, films these days are often judged on their attitude towards visible minorities, gender roles, ageism, ethnic or religious stereotyping, and the LGBT community. The sequel to Zoolander, which has yet to be released, has gained the ire of the transgender community, Adam Sandler's western series for Netflix has been attacked by native American groups, and Get Hard with Will Ferrell was criticized for its racial politics. It's no surprise that modern films are under this kind of scrutiny given that until fairly recently filmmakers had no qualms about mocking, vilifying, disparaging or ignoring a wide variety of minority groups. There is, however, still one group that lacks adequate or sensitive representation on screen: the working class.

Working class characters are common enough in films as victims or perpetrators of crime, as comic cutups, sidekicks, army grunts, slackers, or as individuals pole vaulting into a higher tax bracket thanks to pluck and luck and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. What we almost never see are stories about working class people where the focus, the heart of the drama, is on their actual working lives and their relationship to capitalism. Losing a job is one of the most dramatic and painful things that can happen to a person, but it's rarely presented on film. We sometimes see middle- and upper-middle-class people lose their jobs, but that's usually just the jumping-off point for a feelgood story about "self-discovery" and learning about what "really matters." For people who are paid by the hour, having a permanent job is what really matters.

Two Days, One Night is about a French woman, Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who loses her job and then fights to get it back. She works for a small firm that assembles solar panels in the north of France. The job is blue collar, there's no union, and the pay is just adequate to sustain a decent lifestyle for her husband (who also works) and two kids. If she doesn't get her job back the family will probably have to move back into social housing. Sandra lost her job because her co-workers were given a choice: get a 1,000 euro bonus and see Sandra let go or keep Sandra and not get a bonus. A clear majority of the 16 workers voted to take the bonus and say goodbye to Sandra, who had the least seniority. At the urging of her husband and her friend, Sandra goes to the company's owner and asks for another vote. She points out that the vote wasn't fair because the foreman who initiated it led the workers to believe that if Sandra wasn't let go then it would mean someone else going out the door, which wasn't the case at all. Also, the ballot wasn't secret. The owner agrees to another vote, and Sandra has the weekend to try and change the minds of the people who voted against her.

It would have been so easy to make this film overly sentimental, preachy or polemical. What we get is a subtle, nuanced portrayal of working-class life under pressure. Each visit Sandra makes to one of her co-workers is a glimpse into the ambitions and struggles of the average worker. In terms of film dramas, one thousand euros (equal to about $1,500) is a paltry sum. In the real world, and in this film, that money represents school tuition, essential car repairs, debts repaid, a family vacation, home improvements, and so on. These aren't world-shaking issues, except to the people who have to deal with them. What's also shown in these meetings is the empathy some workers have for their fellows. They all acknowledge that Sandra got a raw deal and isn't just a victim of bad luck. They also feel terrible that they've  been put in the position of deciding the fate of a co-worker. Without saying so explicitly, all of the workers are disturbed or even horrified that they've been put in the position of deciding the fate of Sandra and her family.

The characters are superbly and efficiently drawn. Sandra is no model worker. She suffers from depression, and it's hinted that this affected her work in the past, which may have made it easier for people to vote her out. And by pleading her case with her co-workers Sandra causes some mini-crises in other households as people argue over whether they're justified, morally and otherwise, in sending her packing. One couple breaks up over the issue, and in the film's most powerful scene, a young worker breaks down in tears of shame and relief when he finds out he'll get a chance to change his vote and keep Sandra at the company. Sandra also suffers during this weekend because she's forced to beg people for her job, knowing full well that she's causing them hardship if she convinces them to change their vote.

The end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) is a mix of pain and hope. The second vote ends in a draw and so Sandra does lose her job. She isn't, however, crushed by this decision. Her experiences over the weekend have revealed her own strength, and, more importantly, the empathy and solidarity of many of her co-workers. The film ends with Sandra going off to begin the search for a new job, buoyed in spirits (slightly) by what she's learned about herself and her co-workers. It's a bitterly realistic ending, but one that points that fighting for justice in the workplace is both difficult and rewarding and makes for fantastic, if rarely seen, drama.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best Books of 2015

An actual photograph of me reading.
This past year I read as many books as I usually do (somewhere in the 50-75 range), but I didn't post as many reviews as usual. Why? Laziness, pure laziness. So here are the books I enjoyed the most this year. Some of them I did full reviews of (click on the titles), and the others you'll just have to make do with my thumbnail opinions. And in no particular order...

Iron Gustav (1938) by Hans Fallada

Fallada's Alone in Berlin made my list last year, and this one is almost as brilliant. The eponymous character is the owner of a fleet of cabs in pre-WWI Berlin. His "iron" character is what causes the slow and sure destruction of his family and business over the course of the story, which has to be definitive portrait of Germany in the 1920s and early '30s.

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

This alternate reality/SF novel shows a Europe that's dividing and sub-dividing into smaller and smaller states, all of them throwing up more and more border controls. Did I say this was fiction? It's also wholly, exhilaratingly original and ends with the promise of stranger things (and sequels) to come.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015) by Jill Leovy

L.A. Times journalist Jill Leovy has been on the crime beat (specifically murder) since 2007, and this book is her answer to the question of why there is so much black on black crime in America. Her reportage on the cops, criminals and hapless bystanders in the city's predominantly black south-central district is never less than fascinating, and her explanation for why the area suffers an unending crime wave is analytically sound and completely fascinating.

Moon in a Dead Eye (2009) by Pascal Garnier

This is a surreal novel in the tradition of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel. A miscellany of retired French folk live in newly opened retirement/trailer park and spontaneously combust, as it were, into various forms of madness as a forest fire sweeps down on the park. Garnier is a master at peeling back the skin of the middle class to show the scary and weird stuff lying underneath.

The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994) by Jonathan Coe

This fictional summation of the Thatcher years in the UK is my book of the year. Coe has several axes to grind, and he does so with LOL humor, diabolical plotting, savage characterization, and, dare I say it, a certain brio (read the book and you'll spot the joke in that last sentence.).

The Cartel (2015) by Don Winslow

What makes this all-encompassing novel about the narcowars in Mexico so compelling is that Winslow gives us fully rounded Mexican characters. This subject area is usually dominated, in dramatic terms, by American characters doing all the heavy lifting (see Sicario). Winslow doesn't let the reader forget that it's Mexicans who suffer most from the cartels' predatory actions.

Days Like These (1985) by Nigel Fountain

A shambolic mystery-thriller is usually not a good thing, but in this case it works beautifully. The hero is John Raven, who has a cool name, but is a decidedly uncool hack who lives and works in left-wing political circles. Raven stumbles on a right-wing conspiracy and the fun begins; the fun being a sly and droll look at life on the political edges, played out in grimy bedsits and questionable pubs.

Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairy lore gets a reboot in this YA novel about a young girl who's been stolen by fairies. These fairies aren't a pack of Tinkerbells. They're dangerous, capricious, and yet not entirely evil. Hardinge's prose, as usual, is brilliant, and her world-building puts her at the top of the class in fantasy writing.

Five Children on the Western Front (2014) by Kate Saunders

Another YA novel, but this one has a title that sounds like a Monty Python skit. It's anything but. Saunders follows E. Nesbit's beloved characters into the First World War and what results is a novel that honours the source material as well as dealing out a harsh anti-war message.

Gun Street Girl (2014) by Adrian McKinty

The fourth D.I. Sean Duffy mystery is as strong as the previous three. The secret to their success is that in Sean Duffy we have a sleuth who actually enjoys (most of the time) what he does. He even likes a lot of his fellow coppers. This is very much against the grain for most contemporary cops who bitch and whine endlessly about their jobs, pausing only briefly to allow their significant others to bitch and whine about police work. McKinty keeps threatening to end this series, but I think he, like Duffy, enjoys the work too much to do that.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: The Islanders (1998) by Pascal Garnier

This is the fourth Garnier novel for me, and I've come to the conclusion that he's the poltergeist of French literature. Garnier's novels are studies of individuals whose inner demons are kept in check (barely) by the routines, beliefs and ceremonies of middle-class life. Garnier, in his role as a poltergeist, tears apart the delicate web of social respectability and responsibility that keeps his characters on the straight and narrow, and then records what happens to these people when they get off the leash and start barking and biting and killing.

In this novel we have Olivier, a recovering alcoholic, Rodolphe, the world's nastiest blind man, and Jeanne, Olivier's long-ago girlfriend, with whom he shares a murderous secret from their teenage years. Olivier returns to the Paris suburb of Versailles to make funeral arrangements for his deceased mother. Versailles is where he grew up, and it's a place he wholeheartedly detests. Olivier's shocked to find that Jeanne and her brother Rodolphe are living across the hall from his mother's apartment. Olivier and Jeanne haven't seen each other in twenty or so years, but they're almost instantly drawn back to each other. The folie a deux crime for which they were never caught as teenagers was the kidnap and murder of a two-year-old boy. Olivier decides to hit the bottle again, and the bodies start to pile up.

Garnier's plots are spare but smart; he gives his characters a bit of a push in one direction and then, in keeping with the poltergeist metaphor, commences to pinch them, throw things at them, occasionally push them down a long flight of stairs. and otherwise torment them until the worst and truest part of their character is fully revealed. And so it is here. Olivier goes off the wagon for one night and so begins a parade of murders and a trip into madness for the only two characters left standing at the end of the book.

Garnier's artistic inspiration would seem to come from Jean-Paul Sartre's observation in No Exit that "hell is other people." In this novel, as in others by Garnier that I've read, the characters find humanity to be a sorry spectacle, and an excruciating one when having deal one on one with people. A typical Garnier character looks around and describes what he sees and feels using a palette filled with venom-based paints. At times Garnier can go overboard with seeing the world through dystopia-tinted glasses, almost to the point of parody, but his misanthropy is always delivered with a poetic zeal that keeps his novels palatable and energetic rather than dreary and pretentious.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Film Review: Spectre (2015)

Oh, James, how could you do this to me? I forgave Roger Moore's safari suits and Inspector Gadget gadgets. I overlooked Timothy Dalton's incongruous Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas. And I even tried to pretend that On Her Majesty's Secret Service never happened. But I draw the line at being bored senseless for over two hours.

For this entry in the Bond franchise, 007 is up against Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Chrisoph Walz. Blofeld's madcap scheme this time out is to tap into the databases of all the world's leading intelligence agencies, which will enable him to...I'm not actually sure what will happen, but it's probably quite naughty. To combat this dastardly plot Bond has only one option: he must travel from London to Rome to Austria to Morocco in a series of increasingly stylish and acutely-tailored outfits. Once Bond turns up in a white dinner jacket on the dining car of a Moroccan train, we, and SPECTRE, know the game is up. Blofeld has nothing to match Bond's sartorial supremacy, and he even makes the ghastly faux pas of wearing loafers without socks. Seriously, how can a man who's still using Miami Vice's Sonny Crockett as his menswear muse hope to defeat Bond?

To be honest, plotting has never been the strong suit of Bond films. They're a bit like Christmas trees: essentially just scaffolding for lights, decorations and presents. And what we like to find on and under the tree is dry humor, jaw-dropping stunts, one-of-a-kind action set-pieces, outlandish villains, and a bit of very softcore porn. Spectre fails spectacularly at all the traditional Bond elements.

Things get off to a reasonably good start with a fight aboard a helicopter above a packed square in Mexico City, but after that it's all downhill. A car chase in Rome is the definition of perfunctory. Any old episode of Top Gear does something more exciting with cars than this sequence does. Next up is a car/plane chase in the Austrian alps that has some of the ridiculousness of the Roger Moore films, but none of the raised-eyebrow humor. The humor is crucial because without it sequences like this just feel silly. A well-placed gag lets us in on the joke. Bond then proceeds to Blofeld's base inside a huge meteorite crater in the Moroccan desert. This looks promising, I thought, preparing myself for an all-out battle akin to the climax of You Only Live Twice. No such luck. Bond basically walks out of the base whilst shooting some obligingly stationary henchmen ("Shoot me, Mr Bond, shoot me! I'm standing over here! Oof! Gosh, I've been deaded by James Bond 007. My mum will be proud...urghh."). The actual finale happens in London, and it's an unimaginative piece of business that I thought had died out with silent films: Bond's love interest has been tied up in a building that Blofeld has wired to explode, and James must race through the place to find her before time runs out. The only thing missing is a loyal canine to lead James to his girlfriend.

This also has to be the worst Bond film for overall sexiness. Lea Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann is, alas, far too young for middle-aged Daniel Craig and they have zero chemistry together. Roger Moore also had problems with the age gap, but his awful puns seemed to take the sting out his love scenes with women half his age. Monica Bellucci makes a brief appearance in the film in what must be the most awkward and creepy sexual episode in any of the Bond films. James backs a seemingly reluctant Bellucci against a wall and disrobes her as though he was unwrapping a Ferrero Rocher chocolate he'd been saving for a special occasion.

I enjoyed Daniel Craig's Casino Royale, but it marked the beginning of an attempt to make Bond more nuanced, human, and believable. It's as though the producers and directors felt slightly ashamed to be associated with a film franchise that had such a sexist and puerile history. But who the hell wants a real world James Bond? If I want that I'll rewatch any of the Jason Bourne films. And as each of Craig's Bond films has come along, his performance have become stiffer, more laconic, and increasingly humorless. Sam Mendes, the director, seems happiest when he's filming lush interiors and Bond's wardrobe. Now, I expect James Bond to dress well, but this film takes it to the next level; so much so that at times he seems to be wearing body art rather than anything made of wool or cotton. The surest sign that the people at the top end of the production team feel that they're too good to be making a Bond film is the name given to Lea Seydoux's character. Madeleine Swann? Really? Is a laboured and witless A la recherche du temps perdu reference supposed to convince us that some very tall foreheads were involved in the making of the film? Sorry, but dragging Marcel Proust into a Bond film is something I can never forgive.