Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: Dandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury

This year I've been making a point of reading some books and authors that I've always felt vaguely embarrassed about never having read. So I've cracked open The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (disappointing), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (excellent), and just finished Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. When I was in my teens I probably read every Bradbury short story that he'd written up to that time. I was a Bradbury addict. His intoxicating ability to combine smart, startling plots with a colorful prose style was impossible to resist; he's the sort of author who makes otherwise sane people want to become writers.

Until Dandelion Wine I hadn't read anything by Bradbury in a very long time, so I was somewhat astonished by how awful this novel is. Yes, it's really, really bad. The first thing that sticks out is that Bradbury's prose, which always had a tendency to be overly poetic, leading to purple passages and tortured metaphors, is completely off the leash here. You get the feeling that, freed from the constraints of the short story format, Bradbury decided to use all the awkward and overheated descriptive passages he'd edited out of his short stories. The entire novel is a master class in the dangers of trying to write in a self-consciously literary style.

The novel is built around the experiences of Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year-old living in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, during one summer in 1928. The plot is a loosely-stitched together series of episodes and incidents that are meant to evoke the joys of being a boy in idyllic small-town America. This episodic structure would be OK except that the various episodes feel like abandoned short story ideas that Bradbury is trying to recycle. The stories are half-formed, held together only by feverish attempts to capture in prose form the sights, sounds, feel, and meaning of summer in a young boy's mind. What moves this novel from a rating of poor to bad are the toxic levels of sentimentality and nostalgia. Bradbury summons up every golden-hued memory of his boyhood and then buries it under the pyroclastic flow of his gushing, florid writing. At times it approaches the level of parody.

What's of added interest here is that Dandelion Wine is a reminder of the central position of small towns in American literature and popular culture. In general, Americans have traditionally viewed small towns and third-tier cities as the ideal setting for American life. People like Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell became rich mining this vein in the US psyche, and no national politician worth their salt fails to deliver a campaign speech in a small town in which he or she declares how happy they are to be here in the "heartland" of America. In literature, I think it's a safe bet that far more important American novels have been set in rural burgs than is the case in European literature. William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis, just to name a few major US writers, rarely wrote novels set in big cities. When you think of the great European writers and their novels the settings that come to mind are places like Moscow, Paris, London, St. Petersburg and Berlin. As a rule of thumb, rural and suburban life in European writing is ignored, mocked or looked upon as as a kind of penance to be endured. Not all American novels paint a flattering portrait of small town life, but if you want a really nasty look at what goes on in the country try Balzac's The Black Sheep or Zola's La Terre. Zola's peasants make Faulkner's Mississippi rednecks look like characters from Jane Austen.

European writers weren't blind to the ugliness and dangers of big city life, but by setting their novels there they were acknowledging, sometimes explicitly, that a nation's best and brightest, and sometimes the worst and cruelest, make their homes in capital cities. A nation's character and purpose, many of these writers seem to be saying, is seen most readily in its biggest cities. The absence of "big city" writers in American literature is curious. Why doesn't NYC have a Dickens or a Balzac? This is one of the world's great cities, but in American literature of the last century only F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton could be called chroniclers of New York City, and that's stretching a point considering how slim their output was. The nearly mythic role small towns have in the American imagination hasn't lessened over the years; in one of the later seasons of HBO's The Sopranos, one of Tony Soprano's capos, a closeted gay, goes on the run because he's been outed. The capo ends up in a small town in New Hampshire that's everything that state's tourism board would like you to believe its small towns are like: it's pretty, friendly, and the capo ends up in a loving relationship with the cook at the local diner. And the cook makes wonderful pancakes. The capo can't resist the siren call of life as a mafioso in New Jersey, and he eventually returns there and is promptly whacked. The Sopranos is one of the most caustic, brutal and cynical examinations of American life that's ever been done, but without a trace of irony it embraced the myth of small towns as pocket-sized Nirvanas. Only in America.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review: Witness the Night (2010) by Kishwar Desai

As a novel and a murder mystery Witness the Night is a fairly comprehensive car wreck. The plot is clumsily structured; Simran Singh, the sleuth/social worker, is a poorly-stitched together variety of cliches; and the prose is utterly bland. So why am I reviewing it and why did I bother reading it through to the end?

What this novel has in spades is white hot rage at the gender discrimination and misogyny that bedevils life in modern India. Desai's background is in journalism, and it's obvious that her book is an attempt to throw a harsh light on the attitudes towards women that result in ferocious crimes that largely go unreported, unpunished and are widely accepted. Desai's anger and her exposure of the tragic state of affairs for Indian women  gives the novel an energy that just manages to keep it readable. In effect, the novel is a polemic, and that's the only level on which it succeeds. This also makes it somewhat similar to some other Indian novels I've read in the last couple of years, such as The Peacock Throne, Serious Men, Partitions and Difficult Daughters. All four of these novels examine political and social issues, past or present, through a fictional lens, and they do it with imagination and acute intelligence. And writers such as Rafik Schami, Aziz Chouaki and Yasmina Khadra do the same for the Middle East and North Africa.

What makes this interesting is that writers from non-English-speaking countries seem to be the only ones keeping alive the tradition of writing novels that take a forensic look at what society is up to, particularly as it applies to ordinary men and women. The "social novel" was created in the nineteenth-century by authors such as Dickens, Zola, and Balzac, and in the last century the torch was passed to American writers like Steinbeck, Upton Sinclar, and Frank Norris. The social novel as a genre now only seems to exist outside of the English-speaking world. We Anglos have no shortage of social problems that could be discussed in a fictional format, but either writers or publishing houses or both seem reluctant to explore the market for this kind of novel. Take a quick scan of what the stars of literary fiction have been up to over the last decade and you see a lot of novels about relationships, historical fiction set in the very distant past, and post-modern deconstructions of assorted literary styles and genres. A strong argument can be made that the best crime fiction writers are the new social novelists, but that's a lengthy discussion for a future blog post. What seems clear is that Anglo literary fiction has, to a degree, withdrawn from the challenge of examining social upheaval and political change. It's a pity because novelists in India and elsewhere are spinning societal crises and political conflicts into literary gold.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: The Baron in the Trees (1957) by Italo Calvino

How much did I love this novel? If someone gets a Kickstarter going to adapt it into a film, put me down for one million dollars. I'll have to borrow the million first, but you get the idea. The title character is Baron Rondo, the eldest son of a noble family living on a large rural estate near Genoa. On June 15, 1767,  the twelve-year-old Rondo, in a fit of pique over a dish served to him at the family dinner table, climbs up a tree and refuses to come down...ever.

Rondo is true to his word and spends the next fifty-plus years living a completely arboreal life. He learns to move with incredible agility across the forests of the region, but he's no hermit or wild man of the woods. Rondo continues his education, writes pamphlets and runs a newspaper, conducts love affairs, engages in acts of heroism and bravery, maintains a correspondence with some of the leading intellectuals of the time, and generally makes his life in the trees almost as comfortable as life in his ancestral palazzo.

The jaw-dropping brilliance of this novel is that it works as both a charming fantasy and as an acute novel of ideas. As a fantasy, Calvino shows some amazing skill as a world-builder; Rondo's life in the treetops is fully and imaginatively realized, and there's a host of sequences that are begging to be filmed. I'm not joking when I say that if a visuals-obsessed director like Steven Spielberg got a look at this novel he'd probably drop every other project to film it. There are fights with pirates; treetop lovemaking; battles with packs of starving wolves; a troop of French soldiers covered in living vegetation; and a final scene that's as heartbreaking as it is extravagantly visual.

As much as this novel is a fantastical, lavishly imagined folktale, it's also about the birth of the modern world. The society Rondo is born into is one of aristocratic privilege matched with a deferential peasantry. Over the course of his life the Enlightenment produces the French Revolution, which is followed by Napoleon's rubbishing of ancien regimes throughout Europe, and as the novel ends there are hints of reactionary political forces coming to the fore. Rondo is, in his limited way, a liberal and a bit of a revolutionary, but what his odd life choice seems to represent is the ascendancy and triumph of the individual in society. His entire life, as eccentric and as uncomfortable as it is, is an expression of what he wants to be, as opposed to what society, from high to low, expects him to be. Rondo has cast off all the expectations of his family, class and society to literally move onto a different plane of existence.

The Baron in the Trees is also whimsical, funny, sad, and features a charming and poignant love story between Rondo and the beautiful Viola, a noblewoman who's as enthusiastically individualistic as he is, which, of course, means trouble all around. I really can't recommend this book enough. It's a superlative, one-of-a-kind fantasy that's in the same league as Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels or Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. And don't forget what I said about Kickstarter; I'm good for at least $100 this week.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Review: Scrivener's Moon (2011) by Philip Reeve

With this, the third and concluding(?) prequel to the four volume Mortal Engines series, Philip Reeve has created what has to be the gold standard in steampunk literature. Or perhaps I should say the brass standard. One of Reeve's best attributes as a steampunk writer is that he's not self-conscious about it. The seven novels in his imagined world aren't overly barnacled with the bling of steampunk, such as quirky, Victorian-themed nomenclature; heroes and heroines who are more ripping yarn archetypes than real characters; cameos from famous individuals, both real and fictional; and an obsession with all things that produce steam and smoke and are covered in brass. Reeve reverse engineers his novels, as it were, by starting with some dazzling creative concepts, adding in clever plots, and finishing off with well-rounded characters. With those building blocks in place the steampunk elements are never made to feel like the main attraction. Too many writers make the window dressing of steampunk the entire purpose of their novel.

Scrivener's Moon, which is set in the far, post-apocalyptic future, finishes the story of Fever Crumb, a teenage girl who's witness to the birth of London as a mobile, heavily armed city. It's almost impossible to do a synopsis of the story without launching into a lengthy outline of all seven volumes, but rest assured that Reeve's skill and imagination are undiminished in what might be his final outing in this genre. What's particularly pleasing is that his sense of humor remains intact. The term "post-apocalyptic" doesn't usually go hand in hand with humor, but Reeve knows that a largely grim story needs a bit of balance, and his sharp wit provides that contrast. And bonus marks for the subtle and natural way in which he shows Fever discovering that she's gay.

And now for a word about steampunk. There are endless, geeky arguments about what steampunk is or isn't, but my simple but comprehensive theory is that a steampunk novel is always set in either an old-fashioned future or a futuristic past. So there. This unruly bastard child of SF and the traditional adventure novel has attracted a lot of top-notch writers. Reeve, Nick Harkaway, Jonathan L. Howard and Toby Frost have all produced highly original, funny and exciting novels in the genre. What they all have in common, aside from talent, is that they're all British. Coincidence? I think not. I have a theory that the present dominance of UK writers in the steampunk field can be traced to TV shows like Dr Who, The Avengers, Quatermass, and all those Supermarionation shows such as Thunderbirds. The commonality in these programs is that anything goes, imaginatively speaking. Those shows mixed and matched all kinds of plots, characters and genres in the name of adventure and humor. Dr Who and The Avengers were particularly gleeful and energetic in this regard, and both were among the most popular and long-lasting shows of the 1960s and '70s. Today's steampunk writers grew up on those shows and I think it's fair to say that their ability to synthesize disparate genres into coherent, gripping stories owes a lot to Steed, Mrs Peel, the Doctor, and Captain Scarlet.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Film Review: Wake In Fright (1971)

Well, I didn't see this one coming. The blurb on the DVD case led me to expect some kind of thriller in which a schoolteacher battles for his life against Aussie yobbos in the outback, a kind of all-male Straw Dogs. I can understand why the blurb writer might have resorted to this plan of attack because what actually happens is far more subtle and ambiguous. The teacher, John, is working in a one-room schoolhouse in what looks like the emptiest, flattest, most desolate piece of real estate on Earth. It's the Christmas break and he heads by train to Yabba, a mining town, to catch a flight to Sydney. It's clear that John, who is English, is dying to get back to civilization and is regretting whatever steps led him to end up teaching in the outback.

John has to spend the night in Yabba and unwisely goes on a gambling spree that costs him all his money. His motivation for gambling is that if he quits teaching he'll forfeit a $1,000 bond to the government. He hopes to win enough money to free himself from this indentured servitude. Thus begins John's descent into a personal hell. He's "befriended" by a variety of boozy, loutish locals who over the next 48 hours or so practically drown him in beer and testosterone. Oh, and there's a drunken, late night kangaroo hunt that ends with John going mano-a-roo armed only with a knife.

What this film isn't is a thriller or an action film. It's primarily an unflinching, critical look at Australia's macho, matey culture. The outback in this film might as well have a giant sign over it that reads MALES ONLY. Women drift around the periphery of the story but receive less attention than dogs or, of course, beer. The only woman of note in the film walks around with a zombiefied look on her face, apparently numbed by all the macho posturing. One line says it all about relations between the sexes: a Yabba local notices John talking to a woman and asks one of his mates, "Why would he talk to a woman when he could be drinking beer?"

It would have been easy for the film to take a condescending look at the stupidity and coarseness of outback males, but what  makes it better than that is that John becomes a willing participant in his own degradation. At the beginning of the story he sees himself as superior to everyone around him, and it's hard not to disagree with his point of view. What's brilliant about the story is that John becomes a willing participant in his own downfall. Like a  doomed character from a nineteenth-century Russian novel, John takes one crucial misstep that drastically and painfully alters the smooth course of his life. He discovers that part of him embraces the feral, alcohol-fueled life of Outback Man. There's even a suggestion that thanks to all this drunken male bonding and camaraderie, John has had sex with one of his new manly friends.

The actors range from very good to excellent, with Donald Pleasance a standout as a creepy doctor who lives in an alcoholic haze in a shack. Gary Bond, who looks a bit like Peter O'Toole, plays John and does a nice job of making his character's fall from grace seem plausible. But most of the credit has to go to Ted Kotcheff, the director. It would have been so easy to make this story overly dramatic, but Kotcheff takes a documentary approach that makes the film's greasy, grisly events seem all the more horrible and believable. Wake In Fright is definitely not for all tastes; in fact, I can almost guarantee it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, which, of course, is exactly what happens to John, although his hangover comes at a steeper price. And if someone wants to redo the blurb on the back cover, I'd suggest they describe it as a feverish, beer-soaked Australian version of Deliverance.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Film Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Director Steven Soderbergh has stated that Behind the Candelabra is to be his final film before a hiatus from filmmaking. Good. Based on this film it's clear Soderbergh has nothing to offer the general public, or even fans of esoteric indie films. It's hard to imagine a more pointless, lazy, calorie-free film than this one. Soderbergh gives the film a sleek, glittery, Las Vegas kitsch with extra epaulettes look, and his actors are excellent, but the whole production is baffling in its lack of purpose or point of view.

Vegas showman/pianist Liberace and his boyfriend Scott Thorson are the subjects of this biopic. The story of their relationship goes in a predictable arc from infatuation to disillusion to divorce, and this paint-by-numbers approach is handled in about as original and insightful a manner as an Entertainment Tonight celebrity profile. The only aspect of Liberace's life and career that's at all interesting is that his stage persona was flamboyantly gay, but he resolutely maintained that he was straight. It's not surprising that a performer of his era would stay in the closet, but why were his fans so willing to suspend their disbelief and go along with this fiction? It's an interesting question but it's not answered or addressed here. The film is more fascinated by moments of weirdness from Liberace's life: his mother playing slots on her own, Liberace-supplied machine; interior decor that embraces the grotesque; Liberace's voracious sexual appetite; and Liberace's plastic surgeon, a man who's possibly even weirder than Liberace himself.

The vanity, shallowness, excess,  and narcissism of stars like Liberace is not news. Various biographies and biopics over the years have told us the same thing about people like Elvis, Michael Jackson, and a host of others. This film can't break out of the rut of simply itemizing the eccentricities of its main character. And what are we to make of Scott Thorson? He's a poor kid from a broken home and simply seizes the main chance when Liberace comes along. There's nothing to him other than his relationship with Liberace, just as there's nothing to Liberace other than his love of tacky furnishings, outrageous costumes and pretty young men. Is Candelabra a critique or analysis of the vanity and emptiness of celebrity? Not really, it's more of victim of Liberace-itis: in love with prettiness and cheap emotions.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Shadow of the Rock (2012) by Thomas Mogford

One of standup comedian Eddie Izzard's best pieces is about how the British Empire arose thanks to the "cunning use of flags." Most of  those flags have come unstuck from the four corners of the world, but if the Brits no longer acquire territory through the agile use of flags, their writers seem keen on claiming a literary empire through the cunning use of fictional detectives. British authors Michael Dibdin, Robert Wilson, John Burdett, Martin O'Brien, Colin Cotterill, Tarquin Hall, Barbara Nadel, Michael Pearce, Martin Walker and Nicholas Freeling have all made a good living writing about crime and detection in foreign climes. It's an odd phenomenon. As far as I know no European authors have set detective series in the U.K., and only a handful of American writers have tried it. So it would seem that the spirit of empire-building still lives on in the imaginations of British writers, and it can truly be said that the sun never sets on Britain's empire of fictional sleuths.

One of the newest empire-builders is Thomas Mogford, author of a series of mystery/thrillers featuring Spike Sanguinetti, a lawyer living in Gibraltar. The trick with writing a mystery novel for an audience that's unfamiliar with the locale and culture the story is built around is to avoid sounding like a Lonely Planet guidebook. Not every author manages this; in fact, some of the cozier mystery writers positively wallow in local colour. These aren't so much mysteries as they are porn for armchair travelers. Mogford avoids this trap. Shadow is set in Gibraltar and Morocco, and most of the local colour we see is dusty and dirty: no moonlit, romantic strolls in the Casbah. Mogford also does a good job of integrating background info and current events into his descriptions without sounding like a Wikipedia entry.

The plot has Spike investigating a murder charge against a childhood friend who's been accused of killing a woman in Tangiers. The investigation bounces between Gibraltar and Morocco, and involves a hi-tech energy firm, Bedouin tribesmen, and a variety of people who don't feature in ads for Moroccan tourism. Mogford writes with energy and efficiency, never slowing down for any of those and-here's-another-interesting-aspect-of-life-in-blank moments that other mystery writers working in this sub-genre often succumb to. The story is enjoyably twisty and nasty enough to deter readers who might think this is a cozy travelogue with a dollop of murder. My only complaint would be that Spike is a little too laconic. We can see that's he's good at what he does, but getting a fix on his personality is pretty difficult.