Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: The Cut

The Cut The Cut by George Pelecanos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good news here is that Pelecanos can write. He’s a pro as I know from this, another novel or two, and his rock-solid reputation. He’s one of the top-tier noir guys going. The signs of that come early here: he’s got the Elmore Leonard capacity for leaving out the parts people want to skip, and he’s got a knack for establishing compelling aspects of character in a few slick sentences.

The bad news is that this feels, from the start, like a bid for a successful series. Spero Lucas is a striking character. He’s proud of the Greek heritage he took from his adoptive family, but he’s also bound by the fact of his dark skin. He’s a full brother to Leo, but they’re on opposite sides of the business of bettering their community; Leo’s an idealistic teacher and Spero is a private investigator who’s willing to work with questionable characters. Spero’s young, handsome and dealing with his demons from the Iraq war. And there’s the unresolved business of his now widowed mother.

My point isn’t that all that’s bad – in fact, the premise of an Iraq vet P.I. is timely and promising – but that it has the feel of a bigger plan. It’s not just Spero’s relationship with his mother that’s unresolved; everything is. We get invited into his busy and sprawling life, and we don’t really get shown the exit. Yeah, the particular crime gets resolved, but we’re left ‘teased’ with the idea that there’s more to come in Spero’s story.

That’s not necessarily Pelecanos’s fault; it’s his job after all to get a series rolling. I just can’t help feeling that, for all the excellent series we’ve seen in noir, that there’s something un-noir, un-hardboiled to them. I don’t believe in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I think rock is always implicitly anti-institutional; so an institution celebrating that is either self-consciously ironic or just plain wrong. In the same way, I think noir is about a glimpse into a dark corner of a dark scene. Repeated glimpses mean, eventually, fuller illumination. They mean a kind of well-lit noir – and that sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Anyway, I did enjoy this – and I have enjoyed some series, most of all Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins stories – but I can’t help feeling there’s better Pelecanos elsewhere. What we get of Spero’s Iraq history is compelling, and I like the Greek flavor, too. There’s a good mystery with a clever enough twist, but there’s also a gratuitous change of heart by one of the antagonists. That is, there’s a softness in the heart of what otherwise feels hard.

My favorite part here is undoubtedly the beginning, when Pelecanos writes with a crisp enthusiasm in his new detective’s world. Once he settles into the demands of widening that world, once he telegraphs that we’re in for a whole raft of sequels, I start to think maybe this is less a matter of excellence and more a matter of competence.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re roughly my age, there’s a good chance you developed the same Pavlovian response I did to Steve Martin’s voice or face: the moment I heard him or the moment I saw him, I’d burst out into laughter. He was, quite simply, the funniest man in the world at the moment I first understood what comedy was, and he shaped a large part of what I understand a comedian can do. His guest host appearances on Saturday Night Live not only made him famous but they shaped that show into what it is at its very rare best: the one place outside sports where something entirely unpredictable can happen.

This memoir started a bit slowly for me. Martin tells us he’s recounting not his life but his life in stand-up. As such, he has a clear point. Everything he tells us has to do with understanding how he came to do what he did and how he did it.

Hearing his voice narrate this (and I mean that literally since I read this as an audiobook) I kept getting my laugh response triggered. “This is Steve Martin talking,” I’d think. “This is supposed to be funny.”

But just because he is talking about funny things does not make this funny. The more I read, the more I picked up on the genuineness here, the genuine impulse to make sense of something he’d put behind him. This is, as in the classes I get to teach, “essaying,” it’s an effort on his part to try to plumb something he already knows.

For a while I felt as if I’d happened into the chance to hang out with Martin, as if I were one of those lucky fans who’d won a day with him, during which we’d eat, walk, drive, and spend time together. And I felt as if he were saying to me, “Can’t we just talk? I’m not funny all the time, and I really want to go over some things with you.”

And yet his story, particularly as it goes along, includes more and more of the familiar bits, “Mind if I fart?” or the police can tell if you’re “small” when they pull out a balloon and you can walk inside it. I’d find myself laughing and then worry I was falling back into sycophantic mode, trying to please the big man by giving him the laugh I presumed he wanted.

A little bit of that is this book’s fault. It doesn’t always telegraph the tone it’s after.

Most of that, though, gives way to a really compelling look into the practice behind an act that defined so much for so many of us.

Martin offers, as I count them, two key insights into what distinguished his comedy.

First, he tells us that, though he came of age in political comedy and practiced it himself, he was, first and last, committed to silliness in his humor. With a combination of modesty and retrospective awareness, and an acknowledgement of his fortunate timing, he proposes that he hit it as big as he did because – while preparing for his moment for roughly 15 years – he burst onto the scene with an antidote to a ‘seriousness’ that had come to define comedy. He offered a break from what comedy had become under George Carlin and Richard Pryor (both figures he deeply admires and, in many ways, hoped to emulate): extended social commentary. In its place, he offered pure goofiness.

Second, he describes his realization that the comedy he’d loved, in many ways the goofy comedy of the Catskills variety (though, as a West-Coaster, he doesn’t call it that) had become too formulaic. It began to trouble him that audiences responded not to the actual material but to its predictable rhythm. In one interesting anecdote, he talks of watching an old-time comic on T.V. who’d announce it was time for the audience to laugh by punctuating his punchlines with a blow to his own chest. At one point in the act, he garbled the punchline – it was inaudible, Martin said – but the audience still laughed on cue.

From that observation, Martin described how he set out to overturn such conventions. He decided he would not offer punch lines. Instead of inviting audiences to release the tension of a joke, they’d have to figure out their own breaking point. He might use older fashioned material – stuff taken from observations or logical contradictions – but he was going to use a very new-fashioned delivery. Some people would call it anti-comedy, and it could be, at its beautiful best, ugly. (He himself released an album, “Comedy Isn’t Pretty.”)

He reached a point where he didn’t know how to end his shows. With the audiences so unfamiliar with his cues – and with his own commitment to a kind of spontaneity that made him the perfect complement for the more traditional improve of the Second City/Saturday Night Live crew – he’d sometimes take his audiences outside the theater. He told of one occasion where he hailed a cab, had it drive him around the block, and then came back to jump out and keep going. On another his audience followed him down the street to a McDonald’s where, looking behind him, he ordered 300 cheeseburgers. Then, still in manic mode, he quickly changed it to a small French fry.

By the end of this, I’d finally found the balance I needed to be part of Martin’s “inner circle” here. I got comfortable with the thoughtful/silly contrast of what he was doing, and I found myself with new tools fort appreciating not just his stand-up but the larger art of it.

And then, right about the time I was ready to push on and see what’s next, this ended. I laughed my fair share, and I got some good insights. And, as always seemed to happen with Martin on Saturday Night Live, I found myself wanting the show to keep on going.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a flat-out beautiful novel. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes it so good except for the fact that it simply is good, that it’s written with a careful eye for details and with a loving sense of its characters. There’s such craft and affection in it that, even though very little happens, I found myself riveted.

I’m barely exaggerating when I say nothing happens. Eilis has to leave her small Irish hometown, go to Brooklyn for work, and find a new life for herself. There are no external threats, no witnessing of major historical events, no two-faced or diabolical people. Instead, there’s just life, life so rich in detail that it’s almost like experiencing it yourself.

One small early scene turns on the way she gets sea-sick on her journey across the Atlantic. She needs to use the bathroom, but she and her cabinmate have to share one with the cabin across the way. Those people, seasick themselves, have locked the door against them, so she has to get sick on the floor. Toibin gets the layout of the room across with seeming ease, and the experience plays out almost as if it’s on stage. I can see the shape of the lock, the dimensions of the cabin and bathroom, and even the tile of the floor (which he never mentions but which seems to follow from that level of detail).

We see similar scenes in Brooklyn where everything is new, and that may be the cleverest convention Toibin uses: the whole city seems striking in its not-yet-discovered quality. As Eilis discovers her new home, we discover it through her eyes. Her loneliness is real and moving. Her hunger for new experience clashes with her ignorance of American mores, and her sense of “home” gets gradually redefined. For most of the novel, the only surprise is that nothing surprising seems to happen. (In fact, for a long time I found myself comparing it to Flaubert’s “Un Couer Simple,” the first major literary effort to write a book “about nothing,” about the life of a Simple Heart trying to discover happiness in a world where other lives seem more interesting than her own.)

I’m a little less sure how to feel about the end of this. When [SPOILER] Eilis’s sister Rose dies unexpectedly, she decides to return to Ireland and tell no one that she has married her American boyfriend. That relationship has unfolded gradually and, necessarily, in an American idiom. It’s felt right, like the proper culmination of her transformation from an Irish girl into an American woman. Suddenly in Ireland again, though, she weighs whether she’s happy with that transformation, whether she’d willingly trade the America she’s come to know for the straightforward simplicity of Ireland.

She has temptations in Ireland, temptations unavailable to her when she was first there. It becomes clear that, if she’d have had a chance at the bookkeeping job at home and a shot at the appealing young pub owner, she’d never have left for America. But she did leave, and she has made the soft possibilities of America into hard realities. The dreams and what-ifs are in Ireland now. It’s in America where she has something real and defined.

I confess I was at first a bit frustrated by the sudden end, but I trust the deep quality of the prose here. That tells me that Toibin knows what he’s about, and his insistence that the story has ended means it must have. And I see nor that ending reinforces the beginning: Eilis has made a new life for herself. It isn’t perfect, and it certainly doesn’t answer all her dreams. But it is an accomplishment, and it does promise a great deal of happiness.

I feel a pang for Eilis as she leaves Ireland once again at the close of the novel, but I know she’s off to a real and a human life as well. She’s made her choice. She might have made others, but there’s no guarantee she’d have been happier. She’s living a rich and human-sized life, one full of ordinary experiences amplified only through brilliant story-telling. And it’s our privilege, for the duration of this brief novel, to live that life alongside her.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this novella is like watching a Hitchcock film. You can see a lot of the skill it took to make it, but you can also see – a little sadly in my case – how dated its narrative technology is.

In many respects, this is the dawn of the police procedural. We get to see Inspector Maigret as he sets out, not to solve a crime, but to prove the title character is guilty. We know the formula today, and it’s often done well in television and film, but it’s new here. There’s some historical interest in seeing Simenon unfold (presumably for the first time anywhere) the possibilities of the procedural. For instance, we get the occasional scene from the antagonist’s perspective. And there are striking moments when discarded aspects of life come into significant play: such as when Maigret relies of a call to a hotel switchboard of the sort that no longer exists.

But, truth be told, this feels a lot longer than it is. Just as Hitchcock “builds suspense” by showing us certain shots longer than we expect, the method feels unsuited for a 21st century reader. My take on Hitchcock has long been that his mastery in the 1950s consisted of waiting just a beat too long, of making his viewers hold their breaths for an instant before giving them what they expected or shocking them with what they feared. Hitchcock doesn’t work for most of today’s viewers because, with our shortened attention spans, we’re waiting what feels like a half dozen beats too long. The rhythm is off, so out of sync with our expectations that there’s less suspense than what-are-you-waiting-for irritation.

Simenon is not about suspense, but a good part of this one is about watch-me-show-you-how-it’s-done. We get, for instance, a quick refresher about the fact of “hit men,” professional killers hired by organized crime. That may have felt like esoteric information when this came out; now it feels condescending.

I suspect (on the basis of his reputation) that Simenon got better the farther he went with these. As this one unfolds, however, the plot gets more and more contrived. Our title character is two people, then he’s one person playing his identical twin brother. For a time he’s a heartless killer and international thief, and then he’s a weary ex-patriate who no longer wants to hurt anyone. I confess I got lost in the final unraveling, but I confess as well that I had stopped caring.

There are elements here worth paying real attention to (probably more attention than I paid), and I may give a later Maigret another shot. Still, this feels as “middle-brow” as Hitchcock has come to feel for me: a kind of art that, however impressive it was in its day, looks more and more like a sullied compromise between what the cutting edge was doing and what the uncritical market wanted.

This is probably a three-star book given its historical significance and the fact that it is, all these years later, a model of efficient story-telling. Still, I have to ding it another star for its casual, unembarrassed anti-Semitism. That may add to the historical quality, but it’s a downer to read all the same.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I mostly enjoyed this book as I read it, but part of the fun was trying to figure out why the rest of the world loves it as they do. So, when things got slow – and, against what I’d heard, it does have plenty of slow spots – I tried to parse the formula that’s been so successful.

When I first started thinking about detective fiction (drawn early to noir) the old-timers on the discussion boards made a distinction between hardboiled fiction and “cozies.” Hardboiled meant a lot of things but, above all, it connoted a sense that the world was dark and the universe indifferent. At the end of a noir work (and I generally equate noir and hardboiled), even with the mystery solved, there’s a sense that things are as fundamentally corrupt or cold as ever. We may know the particulars of a specific crime, but the deeper malice or philosophical emptiness remains.

Cozies work the other way. Solving the mystery means restoring a disrupted order. It may be Murder She Wrote or some other show in which the protagonist runs into a murderer week after week, but there remains an underlying sense that the crime is a violation of some governing decency. There are killers, but they’re anomalies. The world is fundamentally benign.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has plenty of horrifying crimes and graphic sex, so it’s pretty far from Agatha Christie, but it’s ultimately a cozy, not a noir. It plays by fairly established rules – it calls itself a “locked room mystery,” a classic cozy formula, twice before declaring that it isn’t really that. But it really is just that; as evil as Martin Vanger turns out to be, he does not represent a darker world at large.

Cozies are, in the end, philosophically conservative. They are comforting in that they assert that the world we know – the order of our community, society, and universe – is the world that ought to be. The pattern that runs through the story – order, disruption, and restored order – leaves that order all the more established. It’s confronted an apparent threat and emerged from it. What hasn’t killed it has seemed to make it stronger.

So, to answer my question, I think this novel did so well because it amplified the apparent threat to conventional order but allowed it to reassert itself at the end. [SPOILER] The long final two chapters, when the mystery is solved and Blomkvist is writing the expose of Wennerstrom, are as much about reasserting a comforting order as they are denouement. For purposes of the story, they drag. For purposes of reminding us the depths of the threat to our order – whether it be serial killers or financial gangsters – it’s relevant for asserting that there are “good” guys (we get the term “good” a few times toward the end) looking out for the not-needed-to-be-defined greater good.

I think the other reason it did so well is the character of Salander. She is a striking figure, someone whose suffering and condition make her a good underdog. She can’t figure out how to fit into our “ordinary community,” so she moves around its edges. It’s a nice touch to [SPOILER] end things with her inability to understand her relationship with Blomkvist. She becomes, in effect, a protector of the decent world of which she can never be a part.

In that capacity, interesting as she can be, she’s a kind of high-tech superhero. She is both outside and above the rest of us, capable of feats of hacking that give her powers to do good or ill. Hurray for us that she chooses good, but the ultimate flatness of that situation makes me have to dock this one a star. And I have to take another star for its aggrandizement of journalists. Blomkvist – the Larsson stand-in – gets it all: all the women want to sleep with him, he solves the fundamental crime, and the clumsy final 40 or so pages celebrate the trade, presenting a too-easy vision of journalists as the not-so-secret heroes of modern democracy.

There are fun moments, but this simply isn’t as shocking or as gripping as I’d heard. It’s just a once popular formula dusted off and sexed-up, but it doesn’t ask us to think anywhere near as hard as a decent noir novel does. I liked the ride, but I’m probably getting off the bus here.

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Children Act

The Children Act The Children Act by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m used to juxtaposing justice with mercy. That’s the conventional formula. In this, utterly skillful novel, McEwan changes the equation slightly so that justice finds itself in competition with love. It’s two of the cardinal virtues weighed against each other through the experiences of the all-too human Fiona Maye, a British family court judge known for her brilliant decisions. She takes as paramount the central claim of the decree referenced in the title – the Children Act – that the welfare of a child should always be paramount in any legal deliberation.

Before the novel begins, Fiona’s life has a kind of perfection to it. She is an acclaimed jurist, and her husband, an energetic classics professor, seems like her ideal match. The two are equally accomplished, and they’ve built a comfortable life together. It turns out it’s too comfortable, though, when her husband announces he intends to have an affair with a younger woman. He seems to be telling her in advance, asking for a kind of permission or shocking her into renewed passion in their marriage. As it is, he tells her, all marriages aspire to condition of siblinghood, and he feels more like a brother to her than a husband.

At the same time as her marriage crumbles, she finds herself with a challenging case: a 17 years and three months old boy has leukemia. He’s from a family of Jehova’s Witnesses, so they refuse medical treatment for him. Once Adam reaches 18, he can make the decision himself, but until then Fiona has to weigh the competing claims. She chooses a kind of powerful justice, one that flies in the face of religious absolutism but that takes faith seriously as a reasonable motive.

What follows is complicated, and I don’t want to risk a [SPOILER] without warning. Fiona, acting as dispassionately as she can under her personal emotional turmoil, inadvertently unleashes the demand for love from the Adam. He sees her as someone who has allowed him to glimpse a wider, more cosmopolitan world, and he wants her to play a kind of mother figure to him. Fiona and her husband have never had children, though – a decision incidental to her commitment to her judicial career – and, in the wake of their break-up and clumsy reunion, she feels her childlessness like never before. In one of the many superb passages of the book, she imagines how the children they might have had would have reacted: they’d have gathered around the kitchen table, trying to talk sense into dad and trying to make mom realize she bore some of the blame. It’s a seemingly effortless sketch, yet it packs the wallop of some entire novels. It’s a cry for the love she gave up in order to serve justice as she has.

As the novel nears its end, Fiona realizes with ever greater clarity that she cannot love without sacrificing something of justice. Whether it means forgiving her husband (and, implicitly, forgoing her righteous sense of betrayal) or being present for Adam and compromising her role as a judge, she simply cannot contain both virtues simultaneously.

You know you’re in capable hands from the moment you read the opening pages. I think I read McEwan’s Atonement 20 or so years ago, around the time it came out, and even though I’ve forgotten the particulars of the book, I found a familiar excellence of skill as soon as I started reading this. McEwan writes with true clarity: a clarity not just of language and character, but of moral terminology as well. You know right away that this is about something, that it isn’t merely a story of interesting characters (though it is that as well).

The final scene here is nothing short of a masterpiece. It carries the same emotional weight (and, I’d insist, speaks indirectly to) the climax of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I don’t make that comparison lightly: McEwan may not be quite as efficient here as Joyce is there, but the result is that good. Two flawed humans realize how small they are beside the weight of others’ passions, but they realize as well some of their capacity to lighten each other’s burden, to offer love as a salve to the necessary weakness of all of us.

I might have wished for a little more consistency from Adam as a character (there is a little convenience to the way his passions swing back and forth), but it’s hard to imagine any other fault in this one. I knew of McEwan as one of the world’s great living writers before I picked this up. Reputation confirmed.

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The Sudden Appearance of Hope The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hope Arden has inside-out-amnesia. That is, while she can remember the world, the world forgets her. Her photographs remain, and she can leave a trace in documents and on the internet. But, if you have an interaction with her, you’ll forget her and your actions alongside her.

On the one hand, it gives her what one character insistently describes as the ultimate freedom, the endless capacity to reinvent herself. Without a past, without the capacity to leave a mark on the world around her, she can do things the rest of us could never imagine. She is, for instance, a superb thief. She can pick up an item in plain view, duck behind a corner for a few seconds, and walk back again, forgotten and unsuspected. She also proves to be an unparalleled investigator, someone who can interrogate a particular witness, get a piece of the story, and then come back a minute later to start the interrogation again using those new bits to leverage out harder to find ones.

More broadly, though, Hope experiences her condition as a curse. It hurts when her own parents forget her, at first selling her things because they don’t recognize them as hers and later losing all sense that they had a second child. And she has no capacity to fall in love, to form friendships, or to live in community. She is a constant newcomer, someone who, having no past as far as the world is concerned, effectively has no future. She is a perpetual observer rather than someone who is fully alive.

That premise is provocative in its own right, and “Claire North” (apparently it’s a pseudonym) is a gifted enough writer to sense what she has. Claire’s condition becomes a stepping-off point for reflecting on what it means to be human. Who are we if we cannot leave a lasting mark on the world around us? To what degree are we, or should we, be shaped by group and social pressures?

It takes a while for the central conflict to become fully clear – North is very skilled, here and in the even a little better The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and she shows her hand slowly – but Hope is both attracted to and horrified by a Scientology-like app call Perfection. The app works by encouraging consumers to make “healthy choices” – like eating well, working out, buying flattering clothes, and being seen with other out-to-be-perfect people – and it rewards its top-tier participants with “programming,” eventually revealed to be surgery that alters their personality.

The result of such engineering is a cadre of bland movie-star types, people whom the world seems to value but who appear to Hope (and to a couple other key characters) as soul-less. They have, in other words, forgotten their true selves in favor of the marketed, packaged identity of corporate America.

And there you have the central conflict of the novel: at one extreme a woman incapable of experiencing community and its pressures and, at the other, a process that amplifies a false sense of community over all other types of identity.

This is, in other words, a philosophical novel disguised as sci-fi/fantasy. Or maybe that’s what sci-fi/fantasy should always aspire to. It’s just rarely this good.

Further complicating the scenario here, Hope is a Black woman of Muslim descent. She is, after Ralph Ellison (who shows us how the Black man is, in some crucial ways, invisible in white America), or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (who give us the Fantastic Four’s Invisible girl), or even a host of very contemporary political voices who insist that all Muslims are subsumed under the identity of their faith, just the type to be made invisible. As a consequence, North is after something not just philosophical but topical as well.

All those conflicts get subsumed within a story that is still a pretty good story. I’ve said enough already without getting into the other characters who, while not remembering Hope, do come to understand that she exists and develop relationships with her by leaving themselves notes about their interactions. Those characters develop different feelings about the nature of her invisibility and the potential for Perfection to perfect or destroy the world. And they work at cross purposes to safeguard or sabotage the app.

I do think this one could have worked just as well if it were a good shot shorter, but North writes so well that it’s hardly a complaint. I’m happy to be lost in her work and her worlds. She has the capacity, like no one else I can think of at this scale, to change one fundamental premise of human identity and then to measure the implications of that change with unwavering insight. I am very much looking forward to whatever she does next. She writes novels that ought to be written.

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