Monday, April 30, 2007

Reading Diary April 2007

Books read online are in green.

  1. Willy Burke; or, The Irish Orphan in America, Mrs. J. Sadlier. Overly didactic, overly sentimental tale of a Catholic boy making his way in pre-Civil War New York. Moderately interesting for its insight into how Protestants viewed Catholics at that time (Sadlier's no fan of multiculturalism either) , but not nearly as entertaining or naturalistic as her Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America. Hero is an exasperating prig; I sympathized with his tormentors' desire to knock him out of his smugness.
  2. Lincoln, Gore Vidal. Starts off strong but quickly turns dull. Some interesting tidbits, but Vidal's more concerned with showing off his research than telling a story.
  3. The Thirteenth House, Sharon Shinn. One of the things I most admire about Shinn is her ability to write about love in a way that makes each set of lovers unique, and this book is no exception. But although the sequel to Mystic and Rider, somehow the canvas feels smaller and the stakes lower, with a disappointingly limited climax. I sure hope some fireworks are coming up in the next book, because they've been in relatively short supply so far.
  4. Blue Shoes and Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith. See post April 10, 2007.
  5. Petty Treason, Madeleine E. Robins. A good second outing for Fallen Women Sarah Tolerance, in a Regency England just slightly askew from our own. Robins is thoroughly grounded in the Regency period, and her books are prime examples of how to do historical fiction right. Her grasp on plotting and pacing is not quite so sure: she telegraphs her twists well ahead of time and could have brought the book to a close many pages earlier if Miss Tolerance had gone to the magistrate with her evidence sooner.
  6. Sister Noon, Karen Joy Fowler. A well-written exploration of sex, class, race, and history in Victorian San Francisco. I wasn't sure what attitude to take to Mrs. Pleasant -- was she a good guy or a bad guy? Not quite sure the book qualifies as fantasy; while there are hints of supernatural activity, they could just as easily have naturalistic explanations.
  7. The Accomplice, Elizabeth Ironside. Interesting story of history, family, identity, and murder, with well-drawn characters. Naturally asks the question, who is the accomplice? Shows that we all may be complicit in the crimes and tragedies around us.
  8. A Personal Devil, Roberta Gellis. A mixed offering in the Madgalene la Batarde series. Interesting characters and situations, although Magdalene wasn't the only one who found the Mainard/Sabina romance hard to take. Not much mystery, and the resolution is both unsatisfying and slightly nonsensical.
  9. Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones. Terrific, fun, and utterly satisfying. Jones plays beautifully with fairy tale conventions, and Sophie is an admirable heroine. Must find the movie.
  10. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides. See post April 25, 2007.
  11. Ruddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood. Moderately stylish, moderately entertaining mystery set in 1920s Australia. Don't think much of the heroine's detective powers: on learning that the case involves a baby given up for adoption, she fails to ask even the most obvious questions.
  12. The Oxford Murders, Guillermo Martinez. See post April 24, 2007.
  13. Death at the Rose Paperworks, M. J. Zellnik. Pedestrian in the extreme. True, I didn't figure out the solution ahead of time; but on the other hand, I was too bored to care. Has Zellnik ever read a Victorian novel? She has no conception of how people spoke and acted in those days (pregnancy openly discussed! ladies inviting seamstresses into parlors!).
  14. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Greed is bad. So is racism. Also, slavery. Gosh, Mr. Mitchell, thanks for clearing that up for me.
  15. Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith. Pretty entertaining story of cowboy detective who models himself after Sherlock Holmes in 1890s Montana, with his brother serving as sidekick and Watson. Takes the interesting narrative stance that Holmes is a real person.
  16. The Rebirth of Pan, Jo Walton. Don't understand the point of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day (other than a shoutout to my sister, who also uses the term "technopeasant"), but thanks to Jo Walton for posting so much of her work for free online. Really enjoyed this unpublished beautiful, evocative tale of the death of an old age and beginning of a new, filled with memorable characters.
  17. Seeking Whom He May Devour, Fred Vargas. Quirky characters and interesting rural French background. Solution comes a little too pat for the hero's romantic dilemma.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Enough with the Negativity Already!

I noticed I've been talking a lot about shit I hate recently, so I thought I'd give myself the pleasure of saying a few words about Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I of course had heard a lot of buzz about the book when it came out a few years ago, but I didn't really pay attention. I have a lingering prejudice against so-called "literary" fiction, born out of my experiences in the 1970s, when Donald Barthelme and his character-is-all school seemed to have banished plot entirely. (I know it's not all like that now; that's why it's a prejudice.) Anyway, that means I never register what's up for the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Whatever, because it always seems unlikely that those books will ever hold any interest for me.

I might never have changed my mind about Middlesex if it hadn't been recommended by Abigail Nussbaum. Even with her brief review, and even knowing that the title referred to a boy raised as a girl and not the county in England, I didn't know what to expect. I vaguely guessed it was something very British, with tea and nannies. I could not have been more wrong, and was completely blown away.

Set mostly in Detroit in the '60s and '70s, Middlesex ranges fluidly backward to Turkey in the '20s to Berlin in the present to tell the story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, a biological male raised and treated as a female. With riffs on genetics, history, politics, growing up ethnic in a WASPy world, family, race, the suburbs, and Cadillacs, this is a funny, tragic, eloquent book, with many memorable passages and images.

Part of the fun for me is that Cal is almost exactly my own age. He experienced many of the things I experienced growing up. Like me, he lived through the race riots of the '60s (way more up close and personal than I did, however); his teenage medicine cabinet is filled with Psst instant shampoo and Love deodorant; schoolgirls use Flair pens. (The minorest of quibbles: noone drank bottled water in 1973.) One thing he doesn't really talk about much is Callie's clothes. Did Callie the girl, like me and so many girls our age, fight with her mother about wearing jeans instead of skirts? Would she have experienced them as liberation or as another threat to her precarious gender identity, as with her refusal to cut her hair?

Another gripping, not so fun, aspect of the book is Callie's eventual diagnosis as a hermaphrodite. I think a lot of people can identify with Cal's horror at the realization that, beyond the normal insecurities of adolescence, there really is something different about him. And that what's more, his parents, who supposedly know him the best and love him the most, think he is fundamentally flawed, wrong, broken, in need of fixing. For me, this resonated very deeply with my experience of growing up fat.

In some ways, the book reminded me strongly of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in the way Cal reconstructs the lives of his grandparents in an effort to understand and cope with his own situation. Like Lyman Ward, Cal must fully accept his own difference before he can let others in and accept love. I only wish this part of the story -- Cal's final achievement of intimacy with a woman after 30 years of loneliness -- had been more deeply explored.

Edited June 8 to add: I may have been late on the Middlesex bandwagon, but at least I beat Oprah!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

One of the great pleasures of mysteries is that they are often filled with specialist knowledge of various fields. I think of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, full of murderous collectors and Egyptologists, or the stories of Gordianus the Finder, which explicate the hazards of being a slave in ancient Rome and the correct method of making garum. I learn a lot from books like that; in fact, I've been known to tell my sister that everything I ever learned came from a mystery. But what makes the knowledge fun is that, besides providing an interesting background, it serves to provide the motive or the means for the crime.

That's not the case with the extremely thin (more a novella than a novel, hardly worth $13 even if I liked it) and disappointing The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez. An Argentinian grad student comes to Oxford to study mathematics. Soon his landlady is murdered. Police suspect her heir, Beth, but famous mathematician Arthur Seldom soon convinces them that this is the work of a serial killer with something to prove. More deaths follow, culminating in the crash of a busload of kids.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other A-list publications have spilled a lot of ink about how "intellectual" and "cerebral" this book is, but don't believe it. Sure, there are lots of discussions about Wittgenstein and Fermat and Pythagoras, but you don't need to understand them or even pay attention to solve the crimes. They have nothing to do with the plot. The culprits are perfectly obvious and their motives straightforward.

All the mathematical content is nothing more than hand-waving and trickery by Seldom (and the author) to distract from the very simple solution. Beth murdered Mrs. Eagleton for her money and manipulated Seldom into covering for her because he is her biological father. The two subsequent "murders" were natural deaths spun by Seldom to fool the police. And the crash was caused by the bus driver, a father desperate to find an organ donor for his terminally ill daughter.

The real mystery is the protagonist. Appropriately nameless, because he is nothing but a cipher, he figures out the real solution after all the crimes are blamed on the conveniently dead bus driver. But you know, even though the case is officially closed, it's not really too late. The grad student could go to the police with what he knows. Why does he agree to keep silent (evidently for years)? Out of regard for Seldom, who used him and whom he barely knows? Out of consideration for Beth, whom he dislikes and distrusts?

What I really want to know is what happens to him afterward. Does he stay in Oxford for the rest of the year, living in Beth's basement?

Monday, April 23, 2007

State Not Even So-So

State Fair? Please. Is this really the sort of thing that used to pass as entertainment? A couple of decent songs does not qualify this as a watchable movie.

Note to Margie (Jeanne Crain): Girl, you have more choices in life than just marrying the loser next door or taking up with the first slick-talking womanizer to come around. Get on the train to Chicago your own damn self, get a job, and buy yourself some decent clothes! Also, I've got $100 that says Dana Andrews cheats on you within the year.

Note to Ma Frakes (Fay Bainter): If winning the mincemeat prize is really the summit of your ambition, you need to get out more. And get yourself a real name. And why the hell can't I ever tell you apart from Spring Byington?

Note to Wayne (Dick Haymes): Get over yourself, plastic boy (calling you "wooden" would be too natural). Thank God poor Emily couldn't marry you: not only didn't you give her the chance to explain to you herself, you went back to your old girlfriend two minutes after you got home. Broken hearts mend quickly in Iowa!

Friday, April 13, 2007

WTF? Department

I'm not one of those snobs that thinks that a movie has to be black and white to be a classic, but The Barefoot Executive? TCM is usually a little more discriminating, at least during primetime.

A Quick Thumbs-Down

A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 by Mary Gentle is one of several books I picked up because Abigail Nussbaum recommended them. I have found Abigail's opinions to be very similar to mine on some things (and always very well expressed), but we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

Stuart England is just a little later than the Elizabethan era that fascinates me, and Gentle is good at period detail: the sights, sounds, and especially smells of the time are vividly presented. But I found the main characters and their sexual kinks tedious and the plot unfulfilling. Especially tedious was the samurai Tanaka Saburo, who suffers from what I think of as "stoopid furriner" syndrome: his facility with English and French varies according to the needs of the plot, so that he can't string words together correctly one minute and can talk about someone's "mad fancy" the next.

My biggest objection was Gentle's framing device, similar to the one she used in her Ash saga, that explains the book as a translation and compilation of actual documents. It's probably meant to make some kind of clever academic point about textuality, but this is a novel, not a textbook, and the frame just needlessly distances the reader from the material. For one thing, if you're going to pretend that your story is a memoir, it should read like a memoir. For another, there's no reason the "extra-textual" material (supposedly letters and other fragments found with the main text) couldn't simply have been incorporated into the narrative without sleight of hand about computer reconstruction and missing kanjis.

I'm sorry I didn't see that this book is soon forthcoming in cheaper mass market paperback, because I resent shelling out 14 bucks for this one. Add it to my "Hours of My Life I'll Never Get Back" list.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye, Kurt

I started reading Kurt Vonnegut as a teenager, as I started reading so much science fiction,* because he was in my Dad's paperback collection. I think I probably started out with Cat's Cradle, or maybe Slaughterhouse-Five. Player Piano. The Sirens of Titan. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I remember my sister's favorite was Welcome to the Monkey House. There was something addictive, and liberating, about his ideas: the karass, people to whom you are spiritually connected, whether you like it or not; the time-traveling aliens of Tralfamadore, who can't understand that humans live in linear time; the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. His irreverence, black humor, scorn of authority, and cynicism were a perfect reflection of the times and of my rebellious youth; they really spoke to me.

I tend to think of Vonnegut as having an underlying core of tenderness for people. Then I remember that my favorite story of his concerns deliberately handicapping any talented or gifted people so they won't embarrass the ordinary. Maybe not.

My favorite book of his was Breakfast of Champions. I loved Kilgore Trout, writer of bad science fiction novels like Venus on the Half-Shell or featuring aliens who communicate by tap-dancing and farting; but I was really blown away when Vonnegut appeared in his own story like a semi-benevolent god -- meta-fiction at its most audacious.

Unfortunately, I never really enjoyed what he wrote after Champions. Did he just grow more jaded and pessimistic, or did I outgrow the stage where those qualities appealed to me? I don't know, but I just stopped finding him so funny or so profound.

But he was important to me, and I'm sorry he's gone. Goodbye, Kurt. I hope the Tralfamadorians treat you well.

*Vonnegut never liked the label science fiction, because he was determined not to be ghettoized. But I don't think it's a contradiction to say something is both SF and literature, and I don't think it's shaming to Vonnegut to recognize his work for what it is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blue Shoes and Fat Prejudice

Like many people, I fell in love with Alexander McCall Smith's vision of Botswana in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It's been a privilege hanging out with Mma Precious Ramotswe, her mechanic husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her feisty assistant Grace Makutsi, and assorted apprentices, orphans, and friends; drinking bush tea; making comments on the passing scene; and reminiscing about Mma Ramotswe's late Daddy, Obed (a good man and a fine judge of cattle). I've never been especially interested in visiting Africa, but Botswana sounds like a nice place to be.

Frankly, detection has never been the focus of this series, although the first couple of books are stronger in that respect. Inasmuch as any detectiving goes on, however, it is focused not on law but on justice and social harmony, what Smith refers to as "the old Botswana morality." Even without actively pursuing leads or questioning witnesses, Mma Ramotswe manages to apply her vast knowledge of human nature and common sense to bring problems to a resolution that offers satisfaction to all parties.

But after awhile, even the pleasures the books afford begin to grow a little thin and shopworn, particularly when there's no framework of plot to hang them on. For example, even if Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni doesn't care to reveal his names to the world, surely his wife doesn't have to address him as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni every time she speaks to him (nor does he ever call her anything but Mma Ramotswe. Thank goodness at least Mma Makutsi calls her fiance by his first name). Speaking of Mma Makutsi, the author has switched from poking a little fun at how fiercely she insists on her score of 97 percent at the Botswana Secretarial College to insisting on it himself. Learning that Mma Makutsi signs her reports "Dip. Sec. (97 percent)" is funny; hearing Mma Ramotswe think of her as "Madam Ninety-Seven Percent" is stupid and unnecessary. And while it's a touching tribute that Obed Ramotswe was a fine man and a good judge of cattle and Precious thinks of him every day, I do not need to be told so FOUR TIMES in the same book.

The latest paperback in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, is the sketchiest yet in terms of both investigation and satisfactory outcomes. Mma Ramotswe starts off looking into a fraud in which the head cook of a government university is stealing food and soon learns of a blackmail plot. She successfully routs the blackmailer, but the old Precious would have made sure to stop the theft as well, not to mention informing her initial client and the blackmail victim that their cases were solved. She learns that the uneasiness at a nearby wildlife preserve has been caused by the presence of a wounded hornbill (she finds out from a cousin, although she later says that she learned it from somebody else, just one of many, many examples of sloppy continuity). However, before she can take action (for no important or plausible reason), her sad-sack employee Mr. Polopetsi (introduced in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies when she ran over him) abducts the bird and accidentally kills it. And she twice makes a resolution to speak to Mr. Polopetsi's uncle and straighten out their family situation without ever taking the slightest effort to do so. (She does effectively solve a complaint of medical wrong-doing, although her client tells such an unnecessarily long and overly complicated story that I really didn't know what the problem was.)

But none of this is what really upsets me. One of the things I have most enjoyed about the series is that while Mma Ramotswe is fat ("traditionally built," as she so famously puts it), she is depicted as an attractive, confident woman. In the first book, there are not one but two men who want to marry her. (I never understood why she picked Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, since she clearly wasn't that into him at the start of the book, but that's another story.) If Smith made the occasional gentle joke about her size, or her denial, it was in keeping with the spirit of the story, and I didn't mind.

In Cheerful Ladies and to a much greater extent Blue Shoes, however, all that has changed. Everyone from a client to a suspect to her husband feels free to make jokes or outright chastise Mma Ramotswe about her weight. That's just rude, and I want it to stop. (Nor do I believe that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would ever say any such thing.) As my little PSA for the day, I will say: being fat does not give you high blood pressure and losing weight will not necessarily cause you to stop having it. Eat your fruits and veggies, watch your sodium, and exercise a little.

How traditionally built is Mma Ramotswe? In one of the earlier books, we learn that she wears a size 22 dress, which would make her perhaps up to 250 pounds. That's large, certainly, but it's not large enough to break the springs in her tiny white van or the furniture at Zebra Drive, or to crush a man hiding under the bed. That kind of cheap and obvious fat joke makes it clear that like so many thin people, Smith knows nothing about what various weights are really like. This kind of writing perpetuates nasty, untrue stereotypes about people like Precious, of whom I happen to be one.

On her behalf and my own, I bitterly resent it.

And did I mention that Obed Ramotswe was a fine man and a good judge of cattle, and Mma Ramotswe thinks of him every day?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Movie Diary March 2007

As before, movies seen for the first time are in green.

  1. Morocco (1930), Josef von Sternberg. See post March 4, 2007.
  2. The Queen (2006), Stephen Frears. Surprisingly not blown away by either the film or Helen Mirren's performance. Michael Sheen makes a very weedy and unauthoritative Tony Blair. Always love seeing James Cromwell, even when he isn't doing very much. Don't understand the small subplot with the stag.
  3. The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Paul Greengrass.
  4. The Bourne Identity (2002), Doug Liman. Watched these out of order over a weekend. First one definitely more fun. High point of second one was just seeing Chris Cooper's picture. High point of first one? Matt Damon in a wife-beater washing Franke Potente's hair. Yes, please.
  5. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Danny Leiner. Saw the last half or so. Surprisingly funny, with some well-done fantasy sequences. I'm taking it as a shoutout to me, since I grew up in Cherry Hill. However, there's no White Castle there.
  6. A Face in the Crowd (1957), Elia Kazan. Chilling, prescient look at the confluence of TV, money, celebrity, and politics. Heart-wrenching performance from Patricia Neal, quietly powerful one from Walter Matthau. Revelatory if you only know Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor or Matlock.
  7. The Pirate (1948), Vincente Minnelli. Wow, I'd forgotten how atrocious this was. Takes the prize for hideous costumes too. But Gene Kelly's legs -- mmmm.
  8. An American in Paris (1951), Vincente Minnelli. Basically a boring movie with some good music and Oscar Levant. Kelly picks Leslie Caron over Nina Foch, seriously? But the Toulouse-Lautrec sequence of the ballet where Kelly bends himself into the impossible shape Lautrec gave the dancer Chocolat is still amazing.
  9. Look Back in Anger (1958), Tony Richardson. I know it's prestigious, controversial, and stuffed with famous actors. Sorry; just not feeling it.
  10. The Kennel Murder Case (1933), Michael Curtiz. Couldn't make heads or tails of it and didn't care. Reminded me of Ogden Nash's pithy assessment: "Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance."
  11. The Thin Man (1934), W. S. Van Dyke. As delightful as they come.
  12. To Catch a Thief (1955), Alfred Hitchcock. Post to come.
  13. Shamus (1973), Buzz Kulik. Low expectations sometimes pay off -- pretty good hard-boiled detective flick. Liked the final scene with Dyan Cannon.
  14. The Three Musketeers (1948), George Sidney. Fun version of the classic Dumas tale. Gene Kelly fences instead of dances. Nice contribution from Van Heflin as the tragic Athos.
  15. Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), Tay Garnett. Lovely sentimental tale of the trials and triumphs of a college professor. Odd mix of feminist messages: noone questions that the college offers coed education or that it hires female faculty in the 1870s; the question of divorce is raised without moral qualms; but the heroine stops her grandniece from going off with a married man by saying she could never become a mother, "which is the aim of every good woman."