Sunday, March 21, 2010

#15 - The Wig My Father Wore

I had wanted to finish either The Wig My Father Wore or The Third Policeman by St. Patrick's Day as my monthly "themed" reading. Oddly, both books are truly absurd, which is why I only finished one of them. I'm not sure if absurdist fiction is necessarily for me -- in a way, I don't like to be confused or feel like a story is convoluted just for the sake of making a point. Sure, I read Beckett in university and enjoyed it at the time but these days I just don't have the concentration it requires to read something that deems the absurd a necessary plot point. Hence my abandonment of The Third Policeman.

And while Anne Enright's The Wig My Father Wore dips its toes into the same kind of storytelling, there's at least somewhat of a plot to keep you motivated. Grace, the novel's protagonist, opens her door one evening after work (she's a producer for a Dating Game-style show in Ireland) to discover an angel on her stoop. Stephen lives with her for a time. They have cryptic conversations and an even stranger love affair all the while he's changing her body -- literally.

There are parts to Enright's writing that are almost unbearably beautiful. Grace finds herself in a difficult time in her life -- her job's in peril and her father's dying -- and it seems the angel has come along at just the right time. He helps her to come to terms with her life, but he also comes with a bit of havoc (imagine your body disappearing before your eyes, imagine!), and as Grace looks back at her childhood, at her father's strange, inappropriate wig, the story makes sense.

But often, aspects of this book just don't come together in the same way, and its far too convoluted for my tastes. Imagine a chicklit scenario (young woman trying to find herself working for a dating television show), with a bit of Legion (except he's not a wicked angel, but someone in between trying to earn his wings), and BBC Drama (the dying father) thrown in -- the book simply doesn't make sense.

It's a shame because I adored, adored The Gathering. I felt like all of Enright's formidable talents, her sharp perception, her angst with family life, was put to good use. In The Wig My Father Wore any good will I had about the former book is lost the moment I reread sections where Stephen the angel attempts to become a contestant on her dating game show. I mean, really? That said, I marked more than one passage as I was reading, especially the more domestic sections with her mother.

But in this one sentence, squeezed my heart as well: "I woke up grateful and sick with grief, as if I could not carry my heart anymore; it had burst and spread, like an old yolk."

Keep those sentences and toss back the rest.

WHAT'S UPCOMING: Still going to trudge to the end of The Third Policeman, if only because it's on the 1001 Books list and I hate not finishing books. There's always something good in them, even if it's just one sentence that sticks with me. Then I'm going to read for work, and maybe finish the third Stieg Larsson galley that a friend sent over. It's awesome. I think the charges he's anti-feminist are bollocks, BTW.

Whew, that's enough rambling for today.

READING CHALLENGES: Enright's Irish, so that's one for Around the World in 52 Books.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

TRH Movie - Shutter Island

Oh, how it disappointed me. I actually fell asleep in places and found it all kind of tedious. Don't get me wrong, I love Scorsese, DiCaprio and Lehane in equal measures, but the combination here didn't quite work. The movie wasn't scary enough -- sure it looked beautiful, the storm scenes were particularly awesome -- and there were way, way, way too many flashbacks. The whole picture could have been shorter, tighter and creepier.

As Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) pukes down below a ferry taking him and his partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), across the harbour from Boston to Shutter Island, an infamous institution for the criminally insane, the film sets up the premise: what is exactly going on over there? As US Marshals, Teddy and Chuck are there to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients/inmates, a young woman who drowned her three children. As the weather gets worse, so does the state of the case, and soon Teddy and Chuck are embroiled in a "is it all as it seems" plot that plods forward.

The film never picked up steam. Sure, the performances were fantastic, the assembled cast quite amazing, but there was just something missing -- ahem, action -- that would keep the film from stalling left, right and centre. I kept asking my RRHB if he recognized the twist, and he picked it up sooner than I did when I was reading the book (read: not until the end when I gasped and said, "NO!" and then had to reread the last few pages again). But a good twist does not a good movie make if you can't build it up properly for the first 1.45 hours in. The world needed to be better established, we needed to feel less in on the joke, the clues needed to be far less apparent.

Annnywaaay, I had taken the day off to go to the doctor's (excellent visit BTW) and finished my other work (Classic Starts) earlier than expected, so I was glad to be able to squeeze in a matinee. There's just something delightful about going to the movies in the afternoon in the middle of the week. If I were unemployed, I'd do it all the time.

But Shutter Island? It gets a 6 out of 10. However, it's great the film's grossed so much already, at least it means Scorsese and DiCaprio are free to live another day and make more films together. The Departed is still my favorite picture of the last few years.

#14 - Cool Water

Dianne Warren's new novel, Cool Water, tells the story of good people, a whole town full of them. That's not to say their lives are easy or to be taken for granted, sure her characters have strife, but they also have substance and decency. Set in Juliet, Saskatchewan, the multi-perspective novel takes place over the course of about thirty-six hours. When I first started reading, and especially because the book opens with a horse race between ranch hands, I thought the book definitely had tones of Annie Proulx, all windswept, sand, and sorrow. But while the introductory vignette introduces us to the setting, the small town (population 1,100 or thereabouts), none of the characters reappear, except in story, during the rest of the book.

The intertwining stories of Norval, the bank manager; Blaine and his wife Vicki, a couple losing everything; Lee, a young man who just inherited everything; Marian and Willard, wife and brother of the deceased Ed; and Hank, an ex-rodeo cowboy-slash-farmer, unfold slowly, in delicate increments. Many have trouble sleeping and the whole book rolls out like those long hours in the night when one feels as though they're the only person on earth awake. Warren has a delicate touch, but that doesn't mean her writing reads overtly flowery or painfully self-aware (like so many Canadian novelists sometimes come across). In no way is this novel overwritten, either.

In fact, there's a patience to these stories, and the truth of the lives of these characters comes out in the details of the day-by-day. There's a beautiful line midway through the book that goes something like this -- that the nature of the day can change easily over night, day separate from night, like how one breath separates life from death -- I didn't mark it so I can't find the exact phrasing, but it struck me as unbearably true.

Lee's story resonated especially with me. Both of his quasi-adoptive parents have passed away and he's left behind on the farm; it's where he wants to be, but he's finding life alone in the house a difficult transition, dust collects, clothes go without being mended. When a grey Arab horse magically arrives in his front yard, he sets off for a marathon ride that echoes the book's first chapter. It's not even that the journey is epic -- 100 miles -- it's more what it signifies for Lee, a final transition from boy to adult, a man on his own farm, a man with his own horse. Lee's not the only one making a transition to a new chapter in his life throughout the book.

Cool Water remains full of characters whose lives are changing, sometimes irrevocably, but the novel's also about the small decisions that make up a day: whether to go to town or do your chores, whether to finally finish your to-do list, whether to round up the cattle immediately or get back together with a nincompoop ex-boyfriend. When you put them all together, the picture that unfolds isn't epic but human, and there's something utterly familiar throughout the pages -- but at the same time, interest in the story never wanes. It's a hard balance to strike.

The other parts of the book that I truly enjoyed were the will-they / won't they between Marian and Willard. They've been living together, without Ed, the actual person who brought Marian into the house in the first place, for nine years. She's desperate to tell him something; he's desperate for her not to leave now that her husband has passed away. Their stories are full of feelings that go unspoken and unleashed potential -- it's truly delightful.

I'm not going to lie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. My intern, Amanda, who's reading it too, said that it's Annie Proulx meets Alice Munro, and I think she's right, except much of the story lacks the latter's biting sense of humanity, if that makes any sense. When one reads Alice Munro, and I'm not for a minute suggesting she isn't the best short story writer in the history of Canadian literature, there's always an underlying toughness, a sense that life always takes a wrong turn, disappoints. In Cool Water, life's disappointing for some, but that cynical streak isn't as present. I'm rambling, I know. Let me finish by just saying that Warren's novel was a truly lovely surprise this week.

READING CHALLENGES: Well, indeed, this title would count towards this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm not even sure where I am with that one...maybe this weekend I'll take a moment to figure it out.

MOVING ON: I'm still trying to get through The Third Policeman and The Wig My Father Wore as my Irish reads for March. I'm also compiling poetry for April. Happy St. Patrick's Day peeps!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

TRH Movie - Bright Star (And Other Rants)

Before I even start discussing Jane Campion's Bright Star, which I watched this weekend after finishing up the third round of edits on my latest Classic Start manuscript, I wanted to just take a moment to say how well-deserved the Oscar wins for The Hurt Locker were. I'm amazed at the commentary I've read over the last few weeks -- how journalists and pundits and bloggers were all shocked that it (rightfully) beat out Avatar for the top prize. Let's just set aside all the movie-making wizardry for a moment, take Avatar out of its shiny box and you're left with an awful script, a mediocre (at best) storyline that's derivative and almost insulting in places, and dialogue that made the writer in me wince almost throughout the entire picture. It's the Nickelback of movies, as I've said often and to everyone who'll listen.

Just because a picture's small doesn't mean it's not worthy of the awards. It's not the movie's fault that no one went to see it. In fact, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to watch smaller movies as multiplexes are businesses driven by the bottom line and art house cinema goes the way of the publishing industry as of late. The whole purpose of an award isn't to celebrate the movie that made the most money. Sure, there were interesting technological advances with Avatar but that got old about two minutes into the movie, and then you're stuck with the Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves meets Every Movie Cliche meets Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Annoying Characters that Cameron "intends" we consider a "movie."

Also, I'm not sure if anyone else has reported on the irony of making the world's most EXPENSIVE film of all time, which must have used up bucket loads of energy, encouraged (nay, demands) people see the film wearing one-use glasses (sure, they're "recycled" at the end of the picture, but still), and drove piles and piles of garbage by way of concession stand sales because of the sheer number of people seeing the picture, and then having its director bang on about the ENVIRONMENTAL message in the film. Seriously, yawn.

My point? Right, that The Hurt Locker, like many small films, didn't have the marketing muscle behind it to drive huge audiences. The right people saw the film. The right people brought that picture to light, and its wins were terribly well-deserved. Money does not equal great art, if it did, men like John Keats would not have died in poverty, which brings me to the original reason I wanted to write about Bright Star, Jane Campion's equally small film that will reach an equally small audience, that so many gems of both books and films get lost when faced with competition from the big studios. I mean, I don't even know Bright Star made it to theatres in Toronto, and we're not an insignificant market.

Annnnywaaay.

Campion's films, to me, feel very literary. If they were books, I'm sure I'd sit curled up on the couch and not be able to stop reading until the very last page. Bright Star tells the story of the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawn, who fell in love but never got the chance to spend their lives together; after all, the poet died penniless in Italy after succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 25. The title comes from the poem Keats wrote for Brawne, and it's a sonnet he apparently revised until his death.

Bright Star tells the story from Brawn's perspective -- it opens with a lovely shot of Fanny sitting by a window sewing in the early morning. She's hard at work on her task (and was quite well-known for both her fashion prowess and her excellent seamstress abilities) and the light coming in from the window highlights the intricate and delicate nature of the project. Because the Brawns (widowed mother, younger brother, younger sister) live in close proximity to Keats (they rent a house from his friend, George Brown), he becomes an everyday focus for Fanny. Of course, there are struggles -- money for families without an income, money for starving artists, the importance of an artistic life, the love/hate relationship between Fanny and George Brown over Keats's affections -- but in the end, Campion resists traditional embraces, and there's no Hollywood ending (read Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice) to her film.

Abbie Cornish plays Fanny with a fierce independence. She's proud, honourable and feels her emotions deeply. British actor Ben Whishaw plays Keats, slender, gifted, and terribly troubled, not only because of his failing health, but of the complex emotions love stirs for him. Whishaw plays "tortured" very well -- there's an incredible scene in the book where the complex triangle between Brown, Brawn and Keats comes to a head and, without spoiling anything, it was riveting. It took me forever to place him, but he played Sebastian Flyte in the terrible medicore remake of Brideshead Revisited that came out a couple years ago. I thought he was terribly miscast in that film, thankfully, he's much better here. Mainly I was surprised to see Paul Schneider playing Brown (with an odd "Scottish" accent that often slipped into I don't know what) and displaying the same magnetism that he brought to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in Bright Star.

The costumes, the hues that seem to embrace the entire film (whites, greys) and the absurdly beautiful wildflowers that seem to abound, all contribute to the film's overtone of Romanticism. It's as if Campion set out to prove to sceptics like me that it is possible to bring the philosophy of the movement to the big screen. I felt deeply embraced by the sensibility of the film, if that makes sense, by the fact that it's impossible to rationalize emotions, as much as it's impossible to entirely scientifically deconstruct nature, and the relationship between Fanny and Keats certainly proves that theory.

All in all, I'm glad I gave up working on the novel a little early on Sunday afternoon to squeeze in this film. Highly recommended for easily persuaded romantic literary types like myself.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

#13 - Then We Came To The End

Oh, I fell hard for you from the very moment I cracked open your spine. Your story, about a collective of young people who work at a Chicago advertising agency during a time when the country was facing tough economic times. You have such a way with words, with storytelling, that's unique, modern, and terribly engrossing. Sometimes, you're sentences were so lovely, my heart ached a little in turn.

Sometimes, because your story was so much like events in my own life, I could recognize myself in your characters -- the close-knit working quarters, the ambitious feeling of being young, in your first or second real job, and having routines. I'd imagine it's hard to write a convincing novel about something as mundane as work, but you manage to make it feel relevant, current and interesting. I think, in a way, anyone who works in an office environment can relate to the trials and tribulations of being "walked Spanish down the hall." Of the resentment and anger you feel, of the pressure to move on maybe before you're ready, of the way life sometimes forces you in a direction you never imagined.

Your story rolls along, and you feel like you're sitting on the dock on a hot summer's day, being lulled by words instead of waves. Even when you are writing scenes, stories, thoughts that have been said so many ways before, your story still feels original. Maybe it's your voice. Your use of "we" throughout. Maybe it's how you never give in to the apparent. How you continuously surprise us with your narrative -- sure you deal with topics that can be construed as "well trodden territory" (breast cancer; angry, belligerent ex-employees pulling a Michael Douglas) -- but your book never takes the easy way out, you never write what's expected.

Thank you.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Last Week In NYC

I was in New York City all last week, both for work and for pleasure. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll have been kept abreast of the many celebrities we saw in our travels. Odd, because of the nature of the weather (holy snow batman) but fun because I always like imagining what people are like in real life. We did not, however, see Ethan Hawke, which would have made me so dizzy with excitement I don't know if I'd ever recover. As my RRHB likes to tease me, if we ever did, he'd walk right up to the man and profess MY undying love. Heh.

We saw Catherine Zeta-Jones carrying a huge umbrella and smoking as she walked near the Natural History Museum on the Upper West Side. She's teeny-tiny. That Friday afternoon we spent over four hours wandering the halls and looking at all kinds of marvelous things. The only problem being my sh*tty North Face boots that leaked and which have even started to fall apart a mere months after buying them.

The next day we went for a nice walk in Central Park (I took a great photo of what it looked like with all the snow) and then headed to the Lower East Side to wander around. While we were at Katz's deli enjoying a fantastic sandwich, Jake Gyllenhaal was there with a photographic crew who were taking photos of him wearing some really snappy clothes. He laughed a lot, and was very kind to everyone in the restaurant. My RRHB said, "How come he didn't recognize me?" When he first noticed he was there. Funny. On the way out, one of Blair's cronies from Gossip Girl was hanging outside Katz's with her friends, her name is ridiculous, and so I am not going to type it. Judge me if you will. Then, coming back up Broadway we walked right by Chloe Sevigny.

Then, we shopped. A lot.

We had dinner with a friend in the East Village, and by Sunday AM we were both exhausted. Still, we rallied and wandered through a magnificent exhibit at the International Center of Photography on Sixth at 43rd -- it was right by our hotel anyway. More walking. We spent a good chunk of time at the Library looking at their free exhibits -- Candide and maps.

Again, more shopping. Then a little stopping for a pint so we could watch a bit of the hockey game before climbing in a car and heading to Newark for the flight home. While checking in our bags, I got a little flustered, and when we passed the next person in line, she smiled kindly at me. That person? Naomi Watts. She was on our flight to Toronto, and I'm not going to judge, but she was reading In Touch magazine. That made me smile. It must be hella odd to pick up one of those rags as airport reading and find pictures of your friends. Being a mainly Canadian flight, no one bothered her, but she did do a lot of the "I'm looking at my Blackberry because I don't want to seem like I'm standing here all alone" stance that so many of us are familiar with. I'm a pro at that stance.

And now a whole week has gone by. I've got goals this weekend, both for my novel and for my latest classic start, and am taking Monday off to complete them (along with going to the dentist, ugh). I'll just be very glad to be done both. My brain is too full of all kinds of stuff these days to settle down.

The photos from the trip are up on my Flickr. The shot of the socks made me laugh -- that someone tried to die out their soppers stuffed in the stones of the public library rang quite true for me. On the Friday of the big snow storm, I took off my socks in the museum and wandered around trying to dry them out and leaving a nasty, smelly-smell behind me for anyone daring to come near us. Ah, the human body.

Friday, March 05, 2010

#12 - Invisible Man

My goal for February was to read a couple books for Black History Month. Not surprisingly, I managed one: Ralph Ellison's classic, Invisible Man. The novel is substantial, both in its scope and narrative approach. It took me ages to read--and I abandoned it at one point and picked up a different book, read magazines, anything really to escape the relentless story.

The title, metaphorical, not literal, refers to the narrator's lack of identity as a black man. He can walk down a street and no one sees him. He can stand on the street and people will pass on by as if he wasn't even there. Invisibility -- blessing and a curse -- defines his life. And what a troubled life, kicked out of school (not his fault), and settling in New York City, things go from bad to worse for the man. The novel, which was first published in 1952, and it was interesting to read it now, over fifty years later. Ellison's writing style, while imbued with the tone and tenacity of the time, doesn't feel dated. In fact, the book reminded me a lot of The Best of Everything, not in its subject matter, characterization or plot, but more because of its uncanny ability to bring the story to life and embed in a very particular time and place.

My 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die tome suggests the novel has existential themes, and I'd agree, the narrator can't help but contemplate his existence; it's the purest form of a Manichean dialogue, race goes beyond allegory, it's essential and he's essentially being defined against it by just about everyone he comes into contact with him. There were moments when the cruelty of the world became almost too much for me to bear -- I turned away like I did when I watched Inglorious Basterds, when the violence, meant to be too much, shocked me into tears.

I was first supposed to read Ellison's masterpiece in university. At the time, I was too wrapped up in Faulkner, a writerly obsession I carried with me from high school. Since then, I've carried my same copy around with me from apartment to apartment, keeping it on that metaphorical 'to be read' someday shelf with many other books from school. Slowly but surely, I'm working my way through a lot of them. Because I read so much modern Can Lit, and let's face it, books that are published by the houses where I worked over the last five years, I've been rebelling a little. When I go to the shelf I'm inspired to pick up big, heavy books like Invisible Man and give my brain a work out. I imagine writing a paper filled with literary theory, can smell the air in the library as I do research, and think that Invisible Man does exactly what a classic piece of literature should do, it lasts.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I can't blog about the book I read this week, Emma Donoghue's Room (#13), because it's not out until Fall 2010. But I will say this, it's exceptional -- a literary page turner of the likes I've never read before, and it's become one of my favourite new books of the year. I can't wait to talk to people about it once it's actually published. So I'm going to try to finish the totally absurd The Third Policeman (also a 1001 Book), and a couple other Irish writers because it's March and my theme is, well, Irish writing this month.