Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thoughts on Malcolm Galdwell's Essays

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
No wonder Gladwell's books don't drop from the best seller lists, his essays are wonderful reading. No matter what the subject, he is smart and challenging. One of his favorite tactics is to knock two or three different exsamples together to make a point: pit bulls, mafioso, and terrorists to make a point about stereotyping and profiling; reading aerial photographs and reading mamograms to show the difficulty of interpreting different kinds of information even though we often regard the results of those interpretations as definitive.

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Some Baseball Memories - Blogcritics Sports

Some Baseball Memories - Blogcritics Sports

This article was first published at Blogcritics

DVD Review: The Pacific

Article first published as DVD Review: The Pacific on Blogcritics.

HBO's Emmy Award winning miniseries, The Pacific, will be released in a smartly boxed six DVD set on November 2. Beginning in December of 1941 and going through the end of the war in 1945, the series looks at the struggles in the Pacific theater through the dramatization of the real life experiences of three representative Marines and their comrades. It is not simply the story of the battles, although there is some of the most realistic depiction of the horrors of those famous battles—Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; it is also the story of the effects of these brutal struggles on the men who fought them.

The three central figures are Medal of Honor winner John Bosilone played by Jon Seda, Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale). The journeys of these three men provide a convenient point of departure and an excellent source of first person information, since both Sledge and Leckie wrote about their wartime experiences after the war: Leckie in the 1957, Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge in With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Bosilone, on the other hand, after his heroic actions on Guadalcanal, was ordered back to the United States to take part in the war bond drive and became a well known celebrity whose life was well documented. The series shows the high almost naïve expectations of the men as they leave for the war zone, their reactions to the horrifying deaths and mutilations of their comrades and the fanaticism of the enemy, and the difficult adjustment to ordinary life after they return home.

The Pacific is not a glamorous romanticized picture of war. There is heroism certainly, but it is the heroism of conquering fear and charging up a beach into the face of machine gun barrages, it is the heroism of trudging through mud in the heat of tropics with little or no water or time to rest, it is the heroism of doing what needs to be done to kill the enemy and to stay alive. It is impossible to watch this series without tearing up at what these men went through. War is hell may have become something of a cliché; every once in awhile we need to be reminded that what may be a cliché for those of us who never had to experience that horror, may well be a truth for those who do. With our armed forces fighting even now, it is a reminder that is clearly of the moment.

Nor does the series shy away from some of the philosophical questions raised by war. There is for example a discussion in the fifth episode between the newly arrived Sledge and the more veteran Leckie on the question of evil in a world created by a just God. The question of ends justifying means is raised when one of their own soldiers loses it and begins screaming in the middle of the night and needs to be silenced before he gives away their position. There is the problem of how to deal with an enemy who will try and kill you even as you try to deal with his wounds. There is even some implied explanation and justification of the use of the Atom Bomb to end the war.

War brutalizes everyone involved in it, and the series doesn't sugar coat the brutal behaviors of either side. We are shown how the Japanese used civilians as shields on Okinawa, how, for example they turned one woman and her baby into a human bomb. But we are also shown marines digging gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. We see them taking pot shots at one of the enemy soldiers who seems to be surrendering. While these things are not quite morally equivalent, they do suggest that there is inhumane behavior on both sides.

Still when all is said and done The Pacific is most importantly a testament to the self-effacing courage of the marines that fought and died for their country. One of the extras included on the DVD is a set of profiles of some of the men featured in the film. Friends and relatives talk about them. Those that were still living talk about themselves and the others. They explain what it was like to be there and how it felt to come home. To a man they declined to call themselves heroes; to a man they question how it was that of all the men who went, why is it they that were the ones that made it out alive. To a man they talk about the nightmares that still haunt them after fifty years. It is to the series' credit that their service and the sacrifice of those who didn't make it home are never trivialized; they are presented with honesty and integrity.

Other bonus materials included with the set are a feature on the making of the series, a special section on what they call the "Anatomy of the Pacific War," and short historical narratives that can be played before each of the ten episodes. The first shows the care the production team took to create an accurate picture of what it was like on those islands, whether it was in creating a beach that looked like the real thing or trying to emulate the torrential rains. Actors were put through a boot camp to give them an insight into what the men they were playing actually went through. The "Anatomy" talks about the Japanese soldier and the Japanese attitude toward surrender. It focuses on the cultural attitudes fostered both in the East and the West that may well have been responsible for the brutality of the war. It tries to provide a larger perspective through which to view the events. The historical introductions are narrated by Tom Hanks and include clips from interviews with some of the veterans.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book Review: The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Article first published as Book Review: The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon on Blogcritics

Some years back when I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind for The Compulsive Reader,I found it a combination of page turning story telling with significant post modern overtones. And although the climactic ending was something of a disappointment, it was a comparatively minor flaw (and who can forget Samuel Johnson's comment on a passage he found objectionable in Milton's Paradise Lost--flaws so great who could wish away) in what was otherwise a truly excellent novel. Not surprisingly, when Zafon's latest, The Angel's Game came out, I was quite eager to get my hands on it.

Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. Not that the story is poorly told, Zafon is nothing if not a fine story teller. There are mysterious secrets to be revealed; there are thwarted lovers. There are Gothic settings, supernatural presences, murders and betrayals. It is a big novel in the tradition of the great nineteenth century story teller, Zafon refers to over and over again in the novel, Charles Dickens. Not only does he subscribe to the Dickensian emphasis on elaborately plotted fiction, he peoples that fiction with a cast of characters, major and minor that could easily find a home in one of the darker Dickens novels.

The hero and narrator, David Martin, although a talented writer, finds it expedient to produce pulp supernatural fiction as a means of paying his bills. Like Pip's in Great Expectations, his story begins in childhood, and like Pip he is helped through life by mysterious benefactors, whose motives he doesn't understand. Indeed like many first person narrators he is often the last to understand what is going on around him. Much of the mystery in the book is grounded in Martin's failure to see things, almost at times refusing to see them for what they are. He has a love interest who feels obligated to another. He has a love interest that he either pays no attention or treats badly. A variety of characters come to Martin's aid in the course of the book—another writer with wealth of his own, a book store owner, an editor, a publisher, a young girl who wants to be a writer—some with good intentions, some with evil. There are villainous policemen who play good cop, bad cop, witch-like old women, and pettifogging lawyers.

Moreover there are even one or two of those nice little post modern ironic moments tucked into this book as well. David Martin makes himself a success writing in the Grand Guignol, a thriller genre that he thoroughly deprecates, yet it is quite obviously the genre of the work in which he appears, and a genre in which Zafon himself excels. While his thrillers are hugely popular and sell extremely well they are not the kind of work he respects, and when he finally does write something that he considers has worth, it has no success at all. There is an interesting discussion of the relationship between books and the souls of the writers as well as of those who read them. Thus when a writer sells his work to a publisher there are certain obvious Faustian indications, especially when that publisher seems to be making an offer that certainly looks too good to be true.

Although The Angel's Game is not really a prequel to The Shadow in the Wind, it does have its echoes in the earlier book. Most importantly there is the Barcelona setting. The city, its cafes, streets and architectural landmarks provide a loving richness of detail to the story. Barcelona holds a place in Zafon's novels similar to that of London in Dickens. The "Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a huge labyrinthine library in which all books are saved until someone comes along and adopts one, vowing to keep it alive, makes an appearance in both books. And the owner of the Sempere bookstore who aids David as a young boy, turns out to be the grandfather of Daniel Sempere the hero of the The Shadow in the Wind.

The problem with The Angel's Game is that for all his supposed talents as a writer, David Martin's narrative is not always very compelling. Despite the novel's length, David never comes to life either as a poor orphan or a wealthy author. Zafon is content to develop his character in stereotypical ways, rather than creating a multi-dimensional personality. This is in many way true of all the characters—too many of them seem to belong in B movies. If it's hard to care about the characters, it's hard to care about their story. Finally the prose style doesn't always do justice to the content. This is especially true of the dialogue. In the end, The Angel's Game is not a bad book, it's just that sometimes when you have 'great expectations,' they don't always pan out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mini Review: Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

Yellow Dog Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Too many threads that more often than not seem to have no connection, and when the connections are revealed, the reader's reaction is merely, so what. Couple this with a lot of linguistic word play, and the reader is left with a book that has more in common with a crossword puzzle than a novel. It has almost no emotional impact.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

“One Good Turn,” the latest tour de force from Kate Atkinson, raises some interesting questions both about fictional genre and structure.

First of all there is the question of just what exactly is it. Pity the poor bookseller that has to decide in what company to shelve the novel with: mysteries and thrillers or fiction. In its subject matter the book would seem to belong with the genre titles. On the other hand, in the way it treats that subject matter, literary fiction would seem more appropriate. More often than not, genre fiction–mystery, romance, oater–tends to the formulaic, the stereotyped and the conventional. Readers have certain expectations and the genre writer is honor bound to meet those expectations. Every once in awhile an author comes along and uses the substance of the genre, but eschews the formula, indeed, takes the reader’s expectations and turns them on their head, in effect using the genre to critique (as one of Atkinson’s characters critiques her mother’s dinner) itself.

“One Good Turn” has much of the same kind of murder and mayhem that fills the pages of the conventional thriller. It has many of the same character types: a hulking neanderthal goon, a wily hit man, a persistent ex cop-ex detective with a yen for police work, a mysterious foreign beauty, a crooked real estate tycoon. It begins with an enigmatic act of road rage that balloons into a succession of seemingly random complications that eventually turn out to be not quite as random as one might have thought. But then along with these more or less conventional elements, there are characters like the wife of the unscrupulous builder who is developed well beyond the type. She is a woman who seems to have “gone from youth to old age and had somehow managed to omit the good bit in between.” Her life was a “series of rooms that she walked into when every one else had just left.” She bakes Christmas logs that no one else will eat. She likes to bid on eBay and be in at the end of the sale. She makes her own chutney from gooseberries she picked herself. There is the mystery writer whose “life had been lived in some kind of neutral gear. . . .He had never strived for greatness, and his reward had been a small life.” Unmarried, he daydreams of a wife and family out of the forties. He is prissy in his personal habits, doesn’t smoke, drink or eat meat. These kinds of character details do not normally make it into genre fiction, yet they are the kinds of details that bring a character to life. Moreover these are not incidental characters. They are central to the novel, as significant, if not more so, than their counterparts in more conventional fiction. Even the more typical of Atkinson’s creations are not quite drawn to type. Her ex-detective is tough and smart, but not quite tough enough and not always as smart as he needs to be. There is a bright female police inspector who is the unwed mother of a fourteen year old shop lifter. In general her characters have a rounded lifelike quality that distances from the norm of the generic mystery.

In a kind of meta- critical fashion, Atkinson has Martin Canning, her “small lived” mystery writer is constantly complaining about the junk he is writing, even including puerile passages by way of illustration. Nina Riley, the heroine of his series provides a solution to the crime: “So you see, Bertie, the murder weapon that killed the laird was actually an icicle taken from the overhang on the dovecote. The murderer simply threw it in the kitchen stove once he had used it–that’s why the police have been unable to find it..” When in a jam: “Well, Bertie, this is quite a scrape we’ve got ourselves into here, isn’t it?” Canning wants to write something where every page is a “dialectic between passion and reason.” He wants to write something that goes beyond mere escapist entertainment. Now while the portrait of the successful writer of popular fiction who wants to chuck it all and write serious literature is not particularly novel in itself, it does highlight the differences between the conventional genre and the work we are in the process of reading. Well, Bertie, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

These differences are further highlighted by the structure of the novel, a structure conveniently symbolized in the story itself by the recurrent image of the Russian nesting dolls which Martin had purchased on a trip to the Soviet Union: “But mostly there were dolls, thousands of dolls, legions upon legions of matryoshka, not just the ones you could see but also the ones you couldn’t–dolls within dolls, endlessly replicating and diminishing, like an infinite series of mirrors. Martin imagined writing a story, a Borges-like construction where each story contained the kernel of the next and so on. Not Nina Riley, obviously–linear narratives were as much as she could cope with–but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good).” What is being described here is, in fact, a paradigm for the structure of “One Good Turn,” where what we have are stories containing the kernels of other stories, where we are not immediately privy to the connections.

Atkinson presents the reader with a series of characters who seem to have little to do with one another, only to gradually reveal deeper and more significant relationships. Some might argue that what she provides is merely a series of coincidences, but she is prepared for that. Coincidences, one of he characters asserts, are merely events waiting for an explanation. There are no coincidences; there are connections. We may not always see the connections between events, but those connections are always there. In effect this is a philosophy of coincidence. One is reminded of the nineteenth century historian and social critic, Thomas Carlyle, who argued that all human activity is connected, that every action of every being has its effect on everything else, were we but able to see it. The advantage of the novelist is that she can show these connections, these dolls nesting within dolls.

The structure of “One Good Turn” reminds me most of last years’s Academy Award winning film, “Crash.” A diverse group of seemingly unrelated characters are spotlighted in separate scenes. The film moves back and forth between these sets of characters, until gradually relationships begin to unfold, relationships that become more and more significant the more we learn.

“One Good Turn” is set in Edinburgh during the height of the end of summer tourist season. It is the time of the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival as well as the Royal Tattoo. Crowds of people jam the streets and the hotels. But while Atkinson is herself a resident of Scotland, her picture of Edinburgh and its festivals is anything but flattering. The Tattoo is a charade for the tourists. The Fringe is as often as not characterized by pretentious work in shabby venues, second rate has beens, disgruntled American high school students “playing The Caucasian Chalk Circle to an audience of two men. . . .” Up and down the Royal Mile from Holyrood to the Castle, she presents little to warm the hearts of the local Chamber of Commerce (if they have such organizations in Scotland). The Edinburgh she describes is not the most charming of places.

Her prose is rich in irony and allusion. Of a patient in a coma, his wife muses about the possibility of “recycling” his body parts. Fellatio sounds like an Italian musical term. Children go to school in the late summer heat because in the sixteenth century John Knox “saw a kid bowling along the street with a hoop. . ., and he thought, that child should be suffering in a hot, airless classroom in a uniform theat makes him ridiculous.” She fills her pages with references to both high culture and pop, the classic and the contemporary: The Cowboy Junkies and the Goldberg Variations, Ozymandias and Harry Potter, The Twilight Zone and William Blake, MTV and Agatha Christie. Her prose is lively and contemporary, never banal.

“One Good Turn” is a book filled with turns and surprises. It will keep you turning pages, and it will get you thinking–surely the best of two worlds. More than likely it will get you, as it got me, itching to get a look at the rest of Kate Atkinson’s work.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading Zafon's The Angel's Game for review--so I thought I'd post this 2005 review of his earlier book, The Shadow of the Wind from The Compulsive Reader:

The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (February 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0143034901

As Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind, begins, the hero, ten year old Daniel Sempere, is heading off to the discovery that will dominate his young life. It is five o’clock in the morning. His father is escorting him to a mysterious building seen only in shadow. He must tell no one about it. They stop before what Daniel describes as the "carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows." The door is answered by a little old man of "vulturine" appearance. Inside, the building is something out of an Escher drawing. "A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry." It is the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books."

Tradition has it that first time visitors must choose a volume from the stacks and make it their mission to keep that book alive. Daniel has been brought here to make his choice. After a half hour’s wandering through the stacks, he comes upon a book that he has never heard of before, by an author he doesn’t know, but a book that he knows is his fate:"The Shadow of the Wind" by a seemingly unsuccessful writer, Julian Carax. He takes it home and reads, and as he reads, he is enthralled by the book "Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over. . . ." The story is a "ghostly odyssey" after lost youth haunted by a "cursed love." The book becomes an obsession as does the book’s author. When he discovers that someone using the name of one of the characters in the book is trying to destroy all of the works of Julian Carax, Daniel begins his own odyssey, in quest of information about the writer.

He learns that Carax is dead, presumably killed in a duel, so he pursues friends and acquaintances for what they can tell him. Gradually, bit by bit, he begins to piece together the story of the man. The more he discovers about Carax, the greater become the parallels between the life of the author, the protagonist of his novel and Daniel’s own life. It is not without reason that the story of Carax’s life,"The Shadow of the Wind, " is embedded in The Shadow of the Wind, the story of Daniel’s life. Early on he uses the image of the Russian doll–dolls within dolls, stories within stories–to describe Carax’s book. It is an image no less appropriate to his own work as he weaves back and forth between his own life and that of the mysterious Carax.

It is the kind of structure some critics have called arabesque: pieces of stories woven into complex patterns that juxtapose illusion and reality, humor and horror, the vulgar and the sublime. On the one hand the stories themselves are filled with the stuff of gothic exotica: dark shadows, decaying mansions, hidden rooms, ghoulish villains, star-crossed lovers, intimidating fathers, family secrets and ancient sins–mystery enough to keep the reader turning page after page with the same urgency as the young Daniel. On the other hand there are jealous husbands, lecherous gourmands, brothel keepers, cafes and all the trappings of the twentieth century city. There may be a faceless evil that takes his name from the devil in Carax’s novel, but there is also the real evil of a renegade policeman who would just as soon put a pistol to your head as not. There is betrayal; there is devoted loyalty. Once the reader buys into it, it is the kind of book that careens headlong towards its end and drags the reader uncomplaining along with it. Besides there seems to be much more than mere romantic melodrama.

Zafon peoples his story with a cast of characters both minor and major as rich and varied as might well fill the pages of a Dickens or a Victor Hugo: a randy old man who wants a prostitute to cuddle with once more before he dies, a beautiful blind woman who thinks nothing of leading on an impressionable young boy, a storekeeper who likes every so often to dress up like a gypsy and sing to a crowd. Moreover he draws his characters with quick, sure strokes. Here is Gustavo Barcelo: "Perpetually affixed to his mouth was an unlit pipe that impregnated his person with the aroma of a Persian market. He liked to describe himself as the last romantic, and he was not above claiming that a remote line in his ancestry led directly to Lord Byron himself." Here Professor Velazquez "who enjoyed a reputation as a Don Juan, and there were those who considered that the sentimental education of a respectable young lady was never complete without a proverbial weekend in some small hotel on the Sitges promenade, reciting Alexandrines tete-a-tete with the distinguished academic."

There is something reflexive about Zafon’s novel, something very close to a kind of postmodern metafiction. It is, after all, a novel about a novel. What the ‘meta’ in metafiction denotes is the use of the form to comment on itself. In some cases, as for example in Vanity Fair, it involves the author speaking in his own voice about the nature of his art–Thackery’s famous comments about his characters as puppets. Zafon, on the other hand, has his characters speak for him. Carax, one character reports, has said that "a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise." While Zafon doesn’t go as far as some in stressing the fictionality of his fiction, he is not shy about having his characters speak about the form, its genesis and its uses.

Zafon, like all serious contemporary novelists, has to be concerned with questions of the form’s relevance in a world more and more dominated by electronic media, a world in which the shelves of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are in danger of collapse from their load. Although set in Barcelona before the electronic revolution, one character (a sometime wild-eyed madman, named Fermin Romero de Torres) already recognizes the danger: "Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own and humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era."

Fermin argues that television invites passivity in its audience. It creates what we now call couch potatoes. The novel on the other hand requires an active audience. It requires a reader willing to put something of himself into the book. Reacting to the comment that books are boring, Carax says: "Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside

you. . . ." If a writer puts himself inside his books, so does a good reader. In this sense the reader becomes a collaborative force, a co-creator. At the end of the book, Daniel’s wife says "that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day." Indeed the whole novel is about the interaction between a ‘great’ reader and a book, a book that in many ways is a mirror of what he already has inside him. Daniel Sempere is a ‘great reader.’ What the modern world needs if we are not to return to the caves are more Daniel Semperes.

The Shadow of the Wind is the kind of book that may well help grow some, if not great readers, at least a few compulsive ones.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review in Progress

This is Just Exactly Like You: A Novel This is Just Exactly Like You: A Novel by Drew Perry

Working on a review of this first novel. Can't quite figure out what the cover has to do with the book. It does talk about large plastic animals on a miniature golf course which the major characters buys, but they ate sea creatures: a catfish, an octopus, etc.