Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin is a novel of the highest calibre. It tackles political and cultural ideas in inventive ways. It offers a panoramic social view. It deals with a wide swath of human frailty in a compassionate manner. And it does all this with very little pretense and a whole lot of story telling interest.

Cleverly set around a historical event (the 1974 New York twin towers tight rope stunt), it manages to credibly examine social conditions of the era in which it’s set while at the same time drawing clever parallels to the impact of 9/11.

Characters range from well-off judges to manipulative, cynical drug- dependent artists, to a modern day Irish saint among the down-trodden of the city, to desperate and eventually imprisoned street prostitutes. At the novel’s very centre is the tight-ropist himself, and a long chapter describes in reverent detail the months of physical training and preparation he put into carrying off such an audacious feat. The most interesting aesthetic effect of reading this chapter is probably meant to be the implied analogy between the preparation required for the twin towers tight rope stunt and the terrorists who must have meticulously prepared, decades later, to take down those very towers. But I could not help thinking, as I read the details of wire and tension, the fit of a thin-soled shoe on a highly trained athlete and artist’s foot, I could not help thinking about McCann himself, the author of the novel.

Making this sprawling beast of a novel work was a similarly well performed stunt. But, Let the Great World Spin is so well and gracefully performed that it never feels like a trick.

I have several books in a stack to read this summer, and they are the only thing that kept me from turning back to page one and starting this book over immediately.

A Raisin in the Sun

I had not read A Raisin in the Sun since I was in grade 10. All I remembered about it was thinking the characters seemed very real to me at the time. I also remembered one of the characters had a large sum of money stolen by a business partner.

It’s hard to believe this play was first released in 1958. It still seems fresh and relevant and so humanly true. Hansberry manages to present ordinary working people in their raw beauty, while at the same time seamlessly bringing into the story important issues of race and politics and culture. There is a reason that some works get called timeless classics. Every scene is so full of life and human drama. I worried that on this reading I would notice that it was somehow hokey or preachy or out of date. No way! This book is sizzling with real life. Work this good never gets old.

Love and Information

UK playwright Caryl Churchill is a genius. I only say this to let myself off the hook of explaining in detail what this mind-blowing play does. It blows my mind. That’s the main point.

There are no characters in this play. No named characters, at least. There is no setting. The play is a series of dozens of mini-scenes, each one titled, each one unadorned by explanation and unaccompanied by dialogue tags. The scenes are tied, very, very loosely together by the dual themes named in the title. And in general, I’d say that the play is meant to mirror and perhaps satirize the frenetic pace of the contemporary world.

I worried that the lack of characters and contextualizing descriptions would make reading this play dull, cumbersome, or confusing. I could not have been more wrong. As a book, Love and Information is exhilarating. Churchill is so brilliant that the sense of the pared down dialogue is almost always immediately apparent. And as I read, multiple ways of visualizing the scene I was reading buzzed through my mind.

Plays were meant to be performed, and I’d jump at the chance to see a production of Love and Information. But this is a play that stands up well on the page.

Doubt

I am not predisposed to read plays. There is a special skill one must develop, an extra muscle of the imagination. I generally find it onerous to keep a play I’m merely reading alive in my mind, when the playwright leaves implication, subtly, and physical detail to choices made by actors and directors.

Reading Doubt was not one bit onerous. John Patrick Shanley’s tense, ambiguous study of a struggle between a nun and a priest, set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, is a brilliantly-controlled, subtly-written drama that challenges audience and reader to struggle along with the characters in a situation where the stakes are high.

Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn has sexually abused a male student at the school. She is strict to a ridiculous degree, almost intolerably harsh with everyone around her, and possibly right in her suspicions. Father Flynn is compassionate and liberal-minded. His ideas about how to run a school and how to treat students are much more likely to align with those of a 21st Century audience. But he may be guilty of one of the most serious of crimes.

Reading this play forced me on several occasions to question my own biases and notice how they, and not necessarily facts or evidence, incline me to believe some things and disbelieve others. I strongly recommend reading this book, and watching the movie version starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

The Slap

The cover of this book, and pretty well all of the promotional material: blurbs, media snippets, bits from reviews, promise a book that does not get delivered.

What I thought I would be reading when I picked this book up, was an examination of contemporary and changing mores. Someone at a family barbeque slaps someone else’s unruly child. What ensues?

As soon as I started reading, I noticed that the chapters were divided in a very unusual way. Every chapter was named after the character whose point of view it represented, but there were no recurring names. Multiple points of view are a pretty standard mode of operation for fiction writers these days. But there is usually a limited number of narrators, and the point of view is recursive, that is, you get revolving points of view, exiting and returning to two or three or maybe five angles from which to view the story. The Slap consists of eight chapters, each named for the character whose third person limited point of view is presented in that chapter.

Considering the unlikeability of most of the characters, a point that becomes apparent almost immediately, I was looking forward to the experiment in point of view. I wanted to see how Tsiolkas would handle the revolving, non-recursive narrative and began imagining interesting overlaps and contradictions that just turned out to be too few as I kept reading.

Instead of focusing on the drama set in play by the slap of the title, the narrative wanders off course and then back on track. Then, most disappointingly of all, the drama of the slap gets resolved with more than a quarter of the book remaining, after which time the book becomes an out of focus rumination on Greek immigration to Australia.

Altogether a frustrating read.

The Fall

I have two thoughts about this intense thriller set in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Thought one:  The Fall is a very good series. The acting is top notch. Gillian Anderson as the lead detective and Jamie Dornan as the killer she seeks are riveting on screen. The writing is solid, especially as it shows a psychopathic killer who has a complex, eerily positive side and a part of his life (professional and family) that seems mostly functional.

Thought two: I’m tired of serial killers. This is the most tired cliché in television and movies. Also, there is an element of pornographic voyeurism in our cultural fascination with serial killers that remains unexamined by the industry that exploits this trope. And I find it disturbing how often we are presented with the beautiful and sexy naked corpse of the killer’s female victim. There is a creepy acceptance and indulgence of misogyny in the serial killer story that I find disturbing. Plus, serial killer stories are starting to just seem lazy to me. It’s become the cheapest way of garnering audience attention.

Fargo

Fargo is the single greatest movie. Ever.

I try not to watch it too often, as I don’t ever want to be tired of it. But I recently watched it with my 19 year old son, who had never seen it. Considering how many times I’ve already viewed it (including reading the written script several times), there were so many great moments I’d forgotten, so many treats.

The last time I’d watched it prior to this was three years ago, as my father was dying. There is an anxiety that accompanies the end of life, a restlessness, and watching the occasional movie helped ease that for my father. He’d never seen Fargo before, and, halfway through the movie (I can’t remember in response to what) he exclaimed: “Is this movie a comedy or not!”

"That’s the whole point," I said.

Greatest movie ever.

Bark

Lorrie Moore is a startlingly original stylist whose descriptions and observations can be mind-stopping and hilarious. Before picking up her lastest collection, Bark, I had not read any of her work since the brilliant and much-anthologized story “How to Become a Writer” came to my attention in the late 80s. So as I read the opening stories in this collection, I was so excited by the fresh, saucy tone that I was already scanning my ebook vendor for further works by Moore. I was sure I was at the beginning of a serial binge-read of her work.

But not so fast. Her use of language is bright, witty, and insightful. (witness: “Mike’s friends tended to be tense, intellectually earnest Protestants, who drove new, metallic-hued cars and who within five minutes of light conversation could be counted on at least twice to use the phrase ‘strictly within the framework of.’” or: “Although Kit and Rafe met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other.”) But as the book wears on, building credible characters and story lines that hold and reward a reader’s attention begin to play a secondary role. The cleverness of the language eventually becomes an end in and of itself, and I began to lose patience with the book.

By the time I got to the penultimate story “Subject to Search,” I had grown a bit frustrated with the cleverness, some of which got in the way of the story, and some of which no longer seemed clever. (“Tom arrived with his suitcase. Its John Kerry sticker did not even say ‘for president,’ so it seemed as if John Kerry might be the owner or designer of the bag.”) This is a description that lacks basic credibility. And so I found the rest of the story did as well. It just did not have a ring of truth to it.

"Debarking," "The Juniper Tree," "Paper Losses." These are great stories that are well worth reading. I’m glad I read the whole book, in fact. I’m just not rushing out to read up all of Moore. Not quite yet.

All My Puny Sorrows

I read this book a few weeks ago, and I’ve been putting off writing about it here because my feelings were so split. I thought that if I waited, my divided feelings might somehow find a way to reconcile. That has not happened. So I’m forced to weigh in on both sides.

I’m not sure if there is a distinction to be made between a book, a publishing category, and a novel, an artistic category. But I’m about to make one.

I admired the author’s fearless grappling with raw pain in this book. The narrator’s sister is severely mentally ill, has struggled with that illness for a long time, and eventually succumbs to it by committing suicide. And the unblinking, unflinching manner in which Toews portrays the particulars of mental illness is remarkable. This book is a gripping read, and supremely instructive if there are readers out there who still do not understand what mental illness is all about.

As a novel, however, as a work of literary art, All My Puny Sorrows suffers from an error in point of view. This is a highly autobiographical work. Toews’ father and sister died of suicide, apparently much in the manner that the narrator’s father and sister do. In a literary marketplace absolutely overrun with memoirs, this novel blurs the line between autobiographical novel and memoir in an unhelpful way. Readers demand more effort in building the details of a fictional world than they generally do in non-fiction. The sights, smells, and textures of fiction must be painstakingly established and upheld. There are ways of telling non-fiction stories where this is not the case. The reader knows, for example, that the true story took place in Toronto, so the author may choose to skip the careful establishment of sensory details in favour of moving the story forward with dialogue, or more panoramic, sensually detached portrayals of action.

In the end, All My Puny Sorrows succeeds as a book, but fails as a novel. It’s interesting and moving and enlightening to the reader. But I felt partially blindfolded as a novel reader. “What does this place look like?” I found myself asking over and over. “What are the sounds, the smells? Where is the world in which these actions take place?”

Cornfield Lovers

I’ve been listening to the new 4 song CD by Truro-bred, Halifax-based jangle-pop band On Film.

First of all, it’s hard to beat the singing voice of songwriter and front man Michael MacLellan. He’s got a great range, an expressive tone, and I always appreciate the clarity of his vocal delivery. You can hear the lyrics clearly. Plus. There’s no way around this. His voice is sweet and beautiful. Awkward to say, but nonetheless true. And he’s very adept at writing songs that challenge and complement his instrument.

The lyrics are playful and clever on these songs, the tempos are upbeat,and the recordings are simple but meticulous. Drummer and recordist Evan Matthews was not seduced by the technological temptation to layer sounds to death. Guitar sounds are crisp and clean, the bass is recorded so carefully that you can pick it out in the mix as an individually played instrument. When sounds or noises are used, they are used sparingly and at the service of the tunes.

This fun, party-friendly CD would be the perfect soundtrack for the drive to the beach this summer. Do yourself a favour and fork over the few dollars it’ll put you out to pick it up on Bandcamp. http://onfilm.bandcamp.com/album/cornfield-lovers

Top of the Lake

As much as I’ve enjoyed the longer-form TV narratives recently, I was relieved when, two or three episodes into this seven episode drama, I realized it was a mini-series. The seven episodes I just watched were it. It’s over now.

Not that I did not enjoy Top of the Lake. But I’m relieved that I’ve already made all the commitment to the show I’ll ever have to make.

What a lot of ground gets covered in seven fifty minute episodes! Elisabeth Moss, from Mad Men, plays a New Zealand detective, home on leave from her job in Sydney, Australia, who is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old girl.

After finishing the final episode, I Googled a review that called the story lines in Top of the Lake fairy-tale-like. And that’s true if you know what real fairy tales are. Not the prettied-up Disney versions of fairy tales. But the grim Grimm versions.

The thing I most appreciated about this series was director Jane Campion’s distinctly female point of view as director. I’ve heard there were grumblings on the internet about this series being anti-male somehow. But it’s far from that. When directors are mostly men, women characters get presented in an objectified, highly sexualized way. Put a woman in the director’s chair, you’re going to see a whole different view of both women and men. I value that difference.

This short series is uneven in places. It’s got a dollop of mythology at its centre, and that makes some of the characters more realistic than others. There are moments where character interactions don’t ring true. And there’s some clunky dialogue. But it’s a beautiful show to look at, it’s only seven episodes long, and there’s plenty to fascinate and hold your interest to the end of the last episode.

The Castaway

The only thing that led me to this very short ebook was the great and completely accidental discovery I had recently with Richard Russo’s Nate in Venice. But I’ll say about The Castaway what I used to say about vinyl records back in the days before CDs. When a record was seven or 8 dollars, I was willing to take chances. I bought records for no other reason than that I liked the cover art or the album name. But when CDs came in, records went to 25 dollars and stayed there for almost 20 years. That was the end of the chance taking.

I took a chance with The Castaway, and there were lots of things I liked about it. The setting, on a claustrophobic ocean-going workplace, was great. The weird, almost supernatural atmosphere held my attention. The way suspense and interest was built and held in the first half I liked as well.

In the end, this story is a disappointment. Without offering too much of a spoiler, I felt like the author just chose the Gilligan’s Island ending: nothing gets explained, everything goes back to where it was.

But I only paid a couple of bucks for this and just over two hours of my time. Pretty worth the risk.

Nebraska

I have been so seduced by the highly polished, ultra-fast-cutaway, non-linear narrative movies as of late (Black Swan, We Need to Talk About Kevin), that Nebraska comes as a refreshing reminder that there is a wholly different way of making a film.

Many of the characters in this movie are played by non-actors. And there are scenes where that is obvious. But it’s interesting how this sort of anti-aesthetic works. This is a film about real people facing real problems. The bumpiness of dialogue in some places only serves to sharpen the film’s devotion to its subject matter.

Bruce Dern’s performance as the main character trowels over all the cracks left by the other actors. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that given the same role in a higher-budget movie surrounded by Hollywood A-listers, Dern’s broken performance of a broken man trying to hold the last few pieces of himself together would not have nearly the same power.

This is a story about remnants. Woody Grant, played by Dern, is mentally impaired and living out the consequences of some poorly-made life decisions. And the entire film, from the harshly-lit black and white of its cinematography, through the setting in small mid-western towns who wear their decline as Woody wears his ill-fitting old man clothing, to the array of small town non-actors playing the roles of small town people, this movie portrays broken, used-up, and semi-formed people struggling with great dignity to hold onto what remains to them.

Nebraska is like none of the other films I’ve come to admire recently. It is quiet, unpretentious, and still shows chisel marks where it has been left unpolished. But it is greatly moving, a tribute to the power of character and the dignity in every life.

Nate in Venice

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I had never even heard of Richard Russo until this ebook single popped up in my Kobo recommendations.

Nate in Venice is an example of the way technology is changing not just the publishing industry, but literary art forms themselves.

Much longer than a typical short story, but nowhere near novel length, this little gem of a book is what ebook companies are calling ‘singles’. Perhaps the ebook single constitutes a new genre (sort of like the novella, but I would argue not exactly the same) New or no, this is a length of work that would have previously been hard to market and that seems to be finding a new niche.

With a nice price (I think I paid 2 bucks for this), and with a short reading time (2 hours for Nate in Venice), these works are being touted as perfect one-evening reads.

Nate in Venice is a tense, entertaining, and insightful little book, dealing with the main character’s late-life crisis and the ridiculous spiral of conflicts he cannot seem to expunge from his relationship with his brother.

Nate has obviously made a major mistake just prior to his trip to Venice with his brother, and the split narrative tells the story of his recent past cut with the funny but dark-tinged events in Europe. I found it riveting.

Russo is obviously a highly skilled writer and I”m looking forward to reading another of his books soon.

The Uknown Known

Errol Morris is the anti-Michael Moore. Whereas Moore’s approach to documentary making is loud and brash and invasive, sticking mics in the faces of unwilling subjects and heavy-handedly and manipulatively drawing conclusions for the audience, Morris just lets his subjects talk.

Occasionally, Morris’s squeaky, disbelieving voice can be heard asking questions from just beyond the range of his own mics, but for the most part, he steers clear of narration and focuses on the subject.

And Donald Rumsfeld is a hell of a subject. Until seeing this film I had no idea what a central role he played in not-quite-behind-the-scenes US politics and foreign policy over the course of decades.

Rumsfeld comes across here as weirdly intelligent, forthright, even affable. His concern for language (an issue related to the title) makes it clear that on some level he thinks deeply about things. But on other matters he seems troublingly empty. He does not try to justify the actions of administrations he played a role in, recounting in sometimes great detail (Morris apparently had access to tens of thousands of Rumsfeld’s memos) the processes he and his colleagues went through to make decisions that shaped world events. But he seems unable to draw any useful conclusions from any of it.

This is a film I’d definitely like to watch again.