The Things They Carried

The publisher of this incredible book calls it a collection of short stories. I originally read the title story over a decade ago and I’ve read it many times since, mostly in conjunction with classroom assignments to students.

Honestly, I never felt compelled to pick up the book the story came from, because I doubted any further story could add anything to what the story “The Things They Carried” does. It is simply one of the greatest short stories of all time. It’s full of ideas and humanity and is a tremendous example of tight, skillful, powerfully-unadorned prose style.

But, again, as I stated in the previous post, I picked up The Things They Carried at the Truro university women’s club annual book sale. Like the other 10 or so books I bought there this year, I got this one because I literally found it in my hand. “Oh, look! The whole book!” I thought.

The book is almost two decades old, and in all my bookstore ramblings over the years, I’ve never actually seen a physical copy of it. I realized that if I did not buy it then, when I had it in hand, and when it was so reasonably priced, I probably never would.

This is an extraordinary, genre-bending book. It’s more like a novel than a story collection, although each of the individual narratives has its own beginning, middle, and end, it’s not at all clear that any but the title story could stand alone. However, with overlapping narratives and a consistent cast of character/ soldiers (O’Brien is a Vietnam vet and this book is semi-autobiographical) The Things They Carried is a powerful, insightful, artistically accomplished work. O’Brien intersperses intensely detailed description of the gruesome physicality of war with the probing philosophical questioning of the narrator. One of the most remarkable achievements of the book is the level of personal honesty O’Brien has committed to. Again and again he indicts himself as readily as he accuses anyone else.

Two of the most remarkable moments in the book:

1. After the story of getting to and across the Canadian border, where he ultimately decides to turn around and go home to answer his draft notice, he concludes by calling himself a coward for going to war. He’s only done it as a way of bowing to social and family pressure. It’s a hard moment depicted with enormous insight.

2. The relentless but matter-of-fact way in which O’Brien probes the morality of his having killed a very specific enemy soldier, whose personal effects he is forced to go through as a means of military record keeping.

There is a lot of cliche in the depiction of any war. And our cultural idea of Vietnam is strewn with worn out ideas. I found nothing but freshness in The Things They Carried.

Necropolis

Necropolis is a book I would likely never have picked up had I not already found it in my own hand. This seemingly self-contradictory state of affairs took place in June at the annual book sale held by the University Women’s Club of Truro.

No physical or online bookseller has yet come up with an algorithm to match what Netflix can do with video recommendations. However, though I readily accept the high-tech assumptions about my taste that Netflix makes, I often find my favorite reads in no-tech circumstances: used book stores and charity sales, where the selection is a little out of date, the availability random to the point of bizarre, and the prices are low enough to make choosing to purchase painless.

Necropolis is a history of the city of London, England through the history of its graveyards. I don’t usually read history books (I often find my lack of background knowledge an obstacle.) I have no latent interest in the city of London, where I’ve never been. And my interest in graveyards extends no further than a mild curiosity and a strong dread.

However, in spite of all these seeming obstacles, I was spellbound and entertained by this incisively written account. What struck me most was the development of cultural practices around burial. The modern concept of a one-grave-per-person, permanently-marked resting place is a relatively new development. And religion, politics, and deadly epidemics combined and recombined over and over again over hundreds of years, resulting in a state of affairs in which Arnold describes the soil beneath contemporary London as more or less solidly packed with human bones.

Informative. Gripping. Enjoyable. I had a great time reading this book.

Bandits

This is the first Elmore Leonard novel I’ve ever read. I’ve tried other so-called genre writers of suspense or crime fiction before. I’ve especially tried the writers others say are surprisingly good ‘for genre writing.’ Ian Rankin: I could not sustain interest in his feigned attempts at characterization. George Pelecanos I like a lot.

And it’s true what people say about Leonard. His prose is as good as anyone’s. His sentences are tight as well-tuned drums. His dialogue is mind-blowingly good. I don’t even know how he manages to write with so much dialogue. I remember at one point while reading this novel I tried to take a mental note of where the dialogue ended and the description, narration, or exposition began: no good. It’s so seamless I always just got lost in the scene.

It’s also true that reading Leonard was a great lesson for me in what I value most in literary writing: the inner lives of the characters. There is none of that in Bandits. You get a little about the personal histories of the characters. You see the very surface level of their responses to what is happening to them. But there is just about zero depth here. It’s action. It’s all talk. And I’m not opposed to either. As a matter of fact, I love action and dialogue. But action for its own sake just bores me. There’s only so much I can take (and I guess I only discovered this while reading Bandits) of what is happening. I want to know why. I want to know the deeper story. I want to know what effect events have on the inner lives of people and I want to know where those inner lives intersect with their outer lives. Leonard does not care about that. This happens. And then this. And then this.

I don’t think this is necessarily a moral failing. But it is an artistic shortcoming. Leonard (solely on the evidence of this novel) is a master craftsman, but he does not appear interesting in being an artist.

Winnebago Man

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Documentary film-making is becoming a high art form. One of the things I’m enjoying about this new massive spate of things to watch and the relatively new means of watching them, is the way the significance of an individual film can have so little to do with its ostensible content.

I don’t care about most of the things you’re supposed to care about to be interested in this film. In fact, my indifference to them leads me to not even attempt to name them.

What I find fascinating about this movie is the slow way the director reveals the character of Jack Rebney, the Winnebago Man of the title. And the movie does not merely reveal Rebney to the director or to the audience. Director Ben Steinbauer, through his determination to film a reluctant subject, gives Rebney opportunities to make relatively important life choices, right on camera. And these choices, I believe, reveal Rebney to himself.

Rebney learns, in the course of this film, that he is not the misanthrope he thought he was. That’s kind of a big deal.

Oedipus the King

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When I told a colleague I was reading Oedipus the King, this man with three university degrees replied: “I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to read that.”

There is a completely mistaken assumption underlying this statement. That is assumption is that Greek Tragedy is some highly cerebral, elitist literary form. I’m sure that in the present, the number of people reading this stuff is small compared to the number, say, downloading movies from torrent sites. However, these plays were written at a time when there were few competing story-telling media.

If you Google Greek tragedy and read a few paragraphs about how these plays were staged, if you Wikipedia this play in particular and read a bit about how it works (it’s highly formalized and ritualistic), you can breeze through this riveting book in an afternoon (the version I read was only about 75 pages in length).

There is so much tension, clearly visible on the page from almost the very start, that it’s hard to imagine someone getting lost or bored. I ate this book up like candy.

Blood Wedding

As part of a project to read more plays this summer, I recently read Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding.

I read it cold, in the sense that I was completely ignorant of Lorca and his work when I picked up the play.

Blood Wedding strikes me as a powerful examination of the places where culture and ritual and human lives meet. It’s interesting to see, not futility, but inevitability, as a theme in this work. Individuals make a few paltry choices and these set in motion a heartless, devouring machinery of culture.

KUATO

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Go to kuatoband.com, listen to a few sample tracks from this great instrumental rock band, and then buy both of their EPs and their newly-released full-length.

Here is what I appreciate most about KUATO:

1. They never do what shitty instrumental rock bands do, which is devolve into a bunch of showy-offy and unlistenable shredding.

2. They take the time to arrange the tunes into varied and interesting soundscapes.

3. They record in a manner that rewards careful listening: guitar tones are great and separation of sounds in the mix allows for individual instruments to be picked out easily.

4. They have an identifiable sound, but every tune stands on its own.

I have all of the recordings available online, and I’ve been enjoying listening to them in the background as I do work around my house and I’ve enjoyed putting on the headphones and listening intently.

And quit your grumbling that there are no great instrumental rock bands to listen to!

Lullabies for Little Criminals

I’d like to know the story of the title of this book. Was the title the author’s choice? Was it a first choice or a second choice? Was it the idea of a publisher?

The reason I wonder about this is that Lullabies for Little Criminals is an almost perfect book. In fact, the only fault it possesses is the title. This book got a lot of acclaim when it came out several years ago, and all the public discussion I heard made me think I’d really like it. However, there was a niggling… something… about the title. The title suggested to me that the book, a searingly honest look at the life of a 13 year old street kid in Montreal, might have some ugly or sneering ironic tone that I might find offensive or off-putting.

There is not a wrong note in this entire book. Page after page, chapter after chapter, this has got to be one the the most clear-eyed accounts of a life at the far fringe, the ugly edge of Canadian society. And the point of view, which would have been so easily steered into falsehood, is perfectly evenly maintained.

This is an important and moving account of what it must feel like to be a kid whose life has been derailed because of dysfunctional adults. But the book never gets maudlin, never sensationalizes, never devolves into preachiness. The narrator rarely judges the insane events around her. She has been given few tools to assess adult behaviour on a moral level. Instead, she just gives an honest-seeming account of her life.

A book this good is a cultural achievement. O’Neil’s new novel is just being released. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Tim’s Vermeer

In this, the era of the documentary explosion, there is a whole niche genre that I’ve decided to call “Quirky Friend of the Film-maker.”

It’s a pretty self-explanatory genre, really. The name says it all. And Tim’s Vermeer, a portrait of a computer graphics entrepreneur with some wildly obsessive hobbies, fits pretty neatly into the category.

Tim Jenison likes the work of the painter Vermeer, reads some speculation about what techniques Vermeer might have used to achieve his extraordinary depiction of light, and sets out to see if he can figure a simple process Vermeer might have had access to.

What’s of greatest interest to me is not the quirky protagonist or his (frankly) nutty determination to spend months painstakingly trying to reproduce a Vermeer painting from scratch. What I like is that this movie acknowledges process. Artists may or may not be geniuses or innovators or intuitive and creative giants. But genius, creativity, and intuition are mere abstract concepts used after the fact to try to understand creative work. The work itself is the result of physical, craftsman-like processes, most of which, as they are going on, neither resemble nor feel like anything other than meticulous and draining work. Tim’s Vermeer gives a great sense of art as work.

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.