Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Odds and Sods and Moving Ons

I apologise, loyal readers (a term I use to amuse myself more than anything else), I am in the midst of a relocation; the physical part is complete, and I have moved into my new apartment, but we don't have internet yet, and I don't want to talk about it.

Point is, it will probably be another week or so before I post again. I just wanted to keep you all informed. No one likes being left out of the loop.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Pillowman: A Proper Review

The Pillowman
(2003)
Written by Martin McDonagh

My last review of The Pillowman was effective enough in describing my praise, but I think it did a lousy job getting across my deeper appreciations, and I would to redress the work, if I may, and do it right this time.

The Pillowman, on the surface, is about the interrogation of Katurian, a writer suspected of killing several children. He is questioned by Tupolski and Ariel, two policemen working for a totalitarian regime. To reveal much more of the plot would be to do it a disservice, as always seems to be the case with McDonagh. His stories simply go somewhere new, and finding out where is half the joy of experiencing his work for the first time.

The Pillowman is also the story of Katurian's stories, several of which are meted out to the audience. The occasions where Katurian addresses the audience directly, narrating as one of his stories is acted out behind him, are hypnotizing. The stories are simple, but the language with which McDonagh conveys them is magical; there isn't a better word than hypnotizing, I don't think, to adequately convey their quality. All of them sound somehow vaguely familiar, yet manage to stay engaging and even exhilirating.

The conclusion of the play, once it happens, seems inevitable; Of course, you'll say to yourself, there wasn't really any other choice. It had to happen this way. But that makes the getting there all the more entrancing, knowing that the ending is coming, is charging, straight for you, and there's no way to get out of its path.

Grade: A+

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Travelogue

Over the past week, I've traveled extensively by train and less extensively by ferry; the moment a ferry ride becomes extensive is also, by coincidence, the moment you are traveling by boat. I passed most of the time on the rails in conversation, but I did manage to read The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett. It's the first of his Discworld series of books, published back in 1983, and it is very funny, in that dry, Pratchetty sort of way. Some of you may recall how much I enjoyed Good Omens, the book he cowrote with Neil Gaiman. The Colour of Magic is not half as great as Good Omens, but it seems alright with that. It was, after all, his first book, and authors seem to be the one creative force you can always rely on to improve with age. I have the next book in that series, The Light Fantastic, on my shelf, and I look forward to reading it.

Grade: B

Despite the interference of winds, or, perhaps, to spite the interference of winds, I spent the ferry ride from New Jersey to Delaware engrossed in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, a startling piece of work which has solidified McDonagh a place amongst my favourite writers. I need to read this play again (and probably again) to really get a grip on it, but the manner in which McDonagh allows his characters to drive the plot and the humour is utterly remarkable. I'm basing this not just on The Pillowman, but also on In Bruges, a movie which felt not like it had plot points to get to, but characters to enjoy. McDonagh's sense of humour is a dark one, but it always works because it is character-based. He takes chances with his writing, but you never feel as though he's lost his way. McDonagh's work proves that following the nature of your characters should be the golden rule of writing. I cannot recommend this play enough.

Grade: I am disinclined to post a grade until I have reread the play


For those who would like to know, I am now reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's a bit longer, so I wouldn't expect a review for a while. The prose is astonishing, and based on what I've read, I'd encourage you to pick it up.

I will conclude by taking a moment to honour the wishes of my host, Dena; I'd like to note at this time that I am writing this entry in Delaware.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(2009)
Adapted by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates

There is a point where you have to decide if you're going to review a movie of a book as a fan of the book, or as a fan of movies. It is unfair, I think, to approach a film adaptation from the perspective of an ardent bibliophile. They are two very different mediums, and what works in one does not always work in the other. Because I feel the Potter films have been hindered by attempting to include too much from the books, while fans would argue they have not included enough, I look at this as a movie, not adapted from a source, but as its own creation.

There have been two constant sources of strength for the Harry Potter movies; the supporting cast, and the art direction. Filling out all the roles with great British character actors was a masterstroke that has kept the films nothing short of watchable, even in the weakest moments. As the students of Hogwarts have gained their sea legs, the adults have consistently delivered wondrous performances. That continues here, though Radcliffe and company are, fittingly, carrying greater loads. Fortunately, they are all very capable, if not exceedingly gifted, actors, and they do just fine.

The great triumph of this film is the art direction; the Potter films have never looked better. The memories Harry observes through the Pensieve look gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. More impressive is how the art direction has changed, throughout the series, to reflect the darker moods. Hogwarts looked warm and inviting in the first film; it now seems a frightening, isolated place, a masterpiece of gothic construction that finally suggest a mood befitting its period. The scene where Belatrix Lestrange evicerates the Great Hall is astonishing, and I can't recommend the film enough, if only as eye candy.

The only problem I had with this film, and has been a worsening problem as the source material has grown in length, is the pacing. The final twenty minutes were rushed; when the Death Eaters invade Hogwarts and kill Dumbledo- oh, I'm sorry, I thought you knew already. That scene is rushed, and, when the identity of the titular Price is revealed, it passes by as a, "Oh, that's right, I forgot we were curious about that..." It leaves the impression that they disclosed his identity only because to not do so would be a major screenwriting gaffe. The run up is great, the movie navigates the tricks well, and then it just misses the landing. All in all, not bad, but I'm still waiting for an unquestionably great film in this series. They do keep getting better, so I wouldn't be surprised.

Grade: B

Letters From the Wasteland

I'm on a vacation at the moment, doing a whirlwind tour of New Jersey and Delaware; suffice to say I'm not in it for the locations so much as the company.

In the midst of my first train ride, approximately 24 hours of locomotive transport, I managed to get almost no reading done, but I did notice that I am absolutely addicted to a few songs, and they're a pleasantly diverse trio.

First, I spent the train ride learning the words to "Sabotage" by Beastie Boys. Or, at least, I attempted to. I didn't get much past the first verse, but I have that one down pat. I've been listening to more of Beastie Boys in the last few weeks; I'd forgotten how uniformally excellent their music is, particularly from Paul's Boutique on. More intriguingly, I'd forgotten how relaxed most of it is, something that tends to escape your mind when you're most familiar with their singles.

Second, I continued my love affair with Pet Shop Boy's "Can You Forgive Her?," which is possibly the finest song dealing with supressed homosexuality ever written; the other contender for that prize is "The Night I Fell In Love," which is also by PSB, so, either way, they get the trophy. "Can You Forgive Her?" is epic electro-pop, with crashing arrangements and a great, catchy melody. I've been in love with it for two months now, and I show no signs of slowing down.

Third, finally, most crucially, my favourite song in the world right now is "Lisztomania" by French alt-poppers Phoenix. It's got a great melody, enervating guitar lines that come at you from every direction, brilliant train-of-thought lyrics that manage to capture... I don't know what it is, but it's somewhere between the struggle of the creative process and the comfort of a lonely heart. Brilliant, no question about it.

That's about all, for now. I had wonderful company on the first 20 hours of my trip, so I didn't get a lot of reading done, as there was conversation to be had, but I imagine I won't be so lucky the second time around, and will have a number of books to review. I'm about fifty pages from finishing The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett's first Discworld book. I also saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night, I'll review that later today.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On Gaiman

I don't think it's any secret that I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman in the past month. In the last three weeks, I've read Good Omens, Coraline, American Gods, and Absolute Sandman, Vol. 4. I just picked up a copy of Stardust, and all of his short story collections, Neverwhere, Smoke and Mirrors, and Fragile Things, are on my immediate short list. I cannot recommend him enough, and he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers we have at the moment.

It's not surprising that I like his work, really. In his books, he has an uncanny knack for prose. He knows how to build suspense, or create a mood, better than just about anyone; Coraline is a Young Adult novella, but I was genuinely creeped out on several occasions. In his more adult works, he draws from an incredible range of wide-reaching mythologies, finding ways for them all to interact and work as one, cohesive whole. It's all the more enjoyable for the fact that Gaiman doesn't wait for you; in American Gods, he mentions a squirrel which says "something sounding like 'Ratatoskr.'" A little research reveals that Ratatoskr is the name of the squirrel in Norse mythology who lives in the World Tree. There are "easter eggs" like this strewn throughout his work, and, while he's not the only author to make frequent allusions to relatively esoteric things, he has the distinction of making the stories enjoyable without any working knowledge of the mythologies he draws from. If you're already familiar with them, his writing is that much better, and reaches the point of admirable, but there's no "You Must Be This Informed To Read" bar.

What is surprising to me is that I haven't gotten to most of his stuff sooner. I've been reading The Sandman, between its trades and the Absolute collection (an over-sized series of gorgeous slip-case hardcovers from DC Comics, in which they collect and reissue their prestige titles), since my sophomore year. I found "Preludes and Nocturnes," a collection of the first eight issues of The Sandman, in the teen section of the Glastonbury Public Library, and I was immediately hooked. It's inconceivable to think that Gaiman had only written one miniseries prior to his work on The Sandman, as its opening arc is absolutely brilliant. It gets you acclimated to the universe by opening with a storyline that is essentially an action movie, and an amazing one at that. From there, the series rapidly grows darker, more cerebral; The Doll's House is a twisting, winding, psychological thriller of the finest quality. The Corinthian is Gaiman's crowning acheivement, a nightmare of his devising that feels so natural when next to mytholofical stalwarts such as The Furies and Fiddler's Green that you don't believe he made it up.

I've been working on completing The Sandman for six years, and reading the last pages was an event. I was astonished as I read The Kindly Ones and The Wake; The Kindly Ones was the last major arc for The Sandman, an epic spanning thirteen issues that took in the entirety of Gaiman's creation, referencing occurances throughout the series in such a way that I began to believe he'd had it planned all along, yet refused to believe it was possible to have such a clear vision of such grandeur from the start. It's breathtaking to read, to watch the pieces fall into place; the final issue, The Tempest, ends the series perfectly, in a manner only Gaiman would have been capable of. If you have the inclination, you should read The Sandman.

The only flaw in The Sandman is its inconsistent art, with artists changing constantly. But the story telling, on Gaiman's part, is a master class. He has a gift for scope, for making a number of loose threads, each in their own right mesmerizing enough, and then snapping them into one tapestry, and tapestry is the best word; in Gaiman's mind, there is always a bigger picture, and everything he does helps to add to it. He distracts us with individual strands, before suddenly pushing us back so we see what he's seen the whole time. Obviously, I am not the first person to sing Gaiman's praises; indeed, he is old news at this point. But, as I am just now starting to delve deeper into his catalogue, and I am continually awed and impressed with what I find, while still being entertained on a gutteral level, I would be remiss if I didn't try to send the rest of you his way.

Joe and I were discussing Gaiman a few weeks ago, after I finished reading American Gods. He commented that Gaiman seems to be losing potency as he gets older, that he's settling into becoming somewhat fatherly, writing childrens' books and not tackling projects with the same scope he used to. This may be true, and Joe has a point; Gods came out in 2001, and since then Gaiman has written Fragile Things, a collection of short stories, Anansi Boys, which is, from my understanding, a sweet, charming novel (It's on the To Read list), two pieces of Young Adult Fiction with Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and a number of childrens' books with various illustrators. So, he's not writing the epics he used to, but I can't really blame him. For one thing, he's writing some brilliant YA material, stuff I can't wait to give to my kid. For another, once you've written one of the best comic series ever published (possibly THE best comic series ever published) and one of the best fantasy novels ever published (probably the best fantasy novel that doesn't take place in a world drastically different from our own), well, where do you go? He mastered comics, and epic fantasy novels, and moved on. What's frightening is he seemed to master them both on the first go. I can't wait to see where he goes next.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

West Ryder Pamper Something Or Other

West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
(2009)
Kasabian

It is said that talent imitates, and genius steals. By that reckoning, Coldplay are smart, Art Brut are geniuses, and Kasabian are nothing short of fucking brilliant. This is only fitting, though; they are widely billed to be the heirs to Oasis, appointed by Noel himself, which is to say they come from a fine line of exceptional thieves. Now, of course, this is somewhat unfair, as there isn't a band worth their salt who've not stolen material, and that's such a grey term as it is, but a friend of mine put it best: "Kasabian sound like they listened to the same records as Oasis, then ran in a different direction."

Kasabian's last album, Empire, was the big break-through. I loved it at first, but it wore me down after a while, and sounded trite. The new one may or may not fair better, but I can say it seems somewhat improved. The boys don't sound as though they are trying to conquer the world, like they did last time. This is a more laid-back affair, and it suits them. They've always had a slight experimental edge to them, but it's always hard to pin down; you can tell they've done something unusual, but you'd be damned if you could say what it is. There's nothing earth-shattering to be found. Just competent lad-rock.

I must also applaud the greatest piece of pilfering they've managed yet, when the closing track, "Happiness," turns into "You Can't Always Get What You Want," choir and everything.

Grade: C+

From Dawn to Decadence: A Review

From Dawn to Decadence
(2000)
Written by Jacques Barzun

There are times where it can be difficult to attempt a review; times when you feel as the critic that you cannot do justice to that which you are attempting to summarize; times when a work seems beyond your judgment, as though your pithy criticisms and comments are beneath it.

There are two forces at work in creating these sensations, outside the body of the work itself. For one, in recent times the constant presence of criticism, an art in its own right which too often now plays the part of a hype machine, has led to a diffusion of its impact. When we are surrounded on all sides by individuals spouting their opinions as though they matter, and I do include myself in this tangle -we all have to start somewhere-, it can become numbing, and when someone tells you that a work has gone so far as to truly impact their life on some level, we nod it off as momentary over-enthusiasm. Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective, will have passed by most of you, undoubtedly assigned the mental tag of "Oh, yes, I heard good things," which is a shame; it is an album which has expanded for me the definition of music, and has shown that new things are possible even in this age of plenty.

This leads to the second force contributing pressure, the abundance of media. So wide-spread is the human urge to create, and so profitable has it proven, that the fields of literature, cinema, television, and music are positively flooded with material. It is frustrating to live in a time where there is so much of it, and yet we are often left feeling empty; when a work of truly great stature comes along, I am faced with resignation to the fact that it will be buried towards the bottom of everyone's To Do lists, be that To Read or To See or To Hear. There is an urge to try to listen to all of it, to see all of it, to read all of it, but that is impossible without sacrificing the deeper levels of understanding which the great works seem to only reveal with time; as Nabokov said, "There is no reading, only re-reading."

Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is the culmination of a lifetime spent pursuing the deeper levels of understanding. He started the book when he was in his early eighties, and published it at the age of ninety-three. When he began writing the manuscript, he was already a well-respected expert in Western Culture, having devoted his life to its study. He had reached an age when most would have already retired, an age when most couldn't have conceived of, let alone executed, a work of this magnitude. The end result of his life's work, it could be argued that Barzun was born explicitly for the purposes of writing this.

If that were the case, it would have been a life well spent. I cannot over-emphasize to what few readers I have the impact of this book. It is a lengthy read, at a very full 800 pages, but Barzun uses his space, and your time, wisely. The scope of this book is the last 500 years of Western Culture, from top to bottom, left to right, from music to government. Barzun has picked the perfect brush size to fill his canvas; we are neither overwhelmed with pointilist details, nor left with the ambiguity of a broad stroke. The author fosters a curiosity in the reader that is born out of something even more remarkable; an understanding. Reading this book does not leave you with the impression of having had a large number of facts stuffed into your head; you do not walk away feeling as though you just learned trivia. Barzun explains the way the culture evolved and changed, cross-polinated and self-destructed, with a thoroughness that leaves you understanding it yourself, and even forming your own opinions.

Obviously, as a one-man show, there is opinion present here, as well as a very dry, fleeting, but definitive sense of humour, but it would be a very dull trudge if that were not the case. Barzun has written the book in an eloquent yet conversational tone, so you do not feel that you are reading a textbook; indeed, everytime I began reading, I felt as though I were walking in on a very thorough college lecture. It is not, suffice it to say, a thrilling read, but it is as intellectually involving as anything. It took me, all told, around forty hours to read this book, but I walked away with an understanding of culture that made it well worth the effort.

So, then, it is a book well above my criticisms, as I have none to offer. Is it long? Yes, but I would never use the word "too." Barzun doesn't waste a moment. Is it thrilling? Not in the vulgar sense, but you will find that history can only be immediately thrilling when you are reading it from one point of view or another, not when you have a balanced perspective. It is no more thrilling than life itself, which I mean as a high, high compliment. Most of you will not put this on your To Read lists, as it is a daunting, uninvited fa├žade, and those who do will, by necessity, put it at the bottom.

Grade: A+

Monday, July 6, 2009

...more serious than they had bargained for.

About a week ago, I posted a list of albums and books I would be reviewing. I may have lied.

Well, no, I didn't lie so much as I was misinformed.

The point is, I listened to a few albums, and didn't find them worth reviewing. I couldn't tell you why, but Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, by Phoenix, Dark Days/Light Years by Super Furry Animals, and I Feel Cream by Peaches (Yes, I listen to Peaches from time to time) didn't stir in me any feelings which screamed for a review. They're all quite serviceable, though. Particularly Super Furry Animals. On the bright side, I'm now 3/4 into From Dawn to Decadence, which is daunting, but, as I keep saying, worth the effort. I'll definitely not get to reviewing that before I go on vacation next Monday, but the review should be a good one; that's not referencing the opinion of the book, but the quality of the review.

I've finished A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, just a few minutes ago, a book which I enjoyed fully. The book is a comedy, in a manner of speaking; Mark Twain was a subversive man, certainly, and his writing never draws out a laugh so much as a constant series of wry chuckles. Then again, that's how I like it.

The only hard time I had with the book, which I'm not giving a full review only for it's age (First published in 1889, Grade: A-), was in the language; Twain was writing in a time when English was different than it is now, for starters, and then add to that passages written in the tongue of the peoples of the 500's, when most of this tale is set. Within the first fifty pages, though, I had a fairly firm grasp of the happenings, and it was entertaining from start to finish. There are flaws, but they come only from the scope of what Twain pursued; this is the book where he seemingly attempted to do everything, and express every feeling he had related to the concept of a monarchy. At times, the book feels too blatant in its commentary, but you begin to accept it as a part of the narrator's voice... it just so happens that the narrator and Mark Twain have everything in common when it comes to opinions of government. It is a clever book, exceptionally conceived and written, and it's deservedly a classic. I will be reading more Twain in the near future.

I'm currently engaged in a marathon, wherein I'm going to try to read 1,000 books in the next 10 years. This will include a large variety of books, everything from Dr. Seuss to Tolstoy will be counted, though there will be limits. There will be many reviews and, I suspect, at least a few essays to come out of this. That's all for now, Future Leaders.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Dark Night of the Soul

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul
(2009)
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse

This project hasn't seen official release yet due to contractual issues. I don't find this entirely surprising; there are a lot of players here. Over the course of thirteen songs, we see guest spots by Wayne Coyne from Flaming Lips, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Jason Lytle from Grandaddy, Julian Casablancas from The Strokes, Black Francis, Iggy Pop, James Mercer from The Shins, Nina Persson from The Cardigans and A Camp, Suzanna Vega, Vic Chesnutt, and director David Lynch. It's a disparate set, but they make it work.

It is a moody record, with a very apt title; there aren't a lot of tones here, with all the songs going for quiet, glitchy introspection. The ambiances have been well worked over, no question, as is typical of Danger Mouse. I'm a bit worried about him, though; he's done some great work with Damon Albarn, but it seems without such a strong personality to fight against him, he too easily falls into this sixties-pastiche. Consider that this doesn't sound so different from Beck's last album, Modern Guilt, also produced by Mr. Mouse, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

The songwriting isn't exceptional, but it does make excellent use of all the guests. They weren't brought in purely for the novelty of having some friends in to make a record. That's probably this album's saving grace; it's not an objectionable occurance, it's worth listening to on a quiet night when you don't have much else to do, and it has fleeting moments of greatness, but it's less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Grade: C

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

American Gods

American Gods
(2001)
Written by Neil Gaiman

Beliefs travel with the believer. That is the central concept behind American Gods, an incredible book from Neil Gaiman, a man I've been reading a lot of lately. When the Vikings came to America, they brought with them their Gods. As more immigrants came, on slave ships or trade ships or whatever you may, they brought even more beliefs, more Gods, with them, until this was a country full of Gods. But, as time went on, they forgot about their Gods, stopped worshiping them, or making sacrifices in their names, until the Gods could do nothing but get on with life like the rest of us.

Or, at least, try.

Our story follows Shadow, an unusually large man, as he's being released from prison after serving three years. I don't want to give away much more than the back cover does, so I'll leave my summation at his meeting a mysterious man who has a job for him. Does Shadow accept? Well, of course he does, that's the whole idea. It wouldn't be much of a book, I don't think, if he didn't.

What I can say about this book, or, rather, what I will say about this book, is that, for the first 425 pages (the paperback edition I read is just shy of 600), it's a good read, and seems like a better-than-average fantasy book, but nothing great. Then it was brilliant. The last 175 pages had me enthralled so fully that I may have ignored a few customers at The Home Depot in an (sucessful) attempt to keep reading.

Much like Martin McDonagh's In Bruge, nothing here is without its place. Details shared early in the book, which pass by like so many inconsequential bits of miscellanea, end up being brilliantly intertwined into a truly epic tapestry. I like that this book plays around with Gods and the big stuff without ever feeling over-done. It never once feels forced, and the ending is as sweet and perfect as you'd want. There was a brief moment where I considered getting misty-eyed.

The ending is essential. There are many books in this broader Fantasy genre that are thrilling reads, but there are precious few which benefit from the real hallmarks of literary perfection; it would be better a second time through, I have no doubt. That is what makes American Gods a true standout.q

Grade: A+