I felt like crying, I really did.
I tried retyping it from memory, but it was long and glorious and unrecoverable, and so instead I'll say this:
In every McEwan novel I've read, there comes a moment, maybe halfway through, maybe at the beginning, where everything just changes, and an unpredicable something occurs, and the rest of the novel deals with the fall-out from that one event, as the characters struggle through the consequences of whatever choices they made in that moment.
While reading THE INNOCENT, I was curled up into a tense little ball on my couch, just waiting for it, but having no idea what "it" might be. "It" came. Hoo doggie.
This makes me happy, because it's been a while since I was able to stroll home, hands in my pockets, wind in my hair, without hurrying the six blocks that I ordinarily walk, in the dark, to make my bus connection. With the sun still high enough in the sky to give me plenty of time, I skipped the buses altogether and just strolled all the way home. It was perfect.
And now I'm ready for the rest of winter.
Let's just get it out there, and have it done: THE MALTESE FALCON is 200+ pages of sheer over-the-top masculinity, and most of the characters who aren't white, male, and Sam Spade come off looking pretty bad. But Hammett's got some skill with the pen that makes this all somehow part of the plot, part of the era, and FALCON is the sort of book that makes me just relax and ride along, watching the show as tough guys swagger around in pleated pants and shoulder holsters, telling each other to "go for your heater," or calling the women things like "angel" and "sweetheart" and, my favorite, "sister".
And while these are fun aspects of the crime novel, the very, very best thing about anything Hammett writes is his remarkable ability to describe a character. Some of his character descriptions are so perfect that I've photocopied them, and I keep them tucked in my notebook for moments when all I can summon, by way of a physical description, are terrible phrases like "jet black hair" and "twinkling blue eyes." As an example of Hammett's prowess, I give you the first paragraph of the book:
Samuel Spade's jaw was long and boney, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his foreheard. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.The other thing I love about Hammett (and this is obviously a review written by an English major) is his dialogue. Short, sweet, and curiously," said she, "interrupted." I could go on forever, but I won't. I'll say, I don't dig the sort of mysteries that strive to keep you on the edge of your seat, at the expense of the writing, the character developement, and a creative plot, but I'll take a mystery this well-written anytime. The writing is wonderfully paced and delicious; the characters are not terribly likeable (with the possible exception of Effie Perine), but they are well-rounded, believable and, yes, flawlessly described; the plot is intricate, but not muddled. And no matter how much color Dashiell Hammett throws in, I still picture the whole thing in black-and-white.
All my favorites scenes were just as I remembered them, but this running commentary on the more upright citizens of St. Petersburg appeared upon rereading the book that I hadn't remembered reading as a kid--and I loved it. Of course I remembered the white-washing scene, but I'd never caught on to the narrator's aside on the nature of Work, just as I'd previously breezed through the hysterical church scene, without noticing the liberties the narrator takes in describing the minister's prayer and the congregation's reception of his sermon.
In college, I took a class on the history of satire, and when my professor (the previously-reviewed Michael Collins<) introduced Twain as one of the great American satirists, I nearly laughed out loud. Even though I'd read both TOM SAWYER and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a kid, and even though I'd picked up on the presentation of racism in Huck Finn (it's more subtle in TOM SAWYER, but it's still there), I couldn't see the satire in either one: I mean, the guy wrote kids' books, right?
And, actually, I was right on that count--Twain did write kids' books, but the books were every bit for adults, as well. When I reread Huck Finn this past summer, I was surprised that I'd even liked the book when I'd read it before, it was so serious, and so troubling, but the sense of adventure and the fascinating characters had held my attention well enough when I was a kid to bring me back to the book as an adult. I have to say that I do prefer Huck Finn over TOM SAWYER, and I always have, though that's no strike against THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER--Huck Finn is just an incredible book, and it's almost not fair to compare them. But I'm reviewing TOM SAWYER. Right.
As for Twain himself, I've not read anything else by him, save a few short stories, but I do have a huge volume of his collected articles and essays that I'm itching to break in. He's brilliant, as a satirist and as a writer--witty and snide, not the sort of guy I'd feel easy about making conversation with, but he's an absolute riot to read. THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, adult themes and all, is more fun than I thought possible in a book, really. I laughed out loud, quite a few times.
So, it's satire in disguise as mystery, which I'm all for, but I worry when I see three books by the same author attack essentially the same subject--especially when the author has already done it quite successfully in The Resurrectionists. It pains me to see this happen, because Collins is very good--his details create an almost overbearing atmosphere, and he's excellent at capturing gestures and quirky mannerisms. He tends toward melancholy characters and depressing stories, but he says a lot with a little bit of material. I just think it might be time to try a fresh angle.
I know Keepers was short-listed for the Booker Prize and all, but I liked The Resurrectionists best, and if you're ready for a dose of gloomy Midwestern mystery-satire, I'd recommend you start with that one.
For the first time. Ever. (Right?)
And, in the Superbowl, they'll be playing the Steelers, the only other team whose name I actually know. Why do I know the Steelers? Because my step-mom's from Pittsburgh, and she's been a dedicated Steelers fan since way back when--coats, beer mugs, Terrible Towels, you name it. We've got the paraphenalia somewhere.
I don't think it matters much that I can't tell a regular down from a touchdown. I'm excited.
Innocent? I know that some of the love and love-lost songs do sound this way, but I don't think I could call an era of two World Wars, a Depression and, oh, yeah, some bitter Civil Rights struggles "innocent," especially not when I take into consideration songs like Studs Terkel's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", or Billie Holiday's eerie, chokingly sad "Strange Fruit." Having sat down several times to listen to the lyrics of "Strange Fruit" (and it's the sort of song that blindsides you, that makes you sit down and listen to it), I can't help but hear that eeriness, that anger and sense of ugly injustice, in every one of Holiday's songs.
I cannot think of a less innocent song, not even taking Marilyn Manson and Britney and 50Cent into account.
But I suppose that's exactly what "innocent" means in this context--there's no screaming, no reference to cop-killing or suicide or pimpin' or drugs (though Billie Holiday worked as a prostitute when she was young, and eventually died of liver disease due to heavy drinking and drug addiction). Maybe Holiday is an exception, given her tulmutuous personal life, but I doubt it. I think many people are inclined, myself included, to view any time other than our own as somehow better--more pure, more innocent, less corrupt--but in doing so, we forget about the atomic bombs, the wars, the poverty and oppression of over half our country's citizens, based almost solely on the fact that we didn't live through it. All we have is the memories of parents and grandparents, and these old recordings that sing on about love, and say very little about war.
I wonder, when I'm grown old, what popular songs will be in rotation as oldies? Will my kids listen to Jessica Simpson and sigh and say, "Oh, what a simpler time"? I hope not. I very much hope not. But I suspect that this is not far off the mark--that the most popular songs will show up again and again, while the ones that say an embarrassing lot about our era's lack of innocence will be forgotten by all but those who lived through whatever it is that will define us. Probably, on the anniversary of September 11, years down the road, they'll get all misty-eyed and play that god-awful country song about the red, the white and the blue, instead of digging up something more appropriate.
But I'm getting off track. My point is, I don't think jazz from the '30s and '40s is any more or less innocent than our music today--happier, perhaps, more upbeat, but not any more innocent, because to say so is to pass judgement on something that, in many cases, we have never seen. For example: of the people who declared this music evidence of a more innocent time, not one of them was old enough to have seen that "more innocent time." Not one of them could have known.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
I cannot think of anything that might make me want a bacon cheeseburger less than a giant piece of smiling bacon.
Perhaps the only bone I could pick with WOLVES is that it leans toward the coincidental--as in, what's that? You need a clever means of escape? Behold! If you accidentally tap on the second stone above the bannister, you'll find yourself peering down a hidden passageway! That sort of thing. But, eh, it's a kid's book, and that's part of the fun. Something tells me that Lemony Snicket read this one, and very much enjoyed it.
The hymns, though, they're another story. Song with seven verses, and stacks of unusual lyrics! Singing "How Great Thou Art" broadens my vocabulary in a flash ("harken" and "fount" and so on), and the melodies are so fun to sing, and difficult. With all those runs and high D's, it's amazing to hear our little congregation belt out the chorus, harmonies and all, and it makes me appreciate what a slew of accomplished musicians we have at Breakwater.
But I'll tell you what: nothing livens up a drab old worship song like leaving my glasses at home. Given my nearsightedness, there's a certain element of adventure, a dash of the unexpected, in trying to read the words on the monitor while also keeping time with the music. You end up with "appreciate Your mighty wrath" instead of "mighty worth," and "He sent His son to lie for me" instead of "die for me."
Really keeps you on your toes, that does. On the one hand, it makes you think a bit more about the lyrics, and what they actually mean; on the other, it's just funny. Nothing like giggling in the middle of a nice, quiet, emotional chorus, as you meaningfully hum "your love makes me sin", instead of "your love makes me sing."
Now, I like the rain, I really do. It's pretty, and I love gray, overcast skies, but I've had about enough of the rain so like mist that it doesn't feel like the rain falls, but like the rain stands still, and you walk through it.
So, imagine how pleased I was this morning to notice the sun shining in through the blinds, all clear and frosty and winter-like, but there: the clouds broken, the pavement given a split second to dry if it likes (it doesn't), a light so fierce and invigorating that there's nothing for it but to take a long walk, no matter that the wind is icy, my fingers frozen, my nose running. Days like this always inspire me to break out into song, but I don't, and good thing, because the song that invariably comes to mind is "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood..."
Published in 1965, I think we can probably credit DUNE for the unfailing popularity of the name Jessica, and for all the cool(ish) space movies/books/TV shows to come after, because, even forty years later, the book still smacks of absolute originality. It is to the future what The Lord of the Rings is to the past.
I won't lie, though: DUNE is one of the most un-funny books I've ever read. Looking back, I can't think of a single joke, a single witty exchange between characters, a single moment where a character smiled because, hey! something mildly amusing just happened. Also, it's chock full of politics and scenes of subtle devilry, where various Barons, Counts and Dukes sit around conference tables in suspensor chairs and try to out-betray each other. These scenes are usually paced a bit like this:
Jessica watched the play of emotion on his face. He masks himself well, she thought, but she had him registered now and read that he regretted his words.You get the idea. Herbert makes sure we know exactly what each character is thinking: who's faking, and who's not, who's a big fat liar-pants, and so on. Sometimes, in the scenes of devious politics, this can be boring as all get out, but Herbert more than makes up for it when stuff actually starts happening. His planet of Arrakis is a strange, deadly and beautiful place, inhabited by the strange, deadly and beautiful Fremen--who won't be oppressed by any silly Baron--and by the terrifying and mysterious Worms. Paul, our hero, is a complicated young lad with a big time calling that gets simultaneously clearer and darker as the book progresses.
"Is there enough water?" the Duke demanded.
"There...may be," Kynes said.
He's faking uncertainty! Jessica thought.
With his deeper truthsense, Paul caught the underlying motive, had to use every ounce of his training to mask his excitement. There is enough water! But Kynes doesn't wish it to be known.
DUNE is a strange and beautiful book (but not so deadly), and I recommend it to people who crave well-thought-out and articulated fantasy lands, who dream of spaceships and futuristic royalty and societies at once brutal and beautifully simple; who think laser-guns overrated and would rather see a good swordfight anytime; who don't feel like laughing for a few weeks, but do feel like getting very, very deep inside the brains of their favorite characters. Or who would like to meet the sort of people who have read, and obsessed over, DUNE. This one's for you.
I say "brutal" because Karr's childhood is exactly that, and the way she tells of growing up in Leechfield, Texas, with a famiy as dysfunctional as they come, is brutally honest and quite discerning--not "disturbing", but "discerning", because she knew what to put in, and what to leave out. Her telling isn't steeped in bitterness--instead, she uses the best edge of humor to separate herself from the story's events, but also to retain a certain child-like sense of awe and unflinching love.
THE LIAR'S CLUB is sort of the polar opposite of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood: though there are some similarities (the peppery smell of gumbo cooking is enough to make my eyes water, and the sticky heat of the bayou makes the sweat bead up on my upper lip, no matter that I've never seen a swamp, nor spent a night tossing in that oppressive damp), there is not a Southern belle to be seen in Karr's memoir. I give her two thumbs up.
In other news, I finally (finally! Ha ha! Victory is mine) got my replacement iPod. In what I hope is the last chapter of a lengthy saga, I'm stepping back up from my 6 GB mini to a full-blown 20 GB (3rd generation) studmuffin of an iPod. At last. At last.
I'm glad that I went into the theater expecting King Kong to be absolutely over-the-top. Knowing that the movie is a full three hours long, with an hour each dedicated to build-up, Skull Island, and New York, was also helpful, because, with that knowledge, I was able to sit back and enjoy the spectacular ride that is King Kong unhindered by bad moods, headaches or my short attention span--and hallelujah for that.
The film itself is gorgeous, start to finish. The rhinestones, flashing lights and evening gowns of 1920s New York contrast marvellously with the slick vines, scary natives and giant beasts of Skull Island; the camera pays attention--almost lovingly--to every detail of the scenery, and to the slightest expression on each actor's face. Watching King Kong is like experiencing a movie as it should be, with intense time spent inside every scene, so that close-ups become profound and meaningful, and the smallest rise of an eyebrow or twitch of a smile carries great weight inside the story--as does the presence of, say, dinosaurs, and great slithering monsters.
Naomi Watts is fantastic as Ann Darrow: she's funny, sad, and gloriously convincing as she falls in love with a giant gorilla--and, oh, that scream. I'm remarkably grateful for her throaty, slightly hoarse scream (as compared to some of the more shrill, grating possibilities), given its frequent appearances over the full three hours of the movie. Obviously, this is a good old-fashioned damsel-in-distress flick, so if you go in for political-correctness, you won't find me arguing one way or the other on this one--it was fun. I enjoyed it, whatever sex/race/animal rights issues one might feel like raising. I will note that nearly all the men (with the exception of Jack Black's character--the scoundrel) were absolute gentlemen, and even the ones who looked least likely to trek off into the wilderness after a lone lost actress hitched up their suspenders, spat out their tobaccy and went--with a smile.
The relentless back-to-back action sequences carry on far longer than seems reasonable, but they are, nonetheless, quite a sight to see. They are filmed almost teasingly, so that every time the viewer anticipates a rest, the scenario gets steadily worse (note: if you're possessed of a small bladder, short attention span and, ah, sensitive stomach, you might consider taking your bathroom break about when the giant worms start oozing their way out of the swamp).
I heard a rumor that the original King Kong is what inspired Peter Jackson to become a director in the first place, and, after seeing the new version, I believe it. Peter Jackson's love of film is apparent in this movie--he takes the time to do everything right, and he is not limited by time or by somebody else's story (unlike The Lord of the Rings, where even eight hours couldn't cover the material of one book). That is perhaps what struck me most about King Kong: the obvious passion involved in its making, the tender way the story and characters are treated, and the feeling of being very much inside Jackson's childhood dream. The film feels at once both classic and completely innovative, and that is very rare.
That's right, the full title of EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Guide to Puncuation. Zero Tolerance. I love it. And if you're wondering where the "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" part comes in, the back of the book makes it perfectly clear:
A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relative entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
Truss's approach to punctuation education is witty and grand: she attacks misplaced apostrophe's; sticks up for the under-appreciated colons and semi-colons; bemoans the loss of proper grammar and puncuation in this age of txt msgs and email, all the while remaining funny and chipper and optimistic that people can still grasp the concept of a rightly-placed comma. EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES is the most readable guide to puncuation I've encountered--though normally I don't so much read them as run to them when I have a question--and she includes small, fascinating histories of each mark alongside the rules of the individual mark's proper usage (fortified with amusing examples of punctuation at work).
Her battle cry of "Sticklers unite!" brings joy into my snobbish little heart. After reading EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, I feel both justified in my rejection of all-small-caps and emoticons, and slightly paranoid about my overly heavy use of --dashes-- and (parenthese). I pay entirely too much attention to each comma now, but I am also grateful for each comma, as they work tirelessly to keep my sloppy sentences in line. I highly recommend this "runaway #1 British bestseller" for everyone. A quick read, and very informative. Also full of funny British slang. I like British slang.RATING: 4
Some other excellent grammar/punctuation guides:
Strunk and White's classic, The Elements of Style,
and my personal favorites:
Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed, and
The Transitive Vampire: A Guide to Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed.
They're illustrated, and full of absolutely hysterical examples (though it was recently brought to my attention that The Well-Tempered Sentence says naught about the apostrophe. How odd).
I must say that chocolate gelato--just plain chocolate--is probably the most amazing dessert known to mankind. Seriously. So good.
When we reached the Market, we found that a storytelling was underway. Yes, a storytelling. We got our gelato and sat down at a table to listen, as a gray-haired, bespectacled man recounted what sounded like a Native American legend--there was smoke, and an old woman who turned into a raven, and a sun that went to the south because the people of the north did not honor him. It was all very good. I loved it. I'd not heard a story told aloud since I was maybe ten--not like this, with the weighted pauses, and the repetition of certain details, the slow, clear enunciation. It was very beautiful.
Also, there was a younger man who stood up after the Raven story was finished, and he said that his name was Brian Flowers. "This story," he said, "is also about a man named Brian, but his name was Brian O'Bacharan," and so he began a story set in Ireland, about Brian O'Bacharan of Somewhere-I-Dare-Not-Spell, who was a basketweaver and who had an adventure while out collecting reeds in a haunted wood.
I was spellbound. I finished my gelato and sat listening, thinking occasionally that I should go home and tend to my kittens, but I couldn't leave without knowing what happened. The story grew bigger, and more bizarre--it spun into odd shapes, and events clung together just slightly as Brian O'Bacharan was called to play the fiddle, read funeral rites, perform unnecessary surgery on a very tall man.
Something about the words spoken out loud felt very ancient to me, like something I knew, but had forgotten. The stories themselves felt true and beautiful and alive. I liked them. I'd like to hear them told again.
I can at least claim that NaNoWriMo ate up my November--as well as a significant portion of my writerly brain, and nearly all of my annual word count alotment (allotment? Wow, NaNo ate up my spelling brain, too)--and then there were, um, Christmas-y family things happening in December, so I was left, essentially without those three, crucial, blogging ingredients: inspiration, motivation and time.
But enough excuses. Really. Now I'll say some funny things.
Like this: pumpkin. Pumpkin isn't so much a funny thing as it is a funny word, but I like it all the same. Pumpkin. And "bunny". That's a good one, too.
Speaking of bunnies, on New Year's Eve, Mitch and I bought our first pets as semi-competent adults, and right now they're running circles 'round my computer chair, wrestling each other with their little needle-sharp kitten claws and making cute, angry cooing noises. In case you missed the last entry (I think I might start purring), we got kittens. And they're precious. And funny. It's a non-stop cuteness channel at our house these days as Gunner and Sparrow run amok in our apartment, pouncing on play mice, each other, and our toes, fingers, legs, faces and backs.
Like I said, precious.
In other news, I saw Serenity finally, and That One Guy was right--I was so, so wrong to have waited this long. Serenity is amazing. Stop reading this right now and go see it. Unless you want to watch the series, Firefly, first (which I would recommend)--then you can go do that.
Also, for an amusing anecdote, I'll share this: last night, I hopped on the bus after work, and the driver was sitting in his seat, looking all cozy and reading while he waited at my stop (back story: I ride a bus that is significantly influenced by whether or not Western is in session. When it's not, I often have the bus all to myself, and, because he only stops once or so per route when there aren't any students, the driver generally waits at my stop for ten minutes before take off to get back on schedule).
I sat down, took my book out and settled in to read for a few minutes, when the driver stood up and did a quick sweep of the bus to check for trash. Noticing the cover of my book (A People's History of the Unites States, by Howard Zinn), he chuckled to himself, grabbed his book and held it up so I could see, then asked, "So? How you do like it?"
Because, ha! We were reading the same book! Only two people on the whole bus, and we were reading the same book! Seriously. Weird.