December 30, 2005

MOVIES: Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

We open with a static shot of an apartment building, over which the opening credits appear -- all of them, in type so small it can barely be read. The shot lasts, essentially unchanging, for at least four or five minutes; we hear a couple begin to speak. Eventually, we realize that we're watching a videotape.

The building on that tape is the home of Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), and it was left on their front step with no note or explanation attached. Georges and Anne continue to receive surveillance tapes, eventually accompanied with child-like drawings of a head gushing blood, and the tapes gradually reveal more intimate knowledge of their lives.

Georges begins to have nightmares about a childhood incident involving the son of Algerian farmhands who worked for his parents, and to wonder if the tapes are related to that incident. But how likely is that, when Georges hasn't seen Majid in forty years; would Majid -- now a man with a teenaged son of his own -- go to such extremes to take revenge for the childish behavior, cruel though it was, of a six-year-old boy?

Writer-director Haneke keeps the audience on edge throughout. The videotapes are indistinguishable from the rest of the film, so every establishing shot might be something other than it appears, and I found myself waiting at each new scene for the camera to move, which seemed to be the most reliable clue that we were in the movie's "real" world and not in another tape.

On one level, Caché is an allegory, with Georges' treatment of Majid meant to represent France's treatment of its African immigrants (and more broadly, the First World's treatment of the Third World), but it's also a psychological thriller of sorts. Georges and Anne, who were (we come to realize) never the best communicators to begin with, find themselves increasingly distanced by Georges' reluctance to share his childhood secrets with her; their son, Pierrot, has grievances of his own which add to the stress on the family.

The thrills are almost entirely mental and emotional, though there is one brief moment of shocking violence; suffice it to say that it's been a long time since I've heard a movie audience gasp in unison.

Who's sending the tapes? Well, we never really do get a firm answer to that question, though if you watch the last scene very closely, you'll see something that hints at a possible solution, albeit one which raises at least as many questions as it answers. Caché will stick with you, and you'll be thinking about its puzzles and issues for days.

December 29, 2005

MOVIES: Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2005)

Aviva is about ten when we meet her, shortly after the funeral of her cousin, Dawn (who was the lead character in Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse). Dawn has committed suicide, and Aviva and her mother are reassuring one another that Aviva will not turn out the same way. Dawn's parents didn't love her like we love you, says mom. Aviva replies that she could never kill herself; she wants to have lots and lots of babies, "so I'll always have someone to love."

Jump forward two or three years, and Aviva has -- in rapid succession -- gotten pregnant, been forced by her mother to have an abortion, and run away from home. She falls in with a creepy truck driver, then spends a few days with a family of Up-With-Jesus do-gooders, before returning home to the empty bland suburbia that is the setting for all of Solondz' films. And as the title suggests, we seem to have come full circle. As Aviva's cousin, Mark, tells her in what certainly feels like a Directorial Statement, "No one ever changes. They may think they do, but they don't."

So what are we to make of the fact that Aviva is played by eight different actors, ranging in age from 6 to early 40s -- several teenage girls, an obese African-American woman, an androgynous teenage boy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh? Damned if I know. To his credit, Solondz gets similar enough performances from his multiple Avivas that the transitions aren't as jarring as they might be; they all seem to be playing the same character, with the same flat, dazed, not-quite-there affect.

And there are also good performances from Ellen Barkin as Aviva's mother, who gets the movie's best speech, a viciously self-absorbed explanation of why Aviva has to have an abortion; and Debra Monk as Mama Sunshine, whose kindness and dedication to her houseful of disabled orphans is scary in its intensity.

Solondz is a polarizing director; he isn't prone to letting any of his characters be heroes or villains, and his view of the world can be relentlessly bleak for some. Palindromes doesn't give the audience anyone it can consistently root for, and it's not a movie for those who like tidy happy endings. But it's certainly never boring, and I found enough compelling moments to keep me watching, even if I'm not sure what all those moments add up to.

December 28, 2005

MOVIES: The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005)

It starts with the bun.

A very tight close-up, to be precise, of the back of Meredith Morton's head, and a bun so tightly wound that we're almost afraid to see how tightly drawn her face must be. As played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Meredith is very tightly drawn indeed, barking orders into her cell phone and "helping" her boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney) buy Christmas presents for his family ("No, the red one," she says as he picks a sweater; he shrugs and buys the red one.)

Meredith is perhaps even more tense than usual, as Everett is taking her home for Christmas to meet the rest of the Stones. We get to meet them first, and they are an intimidatingly warm, close-knit bunch -- parents Sybil and Kelly (Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson); perky rebel Amy (Rachel McAdams); big sister Susannah (Elisabeth Reaser), pregnant with her second; brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano), who's deaf, gay, and in an interracial relationship; and the closest thing the Stones have to a black sheep, stoner Ben (Luke Wilson).

Needless to say, Meredith doesn't fit in -- none of the Stone women has ever worn her hair in a bun -- and it seems painfully clear that this will be one of those cloying, uplifting holiday movies in which the uptight city girl is taught to be lovable and, quite literally, to let her hair down.

The pleasant surprise, though, is that while writer-director Thomas Bezucha doesn't avoid all of the obvious cliches, he avoids enough of them to produce a solidly entertaining movie with fine performances from one of the year's best ensemble casts. The actors playing the Stones get special recognition for having given thought to every single relationship in that familiy; we may never get a major scene featuring Thad and Susannah, for instance, but in their small interactions we can see a very precise dynamic, and we're always aware of the shorthand that family members use to communicate (and to exclude outsiders).

One of the movie's nicest surprises is that Meredith isn't the only one blamed for her disconnect with the Stones; close-knit families really can be intimidating and hard to break into, and Bezucha isn't afraid to show us the smugness that sometimes accompanies that kind of snugness.

Yes, I could have done without the extended slapstick sequence late in the movie, and there's a Tragic Subplot that feels a bit tacked-on, but these actors are so good -- Keaton, Nelson, and (much to my surprise) Parker are the standouts -- and there's such sincerity and warmth in the movie that the flaws and the occasional bit of predictability don't matter quite so much. (Had I been blogging five years ago, I'd have said almost exactly the same thing about Bezucha's first film, the charming gay romance Big Eden.) An unexpectedly sweet holiday delight.

December 27, 2005

MOVIES: Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)

Bree is about to have surgery that will complete her transformation from male -- she was born Stanley -- to female, when she learns that a fumbling sexual encounter in Stanley's youth resulted in a son. Toby is 17 now, and calls looking for Stanley, hoping that his father will bail him out of jail.

Bree's therapist refuses to authorize her surgery until she meets her son, so Bree goes to New York and gets Toby out of jail; he thinks she's a do-gooder missionary and has no idea that she's his father. (Oy, pronouns can get complicated in stories like this...) The two set out on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, Bree returning home for surgery, Toby planning to make a name for himself in porn.

The trip itself follows the standard road-trip-of-discovery formula. There are unhappy reunions with families (both Bree's and Toby's), potential romantic interests, hitchhikers with questionable motives, and so forth and so on.

But Felicity Huffman's performance as Bree is so remarkable that the movie is absolutely worth seeing, despite its frequent lapses into predictability. Start with Huffman's physical transformation; her shoulders and jaws are squarer, her hands larger and clumsier, her voice pushed to the bottom of her range. Then notice the careful attention to details -- makeup that's not applied quite right, fingernails that are just a bit too long and too square.

And finally, Huffman nails the emotional turmoil of someone who's still not sure who she is and how to be that person. Teaming her with a 17-year-old boy for most of the movie is a clever move; both characters are (to descend into academic jargon for a bit) still learning how to perform their own identities.

The rest of the movie really isn't up to the level of Huffman's work. Kevin Zegers is adequate, if not particularly memorable, as Toby; in his defense, the character's not very well written. It boggles the mind that he doesn't put the pieces together to figure out who Bree really is long before she finally tells him; Toby may not be a genuis, but he's not that stupid.

Graham Greene has a few nice scenes as one of the many strangers we meet along the way. Fionnula Flanagan, usually such a good actress, is a shrieking harpy as Bree's mother, and seems to think she's doing daytime soap opera.

But oh my, Felicity Huffman is magnificent here. It's an astonishing piece of work, and it should not be missed.

December 26, 2005

BOOKS: The Family Trade, Charles Stross (2004)

"Book One of The Merchant Princes."

That's what it says on the cover. More accurately, this is Book One-Half; the volume ends abruptly in mid-story, without even the slightest attempt to provide resolution of anything. It's an annoying trend in SF and fantasy publishing in recent years.

It's one thing if you're planning a multi-volume mega-series, like that interminable monstrosity Robert Jordan continues to crank out, but this is clearly half of a single novel that is being published in two volumes in order to get twice as much money from the reader. And it's not so thick a book -- about 300 pages -- that doubling it would create an impractically large volume.

Aside from my frustrations about packaging and commercialism, though, this is a most entertaining book that provides a few novel twists on one of the standard fantasy tropes. Once again, our hero is magically transported to an alternate Earth where society has not progressed quite so far as it has here -- roughly medieval, in this case -- and finds that knowledge from our world may be the key to survival.

Among the twists: Miriam Beckstein's jumps from our world to the other are controllable; she simply has to gaze into a locket to make the trip. In fact, "world-walking" is taken for granted in the other world. That's not to say that everyone can do it; it is a hereditary skill, found principally in the royal families.

That sets up our next interesting variation: OtherEarth (I'm going to call it that; I don't believe it's ever given a name) isn't entirely a medieval society; the ruling class lives, unknown to the mass of peasants, a very comfortable and relatively modern existence, funded by the family business. That business involves a lot of jumping between worlds, and it is essentially an import/export business.

There's a lot of political struggle among the ruling families of OtherEarth, and Miriam finds herself in the thick of it; seems that she's the long-lost daughter of a deceased countess, and her reappearance stands to upset the financial plans of several relatives who have been managing her family's financial and political affairs.

Stross has one more interesting change on the formula for us. Generally, the poor schmo who finds himself in another world is utterly ill-equipped to deal with it; he's often not that bright to begin with, and certainly doesn't have any specialized knowledge that would help him cope. Miriam, on the other hand, is a smart woman who deals with the situation intelligently, testing the parameters of her locket's ability; not only that, she's a financial journalist, and knowledge of financial and economic systems may be just what OtherEarth needs.

I look forward to reading part two, The Hidden Family, and Stross has dropped some interesting hints about what will happen there (I'm pretty sure there's at least one more alternate world to be visited). I'd still have been happier, though, if the thing had been published as one novel in the first place.

BOOKS: Ordinary People, Scott Turow (2005)

Every three years, like clockwork, along comes a new novel from Turow. This is his seventh, and it's quite a departure in many ways. It's not principally a legal drama (though some of the characters are lawyers, and there is a legal proceeding at the center of the story), and it's largely set during World War II.

We begin in the present, as Stewart Dubinsky goes through the effects of his father, David Dubin, who has just died. (Stewart has reclaimed the family name David had Anglicized.) Stewart knew that his father had served in the war, and had heard the family stories of how David had rescued his wife-to-be, Gilda, from a Polish prison camp. But he is quite surprised to discover a bundle of letters to David's earlier fiancee, and even more surprised to learn that David had spent time in prison after being court-martialed. Stewart's investigation leads him to the lawyer who had defended his father, and to the memoir of the events that David wrote while in prison; that memoir makes up the bulk of Turow's novel.

David had been a lawyer with the JAG Corps, and was assigned the task of investigating Robert Martin, an American agent who may have gone rogue; Martin claims to be receiving his orders directly from the OSS in London, and the OSS -- the precursor to the CIA -- is far too secretive an organization to simply confirm or deny this to David.

As ever, Turow is a superb storyteller, and he does a good job of keeping clear the many strands of this complicated tale. The battle scenes are appropriately terrifying, and the relationships among the many soldiers we meet are convincing (and appropriately shaded by WWII attitudes about race and sex). I'd prefer that Turow refrain from writing sex scenes; he doesn't do that well at all.

Fine and moving page-turner.

MOVIES: The Producers (Susan Stroman, 2005)

The plot hasn't lost any of its punch since Mel Brooks' original movie was released in 1968: A down-on-his-luck Broadway producer and his nebbishy accountant come up with a scheme to make a fortune by staging a show that's sure to flop; their choice, a light-hearted nostalgic musical romp called Springtime for Hitler, turns out to be a disastrously huge hit. Still, who would have expected that the stage adaptation would have become the most award-winning musical in Broadway history, or turned Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick into theatrical royalty?

And now, here's the movie version of the musical version of the movie, with Lane and Broderick re-creating their stage roles; key supporting players Roger Bart and Gary Beach are also on hand, as is director-choreographer Susan Stroman. They're joined for the movie by Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it's Stroman's first film, and she hasn't toned anything down from the stage version; it's hard to tell if this is a deliberate choice, or if she simply didn't realize how !!!LARGE!!! these theatrical-scaled performances would be on screen. Nathan Lane, in particular, is still playing to the back row of a Broadway theater, and I found myself flinching at his every gesture.

And, this being a movie, Lane and Broderick must contend with the ghosts of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in a way they didn't have to on stage; Lane's performance is just different enough to survive the comparison, but Broderick isn't so lucky. (Maybe there are simply more ways to play brash and desperate than there are to play timid and mousy.) Throughout the movie, I found myself thinking of Wilder's performance in the original, and the comparison was never to Broderick's advantage; the "I'm hysterical" scene is especially hard to watch.

But there is much that works here; Stroman's choreography is often very clever, and her dance scenes are better filmed than those in most recent musicals (though still choppier and less clear than in the classic Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s). The casting of supporting roles is impeccable; Ferrell's demented Nazi playwright and Thurman's Swedish bombshell secretary are hilarious. Best of all is Gary Beach as "the worst director in town," who finds himself thrown onstage unexpectedly and plays Hitler as though he were channeling Judy Garland.

And though their performances are far too big for the screen, Lane and Broderick are an undeniably effective team, getting every laugh there is to be gotten. Lane's "Betrayed," which includes a 4-minute summary of the first 90 minutes or so, is a magnificent tour de force; Broderick, though not gifted with the loveliest of voices, is nevertheless charming, and dances very well, especially in his duets with Thurman.

Very mixed feelings here; there are many fine moments, but Lane and Broderick are so over-the-top that the movie can feel like an assault. If you were thinking of going, you really should see it on a large screen, and I think you'll enjoy it; but if you weren't all that interested, I'm not going to argue very hard that you should make the effort.

December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas to everyone!

And, of slightly less cosmic importance, today is also the first birthday of this blog.

December 24, 2005

Meme of the week, popping up almost everywhere, most recently at David's:

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: librarian, waiter, paper boy, pea picker.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Oddly enough, as much as I love movies, I don't tend to be a re-watcher; there are too many movies I haven't even seen once yet. But let's see . . . Beauty and the Beast (the Disney musical; I cry every time Belle comes down the staircase in that yellow gown while Angela sings the title song); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (brilliant wordplay will always grab my attention); Moulin Rouge (all that spectacle, and the thrilling romance of "Come What May"); and we'll fill the fourth spot with a group of perfect shorts directed by Chuck Jones -- Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc.

Four places you’ve lived: Albany, VT; St. Louis, MO; Ann Arbor, MI; Los Angeles, CA. The only four places I've lived, actually.

Four TV shows you love to watch: Lost; The Daily Show; Project Runway; My Name Is Earl.

Four places you’ve been on vacation: Another toughie; I'm not a big traveler, and don't tend to go places unless there's a reason for the trip. I've been to New York, Miami, Denver, Dallas, and Montreal, for instance, with various choruses. About the only place I ever go just because I love being there is San Francisco.

Four websites you visit daily: Aside from those listed in the blogroll, there's Salon, Slate, the Los Angeles Public Library, and IMDB.

Four of your favorite foods: a thick ham steak; my mother's stuffed shells; pepperoni pizza; my mother's peanut butter fudge.

Four places you’d rather be: at the movies; in college; on Broadway; San Francisco.

December 20, 2005

BOOKS: Delete All Suspects, Donna Andrews (2005)

4th in the Turing Hopper series.

Tim Pincoski is a young private eye in suburban Washington, DC, whose new client wants him to investigate her grandson's business. Eddie is in the hospital, the victim of a hit-and-run driver, and Grandma thinks it has to do with his work.

Eddie's company -- a small, not terribly organized enterprise -- hosts web space and designs web pages for several small businesses, which means that Tim's friends Maude and Turing are going to be of great assistance. Maude works at Universal Library, a consulting firm that has designed several AIP programs -- that's Artificial Intelligence Personality -- that are experts in various areas; Turing is one of those AIPs, an intellectual jack-of-all-trades, and fully sentient (though only Tim and Maude know this).

The marvel of Andrews' series is that she continues to find ways to keep Turing involved in the action despite her obvious lack of mobility; amazing what a highspeed Internet connection and a few strategically placed webcams will do.

There is also an ongoing background story in the series, involving the theft (Turing would prefer the word "kidnapping") of T2, a copy of Turing's program, also sentient. The thief is apparently trying to rewrite T2's program to keep the smarts but lose the sentience; a mind like Turing's, after all, would be of great benefit to a criminal, were it not for that annoying conscience. Andrews stretches a bit hard at the end of this book to tie that background story into her main plot; it's time, I think, to devote a book to resolving the T2 story.

Lightweight stuff, but written with great charm and always entertaining.

December 18, 2005

Here's my contribution to the latest iTunes meme making its way through the blogosphere. It originated at Don Nunn's blog, and I discovered it at Robert Gable's aworks.

How many songs?
2,874 songs, 8.24 GB, 6.2 days total playing time. Not as large as some libraries I've seen, but I've been slow about loading my CD collection; I will eventually have to abandon my 20G iPod for a larger model.

Sorted by song title, the first and last songs:
'Til I Can Make It On My Own / Martina McBride; Zorba the Greek / Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

Sorted by artist, the first and last songs:
96 Tears / ? and the Mysterians; Mister Loveman / Yvonne Carroll

Sorted by album, the first and last songs:
Every Morning / Sugar Ray (from 14:59); Your Tender Loving Care / Buck Owens (from Your Tender Loving Care)

Top 10 most-played songs:
The Joy of Pickled Okra / Da Vinci's Notebook
That Lonesome Road / Chicago Voice Exchange
Words Enough to Tell You / The Mascots
Xanadu / Olivia Newton-John & ELO
Stay Awhile / The Clovers
Tracy / Cuff Links
Eye in the Sky / Jonatha Brooke
A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow / Mitch and Mickey
10 Rocks / Shelby Lynne
Dancing Queen / Frida & The Real Group

10 most recently played songs:
Music of Heaven / Jason Robert Brown
I Love You More Than Cheese / Adam Bryant
Till I Can't Take It Anymore / The Beautiful South
Baby Got Back / Jonathan Coulton
Hide and Seek / Imogen Heap
Caravan of Love / The Housemartins
Surfer Girl / Phranc
Wishful Thinking / The Ditty Bops
Over the Weekend / The Playboys
Trust In Me / Holly Cole Trio

Find “sex”; how many songs?
24, most of which are performed by The Essex; only Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" actually has "sex" in the title

Find “death”; how many songs?

Find “love”; how many songs?

Find “peace”; how many songs?

Find “rain”; how many songs?
46, but that includes a lot of"train" songs

Find “sun”; how many songs?

December 12, 2005

There's a new word creeping into the language, and its usage is a nasty bit of linguistic hypocrisy.

The word is "Christianist," and it's being used by Christians on the left (or what passes for the left within the narrow ideological band of organized Christianity) to describe certain Christians on the right.

The complaint of those who use the word "Christianist" is that the right wing of the religion is too rigid and exclusionary in its definition of who gets to be considered a Christian -- no gay people, no pro-choice people, etc -- and that this exclusionary tendency isn't a characteristic of genuine Christianity; they therefore don't deserve to be called Christians.

It is certainly true that at the extreme right wing of Christianity, there is a mighty big heap of hatred and exclusion going on. But in adopting the word "Christianist" to describe these folks, the left is doing precisely the same thing -- declaring that some of their co-religionists are too extreme in some fashion to be considered real Christians.

I'm not one to defend any sort of organized religion, and trying to distinguish one group of invisible-bully-in-the-sky cultists from another is rather like trying to distinguish chickpeas from garbanzos. But if the left really wants to make Christianity more inclusive, they're not going to do it by adopting the very exclusionary tactics they claim to loathe.

December 10, 2005

MOVIES: Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005)

The Johnny Cash story -- at least that part of it told here -- is very familiar stuff. Childhood trauma, early financial struggle, sudden rise to stardom, drug abuse and the resulting crash, salvation in the hands of a good woman -- it's every episode of Behind the Music you've ever seen. And with Ray still so recent in our memories, the story seems even more stale.

Walk the Line is still worth seeing, though, for the lead performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter. Witherspoon does her best work here, capturing both June's professional insecurity -- she believes herself to be unworthy of her famous performing family -- and her private strength, as she refuses to give in to her love for Cash until he's proven himself worthy of that love.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do all of their own singing, and while they don't really sound like Cash and Carter, they get the style and the attitude right. Phoenix's accomplishment in lowering his voice an octave or so, to match Cash's booming bass, is especially impressive.

There are nice supporting performances from Ginnifer Goodwin as Cash's first wife, Vivian (some of Vivian's children have complained about the way she's portrayed in the movie) and Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne as his parents.

Walk the Line is not as good a movie as Ray, but Phoenix's performance is better than Jamie Foxx's was, and Witherspoon's performance is magnificent.

MOVIES: Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005)

Let's be honest: Rent isn't a very good musical. The lyrics are trite and uninteresting, and the melodies sound like bad 80s pop songs. Had composer Jonathan Larson not died just as the show was about to open, Rent would have closed after a short off-Broadway run, and would have been received as a mildly promising first attempt. Larson's death, though, allowed the show's publicists to position him as the Tragically Lost Voice of a New Generation, and the show took on an emotional force that it hadn't really earned on artistic merit alone.

And so the show runs and runs, having become an essential part of the New York tourist experience simply by virtue of its own longevity. Now that the film musical is making a comeback, it was inevitable that someone would take a shot at filming Rent.

What wasn't inevitable -- or, I'm afraid, very wise -- was the choice to bring back as much of the riginal cast as possible. Six of the eight principal actors are veterans of the original 1996 Broadway production; their characters are supposed to be in their early-to-mid 20s; these six actors range from 30 to 37. They're too old for these parts, and it's distracting. (The two newcomers are younger, but that doesn't help in both cases. Rosario Dawson is 26, but her character tells us she's 19, and another character says she looks 16. Only Tracie Thoms, whose character is the most mature of the central group, isn't uncomfortably old for her role.)

The actors are certainly comfortable with the singing and acting demands of their roles, and there are a handful of effective moments -- the "Tango: Maureen" is wittily staged, and a gospel-tinged version of "I'll Cover You" is quite lovely -- but all the hard work can't make up for the weakness of the material. I suppose that die-hard Rent fans will be happy to have a film record of the show, but they're the only ones who will take much pleasure from the movie.

BOOKS: St. Albans Fire, Archer Mayor (2005)

Sixteenth in Mayor's series about Vermont policeman Joe Gunther.

Seventeen-year-old Bobby Cutts is killed in a barn fire that appears to be arson, one in a string of fires hitting family farms in northwestern Vermont. Gunther's investigation begins with local real estate speculation, and eventually points to the unlikely involvement of the Newark mob.

I think that Mayor is one of our most underrated crime writers; he deserves to be far better known than he is. He's sixteen volumes into this series, and the Gunther novels haven't gotten stale the way some long-running series have. (How long has it been, for instance, since either of the Kellermans wrote a decent book?)

The details of police work feel right, with interesting bits of knowledge -- did you know that potato chips are a commonly used fuel in arson fires? -- and the rural setting is an interesting departure from the urban norm for procedurals. Mayor's cast of regular supporting characters are appealing and distinctive; Willy Kunkle is one of the best such characters in the genre. (Admittedly, Willy only works in small doses; The Sniper's Wife, in which Willy took center stage, was one of the weakest entries in the series.)

As for the mystery in this particular volume, the clues are fairly planted, and the red herrings are appropriately distracting. Another solid book from an overlooked author.

December 08, 2005

BOOKS: Spook, Mary Roach (2005)

Roach's follow-up to Stiff (which I commented on here) is written just as well, and Roach is just as entertaining and witty, but the book doesn't work quite so well, principally because of its subject matter.

Stiff was about the varied uses science has made of human corpses over the years; Spook is about attempts to prove the existence of the human soul. Science is the wrong field for study of the soul, though; it's a matter for religion and faith, and attempts to study it using scientific techniques can't help but look foolish. Roach tries to take their work seriously, but her natural skepticism (quite justified in all cases here) shines through, and she never seems as interested in her topic this time around as she did in Stiff.

December 06, 2005

BOOKS: Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff (2005)

Marvelous collection of essays, loosely built around the theme of the foolish luxuries we Americans indulge in. Fashion Week in Paris, $15-a-pound salt, Puppetry of the Penis, and contrasting flights (on the Concorde and Hooters Air) are among Rakoff's topics.

Here's a sample, in which Rakoff finds himself overwhelmed by a seemingly endless series of runway shows:

My shirt front is transparent from the more than half a bottle of water with which I have doused myself and I am feeling incredibly shaky and I no longer have the capacity to articulate anything. I like pretty things, I suppose, and things that make me feel stuff, but if there were a gun at my head at this moment, I couldn't elaborate on that thought. Suddenly it all feels beyond my grasp. My aesthetic comprehension of the entire century -- why the Jasper Johns American-flag painting is so good; why it should trouble me that artists like Damien Hirst don't do the actual physical making of their art, while it doesn't bother me that Frank Gehry isn't laying his own titanium siding; why the directors of the French New Wave spawned generations of cineastes who consider Kiss Me Deadly a masterpiece while I just can't bear that movie -- it's all running through my fingers like sand. All my fancy education and artfully crafted cant can't help me now. I am feeling linear and literal and must not be mentally taxed with anything more difficult than the sledgehammer subtle symbolism of, say, a butterfly landing on a coffin. Where was I? Oh, that's right: I like pretty things. Tell me about the rabbits, George.

The best piece here is a long profile of Patrick Guerriero, head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican lobbying group. Rakoff is perplexed by the very idea of a gay Republican, comparing it to "the cow helpfully outlining its tastiest cuts on its side with chalk, while happily pouring the A-1 sauce over its own head."

Rakoff's humor is less flashy than that of David Sedaris, with whom he's often compared (40ish gay humorists, both well-known for their appearances on radio's This American Life), and for my money, Rakoff's the better writer; Sedaris may be funnier in short bursts, but I find his humor overly aggressive and wearying after a while. Rakoff's a bit more understated, and the humor never becomes overwhelming. He's a sharp, observant writer, and this is a solid, entertaining collection.

December 01, 2005

BOOKS: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders (2005)

Saunders' little fable is a study in tone, so let me quote the first few paragraphs to give you a sense of it:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

Whenever the Outer Hornerites looked at the hangdog Inner Hornerites crammed into the Short-Term Residency Zone, they felt a little sick, and also very patriotic. Inner Hornerites were pathetic and whiny and grasping, unlike them, the Outer Hornerites, who for many years had been demonstrating their tremendous generosity by allowing the Inner Hornerites to overflow into the Short-Term Residency Zone. Not that the Inner Hornerites appreciated it. No, they never wept with gratitude anymore, only stood very close together, glaring resentfully at the Outer Hornerites, who, having so much room, had no need to stand close together, and in fact could often be seen drinking coffee at the spacious Outer Horner Cafe with their legs thrown out in the aisles, causing the
Inner Hornerites to wonder: Jeez, couldn't those jerks spare us a couple hundred extra spare yards of that vast unlimited country?

For their part, the Outer Hornerites felt that, yes, okay, their country was big, but it wasn't infinitely big, which meant they might someday concievably run out of room. Besides, what if they gave more of their beloved country to Inner Horner and some other crummy little countries came around demanding more of Outer Horner? What would happen to the Outer Horner way of life, which was so comfortable and afforded them such super dignity and required so much space? Well, those Inner Hornerites could take a flying leap if they considered Outer Hornerites selfish, it was pretty nervy to call someone selfish while standing on land they were letting you use for free.

That's the setup, and Saunders quickly sets his plot in motion as Inner Horner suddenly shrinks, becoming so small that none of the Inner Hornerites can fit into it, and since the Short-Term Residency Zone is too small to hold all seven of them, an Inner Hornerite is forced to step outside the Zone into Outer Horner. This is not well received by the Outer Horner Border Guard and Militia, or by Phil, the guy who happens to be sitting at the cafe enjoying his coffee at the moment of the shirinkage.

Phil eventually takes control of the situation, and he is precisely the wrong man for the job. Jingoistic and chauvinistic at his best, Phil also has the unfortunate tendency to literally lose his brain when he gets excited, as it goes sliding off his head (Saunders' characters aren't exactly human).

There's a tricky balancing act happening here. There's just enough bite in those opening paragraphs to keep them from being too precious for words; as the story gets darker and darker, the balance shifts, and the whimsy becomes the counterbalance that keeps the story from getting too dark to bear (it is ultimately, after all, a story about attempted genocide).

Saunders wimps out a bit at the end; there's a literal deus ex machina to provide a happier ending than the preceding events should allow. But aside from the last few pages, this is a marvel of precisely controlled writing, evoking horror and chuckles in equal measure.