Archive for April, 2018

Bounty (or Long Time Gone)

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

I didn’t slide into the new year so much as crash-land on a series of boulders, some (most?) of which were self-created, as is my way. (When I will learn, friends? When?) At any rate, I’ve finally come around to a schedule open enough to write a catch-up blog entry. So here are my favorite books and movies from the previous few months:

BOOKS I LIKED A LOT

H is for Hawk: Caveat: I was forewarned that the sections on T.H. White featured bad things happening to animals (animal?), so I skimmed those while trying to take in the gist of what Macdonald has to say about him and what he’s meant to her. (I hope I did.) This book is so lusciously, broodingly evocative of a time, place, and mood. It feels historical, natural, British, and hawkish while being personal, too, tracing Macdonald’s psychology while she flees from the pain of her father’s sudden death into the agony and wild glee of raising a goshawk. I tend to prefer psychology to natural history, but Macdonald’s weaving of the two works magnificently to bring us into her grief-stricken (and sometimes ferocious) world. And oh, her vocabulary! Her poetry of description! She can capture the smell of the English cloud cover.

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You: Remember when I read We Learn Nothing and panted with anticipation over the forthcoming release of Kreider’s next book, about his romantic relationships? That book is no longer forthcoming: It’s out, and I inhaled it in a couple of sittings (lyings-down) while we were at Wilbur. Kreider is wickedly intelligent, riotously funny, and surprisingly insightful about why his romantic involvements do and don’t lead where he does and doesn’t want them to. And contrary to my earlier surmising, he manages to get plenty of politics in there, too. So much is quotable. Here’s one of my favorites:

“A couple of days ago I got dumped — first-world problem, I know. It’s not as if it’s a heart attack; it’s just a rejection of your whole self by the person who knew you best.”

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine: I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a book I couldn’t finish, but wow, this novel. It’s a scathing indictment of the emptiness and superficiality and privilege of popular culture’s body and dating obsession, written largely through narrated and recursive references to invented commercials and television shows. (Sounds perfect, right?) The problem for me is that its characters, in the thrall of those superficial obsessions, are gutted; they’re nearly empty of emotions or opinions or will, so I couldn’t stick with them. But I saw the genius.

BOOKS I LOVED

Autumn: This is one of those books which, like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (high on my list of literary masterpieces), manages to capture enormous themes in small or single acts, so that you feel as though you’re reading the world in a poem. If that makes it sound precious or boring, it’s a disservice; I whipped through the novel in a day or two over the holidays, stunned by Smith’s fantastic writing, pulled in by her thoughtful characters, and dismayed that I hadn’t heard of her earlier. (Thank you, mothers-in-law!) Not only does Smith evoke the stunned and foreboding feeling of a post-Brexit England in the simple daily actions of her protagonist; she also calls back across the generations to historical resonances and calls across the human experience to encompass universal themes like friendship, love, home, belonging, identity, and more. Incredible to know that there are three more coming in the series! Winter is already out and, of course, on my list.

The Answers: A Novel: One of my favorite books in recent memory. Similar in theme to both You Too (above) and Made for Love (below) but an inch closer to living in the recognizable current world. There’s rabbit-holing here, too, into the consciousness of a young woman who is also unformed, and partly misformed (definitely misinformed) by a home-schooled, off-grid, survivalist childhood with a fundamentalist father in the woods. But in this case, she’s not sitting in front of the television but participating in a couple of fascinating experiments in her pursuit of meaning and a self, and intersecting with those same pursuits in men who have more power, money, entitlement, and defensive internal architecture than she does. Lacey’s writing is impeccable and mesmerizing and surprising in all the best ways.

Made for Love: Is there such a thing as farcical literary near-future fiction? There is now! Although: I don’t want to brand this marvelous, rollicking, bizarro-genius novel with any labels, given how generous and hilarious and expansive it is. It’s the kind of book you didn’t know could exist until you read it, with a way of looking at the world that feels both searingly relevant and jauntily askew. I kept losing my lower jaw to the floor, wonderstruck that we were going where we were going — but Nutting’s writing is so assured that I just shrugged and joined the ride. I kept turning to John and saying, “I can’t — I don’t — There aren’t — You have to read this!”

MOVIES I LIKED A LOT

Isle of Dogs: Simultaneously everything that’s great about Wes Anderson (which: plenty) and everything that isn’t. The great: Gorgeously composed, fanatically art-directed shots jammed with visual wit; winningly quirky characters whose sincerity is stylishly tempered by a wash of ennui; and still, actual emotional stakes. The not-great: A world made up almost entirely of men/male animals, in which women serve either as assistants, love interests, or (usually) both*; and cultural appropriation that (despite apparent attempts at harm reduction) still feels unconscious — especially in the character of the American exchange student, who while being a girl with power (which in small part counters the previous point) is also a White Person Savior. Here’s some great writing about this Anderson problem; here’s more; and here’s a discussion by the good people at Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is what pointed me to same.

*Once in a while there is a mother, if Angelica Houston is available. (In this film, which is animated, she is credited as a Mute Dog.)

Brad’s Status: I’ve been a Mike White fan since Chuck & Buck, and I’ll always be grateful to School of Rock for having been instrumental in my hiring for a movie-reviewer gig at a national syndicate back in the day. But for my tastes, White truly came into his own with his brilliant HBO series Enlightenment, whose cancellation I experienced as a blow. (Laura Dern’s character, gripped between the potentially mutually undermining forces of moral rectitude and psychological instability, had just reached the top of her outrage arc, and it was anything but clear what would happen next.) When I heard White’s excruciating interview about his personal status anxiety on . . . what? Where did I hear that? Oh, the problem of incessant podcast-listening! Anyway it was somewhere, and I heard it and knew I would be first in line for Brad’s Status. Except it flew in and out of the theaters (WHY), so I missed it. And it’s so good! Uncomfortable to watch, yes; there was a moment when John and I got up from the couch to get snacks, and, before we returned, looked at each other in “Here-we-go-again” resignation. But it is such a precise and accurate portrait of a man caught in a toxic value system and batted about by its giant, destructive paws.

Call Me By Your Name: Gorgeous to watch, sublimely sensual, impeccably paced, joyously simple. I stumbled over one (admittedly very large) thing, and that was the character of Oliver. I couldn’t tell whether the problem was in the writing, the directing, or the acting — some of each? Although the writing can’t have set Armie Hammer up for success — but I found Oliver pompous and chilly and boring, almost a caricature of (American) intellectual pretension, and appealing only in his physical beauty, which is not enough to sustain the kind of love Elio feels. Or if it is (Elio is seventeen, an age not known for its discernment), the movie should know that, but it doesn’t; it tells us time and again that Oliver is universally lovable and universally beloved. I wish he were. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamet.

A MOVIE I LOVED

The Florida Project: Impeccable, gutting storytelling that’s not as painful to watch as I’d feared. (Any movie that puts children or animals in harm’s way is a squint-and-suffer experience for me.) There’s plenty of joy and wonder here, too, and love. Director and co-writer Sean Baker has so much compassion for his characters that even as we watch a young mother make disastrous choices, we root for her, and even as we know we’re spiraling toward irrevocable consequences, we wish mightily for a happy ending we know can’t possibly come. Vivid, memorable, and electrifying, with a final shot that made me gasp.