Saturday, December 31, 2011

Larsen, Reif—The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is the kind of light read even the most dedicated literature nerd can appreciate. Far from the loathsome ineptitude of many bestsellers, Larsen’s book is delightfully inventive and the plot is a satisfying mix of a traditional coming-of-age story and absurd happenstances.
The titular T.S. has a knack for, or rather an obsession with, mapping. At twelve years-old he has amassed an impressive repertoire of maps and diagrams that wins him the Smithsonian’s prestigious Baird Award. T.S. (which stands for Tecumseh Sparrow maps and diagrams everything he can get his hands onto, from shucking corn to mapping loneliness in Chicago.
                After winning the award without knowing he applied T.S. takes off to Washington D.C. from his rural Montana home to claim his prize from an unsuspecting Smithsonian (who have no idea the age of the winner). Unwilling to let his distant family know where he is going, T.S. rides the rails in true hobo fashion. At the same time he shelters guilt about the shooting death of his younger brother and deals with a strong sense of not belonging common to all preteens.  Sounds exhausting to me!
Young Master Spivet will seem familiar to readers of such novels as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Lemony Snicket’s young adult series A Series of Unfortunate Events. The trope of the odd, brilliant, and eccentric young person with a strange family life who gets sent on a strange journey is a popular one in current fiction. This does not necessarily detract from Larsen’s work, but it is worth mentioning.
                Larsen’s book is notable for its inventive use of illustration. T.S.’s diagrams and maps are placed along the sides of pages to aid in telling the story. Illustration, once a common part of all books, had faded out of everything but children’s literature. Larsen is wise to reincorporate it. In our increasingly visual world images are becoming integral to how humans communicate. It seems natural that fiction should start moving in a more visual direction.
                Entertaining and fresh, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a great novel looking for a light but not trite read around the fireplace or pool.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kafka, Franz - The Trial

The Trial is a book you either love or hate. Kafka himself would prefer you hate it. Before his death in 1924 Kafka begged his longtime friend Max Brod to burn all of his writings. This request was not honored, but it reflects how Kafka thought about his own writing. He was a depressed, angry man driven to write but hating his works. Thus The Trial was born, which is perhaps the strangest autobiography ever written.
The Trial is a book about a middle class banker who awakes on his 30th birthday to two very strange occurrences. First his breakfast does not arrive at its normal time. Then he finds himself interrogated and arrested by two agents for an unknown crime and is left at home to await his trial. One of the agents is named Franz. The unlucky protagonist is named K. It does not take much guesswork to figure out who Franz Kafka is talking about.

The Trial is an autobiography of the mind. Instead of exploring the outward events in his life (first day of school, first love, etc.) Kafka explores what makes him tick. Franz is tortured because of K.’s actions. K. finds himself surrounded by torn up papers and ink bottles representing failure. He also cannot hold real relationships. It is little wonder that Kafka came out of the same bourgeois Jewish world that Freud did, for Kafka also talks in symbols, sexuality, and subliminal thinking.

Reading The Trial is an intense experience. The reader shares in K.’s agony as he is pushed from place to place without ever figuring out why he is here or what his crime is. His trips to the courtroom are “stifling” and throw him into a desperate madness. K. is trapped in a game he cannot win, or even know the rules of. The book perfectly describes the sense of suffocation and confusion Kafka felt in his strict German surroundings. Few authors have put as much of their being into a book as Kafka has.

When I first read this book it was in a philosophy class. The course was about the theme of progress and how various thinkers have defined it. We read The Trial first as sort of counterpoint for everything else we read. In The Trial progress is not possible. The human being cannot change or overcome. All a man can do when forced to confront his life is panic and die, as Kafka puts it, “like a dog.” 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sharp, Jasper - Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema

Japanese sexuality has become a source of morbid fascination in America. Their pornography (with its images of violent S&M, animated women with huge breasts, hentai, lolitas, and “tentacle porn”) continue to repulse and confuse Western audience. Seen in the West as one part depravity and one part repression, British writer Jasper Sharp helps pull back the veil of confusion around Japanese sex by focusing on a uniquely Japanese phenomenon: the pink film.
 Pink films (pinku eiga) are low-budget softcore erotic films. They are roughly an hour long and usually play in double or triple bills at specialized movie theatres. Pink films have no direct counterpart in American film. They are somewhat akin to the “sexploitation” films that were popular in the 1960’s, but sexploitation films fell out of favor in the 1970’s as hardcore pornography became readily available. Pink films have remained in favor in Japan since the 1950’s, though the “Golden Age” of the 1980’s has passed. Whether this has to do with the fact that hardcore pornography is still illegal in Japan is unclear.
Sharp’s book is the very definition of comprehensive. He meticulously catalogs all major films, directors, and trends in pink films since the genre’s origins in the 1950’s. This is no small feat. Thousands of pinks films have been produced but only a few weren’t tossed away after their run in theatres and far fewer are available on DVD. Sharp does the best with what he has, spending a great deal of the book describing the plots of certain films and providing hundreds of film stills.
This meticulous recap is to a point necessary for Western readers as pink films are next to impossible to find in the US. Of the hundreds of titles mentioned I was only able to find four on Netflix. It occasionally becomes tiresome and repetitive, leaving this reader wanting a greater variety of structure. Very little is said about the lives of most actresses and actors in the film, which seems a great loss.

Though a great many of pink films are just loosely associated scenes of sexual happenstances, Sharp is quick to point out some are socially poignant. For example, Tetsuji Takechi’s “Black Snow” (1965) is a dark and angry critique of America’s continued military presence in Japan. The film  includes a famous scene where a young raped woman runs naked in the snow on the outskirts of an American airbase. Mitsuru Meike’s “The Glamorous Life of Sanchiko Hanai” (2004) is a fierce satire criticizing the Iraq War and the policies of George W. Bush. The film follows a clumsy call girl who comes in possession of Bush’s finger and uses it for a rather interesting purpose. According to Sharp, Time Out New York said the film explored “the previously untapped erotic potential of the writings of Noam Chomsky.” 
 As has been mentioned, the book is at sometimes highly entertaining and at others dreadfully dull. I’m sure that Japanese films buffs would find this film absolutely thrilling, but as someone with a limited knowledge of Asian cinema I found myself lost at times. Sharp assumes that his audience knows quite a bit about Japanese culture and cinema. He references events in Japanese history with little explanation. Sometimes his very detailed biographies of directors can be a little dull. However, when he is actually talking about films Sharp is quite amusing. Some films are funny and poke fun at Japan; others are repulsive to my sentiments. There is a strong theme of misogyny and rape throughout the films.

My favorite part of the book was the titles of the films. They almost always have a colon in them and are for the most part, completely ridiculous. Here is a list of my favorites:
White Rose Campus: And Then Everyone Gets Raped (1982)
Moistening Housewife: Pantyless Apron (2004)
Go Go Second Time Virgin (1969)
Molester Assault Bus: Put Through (1998)
Carnal Desire Ghost Story: Beautiful Flesh Numb Fuck (2004)
Modern-Day Sex Theory: Rape Me (1970)
Sensual Zone: Sorrowful Pimp (1972)
Gushing Prayer: A 15 year-old Prostitute (1971)
Assault Young Girl Diary: Female (1968)
Sex Document: Serial Rapists (1974)
College Girl Secret Floor Exercise (1980)

I would have liked to seen more cultural criticism and explanation from Sharp. Though this book may seem confusing and repetitive to general audiences, anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, pornography, or the history of film will find this book a must read. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sittenfield, Curtis: Prep

In her ruthless efforts to make a book that depicts how prep school “really” is, Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep forgets that in order for a novel to work things must happen.
            Assumedly, the book was supposed to be a coming-of-age novel wherein the fish-out-of-water protagonist Lee Fiora, learns to exceed the repressive bounds of prep school and get over her personal issues. However, this is not the case. Instead the book is horribly lopsided, Sittenfield spends three hundred pages having the protagonist shuffle around feeling awkward and passing judgment on everything she sees followed by a hundred pages of high school events where Lee learns nothing.
            It seems nothing can escape Lee’s annoyance and judgment.  Here is her description of a classmate named Clara, with whom she barely shares a conversation with the entire novel:
She was big…and she favored tapered, bleached jeans and long dumpy skirts. In her demeanor, there was something spacey and innocent, something slow and not discontented, and it was these qualities I found so irritating.” (226)
When Clara becomes very upset when her roommate is in the hospital after nearly dying Lee mocks her for this too: “Clara was bawling as openly and recklessly as an infant: her face was splotchy pink, and tears were streaming down her face…[it] was both grotesque and spellbinding” (212). All this occurs while Lee is wondering why it is so hard for her to make friends at school. Gee! I can’t imagine why the sullen, awkward, hypercritical girl isn’t everyone’s best friend!
The final 100 pages of the novel is mostly concerned with Lee’s relationship with Cross Sugarman (yes, Sittenfield really does love overly-romantic names) who almost holds her hand at the book’s beginning and who she stalks for the next three years.
Sittenfield is clearly drawing on two sources: The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Yet she fails to realize what makes either great. She employs the “passive narrator” techniques used in The Great Gatsby, but forgets that in Fitzgerald’s book other characters actually do things. On the other hand, Sittenfield adamantly pulls away from any character that has the slightest potential of being interesting. Lee’s first friend, the angry cynical Little Washington shows instant promise, being separated from her twin and one of the few students of color at the school. So, of course, she is almost instantly sent away. The same happens to Conchita, the eccentric half-Mexican daughter of an oil magnate whose bizarre appearance, as well as her enormous wealth, set her apart from other students. Instead of the two outcasts banding together Conchita is switched out for Martha, a boring girl whose notable trait is not getting upset.
Though both The Catcher in the Rye and Prep follow highly-introverted students, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield has highly complex thoughts, though they are not always well articulated. Sittenfield’s Lee spends an awful lot of time thinking by herself but her “big bang”thought at the end of the novel is that rich students and poor students are different. She never gets any further than this.
Adding irritation is Sittenfield’s constant use of flash forward. Any immediacy or suspense in the novel is constantly thwarted by flash forwards. Will an ill friend recover? Will Lee’s relationship work out? Will Lee pull up her math grade enough to graduate? All are answered as soon they are introduced.
All in all Sittenfield’s novel is a disappointment and the obnoxious nature of her protagonist reminds me of why I was so happy to get out of high school.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hughes, Ted: Birthday Letters

Anyone with the slightest interest in 20th century poetry, and many who have none, know about the turbulent relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Defined by both passionate love and bitter fights the relationship has been cultivated into a modern Greek tragedy. Whatever its actual contact, it absolutely fueled both of their creative fires, leading Plath to write Ariel, considered her best work and a defining moment in modern poetry. Ariel was published posthumously after Plath’s 1963 suicide. Since its release set the literary world on fire there has been an intense fascination with the Plath/Hughes relationship. Numerous articles, books, and even a 2003 film starring Gwenyth Paltrow have explored this theme. Many Plath enthusiasts directly blame her suicide on Hughes’s infidelities. Feminist writer Robin Morgan published a poem entitled Arraignment where she outright accused him of murder.
Despite the flurry of critical and popular interest Hughes remained stonily silent on the subject. It was not until the poet knew he was dying from cancer in 1998 that he finally published Birthday Letters, a collection of poems devoted to their relationship written from shortly after her suicide to the end of his life.
Even outside of Plath/Hughes fantasia the collection is a fantastic work. The most striking part of the work is Hughes’s exploration of memory. He deftly explores what happens to memory when it is so blackened by tragedy and accusation. He neither enshrines nor vilifies Plath, seeing her both as a passionate young poet and as a severely sick woman who never got over the death of her father. The poems occasionally are direct responses to poems in Ariel, showing his own point of view in the situations Plath drew upon. For example, his version of Rabbit Catcher recounts the same ill-fated trip to the sea as Plath’s, with Hughes desperately trying to assuage a temperamental and disappointed wife. Hughes weaves beautiful and heartbreaking images that haunt the reader, drawing them into his ghost world.
I would highly recommend this book. Its emotional poignancy and importance in the 20th century canon make it a must have. 

Loyd, Anthony: My War Gone By, I Miss It So

This book adds something missing from most war reporting books: a sense of the author’s place. There is no doubt that witnessing war and speaking to people directly involved affects a writer, but most writers attempt to cover this up by maintaining an authoritative and impartial voice. For all their best efforts, opinion often bleeds through. Loyd takes a completely different, refreshing approach by chronicling his motivations for going to Bosnia, his feelings on the proceedings, and detailing the people and places he met there. By doing so Loyd turns himself into part of the landscape of Bosnia instead of the hovering amorphous cloud other journalists pretend to be. It lends an immediacy and real pathos that cultivates horror and repulsion in the reader effectively. Loyd's compassion and storytelling are unmatched. Bosnia was a new kind of war, the first real post-colonial post-communist implosion that may become commonplace in the world; it only makes sense that a new kind of war journalism should follow.

Mann, Thomas: The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain is a dizzying book, drawing on sources as wide as WWI armarments, opera, and psychoanalysis to weave a Kafkaesque world of inaction, impotence, and absurdity. Mann is confronting the cultural failure that led to Europe’s collapse and WWI through the conduit of Hans Castorp, a young man who, feeling no particular need to start his bourgeois adulthood, spends a total of seven years at a sanatorium to cure his tuberculosis, which in all likelihood does not exist. He finds himself at the crossroads of European thought and social life with an inability to choose any path. He serves as the sounding board between two self-identifying intellectuals who are both unpleasant and ineffectual. He falls in love with a woman he can never have and who shares nothing in common with him. He seems unimpressed by the psychoanalysis lectures given to him. Nothing satisfies him and so he does nothing until the very end, and when he does choose the consequences are ironic and telling.

Nabokov, Vladmir: Pale Fire

Once again Vladmir Nabokov is able to deliver a dazzling and muddled world where the truth is hidden below an undeterminable number of lies.  Yet this book is by no means a repetition on a theme, the form of the book is entirely innovative. Told is the form of a posthumously-published poem in rhyming couplets by John Shade, a writer who is both an incredibly distinguished writer and English professor within the book’s universe. The poem is followed by an incredibly long line for line commentary by Charles Kinbote. Both are fascinating in their own way. Shade’s poetry reveals intense sensitivity to the world and a heart-breaking narrative that follows the poet’s life including this reflection losing friends to war:

For as we know from dreams it is so hard
To speak to our dear dead! They disregard
  Our apprehension, queaziness and shame -
The awful sense that they're not quite the same.
And our school chum killed in a distant war
Is not surprised to see us at his door.
And in a blend of jauntiness and gloom
Points at the puddles in his basement room

Kinbote is a completely different character. Confused and probably quite mad his absurd story about an invented country and deposed kings is muddled and at time terrifying as what is “real,” at least in terms of the book’s world, becomes less clear as Kinbote’s obsession with Shade becomes visible.
As an interesting side note, the book can be read both straight through and by following the commentary as the poem is read. Only Nabokov would be able to create two experiences with one book.