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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

Started 5/23, finished 5/28

I sometimes think I should change the name of this blog to "The Overly Sensitive New Parent's Guide to Books". Why should anyone but me care about how deeply the parenting issues from these book affect me at every level? Why would having a kid color the filter through which I view the world to this extreme degree? Have I lost my ability to approach these topics objectively, as an individual?

I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. How about this: would I have chosen the books I've chosen if I hadn't gone through this life change? Modern tales of suburban alienation, normalcy and regret, and me heading like a freight train to become both the best and the worst of all of these characters (well, except the killer in this book, I hope)? Again, I don't know, but I have a pretty good idea that I wouldn't.

So, The Lovely Bones is about a fourteen year old girl who gets murdered in the first ten pages. She spends the rest of the book watching her family from her heaven, trying to sort out all the pieces and move on while her family does the same. Hijinks are beautifully written.

It's about loss and pain and relationships and not tying off loose ends. It's about parenting and being a child and being childish. It's about a mirderer who doesn't stop, and about a victim who, in my opinion, makes a rather bad choice some years after her death. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The writing is superb: everything you would want in a tale of such tragedy. Shy points out that Sebold has the ability to draw hope and comfort from even the most horrible situations. I absolutely agree. I would want her to write the story of 9/11 or Darfur. Her characters are real, living and breathing and growing up, and I found myself with a tear approximately 6 times through the course of the book. Most of my tears were shed in relation to the boy Buckley, just 4 years old at the time of Susie's murder. It's made me wonder whether, when I have kids 13 and 14, I'll feel the same poignancy reading the sections dealing with them, or whether it's just because I have a boy who is far too young to understand something like this. I could hear the exchange between me and Alex as he asks for someone. I could see being tortured by knives and pinpricks every time I tried to distract him from his questions with the zoo or with video games. It would kill me, as though I were dismissing the grief from myself long before it was appropriate to do so. Alice Sebold understands familial relations, probably far better than I do in my fledgling state of parenthood.

Now, I'll give a spoiler warning even though I dislike it. I've been able to discuss things pretty well spoiler free this whole time, but I can't get to the thing that took me out without spoiling it a little.

* * * * * SPOILER WARNING * * * * *
Here's my problem with the book:
When Susie and Ruth exchange souls, Susie states that she's not going after her killer (even though he's just driven by and she saw him), she's going to go get laid instead. Now, not having walked eight years in her shoes I can't judge her too harshly for not particularly wanting revenge on her killer. I can see where she wouldn't want to face him, wouldn't want to risk Ruth's body going after him. I can also see where Sebold is trying to avoid writing a revenge fantasy, because that's what everyone else would do and it would become Jeffrey Deaver or something. I can also see where, had her killer been someone acting in a moment of passion or self-defense and there would be no reason to suspect he would kill again, she would want to get laid instead. I can understand being 14 and wanting to get laid. I really can.
But you don't even make a phone call? You've spent the whole damn novel running down lists of people this guy has killed. Around six women before and at least two after--women, even girls as young as six years old. Are you joking or something? You want to sentence an untold number of girls to death just because Ray is there and there is the warm sun and you know of an empty bike shop nearby? Holy shit! I don't claim to be an expert on authorial intent and I can't judge the intention of anyone else more than I can judge that of a grackle, but this 3-4 page sequence took me all the way out of the book. I loved the Susie character before she did this--as I suspect I was supposed to. We are meant to love and mourn and respect this character, but then she sentences other young girls to her same fate. I couldn't get past it, this immediate selfishness that nullifies the rest of the build-up that's come before. Not even a phone call. Not only that, but they were in a place with phones.
If she had addressed this with even a sentence or two of justification I could take it. If one of the 3 of you who normally reads me can explain this to me that makes sense within the context of this book, something along the lines of, "the point is that Susie doesn't have to care about anyone but herself anymore", I may be able to take it. But if that turns out to be the ultimate explanation, or "Alice Sebold overlooked something", or the equivalant, I'll be disappointed.
I'm not 100% sure I can recommend this book except as a case study in writing technique, in voice, in pacing, in eliciting audience empathy without necessitating Prozac prescriptions, etc. She definitely has skills.
So tell me if I'm way off base on this point. I haven't seen any other comments about this on Amazon, but I haven't looked all that hard.
In other news, I hear Peter Jackson will be directing the movie. Let me state frankly: if he hadn't done Heavenly Creatures I would have no confidence in his ability to pull it off. And who knows whether he's the same guy now as he was then? I'm betting he'll do a better job than Spielberg or, God forbid, Ron Howard, but still, allow me to state that I'm worried.
I still may walk out about 10 minutes before the end, though.
Book #15 will be Atonement, by Ian McEwan, though part of me is itching to read more Philip Roth


Monday, May 22, 2006

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov

Started 5/2, finished 5/22

"...safe to say that it's the very best novel ever written on a bidet" -- James Marcus

I wanted to love this one more than I did. I've been wanting to read a non-Lolita Nabokov, and this one has been tooling around on my bookshelf for more than 10 years (actually more like 15--dating back to when I was majoring in Post-Soviet and Eastern European Studies). The others I have are too long or too short, so this one fell off the shelf into my hands.

If you're a writer and you're sitting down to write and you've just finished reading this genius of a stylist, the letters on the keyboard just sit there and laugh at you. They go silent as your fingers get closer, pursing their lips and betraying half-smiles as you touch one of them. Then when you choose F when they would have gone for the more sensual B, they can't help themselves anymore. Nabokov would have chosen B. B would have been the start of something out of a fantasy. F is only the start of something lurid and obscene. So you ignore them and press on, if that's the phrase.

But for all that, I didn't love it. It's the story of a ficticious author whose half brother, the nameless "V", tries to dig up the story of his last days before his untimely death at the age fo 37. Sebastian Knight only wrote five books, but he left his mark on literature and on the writing of his contemporaries. A previous biography had been written, but V is so scandalized by the inaccuracy and indifference to the nature of the subject that he is compelled to right the wrongs and produce the "real life". As V goes deeper into Knight's past, hijinks meander.

I spent the first hundred pages marveling at the prose, but ultimately bored and wondering why I was supposed to be interested. At around the hundred page mark a mystery begins, the mystery of the woman who ruined Knight. This gets very interesting, and the level of brilliant prose heightens still, but I was still wondering "why?". At the very end, when V reflects on his last minute dash to be with Knight on his deathbed, it may well be one of the most frenetic, inspiring, well-paces pieces of prose I can remember, but I still didn't know why I should care all that much.

Is it an exercise? Is it a personal study into the nature of identity and the inadequacy of words? Is it literature for the sake of literature? Should that bother me? I'm afraid at this point that I would need more study, more education in the arena to be able to figure it out. This was either beyond me or it was just no big deal. I found a good essay on the subject, and it at least shed some light on the intricacies I missed.

This sentence leapt out at me. I hope you can understand why:

[Sebastian, writing to a lost love]
"Life with you was lovely--and when I say lovely, I mean doves and lillies, and velvet, and that soft pink 'v' in the middle and the way your tongue curved up to the long, lingering 'l'.

Oh my... I think I should turn up the A/C. What amazes me is his trickery, his ability to look within the sentences to the words, within the words to the letters. I believe he can do this because English is not his first language, so he has a childlike ability to sit back and observe the words meandering on the page. As he composes them he decomposes them, plays around, juggles them like a circus performer. He observes things in this foreign tongue that the rest of us have forgotten.

I think I'll return to this one in a few years. Hopefully by then I will have read a hundred or so more great books, including more VN, and I'll be more ready to read deep into the mysteries. Until then I'm going to dream, hope, believe I can write as well as this man one day. Maybe I should start writing in Russian.

Book #14 will be The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Da Vinci Dawilderment

Here's a roundup of reviews, all punching the same theme: it's not very good, so how did Ron Howard make such a big mistake, and how could so well-sold a book not make a great film? My question: how could anyone who's ever watched a movie or read a book ask those kinds of questions?


"But why did [Ron Howard] allow such a solid, attractive cast to turn in such stiff, unappealing performances?"

Okay, Mr. Honeycutt. I don't know anything about you or your reviews, but let me say that's one of the stupidest rhetoricals ever spewed by a film critic. Have you ever seen a Ron Howard film? Have you ever read a Dan Brown book? From any point of view of Film Quality (other than box office), this project was stillborn the moment Ron Howard agreed to take the job. Tom and Audrey and Ian and Stephen and Jean were signing up for a horrible screenplay, and I'm certain they all knew it. It's that other Film Quality in parentheses they were signing up for.

Todd McCarthy, Variety
"The irony in the film's inadequacy is that the novel was widely found to be so cinematic. Although pretty dismal as prose, the tome fairly rips along, courtesy of a strong story hook, very short chapters that seem like movie scenes, constant movement by the principal characters in a series of conveyances, periodic eruptions of violent action and a compressed 24-hour time frame."

"Howard, normally a generous director of actors, makes them both look stiff, pasty and inexpressive..."

Again, WHAT?? Someone out there name a film he has done where the actors were ANYTHING but boilerplate archetype. Don't say Apollo 13. Don't say Cocoon. Those were great actors phoning in centuries' worth of saccharin, whose dialog was so reprehensible that only the special effects kept you from noticing it. That settled, let's have a conversation about a little film called Backdraft.

"It's a film so overloaded with plot that there's no room for anything else, from emotion to stylistic grace notes."

Well, consider the source material.

So, in summation, most capital W writers already know that Dan Brown is crap at his craft, even though he is good at pacing and building suspence. What I want to demystify is the notion that Ron Howard is a good filmmaker. There are a few of his films I haven't seen, but jeez, you can only give people so many changes, and that Opie good will only lasts so long. I liked Ransom, and I liked Parenthood, but neither was without its flaws. I'd love to hear other opinions, but keep in mind that I hated A Beautiful Mind, so in truth there may just be no convincing me on this one.

This whole thing leads me to wonder how in the heck somebody who couldn't write/direct/act 1/4 of a human being for a screenplay could do so unbelievably well in television: From the Earth to the Moon? Sportsline? Arrested Development? Those are 3 of the best television series I've ever seen. Something tells me he needs to stick to the medium he spent his childhood reinventing.

Ok, that's enough. Just wanted to put this up since I prepared it so long ago...