Architecture, Autism, and Anthropomorphic Horses

Why didn’t anyone tell me how hard it would be to keep up on with new movies, TV shows, and reading while living with a newborn?  (Actually, EVERYONE told me).

Somehow…I did manage to finally finish a novel…T. C. Boyle’s The Women, a piece of historical fiction recommended by my wife that vividly details the life of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the four (often tempestuous) women he loved.  Hopscotching points of view (which include all four women, but also Wright, and a Japanese apprentice) and flip-flopping timelines, large swaths of the early sections are a bit sluggish to get through (though I’m not sure if some of the difficulty I had turning the pages was due to my own exhaustion and short attention span).  But, man o’ man, when the novel finally settles on its final 100 or so pages, which culminate in the infamous murder spree at Wright’s palatial Wisconsin hideaway Taliesin that resulted in the deaths of his mistress, her children, and other workers at the hands of an hatchet-wielding, fire-starting butler from Barbados, it was impossible to put down as the setting, characters, feelings, and horrific actions were made indelible on the mind as if the reader was right there watching it all.

(Side note – the earlier passages at his Oak Park estate outside Chicago were especially vivid in a different way as we had visited Oak Park last summer and I could picture his disgruntled ex-wife Kitty and their children in the rooms described by Boyle).

Meanwhile, in this day and age of Netflix, it’s easier to stay on top of some newer programs as binge watching lends itself well to being stuck inside a house for weeks on end. Continue reading

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The Human Touch in Warlight

What lengths would one go for love…or in war?  Cataclysmic outside events thrust unlikely people together…torn from their privacy to create new intamicies…in secret…but in service for something larger…a delicate, romantic spy game that could determine the fates of strangers in strange lands just as much as it could the fate of the ones you most love.

In his masterpiece The English Patient, Canada’s titan of literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje described a novel as a “mirror walking down the road.”  In his latest novel, Warlight, which mirrors many of the themes of his best, he describes a memoir as “the lost inheritance”.  Warlight is a novel written as if it was a memoir, and the light it casts on the shadowy lives of those left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of World War II will leave one shaken as equally by Ondaatje’s craft as by the fates of the characters.  It would make a cracker jack film or miniseries, you know, if someone skillful enough could dissect it, reassemble it, and focus the whole thing on the shocking soap opera-like revelation at the end…the twist of fate…the sad realization of what the consequences of one’s actions and youthful indiscretions could be. Continue reading

Going to Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you.  It’s a magnificent episode.  So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words.  Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!

The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.

Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff.  Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd.  Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable FeastContinue reading

Is Less More in Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall?

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.

Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.

There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks.   Continue reading

I’m Bored First while The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last

I can’t help but express my disappointment for Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian novel, The Heart Goes Last.  I was so excited when NetGalley sent me an advance Kindle copy as I was a huge fan of the MaddAddam Trilogy.  But I’m sad to report that Atwood, the sly mistress of speculative fiction, finally seems to be running on fumes.

The Heart Goes Last begins promisingly enough.  In the (not so distant?) future, a young couple, Charmaine and Stan, is living out of their car while the world around them has gone to hell after a financial collapse decimates most of the East Coast of the US turning it into one giant version of Camden, NJ.  But then the once hopeless couple sees a way out when they hear about The Positron Project in the planned community of Consilience.  Here, well-mannered prisoners mix with the desperate destitute (but otherwise law-abiding) masses who can’t find work.  The inhabitants take turns living in a planned community and a low-security prison, swapping time, houses and lives as they carry out tasks for the corporation that runs Consilience.

Atwood creates a golden opportunity to explore the slippery slope of our current privatization of prisons, but sadly the novel glosses over that as things devolve into the absurd and Charmaine and Stan’s tale becomes a silly sex farce (not too far removed from Woody Allen’s cringe worthy Sleeper) jam-packed with CEO’s gone mad, corporate conspiracies, wife swapping, sex bots (who in grand Atwood wordplay are branded Possibilibots), and Neuropimps  who erase all of your past hang-ups so they can imprint your sex drive onto anyone (who pays for it) or anything (there is a darkly humorous side bit where one minor character imprints onto a teddy bear). Continue reading

God Help the Reader in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Cover

It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past.  Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts.  God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end.  There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann.  There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape.  There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.

At times, the abuse is overwhelming.  No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched.  It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed.  In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds.  Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.

But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily.  The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash.  The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways).  Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract.  Continue reading

My Favorite Novels

Mantlepiece Collection

Maybe it was reading The Telegraph’s list of greatest novels of the 21st Century (we’re only 15 years in, people!) that I found to be absolute bollocks…

Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today.  How many new entries?  What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?

Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right?  (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)

At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists. 

What are your favorite novels?

Here are mine: Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

Continue reading

My Rage Against Mandatory Reading

Rat in a Cage Lyrics

…reading the books THEY told me to read!

Sure, I’ll never forget reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore honors English class in high school.  Damn shit changed my life.  Even my mopey, proto-goth, depressed sniveling brat self at the “all-knowing” and “all the world sucks” age of fifteen could see this stuff was da bomb and preaching the truth.

But, damn, the OTHER shit we were forced to read in high school scarred me for me life and left me with a counter-productive psychological aversion to anything labeled as mandatory reading…to the point that it took nearly fifteen years before I got over the mandatory reading stigma and finally devoured Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (so clearly one of the greatest novels of all time).  However, despite years of literary therapy and my successful relationship with those wrathful wine pellets, I still to this day absolutely REFUSE to read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  Yes, I still have the nerve to refuse to read Salinger!  S-A-L-I-N-G-E-R!!! (But I might go see that doc about him.)  These classics of mandatory reading somehow slipped through the cracks at my high school, but because they have been mandatory reading for just about every other teen in America over the past sixty odd years, I’ve avoided them unfairly in my adult years.

Why you ask?  Because the following were mandatory reading during my teenage years…and I’ll never forget the pain these books put me through.

Behold, the king of them all, the most egregious piece of mandatory reading I suffered through in my days of delicate youth, a book that almost ruined my love for reading:

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Continue reading

The English Patient vs The English Patient vs The English Patient

“There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk…She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

At age sixteen he was just beginning to learn of the world. There were things beyond…art houses in the city where stories from foreign lands and birthed in independence flickered in the animated darkness before communities of the willing. Amongst the suburban sprawl of his homeland across the river, the purveyors of these urban establishments spawned a megaplex like no other where established fare mingled with independent films and cross continental tongues whispered hotly in the darkness of small air-conditioned screening rooms smartly furnished. It was here his parents took him one night to see The English Patient.

Closing in on his 34th year on this earth and looking back (somehow having circled back to this suburban sprawl now naming a spot his adjacent to that very megaplex which has passed through as many hands as he has homes), he longs for those innocent days…that wonder of experiencing something on-screen he had never experienced before – a painterly, carefully constructed, flawed and blistering work of art splashed across a silver screen. A romance with the cinema was born then as he watched the elliptical tale of human frailty and survival against the backdrop of the world’s greatest war.

Continue reading