Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Delhi is not far

Delhi is Not Far, Ruskin Bond. 

A quiet, gentle novella, with all the classic charm and deceptive simplicity of vintage Ruskin Bond.  In fact, it *is* vintage Ruskin Bond, the revision of a story he wrote in the 1960s when he moved from Dehradun to Delhi, before he became disillusioned with big-city life and moved back.

What is startling, and different from classic Ruskin Bond, is the frank depiction of a three-way love story between two young men and a young woman.

Elsewhere in Bond stories you catch the hints of homoerotic love. Here it is one of the main themes.  The narrator is Arun, a young, frustrated literary writer who churns out bad detective novels to earn a meagre existence in the small town of Pipalnagar; he meets and falls in love with another young man, Suraj, a walking street vendor of perfumes and knick-knacks.  They both befriend, make love to, and have deep affection for Kamla, a young prostitute married to a much older man.  Arun's growing love for Suraj forms a central thread through the story, and the depictions of his love-making with Kamla are brief but powerful.  

The other main theme is the town of Pipalnager, and the Mohalla (roughly, neighborhood) in which Arun lives. He longs to escape, to the wider world of books and ideas and opportunity represented by Delhi, but is trapped by his melancholy, his fear, his inertia.  The characters of Pipalnager -- the barber, the junkyard man, the beggars -- are so affectionately, so compassionately sketched that one suspends disdain at them being somewhat sterotypical.

These characters form the basis of small-town life, where there is no anonymity like the big city, but no privacy either; where these friendships and associations ease daily living but offer no safety net either; where dreams are hobbled by lack of imagination and action by lack of passion.  Bond captures these in quick, deft strokes, convincingly and with quiet humor.  It is clear none of the other characters will leave Pipalnager, even though Delhi is not far; will Arun and his two loves?

There is no highlighted irony here, no drama, no explicit struggle with complex ideas or conflicts.  There is mostly clean, lyrical, simple writing that comes perilously close to sheer sentimentality but does earn its rich prose:
     "Hills of green and grey rock, misty at dawn, hazy at noon, molten at sunset; where fierce fresh torrents rush to the valleys below.
     A quiet land of fields and ponds, shaded by ancient trees and ringed with palms, where sacred rivers are touched with temples; where temples are touched by the southern seas.
     This is the real land, the land I should write about. ..."

The attachment, the reverence, the love for the land, for his soil, is unabashed and actually quite powerful.  I was prepared to be warmed but left without substance, and I think the book is more than that.

(Nov 2010)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

All That Heaven Allows

All That Heaven Allows.  Dir: Douglas Sirk, 1955.  Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson.

December-May romance between a wealthy widow, Carrie, and her tree service man, stirs up a small town's cattiness, conformity and cruelty.  Jane Wyman gives a convincing, nuanced performance.  Hudson is mostly just a pretty face with muscles, as Carrie's son Ned says.  The townspeople ask, in a sense, "What does she see in  him?"; Jane Wyman's acting is so fine that it almost answers my question: "What does he see in her?".

Lots of saccharine Hallmark card shots (old mill by the river, deer framed in picture window as snow falls, etc).  Some dialogue that seems hilarious given that we now know Hudson was gay.  For example Carrie asks, "So you want me to be a man?"; he answers, "Only in that one way".  (However, he was out in Hollywood, so maybe this was just an inside joke by the fimmakers.)

Universal made this film apparently to cash in on the popularity of Magnificent Obsession, another Wyman-Hudson December-May romance.  Funny that this obvious soap opera, where superficial social commentary on class and age is just an excuse for romantic drama, is now considered one of Sirk's finest films and is gathering critical acclaim.

Nov 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Night Catches Us

Night Catches Us.  Dir: Tanya Hamilton (also the writer).

So rare and refreshing to see this subject matter portrayed at all, let alone with the honesty its dealt with here.

Set in Philadelphia, 1976.  Marcus is an ex-Panther who returns to his old neighborhood after several years, and is immediately drawn back into the conflicts and relationships of his past.  These include not only former comrades who despise and threaten him because he was a snitch to the cops, but an old flame, Patti, also an ex-Panther, who is now the neighborhood lawyer, activist and den mother.  Patti's 10 yr-old daughter, Iris, knows that her father was a Panther killed by the cops, and wants to find out more.  Patti's nephew Johnny, collects and sells empty soda cans for a meagre living, and romanticizes the Panthers in a way only a naive, frustrated youth can.

In this millieu Marcus struggles to remain free of the paranoia, anger and delusion of the Panther mentality, which his former comrades still harbor, while recognizing the ongoing racial and social injustices around him, and of which he is no less victim.

The plot threatens to be a hackneyed tale of redemption and romance, but veers away in time.  Some plot lines are indeed predictable, like Johnny's trajectory and Iris's discovery, but there is still a lot that is fresh and believable here.  The actors all do an excellent job, particularly Kerry Washington (Patti) and Jamara Griffin (Iris).  The soundtrack is perfectly matched, and old newsreels of the Panthers (shades, black berets, leather jackets, and grim demeanors) are masterfully intertwined with the current action.

I worried also about political correctness - in particular mine, for my reaction to the real newsreels of the Panthers.  Watching them now, years after I first saw them, I understood again the rage but also much easily spotted the immature strutting, the false bravado and machismo, the infatuation with image and slogan.  These were just kids, abused, hopeless, emotionally fractured and enraged.  What they did and what happened to them was tragic.  Arguably, the film is at its best in capturing that.  (What a liberal humanist reaction, my inner self-critic says, not at all in keeping with revolutionary ardor, former comrade).

I did feel that the story could have gone deeper, particularly into the fears and delusions of Patti that keep her bound to the past, and around which ultimately the conflict turns.  I also thought that a shift in pov, from Marcus to either Iris or Patti, would have brought it more to life and added poignancy.  As it stands, some of the film feels oddly flat given the drama of its conflicts.  Nonetheless, huge kudos for taking on a difficult, complex topic, community and history that receives far too little serious attention.

(Nov 2010)

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights.  Dir: Wong Kar Wai.

Clasic Wong Kar Wai.  ("In the Mood for Love", "2046").  Visually and aurally gorgeous, with every shot, every frame, superbly composed.  Beautiful actors -- in this case, Jude Law, Norah Jones, Natalie Portman.  All seen through arresting obstructions and obscurations caused by neon lights, shadows, fabrics and furniture.  And the same themes of love, loss and longing in all their acute and subtle pain.  The soundtrack immediately evokes smoky cafes and bars, the timeless American interiors of hopeless and sentimental love.

The content, though, is mushy and over-sweet at its the core, like the eponymous Blueberry pie.  The script is slight, predictable, and uncaringly so.  This is not about the salad or the entree, just the dessert.  And in that sense a travesty: some incredibly fine actors -- some of my faves -- get wasted on trite, sentimental lines, and silences that strive for a poignancy that hasnt been earned by the story.

The only character fleshed out is not the protagonist Lizzy/Beth (Norah Jones) but the gold-hearted lying schemer played by Natalie Portman, who is believable because we want to believe in her, but archetypical to a fault.  There are flashes of true portrayals of youthful angst, the alcohol and TV-soaked dramas of lower middle class life, and the lure of beautiful strangers.  But this is all submerged by the rest of the script.

I plan to buy the soundtrack -- its the best thing in the movie, followed by the camera work.

(Oct 2010)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo.

Amazingly rich, detailed, immersive novel set in a small town in upstate NY.

Told primarily from the alternating pov of two boys from the poor side of town, one who grows up and leaves town to become an internationally famous artist, the other who eventually reaches staid upper-middle class respectability and never leaves town.  The latter, Lucy (corruption of Louis), is the main protagonist.  The world is drawn through his eyes, in layer upon layer of detail, and how each piece of detail is used again and again to sharp, telling effect, is masterful.

You enter the world of the novel, the pains of childhood and the universe of a small town, and never want to leave it.  Many moving passages as Lucy ruminates about love, about growing old, about the loss of his father, and his own sense of failure as a husband and father (even though no one would view him as such).

Towards the end though the pace speeds up unreasonably, out of keeping with the rest of the book.  Also many of the huge dramatic events that the book has been building towards (one boy killing his father, the death of the mother of the girl Sarah that both boys love) are told so obliquely and in so much haste that you feel cheated.  Also two thirds of the way through the book a third pov is introduced (Sarah) which seems jarring and gimmicky.  And Sarah rescues and adopts a poor damaged black girl and brings her back to the town in NY -- that feels unrealistic, wishful thinking to obliterate white liberal guilt.  Finally, the relationship between the artist and his oh-so-suave and oh-so-worldly dealer, while entertaining, seems ultimately a stereotype and almost a caricature, as if the author was out of his element.

The book is best in drawing the tiny human dramas and the underlying senses of longing, guilt and loss that link them, and especially from a backward-looking pov, back to childhood.  In that it is simply brilliant.

(May 2010)

A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore.

I came to this novel with great expectations, considering the praise heaped on it (dozens of top 10 and bestseller lists).  And indeed from the first few sentences you had the feeling you were in the hands of a sure, masterful storyteller.  But over the course of the novel it unraveled and became an inchoate mix of sophomoric polemic, coming-of-age story, carictaurish depictions of terrorists, and clever wordplay.

The story's vehicle is Tassie, a 20-yr old college freshman who becomes a nanny for a wealthy, over-educated, white liberal couple who adopt an infant girl who is part African-American.  It is best when it takes us on the journey of an open adoption, that too in a situation where the complication is not only the class and race issues of this particular adoption but the conflicts and emotional fractures of the adopting parents.  The adoption story is in fact where the novel's heart lies, and where it is not only sweet and funny but heartbreakingly sad; the latter so much so that I had to put the put book aside at times.  Along the way we get lots of biting comments on the class and social differences between the liberal college town where she goes to school and Tassie's country roots.

However all this gets buried in extraneous sub-plots: Tassie's infatuation with a classmate (wont give the spoiler here), her brother Robert's aimless stumbling into volunteering for duty in Afghanistan, and her ambivalent relationships with her parents.  The worst sections are pages and pages where the politics of interracial adoption are debated by a group of parents whom Tassie listens to while babysitting -- a clumsy and transparent device for directly inserting polemic and social commentary into the novel without bothering to give them the clothing of character and plot.  The continual wordplay by Tassie, her room-mate Murph, her brother and her father are wearing.  Finally, like so many contemporary novels, the male characters are the worst and receive no compassion - the confused brother, the vain and selfish husband, the hopeless boyfriend, and so on.

Disappointing and not worth the effort.

(Oct 2010)

Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea.

"Quest novels announce their purpose in a straight-forward manner: Colorful, memorable characters prepare for and embark on a journey of immense significance" - from the San Diego Union-Tribue review, back cover blurb.

In this case the quest is to bring back the men who have migrated North - to the US - from a small Mexican town near Mazatlan, in order to protect the town from local drug bandidos.

The novel is a bit too tranparent in its political correctness - the principal characters include a pretty 19-yr old female protagonist who is also a karate expert, the only gay man in town, and the fierce and slightly comical old Mexican Aunt who acts as a proto-feminist patron saint.  The plotline is also a bit too self-aware and hip and ironic (for my taste at least) -- the quest is inspired by The Magnificent Seven, in turn inspired by Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner are frequent tongue-in-cheek references.

Nonetheless its heart is in the right place, and the narrative provides a welcome twist on the timeless tale of tragic migration to El Norte -- while the main characters are young and naive, and indeed suffer their share of misery, they are not doomed. They have a sense of humor and zest, and convincingly rely on pop culture and dreams of love for their resilience.  All in all, enjoyable and interesting.

(Sep 2010),

Empire Falls

Empire Falls, Richard Russo.

The second book I have read by Russo, the first being Bridge of Sighs.  Even though he got the Pulitzer for Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs, which he wrote later, is better.

There are many similarities to the two books, and it feels like Empire Falls was a warm-up for the better book later.  They are both about small-town life in the Northeast US, with a similar cast of characters.  Substitute the decaying factory town in BoS for the the decaying factory town in EF, the small grocery store in BoS for the diner in EF, the haplesss, good-hearted Lucy in BoS for Miles, the hapless, good-heearted diner owner in EF, their similar fathers and daughters, etc, and you have much of the same book, in a sense.

What EF has that BoS doesnt is a true villain -- Francine Whiting, the widow who owns everything in the decaying company town of Empire Falls, and who also essentially owns Miles via his delusions and his cowardice.  The villain improves the book, giving it energy, but also makes it worse since she seems so cliched.

Nonetheless overall EF is still good in the same ways that BoS is -- the deftly-drawn characters, the Gods-eye-view irony about their lives, mingled with a human compassion.

(August 2010)

One Night @ the Call Center

One Night @ the Call Center, Chetan Bhagat.

Light, funny reading about the lives of 5 call center agents in India, and their daily dramas.

Good sketch of quirks of call center operations (start work at 9pm, company Qualis to commute, American names, accent training etc).  Somewhat predictable.  Main story line is of two agents who fell in love, fell out of love, she decides to marry an NRI who works at Microsoft, he pines for her, they eventually reconnect after a near-fatal car accident.  (Similar to "Just Married" movie.)  Best conceit is that during the accident they get a phone call from God who tells them to take responsibility for their own lives and dare to live the life they want etc.

[Best review: "His books retail at the right price point for "timepass", the characters are immediately identifiable and the writing is fast-paced, smooth and undemanding. He writes for a generation that sees very few reflections of its aims, heartbreaks and language in contemporary literature." - Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard]

(June 2008)

Not Now But Now

Not Now But Now, M. K. Fisher.

Well-written set of 5 stories set in different time periods (but all 1880-1940) of the protagonist Jennie, a shameless, narcissitic gold-digger who manipulates herself into the hearts and lives of 5 different people, leaving devastation behind.

Very avant garde considering it was written in the 30s I think: includes lesbian, older/younger relationships, and one that includes a father/son pair.

The prose is sharp, the tone cruel and witty, the air knowing and jaded; would make very good New Yorker material.

Jennie is ruthless and shallow but her victims (except her last lover) are also foolish, themselves dishonest (or at least delusional), blind and doomed. In fact that is part of the problem: there is little sympathy for any of the characters, hence Jennie's triumphs evoke no strong feeling of sympathy or delight.

The writer succeeds too well at being dispassionate and ironic; in the end there is too little at stake for the reader.

(May 2008)

African Psycho

African Psycho, Alain Mabanckou.

Did not complete.  Odd turns of phrases, maybe due to translation, gave an immature air; felt like student writing.

(Apr 2008)

Lost in the Forest

Lost in the Forest, Sue Miller.

Immediately draws one in to the world of the novel, beautifully told, convincingly real, solid believable characters, true human conflict.

A long time since I have enjoyed a book, page by page, as much as this.  I suppose it would be called middlebrow ... there is no grand message or theme, except that the confusion of life gives it its richness (perhaps).

But somehow the central conflicts fizzle out in the end.  Mark, the husband who cheated on his wife and had to suffer the divorce by her, pines for her, but ultimately marries someone else; its not clear how he comes to that decision.  Daisy, Mark's high-school age daughter is sleeping with an older man who is actually a close family friend (and who seems truly, believably, repulsive in his social acceptability).  She stops doing so once she is found out by Mark, but we dont know what that felt like to her.  And Eva, Mark's ex-wife, refuses to be reconciled to Mark but chooses a banal companion, Everett (who is barely sketched out).

Why did these circumstances resolve in this way?  How?  The conflicts have been so deeply, so affectingly presented that their muted, dodged, denoument is very disappointing.

(Apr 2008)

Simple Passion

Simple Passion, Annie Ernaux.

Novella (or maybe just a long short story) about a Frenchwoman's sexual obsession with a mysterious married Eastern European who visits Paris periodicaly on business.  Created quite a stir in France, where they seem to have an obsession with libidinous female sexual revelations.  It follows a thin but long line of French sexual/romantic obsession novels by women ("Story of O", "The Butcher", Marguerite Duras's "Blue Eyes, Black Hair").

This novel itself is thin, and the usual details abound (relentless waits for the phone call; extreme preparations focusing on hair, toilette, and lingerie; the fading of life when the lover is away).  But some nice touches, such as hearing his voice and realizing he is just a man, the obsession is foolish.  And on the last page, after the affair is long over, reflecting that its virtue has been to draw the protagonist closer to the rest of humanity, partly by shared suffering.

In the very end, the very last insight: when the protagonist was young, she says, her idea of luxury was fine dresses and villas by the sea; when older, it was to be be able to live the life of the intellectual; and now it is to live out the passion for a man (or a woman).  This was an interesting payoff.

But unsatisfying ultimately: what is it in herself that is the underlying source as well as object of the obsession?  What is it in him?  And from a storytelling point of view, why should we care about her, or about the affair when it is over?  Does he have any value other than being a sex object, either to the narrative (clearly not) or to her (probably not)?  Maybe a novel length would have allowed the author space to explore all this, but maybe she is content to, or able to, provide only a snapshot.

(Apr 2008)

Junglee Girl

Junglee Girl, Ginu Kamani.

Stories from an Indian girl's point of view.  First story is reasonably good, others are mediocre.

Wins points for an Indian author talking about open female sexuality, lesbianism, breaking other sexual taboos.  And one of the stories, Maria, is interesting for its overtones of class issues (Maria is the housekeeper sleeping with the family cook; the narrator is the young girl exploring her own sexuality through her.)

But otherwise mostly focusing on sexual awakening and conflicts, with little time for character development.  Also almost no sympathy for anyone other than the narrator.  Special contempt, bordering on hatred, for Mother figures, and indifference or disdain for men.

(May 2008)

Tea in the Harem

Tea in the Harem, Mehdi Charef.

Gritty first novel written in 1983 about poor and unemployed Algerian immigrant youth in France.

Feels episodic, sometimes contrived or contradictory, but also authentic at its core.  Depressing, shocking in places.  Catapulted the author to fame and he was asked by Costas-Gavras (director of Z etc) to direct a film based on the novel .  Still not sure what the title means...

(Found out later... "Tea in the Harem" is a corruption of "Theorem"; the narrator's knucklehead friend misunderstands this when learning Archimedes Theorem in class.)

(Jan 2008)

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

Revisited the classic and realized how little of it I had really understood when I first read it at the age of 16.  Well-written, loving portrait of her father (Atticus).  Skillfully combines themes of coming-of-age, racism and small-town life in deep South.  Still, somehow it doesnt pack as large an emotional punch for me as I expected.

Aside: the protagonist Scout's friend Dill is supposed to be based on real-life childhod friend Truman Capote.  Also, Harper Lee never wrote another novel.

(Dec 2007)

The Maharanis

The Maharanis, Lucy Moore.

Four Indian queens and their journey from Purdah to Parliament.  Covers the Maharani of Baroda, Rani of Kucch Behar, her daughter who became MGD, and their husbands, sons and families.

Engaging, well-written and thoroughly researched.  Also fairly politically correct in terms of the racism and negligence of the Raj.  Quite sympathetic to the Indian princes though, and avoids laying out the stark contrast between their lives and those of their subjects.  But thankfully avoids the Collins-Lapierre sensationalistic and simplistic sensibility.

(Dec 2007)

Digging to America

Digging to America, Ann Tyler.

Two American families, one whitebread, the other Iranian American, each adopt a girl from Korea and form a friendship over several years.  Ruminations of what it means to be an American, an immigrant, and part of a family.

Good writing, some of the immigrant insights are good but dont cut deep enough.  Enjoyable, not as good as her "Ladder of Years".

(Oct 2007)

What am I, nuts?

Do I really need more reasons to sit in front of a computer?
And does the world really need another blog?

But the orbital pull of technology is simply too strong... here we go!