Thursday, April 03, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Stoner by John Williams

The project begins!

First book: Stoner, bought for me by my parents as a birthday present.

Stoner is a funny sort of book, in that it was published in 1965 to no particular acclaim but found fame rather randomly in 2013. Its not the sort of book that would seem to be a sleeper hit. It tells the tale of a somewhat unremarkable academic's life, being set (at least initially) pre-world war one, and following his failures and successes.

I can see why a lot of people like the book. Its a well told story, and easy enough to read. It rarely slows done or feels turgid, and the main character is interesting enough. The themes that it hits on: the search for meaning, curating happiness in adverse conditions, loss and hope, are interesting enough. Sadly though, I found myself not enjoying most of the book.

The unfortunate part for me is the blamelesness with which Will Stoner, our main character, acts. He always acts with the utmost virtue. Even when he conducts an affair the narrative does its best to imply that it is not a bad thing he is doing, and even seems to condemn his wife when she injects a cruel jibe about his lover.

Ah yes, his wife. Edith is my main problem with this book, although I do have another. Edith is someone he meets at a party and find himself in love with, despite having little in common with her, and her seeming disinterest. In fact its never quite explained why Edith chooses to marry him in the first place, as she seems to have no affection for him, even though the book takes pains to point out why Edith's responses to Bill's sexual advances are ones of disgust. Edith, it seems, is a creature of spite and hatred, but not in a deliberate way. Her many deeply unpleasant actions towards Stoner throughout the book are apparently not her fault: she makes no deliberate move in her endless campaign of making Stoner's life miserable. Stoner, other than perhaps a lack of self awareness, is apparently not guilty of ever acting poorly towards his wife. Her hatred of him appears to spring up ex nihilo to make Stoner's life that bit worse.

In fact Stoner seems to spend his life dealing with people who hate him for no reason at all. His academic dispute, which take up a large portion of the latter half of the book, come from a character acting in a totally unreasonable way, and Stoner acting in an utterly, completely moral one. The sum of this was to make me frustrated with the one sided portrayal of Stoner against the world, making me wonder if the author wasn't working out his personal bugbear with the world.

I didn't hate this book the way I hated some (I'm glaring at you, the Lovely Bones), but I sadly cannot recommend it.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Jonathan Creek and the curious lack of mystery

Watching the latest Jonathan Creek, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd switched writers. But no, its the same man from the very start, writing these episodes. Perhaps he's just run out of ideas, but one wonders why he is still going if so.

In the previous one-off special we had an incredibly stupid mystery involving self decapitation using a chainsaw, a head hidden in a globe, and a squad of police assassins trying to stop a fake video of Tony Blair talking about Iraq going viral. That was... pretty stupid.

This episode wasn't particularly stupid, it was just a bit dull. The episode begun by telling us how the central mystery, which was actually reasonably clever, was done, thus rendering one of the key tensions of the show moot. To be fair, the show set up another couple of mysteries:

1)The disappearing ashes. This was potentially interesting, but the solution was dull and essentially unguessable (apparently she forgot she owned a roomba?)
2)The letters. Now this one was unguessable, and really, really stupid. Would anyone do that on their death bed?
3)the missing watermark, I have to admit I didn't actually realise this was a puzzle until the solution came up, so yeah....

All in all, an uninspiring bunch. The show might have survived if the plot itself had been gripping, but it was a set of fairly unconnected vignettes, with the central story of Creek's wife's father's death being tonally all over the place. His wife is surprisingly unaffected by the death of her father, to the point where I turned to my wife and said "wait... she's giving... him a comforting massage at the end of the day? Eh?"

The one thing I slightly enjoyed was the silly Sherlock spoof, but the show really took it too far. Oh well, at least we've got two more episodes. Perhaps one of them will be any good.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Ah, another review of a film everyone's seen already.

Unsurprisingly, I didn't think it was that good. There were some good sections. Spielberg knows how to direct a good action scene, and the film looks great, and, fairly rarely in action films these days, you can actually see what's going on in most action scenes. Each action scene tells a simple story which makes them, for the most part, more engaging. I also think Karen Allen gives a fairly charismatic performance as Marion, even if she doesn't have a great deal to work with

I don't actually think having aliens wrecked the film in any way, although they could have been introduced as a final act twist, rather than have the corpse in the opener which made Indy's denials seem a little weak. Instead my problems with the film were its plotting and writing in general. Indiana Jones has often been a little cartoonish, but never  has it been more so in Indy surviving a nuclear blast by climbing into a fridge. Having heard comments on this from film watchers, I had assumed this came near the end, but its actually just thrown in as a gag at the end of the opening action sequence. Its not that its thoroughly implausible, its that its filmed in such a way that makes it even more implausible! The fridge flies past a car which is destroyed by the blast, while the fridge is fine. Why is this fridge the only one to survive the explosion? Why... Oh never mind.

Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me when later in the film our hero and company survive not one, but three plunges off a cliff into water, the first by bouncing down a bendy tree (!), the latter just by being invincible. Note that shortly after doing this, the Russians following them somehow teleport to catch up with them, like AI in cheating racing games. Harrison Ford has always managed to sell a sense of physical peril, as he gets battered and bruised but survives by the skin of his teeth. Here it never seemed particularly difficult, despite two decades having gone by.

I think the worst sin this films commits is a lack of sense of peril. Its not only that Indy is now apparently an immortal, its that the central quest doesn't really seem worrying. The Russian agent played by Cate Blanchett, in a fairly low charisma performance, asserts that the aliens will give them super psychic powers, but theres really no evidence that this is actually the case, so no surprise that she ends up getting blasted by laser eyes instead. While Indiana Jones has a bit of a tradition of doing this, at least in the other films the protagonist believed that something was at stake. Here the quest just seemed to be happening for the sake of it.

When I watch something like this, or the Star Wars prequels, I'm struck by their unecessary nature. The creative forces behind them didn't need to make these films, but they decided to bring them back.. for this?

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Saturday, February 08, 2014

Woody Allen and the art and the artist

The funny thing about the Woody Allen case is that there is a situation where Hollywood have been deliberately ignoring a filmmaker's crimes because he makes great films. I'm talking, of course, about Polanski, who was arrested and even charged for sexual assault of a 13 year old girl. Whatever the facts of that case, he has been deliberately avoiding facing those charges ever since.

The Woody Allen case is much more murky. Charges were never pressed against him, but that is hardly a demonstration of innocence. It seems highly likely that Dylan Farrow believes that Allen molested her, but it doesn't seem impossible that such a memory is false. I don't care to make a decision either way, and fortunately I do not have to.

The question of whether you can separate the art from the artist is a tricky one, and much harder if the artist is still alive. If you believe Polanski or Allen are guilty of their crimes, then every time you pay to see one of their films you are giving money to a sex offender who has never faced justice. That seems hard to avoid as a conclusion. That said, I don't agree with the idea that someone's politics necessarily taints their work. Some films might be, because of their subject matter. Manhattan becomes more disturbing if you believe Allen is guilty of his crimes (I  have to admit its not a film I rate highly anyway, partially because of the nature of the central romance). But I don't think Midnight in Paris needs to be affected by that. Perhaps Allen should never have been free to make the film in the first place, but not its created, it exists as a piece independent of him. We can interpret it how we like, enjoy it how we like, and we do not need to worry about the author's views.

I'm a fan of "death of the author" to be honest. I think its fun to hear what an authors intentions were, but JK Rowling can say anything about a character, and if its not in the text, then its not a real fact. If Dumbledore being gay isn't apparent in Harry Potter, then he isn't gay I'm afraid. I actually think its entirely possible to read the text in such a way that he is gay, but that is independent of JK Rowling talking about it. The idea of canon is fun, but ultimately there is the text, and there is everything else.

Will I still be watching the works of Woody Allen and Polanski? Probably, yes, but I might think twice about going out of my way to pay for them, particularly the works of Polanski.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Jack Glass

Jack Glass is an odd little novel. Its supposedly a blend of classic science fiction with classic detective novels, and it certainly does have elements of them in it. Each of three distinct sections to the book has a mystery to it, but I'm not entirely sure how you are meant to solve most of them, the solutions to some of them being extremely esoteric and implausible.

It gripped me initially with a gritty prison tale, where 7 prisoners were left in an asteroid for 11 years with  basic equipment to survive, and expected to fend themselves. This was a dark and mostly compelling tale, with disturbingly graphic outbreaks of violence scattered across the tale. This story takes up the first third of the book. Suddenly, for the second third, having followed the mysterious Jac, the character followed by the narrative switches to the deeply obnoxious Diana.

Diana is a 16 year old girl, heir to one of the families that controls most of the human race. She and her sister, Eva, have been genetically modified to be geniuses, an ability which, to be honest, is mostly informed. She is written as a rather accurate depiction of an obnoxious 16 year old, and while her experiences make her more sombre, she never really grows more sympathetic. This tonal shift slows the narrative right down, and while it has a few highlights from then on, it never really recovers. Some of the elements later in the story border on the smug, and I probably wouldn't have bothered continuing if the opening section hadn't shown much promise.

The world built by the author was plausible, and the character of Jac/Jack interesting, but the bizarre switch of protagonist mid-story just made this much less enjoyable than it could have been.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Sherlock

I seem to be alone in rather enjoying this most recent series. It hasn't been without its frustrations, the primary one being that the show has, for the most part, given up on mysteries, with the final episode having a twist instead of a mystery central to it, the second episode only having one that's hardly dwelt on, and the first being mostly concerned with the mystery from the previous series, with an added silly one where Sherlock can't count.

Ultimately though, its been about the characters, and for the most part its been funny, sweet and interesting. I like Sherlock and Watson, I like Mary as a new edition, and I enjoyed watching them get up to things. While the final episodes twist (where Sherlock solves a mystery in the most straight forward way) was disappointing to some extent, it was character driven, and underlines just how much Sherlock, a character now given to showing feeling, has found himself compelled to love Watson, and by extension Mary.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Worm

Worm is an online novel about super heroes. Set on a fictional Earth, where parallel dimensions exist, anyone has the potential to "trigger" and gain all sorts of wacky super powers. The story follows one Taylor Herbert, who is a bullied high school teenager who has the ability to control creepy crawlies, including spiders and indeed worms.

It is... massive. It is millions of words long, and took me about a month to read. Its also entirely online, and not even available in ebook form. Its clearly a first draft, and was written as the author went along. While it definitely has an overall plot its aiming for, it does tend to have an episodic feel to it. At its best, it is tense, thrilling, and fascinating, and has a great eye for character. At its worst it is nihilistic and too obsessed with meaningless fight scenes. At one point the story skips forward two years, and the comments were full of complaints. I could only be relieved that the author had finally decided not to show every detail of the story. There is some unpleasant content to the book, with some extremely horrific imagery turning up once the so called Slaughterhouse 9 turn up. Despite some very explicit violent scenes, the book is almost prudish when it comes to sex.

So this isn't the most positive review I've ever written, and theres a reason for that. I don't know if I'd recommend spending the time I did reading this, but it is compelling, and the length of the story means there is a very good plot arc for Taylor. The overarching plot also mostly makes sense, which is quite an achievement for a story of this length. The fight scenes at their best are tense, clever and inventive.

Supposedly the author is going to edit the story for publication, so perhaps it would be best to wait for an edited version of the story to appear. Still, if you haven't got anything else to read, you could give it a shot.

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