Monday, June 25, 2012

Not in our stars, but in ourselves

I am currently $0.25 away from having my library card shut down again, in part due to two books I read, appreciated but didn't love, and then promptly forgot to return.

The Imperfectionists was a collection of sad stories about the staff of a declining English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome. They were all interesting and well-written, even if the the stories themselves a bit depressing. Each glimpse into the lives of the editors, reporters, and owners of the newspaper highlighted the not-so-newsworthy human dramas of deception, pain, lust, fear, disappointment, and anger. Something ended, for better or worse, in every vignette -- all against the backdrop of the methodic production of a daily paper whose identity and existence are become irrelevant in an internet age.

I'm not the biggest proponent of saving newspapers for their own sake; I think the smell of ink on a printing press and the illusion of objective "truth" have been overly romanticized. I'm more concerned that the decline of newspapers means fewer voices in media, not that everyone will suddenly be unconcerned with what is going on in the world because there are fewer stacks of papers in it. I think there's a way to honor the legacy of the print room without making it a funeral for journalism itself, which has always adapted to technology.

After all, the empire fell, but Rome is still a vibrant city.

By contrast, Vaclav and Lena was a sweet and bittersweet tale about two Russian kids who meet in ESL class, become friends, plan a future as magicians, and then are abruptly separated for seven years by a mysterious event.

As an immigrant tale, the lives of Vaclav and Lena are bookends: one speaks Russian at home, one has parents who want to speak only English. Both have families that work incredibly hard, long hours in very different industries and with very different risks. Hunger and food, disadvantage and opportunity, acceptance and hope, American Dream and fairy tale: the story of two children and their circumstances is both uncomfortably familiar and refreshingly new.

Though the overall tone of the book is not exactly happy (in fact, it took me a while to plug through because it was kind of depressing), I thought it was cute and beautifully written.

And my new goal for this summer is to return the rest of my library books on time.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Alter or mend eternal Fact

I was excited to see that the latest books in two fun mystery series just came out! (And once I paid my library fines, I could borrow them from the library.)

Elegy for Eddie is the latest in the Maisie Dobbs series. The series started out as a Great War survivors' tale, and this most recent book takes place in 1933. We all know what that means. Our psychologist investigator, as always, is caught between the vanishing world of London's South End and Britain's political and social elite. Between helping costermongers uncover the truth behind the death of one of their own, driving her trendy automobile around the horses in her old urban neighborhood, and trying to branch out and see the world before it devolves into another World War, Maisie's character is finally unraveling. It only took 9 books that chart her life over 19 years, but she's finally become a more nuanced and conflicted character than she's been in the previous books. The added painful irony of her finally finding her own personal freedom and peace is that it comes on the eve of another horrible world tragedy equally as traumatic as the one that first drove her into a stodgy, silent shell. It's not hard to deduce that there are several overlapping elegies running throughout the course of the mystery.

The other mystery-solving heroine I love is Molly Murphy. In the latest book in her series, she and her police captain are finally married and spending their honeymoon in a haunted mansion in Newport. Like Maisie, Molly is also caught between her humble, poverty-stricken background and the powerful world of Tammany Hall that she has been thrown into.

Maybe I'm drawn to these two characters (and a few other in certain series) because of those contrasts in background and circumstances. The tale of an honest class identity struggle can frequently walk a fine line with the overdone and untrue rags-to-riches tale; but maybe the internal existential battles that must necessarily be waged are the unacknowledged flip side of the latter.

Speaking of which, I'm excited to see the new The Great Gatsby movie coming out later this year.

And now I have "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral" stuck in my head.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Zing! Pow! Bang!

Every now and then, I go on a "cheesy fun" movie-watching splurge. Since I cancelled my subscription to Netflix, I've been going to the theatre more. (I've also been reading more, but that's a separate issue. Or is it?)

I'm a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and his particularly bold style of exposing people's stereotypes and prejudices, so a friend and I saw The Dictator. (But first we each downed a small bottle of sake  -- arguing with a random lady at the cineplex bar about the social value of Cohen's films -- and then raced into the theatre).

Alternet had a really good review of the movie, comparing it to Charlie Chaplin's satire about a Hitler-like leader in The Great Dictator.  

I can't say The Dictator is my favorite Cohen project, but I still liked it well enough. Cohen plays Aladeen (yes, start singing "A Whole New World"), dictator of the fictitious Arab country of Wadiya, who is replaced by a lookalike while in New York City and tries to get his identity back. In the process, he meets refugee Wadiyans, hippie food co-op liberal do-gooders, and pro-democracy protestors. The plot is predictable, but the plot isn't really the point of the movie. The point of the movie is summarized by Aladeen's ironic speech near the end:
"Imagine a country where 1 percent of the people control most of the wealth and leaders wage war against the wrong country for trumped-up reasons...Imagine a country whose prisons are filled with one racial group."
The reason I like Cohen's movies is because he manages to catch people unawares and highlight their own biases and blindnesses. In this case, it's the audience: we thought we were laughing at the absurdities of stereotypes of others (the Arab dictator and white liberal co-op owner really are over-the-top caricatures). But unlike with Borat or Bruno, this time the joke's on the viewer.

Because every good holiday involves a blockbuster, I also saw The Avengers. It was good cheesy fun, even though the only Avenger back-story I've watched is Captain America. You don't really need to know the histories of each of the Marvel comic characters to get the point: Earth is threatened, and a supersecret government agency rounds up six superheroes (The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow) to save it. I thought the dialogue between Captain American and Iron Man was hilarious, as was the way all the superheroes were making fun of Captain America (he was frozen for 50 years and doesn't understand a lot of modern references). Clark Gregg was great as a the serious government agent who is a giddy fan of Captain America: he embodies the audience, comic book geeks or not, who came to see a movie about superheroes because, deep down, we all like a good, clean-cut story where "obvious" good triumphs over "obvious" evil. So much simpler than all these real-life gray areas!

Continuing the "good cheesy fun" theme wasn't difficult, since Men In Black 3 was also in theatres. And this one involves time travel!  (Time travel, of course, is my sci-fi weakness.)

I'm a huge fan of Tommy Lee Jones, and in MIB3 Josh Brolin does a really good job of imitating Jones' Agent K when Will Smith goes back in time to the moon landing to save not just the Earth but his future partner.

The only not-so-cool section was near the beginning, where an entire Chinese restaurant filled with exotic, funny-looking food and funny-talking and -looking people turns out to be a cover for illegal extraterrestrial activity. When I vented to Mi Hermana after watching the movie, she reminded me that the first MIB movie had aliens disguised as Mexicans crossing the border... so I think "immigrants" and "weird aliens" are too closely linked in the MIB trilogy for my comfort.

But aside from that, they're fun to watch. And with primary election endorsements stressing me out for the entire month of May, I needed a lot of good cheesy fun to detox!