Sunday, February 24, 2013

Eclipses in the sun and moon

Right on the heels of reading what now ranks as one of my favorite books by Ann Patchett, I read what is now among my least favorites. Taft centers on a Memphis bar manager's obsession with a young girl and her troubled brother. His own rocky relationship with the mother of his son guides his fantasies of what might have happened to the pair of siblings. Throw in a small dose of Tennessee's racial dynamics and underage teenagers, and that's basically the entire storyline.

I guess my main problem with the story was that the narrator's thoughts didn't match his actions. His self-destructive indiscretions came out of the blue and completely apart from the stream of consciousness to which the reader is privy. The same goes for most of the other characters. And, like so many other of Patchett's books, Taft ends with no resolution to any of its several story arcs.

Similarly, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves left me uncomfortable while reading every short story in the collection. I really didn't like Swamplandia!, the novel based on one of the short stories in St. Lucy's.

To be clear, they are all incredibly well-written: descriptive, evocative, pathos-laden. Isolation, both emotional and physical, is manifest. Each one involves some sort of natural or human-made disaster: an avalanche, getting left in a giant conch shell overnight, being torn away from your wolf family to live with humans.

Karen Russell presents some fascinating and creative scenarios: a Minotaur on the Oregon Trail, part-wolf children sent to boarding schools, a family of alligator wrestlers. Some element of nature -- or of freaks of nature -- are central to each short story. Where a borderline sci-fi set-up isn't the norm, loss and separation is: two brothers in search of their sister's ghost, two boys stranded on a glacier, a girl left in a giant sea shell, kids plotting to misdirect seagoing turtles.

If there's anything that pervades the stories, it's melancholy. There's a barrenness, a core abandonment, that accompanies a change that the adolescent characters must face. But just like many of Patchett's stories, Karen Russell ends hers right at the cusp of when her characters are finally interesting.

The stories aren't as depressing as The Road. But it was hard to be pummeled with snapshots of dismal human experiences, ten unresolved tales in a row.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

L'├ętat, c'est moi

In my quest for a new, well-written, engaging mystery series with a female protagonist, I failed miserably in selecting The State of the Onion. Theoretically, it could have been great: the main character and unwilling detective is a sous chef at the White House. However, the characters were all so overly caricatured (the scheming staffer, the bitchy cooking show host, the kindly head chef, the Middle Eastern terrorists, the elusive international criminal) that the book wasn't very satisfying. I won't continue to read the series.

Another State completely captivated me, however: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

The story of a scientist sent to the Amazon to discover details about the research project a colleague was working on when he disappeared, I think it rivals Bel Canto for my favorite Patchett book. (Hmm..... both take place in South America.)

Like Bel Canto, a certain suspension of belief is necessary in order to melt into the storyline. But the scenarios are just real enough to make them excruciatingly compelling. And unlike so many other of Patchett's books, this one actually ends with some sort of resolution to the plot, rather than annoyingly in media res.State of Wonder encapsulates so many overlapping scientific and anthropological quandaries: pharmaceutical companies stripping the earth of resources and "primitive" cultures of privacy in pursuit of profitable life-saving drugs, the amorphous concepts of life and death in human-induced situations, and that damned illusory Fountain of Youth.  What happens when a U.S. drug company wants something that an isolated tribe in South America takes for granted, with only a team of  researchers and hundreds of miles of jungle keeping the two apart? How do individuals caught in two colliding worlds alter their values, their behavior, their beliefs? It's such a fascinating and gripping tale.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Sing with me the songs we knew

Because the 10th Anniversary Les Mis soundtrack got me through college (along with the soundtrack to Top Gun), of COURSE I ran out to see the movie with La Madre on opening day. Then I dragged The Planning Committee to see it 10 days later. Both times I sang heartily and proudly (despite La Madre's embarrassed whispers to please stop).

The first third is a bit difficult to get into, mainly because Russel Crowe as Javert is completely horrible. Javert is a pretty nuanced character whose strict adherence to the letter of the law stems from his own background. But Crowe's bad singing doesn't capture any of that. Hugh Jackson as Valjean was good but again, in the first third of the movie, seemed stilted.

However, once the storyline moves to Paris in 1832, then the movie picks up its pace.

It's the first production of Les Mis where I've actually liked Marius better than Enjolras. (At a recent local improv show, an actor imitated Marius by running around saying "Where's Cosette? She's so beautiful!" which has pretty much been my low impression of him for almost two decades.)

I was satisfied with the delivery of all of my favorite songs ("I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing,""Red and Black," "One Day More," and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Even Crowe did a halfway decent job with "Stars.")  But both "On My Own" and "Drink With Me" had verses inexplicably cut out, which I did not appreciate because it messed with my personal public sing-a-long.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are a pure sob fest, with Valjean's death and the ending scene at the barricade.

If someone wasn't already prone to loving Victor Hugo's classic or Cameron Mackintosh's theatrical brilliance, I don't see how this movie changes that. It's really only enjoyable if the viewer is already a Les Mis nerd (I literally clapped my hands like a dork when Colm Wilkinson came onscreen as the Bishop).

WaitingwaitingwaitingOMGwaiting to own the DVD!