Easy as Breathing

Out of sightHeresy: As much as I love books, as long as I’ve been reading, and even considering the degree to which I extol the importance of literature to anyone who will listen, I love movies more.

It’s true.

If I were forced to make a choice between the two, movies would win, every day of the week.  Don’t get me wrong: I love savoring authors’ language, diving deeply into story, and making personal relationships with characters, and it’s no joke that reading is a more complex intellectual task than passively watching a film for two hours.  As a teacher (and teacher educator), I can’t underscore enough the importance of being a regular reader, and of challenging ourselves to read things that force us to grow in ability and humanity.  But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t always found movies more immediate, more affecting, more visceral.  And maybe most importantly, I find myself becoming more emotionally invested in movie characters than I do in most book characters.

To top it off, some of the authors I currently love might never have popped up on my radar without the benefit of smart, talented directors (whereas I can rarely say a book has turned me on to a good movie).  Elmore Leonard is Exhibit A and probably the best example I can use.  I’d heard the name growing up but always associated it with boring genre fiction – hackneyed potboilers written to make a buck, just a step up from the Harlequin romance novels whose covers I giggled at as a kid.  It wasn’t until the solid-gold mid-90s triptych of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and especially Steven Soderbergh’s masterful adaptation of Out of Sight that I sat up and took notice.  There was clearly more going on here that I originally thought, and after poking around a little I suddenly realized the esteem attached to Leonard’s name: the master of the modern American crime novel and quite likely the best writer of dialogue in the game.

Now, after reading fifteen of his books, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to review Out of Sight, a book based on a movie I adore which I’ve seen probably a dozen times.  In other words, this will be short, because the movie is so indelibly scrawled in my mind.  The book isn’t lacking (it’s Elmore Leonard, after all), but I’ve lost the ability to take it as its own entity.  As I read, it was impossible not to see George Clooney as master thief Jack Foley or Jennifer Lopez as U.S. marshal Karen Sisco (even though in the book she’s blonde) or Ving Rhames as Foley’s good hearted accomplice Buddy (even though in the book he’s a white Southern redneck).  I heard their cadences in Leonard’s typically whip-smart dialogue and saw their faces as each scene played out.  It ceased, in other words, to be a pure reading experience and became a weird amalgam of movie and book, which is something I’ve never experienced to this degree.

One thing I’ll say is that Out of Sight is (along with Get Shorty, maybe) the best entry point to Leonard’s work.  Leonard plays with his usual tropes – especially his tendency to people his books with con men who aren’t nearly as clever as they think they are and brassy dames who are the smartest people in the room – in ways that are so original that they cease being tropes.  Jack and Karen’s halting romance – they’re thrown together when he breaks out of jail and she’s an unwitting witness to the escape – seems inevitable despite its unlikeliness.  They Meet Cute™ in a way that’s typically Leonardian – crammed together in Buddy’s trunk as he speeds away from the jail – and the two characters’ spiky banter (about Three Days of the Condor and Jack’s bank robbing CV) betrays their tentative attraction to each other, despite being at opposite ends of the career spectrum.  The job of the rest of the book is to keep them apart – while Jack and Buddy plan one last huge job in Detroit and Karen tries to track them down.  We know they’re  going to meet up eventually, and the romantic promise of that first claustrophobic encounter hangs over everything.

The problem, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that my familiarity with the movie means I don’t really know how effective this situation is for those who come to the story cold.  It feels like it works – Leonard’s characters and dialogue are as sharply-drawn as ever, and the plot is lacking some of the overly complex twists I’ve occasionally found distracting  in his other books – but there’s just no good way for me to judge.  I know too much.


Current listening:

Television marquee

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)


Victim of Circumstance

225px-ElanorrigbybookDouglas Coupland is one of those authors I think I’m supposed to really like, but with whom I’ve never quite clicked.  I know he does the kinda snarky, sorta postmodernist literary fiction that’s usually my cup o’ tea, but for some reason he’s never joined the ranks of those authors whose work I regularly seek out.  My first encounter with Coupland’s work was his first – and best known – novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. I read this in the late 1990s, at the point when I was entering my late 20s and not feeling much affinity with the generation that was supposed to define me.  I was (am?) an Xer, but the book itself – despite being about my people – didn’t do much for me.  A quick look at my bookshelf tells me that I also read Shampoo Planet, about which I remember exactly nothing.  My first exposure to Coupland’s work actually came before either of these books, listening to half of Microserfs in audiobook form on a road trip to rock climb in Yosemite National Park.  I have fond memories of that drive, but it’s highly likely the book may not have had much to do with it.

All the hype on Coupland’s work tells me we should be literary BFFs.  But here we are, with 2004’s Eleanor Rigby being only the third of his books I’ve read in twenty years.  And the hell of it is, even after reading this generally pleasant book, I’m no closer to figuring out just what I think of him.  The book is completely, resolutely fine.  I liked it.  It was a fast read.  I laughed out loud once or twice.  But I never fully engaged with the story in the way that makes a difference to a reader.

The thing is, though, I should have.  Liz Dunn, the book’s protagonist, suffers from the kind of loneliness that should have resonated with me in a big way.  I’ve written elsewhere in these reviews about struggling with anxiety and depression throughout much of my life, and there was a time in my late 20s and early 30s when I felt a sort of unrelenting loneliness, even though I had good friends and a satisfying career.  The really remarkable thing is how accurately Coupland – via Liz – pins down that specific feeling:

One of my big problems is time sickness.  When I feel lonely, I assume that the mood will never pass – that I’ll feel lonely and bad for the rest of my life, which means that I’ve wrecked both the present and the future.  And if I look back on my past, I wreck that too, by concentrating on all the things I did wrong.  The brutal thing about time sickness is that naming it is no cure.

I know that feeling exactly, the constant looking back and looking forward and dwelling on the present and being dissatisfied with all of it. (For me specifically there’s also a lot of what the late, great David Foster Wallace admitted to in a Rolling Stone interview, where he claimed to never have had a genuine human interaction because he was so plagued with social anxiety that he constantly stood one step outside himself, evaluating how his interactions with other people were going instead of just experiencing them.  But that’s a story for another therapy session.)  But somehow, despite the feeling that I knew Liz, her story was entertaining without really hitting home.

And again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it should have. Because at the point where Liz’s loneliness seems to be transitioning into despondence, she receives an unexpected visitor: the son she gave up for adoption after a drunken fling in Italy at the age of 16 resulted in an unplanned pregnancy.  Jeremy is now 20, has multiple sclerosis, and needs a place to stay.  Liz takes him in without hesitation, and the act of becoming both a mother and a caregiver gives her purpose and meaning.  Remarkably, Coupland manages to do this without ever dipping into schmaltz or sentimentality, at least partially because Jeremy himself is such an irrepressible figure.  Rather than allowing himself to be a mopey victim of his debilitating condition, Jeremy gets a job as a salesman at a mattress store, gleefully selling its customers on “sleep systems” they don’t really need.  I found it impossible to dislike Jeremy and equally improbable not to root for Liz as she haltingly emerged from her shell.  It’s really, really good stuff.

All of this plays out breezily, even after Coupland fast-forwards seven years and Liz finds herself arrested in Germany on suspicions of terrorism, which involves a plot twist whose intricacies I won’t reveal here.  The fact that I found myself willingly entertaining these plot contortions (which also include a meteorite crash, Jeremy’s occasional bouts with prophetic visions, and flashbacks to Liz’s days in Italy) is a credit to the thoughtful way Coupland balances humor and pathos, and the sensitivity he pays to each of his characters – even Liz’s diminutive boss Liam (aka, The Dwarf to Whom I Report).

But as I say, this book never clicked with me in the way I thought it should.  I’m not sure what to chalk it up to, but I suspect it might have to do with this simple truth: I’m not lonely anymore.  I can remember those feelings, but at a remove, like a photograph that’s started to fade in the sun.  And because I don’t remember them fondly, Liz’s struggles carry perhaps just a bit too much verisimilitude for comfort, even though I found much in the book to otherwise enjoy.

Which leaves me pretty much where I started: I still don’t know what to make of Douglas Coupland.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that I’m willing to try another of his books to see if that’s the one to make a difference.


Current listening:

Stone turns

The Stone Roses – Turns Into Stone (1992)

Fragments of a Former Moon

Clive coldheartWhile I appreciate a good epic as much as the next movie nerd, I’ve always sort of felt like there are few good reasons for a director to take more than 120 minutes to tell a story.  I’m thinking here of people like Judd Apatow (whom I love) and Michael Bay (whom I don’t).  As much as I like Funny People, 146 minutes is about 30 too many, and anyone who has the patience for a 150-minute Transformers movie has a greater tolerance for watching cars fall from the sky than I do.  Ditto Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit movies, which are entertaining enough but seem to exist for little reason other than finding new and inventive ways to feature CGI orc slaughter.  It’s okay in moderation, but nine hours’ worth?

Of course there are exceptions.  For my tastes, three hours of Quentin Tarantino is rarely enough, and a sun-blasted epic like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West earns every second of its 165-minute running time.  I also admit to a soft spot for admittedly self-indulgent monsters like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.  Sure, they could be trimmed, but when what we’re seeing is so good, who’s complaining?  The point is: If you can’t tell your story in two hours, you’d better have a damn good reason for taking up more time.

The same holds true for novels.  Give me 400 pages or less, and I’m yours for the duration, usually without question.  The higher above 400 you go, the more pushback you’re going to get.  600 or more pages and it needs to be a cracking good story that moves, or it better be something that justifies the length, something that needs to be woven in an epic tapestry.  I usually don’t mind an 800-page Stephen King novel because I know the kind of momentum he gathers – it’s going to be a quick read regardless of length.  And it’s folly to think a novel as rich as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas can be told in anything less than 500 pages.  Both authors earn the length through style and content.  And that’s really the key with both movies and books: I’m giving you my time, so earn it.

Therein lies the problem with Clive Barker’s 800-page Coldheart Canyon, a book seemingly tailor-made for the expression spinning its wheels.  It’s intermittently fascinating, but it’s also tedious, long-winded, and masturbatory, with lengthy sequences that could be excised without losing much of anything other than bulk.

And that really pains me.

When I name the authors who were influential to my development as a reader (and writer), I immediately name the usual suspects: King, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury.  But Clive Barker would absolutely be a little further down the list.  His short story cycle The Books of Blood was hugely important to me in high school.  Its graphic depiction of violence and frank handling of sexuality was new to me, and the way Barker suffused each of the stories – even the most sensational ones – with a sense of creeping dread haunted my waking and sleeping moments alike.  And I don’t remember many of the details of his lengthy novels Imajica, Weaveworld, and The Great and Secret Show, but I devoured them whole, regardless of length.  The latter book made an especially big impression, so much so that I remember reading it aloud to my college girlfriend, savoring again the chance to immerse myself in its story and characters.

But I knew Coldheart Canyon was going to be trouble from the get-go.  It begins with a lengthy prologue where Zeffer, an actress’ assistant, buys a tiled room from an alcoholic Romanian priest in the 1920s.  The room is important, the tiles are important, the actress is important, the assistant is important, and, yes, foreshadowing – but the execution is soporific.  It’s a meandering start that features none of the atmosphere I always appreciated in Barker’s work, and the effect I think he’s after with this section – to set the stage for the gruesome details to come – is dulled because the sequence itself doesn’t really work.  It’s hard to build tension with fifty pages of tedium.

Fast-forward seventyish years, and we’re introduced to Todd Pickett, an actor of the pretty but vacuous variety; an empty head who’s nonetheless on top of the world thanks to starring in a series of popular action movies where things blow up real good.  He’s at the point in his career where his looks are starting to fade, his career is starting to falter, and insecurity is setting in.  At this especially susceptible point, Todd is told by his manager and a Hollywood producer that he could benefit from a little plastic surgery.  This procedure goes horribly wrong, and he’s ferreted away to heal in a dilapidated mansion in a hidden canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

In this house in the titular canyon, Todd meets the actress from the 1920s prologue who has miraculously been kept young by the tiled room shipped back from Romania and installed in the mansion.  As it turns out, though (because this is a Clive Barker book), the actress and the tiled room and the mansion all harbor a secret that proves to be disastrous to Todd (hint: it rhymes with “Rates of Bell”).

There’s a good novel in here, but Barker buries it in byzantine digressions: passages on Todd’s career and the destructive nature of Hollywood; a long section on the death of his dog; the introduction to the president of Todd’s fan club (who comes to play a major role in the story); some late-book chapters focusing on an ex-cop writing a book; and more gratuitous sex scenes between the dead and the living than you can shake a tumescent stick at.  I experienced a moment of pure despondence at the point when the book seemed to be at a climax yet still had 200 pages to go.  This isn’t something I’m accustomed to feeling with Barker’s work, which I always recalled as being streamlined and relentless.  Coldheart Canyon, by contrast, seemed like a flabby houseguest who overstayed his welcome by a week and a half.

It’s not a total loss.  The central conceit – basically a tiled mosaic that comes to life to possess and obsess the living – is certainly cool (especially once Barker reveals the mosaic’s specific history), and there are haunting passages galore, especially the sections that focus on the half-animal/half-human creatures that dwell in the mansion’s overgrown garden.  But man: Coldheart Canyon is unnecessarily long and unpleasantly loquacious.  After twenty years of not reading Barker, this was an unfortunate way to get reacquainted.


Current listening:

Algiers st

Algiers – Self-titled (2015)

Adventures in Dementia


Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)