Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hunger by Elise Blackwell (revisited)

So, I've given the book a little more thought since yesterday. It's actually haunting. Like Brokeback Mountain, which I kind of liked and thought pretty good, but which then haunted me in a way I didn't expect after I left the theatre. That's how this book was. The book itself was interesting, with moments of lyrical prose and vibrant, sensual evocation. But it was only after, thinking about the protagonist, and his struggle with the moral compromise that he enacted, and how that shaped his sense of himself. He wouldn't have survived if he hadn't done what he did. But in surviving, he was forced to watch his strong, deeply-adored wife fade away. He did good things after, but there's still the sense of the disquiet of his own conscience. There are a lot of interesting issues explored in the book--the question of what it's acceptable to do for one's children, but not for oneself alone, the question of the different kinds of bravery and cowardice, the question of where you draw the line on what you will or won't do to survive. And of course, what amount of good works after would justify morally-questionable actions undertaken in one's past.

But it was the image of his wife, starving and dying, that haunted me the most. The notion that there can be golden, happy years in which there's little or no inkling of doom, and then suddenly everything changes and life unravels into sadness, loss and desperation. I think, because I've seen this so often, I actually live, waiting for that axe to fall. I don't feel any particular privelege, except the sense of gratitude that so far, I have lived in a peaceful and relatively prosperous time (even with the financial crisis, we haven't yet been reduced to eating bark, grass and dirt to try to feel full. We've lost a lot, but we're still a long way from that and relatively speaking, we are still a prosperous nation and people for the most part). It puts things into perspective, but it also makes me wonder if and when the axe will fall. Of course, we'll never know that. But knowing how often in times past, peaceful, prosperous lives have been shattered by large-scale disaster leaves me in no doubt as to the presence of the axe--nor of the fact that if I manage to live my life without it falling, at the societal, not the personal level (since to live is to have axes falling in one's personal life. That's just the nature of life itself), it will just be sheer good luck for me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

Part of my new plan is to try to read a book a day, whenever possible. I have no restrictions on type of book (fiction, non-fiction etc). But, in preparation for law school, I need to apply some speed reading techniques to my regimen. In theory, this will provide me with that opportunity.

But alas, today, I didn't speed read. I just read, at normal pace, a relatively short book.

It's called Hunger. In a strange bit of synchronicity, it takes place during the siege of Leningrad, among a group of botanists who work at a seed bank. They are embattled because the prevailing theory of "vernalization"--i.e. the notion, put forth by Trofim Lysenko, that seeds can acquire and pass down traits that are not part of their genetic code, but that are rather, parts of environmental exposure--has meant that the government has decided to view bona fide geneticists as enemies of the state (vernalization became part of the official party policy and resulted in poor harvests and lots of suffering). This is later, as this small group must live daily with seeds but resist eating them in a time when people were eating dirt, and bark and so on in order to survive.

It's oddly synchronous because a week or so ago, Tom was telling me about Lysenko and his experiments. And then this past week, we heard about him in my Russian history lecture. And now, I stumble upon this book, which I bought years ago, when, for reasons unknown, the dollar store at the corner was suddenly getting really intriguing books in, which they in turn sold for a dollar. I'd come home with bags of books--a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, a couple of intriguing non-fiction treatises, a translation from Russian of a classic SF novel, a copy of Ender's Game that I gave to a friend, and so on. Very intriguing. This was one of them. The back cover mentions nothing about Lysenko nor Leningrad, for that matter. So it was really chance that I picked it up and opened it. And then I thought "I'd better read it--it's oddly relevant to the moment."

It's not long, which is why I managed to read it today without doing speed reading stuff--only 130, rather sparsely-printed pages. And it's not even full trade size.

It's not a bad book. I didn't find it wonderful, but perhaps it is meant to be dwelt upon for longer than a day.

She uses the recurring motif of Babylon to create a parallel between two lost cities--the Leningrad that existed before the war, and Babylon. It's an imperfect parallel, I think, in the sense that there's a feeling of halcyon days and glorious idylls to do with Babylon, whereas prewar Leningrad was no fun, because the purges were in full swing. But she does keep the chronology somewhat unclear, so a reader might not realise this. She describes the protagonist's halcyon days in Leningrad years before (and elsewhere as he travels to collect seeds), but doesn't go into all the details of the purges and oppression of the late 30s. So, in the book it seems like the dark times somehow came with the war, though this isn't really the case.

On the other hand, perhaps her intention is to create the parallel between Babylon and the seedbank and the people who populated that, in search of knowledge and the stories and histories hidden in ancient grains.

She has an evocative writing style--an occasionally remarkable turn of phrase. Similarly, the halcyon days, both abroad and in Leningrad are encapsulated in prose that has a luminous, vibrant clarity to it that is nice to read. It seems a crime to skip over such carefully crafted prose.

I don't know how I shall do it. But that will be one of my projects for the summer--to work on improving my reading speed, but also to work on being able to turn it on and off at will. Skim here, read closely there.

This book was pleasant but only occasionally moved me, and then not all that deeply. The imagery surrounding the hunger was sometimes potent, as was her evocation of detail in what people would eat in order to sate it--which was tragic. Also, the wife, Alena's, inability to have children, of course struck a poignant note for me.

A final element that struck me was the protagonist's talk of how it would have been easier with children (in his opinion) because then, during the starvation, the justification would have come more easily. It is more acceptable to steal and to do extreme, morally-questionable things when your child's life is at stake. People understand and accept that, where they judge those who would do the same to save their own lives.

But I'm not dwelling on it overlong--there is too much else to do, though I hate giving any novel, particularly a well-crafted one that has obviously taken a lot of work and research, short shrift. There are undoubtedly layers and nuances that I have missed in my quick read through of it.

Still, for now, that is the nature of the undertaking. I'm writing this--coming back to this blog--to remind me of my impressions of the books I read during this undertaking.

And as for this one--if a fictionalized visioning of the subject matter interests you, then by all means, track it down. It was interesting, but not deeply potent, for me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur

Just in the process of reading it.

The basic argument:Christianity as we know it was shaped ~3rd century C.E. and at that time it was decided that certain common myths and archetypal elements of the hero's journey be personalised and embodied in the life of Jesus. So, elements including divine ancestry, a virgin birth, a guiding star as well as the sermon on the mount, the torture and crucifixion were taken out of the general mythical context and applied to the life of Jesus. According to Harpur, we actually have very little evidence regarding what Jesus's life might actually have been, but it seems likely it has little to do with the story that has been passed down, because all of the above elements (and more) pre-existed the Christian story and can be found, for instance, in Egyptian mythology.

From my understanding, Harpur feels that when these elements exist in a common "mythosphere" [my coinage], we can apply them to ourselves and derive power from them. By literalizing them and embodying them in an individual's life, early Christianity created a paradigm against which everyone would fall short--and robbed the myth of its metaphorical power and resonance.

My concern with the book: Harpur does state at the outset that this is meant to be a widely accessible work rather than a scholarly piece of writing. Still, given what little I do know about the early texts, a lot of the information that is derived from them seems sketchy and open to a wide margin of interpretation. Some of his neat little etymological progressions [Osiris=el Asar (Hebraic version)=El Asar-us (Latin suffix)=Lazarus] seem a little suspicious and overly convenient. I cannot help but wonder whether some of his other connections are also that way. Also, his version of the Horus myth is very different from the one I'm familiar with. There are often different version of myths out there, but still, it makes me wonder how much it has been tweaked to fit in with certain arguments.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine in Kinky Boots

Recently viewed:

Shaun of the Dead: Cute, quirky. A little bit of a long lead in, but ultimately fun. (spoiler warning) Finally, a zombie movie that presents a resolution and some measure of a return to ordinary life, after the zombies show up.

Little Miss Sunshine: Cute, quirky and Abigail Breslin really is charming. Nothing groundbreaking, but fun to watch. A review I read identified it as "a mainstream movie masquerading as an indie" which I think is fair. It's funny to realise that stuff like gayness and drag are just about normal at this point, which leads us to...

Kinky Boots: Cute, quirky. Fully Monty but with drag queens instead of strippers.

Connie and Carla: Cute, quirky. Some Like It Hot, but with women who pretend to be men who are spectacularly convincing drag queens (you'd think I was on a drag jag, except that I didn't realise that drag was part of the premise when I signed it out, as the cover copy is rather coy about the whole issue). Charming, if you like show tunes and cheesiness (I do). I had very low expectations, and so I was pleasantly surprised and actually enjoyed it, as I might not have done were my expectations higher. Precisely the kind of thing I would imagine that Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette would do as a team. No doubt far edgier when Julie Andrews did it in Victor/Victoria, but with fewer warm fuzzies...?

Delirious: Rarely cute or quirky. I can see that it might have been groundbreaking at the time, and certainly see how people like Dave Chapelle have been informed by it. Sometimes funny, though the homophobic opening was offputting (and there were other facets as well that didn't age gracefully). On the other hand, perhaps with standup, it's more admirable to note that there were actually some parts that I still found funny so many years after it was done...?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Films of Interest

The Queen
Little Miss Sunshine

Unleashed (with Jet Li)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Pan's Labyrinth
For your Consideration
[maybe] Stranger than Fiction


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Raising Helen and UltraViolet

Well, we didn't get to the more substantial picks--Hotel Rwanda and (so I understand?!) The Green Mile. Maybe next time 'round, as I feel I'm ready to see them both. But Tom also wants to see 'em and he's been too busy this week.

So instead, I rented a number of forgettables (sorry to say that about anyone's films, but I really don't believe that I'll remember these very well in the years to come without the aid of these notes).

Raising Helen--Romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson (I'm still not sure whether I like her or find her annoying, though she's likeable enough, I suppose) and the DJ guy from Northern Exposure whose name eludes me at the moment (he was also in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Chris something--Corbett, perhaps. It was pleasant enough. It followed a fairly standard story arc, though I thought it took too long getting started/establishing her life before the catalyst/inciting incident. I can't say the idea of dating a Lutheran pastor holds great appeal to me, regardless of how trendy he is, but I guess it's a notion that has some appeal within the culture as it's evolving right now. And of course, it was pleasant and innocuous enough.

UltraViolet--neat visual effects; they've done it up so that it has a video-game, vector-based feel to it that's kind of cool, though ironic, in that game designers work so hard in video games to make them seem real, and here's a live-action flick that's voluntarily taking on that vector-y look. Neat premise of vampirism as a disease (originally created for a form of biological warfare gone awry).

It seems, though, as if Milla Jovovich is really getting typecast as post-apocalyptic tough chick in action flick type roles (the two Resident Evil films come to mind. I know there was some kind of epidemic involved there as well, though my memories of it are vague. Was that a Zombie-making one?). She works well in such roles because her features seem chiselled and honed, but she has this funny, slightly twitchy way of holding her mouth that makes her seem vulnerable despite the tough veneer. It works, IMO.

But, the real reason I like her as a screen presence, I think, is because of her role in the film Dummy in which Adrien Brody plays a wannabe ventriloquist. MJ plays Fangora--Fanny for short--this gangly, wacky and socially inept friend of his. She gives him all sorts of advice in order to forward his love life and--unfortunately for him, he follows it, with disastrous consequences. And yet the character of Fanny is so goofy and well-meaning that the viewer forgives her. That was also the first movie in which I really noticed how much work she's done with her accent. It's impressive.

At any rate, having seen her in that, pulling off humour so well (which I really do believe is one of the more difficult modes to do successfully--particularly when the character is deadpan and unaware of how funny she is), it does seem to me that she's somewhat wasted in these kickass chick flicks with the bared abdomen and the kaRAte-chop moves.

But perhaps she divides her time between those and indies like Dummy. One can only hope so.

Save the Cat

An intriguing-sounding book on screenwriting to check out at some point: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Also, the book on music basics Tom was talking about. :-)

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Lost Generation

I've been reading a little about them recently (and of course, the many lost generations, in 1491, which so far impresses me).

At any rate, I'm curious to see the film Last Call (about F. Scott Fitzgerald, starring Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell), so I thought I'd best add it to the list before it falls out of my line of sight, to be forgotten evermore. Zelda Fitzgerald seems an interesting figure.