I thought I’d expand my Reading posts to include reviews of other things (movies, music, etc).
-Saw I’m So Excited. While the movie felt like a retreading of earlier Almodóvar films, it was still immensely fun to watch. It has the melodramatic sensibilities of Live Flesh and the near slapstick of Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but never achieves the emotional depth of Talk to Her or Volver. This is a case where a filmmaker’s prior efforts can work against them — had Almodóvar made this film earlier in his career, it probably would have been better received. But still, very enjoyable and fun.
More about Pacific Rim, J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, and Max Richter’s Memoryhouse after the jump.
-Pacific Rim was well executed, although it’s best to manage your expectations going in. Do you want to see giant robots fight giant monsters? Do you want explosions and loud yelling? Do you like secondary characters with gold shoes? Then don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it just fine. This isn’t a movie that values subtlety, but it doesn’t really need to. I was impressed with Del Toro’s skill at building dense, captivating settings, as well as his ability to juggle a large cast. Charlie Day and Ron Perlman’s characters weren’t anything more than cartoons, but at least they were interesting cartoons. It was also nice to see a big summer movie with distinct tonal shifts — it felt like a push against the Christopher Nolan-type blockbuster.
-Read J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, a book from Coffee House Press that’s gotten considerable praise (particularly here and here). I enjoyed both the structure and language of the book. It centers on two characters, a British Spy and a French/Australian scientist, but always feels like it’s spiralling outward, covering a dizzying array of subjects. It touches on alternate Osama bin Ladens, Manchester United, the nativity, displaced Serbian poets, and on and on. This fragmented approach mirrors James’ tormented mental state, but also constantly rewards the reader’s attention. Ledgard also skillfully constructs long, detail rich sentences: “Though the Fanta was warm and he was chained like a dog and the sharks in the hold were buried in salt, there was something alive and enormous in being set sail on the ocean, something about the flight of the dhow in the wind and no other force, and the smoothness of the deck, where shoes were forbidden, and the planking had been polished by bare feet over a long time.” Ledgard constantly reminds the reader of the history of objects — they’re not props; they’re vessels of weight and consequence.
I have two main reservations about the novel, the first being more of a hunch. I don’t have much experience or knowledge of contemporary Africa, but I felt some discomfort about his clearly western perspective — it’s a discomfort that’s better articulated here, by someone who knows more what they’re talking about. I’m not saying that Ledgard’s perspective is wrong or amoral, just that something felt off.
My second problem was the occasional shift in voice. Most of the book uses a blank, journalistic voice (this makes sense, Ledgard is a journalist focusing on Africa), but it occasionally veered toward more involved, direct narration. I don’t mind that he’s saying things directly as opposed to through narrative, but the change is jarring.
A last note on Submergence: it startles me that a big publisher didn’t scoop this up. This isn’t a knock against Coffee House Press — they’ve put out some of my favorite books over the past decade, and Submergence is definitely in their wheelhouse. The problem is that Submergence just screams “important book.” It has elements of spy and romance genres; it’s very readable; the style and structure are experimental but not aggressively so; it focuses on current global issues. Maybe it’s too dark, too discursive? I’m not sure, but it’s alarming when the big five won’t touch a book like this.
-I loved Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, another structurally ambitious novel. It’s chapters are about 2-5 pages long, but contain just one long sentence per chapter. Hunt does add paragraph breaks for some lines of dialogue, but the book mainly consists of long blocks of text. It’s the sort of imposed structure that could come across as tedious, but Hunt pulls it off. I also admired his skill in balancing language and plot — the central questions of the book (Will Solange recover from her grief? What’s Harry’s backstory?) propel the story along, but not artificially, leaving room to showcase Hunt’s wide ranging, discursive sentences.
-Max Richter’s album Memoryhouse is quite lovely. I need more time to let it sink in — it’s a giant, swirling terror of an album, but the track “November” is an obvious standout. The high string part in the background creates a feeling of unease that sustains as the melodies shift and the piece nearly pulls apart. It’s a masterful work of repetition and rising tension.