Saturday, April 23, 2016

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin (2009)

I've never read anything by Colm Toibin before.  I'd imagine for many people that Brooklyn will be their first introduction.  This is also something of a first for Flying Houses: the first time a book has been reviewed where the critic has seen the film adaptation first.

Is the book better than the movie?  Yes.  Is the movie vastly inferior?  No.  In fact, the adaptation is remarkably well done.  There are still a few tiny details that bother me, things that got left out of the movie to keep the story smaller, but generally I wanted to cry throughout almost the entire running time (though it may have been partially due to my mood that day).  The book is not really that much better until the end.

I might have mentioned something about the movie getting a good review from a very tough critic for the Redeye to my friend Juan, and he suddenly recalled that he had read it after he left Brooklyn in 2013, shortly before writing his review of Anna Karenina.  We went to see the film.  Then, shortly after the experience previously reported, of picking out the latest Murakami from the Humboldt Park CPL, he returned the next day with War and Peace, Brooklyn and Howl's Moving Castle.  He said I should read Brooklyn so I did that.

The plot is fairly simple, and depends on how much one intends to spoil.  I believe the trailer for the film gave away a significant portion of the plot, and all I will say is that it is an account of an Irish girl's immigration to the U.S.  It is is not giving away too much to say she enters into a romantic relationship with a young man named Tony, but anything beyond that, I will refrain from mentioning--which is a shame because much of the most beautiful writing comes at the end (including the near-perfect, final, bittersweet sentence).  Maybe after some asterisks, I'll discuss the ending.

Basically, this is a very good book, but I felt sort of disinterested by it up until the end.  That's not totally accurate, but I just mean sometimes I will have it with me at my office desk and I'll eat lunch and have it open in front of me and I'll glance off and read something on the internet instead.  Maybe in a way the opening is kind of boring and slow, but by the third act a plot has certainly developed.

It is perhaps worth noting that my former roommate Gavin was also Irish and went to see the film and remarked that the practices of changing into one's swimwear at the beach, rather than wearing it under their clothes, was a quirky and accurate Irish thing.

The girl's name is Eilis and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose, who is about 30 and a great golfer and popular person about town.  As the novel opens Eilis gets a job with Ms. Kelly, who runs an expensive and popular grocery store in town.  Soon after, a priest from their neighborhood returns to visit from the U.S. and tells their family about all of the Irish transplants in Brooklyn and what opportunities might be available for Eilis there.  It becomes a given that she'll go, and she does, and she works at a women's department store.

The book is broken up into four parts.  Part One depicts her life in Ireland and her voyage across the Atlantic.  Part Two depicts her life in Brooklyn before meeting Tony.  Part Three depicts her life in Brooklyn after meeting Tony.  Part Four depicts her return visit to Ireland.

I will say that the depictions of Eilis's homesickness are the first really sad scenes in the book, with several more to come.  One element left out of the movie was Eilis's three older brothers, who had moved to England, and Jack in particular, who is the closest to her in age, and visits with her in Liverpool before her ship leaves for New York.  He tells her that homesickness is to be expected:

"He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like.  His manner was so mild and good-humored, just as her father's had been, that he would not in any case want to complain.  She considered writing to him asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing.  It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that would never see anything in daylight again.  She did not know what she was going to do.  But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her." (73)

There is effusive praise, nearly six pages worth, of blurbs at the beginning of this paperback edition I read.  Make no mistake that this is a very good book, but a couple of those blurbs got me thinking.  One of them mentioned how there were no real antagonists in this novel, and to an extent I agree, though some of the other girls in the boarding house in Brooklyn are not necessarily helpful.  I was surprised by a couple things in this novel--one of which I will put below the asterisks.  The first is the depiction of Dolores, a girl who moves in after another girl exits, when Eilis is given the immensely better basement bedroom with a private entrance.  Dolores is a cleaning lady, and she cleans the boarding house for reduced rent.  She wants to go to the dances with the girls, but they are all mean to her, and so is Eilis.  Or, while not exactly mean, she is certainly curt.  She is not a perfect character.  And this novel truly is more of a character study than a plot driven vehicle, except for Part Four.

So yes, I think if you saw the movie, you should check this out.  I will definitely watch the movie again to compare it to the novel, though I'm not sure I'll review it.


I write separately to address the ending.  The second thing that really surprised me was when she went back to Ireland and casually just sort of started making out with Jim Farrell at the dance after their day together with the Nancy and George.  It seemed out of character.  And then I was genuinely shocked when it was made pretty explicitly clear that she regretted what happened in Brooklyn, and she is only going back out of a sense of obligation, and is sort of disappointed.  This is such a beautifully bittersweet thing to convey, and that is why I think the ending is the best part.  Consider this separate part an anti-The Art of Fielding.  The ending makes this book great, instead of the one thing that keeps it from being great:

"The idea that she would leave all of this--the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting--and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now.  She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay back with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival.
Sometimes it came as a sharp reminder, but much of the time it did not come at all.  She had to make an effort now to remember that she really was married to Tony, that she would face into the sweltering heat of Brooklyn and the daily boredom of the shop floor at Bartocci's and her room at Mrs, Kehoe's.  She would face into a life that seemed now an ordeal, with strange people, strange accents, strange streets.  She tried to think of Tony now as a loving and comforting presence, but she saw instead someone she was allied with whether she liked it or not, someone who was, she thought, unlikely to allow her to forget the nature of the alliance and his need for her to return."  (241)

All I have to say is that this was not properly brought out in the film.  Or maybe it was, but I didn't sense that Eilis wanted to stay.  I mean, maybe a little bit, but I didn't get the sense of dread of returning.  Saoirse Ronan deserved to be nominated for Best Actress, but she did not deserve to win if she meant to convey the sentiments expressed in the above passage.  It felt like the film clipped out certain things, while still not being "Hollywood" about it.

I don't really know what else to say about this novel so...yeah.  For some reason, it makes me incredibly nostalgic and sad, in a painful way.  There are a lot of things going on in my life that make me identify with Eilis, even though I am not an Irish immigrant girl in the 1950's.  I guess because I lived on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights (where Eilis stays with Mrs. Kehoe) and because I was torn between a new life in Brooklyn or my "old life" in Chicago (still, no ocean separates the two, but I like being a 45 minute drive away from my parents) and because I've gotten involved in relationships of which my parents don't approve--though Eilis's mother beautifully handles her confession at the very end of the novel.  That's another ridiculously sad part, where her mother can't even bring herself to say goodbye to her the morning of her departure.  I guess there are just a lot of themes in this novel that touch me and make me feel uneasy about the choices I've made in my life and how I really feel like I'm finally "growing up" as I approach my mid-30's (I am still in my early thirties, comfortably, for 11 more months!).  I tend to wonder if other people feel the same way.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014) (Trans. Philip Gabriel) (JK)

Oeuvre rule: as previously mentioned in my review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (WITAWITAR), Murakami is the author of the only book I have read in the past 8 years that did not result in a review on Flying Houses.  Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is an interesting book and I would recommend it, but among the three Murakami books I have read, it would be on the bottom.  WITAWITAR would be at the top and this would be in the middle.

The incomparable Dr. Emily Dufton has graciously reviewed both IQ84 and this book for Flying Houses and now I will offer my first fiction review of this redoubtable literary giant.  Most of my comments will be repetitive of Emily's, and she has certainly read much more of his oeuvre than I have, so her review is more authoritative as a seasoned reader of his.  I hope that my review will be useful for relative Murakami newbies.

The first thing that struck me about Tsukuru is its relative lack of fantasy sequences.  Maybe Hard-Boiled Wonderland was a bad example, but I feel like most of his other works are similarly fantasy-driven.  This is actually a very realistic novel.  The main character is 36, and it takes place in present day, and I feel that its reflective of our times and remarkably perceptive about all the different forms of passive aggression.

The main thrust of the story is that Tsukuru has been abandoned by his four closest friends at age 20, and 16 years later, he goes back to investigate why they suddenly decided to cease contact.  It ends up being a relatively simple explanation--and while I am not going to spoil it here (unlike The Art of Fielding - let spoilers be reserved for disappointing endings)--the explanation does sort of reference the only quasi-fantasy sequences in this book, which are erotic dreams.  I do want to say that I think that element is beautifully evoked in Tsukuru.

I was with a friend at the library and he wanted to pick something out to read on his spring break, and they didn't have the Tolstoy he wanted.  I perused the aisles with him and thought to see if they had any Murakami.  I found this available and told him to take it out.  He read it in like a day or two.  It's 380 pages or so but the pages are small.  He said I should read it, so after finishing M Train I picked this up.  It was good for us to read the same thing and to be able to talk about it.  For example, I asked him, "Does Haida come back?"  He said, "Do you want me to spoil it for you?" I said, "No."  And now I know what happens and I have to say that matters being left sort of unresolved at the ending (I don't think it's spoiling anything to reveal that) made the book feel less satisfying to me.  Murakami did not want to write a standard happy ending.  This is a really quirky little book, and kind of delightful at times for its simplicity and directness.  It is a pleasure to read the language, which is to the credit of Philip Gabriel.

I could quote any number of passages, but inevitably I must include something from the sequence with Haida...But first I came across one hilarious aspect of the sequence with Ao:

"As Tsukuru was wondering how to respond, 'Viva Las Vegas!' blared out on Ao's cell phone again.  He checked the caller's name and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
'I'm sorry, but I really need to get back to the office, back to hustling cars.  Would you mind walking with me to the dealership?
They walked down the street, side by side, not speaking for a while.  Tsukuru was the first to break the silence, 'Tell me, why "Viva Las Vegas!" as your ringtone?'
Ao chuckled.  'Have you seen that movie?'
'A long time ago, on late-night TV.  I didn't watch the whole thing.'
'Kind of a silly movie, wasn't it?'
Tsukuru gave a neutral smile.
'Three years ago I was invited, as the top salesmen in Japan, to attend a conference in Las Vegas for U.S. Lexus dealers.  More of a reward for my performance than a real conference.  After meetings in the morning, it was gambling and drinking the rest of the day.  '"Viva Las Vegas!" was like the city's theme song--you heard it everywhere you went.  When I hit it big at roulette, too, it was playing in the background.  Since then that song's been my lucky charm." (182)

Murakami translated Raymond Carver into Japanese, and spent time with him in the late 80's.  At times I feel as if he is mimicking Carver in the starkness of the language and the generally sad story.  This is not an unwelcome development.  Anyways, in the Haida sequence, I thought things were just going to be so innocent, so when it became the raunchiest part of the book, I was sort of relieved:

"Now, though, he wasn't coming inside Shiro, but in Haida.  The girls had suddenly disappeared, and Haida had taken their place.  Just as Tsukuru came, Haida had quickly bent over, taken Tsukuru's penis in his mouth, and--careful not to get the sheets dirty--taken all the gushing semen inside his mouth.  Tsukuru came violently, the semen copious.  Haida patiently accepted all of it, and when Tsukuru had finished, Haida licked his penis clean with his tongue.  He seemed used to it.  At least it felt that way.  Haida quietly rose from the bed and went to the bathroom.  Tsukuru heard water running from the faucet.  Haida was probably rinsing his mouth." (127)

Okay, I'm sorry, that was probably the dirtiest thing I have ever posted on this blog, so I'm sorry if it offended you.  It's just that something about this book just seems a little prudish, and then it kind of breaks into this hugely graphic scene.  It's a nice contrast.

I really don't know what else to say about this book.  Dr. Dufton noted that Murakami seems to be getting repetitive with age, but this was still a very good book.  And I agree, while professing ignorance on the former topic.  I do want to say that I think there are a few loose ends that remain untied.  Of course, there is the obvious big uncertainty at the end with Sara, but on the whole I think the whole ending sequence is very beautiful, if a bit strange with all the phones ringing and not getting picked up.  There's a definite atmosphere to the ending, as well as with Tsukuru's lonely pastime of watching from a bench as the trains arrive and depart at stations in Helsinki and Tokyo.  I don't understand what Haida's story about his father (or is it made up?) means, or the significance of Haida as a character in relation to Shiro.  There is this great passage though, involving Tsukuru's first girlfriend at age 21, shortly after Haida leaves their college:

"She wasn't good at cooking, but enjoyed cleaning, and before long she had his apartment sparkling clean.  She replaced his curtains, sheets, pillowcases, towels, and bath mats with brand-new ones.  She brought color and vitality into Tsukuru's post-Haida life.  But he didn't choose to sleep with her out of passion, or because he was fond of her, or even to lessen his loneliness.  Though he probably would never have admitted it, he was hoping to prove to himself that he wasn't gay, that he was capable of having sex with a real woman, not just in his dreams.  This was his main objective." (142-143)

It's a good story, and though it seems a few things remain unsettled, it seems like this narrative gets wrapped up a bit more tidily than most of Murakami's other novels.  Dr. Dufton could correct me if I am wrong.  Like her, I am glad I read it.  Unlike her, I look forward to experiencing the rest of Murakami's oeuvre for the first time.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Shellac - 3/30/16 @ Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL

I had been meaning to see Shellac for more than a year and a half.  They had last played Chicago in July of 2014, and had fallen off my radar, so I missed them.  They play randomly, it's not like they're announcing their tours on Pitchfork.  When I first heard about this show, it was already sold out.  Luckily I was able to get a ticket from a girl on craigslist.

Actually, it was two tickets, and I paid $45 for them.  I ended up wasting one of the tickets, and I could get into the whole situation about how I tried to give them to certain other people (it's really interesting stuff, trust me) and write myself into oblivion, but I'll just admit that I wasted one ticket.  Still, I had been toying with the idea of going to Barcelona in May to go to the Primavera Festival just to get to see them.  This was a bargain.

However, I showed up at 8:00 and had to wait 15 minutes to get inside, the line out the door.  It was raining outside.  As we got inside, I could hear the distinct sound of Shellac playing "Dude Incredible" and "You Came in Me."  At first I presumed they were just playing the latest album to psyche people up or something in the restaurant/bar area of Bottom Lounge, but when I got into the view of the doors people were entering through, into the venue space, I noticed the sound got louder, and that was actually Shellac playing.  Fuck.  They were the opening band for MONO.  When I had checked the website earlier, MONO had a huge write-up, and at the bottom of the page was a line or two about Shellac.  I thought this was their idea of a joke.  Like, yeah you don't need to know much about them.  It's fucking Shellac.  But I don't know, maybe they just wanted to get to bed early?  I certainly was worrying about being up too late, so I appreciate the sentiment if that was actually the reason they opened.  Regardless, immediately I rushed inside excitedly, and got a beer quickly at the bar ($6, not too bad, not gouging you--this is one important reason why I think Bottom Lounge is a good venue).  I moved up as far as I could--maybe I could have moved up closer but I would have needed to pretend I was getting to a friend near the front.  The picture above is a fair representation of my vantage point.I heard them play the following songs.  (I may be off on the order):

A Minute
Squirrel Song
Surveyor (which was meant to be "All the Surveyors")
Steady as She Goes
Riding Bikes
End of Radio

Just getting to see that?  Worth $45.  Especially since I feel bad about not buying Dude Incredible.  Afterwards, I hung around.  I texted a friend.  I waited for MONO to go on, because I had to watch at least one of their songs before I left.  Then out of nowhere, I saw Steve Albini walk right in front of me.  I was like holy shit, if I want to talk to him, I totally have a chance.  I saw a couple people take selfies with him.  I didn't want to annoy him.

I don't know what I would have said.  In any case, it made me think about it, and a minute later I realized there was a merchandise table, and Bob Weston was sitting there.  So I bought a t-shirt off him and remarked that I was surprised it was only $15, I'd seen a lot of bands selling t-shirts for $30.  And he was like, "Well, you're getting ripped off."  I just thanked him profusely and mentioned that I missed the last show, and he was like, "Was it that long ago?"  I asked him to please play again soon because I missed the first 15 minutes because I didn't realize they were opening.  I explained about the website and how it made me suspicious, and he seemed to laugh at that.  If I am ever able to make the musician/idol I encounter laugh, then it is a gratifying experience.

It was worth the $45, but I still wish they played more songs.  I would have liked to have heard "Watch Song," "All the Surveyors," "This is a Picture," "My Black Ass," "Dude Incredible," "Prayer to God," "Billiard Player Song," and who knows what else.   I would watch them play for 2 hours.

Most evident in their performance is Albini's increasing ability to improvise.  Clearly, the best moment of the concert was the opening of "Killers."  It seems like they will always play this combo at most shows and everyone seems to know that it is the highlight.  In short I got super excited and it was an incredible performance of "Wingwalker," though not as loud or as brutal as I was hoping.  Albini's monologue was one of the better ones I've heard, with him proclaiming that we were all brothers and sisters descended from the same great grandmother and that he loved each and everyone one us but if he was up in the sky in the plane, and he had been trained to experience pleasure when he pushed the button, and he could so easily turn us all into dust, which is the problem with the fucking plane.

For the last song, everyone seemed to get excited, but I don't really like "The End of Radio" that much.  It's super boring, in the same way as "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You...," but I would rather hear that Terraform cut early on in a concert than "End of Radio" closing it out.  Clearly, "Watch Song," is the superior closing song.  Albini was quite clever in his improvisation for this one as well, but it didn't detract from the vague boredom I felt.  You can't dance to this song.  It's basically performance art.  And there was a cheer when Albini said something about apologizing to alien civilizations in 10,000 years for the shit that got played on the radio, which was nice, but yeah, I prefer their sinewy locked-in instrumentation, mixed in with Albini improv.

During the Q&A, they were asked, "What is Shellac's least favorite Shellac song?"  They could not give any by name, but Albini remarked that a whole bunch of them were batting .180 and were about to get cut.  I hope he didn't consider "This is a Picture" in that category.  If there's one critique I can make of Shellac it's that their setlist is fairly predictable.  Don't get me wrong, I am glad that "Killers/Wingwalker" always gets played, but I would like to hear some stuff off Terraform too.

Here is the T-shirt I bought.  Can anyone tell me what it means?

I'm not sure what that logo represents.

In any case, I went home and spent $17 on a cab.  What a waste.  A very memorable evening though and I am glad to memorialize it here, since my review of Dude Incredible is turning out to be surprisingly popular.  Maybe I should just write more about music to get more activity on this site.

I think that's pretty much everything I have to say about that.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Happy 8th Birthday

It's not like I have a ton of responsibilities.  I should be able to produce more than 21 posts a year, particularly when 3 of them are written by others.

Yes, you read that right, there were exactly as many posts written between April 1, 2015 - April 1, 2016 as there were from April 1, 2014 - April 1, 2015.  Flying Houses is not even a bi-monthly newsletter.

It's pathetic is what it is!  You know I've spent a lot of time over the past 8 years building this database, but does anybody really care about it?  We've had a few "celebrity visitors" in our time, but overall, this blog is not going viral anytime soon.

We now currently sit at 93,445 page views.  So we should hit 100,000 this year.  I should say that my page views are roughly current with the miles on my '05 Civic, but that car is 3 years older than this blog.  I hope to use that car for another 10 years (at least) and I hope to keep this blog another 30 years (or until I write my special comment on "facing the void").  Is it fatalistic to expect to die at 62?  I think if I got married I could go into my 80's, but if life continues its present course, I will remain single and yes, die prematurely.

Our growth slowed slightly, but again I haven't made many efforts to make many new friends or publicize the blog.   The current balance on my Google AdSense earnings is now $30.95, which means I "made" $1.74 on ad revenue over the past year (I have never been paid, as has been previously explained). (Note: I am testing out a new ad layout in an attempt to get paid more quickly.  If you find it particularly obnoxious--I am concerned it draws attention away from the links on the upper right, as well as the archived posts--please let me know in a comment.)

Perhaps our MD&A over here at FH harps on the same points every April Fool's Day, the primary point being "WTF."
WTF, why can't I get paid to write?
WTF, why doesn't anyone offer me a book deal?
WTF, can't you see I'm trying very hard here, on top of being a full-time attorney?
WTF, don't you think if I devoted myself full-time to writing that I could turn out a better product?
WTF, don't you think the product is pretty damn good as it stands?
WTF, who else is putting out content as relentlessly independent as FH?  
WTF, do you like me or should I just STFU?

These April Fool's Day MD&As do not consist of falsehoods, but operate as sarcastic truths.
You can't get paid to write because you are, in fact, a bad writer (at least one person has assured me).
You can't get a book deal because your blog is not a cultural phenomenon, and does not suggest that you will develop a bankable audience.
You may be trying hard, but it's getting to the point where you need to prioritize.  Everybody can't just be Scott Turow if they want to be.
You will never know because the only time when you would be able to devote yourself full-time to writing is when you might be otherwise unemployed, and at such times you are hounded by doubts that you are spending your time as productively as possible (i.e. writing instead of job searching).
Your product is pretty damn good, I agree, but sometimes you also get lazy and write tons of shit that would never be considered publishable by a reputable source of book reviews like the NYT or Bookslut.
Everyone else whose head isn't on straight and still thinks they've been misunderstood and discounted for the past 32 years.
Me personally, I like you, but sometimes I really don't, and I think you should STFU on your insecurities and focus on the more palatable truths on which you'll have greater agreement from the masses.

Nobody ever got a book deal by whining and saying, I really am good--look at all I've done!  So without further ado, here are the top 5 posts of the past year.

Wait, before I get there, here are the top 5 most popular posts of the past year (the number is total page views--yes my numbers really are that sad):
(1) NIED #26: 185 (because I'll always be most famous for my comments on legal education)
(2) Happy 7th Birthday: 150 (because people love reading lists and MD&As)
(3) The Pale King: 95 (because DFW is gone but not forgotten)
(4) WITAWITAR: 84 (because Murakami is so in right now)
(5) Why We Write About Ourselves: 82 (tie with Please Kill Me) (because it got retweeted by the author)

#5: S/M: Experience #4
This is the final chapter in my second novel which has managed to avoid serialization on a blog to this point.  It may not survive 2016 in its hidden form because it is quickly becoming obsolete.  Whatever I wrote about in 2007-2008 has already changed.  Regardless, it was posted on 9/11/15 because this chapter depicts that very as-yet-unknown date in the future.  I had predicted that 9/11 would be made a national holiday.  While that was wrong, it remains a "holiday week" at the Daley Center, and all attorneys must pass through security in remembrance of how dangerous we all might be.

#4: Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life
This is just an extremely long review of a very long book that is also very good (one of the "Best Books of Flying Houses").  Carver is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and I hope to review each of his collections before the end comes.

#3: Modern Romance
This is just a controversial choice that I'm surprised did not get more views.  I thought it was more titillating than any of the other reviews (except perhaps NIED #26).

#2: Chicago Cubs 2015 Report Card
A yearly Chicago Cubs report card has become as great a tradition on FH as has this MD&A.  Truly, this was the most sublime yet, though my younger brother suggested that there were many things he disagreed with (Jason Hammel and Tommy LaStella in particular).  I was worried about tweeting it @ Jon Lester when I suggested that he must have a complex over the fact that he was getting paid 40 times more than Kyle Hendricks and yet barely pitched any better than him (Michael also suggested that I oversold Hendricks, but I do not think that is the case as he has retained the #5 spot in the rotation, at this juncture, at least).

#1: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Really I think any of the above are better than this, but I felt this was one of the few instances where I offered a "critique."  It's possible I'm susceptible to the accusation that I'm not a real "critic" because I don't say enough books are bad.  Certainly, this is not a bad book, but I didn't consider it the greatest of the 21st century.

Finally, thank you all for reading.  I never really address you often enough, but if you are paying attention, know that I appreciate it.  All too often I feel as if I am speaking into a void, though even if I am, I am glad to lay down a body of work which at least includes an ur-text on The Beautiful and Damned (821 views on April 1, 2012; 5,597 views on April 1, 2016).