Oh, Have I Got A Room For You . . .

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, the tale of doomed gay love in 1950s Paris — also the namesake of the country's oldest LGBT bookstore — is a fantastic, taut sub-200-page romantic mystery — lyrically written and economic in its storytelling and universally loved by the book club (which is really, really rare!).

(That Room is written by a black author — actually, the quintessential African American literary 0voice — and does not touch on race was a thing; I think it detracts from the actual book to speculate on what isn't actually written there.)

Being a tale of doomed love, things die in this book: souls, actual people, etc. And I don't know if I've been watching too many Netflix series or whatnot, but as Room started to heat up and the intertwining stories began to come together, I had the nagging feeling that something very epic was going to happen: instead of Giovanni getting rung up for murdering Guillaume, David was actually setting Giovanni up to go to jail so he could escape the relationship — and David actually killed Guillaume! It went on like this until I finally dialed back expectations for every single goddamn story to circle back toward a third act of treachery and malaise. Which is to say, sometimes a tale of doomed love can be just that . . .

Posted: April 13th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

But Is It Good?

Having read — contemporaneously! — and very much enjoyed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I assumed his Fever Pitch memoir was a hard-earned reward for pumping out such a successful novel. It turns out that Pitch precedes Fidelity by three years. And not only that but it's basically his debut, which, after reading, makes you kind of scratch your head.

Just to be clear, the conceit of Fever Pitch is that Hornby traces his life as a soccer fan via every single match he'd ever seen. Or at least it seems that way. And it's not done in the sort of soft-pedaled frilly version where Jimmy Fallon watches a bunch of Red Sox games which become the background to his actual life. No, it's serious: every fucking goddamn match. In great detail. By an obsessive person who, at least if the in-book persona is accurate, blocks out the rest of life to focus on soccer. Which is to say, much is written about soccer.

Some of which is interesting, other stuff kind of passes by in a blur and not a whole lot about soccer sticks out. For example, a while back I had heard a description of how exhilarating it is to witness a team coming back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1; it was couched in terms of something along the lines of the entire stadium having an orgasm at the same time; this was a provocative and instructional symbol, for as an American sports fan who watches games that provide many more opportunities to score, therefore had never thought of these kinds of moments. It stuck with me and I assumed IN WAS IN THIS FUCKING BOOK. Alas, it's not and I can't figure out where it comes from. But stuff like that makes soccer come alive, or would seem to, and Pitch never quite gets there.

Fever does succeed at making obsessive fandom seem really unbecoming. Especially later in the book where he comes to terms with the underbelly of British football — Hillsborough, Heysel ("I like to think I have an answer for most irrationalities connected with football, but this one seems to defy all explanation"), the racism — it just sounds weirdly inhuman and OCD in that he acknowledges and moves on, rather quickly and expediently. Not that that's not the truth in the scheme of his life but more like what attracted people to this book in the first place?

High Fidelity addressed the same themes — obsessive behavior, male psyche — but that book softened, explained, drew you in and humanized the characters (at least to my twenty-plus-year memory of the book). Fever Pitch, on the other hand, just makes you scratch your head. There's a point later in the book where the persona begs off of a very small birthday dinner because Arsenal is playing some match; it's less cute than pathetic; and I say this as a moderate-to-high sports fan.


Elsewhere I heard or read that Pitch played a role in effectively gentrifying British football. Interesting and a seemingly outsized influence, until I remember hearing Hornby positing to Terry Gross on Fresh Air way back in 1995 to an impressionable post-grad that deep down men felt an inescapable urge to categorize things and funnel them into top-five lists. Today, I don't think this is true, but it has stuck up there in my head for quite some time . . .

Posted: April 4th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,

They Could Split The Difference And Frag Alexa

You might know Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey as the book the film was based on — I think it's safe to say that it's one of the rare adaptations that surpasses the book, though in this case that's not a terrible thing in that Clarke helped write the screenplay and then apparently produced the book afterward. Which maybe makes it more akin to a novelization, like the book version of E.T. I ordered from Scholastic back in grade school.

In any case, the book both helps and hinders the 2001 story: some philosophical or seeming philosophical moments can be slowed down for rumination; elsewhere the text could use a visual ("It was like the jigsaw puzzle of a giant that played with planets; and at the centers of many of those squares and triangles and polygons were gaping black shafts — twins of the chasm from which he had just emerged"); still elsewhere the book fleshes out the vague, arty opening of the film and follows its hominid protagonist as it gains consciousness; then again, the abstract ending of both versions could probably use each other.

My memory of the film was that Hal — the ship's murderous consciousness-raising AI assistant — was around for most of the movie. In the book Bowman shuts off the computer around page 203 and then rides the rest of the way to Jupiter in silence. Clearly that's not a great idea for a movie, Cast Away notwithstanding.

We are all very, very woke, so it was not lost on us that there are very few women in 2001. Well, there is one — the stewardess on the shuttle to the moon (whose safety instructions Bowman ignores). That said, it is mentioned that there are 600 women on the moon base, out of 1700 total, making it a sex ratio on par with the United Arab Emirates (though better than Qatar).

. . . . . . . . . .

Which is as good a point as any to bring up Andy Weir's Artemis, the followup to the popular book The Martian. As in The Martian, Artemis's stock in trade is the meticulously researched science underpinning the world in which the story takes place (see here for a taste). The solid science (I'm assuming it's solid; no way I would know) is a large part of what makes both stories so compelling: there is space travel using bogus trans-cosmic boost thrusters (ahem, Han Solo) and then there is the physical universe; I'm assuming Weir agrees that space travel is amazing enough not to have to resort to such hokum (the difference between this and 2001 is striking in this respect). Another nice part of Artemis is it's economic reality — in short, Weir's argument is that the only way a permanent moon base makes sense is to use it for tourism, which is a fun idea (and which he expounds upon here).

Where The Martian was a survival story, Artemis is a regular caper, albeit one set on the moon. As a caper, it's OK, but the science is the star here. It's already been optioned as a movie, I think before the book came out (and apparently it's currently in development); I think it'll be a fun film.

That said — oh, the portentousness of "that said" — while it is nice that this fellow Weir made the protagonist female (and it's only a slight spoiler in that it takes a few pages for this to emerge), in this day and age it can be a little touchy to some to step outside your lane to portray someone outside your immediate experience. Granted, we are talking about perhaps a hundred years from now, which if anyone stopped to ponder is audacious enough, but even if you don't subscribe to this parochial thinking, you have to admit that it is, er, ballsy to do. In this day and age. Which is all well and good. But this guy, this Weir gentleman, this guy doesn't just stop there: he also makes her Muslim. And if that weren't enough, he also makes her a boozer. And a slut — the character's self-characterization, not mine. He basically shoots the moon here. So far I haven't seen any "Identity Politics and the Problem with Artemis" think pieces but if and when the film comes out I wonder what the response will be.

Posted: April 3rd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , ,