Bookworming

Anthropology of a Teenage Introvert

Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.

Music: Some Tom Waits.

Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.

er-anrhtopologyofanamericanI read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.

It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.

The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.

And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.

The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.

The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.

Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.

There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.

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Personalness

Accomplishments

Books: I finished Tartt’s The Secret History but it was different to what I expected and I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

Music: Cathy Davey’s The Nameless.

Mood: With a very mixed sense of accomplishment.

As of yesterday I have a PhD, in graphic design of all things. It was a long and tortuous day, to finish the whole long and tortuous process of acquiring the title. At least it’s over now and I hope to have more time for other things, like blogging*, of course (* or watching TV).

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Personalness

The Best of 2014

So, the uneven 2014 is coming to an end, which is as good an occasion as any (or, actually, better) to talk about the things that impressed me in the last twelve months.

Book of the year: The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Somehow I managed to never have read Campbell before and I can’t say I expected overmuch from this transcript of a TV program that this book is but it really blew my mind, dude. Part philosophical and religious treatise, part loose ramblings about life, it has a strange, strange power to make you question things and maybe see them a little more optimistically (or, at least, bravely), even though it doesn’t seem to try to do that.

TV show of the year: The Americans have returned with another impressive, impressive season and Orphan Black was so much fun again but they will have to share the spot with a baby show Mozart in the Jungle. Now that everyone and your aunt is making scripted TV, Amazon has joined the race and it produces a couple of pilots that it later kills or develops, depending on unclear criteria. Ever since I saw Mozart‘s pilot I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed (and that’s a long time to do that) so they would pick it up and they did, and made a whole season – so yay.

Musician of the year: I discovered Langhorne Slim and Zaz and they both climbed fast up through my listening charts, dominating them completely, but the title – both for statistical and honorary reasons – has to go to Bob Dylan (as it could almost every year, I guess?). This year I’ve (re)listened to all his albums in reverse chronological order, even the 80s, which I had always skipped almost entirely before, and I discovered some gems I didn’t even know (I also discovered some things which prove 80s might not have been music’s best decade, Dylan’s music included).

Board game of the year: This would be Legendary, a cooperative game (always my favorite kind of game) in which you fight as Marvel superheroes (my favorite kind of superheroes, no question) against one threat or another. It’s dynamic, fun and so, so geeky!

Comic of the year: If we’re talking geeky, I guess of all this year’s offerings I enjoyed most All New X-men, continuing the great tradition of Morrison and Whedon and probably some other X-men writers I don’t know. (I might know too much about X-men for the comfort of an average person but I’m far from an expert, you see.) It has young Jean Grey and this is surely a fun idea.

Video game of the year: Marvel Puzzle Quest (this ends Marvel’s domination in this list, I swear). It’s basically a match-three puzzle game, which is a pretty boring kind of game to be honest, but it’s combined with gaining and leveling superheroes (of course) and it’s so unnaturally addictive that I think it might be a part of Marvel’s plan to dominate the world. Hmph.

I’m sure there are a few exciting categories missing (food of the year? pastime of the year? eh, maybe not that exciting) but I actually have plans for the night so have a great 2015 everyone, myself included!

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Celebrations, Personalness

Merry re:indeer

Books: Shakespeare Project continues with Henry VI, part 1 now (I’m so done with Lancasters and Yorks, they were both awful), but I’m also reading a rather not-so-good fantasy series and an exciting book about a strange cult in 18th century Japan.

Music: Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas album because I have no taste or shame.

Mood: Christmassy.

re-xmas-2014EN

I thought it would be fun to write a post about all the Christmas preparations that mean one is utterly exhausted by Christmas Eve itself but I don’t have time for that, having to actually go through all those. So instead have fun during Christmas, may it be a peaceful, happy time with family and friends.

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Sounds of Music

I Love Warsaw in December

As I might have mentioned, I have recently developed quite an obsession with the French singer minimalistically called Zaz. What started as an attempt to have more contact with the French language, soon overtook my listening habits and last.fm statistics. And so when in the middle of this mania I found out Zaz would be playing in Warsaw I had no choice but to blackmail R and go. (I didn’t need to blackmail him, truth be told, he agreed completely out of self-sacrificial impulses.)

The concert was so much fun! I didn’t even mind (very much) that it started late and without an apology. And I did spend that time standing in the crowd, listening to two ladies complaining about people on welfare and how they would ask for coal and not toys for Christmas (or something? it didn’t make a lot of sense). As soon as Zaz took over the stage, though, fun began. I more often than not go to concerts of artists whose names are so big it’s a wonder I can see them live (also, whose glory days happened forty years ago so it’s a double wonder) and so their very appearance is almost a spiritual experience. In other words, I don’t care so much whether they’re inclined to entertain me or mumble into the corner of the stage (love you, Dylan). Zaz, however, turned out to be a volcano of party energy. I guess she has experience working as a cabaret singer and probably all the public-involving techniques come from that but they worked pretty well. My main source of fun, however, came from the fact that listening so much to her as-yet limited repertoire, I knew all the songs and so enjoyed them all the more. In fact, you know that feeling when you go to a concert and you hope the band wouldn’t sing too many boring songs from the new album they’re promoting? For the first time I had an opposite feeling: I was sorry she limited the stuff from her newest Paris, even though the older songs were great, too.

She went through a whole array of styles and genres, including jazz, rock, pop and something Latino (I know nothing about those genres) and through as many as three outfits, so that the mood of the concert kept changing, making it even more exciting. Also, while I consider jazz something closely related to masturbation (in how mostly only those who perform it, seem to enjoy it), in the version of Zaz’s energetic band I actually liked it. The jazz, of course. Zaz even took into consideration how few people speak French outside of France (it’s very few, French people, deal with it) and she had whole bits of narration prepared in phonetic Polish. It even included a whole fable! Not a half-assed effort, that.

Even though I was exhausted from waiting for the show and the earlier long bus ride to get there, I still felt the concert could have lasted longer. That’s not to say that it was short but it had such good energy, you just wanted more of it. The anti-welfare lady did make sure everybody knew she didn’t understand French and she only liked the first album anyway, but most people seemed to love the concert. In fact, the ovation at the end was so long and enthusiastic that the band members seemed either fascinated or completely baffled (one of them even filmed the crowd). So, even though there was no “La Parisienne” (I always have a song missing from the set list), I’m so glad we ignored our duties and went to see the concert.

The next day we also saw a pretty embarrassing exhibition on free masonry and went shopping (we bought nothing) and had great dinner in a tourist-oriented restaurant (we embody uncoolness, you know); and on the ride home we watched a lot of Buffy. Altogether, fun weekend but it doesn’t make coming back to work any easier.

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Rotten Tomatoes

The Heart Is a Lonely Fighter: Bogowie

Every now and then I let a trailer or a word of mouth for a Polish movie fool me into going to the cinema. Every time I leave telling myself: “nevermore.” Nevermore shall I be so naïve as to fall for hype only to leave disgusted (and slightly glad that  my firm belief in the suckiness of Polish cinema still holds true because we like our beliefs to turn out right, don’t we).

Well, the day to eat my words, and gladly, finally came. Bogowie (Gods) interested me with its trailer but I still expected to be heavily disappointed. Then I heard enthusiastic reviews and I thought “ugh, people are always so easy to please.” And then I saw the film.

Bogowie is the story of Zbigniew Religa, a legendary heart surgeon who carried out the first successful heart transplant in Poland when everybody considered it an unnecessary and unethical risk. I’m simplifying, Google it or watch the movie if you’re interested in the history. But even if you’re not, watch the movie because it’s damn brilliant where it has no right to be, proving me wrong. I hate medical dramas, their predictability, sentimentality and how genuinely scary they are but this film kept me engrossed and not grossed out (despite the very realistic – or at least bloody, I’m not a heart surgeon, as I’m sure you’re aware – depiction of operations on hearts). I think I ate a half of my scarf out of sheer suspense.

And here go even more reasons to watch the movie:

Actors. A wonderful lead in the person of Tomasz Kot with strong supporting cast. They create characters which are both realistic and likeable.

Tone. Despite the fact that the subject matter seems to invite sentimentality, pathos and gloom, the movie avoids all of this almost entirely (well, it retains the necessary amount, I guess). It’s dynamic, sometimes humorous and quite exciting. It is also, all in all, a very positive story which manages not to become hagiographic.

Interiors. The drab interiors of Polish apartments and public places of the 80s come to life. The movie is, in fact, a very good period drama.

It makes me really happy that Bogowie managed to revive my faith in Polish cinematography and I can try to look at the awfulness and cheerlessness of an average Polish movie as merely a failure and not a given.

 

 

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 1

In between the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and 400th anniversary of his death (that is between April 2014 and 2016) I have embarked on a self-improvement project I’ve excitingly called The Shakespeare Project, because my life is one big roller-coaster ride. I’m reading all the plays: those I already read and those I always managed to avoid. As I finished 10 plays already, let me share some reflections and hasty judgments.

1. The Tempest

Reading: Third

Pluses: The philosophy of intelligent design, as it were, how the play suggests everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t immediately see it (true, you have to read pretty deep for that and I’m sure there are other viable interpretations but I like this one). The parallelism between the high plot and the low plot of slaves’ rebellion is an interesting structural device. Prospero is interestingly ambiguous as a character.

Minuses: Some of the worst comic reliefs ever. We may as well get it out of the way immediately: I detest Shakespeare’s punning humor, his clowns and all the nonsense that happens between the good stuff. I will be berating it constantly, just saying. Also, boring romantic leads.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ (out of five)

2. The Merchant of Venice

Reading: Second

Pluses: As I didn’t remember anything out of my first reading, I really felt like I was catching up on some culturally relevant references, including “pound of flesh.” Women versus men tricks are mildly entertaining. Shylock’s character gives itself to various conflicting interpretations and is particularly challenging in the era of political correctness. I like all the interpretations stressing the role of the oppressed, including Antonio’s possible homosexuality.

Minuses: Nobody is particularly likable (nope, neither Shylock, nor the good guys). Various plots are disjoint and only come together at an effort.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

3. Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reading: Second

Pluses: This is actually one of my favorites. The first time I read it it surprised my to no end with the fact that play-making imbeciles are actually sort of funny (which goes against anything I believe, as you may imagine). I like the setting in the woods, the conflict between the two girls and the fantastic world and its never-ending cultural relevance (remember them in Sandman? Things like that).

Minuses: Shakespeare’s Athens seems like the worst place to live. That’s all.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

4. Titus Andronicus

Reading: First

Pluses: The Rome from this Roman Horror Story is an interesting intellectual proposition.

Minuses: It’s not a proposition that would appeal to me very much, though. I dislike the cartoonish violence, absurd villains and the lack of at least one likeable character.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

5. Henry IV, part 1

Reading: First. I’m particularly behind in historical dramas because they always seemed so opaque with all the mixable names of English provinces that are really people

Pluses: You can mostly tell living characters from dead ones. I guess the contrast between the high world of the court and the low one of taverns is interesting. In theory.

Minuses: Well, it is mostly boring. Prince Harry and particularly his companions are thoroughly detestable. I know we’re supposed to like Falstaff but I truly can’t fathom why.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

6. Henry IV, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Well, the prince’s transformation and his relationship with his father. These are pretty much the only moving moments of this play.

Minuses: Every. Single. Damn. Tavern. Scene. They had me groaning and pouring tears of boredom. We get it, there are many things which sound like penis! Seriously, it’s like talking to a 13-year-old in the middle of hormonal storm.

Hasty judgment: ♥

7. Richard II

Reading: First

Pluses: It is very elegantly written, with some subtle imagery and epic gloomness. A perfect lack of comic reliefs is truly perfect. Richard is quite impressively complex.

Minuses: Well, the central conflict is not that exciting or, frankly, relevant past the era of God-appointed kings. Sure, you can look for analogies with other political systems but the truth remains: it’s a play about whether you can depose the king.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

8. Much Ado About Nothing

Reading: Second

Pluses: It’s quite a breezy one, without the heaviness of even some of Shakespeare’s comedies (not to mention tragedies). Beatrice and Benedick’s affair is somewhat original, too.

Minuses: It’s really not much about anything and poor Hero is so will-free you just want to kick her.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

9. Henry V

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s almost pleasurable how detestable Henry has become. You really get the kick out of hating him. I admit the play is rather well-written, with its mixture of tones and languages.

Minuses: I guess if you’re English you might read it differently? But this is really a play about a hypocritical, war-mongering aggressor who’s almost proud of all the violence he’s about to unleash on another country. Shakespeare tries to make him heroic (or, at best, ambivalent) but there are really few saving graces here. And his romantic suit at the end makes one sorry for Catherine.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

10. Julius Caesar

Reading: First

Pluses: This one is quite a beauty. It doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition (or comic reliefs), things happen swiftly, characters make bold and stupid decisions and everything unfurls into the undoing of all but Mark Antony and Octavius. Brutus and Caesar’s dilemmas are palpable and character’s flaws make them human, not paper.

Minuses: It gets slightly more messy in the second half but the first one, up to the speeches over Caesar’s body, makes up for it.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

That’s it for now. I’ll be back with the next portion once I’ve read it. I still don’t find myself a die-hard Shakespeare fan but there certainly are fairly impressive parts to his oeuvre.

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