The Great Gatsby (2013)

There have been five adaptions of The Great Gatsby, and if the 1974 Mia Farrow/Robert Redford flop is anything to go by, it’s time to give up. But if anyone can flog a dead horse, it’s Baz Luhrmann. The 2013 edition looks AMAZING! I’m dying over here!

The Catcher in the Rye: I caught a body

two words: original emo

1st edition cover, 1951

I tend to like suicidal gits who just so happen to be the smartest (and the dumbest) fucker in the room. In fact, that is the story of my life.

The Catcher in the Rye is about a rich kid – articulate, athletic, but a bit weird – whose bad day just got dipped in shit because he’s been expelled yet again from yet another prep school. Instead of returning home, he goes on a bender in his native New York City. But he’s not your predictable American-psycho entitled meathead. He’s as sad as they come. And he’s trying to tell you why, in his own voice. Seriously, it’s a first-person narrative.

Here’s what he says in a nutshell,

“I’m sensitive prick with a stupid hat and a death wish. Adults are frauds and social norms are bullshit. But if you were the underdog in any fight I’d have your back, like a catcher in the rye.”

Naturally, it caused a ruckus when it came out. A promising kid rebels to a point of self-annihilation for no apparent reason; there’s smoking, drinking, bad language, death, violence and sex, and he’s pants-down vulnerable. And what’s with J.D. Salinger’s unusual narration? Catcher’s power resides exactly in the reader’s response to these exquisite ‘problems’. Why is Holden so self-destructively disillusioned? And how did J.D. write such an original, sublimely informal and utterly convincing young voice?

It killed me. p5

Many have tried unsuccessfully to adapt the book to film, which makes me clap-hands-quietly pleased. This is one depressing slice of perfection I do not want to see happied-up or angsted-out. It’d be like adapting On The Road for screen… Wait, they did what?… NOOOOO!!!

Anyways, I adore The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve been re-reading it every chance I get for more than a decade. It gets better every time. Oddly enough, my live-in lover @galactusrages couldn’t get past the first page. He hates it in the same way I hate the sound of my own voice played back to me.  OH, HAIL NAW, there’s no goddam way I sound like that!

My lover isn’t the first or last to hate the guy; Holden Caulfield is a douche. He may be an angry, reckless, whiny bastard… wait, which emo am I talking about again? Either way, I’m in love.

o.g. original gangster-ice t

was adam intent on killing jackie too?

Idealism is always under threat of latent hypocrisy, sometimes a hypocrisy more heinous than the crime idealism protects us from.

Jack Burden participated in Adam Stanton’s betrayal of his ideals. He convinced him to work with Willie Stark and unearthed the indiscretions, though noble, of his father. He also unwittingly handed his sister, Anne, over to Willie, thus corrupting everything Adam cared about. He appears to aim the gun at Jackie, but Sugarboy killed him before he could fire. By Adam’s standards, just like the woman from the north who brutalized her slaves in the south, the ‘friend of his youth’, deserved to die along with Willie Stark. Blot out the enemy, whip them, murder them, sell them down river. Anything but abide a knowing look in their eyes.

I believe he wanted it to be a double homicide.

the lion, the witch and the wardrobe: propoganda posing as fantasy

two words: anglo-christian bollocks

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy parable for children, written by English novelist and lay theologian, C.S. Lewis. Four young siblings in wartime England access a parallel and fantastical world though a mysterious wardrobe found in a safe-home they’ve been relocated to in the country. In this parallel world, with the help of the lion, Aslan, they must defeat the tyrannical White Witch, Jadis, and fulfill a prophecy of a peaceful Narnia under their reign.

It should have been a charming story about the redemptive qualities of imagination during war. C. S. Lewis, however, was a zealous christian apologist.

In full disclosure, I’m an atheist, but I can still like a good story. A more pertinent preexisting condition is, I just came off reading The Painted Bird, and after Kosinski, Tumnus the faun, made my skin crawl. But I accept that as my problem. Clive Staples Lewis’s problem was his lack of imagination.

I can understand how a book like The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe gets written – the inscription to his god-daughter, whom he wrote it for, is the sweetest thing – but how it remains relevant outside England and among non-Christians is baffling. The Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve references are heavy-handed and insular at best. Then there’s the Lilith reference in his Jadis description,

She’s no daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, her they call Lilith and she was one of the Jinn… There isn’t a real drop of human blood in the witch. p.73

The White Witch is his only original character and he manages to be gender and culture-insensitive (I’m still being kind) in one fell swoop, not to mention the “There’s no use frightening the girls,” and “Battles are ugly when women fight,” comments. But just when you think the story can be redeemed beyond its insularity, here comes Santa Claus, I kid you not. It is a transparent play for feel-good points, and as tired a character as one can steal from a coke ad.

bayne is renowned for her beautiful depictions of people and animals

Audibly groaning, I persevere, if only for the wonderful illustrations by Tolkien-recommended Pauline Baynes (at least he used his close friendship with the high-fantasy phenom for some good) and, since this is a moral tale, surely the moral of the story will be worth wading through the muck.

Even if you are a Christian, it is not. Aslan tricks the White Witch to get what he wants. He, more like a rabbit and less like a lion, withholds knowledge of ‘deeper magic’ and only pretends to sacrifice himself for Edmund. I cannot reconcile his benevolence with this obvious ruse. It also inadvertently sheds negative light on Jesus’s sacrifice, so, well done, Clive!

Surprisingly, since they typically hedge their bets, Disney adapted the novel to film.  It is a faithful adaptation, and as a result I kept falling asleep.

Disney didn’t lose money, but it wasn’t a resounding commercial success either, despite being star-studded – James McAvoy plays Tumnus and Tilda Swinton plays the White Witch. (Tilda can be forgiven since Isis Mussenden’s costumes are stunning and she’s a notorious fashion whore – she is fabulous but have you seen some of the shit she wears?) Georgie Henley, playing Lucy, is as cute as a button, but she over-acted the bejesus out of that role – she cries in every single frame… and I’ve already forgotten all the other characters. It’s safe to say I won’t be bothering with either of the sets of sequels/prequels.

I feel like I’m attacking Lacayo and Grossman for their nostalgia, but how The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe ends up in a Top 100 and Middlesex doesn’t boggles the mind.

This List has served to fill some major holes in my reading experience, but this isn’t one of those instances. I was perfectly whole with my unpretentious Anancy stories.

possession-sarah mclaclan

the painted bird: vignettes of ornithological & human horror

two words: perverse odyssey

first edition cover, 1965

I read the first half of The Painted Bird cold, before I had any details on Jerzy Kosinski. I understood there was an autobiographical element to the novel and was excited to get to know him through his words describing his ordeal during the holocaust. But with an increasing unwilling suspension of disbelief and an urge to call Adam and Jamie, I reevaluated the term TIME used to describe the novel – ‘controversial’. What exactly did they mean?

Mid-novel, I decided to look Kosinski up. I found a slew of negative press and this cumulative review. Turns out Kosinski may have been a hack, a fraud, a pervert, a liar, a social-climber, a plagiarist, non-Jewish, and never poor.

With suspicions (then some!) affirmed, I plunged into the second half of the novel searching for literary rather than historical merit…. I closed the novel wondering – how did The Painted Bird make TIME any Top 100?

To be fair, Kosinski starts off well. The Painted Bird opens with Marta’s death described by believably innocent and confused eyes. The central image of a painted bird being devoured by its own kind, and other ornithological allusion, is also quite stunning. It speaks to how eager we are to viciously annihilate even one of our own out of misplaced xenophobia. Ludmila’s brutal murder by fellow peasant women is the epitome of this imagery.

kosinski was as notorious for his lies as he was famous for his fiction

But then the novel spirals deeper and deeper into pointless and contrived accounts that appear less and less about insight into war and more a platform for perverse predilections. The Painted Bird devolves into vignettes of sexual abasement and horror described by a conveniently/inconveniently placed little boy, with bits of holocaust thrown in to legitimize it. It began to feel like a sick joke.

Kosinski had a knack for appropriating and exploiting tragedy – he did it with The Tate/Manson Murders, saying he was an invited guest the night of August 8, 1969, a claim Polanski denies. There’s also his vocal by-proxy battle with brain cancer à la his wife, where he fails to mention that she divorced him and wrote him out of her will before she died. And many other blatant and exploitative omissions and lies.

Whichever way you look at it, being a real, adjacent or imaginary holocaust survivor is not literary absolution, and The Painted Bird page after page morphs into trivial and artless treatment of a deadly serious subject.

I feel duped and defiled. Just the way he seemed to like it.

I was excited to read The Painted Bird, and unless Kosinski’s apparent hoax is part of an elaborate painted bird experiment – he the painted bird and me part of the mob flock that devours him – the novel is a huge disappointment and easily the worst book I’ve ever read.

the painted bird killed the music inside me

all the king’s men: the beef steak & the slaughterhouse

two words: one coin

You know this story. It plays out regularly, every four or six years or so. Politics.

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All The King’s Men re-enacts the ancient and brutal clash of ethics inherent in all power struggles and with all the usual suspects – this time in the impoverished south in 1930’s USA.

Cue the populist, the oligarchs and a bitter bloody end.

The central character, Willie Stark, a self-proclaimed hick who wants to be president, and the wealthy land-owners (former slave-owners) and oil barons with tenuous grip on the status quo, each believe themselves entitled to govern the resource-rich state of Louisiana. The ‘oligarchs’, inflated with lofty idealism and old-power, and upstart Willie, endowed with the ‘will and need’ of his fellow “rednecks, suckers and hicks,” p.142 engage in a feud ripe with hypocrisy and doom: Idealism is propped up on selective amnesia and complacency, and Willie relies heavily on coercion and intimidation. But both sides bear an absolute moral right. Both wear blinders,

…like someone who just love beef steak but just can’t bear to go down to a slaughterhouse because there are some bad rough men down there who aren’t animal lovers p.385

which is psychic observation, as at this very moment in our own slaughterhouse ‘abattoir’ wars, idealism is still brother to dirty deed. They are inextricable, and the clash as innate as sibling rivalry. Idealism and action are equal parts of the same thing, each vital to the others existence. As are outrage and obstinate ignorance.

This is observed  by All The King’s Men narrator Jack Burden, the apathetic student of History who straddles both sides – son to a wealthy land owner but employee to Willie Stark. He plays the role of inert nexus. Plagued by a paralysis of fear and lack of conviction, he inadvertently affects the destiny of each character in the novel.

For all the world is one piece… it doesn’t matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. p.283

Jackie Burden learns in the end what he would have learned finishing a thesis he abandoned: that there are always ‘historical costs’ p.593 ricocheting through time and space beyond our action or inaction.

Consequence is a bitch and never pretty.

I really enjoyed reading All The King’s Men, but I wish it was shorter than its near 700 pages, as it easily could’ve been if Warren chopped out all the repetition, the narrator’s intrusive musings and the hysterics from the women. But it was a really great read, with its hazy and bourbon-soaked southern drawl, charming parochial wit and Sugar-Boy’s “b-b-b-bastards.”

Adding to the relish of this novel is that Willie Stark is based on real-life populist Huey Long, nicknamed ‘The Kingfish’, which is more pertinent to the title than the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme.

Willie Stark’s assassin is also based on real life Dr. Carl Weiss. Fun fact.

There are two film adaptations. The first in 1949 won 3 Academy Awards,

and the 2006 film isn’t as terrible as everyone says.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, a bit top-heavy in the casting and mangled at the end, but it is beautifully beautifully shot and retains Warren’s best and most memorable lines verbatim.

Bonus Fun Fact: What do Barack Obama and Willie Stark have in common? Both are intent on beating the odds, and both can snatch a fly from mid-air, like Keisuke Miyagi.

hypocrites-bob marley
everyone choose sides-the wrens

the list revision

female author: check. non-'american' author: check.

After emerging curiosity and biases, along with the realization that I’m cheating myself with so many re-reads, I’ve revised The List:

  1. Four re-reads have been replaced,
  2. I’m reading a (different) Philip Roth after Callil quit over his 2011 Man Booker win,
  3. I’m tossing Naipaul because he’s a bigoted ass-wipe -Jean Rhys has the Caribbean covered and I’ve reached my limit with his bullshit,
  4. The List has been de-Yank-ified -although with Nabokov classed as ‘American’ and Rhys as ‘English’, national status isn’t terribly meaningful- and
  5. As many female authors as possible, from a severely restricted ‘Top 100‘, have been added.