Wednesday, January 20, 2010

short feature: Skhizein (2008)

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, we can all watch brilliant short features like this which just a few years ago would have never crossed our path. Who ever saw any of the "best animated short subject" nominees at the Oscars, even though they all look so cool? I want to share this award-winning French animated short with anyone who might not have seen it yet. It is less than 15 minutes long and is well worth the time.

It is brilliantly conceived, thought-provoking, and features a hauntingly beautiful score (too much clichéd praise? Or can I throw in "ominous" and "gripping"?) The story concerns a young man who is struck by a meteorite and finds himself living precisely 91 centimeters from himslef. If that doesn't make sense, well, you just have to see it for yourself.

Skhizein (Jérémy Clapin,2008) from Bertie on Vimeo.

And if you like cool, free, animated movies from talented people working outside the mainstream you might want to check out Sita Sings the Blues. (link) Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana interspersed with musical interludes from the 1920's Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, commentary, and events from the artist's personal life. Due to copyright issues the film could not be released commercially so the filmmakers decided to release it for free under a creative commons license. Roger Ebert has praised the film, among others.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

10. The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank by Christopher Miller

I originally purchase this book as a Christmas gift for my brother. It looked interesting and he is enough of a sci-fi fan that I figured he would appreciate it. When I got it home I skimmed a bit more, started reading the first few pages, and before long I realized I was going to need to find a new Christmas gift for that brother. (Sorry, Ryan! Glad you are enjoying the Veronica Mars DVDs. You're welcome to borrow this anytime now that I'm finished.)

The Cardboard Universe is a story about a fictional science fiction writer named Phoebus K. Dank. But it isn't a conventional novel, the book is set up like an encyclopedia of his life and work written collaboratively by two critics who knew him in life. It starts with an 'about the authors' blurb, a preface, and a "Dank Chronology" timeline (all fictitious) before going on to an alphabetical listing of entries on major and minor works, family, ex-wives, and other life events (with footnotes) that makes up the entire rest of the novel.

The tone of the dual narrators is an important part of the storytelling. The primary voice is Boswell, a friend of Dank and a committed admirer of his work. Boswell is trying to start the Dank Studies department at the local college and bevies Dank to be one of the greatest writers of our time. He lived with Dank until the author's death (murder, actually, and all this is in the preface so no spoilers). The other narrator is Hirt, a former schoolmate and also former roommate of Dank. Hirt's entries, though, are much harsher and more critical of Dank, both as a writer (a hack) and as a person (a slob). Boswell maintains that Hirt killed Dank in a fit of jealousy but the case was never resolved and Hirt is sending his contributions to the encyclopedia via email from an undisclosed location overseas.

Each entry is written by one of these narrators with the other occasionally interjecting a footnote for additional commentary. The entries range from a few paragraphs to a few pages long, so the novel is very fragmented. From the beginning the book deviates sharply from what a serious encyclopedia would look like. Most of Dank's writing comes from his life- his self doubts, his fantasies, people he knows and events he experiences and then reimagines into a fantastical sci-fi premise, so the narrators constantly speculate on these inspirations and tie various stories back to real-world events. There are continuous digressions into not just the personal life of Dank and the quality of his writing, but also the personal lives of Boswell and Hirt, anecdotes about their current situations, and back and forth snipping at each other. These tangents always start out loosely related to the topic of the entry and then spin off into unrelated territory. Through this technique the rigid structure imposed by the encyclopedia format is broken down and allows for a more conventional narrative story to develop (still quite unconventional, but not nearly as tedious as piecing together a plot from the raw data of a realistic encyclopedia).

For the most part the entries feel almost random since you are getting them in alphabetical order rather than chronological. Also, certain entries refer to future or past entries (cross references are provided in the text). I realize this description makes it sound extremely complex and hard to follow but I want to stress that it is really the exact opposite. Despite all the postmodern indulgences the reading itself comes easy and the story isn't too hard to follow. If anything it spends too much time reinforcing the same points and becomes a bit repetitive but the fragmented nature of a series of entries keeps it varied and makes it easy to pick up and put down.

The aspect of this book that first got me hooked were the entries that encapsulated Dank's many short stories and novels. Each new premise and summarized twist ending kept me engaged to see what else he would come up with. The personalities of the three main characters (Dank, Boswell, and Hirt) quickly emerge through the entries and before long you are invested in the story and interested to find out where it is going. Despite the seemingly arbitrary ordering of entries and the invitation to jump around the text following cross references this is a novel that you want to read straight through. There actually are a few twists and surprises to be revealed in time. I will admit that at over 500 pages it gets a little long and starts to drag a bit in the middle as the seemingly random stories of Dank's laziness, eccentricity and agoraphobia pile up, but it picks up steam toward the end as the real lives of Boswell and Hirt become more interesting.

Dank is obviously inspired by Philip K. Dick, although Dank's fictional lifetime (1952 - 2006) is skewed roughly 25 years from Dick's (1928-82). Also it is clear that the author (the real author, Chris Miller) is a fan of Phillip K. Dick despite the fact that Dank is portrayed as a hack, a slob, and a lazy, somewhat incompetent writer. In fact, Philip K. Dick is even worked into the novel but as a fictional character created by Dank, an imagining of the type of writer he wanted to be. The novel also clearly takes inspiration from Nabokov's Pale Fire, and is reminiscent of Bolano's Nazi Literature in the America's. [bonus book recommendation: someone should check out "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry" which is a work of fiction that attempts to tell the story of a relationship entirely through pictures and accompanying text in the style of an auction catalogue.]

I really enjoyed reading this. It was one of those books that puts you in a good mood knowing that you are on your way home and will have a chance to curl up with it when you get there. I enjoyed each new and inventive story-within-the-story as Dank's oeuvre was reviewed by the collaborators. I want to recommend this book, not just as one of the best of 2009, but as one I think a lot of other people would enjoy and one they might not hear about otherwise.

Monday, January 11, 2010

9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is the first novel I have read by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. It is the breakout novel that launched him to Superstar Author (from merely famous author) when it was first published in Japan in 1987. An English translation was published in 2000.

The straightforward realism of Norwegian Wood is uncharacteristic of Murakami, who, as I understand it, usually favors complex and unconventional stories with supernatural elements. Here we have what is primarily a coming of age story, and also a love story, that is so vivid and emotional it could easily be a memoir. I was told it is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with his work, and after reading it I would have to agree. It may not be necessary to ease into Murakami with so much caution, as if his other writing would be too difficult and complex for the uninitiated reader, but this elegant and beautiful novel is certainly as good a place to start as any.

In it the narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his days as a young student in Tokyo. The primary focus is on his relationship with an emotionally troubled girl named Naoko. Both of their lives are affected by the tragic suicide of Kizuki, who was Watanabe's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend when they were all in high school together. The "it's complicated" relationship that emerges between Naoko and Watanabe plays out as both go on to college in Tokyo and try to come to terms with Kizuki's death and growing into their own adult lives. The specter of suicide haunts the novel, looming in the past and the future of it's characters.

Despite the foreign country, Japan, and foreign time period, the late '60s, I found it very easy to relate to the characters and events in this novel. Murakami is dealing with universal themes and he renders them so clearly that identifying with Watanabe is effortless for the reader. He is honest and thoughtful, very observant of the world around him and always trying to make sense of his place in it. He is very accepting of other people, and an eclectic cast of supporting characters are intorduced as the novel progresses. His roommate, nicknamed stormtrooper, is an awkward neat-freak who inspires many humorous anecdotes. He also befriends the charismatic but amoral alpha-male of the dormitory, Nagasawa, who bonds with Watanabe over their shared interest in The Great Gatsby and takes him out to meet girls. Midori, a flirtatious classmate, becomes the other woman in Watanabe's life while his strained relationship with Naoko plays out.

Another aspect of the novel that makes it easy to relate to is the presence of Western culture, especially American pop music and literature, referenced throughout. The title is a reference to the Beatles song, Naoko's favorite, that always reminds Watanabe of her. Watanabe has an affinity for American music, literature, and films. Other than the fact that everyone has a Japanese name and the food is a little different the story could be transplanted right down the street and take place last year.

I loved the descriptiveness and insightfullness of this novel without it ever seeming wasteful or unnecessary. Everything is communicated simply, directly, and with a purpose. I will be making a point to pick up more Murakami in the near future, probably Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On Reading and Reading Groups
(This is not a blog post)

I've been reading some really great books lately but unfortunately the holidays have quickly given way to fiscal year end and one of the most hellishly busy weeks of my job. Reviews are coming soon for Norwegian Wood, Homer & Langley, and The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. I hope to use the weekend to get caught up.

Meanwhile, I am building on my Cannonball Read momentum and seeking out more book reviews, discussions, and book-related blogs in my spare time. It has lead to a lot of introspection as I seek to understand what reading means for me, and what kind of reader I am, and what kind of books I want to read next, and why, and what I hope to get out of them, and how to better appreciate what I read, and understand it, and what to do with the excitable urge to share everything that inspires me with other people who will appreciate it too...

Of course this blog and the Pajiba/ Cannonball Read community are a great outlet for this. I'm really glad I made the commitment to participate even when I feel too overwhelmed to contemplate 40+ more books in the coming 10 months. (Really, the hardest part is maintaining the discipline to finish each book I start and not starting too many different books at a time; two are three at most). And as I try to apply order to my chaotic whims I see some opportunities coming up that I want to build into my Cannonball goals.

First, it sounds like there is going to be a large-ish online reading group tackling Roberto Bolaño's 2666 this year. Originally this was a project announced by the guys who did Infinite Summer last year (a large online reading of Infinite Jest that coordinated in-depth analysis of that complex novel while providing summaries of sections to help guide readers of all different experience levels). Now it looks like some of the centralized organization of that effort is falling through but there is still enough interest that people are going to band together and try to pull this off. The web site with detials is here: 2666 Group Read.

From Wikipedia:
2666 (2004) is the last novel written by Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño. Depicting the unsolved and ongoing serial murders of Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the novel), the Eastern Front in World War II, and the breakdown of relationships and careers. The apocalyptic 2666 explores 20th century degeneration through a wide array of characters, locations, time periods, and stories within stories.
I'm going to attempt to read this along with the group. If anyone else is interested enough to give it a try I welcome you. The book consists of 5 parts so I will probably post 5 seperate "reviews" as I work through it. They space out the reading pretty well (about 50 pages a week, 15 weeks total) so I will continue to read other novels and review them here.

The other big news is that it looks like there is enough support to get a loose Pajiba/ Cannonball Read reading group organized. I haven't had much of a chance to follow up on it this week due to work obligations but announcements should be comming soon. It won't be a big ordeal since most of the structure- blog networl, Facebook Group, Web Site- alredy exists. It is just an attmept to propose a "book of the month"so that various Pajibans can read the same thing at the same time and maybe have some good discussion and sharing come from it. I think Lolita will be the first book. Any official announcements will come from