Movie Review – What About Me (1993) directed by Rachel Amodeo

Movie Review – What About Me (1993) directed by Rachel Amodeo

What About Me is a small slice of a forgotten New York! An obscure, black-and-white film that is culturally, socially, and historically significant, what more could you want?  I find myself strangely nostalgic for the East Village in the early nineties. I previously read Don DeLillo’s Mao II, which spends time describing the gruesome homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park, so the footage in this movie is a treat because it preserves a world and a culture that no longer exists.

The beginning of the movie is a little surreal, as you see a young girl come out of a house to go on a bike ride, she then rides past a cemetery and falls from a cliff to her death. Next, the girl has a conversation with God, and is reincarnated as Lisa Napolitano. Lisa loses her parents, goes to live with her aunt in the East Village, loses her aunt, and then is raped by the building landlord, who evicts her from the apartment a day later. The rest of the movie is concerned with Lisa trying to survive on the streets.

The film has a spontaneity and an aesthetic that feels much older, almost like a silent film. I am still mulling over the significance of Lisa’s previous life and reincarnation, though it doesn’t have much of an impact on the general plot. I believe the structure of the movie (and the movie’s biggest strength) is to allow for vignettes. A punk Casanova named Tom is shown picking up a girl at a bar, and later introduces Lisa to crack cocaine. Lisa is invited to stay at the house of a woman who turns out to be a dominatrix. Gangsters enact revenge on a man coming out of an apartment building. These scenes blend into the story well, without taking the film too far astray. Many counter-culture icons make cameos in the film, with Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, and Gregory Corso among them.

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Tompkins Square Park, February 2018

Having spoken with an old friend of mine, who has been driving cabs in the city since the seventies, he said when going into Alphabet City, the names of the avenues indicated the degree safety. Avenue A meant that you were “alright,” Avenue B meant “be careful,” Avenue C meant “critical,” and Avenue D meant that you were “dead.” On February 2nd of this year, I ventured into the park on a cold but sunny day, to see if there were any remnants of the old scene. It honestly looked to me like any other Manhattan park. I imagine I’m very much romanticizing a world that I know nothing about, which is why more people need to see this film.

Watch the movie on Fandor here.

Review – Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

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Review – Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

Alec Ash tells the stories of five Chinese millennials from various regions of the mainland, all born 1985 and after. Ash uses PG humor and great eloquence to recount their formidable experiences. Of the five characters my favorite was Fred, the intellectual daughter of a Hainan government official, who studies political science at Peking University and continues her education in the United States. Her road to political sophistication and her concern for the future of China and its government was refreshing to read.

Though I live in China and am already familiar with a lot of the content that Ash touches on, his book works somewhat as a primer to Chinese history and culture, and for this reason more people in the West need to read it. It paints a vivid picture of what life is like for the modern Chinese youth, and this serves to break up generalizations. After reading this book one will definitely come away having learned something, it is light but by no means without substance. I strongly recommend this book.

Ash, Alec. Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China. Arcade, 2016. Kindle.

Review – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

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Review – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Before I read this book, I expected Jay McInerney to write in a similar way to Bret Easton Ellis, as many critics consider the two authors to be in the same ideological camp. I have only read Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero, which I know is not wholly representative of his oeuvre, yet I can draw conclusions about Ellis’ usual themes. I believe Frank Ocean summarized the experience well in the song “Novacane,” his characters have pushed the envelope of experience so far that self-destructive behavior is the only thing that has any power to make them feel emotion.

This was not the case in this book, as I found Jay McInerney’s protagonist to be not so far gone. Though he is prone to self-destructive behavior, there is still oftentimes a self-awareness that his frequent cocaine use and late nights are not healthy. I found the second-person point of view to be a little gimmicky, ultimately because I don’t think it added much to the effect of the novel. Had he used the first person I think the book would have read mostly the same. However, I did feel able to identify with the main character, I was also once a white, twenty-four year old male, living in New York City, an aspiring writer, struggling with a job that I had no passion for, and engaging in self-destructive behavior. The novel was very relatable, and McInerney writes about the city in a recognizable way, despite it taking place in the eighties. I recommend this book as a quick, light read!

McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City. Vintage,

Review – Mao II by Don DeLillo

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Review – Mao II by  Don DeLillo

This book explores a variety of themes, among them being Maoism, the phenomenon of the reclusive author, and the idea that the growing population of people in the world, collectively, are starting to have a large effect on how we as a society see individual identity. The book starts with Bill Gray, a reclusive author living in upstate New York, his assistant, Scott, who plays a large part in keeping Bill isolated in their shared house, and their relationship with Karen, a 24-year old convert to the Unification Church. The novel moves forward when Brita, a photographer, takes pictures of Bill, and carries to Bill a message from Bill’s old publisher. After hearing the message, Bill leaves and heads to London, where he plans to take part in a press conference, to help secure the release of a hostage being held by a terrorist group in Lebanon. Mao II is often categorized as a postmodern novel, and the denouement is where we see the trueness of this description. The press conference doesn’t happen, and it keeps getting postponed until it doesn’t happen at all. It seems that the terrorists win. 

I live in Southern China and find the undercurrent of Maoism in the book to be relevant today, even though the book was written over twenty years ago. The novel has multiple settings: the United States, London, and Cyprus, and this feature along with the Chinese influence gives the book a very worldly feel. We see Mao’s idea of the “People’s War” present when the book deals with terrorism, terrorists are resisting society at large both violently and ideologically, they aim not only to subvert the social order, but to change the culture at large. The iconic image of Mao Zedong hanging in Tiananmen Square is less about Mao’s personal identity, but more about the identity of China as a whole. DeLillo highlights that terror and art are in some kind of binary struggle, where writers, in modern society, are less important when it comes to shaping human consciousness. There is a scene in the book also where Karen is watching the funeral of Ruhollah Khomeini and the shit show that proceeds. Khomeini’s image, and dead corpse, definitively represent modern Iran, and people violate it and touch it because they want to be one with it. The scenes where the hostage in Lebanon, slowly losing his sanity in captivity, also reminded me of China’s transformation during the Cultural Revolution.

I read somewhere that DeLillo took inspiration for Bill Gray from the life of J.D. Salinger. The author, in his recluse, becomes larger than life, and the mystery surrounding such an author gives hope to the masses. It is apparent in the book that Scott is holding Bill hostage in the house, as Scott knows that this effect is a force of good in the world (one that can fight against the terrorists). One also gets the idea that Scott does this because he wants to keep his idea of Bill pure in his own mind, even though this is done against Bill’s will. DeLillo, though he is dealing with a lot of material in this novel, writes with insight and with an imagination that is unmatched. Another segment in the book deals with Karen and her interactions with the homeless denizens of Tompkins Square Park in the early nineties. His description of the camp is nightmarish, hellish, and brutally honest. I highly recommend this book, the only other book from DeLillo that I have read is White Noise, but I can say I like this book a lot more.

DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Penguin, 1992. Kindle.

Review – Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

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Review – Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

The novel is about the coming of age of adolescent Joel Harrison Knox, a precocious, timid boy, who after the death of his mother moves to a remote Southern town called Noon City, to live with his father who is supposedly taking him in. Joel arrives at the estate of Skully’s Landing, where the reader meets an array of “grotesque” characters, and in the end, his father. Joel has to confront the fact that his father does not turn out to be the man he thought he was.

I am a big fan of Carson McCullers and it is easy to see that she is one of Capote’s influences. Capote however is able to take up McCullers’ mantle and give it a modern sheen: while McCullers uses her ‘freakish’ characters to explore human loneliness, Capote tackles this motif but adds more sincerity. Joel in the end, despite not finding the father he was searching for, does feel accepted by his new community. On the very last page of the book when Joel discovers that it is actually Cousin Randolph in the window, dressed as the old woman, this realization finalizes his sense of belonging.

This novel is just another reminder of the talent that Truman Capote was, even though this was his first novel, he writes with great command. I recommend this book.

Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. Vintage, 1975. Kindle.

Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I have been a fan of Angela Carter since 2011, when a college professor assigned her short story “The Erl-King” for a critical theory class, and since then I have gone on to read a few other stories from Carter’s famous collection, The Bloody Chamber. The way Carter is able to write about the erotic, instinctual side of human nature is something that I hold in great admiration. I also find that she had a great ear for language, as her sentences flow with a folky, feminine rhythm, a quality that is reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf, and her own rich, elegant, ornamented prose. 

This novel tells the coming of age story of fourteen-year-old Melanie, whose childhood comes to an end after her parents die in a fatal accident. She is sent to London with her younger siblings, Jonathan and Victoria, to live with Uncle Philip, a controlling, tyrannic toyshop proprietor who puts on strange puppet shows for the family. The other occupants of the house include Philip’s wife Margaret, who is friendly but mute, and her younger brothers, the dirty Finn and cordial Francie. Carter’s characterizations excel, as Philip’s totalitarianism depresses the other characters to an observable effect. Jonathan engrosses himself in building model ships, and Victoria, only a baby, is spoiled by Margaret, and thus unaware of the growing tension in the house. Finn is full of life, hopelessly filthy, and shown to be interested in Melanie romantically. Melanie is suspicious of Finn’s intentions, and her loneliness is worthy of note, as we see that her inability to trust the other people of the house distorts the reader’s perception of who is “moral,” or “likable,” and at times this is jarring for one’s summation of the circumstances presented. At the end of the novel, Philip one day steps unexpectedly out of the house, and Melanie and company indulge in a carefree, defiant, Saturnalia-like afternoon. Francie and Margaret are revealed to be incestuous, and Finn unexpectedly washes himself.  

The only word I have for this book is “weird,”and despite the seemingly juvenile front cover, it is very much an adult book, and also a challenging read. There is certainly a method in Carter’s madness, as she acknowledges a side of humanity that most people would not like to think about, so much that I think the book could possibly qualify as horror. Sex also bleeds throughout the narrative. I did think however that Philip was written to be somewhat of straw man: though I understand that Carter was a feminist, I would have liked to see a more balanced take on his character. This is just personal preference however, and not a technical flaw. I absolutely enjoyed this book. 

Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. Virago Modern Classics, 1992. Print.

Double Review – ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

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Double Review – ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ by George Orwell

Why I have come to Orwell so late in life, I don’t know, but perhaps later is better than never. I have noticed that Orwell’s popularity, while not undeserved, is mainly derived from teenagers, or young college people, in their first throes of literary sophistication. Oftentimes it is easy to compare the societies depicted in these books to America at large, and this is done with a kind of underdeveloped agenda. Maybe this has prevented me from coming to the novels sooner, regardless, I have always been curious as to why the books are so popular. I finally came across two copies at my work and decided to give Orwell a whirl, and when you consider the books away from the annoying fan base, they actually are worth the time to read.

Animal Farm is a short book, an allegory meant to shed light on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Republic under Stalin. Similar to the way South Park is able to critique society using children in a small Colorado town, Orwell is able to simulate Russia’s history using animals on an English farm. The animals rebel against the alcoholic farmer Jones, who is unable to competently manage his farm, and the pigs, who seem to represent the intellectual class, assume leadership. We see that the pigs are clever and they use different strategies to trick the other animals into losing their freedoms. By the end of the book, we see that the the pigs have become just like their former master Jones. The book isn’t a work of genius, however it is a refreshing analogy, as it makes one question the role of government and law makers.

Benjamin is an interesting character, as he seems to be intelligent, critical, and aware of all the injustices that the pigs commit, yet he does nothing, simply because he is jaded and cynical. Orwell seems to be commenting on the phenomenon of apathy, and the idea that social change doesn’t happen sadly because people have no desire to instigate it. I also thought the ending of the book to be profound, as we see the pigs cheating at poker during a meeting with the neighboring farmers, and this scene made me wonder whether or not the pigs would be able to maintain power had the story continued.

If Animal Farm is the perfected minor work, then 1984 is the ambitious, flawed epic. At the end of Animal Farm, I was sad to see that no justice was served against the pigs. However, by the time I finished 1984, I was not expecting any justice, and both works are quite realistic and sobering in this regard. Orwell shows that love, in the sense that we think about love in our “free world,” cannot exist unless it fits within the confines of the state. The relationship between Julia and Winston revolves much around their distaste for Big Brother. Identity is also a theme that is examined, and the anonymous nature of the state is a postmodern motif: it is one that incites paranoia, by clouding the identity of the powers that be. Wilson and Julia attempt to rebel and mete out an identity separate from the realm of Big Brother, yet they have no idea how to go about doing so. When Winston finally goes through his transformation, he is tortured, beaten, starved, and stripped of identity. Once he is brought down to his lowest point, he is then nurtured back to health on the generosity of the state. He is reinvented and thus his allegiance begins. One thinks about omnipotence, that the state is transcending, the state is everything.  I recommend both books.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Signet, 1961. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet, 1961. Print.

Review – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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Review – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I recently read Nathan Hill’s The Nix and many reviews online state that the novel bears resemblance to Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 work The Corrections, and though I have never read anything by Franzen, I am familiar with his oftentimes controversial media personality, as he has been publicly criticized in the past for his reactionary opinions about the role of social media and technology in the Information Age. After stumbling across this book on discount in Taiwan’s ginormous Eslite bookstore – which is in close proximity to the towering Taipei 101 – I can’t help but think that between these two books, Franzen’s is the superior one, despite being dated by fourteen years.

A comparison of the novels is easy to make, both novels are family sagas, jumping through time and between generations to give the reader more substantial characterizations. The Corrections is focused on the Lambert family, patriarch Albert and his wife Enid, and their three troubled and very different children: Chip, Denise, and Gary. Chip is a fly-by-his-pants failed English professor with budgeting problems, and who acts out and lives a fast lifestyle in order to show resistance to the values of his parents. Gary, a banker, and the oldest in the family, states that his life looks most like the lives of his parents, as he has a wife and three sons, yet he still has difficulty finding happiness in these relationships, which he tries to mediate by cooking “mixed grills” every night. Denise is the youngest in the family, a successful chef who out of the three seems most to have her life in order, however we see that her relationships are telling of her own definite uncertainties and confusions. Albert is slowly losing his mind to Parkinson’s disease, and we see the whole family come together during Christmas to face this realization.

The book had many strong points, the first being the layering. Franzen clearly goes for quality in his prose, and while the book isn’t particularly heavy, in comparison to The Nix the book seems to hit its marks better in obedience to its themes. Franzen just seems to be in better control. The book is also subtly humorous, in a very different way from Hill’s novel, as it is a kind of humor that is cynical, original, and almost caustic. Though other opinions of the book say that Franzen is going for realism and also sincerity — these are opinions of which I can definitely understand — at the same time I don’t think the book betrays an underlying tone of paranoia. We see that appearances are deceiving, that things may not be as gravy as they seem. The last reason why I thought the book was so good is because of how relatable it is, Franzen describes a typical middle-class WASP family in such a way that I could see myself (and my family members) in some of the characters. I highly recommend this book.

Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. Print.

Review – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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Review – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (trans. by Jay Rubin)

I read Norwegian Wood for the first time when I was twenty-two, and I enjoyed it then, but the second time around I find myself a little turned off. Similar to Jang Jung-Il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (see my review of this book here) this book centers on the life of a lonely university student named Toru, and his experimentation with relationships and sex in sixties’ Tokyo. Both books are concerned with reflection of the past and the valuable insight that comes with age, and while I thought this was a believable premise in When Adam Opens His Eyes, Norwegian Wood unfortunately still felt like it was written by a teenager.

A big problem I think is the novel’s length, while When Adam Opens His Eyes is short and sweet — only one hundred and twenty-five pages — Norwegian Wood rambles on with fluffy conversations and pointless tangents for almost four hundred pages. On top of this excess, and I don’t know how much of this can be chalked up to bad translating, or cultural differences, but there were moments where I found the writing downright execrable. A sample from the beginning:

The stewardess came to check on me again. This time she sat next to me and asked if I was alright.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I said with a smile. “Just feeling kind of blue.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It happens to me, too, every once in awhile.”
She stood and gave me a lovely smile. “Well, then, have a nice trip. Auf Wiedershen.”
Auf Wiedershen.” (4)

The chapters often end anticlimactically like this. I actually liked the Proustian motif in the beginning: Toru hears the song “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles and it brings him back to memories of the sixties. However, why do I need to know that the airline stewardess, who is only in this one scene, gets sad from time to time? It seems like Murakami is trying to show and not tell to build his scenes and characters, but often I found myself having to wade through pages of empty dialogue and imagery in order to find the little pockets of substance. There are other weird moments, like when Naoko, Watanabe’s primary love interest, exposes her naked self to Watanabe in the middle of the night, before going back to bed. I still don’t understand the purpose of this scene. Also, there are instances where Reiko, twice, and Midori, once, jokingly accuse Watanabe of wanting to rape them while they are sleeping. This again comes up not just once, but three different times in the book. You kinda have to wonder what Murakami was thinking about while he was writing.

Thus, the characters didn’t strike me as being realistic. Watanabe, as alienated and apathetic about life as he is, still manages to come across as a smooth, witty ladies-man, with no problems getting girls to sleep with him. I don’t think Murakami intended Watanabe to be an unreliable narrator but at times you get the feeling he’s a bit of a narcissist. Nagasawa is also a little larger than life in my opinion, he comes off as a sociopathic, almost-omnipotent womanizer at times, yet in other scenes he serves as a device to keep the plot moving, either to get Watanabe laid, or to carry out some other miscellaneous favor for Watanabe. In the afterword of the book, translator Jay Rubin mentions that the content in the book was an exaggeration of Murakami’s own college years. I think this definitely rings true, but not in a good, believable way.

I’ve also heard people say before that Murakami’s work is less focused on character development and more with creating a comfortable setting, mood, or tone, which explains all the coffee, records, and Western cultural figures alluded to constantly. The shallow, Woodyallenesque namedropping, for lack of a better word, is a little pretentious, and it feels as if Murakami is trying to prove something as a Japanese author, or trying to make up for a lack of authenticity. People like this though, it is accessible to Western readers, while not being too heady, and I think this where Murakami gets a lot of his appeal. Although the book seemed to me like a bunch of raw, unrelated ideas, haphazardly arranged together for the sake of “edginess,” admittedly the effect is surprisingly able to work. For what the book is, it is readable. However, the book still feels unpolished to me, and I really wish Murakami would have taken more time to perfect his ideas. They are definitely original, but not executed as maximally as I think they could be.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel, but based on this book, I feel that it is also questionable whether or not Murakami, who is a yearly contender for the award, deserves it too. If you are looking for serious literature, skip this book. 

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Vintage, 2011. Print.

Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

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Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

I first heard about this book in The Washington Post, the reviewer starts with a comparison between minor character Governor Packer and Donald Trump. Another review in The New York Times claims this book was inspired by Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Not only am I a fan of both writers, but I thought this book was going to contain social commentary about this year’s election cycle. Also, I’m always happy to check out what is proclaimed as the next big thing in literature, so I whipped out my credit card and bought the Kindle edition. After reading the book however, I did find both of these observations to be a little off base. Governor Packer, whose role in the book is not very significant, actually reminded me less of Trump and more like an evangelical, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry type figure. The book is also much too light to be anything like a Pynchon or Wallace novel (though it might match in length), and in my opinion it is more similar to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: both books are character-driven, multi-generational family sagas, narrated by a comic voice and offering of an ambitious range of themes.

What I liked most about this book is that it is devotedly focused on its characters and the empathy that is shed for them, Author Nathan Hill paints both sides of the story and creates a lot of humor while doing so. The book starts out with Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a jaded English professor who uses an online MMORPG as a coping mechanism for life, when his mother, Faye, who abandoned him in his adolescence, suddenly gets into trouble and needs her son’s help. Though Samuel initially declines, the rest of the book shows how Samuel comes to understand why his mother did what she did, that things are not always as they seem, and reconciliation between mother and son takes place. Hill also shows his range by following other characters that come in and out of this narrative, my favorites including Pwnage, a malnourished man with a heart of gold that is horribly addicted to gaming, and Laura Pottsdam, an entitled, almost sociopathic college student who will say or do anything to get Samuel to accept her plagiarized essay on Hamlet.

The theme of protest also plays a large part in the book, as parallels are made between the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago and the 2011 Occupy Wall St. protests in New York, yet the message isn’t political as much as it is suggestive of the timeless, cyclical nature of things, that regardless of one’s generation there will always be something to be unhappy and protest about. Hill’s prose is clean and hypnotic, and the book is something of a page-turner. I was so distracted at times while walking in the Singapore metro. Though I usually enjoy a book that has more weight, the substance in this book is definitely there, and the effort by no means was a lazy one. Though my expectations of this book were not met, I was still pleasantly surprised and very much enjoyed The Nix.

Hill, Nathan. The Nix. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Kindle.

The Washington Post review    The New York Times review