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May 28/14

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Neighbors (Movie); I Am Abraham (Novel);  The Intimates (Novel); Bangkok Haunts (Mystery)

Neighbors (Movie) written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz; with Liza Kudrow, Hannibal Buress, Liz Cackowski

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are just beginning to enjoy their status as parents of a baby girl and home-owners in a quiet, respectable neighbourhood. But then a fraternity moves in next door. All-out war ensues, as the opposing sides try to quell each other.

Like a lot of comedies these days, this one opens with the obligatory scene of farcical sex. We follow through with a lot of very explicit talk about sexual functions and a lot of jokes specifically about male genitals. Judging from the audience response at the showing I attended, the latter ingredient seems to be included in order to give the teenage females the thrilling impression that they’re seeing something edgy.

The question is whether a male viewer several generations further along might find anything worth watching here. Yes, if he happens to have a high tolerance for slapstick and buffoonery. But the plot is inane – most of the twists are contrived and implausible – and the fraternity debauchery is difficult to sit through, particularly the horrendous din of their parties.

But something happening between Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne made me stay in my seat. At the most obvious level, there’s some good satire about the trends and fads that new parents fall into these days. More importantly, though, Mr. Rogen and Ms Byrne make a surprisingly good comic couple. He with his schlubby ways and she with her fine features and her prissy accent (Australian), they play off each other very well. One of the first scenes where I could really get into their relationship was when, planning their first call on the frat brothers, they were coaching each other on the right facial expression for the words "keep it down." The scene had a delicious feel of zany improv. You’ve got to admit that Mr. Rogen’s very good at that kind of thing. Some credit for the success of the shtick also goes to the scriptwriters. (We’ll overlook the fact that they’ve misspelled the title of the movie.) More of that improv flavour came though in a scene where the Rogen character was claiming that his wife was supposed to be the one who made the smart decisions and he was the one who did stupid things, who played the "Kevin James" role. She was protesting that sometimes she might want to be the Kevin James character.

While most of the frat boys were pretty much of no interest, there were a couple of good scenes between the frat president (Zac Efron) and vice-president (Dave Franco) when they got into some rather complicated and ironic exchanges about what being "bros" meant. There are also some fine comic touches from actors in smaller roles. Ike Barinholtz, Mac’s pal from work, has a wicked way with a wink. Lisa Kudrow, as a college dean, gives an impression of a very real woman of a certain kind, one who’s glamorous, tough, and difficult to tangle with. Hannibal Buress makes for a laid-back, oddball cop. In a tiny role, Liz Cackowski is notable as a real estate agent struggling to maintain her glitzy, unflappable image.

 

I Am Abraham (Novel) by Jerome Charyn, 2014

Jerome Charyn has decided to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln in the first person. It’s as if the man himself were sitting by the fire and regaling us with his memories. However, Mr. Charyn’s version of Lincoln is not a methodical or thorough narrator; there are a lot of gaps in his account. For instance, he’s talking about his first campaign for the presidency of the US and, next thing we know, he’s on his way to his inauguration. Nothing is said about the actual election. I can accept that sort of hop-scotch narration. When a codger is reliving his past glories, you don’t expect him to explain everything; he skips over a lot that he assumes you’ll know. However, if you don’t have much of a grasp of the history of the Civil War, it can sometimes be a bit difficult to get your bearings in this account.

What Mr. Charyn does best, I’d say, is to convey the character of the great man and the feel of what it may have been like for him to be caught at the intersection of opposing pressures at that time in history. He comes across as a man who is modest but stubborn, with hardly any vanity. He doesn’t seem to have had any great ambition towards the presidency; he seems to approach the job as something he has to do to save the nation if nobody else is going to do it. There are frequent references to his depressions, which he calls his "unholies." Maybe this illustrates a theory about leadership that has been touted recently. The idea is that people inclined towards depression tend to be the best leaders in wartime. (I think the point has been made about Winston Churchill.) That’s because they’re realistic and pragmatic; they focus on what can be done, they make progress by small increments. They’re not carried away on optimistic flights of fancy. Lincoln certainly wasn’t. He had, as shown in this portrait, a head-down, dug-in, determined approach to getting the job done.

Oddly, though, we don’t get many glimpses of Lincoln at work. Most of the time, he seems to be wandering the halls of the White House in his shawl, bumping into various supplicants and pooh-bahs. At night, he’s often slipping out, under cover of darkness, to explore the capital on his own. Occasionally there are references to a bodyguard or two and sometimes people make a fuss over Lincoln when they spot him but, for the most part, the role of President seems bereft of the glamour we associate with it nowadays.

Mr. Charyn gives us a very good feel of what that life must have been like for the Lincoln family in the White House. There’s the almost unbearable poignancy of the death of their son, Willie, from typhoid fever, following the earlier death of the Lincoln’s son, Eddie, from tuberculosis. The youngest son, little Tad, keeps popping up in his dad’s daily rounds and the oldest son, Robert, occasionally takes leave of his studies at Harvard to make visits much longed for by his mother.

That woman presents quite a challenge for any writer of fiction or biography. She’s often interrupting presidential business with her various schemes for social or political aims. But that’s not the problem. It’s her erratic emotional outbursts that are hard for a reader to understand or sympathize with. One minute, she’s loving, affectionate, supportive. The next minute, she’s vicious, jealous, insulting and violent. Then she’ll apologize profusely. Half an hour later, she’ll be on the warpath again. In his authorial notes, Mr. Charyn speaks of Mary Todd Lincoln as though her problem was that she was too intelligent and too educated for the limited role that fate had assigned to her. The idea would be that, having been born so long before the women’s movement, she experienced great frustration at not being recognized as capable of making important contributions to the governing of the nation. (Mr. Charyn seems to be thinking of her as a Hillary Clinton manque.) Hence the eruption of Mrs. Lincoln's frustration in her spells and tantrums.

Lincoln’s compassionate view of his wife’s situation – as seen by Mr. Charyn – is neatly encapsulated in a passage where he’s imagining what General Ulysses S. Grant may have thought of Mrs. Lincoln’s carry-on:

Perhaps he could feel the pain of a woman who mourned her husband while he was still alive and lived in a constant state of fear – that fear had deranged her, a little, and obliged Mother to put on an arch mask when she also had a lot of sweetness in her nature.

I’m wondering if there wasn’t, in addition to many other aggravations, a cultural or societal factor. Perhaps that was a time when women – those of a certain social status, at any rate – were expected to vent their emotions in ways we’d find over-the-top. Such "female" moods were to be tolerated, even indulged; it was all part of belonging to the "weaker sex." (I’m thinking of Aunt Pittypat’s constant swooning in Gone With the Wind.)

Although her husband is far easier for us to empathize with, I do find that there are some problems with the voice Mr. Charyn has given Lincoln. In keeping with Lincoln’s backwoods origins, there are his references to "shindigs" among the Washington elite, and he’ll talk about "wrassling" and "furriners." But there are anomalies or discrepancies that don’t sound like the diction of a man who was largely self-educated. Three times, in the first part of the book, Lincoln uses the word "preternatural." It’s not a question of whether or not Lincoln might have used the word. How could Mr. Charyn or I know that? It’s an issue of plausibility: what sounds believable in the context of the character Mr. Charyn is presenting.

More troubling to me are the instances where the narrator sounds as if he’s striving for a poetic effect. We’re told that horses hooves crossing a wooden bridge sound like "celestial hammers." What, I ask, could be celestial about such a sound? A collapsing railroad bridge falls into water with an "angelic crump." The unfamiliar (to me) word "crump" may or may not be a good way to describe the sound of a bridge falling but there’s no way that I can associate such a catastrophe with angels. We know that Lincoln loved poetry – especially Shakespeare’s – but these flourishes, attributed to him by Mr. Charyn, don’t do him justice.

Some of the images are even more overtly literary. At one point, Lincoln is watching his wife flirt with some men and he’s wondering if she’s trying to bewitch them like "Salome of the Seven Veils". To me, that raises ludicrous associations. And then there’s the moment where Lincoln and his wife are contemplating their son Robert’s departure to take part in the war. Responding to the look on his wife’s face, Lincoln tells us: "She’d arrived at some infernal bridge that could be crossed once, and only once, or she’d never come back with a moment of peace from that frayed edge." I get it that this is an important moment for the boy’s mother. But I have no idea what the author is trying to say with the "infernal bridge" and the "frayed edge," impressive as they sound.

Diction like that makes Lincoln sound like something of a poseur. I don’t think that’s the way we’re meant to think of him.

 

The Intimates (Novel) by Ralph Sassone, 2011

Robbie and Maize are highschool buddies. They fumble through one attempt at sex with each other. It doesn’t go very well. If they’re not going to be lovers, then, how about being friends? That works better in the long run.

But first we get scenes of their lives apart from each other. Maize’s interview for college entrance turns out to be rather eventful in terms of her psycho-sexual development. Then there’s Robbie’s trip to Paris to visit his divorced dad, whom he hasn’t seen for some time. To my mind, that’s the best section of the book. The searingly emotional encounter between father and son provides insight that’s very thought-provoking. The final section of the book – the longest one – reunites Robbie and Maize at the house of Robbie’s mother, who has hired them to help her sort through her stuff before moving to a smaller house. Robbie has brought along his current lover to help with the job.

Although this is a first novel, author Ralph Sassone is a writer with considerable experience and credibility in the literary world: writer and editor for The New York Times, editor of The Voice Literary Supplement, teacher at Brown, Haverford College and Vassar. And his book has apparently been well received by the literary establishment. (A short but favourable review in The New Yorker drew my attention to it.) 

I’m somewhat puzzled by the book. I find some very good writing in it, but also a lot of iffy ingredients.

However, Mr. Sassone certainly captures the feeling of contemporary life for twenty-somethings who drift through unsatisfying jobs that aren’t anything like the careers they envisioned for themselves, but who are sustained by the loyalty of close friends. That dynamic is very real in the case of Robbie and Maize. He’s rather shy and passive; she’s feisty and decisive. No matter what spats might flare up between them from time to time, they always know that, in any serious setback that either of them might suffer, the other will provide the kind of support and affirmation needed to make a person feel that there’s some value and meaning to his or her existence. Not that Mr. Sassone’s take on these lives is totally lugubrious. There’s no small measure of droll comedy in Maize and Robbie’s to-ing-and-fro-ing.

As for the writing, there are some strikingly good passages. For instance, these thoughts on sex:

...it continually amazed Robbie what an all-purpose zapper sex could be, temporarily annihilating tensions and judgements and unanswered questions and obscuring how you didn’t look at a lover the right way or communicate with him when you were fully clothed. It was as if lovemaking displaced your frustrations and disappointments with each other and set them somewhere else, like an object thrown hastily on a bedside table just before you tumbled onto a mattress.

For a contemporary novel, though, there’s a lot of rather laborious "telling" here. I’m willing to grant that Hemingway’s dictum "Show, don’t tell" need not apply to every style of writing but much of the telling here strikes an incongruously amateurish, inept note. Some examples:

It had come to the point that Maize could hardly go online when her mother was around.

Maize and Bruce had gotten along well enough. He’d never been anything but kind to her regardless of how miserable things were going between him and her mother...

Her mother made no secret of disliking and disapproving of Lyla although the two girls had been friends since third grade....

As Maize drove through their hometown, she wished she could call Lyla again.

It sounds like the narrator is lazily building up details and background rather than putting the events before us without narrative intrusion. In that last example, I find the words "through their hometown" particularly problematic. Why should we need to be told that it’s their hometown? We know that. The unnecessary phrase creates the feeling that the author is being too dilatory, too lax.

The bigger problem with the book is that there’s a lot about the characters that’s fuzzy, particularly in the cases of Robbie and Maize. They both have lots of sex but neither of them seems to be able to handle intimacy. They each want something from sex that they’re not able to ask for and, when it does seem to be on offer, they run away from it.

As for other characters, is it necessary for both Maize and Robbie to have cold, manipulative mothers? You wonder if Mr. Sassone knows that there can be other kinds. At one point Maize has a boss who is egregiously horrible. For all I know, some people can be that awful – maybe Mr. Sassone encountered one such boss in his career trajectory – but this boss’s awfulness isn’t conveyed in a way as to be believable. Robbie’s lover, the one who helps with the mom’s move, barely manages to burst out of the confines of clich: the hunky, macho medical intern who’s so calculating and so confident of his future that he lords his manliness over his feckless boyfriend.

In the final section of the book, the characters behave in some inexplicable, erratic ways and yet the kind of conflict that emerges among them is entirely predictable. The book feels as though the author is writing about some people, some situations, he has known and lived through but hasn’t distanced himself enough from his subjects to give them an objectivity that enables them to stand on their own.

 

Bangkok Haunts (Mystery) by John Burdett, 2007

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is that rare individual – an incorruptible Buddhist cop in Bangkok. (See a review of one of his previous outings on DD page titled: Summer Mysteries ‘07.) This time, he’s investigating the murder of his former girlfriend, a prostitute, who has been killed in the making of a snuff movie. The horror of that, as he witnessed it on film, propels Sonchai determinedly through some of the darkest alleys of Bangkok life to seek justice for his murdered friend.

Sonchai seems to have come up in the world somewhat. He no longer lives in one room with a hole in the floor for a toilet. He’s now ensconced with his pregnant partner in relatively decent accommodation. The involvement of an FBI agent in the case seems superfluous, from the point of view of plot, but she does add considerable human interest. Even more of that comes from Sonchai’s loyal assistant, a flamboyant male who is transitioning to female. Sonchai’s mother, the shrewd brothel owner, still emerges as one of the most colourful characters in her cameo appearances. A new character in Sonchai’s sphere is a young, enigmatic monk who turns out to have an unforgettable story of his own.

As in many mysteries these days, the unravelling of the plot is overly complicated. I never could quite figure out what Sonchair’s boss, the genially corrupt police captain, was up to. The denouement of the main mystery involves some rather fantastic, almost surrealistic, elements that severely challenged my suspension of disbelief.

But the main appeal of the book, for me, is the way it immerses you in a culture so different from your own. You feel as if you’re being led by the hand through a fascinating world by somebody who knows it very well. (Warning: If you’ve always felt that the porn industry was a dignified, rewarding way to make a living, you may be a trifle disillusioned.) Not least of the pleasure in the journey, is the personality of your guide. Here’s an example of the kind of self-deprecating, modest humour that makes Sonchai so likeable:

I balance my chair on its back legs, put my feet on my desk, and make a cathedral of my hands. It never works, but it does make me feel like Philip Marlowe.

And:

The problem is not normally featured in police thrillers, but it goes like this: How exactly does a low-ranking, humble, third-world cop go about browbeating a smarter, more powerful, better-educated, and, most daunting of all, better-connected, senior, respected lawyer?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com