Saturday, November 21, 2009

Water for Elephants - Sarah Gruen

Water for Elephants will make a great movie one day. I say this because it's one of those books where the story is interesting, but the writing itself is almost superfluous to the strength of the book. Oh and just to be clear, that's not a compliment.

The book has some strengths - it is absorbing, easy to read, the action is well paced, the circus details are fascinating. The characterisation of Rosie the Elephant is subtle and at times quite lovely. The minor characters are drawn reasonably well.

Now lets start with the problems, as there are quite a few.

The main problem with this novel is that it lacks depth and character development. After you've read it, sit back and ask yourself why Jacob loved Marlena? Just...cos? Exactly - Marlena is barely a character. Other than Old Jacob saying she was lovely, that's pretty much all we get. What are her personality traits, what are her strengths, who IS she? Gruen just seems to have no idea on how to actually develop a character into an interesting person.

In all honesty, Jacob suffers the same fate. Who IS he? We get a little more detail on him simply because he's the narrator, but there is no internalising at all from him, he never really tells us what he's thinking or feeling, or comments (and thus develops) the other characters.

Uncle Al and August are nothing more than exaggerated caricatures - villain fodder. It's a shame really because the book would have been far more interesting if August had of been more sympathetic, if we could understand his mood swings beyond being told he was a 'paranoid schizophrenic'.

Then there is the dialogue. It's kinda awful - no sense of the time and place, no context, and just plain useless really. The characters never say anything of any importance! Oh sure, Jacob loves Marlena, but do they ever even have a conversation of any depth?

If not for the framing of the novel between Old and Young Jacob narratives, it actually would have benefited from having a traditional narrative. This would have allowed far more insight into the other characters than we were able to get from Jacob. In fact it would have worked fine if Gruen had kept Old Jacob in first person, but allowed the true story to be told by on omniscient narrator.

The Old Jacob chapters are fairly good - I did like the insights he gave us into what it's like to grow old and not be able to really understand or accept not feeling like you, anymore. But the ending? God help me...

Ultimately the book is a fun, light hearted read. It is not great literature, won't change your life, but will keep you absorbed in the fascinating world of the circus for a few hours.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Saving Private Ryan

The most interesting thing I took away from Saving Private Ryan is the character of Corporal Upham, aka the coward.

In a movie (and a theme) filled with strength and heroism and brotherhood, it is Upham who stands out, because his presence asks the question none of us really know, how would WE be when faced with that kind of pain, chaos and destruction?

I have no doubt that the majority of soldiers, when it came to the crunch, did the 'right' thing and fought courageously to their end. There are millions of men with the strength of character to do this. These men are the reason we mark our war memorial holidays with such respect. They were thrown into a world that was nothing like they had ever known, they watched their friends' heads blown off next to them and had to step over the body. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of scene except your own backbone, and thankfully there *are* a lot of men with such strength.

But....and it's a big but, there are many other types of people who WOULD lose the plot and become a whimpering mess on a staircase like Upham. It'd be nice to think we'd all rush into the face of death without a moment's thought, but think about how many news reports we hear about someone being attacked in a public place and no one stood up. Some people handle the death of a spouse or child with a quiet sadness, others go completely hysterical and never recover. It is this kind of fundamental difference between people and their coping skills that we never really see in War movies or even think about. We expect to see heroes, taking orders no matter what. But as Upham shows, not everyone who went over there had the ability to handle the absolute hell that is war. Upham isn't stupid, he knows what he should have done, but he was too afraid to die. He was a soft, not so brave intellectual who simply lost the plot when the crunch became crunchy.

As for the movie itself, I liked it, but wasn't in awe or completely absorbed. The idea is interesting....the question of sacrifice, and whether it was fair or ridiculous to (potentially) sacrifice 6 men to spare a woman the loss of four instead of three sons. Most reviews I see focus on the value of Private Ryan's life, and even the Captain at the end tells him basically to be worth all the effort, but the decision was never about Private Ryan! The decision was made to spare his mother from more pain - to spare a civilian from the effects of war, not to save the man himself from death. Ryan and the other men only focus on his worthiness, but it's irrelevant, because the nature of war means that every soldier is fodder - they fight for us, not themselves.
Their mission was ultimately a microcosm of war and Private Ryan was the personification of the justifications OF the war - fight for the people in your country to keep them safe.

In the end, the movie is confronting and thankfully not too sentimental. It lacked something for me, but maybe just a matter of taste.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Man oh man. This is one of those novels that I was convinced I was going to like. Long (which I like), interestingish plot (mute boy, Shakespearan overtones), rave reviews as a page turner.

All I have to say is, WTF??

There are so many things wrong with this novel I don't know where to begin. So in no real particular order:

1. It is never really clear when it needs to be. Despite the fact we do get chapters from Claude's perspective, we never really find out what the heck is motivation is. We never find out the real story behind him and Gar, we have no real idea why he wanted to kill Gar, how he so easily kills Edgar. Does he love Trudy? Who the heck knows, we never find out anything of any substance. All we can really deduce is that he wanted what Gar had - the Sawtelle dogs back and the life he lead, but none of this really explains his actions or makes them understandable. I'd understand that some things would have to remain a mystery if the novel was told purely from Edgar's point of view, but it's NOT. There was no reason to leave everything so foggy, unclear and sloppily written, it doesn't benefit the novel or add to any characterisation.

2. Trudy. Again, same problem. Why does it take the *entire* length of this huge novel to even get to her reaction of Edgar's disappearance? Why not flash to Trudy during Edgar's run through the woods, instead of setting up an entirely new character (Henry) just to have him go nowhere, other than the adoption of two dogs! Oh and wait, we also get other useless passages of a ghost Edgar talks to while clearing out Henry's garage. Geezus.

3. Though some say they really 'felt' Edgar as a character, I really did not. I felt nothing for Edgar. What did we really know about him? Nothing. He was mute and introverted...

4. Most importantly, the novels has no real purpose. There is no meaning that ties the book together, that makes the journey worth it. A bad ending doesn't bother me....I could accept Edgar's death if it made any sense within the context of the novel. But it doesn't. There is just not enough structure to this novel - it is liking reading something through a thick fog, where you only really understand bits of it and at the end, there is nothing to find.

There are too many long and meandering passages, events that lead nowwhere, and underdeveloped characters.

Mr. Wroblewski answers about a million questions on this novel at the Oprah website and most of them are answers that should be in the novel itself.

Any goodness? The dogs are well developed, the passages from Almondine's point of view are written very nicely. The novel itself has a reasonably well developed 'feel'....and some of the prose is beautiful to read.

The problem here is plot and character......which unfortunately, Mr. Wroblewski, we NEED to be developed in a novel!