Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: And Sons: A Novel

The great part of getting advanced copies of possible book club selections, is that you get to read literature for free that you might not have read otherwise.  The bad part? That it can sometimes be like that literature class where the professor goes nuts over a piece of literature for reasons you can't comprehend because it just isn't that great.

So it is with And Sons: A Novel by David Gilbert.  I wanted it to live up to the pre-publication hype, but absolutely did not.  So I wrote my very honest reviews for Amazon and Goodreads below.   Enjoy.


Like many contemporary novelists, & Sons is an attempt to capture many of the feelings we want out of literature. While I had not read any of his other works, it is apparent that author David Gilbert is familiar with larger expectations for complex works by interweaving multiple viewpoints, dealing with darker themes in familial relationships, and throwing in the unexpected. In terms of style and tone, Gilbert does come across as different, unique and fresh.

However, Gilbert’s novel has a few detractors that make it have less of a broad appeal. For the most part it is a study of relationships between reclusive, privileged, New Yorker fathers and sons. While I understand the romance with the New York City life, and reflections of a Woody Allen view of the city, I still am not sure how relatable these characters are on the whole. Adding to the problem, is the bouncing weave of storylines and viewpoints that at times is hard to follow, especially when the father is named Andrew, and the son is called Andy. To confuse matters more, Gilbert drops in copies of handwritten letters that are often hard to read but essential in terms of characters reacting to these letters, and sections of the fictional author A.N. Dyer’s novels. 

As well, the novel comes across to the reader as trying too hard. In the course of building this reclusive author’s character, Dyer’s biggest classical piece of literature is called Ampersand and is constantly compared to Catcher in the Rye. Instead of feeling like a natural comparison, the number of times this is mentioned make it instead feel like that one friend who has gotten to meet a few B-list celebrities, and constantly namedrops at the most casual of dinner parties. Add to this a very preposterous plot twist that is played off as reality, and it feels like the whole novel unravels a bit. While the mildly surprising revelation near the end and the very surprising ending work much better, the middle plot twist feels like the biggest negative and turn that part of the novel into that movie that is hilarious when it wasn’t trying to be funny at all.

While the tone and style are interesting, I found the whole novel didn’t live up to the hype. Probably a semi-interesting read for some, but definitely not what I would consider to be an enduring classic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's called a Byronic Hero

My apologies in advance.  I generally don't like to blog and gush about Benedict Cumberbatch, but in this case I must do so to make a point.  You see, I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness and watched the entire Sherlock series, and became instantly hooked. Here you've got an actor who is handsome, if unconventionally so, but whose strength is his ability to really sink into a role.  When he plays the villain in STID, his voice is just low enough to rattle your entire chest cavity. It's like a sound check for subwoofers.  But he isn't a pure evil, but one of a villain who has taken matters into his own hands out of necessity to try to recover and protect his crew.

And when embodying Sherlock Holmes, he is every bit the completely socially-awkward genius.  The Dr. Sheldon Cooper of consulting detectives.  Yet unlike Sheldon Cooper, he is also alluring, enticing the audience one scene at a time with a subtle charm.  While calling himself a "high-functioning sociopath" you find it incredibly hard to believe that his personality is that extreme considering the subtlety of care that Sherlock exhibits to those who he keeps closest.

So, what annoys me about Scott Christian's brief blurb introducing the trailer for The Fifth Estate is this notion of Hero-Villain.  Frankly, there is no such thing.  It just happens to be that as his star is on the rise, audiences have started to transition from "Oh, it's that guy" to actually having a name for this fellow: Benedict Cumberbatch.

What we can surmise is that he's comfortable as both villain and hero, but not as flat, two-dimensional characters. And I believe we would find him far less interesting.  As an actor he is adept at playing complexity and it suits him.

In fact, I believe the part he plays best the Byronic Hero.  Namely, right now his best role has been Sherlock hands down.  I believe that Benedict Cumberbatch has become the poster boy for the modern Byronic Hero. defines it well:

Byronic Heroes are charismatic characters with strong passions and ideals, but who are nonetheless deeply flawed individuals who may act in ways which are socially reprehensible, and whose internal conflicts are heavily romanticized. Some of their attitudes and actions may be considered immoral, and their bad actions may be as numerous as those which are heroic, but never are they evil just [just for evil's sake]; some are portrayed with a suggestion of dark crimes in their past, but never enough concrete details to establish that they actually kicked the dog

I believe that Benedict Cumberbatch happens to be a phenomenal actor who plays a Byronic Hero well, and audiences lap it up.  And, if the trailer is any indication, he is going to be flat-out phenomenal as the extremely controversial Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. 

So instead of calling a character archetype a Hero-Villain, let's be much more specific.  Hero and villain can't be just hyphenated and made in to its own archetype.  It comes across as just plain lazy.

It's not like we are unfamiliar with Byronic Heroes.  There is an air of them in many of the major film franchises like the Batman reboots from Christopher Nolan.  Even consider the fantastic qualities of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise.  Dark and brooding, possible villain, or not, or as he turns out to be the ultimate Byronic Hero.  Obviously, the Byronic Hero is here to stay, and it would be really lovely if we could learn the tropes if we are going to discuss them in popular media.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Things I Don't Get: Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo

To get me back in the blogging spirit, I am launching a brand new segment I like to call:

Things I Don't Get

I am happy and proud to be American. I love our independent spirit. When freedoms are taken away I take it a little bit personally.  All that aside, there are many times when I wonder if I was secretly born in another country and planted here, because I just don't understand aspects of my own uniquely American culture.

As a lover of television, I don't have any problems admitting that I watch a lot of television.  I do watch  some unscripted "reality" programming, but I am definitely picky.  When it comes to reality shows, I would much rather watch The Amazing Race, or shows like The Hero over shows that just generally titillate our voyeuristic side.  I like shows that improve lives, like HGTV where they renovate, or Bar Rescue or Restaurant Impossible where dying businesses are given a new lease on life.

What I have yet to understand is a show like Toddlers & Tiaras.  As exploitative and creepy as dressing children up and teaching them to act sexy and dress like adults is in the first place, the broadcast of such a culture on television is opening it up to an even wider exploitation.

However, this one child who they nicknamed Honey Boo-Boo is even more weird of a phenomenon.  Toddlers & Tiaras was apparently too small for her, so they gave her a spinoff show that follows her and her family.

The poor girl is definitely one of the homelier children I have seen.  Everyone should know their strengths and play to them, and while I don't argue that she has some personality that she could nourish with an adequate education, at this point in her life she is not a model.  Yet she is paraded around as though she was the most beautiful little girl in the U.S.

To make matters worse, the whole culture of the show seems to be to highlight bad behavior and the strangeness of her family.  As they ramp up for their second season, I was shocked, grossed-out, and utterly appalled by the ad campaign.  You see, to make you feel like you are truly part of the show, the premiere episode for this season has available a "Watch 'n' Sniff" card.

Because really, who wouldn't want to smell bad milk or fish while watching the episode?

The end of the commercial features Honey Boo-Boo farting, just to class up the whole affair.

Is this what America is all about now? Is this an image that we as Americans want to be proud of?

I just don't get it. It is a massive cultural disconnect.  If that is American culture I feel like a woman completely displaced.