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a little night musing's picture

We read books: let's review them here! Leave your reviews in the comments.

Note: you need not write a long review. Just a few words telling us why you are mentioning the book can be useful. And feel free to stretch the definition of "book" if you like.

Thoughts about reviewing...

There is an inherent problem in writing a review of a book (or a film, for that matter) whose pleasure comes partly from the surprise of its unfolding. That's true of all books (and films), I suppose, but I have some cases in mind: the structure of their unfolding is that at certain moments the light shifts, or the rug is pulled out from under the reader/viewer, and everything is up for grabs again. A very skillful writer can cause this to happen over and over before a final resolution, and maybe even leave some things unresolved, and yet leave the reader satisfied.

My dilemma is how to describe such a book, or such a film, while leaving the pleasure of being surprised intact. Part of the pleasure of being surprised is the first inkling the reader gets that things are not going to be quite straightforward.

Maybe I'm being too vague. I'll try to be more concrete, using a film as an example. I suppose everyone who wants to see A Beautiful MInd has seen it - if you haven't you may want to stop reading now, because I'm about to spoil one of the things that affected me the most when I saw it the first time.

I had not read any real reviews of the film, although I had read some writing about it - mostly what I remember is complaints that (a) it wasn't true to Nash's life, and (b) it did not mention his homosexual tendencies, if that's what they were, as a young man. (I'm not sure why that latter was such a big deal to so many of the people whose writing I read, but there it is.) I knew relatively little about Nash's life at the time and had not read the book: I knew about his work, and I knew he had had a psychotic break at sometime after he went to MIT, and that he had apparently recovered late in life. But that was about it.

So I spent the first hour or so of the film thinking, OK, great, now when is he going to start being schizophrenic? The scene where he is driving home at night, thinking he is being pursued, was a bit odd. Is this going to be the trigger?

When I arrived at the scene in the mental hospital in which it comes out that even Nash's "college roommate" was a hallucination, it was a moment of supreme disorientation. Suddenly I had to re-evaluate everything that had come before in the film: what was real and what was not? I truly had not been expecting this.

Afterward I wondered if I had been very naive, not paying attention, and that was why I was so taken by surprise by that moment. (I was also influenced by the fact that I knew that the real John Nash's disease did not manifest itself until later in his life.) On the other hand, I felt it was deliberate on the part of the writer and director: a way of making me, the viewer, feel what it is like to be schizophrenic, not to be able to trust my own sense of reality.

I then wanted to take some of my mathematician friends to see the film, to see if they had that same moment of disorientation I had. But I found it difficult to tell them what I wanted to know without telling them what was going to happen in the film. I felt that I had only had that experience because I had not been expecting it: if I had expected it, I would have been more suspicious of events earlier in the film, and perhaps might not have my understanding of what was real in the film shattered to that extent.

I'm thinking these things again because I've been torn about some reviews I have wanted to write recently. For certain books, I'm finding it hard to imagine how to write about what it was in a book that I loved, without destroying (or, anyway, attenuating) that pleasure for the person who reads my review.

So as I work through this dilemma, what are you reading? Or what are your thoughts about the reviewing process?

[Sorry to have missed a couple of weekends recently. I've been fairly overwhelmed by RL issues since the spring, but I think some relief is on the horizon.]

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a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

I mentioned in my previous review that I wanted to go back and view the two filmed versions (one Swedish, one British) again. It was that re-viewing, and the thoughts it put in my mind, as well as earlier cases, that brought out what I wrote in the post above.

My experience of "The Man Who Smiled" was in this order:
first I saw the Swedish film with Rolf Lassgard
then I saw the British TV movie with Kenneth Branaugh
then I read "Kennedy's Brain", which made me think of these two films
then I read "The Man Who Smiled"
and lastly, I re-viewed the two films.

So at the risk of spoiling the experience for everyone else ;)

I think I was somewhat spoiled by having first seen the Swedish film. Of the three versions, it has the creepiest evil people and it takes its time letting us know which of the people we meet are the evil ones, and just how evil they are. Creepily evil. I was somewhat disappointed in the British film, which is certainly excellent, because its evil was less comprehensively creepy compared to the Swedish version. I was convinced that the Swedish version must be closer to Mankell's book, but when I read the book I saw that BOTH films were different from the book in two ways (the most siginificant differences for my purpose in this review):

1) In both films, we do not start out knowing who is behind the bad things that are happening, and it is revealed slowly. In the book, we know from page 2 who the top bad guy is: we just don't know quite how bad.

2) In both films, the bad guy is very much a public figure (there, I've given it away!) who is held in high esteem by the Swedish public, whereas in the book he is a person who is never photographed and never seen in public, although his name is known as a major businessperson and contributor to good causes. He does not, in the book, seem from the start to be totally upright - in fact, we know, although Wallander and the police do not, that he has been up to no good - but he is a person who worked his way up from poverty by "buying cheap and selling less cheap" with little indication that he has much in the way of scruples. He is to be respected because industrialists like him are the backbone of the welfare state - and how refreshing it is to read "the welfare state" indicating something to be valued and supported! - and because he has kept jobs in Sweden that he could have exported, but no one known much about him and his activities are shrouded in mystery, and he hides behind phalanxes of secretaries and security staff. By way of contrast, in both films this character is a person who is engaging and outgoing, someone we want to like, at least until his other side begins to show.

I do not know how much Henning Mankell had to do with the making of either film, but "Kennedy's Brain" made me think that he's been working on some of the themes from "The Man Who Smiled" and working them into something darker and more sinister, something more like the Swedish film version.

This is all to say that any one of these four things is well worth your time: the book or either filmed version of "The Man Who Smiled", or "Kennedy's Brain"; but seeing and reading them all together in this way was a very thought-provoking experience. In particular, it made me want to go through more of Mankell's work to see how his treatment has changed over the years, if it has.

[I have also reviewed "The Return of the Dancing Master" and "Before the Frost" in an earlier version of the book reviews.]

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert tells the true story of Eustace Conway. She sees him as an iconic representative of America's definition of manhood, the individual who leaves a meaningless, corrupt society to find a utopia in the wilderness, requiring that he develop his skill and power. The book is extremely well-written. Conway is a piece of work. There are enough contradictions in the character that you can see him either as an endearingly flawed hero or as an arrogant, self-promoting piece of work. I tend towards the latter. It's the story of a disfunctional family, corroding ambition, and carefully selected, self-seeking human interactions. And I think Gilbert doesn't have to stretch too far to see in Conway the frontiersman/Western myth of manhood.

It's a lot of fun to read.