miercuri, 13 noiembrie 2013

Running with Scissors is not only dangerous

I have always loved the feeling you get when characters start growing on you, while reading a captivating book. But sometimes, they grow on you like cancer does, and with each page, each chapter, you dislike them more and more. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually awesome, especially in a book that is well written.

At first, I didn’t really know what to make of all the characters in ‘Running with Scissors’. They kind of piled up, and there were more of them with each page, one freakier and more extravagant than the other. The book felt strangely predictable during the first pages, because I was sure that the main character was gay as soon as I realized he was a boy. From this point on, I was sure there would be no major surprises. I have to add that I knew nothing about the story, the movie or the book, prior to my reading. My first suspicions were confirmed by a friend from whom I had borrowed the book. I was somewhat disappointed that her confirmations did not feel like spoilers. To my surprise, however, things turned out much more complicated than I could have imagined. The major survivor of all these revelations was a feeling of annoyance I was not able to get rid of.

The key word will become ‘annoyance’.

The first subject of my annoyance was the mother. A self-absorbed, neurotic woman, living in her own world, is prone to cause feelings of antipathy. Next on the list was the father, and trust me, it is easy to resent a violent, alcoholic man who is absent most of the time, and horrible when he is present. Soon enough, I realized that the two of them had almost nothing in common, except for being oblivious to their son’s feelings, thoughts and problems. At this point I was painfully reminded of all the troubled families I know. So many of my neighbors and acquaintances grew up in somewhat similar circumstances. Having a neurotic mother and a drunken, violent father is not that uncommon. There are enough mothers in the world ignoring their children, their physical and emotional needs, and there are so many seemingly respectable men, who turn out to be cruel husbands and fathers. People handle situations like these as good as they are able to, but being a child diminishes one’s possibilities. There are not enough viable solutions for similar situations.

At this point I started to develop some sort of pity for the poor suffering child. Unfortunately it went away quickly because, you guessed it, I was again annoyed. Instead of turning into a tormented soul, the boy grew more spoiled and silly. For the sake of making that point, I will ask myself if it a nature versus nurture dilemma. I understand granting freedom to a child, but not without setting boundaries. How much of his persona is caused by his parents’ failure and how much is really him, I wonder... Sure of the fact that a big part was really his character, his own flaws, I eventually got back to being annoyed. I have to admit though, I felt a bit guilty for not liking him, since meanwhile, I have found out that he is a real person, not only a character. Maybe it is just the way he was described?

Young Augusten was basically abandoned by his family and moved into the house of a psychiatrist who attended to his mother. I wondered if this was going to make his life a bit easier. And I actually think it did. Maybe, in some weird way, it helped him gain some distance from his own dysfunctional family, while becoming a member of another one.

Each chapter is a rendition of weird events taking place in the Finch household. The doctor seemed to use some unorthodox measures right from the start, but I would have never expected to find out that he is the best candidate for looney-ville, and that he should be locked up together with all his patients. Not since Jane Austen have I met such a dull and flat character like Agnes, the doctor’s wife. A good Christian soul who left all the values of Christianity behind once she got married and faced real life does not seem uncommon either. She is as much of a stereotype as the abusive father. The two sisters seem much too exaggerated to me. Their behavior is beyond anything I have seen in spoiled children. And the baby, well the baby makes the entire picture complete. Somewhere in between we find out that there are actually more children, but I lost track of them. And of course, there is Hope. What a beautiful name the author chose, like she would represent some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. Creating a somewhat normal character, there was a balance between the casual and the insane. She is actually as demented as the rest of the Finches, but it takes some time to notice. It would have been a miracle to develop a sane personality in that household. Eventually, we all meet Neil. For a second I almost thought he wished to escape his family and live a peaceful life. He is truly as deranged as all the rest, and should be considered a danger to himself and those around him. There is no way to sugarcoat it, he mistreats and abuses a thirteen year old boy, while having the blessing of his family. In other circumstances one would be glad that we see a loving and caring relationship develop. Just that it is not. It is gross and horrible and wrong.

Augusten is turning ambivalent. While being mature in so many ways, understanding the world of adults and social constructs, he relishes in his misery. He would have had some strings he could have pulled, but on several occasions, he manifests a strange comfort, he is engulfed by the weirdness and enjoys it. Is he a victim, or does he support the system that tries to destroy him? If he is able to keep himself fed and sheltered without adult supervision, how come that his survival instinct does not tell him to leave the mess he lives in behind?

To make things easier for me, he even gave his novel the title “Running with Scissors”. Taken by its true meaning, the title is an essential argument in favor of the point I am making. If somebody who chooses to run with scissors, I would imagine he is perfectly aware of the lunacy of his actions. The logical conclusion, again, would be that Augusten was always well aware of the risks, but was determined to follow the path even though he might have metaphorically “cut himself”. I am not sure if the author was aware of this while choosing the title. If he was, it could only mean, for me at least, that he was always mindful about the repercussions.

Finishing the novel, I started to research. I was curious about the story, the background and the details. I found out about the scandal the book caused, the movie it inspired and the settlement made. This is how I found out that the author claims to have a really good memory, going back to when he was approximately two years old. If this is true, the logical conclusion can only be that the novel is a pretty accurate memoir, a detailed recollection of events, conversations and thoughts. And with this, I realized why I had the constant feeling of annoyance. Our young Augusten is profoundly self-conscious, it is not an imaginary maturity[1]. If the child was mature enough to realize the faults of those around him, why did he not react differently. If he was able to threaten a man with accusing him of statutory rape, if he felt that he was being abused, emotionally suffocated, why did he nourish the relationship? He was a teenager, and at that age, doing the right thing is often difficult. We all know that it is a hard time, even for those growing up in normal families. It is impossible to put myself in his shoes, since the life he lived seems too outlandish to be real.

Undeniably, the writing is hilarious. The ironic, and sometimes naïve voice makes you forget that the things you read about are horrible. But is a funny package enough to sell the story? I often dislike memoirs, since I consider that anybody who has lived for a while can write one. A really good memoir is the one containing extraordinary events or characters, the ones telling great stories of mankind, humans interacting with the crumbling or blooming world around them. A bonus is, of course, if the memoir is written in a witty and catchy manner.

I feel a bit bad about the fact that I find Augusten annoying, like this is something I need to apologize for. And I know why. Because he is not entirely fictional. He is a real human being, who really lived that life, who really experienced all these things.

Bottom line is, it is definitely worth reading. It is shocking and captivating. It makes you laugh regardless of the eerie and bad things happening. And if I dislike a character, so what? It only means that I will remember him, and I think this is the reason why authors write, and why we all read.

vineri, 21 iunie 2013

Spartacus - my unsung hero

Historians and the entertainment industry created several versions of the story of Spartacus. But honestly, I like the one created by the latest TV series most.

When the last episode ended a few weeks ago, I actually felt really sad. Even a bit melancholic. And of course, I wondered why. Later I realized where my feeling came from.

I followed the entire show, from the glorious beginning until the bitter end. The story of Spartacus could be considered as a victory of the underdog.  I am sure that he was also convinced that no one can attack the mighty Roman Republic and live to tell the tale. But he made it, he actually died to tell about it.

The show presents Spartacus as the most noble human being there is. A man driven by the love for his wife and by the loyalty to his brothers, he gets to a point of no return. To paraphrase the series itself, he has nothing left to lose, thus being the most dangerous kind of man possible. And yes, for several months, he made Rome tremble.
I am not sure if the real Spartacus was just as the one we saw on TV. I honestly doubt it. We are presented with a good and kind man. He cares for those around him, he even tries to help his Roman captors. Above all, he is honorable and just. He does not hurt people if he does not have to, but at the same time, he is capable of brutally slaughtering enemy soldiers and those who betrayed his trust. I am not really / entirely convinced that Spartacus  was the gentleman the show tries to present. It was the producers’ way of making us all fall in love with the characters and the events that shaped our history.

We could not know what possibly moved Spartacus. The show offered a convenient answer, by making his lanista kill his beloved wife. Outraged by the abuse he, and others alike had to suffer, he savagely took back his freedom, and continued to fight against the discrimination and agony Romans imposed on them. I am not sure the real Spartacus had such noble thoughts. It might be that he only wanted to be free, and in order to achieve his goal, he needed others who shared his desire. So, I conclude that there is a possibility that he was not the noble hero we see in the show.

One might accuse the series of being much too violent and bloody and pretty explicit. Well, I am not going to deny it. But I consider the era that is portrayed. Noble Roman citizens often lived an opulent and extravagant life. That what we would consider decadent was daily business for them. Educated in the high art of corruption and treason, their greatest concern was to enhance their wealth, while trying to further climb the social ladder. Maybe some things are a bit over the top, but it is still a TV show, meaning to attract and keep audiences.  The characters were nicely carved, and their environment was created with a lot of love for details. The buildings, the interiors, the clothing and the makeup were all impressive and added to the bigger picture presented to us. Some things were clearly distorted, historical facts about gladiators and their lives. Most of them survived, since one could not afford to lose a fighter he had paid for. Being a gladiator was a job, many of them being Roman men in need of money. But again, one needs an adventure in order to capture audiences.

I know everybody somehow wished for Spartacus to succeed. As I was saying, he is the underdog, and people tend to favor them.
But he is the proof that history is not always written by the victors. Sometimes one man can make a change and can inspire and move people, he can take up a fight with the big and powerful ones, even if he loses.

And after considering all the details of the show and the real story I realized why the end of the series made me so sad. Of course, I usually get this feeling after I’ve read a good book or watched a good show or movie. It is the “…and know what?...” feeling. But it was something more than that. I actually realized that there was a time when not only history was made, but when legends were born. When one man could change history and become an iconic figure and a symbol for all others who will oppose injustice and oppression in the future. Sure, I suppose men like him are born today, but we will never know. I just wish I could somehow feel what it was like to live in that time. How would I act as a roman? Or a freed slave? Would I be able to face such a destiny? And above all, faced with such a destiny, how would I handle it? Would I hide or would I embrace it, follow the course ancient gods of fortune laid for me, in spite of all the pain and sacrifice? I presume, no! It takes a special kind of man to die for his beliefs and be reborn as a legend.

So does this answer the question, why I am so fond of the show?       

duminică, 19 mai 2013

Argo - or why James Bond is a coward

Ian Fleming describes James Bond as being so successful at what he does because of "his exact attention to the detail of his profession". I have to disagree.

A single thought crossed my mind after watching "Argo": Finally a decent and reasonable spy movie! Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a great action movie as much as anybody else, I love James Bond (especially for the cars) and also the entire "Mission Impossible" series. They all have their own charm. But we are allaware that the technology they use is unrealistic at best, the situations they escape absurd and the characters highly distorted So yes, I consider the people of "Argo" worthy of praise and respect.

Since the movie is based on a true story, I feel good knowing that reality can be, and occasionally, even is more ludicrous than any thought a scriptwriter could have. Secret agents are depicted as real people, flawed, weak, afraid. Although we know that their life is not all fun and games, we still envision the job they do in a distorted manner. It seems to me that they are often lonely, alienated from their friends and loved one. Dangerous situations are probably part of their existence, but not in the way the movie industry makes us believe through narratives filled with action and thrill. The true weapons of a good secret agent are deceit and wit. He is the perfect liar, he can be anybody and he is able to improvise even in the most perilous situations. It might be that my vision is biased and a bit askew, but I consider this image far more interesting than the typical Hollywood spy. Sorry to disappoint the fans of action movies, but they will not find the effects they are accustomed to in "Argo". Violence in that form and of such a magnitude can only exist in real life (unfortunately). No James Bond or Ethan Hunt ever found himself in such a position. So excuse me if I am impressed with what a handful of people managed to do and the courage they all showed. And above all, these are actually real people, who did it without being superheroes. I would have probably cried my eyes out in a similar situation. Few of us would be able to keep their cold blood, to adapt while helping others in the meantime. I ask myself, what would James Bond do? Our usual action movie character would have just ignited the entire building, while shooting his way out of the ruins between the few surviving enemies. Real people do not have this option. Capture and torture is not a passing adventure in the true world. You get hurt, you are scared, you devise a working plan, and all this while trying to save yourself and others around you. James Bond would have probably failed, while using as few resources as the characters in the movie. Real courage is not to look danger into the eyes, but to keep on going without looking at it at all;not to use the biggest guns, but none at all. True art is to escape unnoticed, not to leave explosions and destruction behind.

What I absolutely loathe about all the B class action movies is the lack of a coherent story. "Argo" is so much better, not only because of the sophisticated story line, but because it does not feel predictable. And this is a great accomplishment for a story I already know, since it really happened. I laughed at the absurdity of it all, I held my breath awaiting the next scenes and only at the end did I notice that my back was tense anticipating the escape of the hostages. Rarely do movies manage to make me feel like this, but this time it is an even greater accomplishment, since it is a historical movie and I knew the end.

Spies are maybe the last of their kind, men and women who posses true grit, risking their lives for others. I think of them as being the unsung heroes of our times, never officially rewarded for their deeds And this makes them so much more awesome. They don't ask for attention, on the contrary, they hide and sneak. I am sure they sometimes fail, but when they are victorious, you only see the saved day, not the saviors.

My only conclusion is that James Bond would have failed miserably. If actual people have accomplished to save themselves lacking support and training, then James Bond is kind of overrated.

In the end, I am happy to have seen a movie that touched me, that made me curious, that made me question and wonder. I suppose there is nothing more important.

luni, 21 ianuarie 2013

Atonement - the longest week of my life

First, I would like to make it clear, that I have the utmost respect for Ian McEwan. I would probably show  the same amount of respect for anybody capable of writing over three hundred pages.
This is exactly the problem with the novel...somewhere between the many pages you tend to lose it, you miss the overview of what is happening in the characters’ lives. McEwan is trying hard to describe as many details as possible regarding the surroundings, but leaves out interesting character hallmarks. As much as I like to know, the color of the furniture, its exact size and shape, each little crack it has, at a certain point I feel like I’m reading a description of a furniture shop and not a living, breathing environment the characters share.
Even though I realize the importance of creating an accurate image of the surroundings, there still remain things that I personally do not consider of any importance. This means, that a specific environment contributes to describing a character, as the interior design of a house does for his owner in real life. But no author should ever go so far, that his readers become bored and jaded.
The novel is well organized, describing events in a logical order in three different sections. While the first one is abundant with far too many design details of the house and the garden the characters inhabit, it  is still the one, where things actually  happen. It’s because of this fact, that certain characters are annoying, lack depth in my opinion, or are just shallow. Briony is much too spoiled for a child, even for one from the upper class. She is allowed to indulge in whatever hobbies she wishes, because her parents seem much to busy with work or migraines to be able to educate her. This is why her childish tantrums are almost ignored, while an innocent man is sent to jail. I find it not only unfair but somewhat unrealistic, that the police relies solely on the statement of a pre-teenage girl, ignoring  the facts and the testimony of the accused.
For a paranoid and deeply sensitive woman, Emily is strangely oblivious to the way mister Paul Marshall spends time with the children in the nursery and his attitude towards Lola.
At this point, I already pictured him as a weird type of man, buying children’s affection with chocolate.
On the other hand, it is stated that Emily, the matron, is always aware of things happening in the house and to the family, even if her headaches make her unfit to move or do things. So I wonder how  somebody with this kind of an intuition and so much sensitivity does not see beyond her daughter’s statement, realizing the motivations for her lie. How is it possible to accuse a boy who grew up together with your children without relying on everything you already know about him and his family? I have a strange sensation like the crime and the entire drama connected to it is a hoax. It is impossible to take the events seriously.

The second part of the novel, describing Robbie’s struggles during the war, is unfortunately even less entertaining. I understand the difficulty of writing war stories, but some authors manage to make it right. McEwan just describes different marching episodes with a few stops, inserting a few gruel images every now and then. Maybe he knew that readers might just forget what the walking was about if he would have avoided the brutal intermezzos of cruel imagery. There are enough novels describing scenes of war. I could say that I have read better and more interesting ones, from Rilke to Hassel. On the other hand,  I am not much fond of war stories anyway, no matter how well they are written. Still, Robbie is transforming on the battlefield, he is no longer an naïve and scared young student. It is obvious that war changes a man deeply and I like the fact that McEwan included the metamorphosis into the novel.

Last, but not least, the final part, describing Briony’s experience in an army hospital. It’s true, some details are interesting since this is an extraordinary experience. Meanwhile, Briony is turning into a more mature and developed character. She asks herself questions about her life and her actions. She feels regret, anger and shame. What I miss (even though it would fill another 200 pages) is the way she turned into a woman, the steps of her transformation and how she got to reject her family almost completely.

All in all, the novel is a beautiful mixture of characters, people of all sorts. The problem, well actually, my problem, is that I am not capable of falling in love with them. But on the other hand, falling in love is not always enough. The characters annoy me, I fail to understand them and I would so often like to change the course of their actions. I do not understand why serious police officers would trust a scared  young girl without further investigating a case. Why is Emiliy portrayed as someone who knows everything in her house, by just lying in bed with migraines, while she proves incapable of seeing that Briony is uncertain, that Robbie is saying the truth. How is it possible that she never noticed the truth about Paul Marshall. Why did Robbie consider going to war, since he was some kind of a nerd and he also knew that it would never rehabilitate his name, as long as Briony keeps lying.

I don’t like the characters Emily and Briony, I find them inconsistent and lacking depth. I feel like the author was moody when creating them, as if he was unable to decide what to do with them. Emily fails to be the matron she should be. I am bored by characters portraying upper class women, who are so sick of everything good they got in their lives, that they need to have migraines in order to have something to complain about. It seems that Briony is turning into her mother. She is not a special child because she is organized and creative. Many infants are like that. In the end, it think of her as a failure; she is not a special child, she is horrible as a sister and daughter, since she betrays and rejects her family. As a writer, I am not sure that she had success because of the beauty of her novel or because readers always enjoy the scandal and the misery of others. I refuse to acknowledge her novel as a form of redemption, on the contrary, instead of understanding or forgiving her, it makes me judge her even more.

One would think I am discontent with the entire novel. But in end, if I managed to remember as much as I did, if I got annoyed, if I got angry, if I disagreed, it can mean only one thing: the book made a  greater impact than I thought.