The Women (T.C. Boyle)

T.C. Boyle - The Women (paperback)I finished reading The Women by T.C. Boyle a while ago but did not have time to write a proper blog post since. I have read quite a few books since but I enjoyed The Women so much that I remember it quite well. It is definitely not the kind of book that you forget after reading a few more paperbacks.

I was first introduced to T.C. Boyle’s work by a librarian friend who advised me to read The Tortilla Curtain. A great book, with some of Boyle’s regular features: great vocabulary, very refined language and structure yet highly flowing and readable. I then tried to read Budding Prospects but couldn’t get past the first twenty pages: I didn’t understand clearly what was happening and the few dialogs were like mysteries to me. I gave it up, and wondered if that was the end of Boyle for me or if I should try another book. Later, as I was browsing second hand books at Shakespeare & Co, I found Drop City: the price was low so I thought “oh well”. I then read it super fast, given it’s a pretty thick book. Boyle’s take on the whole hippie thing is terribly refreshing: so-called freedom and free love, yeah, but the women are still cooking everyday.

I heard of The Women when it was published and planned to read it. A year before, author Nancy Horan wrote Loving Frank, which I had tried to borrow at the library but it was always checked out and putting a hold on it is complicated for me as I’m not sure I’ll be able to pick up the book. Anyway that non-read was my first idea of the man who was Frank Lloyd Wright. Or his love life.

The Women is an account of his life focusing on the women he loved. The story is told from the point of view of one of his many apprentices, Sato. He “writes” an introduction to each part. The chronology is reversed: we start with Olgivanna Milanoff, his last conquest, then on to Maude Miriam Noel, and the last chapter is about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who was not his first wife (that was Kitty) but clearly his first love. We know from the start that Mamah will die, murdered by a servant. The reverse chronology doesn’t do much for suspense but Boyle is such a gifted writer that our interest is maintained throughout the whole book.

1. His last love, Olgivanna Milanoff, a Montenegrin dancer (though she hates being reduced to just a “dancer”). He meets her at the opera, it seems like all he thinks about her is that she’s pretty. She comes to live with him, taking her daughter she had from a previous husband. They’ll manage to get married but not immediately as Wright is not yet divorced from Miriam, who makes it hell for them. Olgivanna seemed to me like a terribly uninteresting woman. It reads like she has no personality at all. She used to be in a kind of cult, and involved with the guru. All she does is worship men (Wright can be considered a guru as well, given the amount of worshipping he induces – from his women as well as from his many apprentices and admirers). Before they can get married, Wright takes her to Taliesin (his “home” in Wisconsin, one of his architectural masterpieces), but since he doesn’t want the press to know he’s involved with another woman, he makes her work in the kitchen to deceive people into thinking that she’s just an employee (and that won’t work anyway). So basically he makes her work like a slave and she doesn’t seem to mind it at all. She loves him and that’s it. God, I couldn’t stand that woman!

2. Maude Miriam Noel, so-called artist. “Belle from Memphis”, lived in Paris and thinks that makes her oh-so-original and interesting. She’s the “true star of The Women” (Washington Times) as she has a whole chapter to herself but also appears a lot in the other two parts. I couldn’t stand her either. She’s what we would now call a fucking bitch! She’s self-centered, pretentious and supposed to be an artist but doesn’t seem to work a lot (or at all). She is clearly interested in Wright only because he’s talented and famous (also the sex was good). But he’s too self-centered as well, and the relationship won’t work because she doesn’t get enough attention from him. Their differences make for some really juicy and funny parts in the book. Wright is said many times to love plain and simple food, but Miriam likes French refined dishes: there’s this meal she has prepared that he won’t eat because it’s too refined for his countryman tastebuds. Also when she has visiting cards printed with her name written big that he will refuse to use because he doesn’t like the design! She’s also the one to call him names when she’s angry. Some of them are pretty much true: “the little man”! Wright was short, a mama’s boy and not very brave. Though Miriam is a bitch, she’s the only one who really sees through his poses and doesn’t worship him blindly.

3. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, “proto-feminist”, translator. “She’s the impetus for the creation of Taliesin” but is Boyle’s “least fully drawn woman among the three” (Houston Chronicle). We don’t really know why she’s attracted to Wright. Their love affair is not really explained: yes, they love each other terribly, she’s maybe Wright’s first and last true love, but we don’t get to know why. It gets weirder when she’s murdered and Wright moves on pretty quickly (enter Miriam).

About Frank Lloyd Wright: well, there’s not much about him. Of course he’s everywhere in the book but in the end you don’t know really know him. He is “a demigod, a figure around whom people revolve and worship” (Washington Times) but the people (the women and apprentices) don’t seem to know why they adore him so much. He’s pretty much hateful in my opinion, always so sure of himself: “he does believe himself to be “the world’s greatest architect” and thus immune to rules of behavior “for other people, ordinary people, people who had neither insight nor originality”" (Houston Chronicle). What kind of woman loves a man like this?!

In the end, “The Women is more first-class melodrama than incisive biography” (Washinton Times) but what a book! If this is melodrama then Boyle is definitely good at it. I was really caught up in the story and had strong feelings towards the characters, whether I liked them or not. Once again Boyle’s ornate vocabulary made for a delicious read. I highly recommend it. I think I’ll read Horan’s account of Wright’s relationship with Mamah later, when I no longer think so much about The Women, but I guess it’s going to take a while! At least by that time it’ll be available at the library…

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers)

GI Joe: The Rise of CobraI did not want to go see this movie. I ended up going anyway. I thought I wouldn’t stand it and would either fall asleep or grind my teeth till they crumbled but it was a “watchable” movie. Of course it’s total crap but I must admit it was, for all its stupidity, at least a bit entertaining. But then again, I’m a person who takes pleasure in pointing out a movie’s bad points. I’ll make a bulleted list.

  • The story is dumb: some guy wants to take over the world but some other guys will defeat him. Now that’s unusual!
  • The special effects are boring: some “nanomites” attack the Eiffel Tower and it crumbles to the ground. Did you say “nanomites”? Mites attack fabric, and making them “nano” won’t mean they can eat steel. Soldiers have special suits that enable them to shoot and run faster (that’s when you see the poorness of the scenario: the guys had no idea how to make those soldiers better than regular soldiers, so they gave them accessories). The scenes set in Paris are the most unlikely: Paris is not like that, and no, there’s no tramway line that runs anywhere near the Eiffel Tower. You can check here if you don’t believe me.
  • The twist at the end is totally cliché: like this character, he was so, like, mysterious, and in the end he’s like that guy who everyone thought was dead but he’s like still alive and he was like the baddie all along. Phew.
  • The actors are bad. Channing Tatum, who plays Duke, deserves an award for “most toy-like character”: his face doesn’t move or show any emotion, even though he finds love and is relieved of one of the big burdens of his life. Though maybe that’s actually considered good acting for a movie whose first image is the “Hasbro” logo. Marlon Wayans plays Ripcord, the funny black guy: basically, he’s black and he’s funny (or not). The ladies are unremarkable. Saïd Taghmaoui plays a French-Moroccan guy (Breaker) who doesn’t do much in the movie. His best moment is when his team and him are jailed in France because they were around when the Eiffel Tower crumbled and they can’t explain that they were actually there to prevent the catastrophe because they can’t speak French… except that Saïd can! He carries his French accent during the whole movie but the one time it’s useful he just… doesn’t use it.

All in all, a really bad movie. It made me feel bad for the actors. Also, the cinema I went to seems to turn up the sound for every bad action movie. It was so loud I spent half the time with my hands blocking my ears and I still could listen to all the dialogues. Sheesh.

Out of the Shelter (David Lodge)

Out of the ShelterDavid Lodge is one of my favourite authors. Every book of his I’ve read I have enjoyed thoroughly. The first was Changing Places. A revelation. I read it at a time when I had difficulties to read: I couldn’t concentrate and could never muster enough interest to finish a single book. This I read from cover to cover in very few sittings. The characters were very engaging. The structure of the book felt revolutionary to me, the story was lively and humour was everywhere. I remember laughing out loud from the very first page. David Lodge instantly made my top ten and, fluctuating as it is, he is still there now. Later I read Thinks… which I enjoyed just as much, even though I had got used to Lodge’s style and was not so surprised. Next came the follow up to Changing Places, Small World, which was a bit of a let down: it was not as good as Changing Places, some events were too unlikely and its length didn’t do it justice. Therapy was good and it made me discover that Lodge could be melancholy as well as uproariously funny. Which more or less announced his latest book, Deaf Sentence. That was a wonderful read. At the time I thought it was his first truly autobiographical story: the hero is going deaf and his father’s health if of great concern to him. I had read in articles that Lodge had written from his own experience of going deaf and that his father had died not too long before. All this was confirmed during a reading he did at the American Library in Paris in September 2008.

But at the time I hadn’t read Out of the Shelter. This book having been published nearly forty years ago now, I couldn’t find much information on it, apart from some reviews dating back to 1984 when the book was republished. The most complete and trustworthy information is indeed the afterword to the 1984 edition written by Lodge himself. There he explains what’s autobiographical about his novel and what’s not.

Out of the Shelter is basically a Bildungsroman about a young boy, Timothy, born a few years before WW2. The first part is about his life in London during the Blitz, told from his point of view, which is that of a five year-old. His world is narrow and his view on the war is very patriotic. Timothy has a much older sister, Kath, who lives in Germany where she works for the American army. In the second part of the book, Kath offers Timothy to come to Heidelberg for three weeks during summer. Timothy hesitates because he’s never been further than the English seaside and is scared of going so far away on his own. But his boring and solitary holidays with his working-class parents finally push him to accept the offer and go to Germany. There he will awaken, both emotionally and intellectually. American-occupied Germany is full of wonders: no rationning, and Kath and her American friends lead a glamorous life, full of parties, restaurants, drives in sports cars and cocktails. In the end, sixteen year-old Timothy will even find “love” with a young American girl.

I really enjoyed this book. Timothy’s discovery of a larger life is interesting and the writing really reflects the opening of his mind. I also learned about post-war England and the rationing that lasted much longer than in other countries. The life of expat Americans was fascinating, in a shallow way. They didn’t mix with the Germans and lead a comfortable life right under their noses.

I am going to read more books by David Lodge, especially his early ones. They’re always very finely written and yet easy to read: language just flows and the plots are interesting. You should do the same!

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos)

Los Abrazos RotosLast night I wanted to see a movie but couldn’t chose one from the ones showing at the moment. Then I remembered I hadn’t seen the last Almodovar movie, Broken Embraces. Luckily it was still showing in a small theater in Saint Michel: le Saint André des Arts, famous for being highbrow and often mentionned in the Cahiers du Cinéma (it used to drive me crazy when I read about it but didn’t live in Paris yet: it seemed like everything interesting was happening there and of course I couldn’t go). The theater itself doesn’t look very good but is rather old and decaying. When I bought my ticket, water dropped on my head: I looked up and down and saw a bucket half filled with water that was leaking from the ceiling. Nice introduction.

Anyway I was in for a good movie. By the way what follows is kind of a spoiler.

Broken Embraces is “classical” Almodovar. A simple intrigue, but filled with passion and drama. Watching it made me distinguish some recurring themes and ideas in his movies:

- illnesses and accidents: Harry is blind from a car accident. Lena’s father dies of cancer at the beginning. Doctors and hospitals often appear. Just like in Talk To Her, where the hospital is part of the setting. And the car accident reminded me of All About My Mother. These twists of life lend his movies their melodramatic aspect. That’s where you see that Almodovar is clever, because they never look mawkish or “too much”. At worst you can think they are due to the Spanish exuberance inherited from the Movida.

- the opposition of blue and red: in Broken Embraces, it’s everywhere. Any details of the setting, clothes, accessories is an occasion to oppose these two colours. I don’t remember everything about the other Almodovar movies I saw apart from there being a lot of red (especially his actresses’ dresses). I had a look at some of his movie posters and you can find the blue/red opposition there too: just look at All About My Mother and Talk To Her.

Apart from that, the movie unfolds itself in a rather ordinary way. It is pleasant while you watch it but when you think about it afterwards you get the feeling that not much has happened between the beginning and the end of the movie. I was a bit disappointed by Penelope Cruz’s part. I’m used to Almodovar’s strong and combative women, but Lena is more or less just a pretty face (oh but what a pretty face! Just look at that fringe…). And you never really know what makes those two men go crazy about her, apart from her looks.

All in all, I had a good time. Like I said, it’s classical Almodovar, albeit not extraordinary.

Hello world!

It’s 01.54 AM and I’ve finished setting up my blog. All is ready for me to start blogging about what I’m interested in. That is, books, movies, art, libraries, and the Internet.

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