YULBlog Reboot

yulblogIf you’re from Montreal and you have a blog, tonight would be a good night to come out to YULBlog. The yulblog.org Web site has been completely rethought and redesigned, and what better way to celebrate its relaunch than at the first “First Wednesday” of 2009?

(Confession: due to the weather, I won’t be there. But that’s a whole other story.)

In the meantime, even if you don’t go to the F2F event, feel free to list your blog on yulblog.org. Go here for more information!

Revolutionary Road Movie

vintage richard yates cover revolutionary roadIf you don’t know by now that Revolutionary Road was my favorite of all the books I read last year, then you’re just not paying attention. But as I’ve said before, I have my doubts about the film version, directed by Sam Mendes (of American Beauty), which opens in Montreal any day now.

I’m doubtful because the book was such a writerly novel; as much, or more, about the telling as about the story itself. Not that cinema can’t achieve the same level of art and craft in its narrative, but doing it that way generally doesn’t sell a lot of extra tickets, and with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead roles, there are some big salaries to cover.

However, I’ve seen a few reviews that indicate the film may indeed be somewhat true to the grindingly anxious subtext and nuance that we find in Richard Yates’s book.  But first, Adelle Waldman, writing in The New Republic, provides us with a latter-day review of the novel, reminding us of what’s really going on in the book. Her review’s blurb says “Revolutionary Road, considered the original anti-suburban novel, isn’t actually anti-suburbs–but something far more devastating than that.”

…if Mendes’s new film is to do Revolutionary Road justice, it will transcend the easy anti-suburban categorization. While Yates’s depiction of suburban life is nightmarish enough to exceed the worst fears of Jane Jacobs’s devotees, Revolutionary Road is far more than a complacent takedown of the ‘burbs. It is in fact less an anti-suburban novel than a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs.

Katrina Onstad, reviewing the film on CBC.ca, had similar things to say about the book:

… Yates tells the story of a married couple living miserably in the suburbs, but they’ve imported their own pain and dysfunction from the city.

And about the movie:

…their fights are colossal and verbally lacerating, with each party projecting their own failures onto the other. Yates’ clear, colloquial language gets a full workout in these devastating rounds, which measure just how low lovers can go.

There’s more:

Both the book and film take place on the eve of second wave feminism, and April’s rudderless, identity-free existence doesn’t have a name yet; it will take Betty Friedan, in 1963, to identify the plague of discontent felling housewives in The Feminine Mystique. April’s misery may quietly exist in the shadow of what’s coming next, but Mendes doesn’t delve deep into the kind of broad social satire of television’s Mad Men, where housewives regularly disintegrate. There, our pleasure is in watching the racist, sexist characters march obliviously towards the precipice of the late ’60s.

Revolutionary Road is not as moored to its historical moment; there’s actually a timelessness to the psychological portraits Mendes paints. We watch the lit fuse that is Frank and April’s relationship, wondering just how many compromises they can make, how cornered they have to feel before the inevitable explosion.

OK, I’m convinced enough to give it a go. Don’t let me down, Sam Mendes!

A Memory

I’m sitting in a chair, or a bench really, made of orange webbing that runs the length of the cargo hold in a US Air Force C-130 Hercules. We’re flying over the arctic tundra when suddenly a loud alarm sound pierces through my earplugs, a kind of honking that’s even louder than the bone-rattling hum of the four turboprop engines.

The alarm is honking because the big hatch in the back isn’t closed right. Not that I can see very much, crammed in there next to cargo stacked almost to the ceiling, but I figure it out when I see these Air Force guys go back there, climbing across the cargo like monkeys, and I hear them banging away at something. In the meantime the plane descends to about 100 feet off the tundra, which I reckon is a precaution so we won’t fall so far if the cargo door pops open and everything flies out the back, throwing off the plane’s balance. Finally the alarm stops and I assume the hatch is secure although no one actually says one way or another, and the plane goes back up to it’s normal altitude, which is still only a couple of thousand feet. 45 minutes later we land on a barren airstrip next to a radar station on a cliff at the edge of the arctic ocean, and as we get off the plane nobody says anything about the alarm or the cargo door.

The strangest thing about this story — at least for me — is that it’s a memory, not a dream.

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Reading List: Books Read in 2008

As is my annual tradition, I present here a list of the books I read in the just-ended calendar year (2008). Not included are the five titles I put down, unfinished for one reason or another. The list is sorted alphabetically, by author. Particularly noteworthy ones are highlighted in yellow.

  • The Prodigal Tongue, by Mark Abley
  • Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali
  • Koba the Dread, by Martin Amis
  • If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
  • Frederick Street, by Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May
  • Hotel Bemelmans, by Ludwid Bemelmans
  • Meat: A Love Story, by Susan Bourette
  • Talk Talk, by T.C. Boyle
  • The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez, by Jimmy Breslin
  • The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Boyhood, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Running in Place; Scenes from the South of France, by Nicholas Delbanco
  • Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, By Guy Delisle
  • Hello to All That; by John Falk
  • On Truth, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Ancient Tea Horse Road, by Jeff Fuchs
  • 100 Myths About the Middle East, by Fred Halliday
  • The Nick Adams Stories, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Seven Openings of the Head, by Liane Keightley
  • Peanutbutter & Jeremy’s Best Book Ever, by James Kochalka
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  • Heroes, by Joe McGinness
  • Twenty Six, by Leo McKay Jr.
  • On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
  • We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek
  • Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton
  • Paul Moves Out, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Paul Goes Fishing, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Clyde Fans, by Seth
  • Toast, by Nigel Slater
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
  • Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
  • Rat, by Andrzej Zaniewski

That’s 35 books, down from last year’s all-time high of 38. Some, of course, were just silly (the Peanutbutter & Jeremy book is basically a collection of cartoons for kids, but at 276 pages, it qualifies as a “book”). I enjoyed them all, although some stood out more than the others.

The statistical breakdown is as follows:

  • 31 books written by men, four written by women. I’m not sure why so few women made my list this year.
  • Five books of a “graphical” nature (graphic novels, or “cartoons”).
  • 19 books categorized as fiction, and 16 as non-fiction. These are very slippery categories, as many works are a mixture of both. For example, Leo McKay’s Twenty Six is a fictionalized account of an actual mining disaster. Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee reads like fiction, but is categorized as memoir. The “Paul” graphic novels by Michel Rabagliati are taken very much from his own life experiences, but are considered fiction.
  • Nine “memoirs” (one of my favorite categories). This too is a slippery category. For example, I consider Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread a memoir because it is as much about Amis and his conversations about Stalin as it is about Stalin itself. (And ultimately, isn’t everything that Martin Amis writes really about Martin Amis?) Another way to categorize it would be “impressionistic biography” but I’m not sure Amazon has listings for that. Then there’s the already mentioned categorization problem with the excellent Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee, plus The Ancient Tea Horse Road, by Jeff Fuchs is as much a memoir as it is a travel and adventure book and a reference for tea lore.

The find of the year, however, goes to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I already wrote about it here, but I think it deserves another shout-out. As you probably know, the film version is currently playing in the cinemas, although I wonder if the cinematic medium will succeed in capturing the tension and the feel of the slowly twisting knife in the gut that Yates brings out in his crisp and piercing writing style. This is one of those books that you read as much — or more — for the writing itself as for the story and characters.

Postscript: the archivist/knowledge manager in me feels compelled to link to my reading lists from previous years, so here they are for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.