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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Closer (Michael Connelly)

No one will mistaken Michael Connelly for a great stylist. His prose is as dry and plain as an instruction manual, and he tends to leave little to the imagination when describing actions. He was a journalist, but he certainly did not write for The New Yorker.

But my oh my is he a great plotter. The cases are fundamentally not too complex, and he respects all the common and identifiable motives: lust, greed, revenge, desire. At the heart of his novels are the ornate, almost labyrinthine police procedures and retrospective, fragmented nature of piecing together the truth. The investigation itsef is the riddle, the heroes, and the reward all wrapped in one neat package.

The order of dropping a clue here and a clue there without giving away the big payoff, while sustaining the narrative momentum and maintaining the crime's inate logic and coherence, is at the heart of the genre and no easy feat (trust me, I've tried it). Some of the literary types like to dabble in the detective genre (just to show off? just for fun?), but they almost always fuck up the structure and often fuck up the motives as well. You think it's easy to lead the reader around the maze for 400 pages without losing their attention and still throw them a bomb of a payoff in the end? Ha! The best mystery plotters do this with deceptive ease. You only notice it when the author fucks up.

In The Closer, Connelly wove an elaborate net in which dangled a big red herring. When the red herring was discarded, however, I was not disappointed because a part of this net was intricately woven into the real answer to the puzzle. After the climax, he threw us a bonus final twist that not only fit neatly into the plot but also delivered an emotional punch.

A few years ago I heard Connelly talk at National Book Festival. He said he does not outline. He knows the beginning and the end of a novel and just writes his way from one to the other. In other words, it's all in his head!

Monday, August 27, 2012


It took a few seconds of staring at the high resolution photo sent back from the rover Curiosity before it hit me: This is Mars. This is damned Mars! Not Earth. Not even the moon. It is a place I'll never ever set foot on, yet it looks ... not too strange. I don't know what that means, except that we had all originally came from the same place and even now with so much distance between us we are made of all the same elements. The entire universe is made of the same fabric, even if there are strands in the fabric we do not understand. Hmm... I don't know what the hell I'm saying. This is just too weird, because it's really not so weird.

The interactive GigaPan is lots of fun! 

Aww man! All this just makes me want to go to Mars! Martians please abduct me... 



切了蒜和 shallots 在油里爆香,扔进在农夫市场买的夏天最后一批西红柿和 basil,加两把剥壳冷冻的袋装 langostines。最后把煮好的面条倒进去。


Thursday, August 23, 2012




Wednesday, August 22, 2012

See? See?

A couple of weeks after I wrote about the characteristic contradictions in Scandinavian tragi-comedies, here I read a review about yet another Swedish movie built on such absurdist contradictions:
Despite his thuggish looks, Dennis is a sensitive soul who's hungry for love. So the sex tourism goes badly, until he meets some friendly goblins — local bodybuilders for whom Dennis, to his innocent delight, is a legend — and a seasoned princess named Toi (Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard). A widow who owns the gym where Dennis finds a haven from all the loveless hyper-sexuality, Toi has a lot of patience for a prince with a whole lot of baggage and next to no experience.

The movie's plot reads like a stereotypical male fantasy, but the hilarious absurdity is just so ... Swedish.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This is the creepiest movie I've seen in years. Since Memento, this is perhaps the best example of effectively using narrative structure to pull the viewer into the character's head and simulate what the character is feeling. A number of reviews complained that the transitions between the past and present are sometimes confusing and indistinguishable. Well, duh. Of course they are indistinguishable for the initial moments. That's just the point. There is only one quick scene of violence in the whole movie, but the second half is so tense that I couldn't tear away from the DVD to go to the bathroom.

As a first feature, Sean Durkin showed great confidence by being very restrained and trusting the autdience's observation and imagination. It can be rewarding if you really pay attention, or incomprehensible if you expect to be spoonfed. Like Roose Bolton, he speaks softly, so that you have to lean in and strain to hear it. By the mere act of leaning in and paying close attention, you left your mind be taken over.

At one point, I was pulled so deep into the title character's mind that, for a short second, I had the illusion that I was a young person without any real means of making a living and surviving the world. In that moment, I was taken out of myself and very nearly became the character. It was a bizarre feeling; I can't say I've ever experienced it before.

One very well-done thing most (male?) reviewers seem to miss is Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, and a history of sibling tension only hinted at. Let's face it, the architect brother-in-law, played by Hugh Dancy, is written as a self-absorbed jerk. Whatever the family circumstance was for the sisters, one escaped into the arms of a jerk and the other found family in a cult. Also observe how Lucy's feeling toward Martha slowly shifted from annoyance and a hint of envy to concern and sympathy, all the time with an underlying guilt. It seems very realistic to me.

I like stories that fully acknowledge and suggest a larger world outside the frame of the story itself and that the characters live in that larger world with most of it unseen by the reader/viewer, even though each story is in fact confined to the length of so many pages or so many minutes.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Symphonic Dances Rachmaninoff

Heard this piece on the radio and thought "how Prokofiev." Then the announcer said it was Rachmaninoff's last composition after he escaped to New York (Long Island, actually) in 1939.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reinhold Gliere

听广播的时候撞上一首深得我心的曲子,很提神的 chords,但又不突兀。回家一查电台的 playlist,是苏俄时期的近代作曲家 Reinhold Gliere 写的芭蕾 Khrizis, Suite No. 2. 很喜欢。

去查 Gliere 的背景,原来当过 Prokofiev 的师父,Hmm...

Khrizis 似乎挺冷僻的,在 YouTube 上没找到试听版,倒是发现 Gliere 比较有名的作品是个叫 The Red Poppy 的芭蕾。不看不知道,一看吓一跳,原来这个舞剧讲的是苏俄红军在中国解救劳苦人民的故事,主要人物是个美丽的中国姑娘,爱上了苏俄船长,还为他牺牲。哇哈哈笑死我了,原来俄国男人跟西方男人一样对东方姑娘有各种幻想,连布尔什维克也这样。

然后又吓一跳,原来 Michelle Kwan 早在97年即用过 Red Poppy 的音乐做短节目

Saturday, August 11, 2012


... 发明了机关枪。

在电视上看到根据 Philip Pullman 的小说改编的 The Shadow in the North,好奇去 wiki 了一下,然后在条目里顺藤摸瓜地看见小说里的蒸汽枪 (steam gun) 虽然是虚构的,但大有历史依据。至少有一款机关枪是在英国的瑞典工业家 Nordenfelt 赞助下发明生产的,称为 Nordenfelt gun。加上诺贝尔发明的炸弹,瑞典人对现代战争的贡献不下于中国人发明的罗盘对殖民主义扩张运动的贡献。

I'm sure Swedes are well equipped to appreciate the irony.

Snabba Cash and Contradictions

Well, Daniel Espinoza's Snabba Cash (Easy Money) is hardly the best Scandinavian noir thriller I have seen, but it does have something characteristic of this genre that I enjoy.

What I don't like about it are some been-there-done-that elements. One of the three main characters, the spiffily dressed MBA student Johan (middle in the poster), is clearly a Tom Ripley rip-off. The shaky hand-held camera is way overdone ten years ago. The jump cuts that slightly mix up temporal sequence of scenes are very Steven Soderbergh. None of this is particularly new. Plus too many plot gaps can be frustrating to habitual mystery readers who care about logical transitions --- it's an indication of carelessness in the director and editor. I'm sure the novel on which it was based is better. It also lacks the characteristic black/cold/absurd humor characteristic of other Scandinavian noir films. Replacing it is a melting-pot view of the Swedish immigrants and a mixture of Swedish, Spanish, and (I assume) Serbian dialog. The tone is problematic, oscillating between cynical and sentimental. The main character, the blond Swede Johan, is too sleazy looking to garner sympathy, and the Spaniard Jorge (left) is poorly drawn.

Nevertheless, what I like about this and other Scandinavian noirs is the sense of irony and contradictions. I have observed that some people --- mentally healthy and normal, functional people --- have been born without a sense of irony. I suppose humanity does not need it to survive. So then why do some of us have it and some don't? I am convinced that it is completely innate and cannot be taught. I wish someone would invent a checklist to diagnose who can recognize/appreciate irony and who cannot, just like depression or bipolar diagnostic criteria.

About contradictions. The most egregious example in the movie is that the Serbian hit man Mrado (right) is given an 8-year-old daughter that he has to take around to all kinds of shady occasions, playing in the room while others talk about killing, drug dealing, and beating up rivals. In one scene, she is playing with her stuffed animal while her dad was trying out some submachine guns laying on the bed. Hmm... I hope she grows up into a peace-loving girl. Although slightly softened, Mrado is not turned into a kind and loving human being by having a cute little girl around. Ah I must steal this (not the hitman-with-a-girl cliche but character contradictions) for myself!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tabloid City

Pete Hamill's New York City is very New York City, a bubbling stew of every flavor and every color. The rich and the poor rub shoulders and mix and mingle. The sense of a village that is both large and small is strong enough to make all the crosspaths of the characters believable. Like New York itself, the novel hits all your senses, including the nose and tongue.

Thinking about the structure, I realized that this is essentially a "flat" novel. Obstensibly there is a temporal direction in the narrative that covers a period of two nights and one day in between. In reality it is primarily of a static cross-section of New York, describing the lives and points of view of a dozen characters, each occuping a social/ethnic stratum and a neighborhood.

The forward narrative, involving a half-hearted attempt at a murder mystery and thriller cliche, is the weakest part of the novel and poorly constructed. I wish he had more faith in the vitality of his characters' "static" snapshot, so as to let go of the mystery/thriller cliche altogether.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Story Ideas

在大学里的时候有个很逗的有机化学老师老喜欢跟同学开玩笑:医生与药剂师谁更来钱?药剂师,因为他们会配制一本万利的毒品。现在回想起来,Valdez 老师看上去很象在家抽草的脾气。不过他的笑话很有预言性,前几年AMC拍摄播出的电视系列剧Breaking Bad就是讲一个中学化学老师怎样堕落到躲在trailer里制造毒品。这剧我还没看,据说很好。

最近关于奥运会运动员服用 performance enhancement 药物的争议甚为热闹,让我心里发痒。作为一个遵纪守法胆小怕事的人,我自然不会去加入地下工业,亲手研制帮助运动员变超人的药物,但是这个题材太诱人了,我想把它写成故事会多么有趣啊。各种重要的戏剧元素都有:犯罪,金钱,名誉,帅哥美女,还有药理学!太适合我了。

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


最近几天浑身发痒,从头皮到腿,而且是那种不太具体的痒,头皮没有头屑,身上有四个看上去象蚊子的包,但是所痒之处不限于蚊子包。于是,第一,先把床单和枕套扔进洗衣机里用最热的水洗一遍,无效。第二,在蚊子包上厚厚涂一层可的松软膏,蚊子包倒是好点了,但是浑身其他各处还是时不时发痒。第三,最近天热粘嗒嗒的,一天洗两次澡 ,更痒了。这两天又热又痒,搞得我心情烦躁暴跳如雷。

今天上班时开始胡思乱想,在网上查了半天 bedbugs, mites 的信息,越看越浑身发痒且心惊肉跳,差一点就要约时间看医生。还好残存一丝理智,打电话给某同学问他有无发痒有无红包,某同学表示一切正常。我还不放心,回家后掀了床单把床垫细细摸一遍,确认无 bedbugs 迹象。

最后终于推理出真相:四个蚊子包应该是蚊子包,因为上周末刚刚到河边去走过一圈。浑身发痒应该是最近每周两次去游泳,加上洗澡太勤,皮肤过分干燥的结果。去药店买了 oatmeal 洗澡水,希望用了之后可以缓解症状。

痒是一种心理成份很重的现象,我发现,越看 bedbugs 的文章和网站,身上就越痒,绝不是幻觉,或者也许所有的痒都是心理作用。忽然发现痒和 paranoia 有本质上的近似之处,如果有人做一下 MRI 扫扫脑子,说不定能发现二者集中的区域是一样的。

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