Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I’ve seen.

 

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn’t draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew’s talent catches the ear of the school’s reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he’s invited to join Fletcher’s studio band. Studio band is the school’s most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It’s been twenty years since I’ve reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I’d either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I’d been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That’s how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I’d become.

 

It’s facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don’t read many thrillers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn’t in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it’s in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn’t showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it’s done.

Grit. © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

 

 

Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It’s that 3-star curse: “I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma’am.” My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that’s all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history’s clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints (“He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.”) and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob’s your uncle and I’m your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I’ve been gobsmacked by Alan Furst’s novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in “historical thriller” sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I begin with the obligatory “If you haven’t read this and you hate spoilers, read no further.” Okay? Still with me? Righty-ho.

Take a healthy dollop of the darkly comedic marital disaster film “The War of the Roses”, sprinkle in some mind-bending scenes from “Momento”, add a dash of Stephen King everyman folksy-creepiness and drizzle it all with the blood of an Ann Rule true crime sociopath and you get the spicy stew of Gone Girl.

I enjoyed this as an entertaining thriller and for Flynn’s crisp and sparkling writing, but its principal characters – the primed-for-perfection Amy and her witless spouse Nick – and the characterization of their sham marriage are too cartoonish and ridiculous to sustain deep themes. Although there are elements of social satire, I’m taking it at face value as a literary thriller. The author invests her energy in confounding the reader with plot twists, skimming the surface of the superficiality of attraction and the fleeting nature of success.

I never try to get to the bottom of a whodunit when I read thrillers – I’m not that clever – I just enjoy going along for the ride. But even I figured out that Amy is a whack job – and still very present among us – as her diary burbles along – long before she surfaces at a roadside motel in the Ozarks. That doesn’t diminish the fun, but Flynn demands considerable suspension of disbelief, which does diminish the element of surprise. It also makes the back cover author blurbs a bit hard to stomach.

Yet, Flynn’s writing is just so dang good – her pacing is perfect, the dialogue is one hundred percent natural, the details of setting and character are precise and pulsing with life. There is an array of terrific secondary characters: Nick’s sister, Go, his mistress Andie, Amy’s insufferable parents, Detective Rhonda Boney – even the bit parts played by Shawna Kelly, Stucks Buckley, Nick’s Alzheimer’s-affected father, and many more – each is fully developed and believable. Which throws the Nick and Amy Show into sharper relief as pretty silly.

I say, “Read this” because the writing is superb. Enjoy the crazy ride. But don’t scratch below the surface for themes of the tangled, unfathomable web of marriage, or dysfunctional families or the tabloid press or insights into the brain of a sociopath. It’s all just too preposterous to take that seriously.

Several years ago I read Flynn’s debut Sharp Objects. My review consists of one sentence: “A wretched, ugly train wreck of a book.” Based on my experience with Sharp Objects, I intended to give Gone Girl a wide berth. I’m glad Flynn has lightened up – the fun she had in writing this current release is evident. I hope she remains in the light, not mired in self-serious gruesomeness.

But I gotta say- contrary to the hue and cry I’ve read in reader reviews – I think the ending is just perfect. Not the “held captive in the lakehouse by creepy admirer with an Oedipal complex” part. I mean the very last page. The final three paragraphs. These, at last, make the hairs on the back of my neck come to attention. What fun!

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Book Review: Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris

Kingdom of Strangers: A NovelKingdom of Strangers: A Novel by Zoë Ferraris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a change in style and purpose in this third iteration of Zoë Ferraris’s take on criminal investigation in the shifting cultural sands of Saudi Arabia. Kingdom of Strangers is the most straightforward crime novel of the three and regrettably, the least stirring.

Although this thriller can be read independently of Ferraris’s << Nayir al-Sharqi #1 and #2, aka Finding Nouf and City of Veils >>, a familiar cast of characters creates the scenes. Here again is forensic technician Katya Hijazi, an ambitious young woman stifled by her culture. She is oppressed at work by male colleagues who can barely tolerate the shadowy presence of women in distant offices, much less consider them for advancement. She is engaged to the loving but pious desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi, who plays a secondary role in this novel. Katya is conflicted about her upcoming nuptials, as she fears marriage to a devout Muslim will mean the end to a career she loves. Her own connection to Islam is forced and arbitrary as she struggles against Saudi subjugation of women. We also catch glimpses of Osama Zahrani, but it is his brother and fellow police investigator, Ibrahim, who takes the helm in Kingdom of Strangers.

The brutal and symbolic handiwork of a serial killer is uncovered in the desert outside of Jeddah. The bodies of nineteen women, whose corpses span a decade, shake a police force which assumes serial killers are a phenomenon of the corrupt West.

As the investigation unfolds, Detective Ibrahim Zahrani becomes mired in a personal dilemma. His mistress, Sabria, has vanished. He must keep his search a secret as the crime of adultery is punishable by death. He trusts one colleague only – Katya Hijazi. Katya risks her career and impending marriage by helping this superior who holds her in high professional regard.

Ferraris has become a true master of the literary thriller; she devotes more energy to the details of the crimes and to the criminal investigation than in her two previous novels.The scenes set in Jeddah’s Homicide unit and in the field are fascinating. We witness the machinations of the ambitious, the corrupt, the earnest and the fanatical, within the context an authoritarian culture dominated by religious strictures. The crimes and the investigation run with all the real-time urgency of the best television crime shows.

It is no surprise that the oppression of women in Saudi culture again dominates Ferraris’s thriller. In Kingdom of Strangers the net of control is tossed wider as we learn of the brutal treatment of migrant workers – foreigners brought in from Africa, Southeast Asia and India as menial laborers. Many of these workers are in fact victims of human trafficking. The most vulnerable – the women – become slaves in the households of Saudi’s wealthiest. Those who escape have no means, finanacial or diplomatic, to leave the country, so they form cities of slums underneath freeway underpasses, becoming Jeddah’s “Kingdom of Strangers.”

But in all honesty, this theme is getting to be a drag for this reader. Because the circumstances of their daily lives have not changed, there is little development in the characters of Katya and Nayir. The claustrophobic mores of Saudi Arabia are so intractable that they dominate every scene. The plot is weighed down by the impossibility of the stifling culture and rather than shocking, the oppression becomes monotonous.

I rate this highly because it is an excellent read, but I hope the Ferraris’s literary world takes us out of Saudi Arabia. I remarked in my review of City of Veils that I feared the author would paint herself into a corner by pursuing the same themes and settings in each story. As sublime a writer as she is, the paintbrush is dripping.

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Book Review: Trapeze by Simon Mawer

TrapezeTrapeze by Simon Mawer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer’s Trapeze – at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance – you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn’t after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.

With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren’t clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war’s deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother’s homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.

And as it turns out, the SOE’s motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique – with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread – is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian’s nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy’s highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.

The brevity of Marian’s training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat — it’s a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It’s hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer’s theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character – its weakness or its power – until we are faced with desperate times?

I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt “character-driven” to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.

Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn’t character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters’ world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.

What leads me to finally reject the notion of “character-driven” as reductive is Simon Mawer’s restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction’s inextricably-linked elements – setting, plot, character, theme – and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.

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Book Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read novels such as Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, I just want to close up shop, put the cap on all my pens, shred every last page of my notebooks, disconnect the laptop and call it a writing life. ‘Cause this is da bomb, baby. This is how to write a STORY.

The novel transcends genre. It is part literary thriller, part Southern Gothic drama and one hundred-percent perfectly crafted, without ever feeling composed. From setting to tone to pacing to character development, there is a sense of oneness. It’s like examining a familiar painting close enough to see the individual brush strokes or dots. As discrete marks, they have no meaning. It isn’t until you move back again that the marvel of the craftmanship strikes you. That’s what a good story does – it offers you a seamless intellectual and emotional reading experience.

What I find most intriguing is the way Franklin uses the atmosphere of his rural Mississippi setting to inform the suspense. Moving between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, the story is shrouded by layers of kudzu and dense forest, where Timber rattlesnakes and Southern cottonmouths lurk in the shadows. The setting is a metaphor for the search for truth, which is mired in layers of suspicion and lies and where innocents are menaced by villains. It also sets the tone, which is grimy with sweat from the thick and languid anticipation or bone-chilling from the rejection of a tiny, cold community. The tension is mostly quiet, the characters move in isolation, the memories private and sad. But within the forest, which looks so cool and peaceful from the outside, lurks a killer. The forest spirits away young women and the clues decay in the hot, wet night.

The setting, at once creepy and bucolic, also informs the complicated history of this region. From its hidden-in-plain-sight legacy of Jim Crow to the intimate nature of community shunning, Franklin never lets the reader relax into familiar clichés. Even the characters you come to trust have black spots that could fester and rot unless they grasp onto the grace of their morality.

The most persecuted character is Larry, a middle-aged white man suspected since high school of murdering a young woman. No body was ever found, no leads ever solid enough to justify an arrest, yet the community cannot forget nor forgive.

Larry lives alone, rising each day to open the automotive repair shop that only strangers ever patronize. He subsists off TV dinners, horror novels and his memories, the happiest of which are of the days in his early childhood when he had one friend. That friend was Silas, a black child who lived with his single mother in a tattered cabin on Larry’s father’s property. Raised by a single mom, his paternal heritage a mystery, Silas becomes a secret companion to the awkward, bookish, unpopular Larry. The friendship fades as Silas becomes a high school athlete of renown and leaves the area to attend university. He returns many years later to his southeast Mississippi hometown to take up a quiet post in law enforcement in a community where bar fights, meth labs and wildlife poaching are the greatest hazards. That is, until the daughter of the region’s wealthiest man disappears. And Larry is once again the prime suspect of foul play.

And that’s enough of the plot. It runs too deeply and is too ripe for spoilers to discuss further. For within a murder mystery lie other mysteries — of friendship, family and community. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, the story reveals a series of discoveries until at last it ends, with the final truth.

I read this in a day. And now I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Acts like these are tough to follow.

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