Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

Review – Native Speaker

Chang-Rae Lee. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Print.

This book was recommend to me by a fellow English teacher whom I respect a lot. I also heard Mr. Lee speak recently and, frankly, I thought I could identify with him. Yes, part of his story is that of a second generation Korean immigrant (which I am not), but a lot of Lee’s personal story, especially his education and some of his writing experiences (NOT writing success, certainly) were things I could identify with. His story and his book are far more American than they are Korean. Also the school where I teach has a good number of Korean students, with a few Korean-Americans as well, so I thought I could learn a few things from the book.

Native Speaker is very well-written: sensitive, attentive to detail, and wildly plotted. It is, in effect, a Great Gatsby for recent immigrants. The last chapter deliberately echoes Gatsby with a reference to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the style of the last few paragraphs. In the long run, Native Speaker is more upbeat than Gatsby. While Gatsby’s narrator suggests it is nearly futile to row against the tide, Native Speaker’s narrator describes his wife’s ESL speech therapy at the very end: “I hear her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are.” (324) Yes, whatever else you think about the United States, America sometimes seems like the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues…”(7:9)

The book is also Gatsby-like in that in that the main character is making a living in a questionable manner. He is not exactly Mafia, but he is a political spy whose job is to bring ruin into the lives of popular politicians who threaten the establishment. Unlike Jay Gatsby, he does get out of the business, but like Gatsby, he pays a price.

Like The Great Gatsby, Native Speaker is about the American Dream, but the disjunction with recent immigrants who have not assimilated instead of a Midwestern farm boy trying to make it in the big bad city. How does one “assimilate” into the American Dream? The narrator’s father does succeed by hard work and by keeping his Korean prejudices and customs. He is very distant and stoic, but he “makes it,” though at an emotional price that makes his son Henry Park feel robbed.

The elder Mr. Park is contrasted with John Kwang, a Korean politician, who is very effective at befriending and getting support from many of the nationalities in his New York City district. However, he is brought down because of a Korean custom (or two) that come across as illegal in America. He succeeds in part because of some of the traditions he keeps, but those same traditions bring him down. Though a politically successful American politician, he has not learned enough to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and flow gently down the American mainstream, either.

Henry Park, like Nick Carraway in Gatsby, also comes across as slightly detached. But that detachment makes his narrative sound reliable, and everywhere in the story he sees this crazy, lively promise called America.

Review – Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek

Thorleif Boman. Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. Trans. Jules L. Moreau. New York: Norton, 1960.

Thorleif Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek is a fascinating and even inspiring book. Lots of thoughts were running through my mind after reading it.

Boman does accept some of the “oral tradition” stuff about the Pentateuch and Isaiah (JEDP and two Isaiahs), but you almost can’t write about the Bible in Europe without mentioning such things. This is odd in a way–the analysis of real oral tradition was done thoroughly beginning in the 1930s with Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. (See Lord’s The Singer of Tales.) It seems that no theologians know about this, so they keep passing on bad information to the next generation. Still, Boman’s analysis of the two Biblical languages is fascinating.

Basically, his book is saying that Hebrew thought is dynamic, most words are rooted in verbs, and there is always of sense of becoming and of history having scope. He shows that Hebrew thought and language is more time-oriented and active.

Greek thought, which is more typical of the West, is more static and spatial. Even the way Greeks viewed history–more analytically and less purposefully–is different. Understanding both streams of thought helps us understand both Testaments of the Bible, as well as something of our own language and cultural perspective.

In Hebrew even the verb to be, hayah, is dynamic. It has a passive voice! Do any Indo-European languages have a passive voice for to be? If I read the italics in my King James Bible correctly, when Hebrew merely means a “copula” or “equal sign,” there is no verb used. Russian does the same thing.

The significance of the verb to be is lost in Modern English, but in Old English (pre-1066) there were actually two verbs to be: bion and wesan. Bion (where we get be and been in today’s verb to be) means something more like “about to be” or “prone to be” or “becoming.” While wesan (source of am, are, was, were, and is) is more static, just the linking verb or copula. Wesan did not even have a past participle. Interestingly, too, in Old English become was more active, really be (in the old sense) plus come and is usually translated come or is coming when rendered in Modern English. One version of the Old English Lord’s prayer says, “Becume thine riche” for “Thy kingdom come.” (“Riche” is like the German Reich, meaning “kingdom”).

Hebrew descriptions are active. There are no real physical descriptions in the Old Testament (and few in the New) except for some minor details: Joseph “good looking,” Leah “weak-eyed,” David “ruddy,” Absalom’s hair’s weight, and Elisha bald. In each case those details are given only because they explain someone’s motivation: Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph, Rachel being favored over Leah, David being underestimated by his enemies because ruddy people look younger, Absalom’s hair because of the way he died, and Elisha because some juvenile delinquents were calling him “baldy.”

Description had to do with motivation and action. People today scratch their heads when they read the Song of Songs and the woman’s hair is compared to a flock of goats or her nose to a tower. Those are not physical descriptions, Boman tells us, but rather descriptions of actions and moral qualities. The hair suggests not so much physical beauty, but the actions and care given by a shepherdess. The tower suggests moral strength and purity.

The Hebrew view of history and character is personal and moral. Every God-fearing Israelite was caught up in history and saw himself or herself part of God’s directed plan.

Greek descriptions are more specific and physical, perceived with all the senses. So Athena is “gray-eyed” and the sea is “wine-dark” and Helen is “white-armed.” These physical qualities are objective and sensual.

The Greek sense of time also is secondary to the perception of space. Space is more important than time. It is the opposite from the Hebrew perspective. Time to the Greek is noted by movements. Time is linear, sometimes cyclic, but man is almost detached from it. The Greek sense sees man detached from the gods and therefore fatalistically detached from history.

Time to the Hebrew is based on rhythmic patterns, it is neither linear nor cyclic. Time is historical, and man is part of it, and God is behind it. Eternity is neither otherworldly (like the “immortals” on Olympus) nor infinite time (like John 3:16 “everlasting”), but unbounded time, le-olam. God is not only transcendent and immanent, but Boman calls Him transparent, revealing Himself through who He is by His deeds. The key deed, of course, in the Hebrew Scriptures is the Exodus.

Boman summarizes simply by saying in effect, Hebrew emphasizes psychology more, while Greek is more logical and visual.

As I was thinking about what Boman said, I am reminded that what he calls the Hebrew perspective was really the perspective of the American Puritans and many Americans (think of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches) until the early 20th century. The Puritans like John Winthrop and Pilgrims like William Bradford saw themselves as ordinary “middle class” people who were caught up in God’s plan for the nations, at least for the United Kingdom and North America. Bradford compared the Mayflower crossing to the Exodus. Winthrop said Boston would be “a city on a hill,” echoing the Beatitudes. Lincoln puzzled over God’s purposes in the American Civil War.

Perhaps we need to have a little more of that Hebrew perspective on history, that perhaps we are part of the Almighty’s plan, too. After all, our ancestors and founders were some of those Pilgrims and saints.

Random Review – Moonrise Kingdom

OK, this has nothing to do with Grammar or the English language, but I have no other place to readily post this. Perhaps someone has a suggestion? I just saw a film that actually got me thinking about a number of things that I wanted to share. The review may not be all that well structured, but I hope it gets you thinking as well.

The main plot of Moonrise Kingdom is a coming of age story as the two main characters, 12-year-old Sam and Suzy, discover one another. Sam is an orphan, though no one seems aware of the fact; Suzy is a strong-willed pre-teen who already hates her family. We care for both kids because they have hearts on the verge of breaking or hardening, and like most young people of that age they feel they are outsiders (and in this case they probably are). Sam is a skilled “Khaki Scout” and picture painter; Suzy loves to read Young Adult fantasy novels with strong heroines. (Her books are all made-up titles, but they seem to be like the time travel stories of Madeleine L’Engle or the adventures of Mr. Bass on his planetoid.)

There is a brief campfire scene where Suzy is reading one of her novels to a group of Khaki Scouts. She is ready to put the book down and go to sleep, but the boys want to hear the rest of the story: Clear echoes of Wendy telling stories to the Lost Boys of Never Never Land.

That perhaps illustrates some of the tension of the age of the protagonists–in that impossible neverland between childhood and adolescence, part of them does not want to grow up, happy to stay in childhood, but part of them wants to grow up, to escape the limitations of childhood. In both cases we understand, if nothing else, they want to grow out of their present situations–the military styled scout camp where Sam is picked on by everyone or the gingerbread family home of Suzy whose efficiency-minded mother uses a megaphone to call the kids to supper from upstairs.

At the same time everyone is on an island. When Suzy’s mother breaks off a relationship with the island’s sole policeman, she says, “I’ll probably see you tomorrow”–not because she is still in love. It is simply that they are on an island–everyone sees everyone else almost daily.

The island is called New Penzance. Old Penzance is right before Land’s End, the last tip of southwestern England before sailing out into the ocean. So the kids are sailing off into the ocean of life. The island is shaped remarkably like Fishers Island, New York, though the surrounding mainland is quite different. We are told that the events take place right before a landscape-altering hurricane hits.

The hurricane becomes a factor in the film, but more like Captains Courageous than Nights in Rodanthe. The storm also has some symbolic value as standing for the storms of youth which contribute to most of the conflicts in the story. The church pageant near the beginning of the film (actually a flashback where Sam first sees Suzy) tells the story of Noah, a kind of foreshadowing of the flood to come. Suzy is a raven on the Ark. In the story from Genesis, the raven flies back and forth around the Ark, trying to leave but unable to do so until the waters have abated. So Suzy herself is trying to grow up and leave home, but is not going to be able to get too far unless she leaves the island.

Compared to the two Wes Anderson films that I have seen, this has more action. The story keeps moving, and there is a good balance between interior scenes which emphasize character and exterior scenes which have plenty of adventure. The interiors of Suzy’s family’s home are perfect renditions of New England beach houses (not cottages). Sam’s scout tent has stenciled figures on its walls to make us think of a tepee.

The conversations are somewhat stylized, more like stage acting, not unlike The Royal Tennenbaums, but they are effective. There is a sense of disjointedness throughout which highlights something of the human relationships in the film: the lonely policeman and scoutmaster, the parents who have difficulty carrying on a normal conversation with each other, and the social outcasts Sam and Suzy who are just looking for someone who understands them. The social worker on Sam’s case, as an orphan he is a ward of the state, has no name. She is a detached bureaucrat whom everyone calls Social Services.

But the film itself is set in 1965, a time in America when the culture itself was becoming disconnected or disjointed: the beginning of the sexual revolution, the so-called War on Poverty which institutionalized the breakup of families and the perpetuation of the underclass at the hands of bureaucrats, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the rise of drug use.

While there is nothing in the film hinting at Vietnam or drug use (though Sam tries smoking a corncob pipe), the first two items do seep into the film. Though a few viewers might be offended or stimulated, the reference to sex in the film is awkward and as befits 12-year-olds in 1965 and is a minor part of Sam and Suzy’s attempts to find their places in the world. The orphaned Sam has drifted among foster homes as a pawn or a social services statistic. The disjointedness is highlighted by the discrete framed visuals in much of the film and the occasional use of split screens. The framed approach may also suggest Sam’s paintings and the covers of Suzy’s books.

There is some orchestral music from Benjamin Britten and Camille Saint-Saens. The church pageant about Noah is based on Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. Suzy’s brothers listen to Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but we mostly hear about each instrument or group separately–we rarely hear the whole symphony together. That, too, adds to the theme of alienation, but it also suggests a possible finale: What would it be like when all the instruments play together?

There are also a number of Hank Williams songs. Country music was (still is) popular among the more rural areas in New England. A 1969 visit to my cousins in Eden, Vermont, turned me on to Merle Haggard. The songs are sometimes background songs but the AM radio in New Penzance seems to favor Mr. Williams. After about the third Williams tune, I started thinking of The Last Picture Show film, but other than the similar time period, I did not see much of a connection. Moonrise Kingdom is more hopeful than TLPS. “Kaw-liga” is played twice–both times when Sam is displaying Indian-like woodcraft. You hear a few bars of “Cold, Cold Heart” in the breakup scene.

When Same and Suzy are camping out in their semi-secret cove they call Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy shares her French Françoise Hardy record and they dance to it. (Suzy is a more skilled dancer, but she also knows the song by heart). Hardy was a popular go-go style singer in France at the time, but not as widely played in America. Even the appeal of that record to Suzy likely expresses her inability to find her place in her family, or even among the kids in the church pageant.

One flashback for me was the portable, battery-operated plastic record player. I had not seen one in decades. Suzy “borrows” this from her younger brother (who listens to Britten on it) when she runs away with Sam. In 1966, when I was a Boy Scout, I recall going on a camping trip or service project. One of the guys on the camping trip brought along a record player that was identical except for the color. He mostly played either popular dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” or folk songs like “Green Green.” Yeah, I said to myself as I was watching the film, that is what they did back then.

The acting and film shots are effective, if a bit quirky. The facial expressions, especially of Suzy and her father (played by Bill Murray), show why even though the staging is somewhat theatrical, the film medium catches detail impossible to pick up beyond the first few rows in a live theater.

There is a lot of conflict–internal psychological conflict inside Sam and others, complicated family and other interpersonal relationships, and conflict with Mother Nature once the storm moves in– but the film ultimately has a hopeful ending. You may not laugh a whole lot, though you will certainly laugh some, but you will smile. The missing ingredient in all these disjointed relationships, including the citizen-state relationship, is love. Sam and Suzy are not the only ones who discover love. And this is not a emotional or oversexed Hollywood substitute love, but one based on loyalty, honesty, and looking out for the real concerns of others.

Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Jared Gilman (Sam), and Kara Hayward (Suzy).

Directed by Wes Anderson

Multiple Producers

Story Boards by Patrick Harpin