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Book Review: The Finkler Question

In many ways, The Finkler Question is a love letter to Judaism, with its rich history and idiosyncrasies.

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When The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, many critics raised their eyebrows and muttered about it being a ‘comedy’. However, the gentle wit of the book is overshadowed entirely by the needle-point precision of Howard Jacobson’s prose and his beautiful turn of phrase, an attribute which he shares with other Man Booker winners such as Margaret Atwood and Arundhati Roy. A further common feature amongst these writers is their ability to look beyond the cynical stereotypes inflicted upon and indeed perpetuated by their societies, and connect with their characters not as aspects of the caste system (Roy) or as Jews, (Jacobson) but as humans.

By examining the nature of Judaism through the eyes of Treslove, a central character who is not Jewish but wants to become so, Jacobson opens up world which can sometimes seem closed off or incomprehensible to outsiders. The fact that Judaism is a culture and way of of life, with its own language and customs makes Treslove’s ambition seem impossible, like an Irishman deciding he would like to be Swiss. The Jewish characters in the book could reasonably be described as hostile to Treslove’s involvement with their culture and his task of becoming a Jewish man seems insurmountable. Treslove refers to Jews as “Finklers”, named after his boyhood friend, Sam Finkler, who seems reluctant to associate himself with the world that Treslove dearly wants to inhabit. As such, the title of the piece could be read as “The Jewish Question”, which is reminiscent both of the holocaust, the fall-out of which the Jewish community is presented as still struggling to deal with, but also the question of what it means to be a Jew. By referring to Jews as “Finklers”, the “toxins” are “sucked out” and they are permitted to be human, people like everyone else, without the barriers put up against Jews on account of their being “finklerish”.

In many ways, The Finkler Question is a love letter to Judaism, with its rich history and idiosyncrasies. But it is also an unflinching look into the eye of the storm which it faces, especially the problems presented by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and conflicting Jewish emotions around it. There is also a bracingly frank examination of the nature of anti-Semitism, including the idea that it can in fact come from inside Judaism, from one faction to another or even from Jew to Jew. Jacobson’s characters feel raw and real, they are pleasingly complex and the grief faced by Libor in particular haunts the reader’s mind for a long time after the book ends. The problems faced by Judaism, continuing but ignored anti-Semitism and mixed feelings over Zionism are presented to the reader from every angle, and the more human dilemmas faced by the characters, who battle jealousy, guilt, confusion and bereavement lend a very human angle to these bigger issues. The conflicts and contradictions which categorize British Judaism are laid clearly before the reader, opening up a community in all its life, love and laughter and allowing the characters to break free of stereotypes or obviousness and simply be.

The Finkler Question

Author: Howard Jacobson
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Books

Book Review: The Disaster Artist – My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

I cannot recommend The Disaster Artist highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

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In 2003, the world of filmmaking was shaken to its very foundations. Bursting onto the scene and blinding the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood like a renegade supernova, was a film that went by the insipid title of The Room.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is a book all about the making of that film. For those who haven’t seen The Room, the basic synopsis boils down to a ‘love triangle’ plot, between a banker, Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa, and the best friend, Mark. There’s romance, betrayal, drama and finally tragedy. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.

The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy might’ve won all eleven Academy Awards that year, but it was The Room that still managed to be the talk of the town (and eventually, the world) amongst many filmgoers.

Don’t be mistaken, The Room wasn’t a sleeper hit or master class in filmmaking. In fact, it was the complete opposite. A train wreck so disastrous that it’s still being watched, studied and talked about, to this day. “So bad it’s good” and “The Citizen Kane of bad films” are quotes often thrown around whenever The Room is muttered.

What makes The Room so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, everything. From the acting to the directing, to the sets and continuity, is a consistency of abysmal filmmaking. Yet despite its terribleness, there remains a kind of loveable charm. Most of this charm seems to stem from the man who helmed the project, the weirdly fascinating and enigmatic, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau was responsible for acting as the lead character, Johnny, writing, directing and producing The Room (Orson Welles, eat your heart out).

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, doesn’t start at the premier of The Room in Los Angeles, 2003. It starts instead a year earlier, with a lunch between Greg and Tommy, a lunch so bizarre and off-the-wall, that it almost reads like sketch comedy. It’s a day before official production is about to begin on The Room, and Tommy with genius-gusto, decides to offer Greg one of the lead roles in his film, as Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy’s character and fictionalized version of himself) best friend. A plan so flawless, until Greg reminds Tommy that the role is already cast.

In the next chapter, we are taken back to 1998 in San Francisco with Jean Shelton and her acting class, where Greg relates his early origins into acting and his dreams of “making it”. It’s here that he meets the one-and-only, Tommy Wiseau, for the very first time. They’d later on become acquainted with one-another, after Tommy steals the show by giving one of the most ludicrous renditions of the famous ‘Stella’ scene from A Streetcar Named Desire ever witnessed.

“Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”


 – The Disaster Artist

What follows throughout the book is parallel storytelling, or intersecting storylines. One side focusing on the making of The Room, and the haphazard tyrannical way in which Tommy went about acting, directing and interacting with the cast and crew. The other, on the growing friendship and relationship between a young, Greg Sestero and not-so-young, Tommy Wiseau, both bonding on their dream and love for acting (and in particular, James Dean). Each storyline is as equally entertaining, funny and at times touching as one another.

The Disaster Artist is a book that doesn’t quite feel like it’s written from someone with journalistic prose looking-in on The Room, or the life of Tommy Wiseau. Instead, it’s a book written by someone who lived and breathed these experiences and moments. The final result is a raw and believable account, with a striking amount of humility and sincerity. The praise in this regard goes solely to Greg Sestero; he is quite possibly the best—and only—person capable of telling this story. His perspective is paramount to understanding the making of The Room, and Wiseau.

In terms of the content itself, there are many reasons why fans—or even those unfamiliar with The Room—might want to pick this up. For years, people have been baffled about almost every aspect of this film and the mysterious man behind it. From, “How did Tommy manage to get $6 million to fund this film?” to something as simple as “Just where in the hell is Tommy actually from?”

You don’t have to be familiar with the film itself, or even know a great deal about the players such as Tommy Wiseau to find this book enjoyable. After all, driving the engines is a timeless story, full of great characters and great moments.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

The Disaster Artist

by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(Simon & Schuster)

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Books

Book Review: Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography

Nothing Else Matters. Literally.

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In December 2013, when six of the world’s continents could no longer accommodate Lars Ulrich’s ego, Metallica made history by playing a gig at an Argentine research station in Antarctica. The band also, however, gave its fans an early Christmas present and made the Freeze ‘Em All concert available online free of charge.

This double-sided, complex character of arguably the world’s best-known metal band has been one of Metallica’s defining elements – Metallica is both grandiose and generous, seminal and self-absorbed. This duality has found expression everywhere: critical and commercial success versus fabulous flops (remember Lulu?), pioneers of the thrash metal genre versus contemptible, self-indulgent sell-outs. James Hetfield’s dark lyrical ruminations have also given Metallica an intellectual quality absent in other heavy metal groups; this quality only presents itself, however, when Lars Ulrich stops verbalizing his every thought.

As you can see, I can throw quite a few things at Metallica, both positive and negative. However, I could never accuse Metallica of being boring, which, unfortunately, is the first adjective I reached for when reading Volume 1 of the group’s biography written by veteran music journalists Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood and narcissistically titled, Birth School Metallica Death.

A slight qualification is necessary here. Volume 1 covers the band’s early years until the Black album, and there are moments of great writing and intrigue. The authors make an admirable examination of the childhoods of each band member and find, unsurprisingly, that hardship, loneliness and family strife ensured that music became the only solace available. The memorable phrase “hormonal clusterfuck of adolescence” wonderfully captures Hetfield’s isolation and aloofness, when social acceptance and popularity were still a long way off.

The authors’ exploration of the band’s formation and early struggles is also quite interesting. The intellectual merit I associated with Metallica at the outset was, at this point, somewhat rudimentary: Metallica’s forerunner, Leather Charm, produced the risibly titled, ‘Hades Ladies’. Had Ulrich and Hetfield chosen something else from their proposed list of band names, like say, Thunderfuck, it’s doubtful they would have found the same level of success.

Such deft humor and interest quickly become scarce and are smothered by the laudatory sentiment the authors adopt – the sense of destiny that Metallica was always going to become the world’s greatest metal group: Metallica’s “ascendancy seems inevitable to the point of being preordained.” The group’s originality is staggering, as they “had begun their journey not so much on a road less traveled as on a thoroughfare entirely of their own making.” This may flirt with the truth, but its painful repetition soon becomes tiresome.

The authors’ choice of subject matter is frustrating in parts. They spend far too long on tedious subjects and give scant attention to more complex themes. The tales of tour debauchery quickly exhaust their interest, while parts of Metallica history suggesting that the band is fallible receive just casual mention. This includes the band’s poor treatment of original bassist Ron McGovney and the cruelty visited upon Jon Zazula, the tireless producer responsible for the band’s early success. The authors seem to dismiss this as a positive, almost necessary cruelty that enabled Metallica’s advance to stardom. (The exception here is a semi-decent glance at Metallica’s conduct towards Jason Newsted, who comes across quite well.)

The end result of all this is a biography that reads like an extended schoolyard discourse on why Metallica is the greatest band ever and why all other bands suck. This would have been an apt subtitle. It’s not enough to heap praise on (almost) everything the band has done; the authors feel the need to throw stones at the bands who didn’t reach Metallica’s success: Anthrax, Slayer, Ratt, and Scorpions all come in for criticism, or are presented standing in awe in Metallica’s vast commercial shadow. This doesn’t just seem misjudged, but pointless. The annoying, diehard Metallica fans who think that the four elements of the title truly comprise life will no doubt lap this up, but the more discriminating fans will be left discontented. If the authors had excised just some of the more congratulatory sentences, the book’s length could have been significantly reduced, rendering unnecessary Volume 2, due out this year, when we will probably be told that really, honestly, after the 12th listen, St Anger isn’t all that shit. It is. So is this book.

Metallica

Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography

by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood

Published by: De Capo Press

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