24 June 2015

Filmbook: "Testament of Youth" (2015)

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, Vera Brittain's memoir about World War I-era Europe, was one of my favorite books of 2011. My expectations of this movie were fairly tempered by the fact that I had heard almost nothing about it before it opened here, and because the book is always better. Still, I found in it an above-average drama that gets stronger as it goes.

Young Vera (Alicia Vikander, who you might know as the robot in "Ex Machina" but I know as Kitty in the Joe Wright "Anna Karenina") is a bookish teenager, close with her brother (Taron Edgerton) and who dreams of going to Oxford over the objections of her father (Dominic "McNulty" West). Struggling to learn Latin on her own for the Oxford entrance exam and corresponding with her brother's new handsome friend (Kit "Jon Snow" Harington) are her greatest cares. Then World War I comes and rolls through her world as a terrible storm.

One aspect of the book I truly felt the absence of in this adaptation was the first-person narration that puts Vera's emotions into context. Part of the book's power is Brittain's own admission of her own self-absorption and selfishness, which affected how she viewed the war and some of the (perhaps irresponsible) ways she behaved growing up in that maelstrom. Missing this context, it becomes easier to judge her rather than understanding how a teenager might have, for example, focused most of her war worries on her new boyfriend rather than on the injuries and deaths that would ensue. (The movie highlights in spots how truly young Brittain and her cohort was at the time, but given that Vikander is 26, Egerton is 25 and Harington is 28, they aren't actually teenagers. Hollywood!)

Once "Testament of Youth" enters those war years, though, it really hits its stride emotionally, not holding back in how the horrors are inflicted on Vera, her family and friends. A sequence set on Christmas Day stands out in my mind as a particulalry sharp moment. Absent a few scenes where she's staring into the middle distance and flashing back -- director James Kent's use of these is not so effective -- Vikander is great and Harington and West very good as well. (I also appreciated Miranda Richardson in a small role as an Oxford don.)

Verdict: Read this book -- it is an underrated classic as fresh as if it were written yesterday -- and then see the movie. Then go out and buttonhole more people to read the book.
You might like this movie if you liked: "Atonement." (Trivia: Saoirse Ronan, young Briony in "Atonement," was previously attached to play Vera in this movie.)

23 June 2015

There are girls, there are girls, there are girls, there are girls

So many books try to pull off the trick of obliquely mentioning a Life Event in one of its characters' lives and then gradually unspooling it like a carpenter's tape measure. This one is worth it.

The newest resident of the titular camp is Thea Atwell, a doctor's daughter from rural Florida whose parents have sent her away for a transgression. Deep in the mountains of North Carolina, Yonahlossee is a horseback riding retreat for rich girls whose families don't know what to do with them before they get married -- though with the Great Depression looming, its target market is dwindling by the week. Thea's parents can pay, but her guilt about her upbringing is secondary to her struggles fitting in: Having spent almost her whole life on the family farm, she feels all at sea when it comes to navigating friendships with the other girls at camp. Her isolation is compounded at the end of the summer, when she finds out by letter that her parents intend her to attend Yonahlossee year-round, separating her completely from her twin brother for the first time in her life.

The first hundred pages of this book were very hard to get into as Thea adjusts to camp, but once the major personalities were set into play I couldn't put this book down. I roared through the last 200 pages half-afraid of what was happening to Thea (no spoilers) and worrying about how it was all going to play out. The intimacy of teenage girls in this book is at once specific to the time and place -- useless daughters of the rich, intended for good marriages and jeopardized by idleness -- and in a lot of ways universal to how girls interact in these types of closed systems. I'm currently working on something that references similar themes and picked this up without realizing, but DiSclafani's take on it is particularly interesting in how she hooks in the transgression to the airless world of Yonahlossee.  

Read this if you like: THE SECRET HISTORY, Cornelia Read's MADELINE DARE novels, anything about boarding schools.

Trivia: I didn't find this out till after I finished the book, but it was apparently the source of a bidding war before it was published. I can see that happening for sure. I'll be looking for her next one.

22 June 2015

Summer reading -- again, for the first time

"When summer comes around, I think many people's thoughts turn to books, among other things... You have this stretch of time in some theoretical sense where you could be more ambitious." --David Haglund

Last week's New Yorker Out Loud podcast addresses the idea of summer reading with critics James Wood and Kathryn Schulz. (With a name-check of THE POWER BROKER, a book I have previously had ambitions of reading over the summer and still have not done, I admit sheepishly.)

I set the ambitious, possibly foolish goal of reading 50 books this summer. How far behind am I? Well, I'll probably have to read 3 or 4 books a week to do it. One minor aid, if you will permit me to be the bringer of good news, is that this summer in a U.S. Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day sense is longer than usual -- Memorial Day was early, Labor Day is late.

I set this goal because I've been struggling with reading recently, and there is a thought I never imagined would come out of my fingers, but there it is. My reading time has become more fragmented, and with that comes the perception that it's been a long long time since I've read something that truly thrilled and enthralled me. I've read some books I really liked in that time, but they don't hold as much power over me because I'm always looking over my other shoulder. Wood talks about the use and power of structure in determining reading and what to read next, and I think that's probably what I need more.

Sure, but does forcing me to read more to make a particularly arbitrary goal mean I will enjoy it more? So far, yes! Last weekend I sent myself to the park to read, taking advantage of the sunny warm-ish afternoon, and passed a few blissful hours deep in my book. I might have done some reading otherwise, but removing myself from my laptop was key. It's good for the soul to do when it's possible.

Anyway, if you're still reading this quasi-manifesto, Goodreads won't let me set up a summer challenge, but I made a Summer Reading '15 shelf for your perusal. Already got some titles to blog about up there. It's going to be a fun summer.

02 April 2015

Coming September 1st. Have fun scheduling around that, everyone else!  (via Wall Street Journal)

31 March 2015

Heidi Julavits' Book of Days

I thought I would enjoy this book, and I was delighted to be right.

Julavits decided to try keeping a diary again after a hiatus of many years, during which she credited her childhood diary as critical in forming her writing. When Julavits (the co-editor of The Believer) starts again, she does so self-consciously, stylishly, always with a subtext. Entries skip around throughout two years, during which Julavits and her family spend the summer in Maine (where she grew up), the winter in New York and brief spells in Europe for fellowships. At no time is the author unaware that what she is writing will be shared; in a way, she revels in it.

The experience of reading this book is like reading a blog, the juicy kind unafraid to share secrets or confess. (The best kind; most blogs, this one included, are too cautious these days.) Like reading an incautious blog the sense of identification with the author is probably out of proportion, but at the risk of danger, I did "feel like I knew" Julavits over the course of this book. Of course I knew she was playing with that form and its strategic self-revelations, just like in every blog (shock, shock, horror, horror). Yet the game was enjoyable.

One advantage to the diaristic memoir as a form is that it is allowed to skirt a very common criticism of memoirs these days -- that is, that they aren't eventful enough or describing important moments in life. That "nothing happens" in them. THE FOLDED CLOCK does not catch Julavits at a highly eventful time in her life, but then again, who knows what times in her life will turn out to be truly eventful at the outset? In a way, this form takes the pressure off.

Pop culture sidebar: In THE FOLDED CLOCK Julavits reveals herself to be a substantial "Bachelor"/"Bachelorette" fan (also a fan of antique shopping, swimming and gossip more generally). Since this upcoming season of "The Bachelorette" will be the first to co-star two women, clearly Julavits and Jennifer Weiner will have to co-live-tweet the season -- perhaps with commentary about how they are both New England summer-ers, maybe some mutual hand-wringing about the overburdened expectations placed on female protagonists these days.

30 March 2015

Tournament of Books 2015 match commentary

  • I wish I had more confidently broadcast my picks at the beginning of the tourney because I could have called this one. I really had a feeling. 
  • (Unlike my March Madness bracket...) 
  • That said, today's Zombie Round review is a travesty and if the reviewer clearly disliked both books that much, perhaps he should have recused himself. (Nicole Cliffe's weighing of STATION ELEVEN vs A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS was much more evenhanded, although since I haven't read the latter I'm not sure whether she was right.) 
  • My favorite essays in the series were from J. Courtney Sullivan and Tayari Jones. I thought the judging panel was extremely strong this year, today notwithstanding, and these were two great examples. 
  • I was sorry to see DEPT OF SPECULATION not go any further than the first round. Otherwise, I more or less agree with the first-round judgments made, although due to book availability I wasn't able to read through the whole tournament. 
  • Does anyone else wish The Morning News would do a similar nonfiction bracket in the fall? Just putting it out there. They could call it the Nonfiction World Series. 
  • Wait till everyone figures out Emily St John Mandel's backlist. There will be rejoicing throughout all the land (or, there should be). 

29 January 2015


Not only is a movie adaptation of Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" coming out this year, but there is also a new McCarthy novel due out February 17. Feast your eyes on the cover for SATIN ISLAND, about a "corporate ethnographer" trying to write the definitive history of the era. I wasn't a huge fan of C, McCarthy's last novel, but excited to give this one a try. The movie is a British production starring Tom Sturridge (of "Pirate Radio," we are informed) and directed by Israeli video director Omer Fast.

28 January 2015

Not near a windmill

After a nine-month search, Spanish investigators believe they have identified the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, inexplicably chilling in a Madrid convent just three blocks from the Prado for hundreds of years. Will wonders never cease! 

27 January 2015

Tournament of Books 2015: Evie Wyld, ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING

In British-Australian author Evie Wyld's second novel, an Australian woman running from the trauma of her past finds it more difficult than she could imagine to get along without the help she doesn't want. 

When we first meet Jake, she is tending to a sheep flock on her own, distressed at the unseen predator who keeps picking them off. How she got to be a lone stakeholder, resistant even to the farm's old owner's offers of help without strings, is revealed in successive chapters that move backward in time from her last post as the only female sheep shearer, all the way back to what caused her to leave home -- alternating with her search for the sheep killer and the arrival, on her farm, of a mysterious drifter.

I credit the Tournament of Books for connecting me to this book, which didn't grab me at first but steadily drilled into my soul and made it excruciating to look away from. In the end, one reason I liked this book was, not to play misery Olympics here, but when I talk and read about the ordinary perils of sexism, I am not considering situations as drastic as Jake finds herself in through the course of the book. The perspective offered by having to put myself in Jake's shoes, which sometimes was nerve-wracking along the scale of a horror movie, was part of the experience of reading, and now I need to find someone else who has read this book to talk about its ending. (I found it puzzling but somehow fitting?)

26 January 2015

Transit trouble

If you are an adult human who would willingly get on a flight of, let's say, more than an hour without anything to occupy you, please explain to me your life because I do not get it.

I started writing this post in my head after the latest such encounter, on a 3-hour flight that ended up closer to 4. I happily tucked in to Michael Cunningham's BY NIGHTFALL (the construction of it, micro and macro, is just a beauty). The man next to me dozed for a while, then started reading over my shoulder when I switched to the New Yorker and from there to my Kindle. Later, desperately, he opened the in-flight magazine and started tracing the routes with a finger. No wonder when the doors opened he practically pole-vaulted over me to try and get out faster (which, because we were in row 24, was useless).

At least this guy in his mental meanderings, whatever they were, didn't decide that I was his source of entertainment -- as seems to happen to me more and more, particularly with men slightly older than my father who are cheerfully blind to my open book and abnormally curious about my marital status.

I'm probably preaching to the choir on this one, but I for one enjoy the enforced stillness and lack of distraction that modern flying can provide to a reader. It's less so now that many flights have WiFi, but still, not all of them do. I neither feared nor dreaded this flight, except for what delays could do to it on either end. (On that account, I was lucky.)

22 January 2015

How to Bust TBR Guilt

Here's Amanda Nelson of Book Riot on how to absolve yourself for owning too many books you haven't read. Some excellent points. (That said I am running out of space, so at least on that case I have some work to be done.)

20 January 2015

Sit back without your wife and kids, open a liter of substandard beer and read Casey Cep's encounter with a Karl Ove Knausgaard truther. Despite only being 2 books in, I feel greatly in danger of one day becoming that guy. They are the kind of memoirs that lead one to madness.

19 January 2015

One-Star Revue: WILD

One of the less-megaphoned, but (to me) major slights of last week's Oscar nominations was the Academy voters not giving "Wild" the nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Nick Hornby-penned (yup, that Nick Hornby) adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about the time she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and changed her life is the rare film that can be appreciated in tandem with its source material. Director Jean-Marc Vallee took full advantage of the visual medium of film to show us the weird and lonely places on the trail where Strayed wrestled with her demons, while employing voiceover to retain the author's voice in her own story. Watching "Wild" made me want to go back and read WILD, and can you wish for more from a movie adaptation? (See also "Inherent Vice.")

WILD has been out for a while, though, and not everyone feels the same way I do. A particular flashpoint for these reviewers is the popularity of the book after its selection for "Oprah's Book Club 2.0" (is this still happening? I forget!) Normally I disdain the explanation that anyone who dislikes a popular thing is "just jealous," but in a few cases here, it's a close call. I can only think that these people are just missing out on something:
  • "This book is just further proof that it is sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll that sells. If it had ACTUALLY been about the PCT, Oprah never would have read it."
  • "I've been through a number of similar traumas to Strayed. What I didn't do to recover was libel my entire immediate family... or wallow in self-pity for YEARS."
  • "The parts about the hike I did read were good, but I just kept waiting for something to gross me out or make me sad and then decided it wasn't worth it."
  • "There was not enough hiking and true self discovery for me to take this book seriously."
  • "Nearly everyone gets blisters on these long-distance hikes - but complaining about them incessantly is obnoxious."
  • "Strayed includes a list titled "Books Burned on the PCT" - not "Books Read on the PCT"... It's almost as if she's proud of having consigned Faulkner, Nabokov, and Joyce to the flames. So casually does Strayed admit to destroying so much that is beautiful, I'm shocked she actually managed to hike over a thousand miles without starting a forest fire."
  • "I'll admit it right off the bat, I'm not sure this genre is my cup of tea."

P.S. Just for argument's sake, I'd probably bump "The Imitation Game" from its adapted screenplay spot. Such a traditional (boring) biopic for such an extraordinary story. How frustrating.

07 January 2015

Tournament of Books 11: The shortlist arrives

Have at it:

Elena Ferrante, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY **3rd book in a series
Roxane Gay, AN UNTAMED STATE (I've read and reviewed this)
Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN (I've read this)
David Mitchell, THE BONE CLOCKS (I've read part of this)
Ariel Schrag, ADAM
Jeff VanderMeer, ANNIHILATION **trilogy

I was 8/16 in my predictions, which is as expected. Also, there's no round-robin for a spot, which I did not get correctly.

06 January 2015

"Amazing Amy stands for a newer creation: lovely girls, expensively educated to seize success for themselves (Amy has diplomas from Harvard and Yale), and yet still groomed for the dream of a beautiful dress and a white cake. As Nick puts it in the novel, 'Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and day-trade stocks and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it.'

"If no longer vital to a woman’s status as a human being, marriage is still understood as her crowning success, the event without which her life won’t be truly complete. When Amazing Amy grows up, she can’t not get married. The world is still no place for single women. They are regularly bombarded -- and I say this, let’s face it, from experience -- by both well- and ill-intentioned comments about their inability to find that special man."

--from Elif Batuman's terrific though spoilery essay on GONE GIRL, "Marriage Is An Abduction," for the New Yorker.