21 December 2007

My kingdom for reading mittens.

I'm off tomorrow morning from the greater New York area to the mighty Midwest. There's no place like home for the holidays... especially when it looks like we have a good chance for a white Christmas.

Who cares about being holed up in the house when there are good books to read? Here's what I'll be bringing with me for fun:

Cormac McCarthy, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (library). It's finally here! I may even finish this on the plane because I'm so excited.

Tom Perrotta, THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER (library). Also excited about this one, although slightly less so because the plot didn't sound very original. I'm still interested to see where Perrotta goes next in his suburban explorations.

Amy Goldwasser (ed.), RED: THE NEXT GENERATION OF AMERICAN WRITERS ON WHAT FIRES UP THEIR LIVES TODAY. I've been hearing such good things about this collection of essays by teenage girls that when I found it on a book giveaway pile, I was thrilled to pick it up. Having been a teenage girl relatively recently, I hope I can relate.

For my From the Stacks challenge: SAFFRON SKIES and BEST FRIENDS.

Happy reading, whether you're at home or (alas) at work. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it; I will be back next week.

20 December 2007

Santa Special: Books I'm giving for Christmas.

Are you done with your holiday shopping yet? I hope so. (Especially if you're buying Hanukkah presents... that ship, I fear, has sailed. Sorry, friends of mine who celebrate Hanukkah and haven't gotten their cards yet!) In case you need a few last-minute ideas, here are some books I'm giving this year. If you are related to me, TURN BACK NOW. Here be spoilers.

For Grandma: Francine du Plessix Gray, THEM: A MEMOIR OF PARENTS. My maternal grandmother loves it when we recommend books to her, so while she's visiting us this December I hope she'll enjoy this memoir of Russian expatriates in Paris and New York which I so loved earlier this year. The author's mother had an affair with the man who would be her stepfather in wartime Paris, and later they moved to New York City and joined the cultural elite through his job at the Condé Nast Corporation. What I loved about this book was the way the author both described these lives, so full of boldface names and fancy parties, and her own experiences on the margins of all that excitement, never fully understanding her mother and stepfather until she started working on the book.

For my traveling aunt: I drew Aunt Mel in this year's family gift swap and my other aunt clued me in that she was going to Vancouver this year, so I picked her out two books about Vancouver: Douglas Coupland's CITY OF GLASS, a series of short nonfiction sketches about his home city, and M. Wylie Blanchet's THE CURVE OF TIME, about a single mom raising her kids on an island outside Vancouver. I hope in '08 they inspire her to have a great trip (even if they're not proper guidebooks).

For my mom, who has everything: Mom's kind of infamous for buying things we had been planning to get her during the holidays, but I'm pretty sure she hasn't had time to get into THE MITFORDS: LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS, edited by Charlotte Mosley. She went through a Mitfords phase a few years ago (and recommended me a few books from it which I haven't gotten around to... sorry, Mom!) and this ought to occupy her nightstand for at least a few nights.

What books are you giving for the holidays, if any?

19 December 2007

Filmbook: Bee Season (2005)

Instead of fighting my urge to write about movies more than once in a great while, I'm going to expend one post a week writing about a literary adaptation. Which is better, the book or the movie? Do you need to have read the book? Should Hollywood have kept its hands to itself? Find out with "Filmbook."

It's not surprising that Myla Goldberg's BEE SEASON became a best-seller. The story of a girl who discovers a special talent, and the effect it has on her family when she does is occasionally bizarre but not off-putting, and the character of Eliza, the daughter of a cantor and a lawyer, very compelling. It's not one of my favorite books, but I definitely enjoyed reading it and was puzzled when a movie adaptation starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche tanked at the box office.

Having seen the movie, I understand why people who saw the book and then the movie recommended against it. In a novel where the main characters, Eliza and her family, are very much interior people who conceal so much from each other, that becomes very hard to characterize on film. Eliza's Spelling Bee training is depicted from her point of view with some very pretty and odd special effects, but other tricks the filmmaker uses to get inside characters' heads are very heavy-handed and, without the time to properly develop them, come off as rushed. Eliza's parents especially, who are given a lot of ink in the book, seem in the movie like two very pretty people in a very pretty house who occasionally stare off into the deep distance. (At least Juliette Binoche looks authentically tortured when she does this; Richard Gere looks like he's always holding back a beatific, irritating smile.) Also, the filmmakers make some major changes to the ending of the book -- not Hollywood changes, but ones that don't really make sense in context.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book, don't see the movie.

14 December 2007

Consumer Week: Reader, I Didn't Buy It

Since Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT is written in diary form, here's my favorite diary entry of hers. It's short, but it speaks volumes:
September 21
I clean out the third and last jar of hoisin sauce. If we had a bigger refrigerator we could have stocked up and made it through the year.
Here's a luxury according to the rules in Levine's game, but one she finds so crucial to her happiness that she had previously stocked up on enough jars to last 9 months. And what does she think when she finishes the jar? Not "How delicious!" but "I need a bigger fridge." I'm sure Levine sees the irony of her situation, but the entry epitomizes our attitudes of shopping, from my fellow city dwellers pining after suburban Costcos to the desire to pick up just a little extra of what you need. (My own family is certainly not immune to this; if you opened our freezer -- yes, we have a stand-alone freezer in addition to the fridge -- you would probably find a huge cache of last year's Girl Scout cookies, waiting to be eaten. Are Thin Mints a necessity?)

It also epitomizes both what frustrated me and what I liked about the book. Of course, giving up buying everything is an extreme experiment, something that the best of us may aspire to but realistically could not (or would not) be able to carry out. At the same time, Levine presents not only herself as a fallible consumer, but even ropes good ol' Thoreau in with her. (Apparently, Thoreau's WALDEN proclamations were backed up by a potentially irritating habit for visiting others' houses around dinner time. I'm sure were he alive, he would be happy to leave a comment defending this habit.)

Levine says at the end of the book that she plans to be more mindful in how she buys since completing the experiment, and it would be interesting to find out if she actually does that. It definitely made me want to try harder, if not to stop buying everything, to make the purchases I do make more meaningful. Since as I mentioned in the first part the book was written in an election year, Levine struggles with the idea of political participant as consumer (as she donates to political nonprofits ahead of the 2004 election). But she also regrets that her friend's store, which sells objets purchased directly from African craftsmen, would suffer in the absence of her buying power. She gives in and buys a new outfit on vacation, but she also visits several stores to find the V-neck shirts she wants to pack for her dad as he heads to a nursing home. The act of buying doesn't have to be an empty gesture, as long as we recognize that it's a gesture. And I recommend this book even if you recognize that already.

Check back this weekend for my review of AFFLUENZA, the third and final book in my consumer series.

13 December 2007

Consumer Week will continue tomorrow.

Due to a combination of factors, none of which are particularly interesting, my full review of Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT will be posted tomorrow. In the mean time, we have had freezing rain and snow in New York City, so make sure to carry all your books in waterproof bags.

12 December 2007

Consumer Week: The Luxe-less

I haven't finished Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT: MY YEAR WITHOUT SHOPPING yet, but already I'm finding it more thought-provoking than yesterday's book. Like other "I did this, then wrote about it" books (THE KNOW-IT-ALL and A YEAR AT THE MOVIES are two of my favorites), Levine decided not to buy anything in the year 2004 that was not a necessity. Her reasons are similar to those anyone might use to make a budget or cut back on spending: With holiday bills, credit-card debt and aspirations towards a simple life taken into account, Levine believes she could benefit from giving up shopping without having to change her life completely.

Of course, not shopping does change her life, but not in the ways she expects. It's not the big stuff that Levine misses first, the flat-screen TVs or trips to the Caribbean; rather, it's the pair of SmartWool socks that keep her warm in winter or a bounty of cheap purses in Chinatown. When a friend gives her tickets to a dance concert, she's reminded of all the shows she's missed because she wouldn't buy tickets to them. At the same time, she's tempted to perhaps redefine "luxury" for the terms of the experiment -- her partner, Paul, who joins in with the year without shopping, considers wine a necessity, and after everyone else she knows has seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Levine considers whether documentaries would really count as a luxury. (One non-luxury item: Reruns of "Law & Order" she rushes home to watch.)

This book isn't outwardly service-y (thanks, Anna) but Levine does a great job of explaining how her day-to-day life is affected by this edict which, while extreme, mirrors advice commonly given to people trying to save money. Of course, as this funny-send up points out, how much you have to cut out depends on how much you're spending in the first place. In other words, it's fine if your budget already "laces in the fat" as my mother used to say, but how about when all the fat is gone?

The tone of the book is more kvetch-y than New Agey so far. Levine feels her own small moments of triumph, but she doesn't declare how much easier her life has gotten since she stopped shopping -- although she pays off almost $8,000 in credit-card debt by the summer, which is impressive especially given that Levine and her partner live in New York City half the year. In fact, the decision comes with a raft of practical and ethical problems, such as: Shouldn't a writer continue to buy books as a means of contributing to her industry? (She compromises on buying just the ones she needs for research and can't find at the library.) All of this makes her very relatable as a narrator.

So readers, Paul has wine; what's your last, dearest-held luxury item? Mine would be coffee (not take-out lattes, but ground coffee and the fixings). I could give it up, and it would probably be healthier to do so, but coffee makes the world go 'round! And unlike books, you cannot borrow coffee and then give it back.

Tomorrow: a full review of Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT.

11 December 2007

Consumer Week: The perils of wanting.

As I mentioned, it's Consumerism Week on Wormbook, a time when I will be reviewing a few books about buying, spending and materialism. I'm not doing this for you, I'm doing it for me, but I would love to hear your comments (as always). Let's kick it off with psychology professor Tim Kasser and his brief book THE HIGH PRICE OF MATERIALISM.

Kasser's book puts forth and supports two theories: First, materialism makes our lives harder because it's always driving us towards more stuff, instead of things we need like human relationships. And second, materialism feeds and nourishes our own insecurities in such a way that it will never make us feel better. Instead, the more you value "keeping up with the Joneses," the more you perceive a discrepancy between what you value and what you actually have.

And a lot of this psychological work is done unconsciously, as Kasser shows in analyzing his own studies (where, for example, he had people rank certain values in their own lives) and many others from other labs. Because of these studies, literally hundreds of which are mentioned, I found this book extremely informative but also somewhat dry. It's not until the last chapter that he offers tips like "Get off the materialistic treadmill" and even recommends therapy if you have an extreme case of what the Berenstain Bears would call "the gimmes." He also makes some social suggestions which are reasonable (regulating marketing to kids, the most vulnerable to materialistic messages) and some which are a little fanciful (banning ads on public roads and public transit, asking to trade your next raise for a week of vacation). If you're interested in the sociology of buying or in scientific studies on consumerism, you'll like this book; otherwise, it's a better reference than a read.

Tomorrow: Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT.

09 December 2007

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume.

I'll be shocked if "Atonement" doesn't get nominated for best picture. The movie completely exceeded my expectations (which were pretty high to begin with) and, nine hours later, I'm still thinking about some of its arresting images and the mechanics of the plot.

Without giving anything away for those of you who haven't read the book, the movie begins in summer 1935 on a country estate in England. Thirteen-year-old Briony (played by newcomer Saoirse Ronan, who is incredible here) and her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, who surprised me and impressed me a lot) are trying to stay cool in the long afternoon before their older brother comes home for a visit. In the course of that afternoon, Briony, to steal a line used in the film, "sees something that she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does," the consequences of which will change her life, Cecilia's life, and the life of the family groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), who once studied at Cambridge with Cecilia.

I thought this movie did a great job of adapting the book but went above and beyond the (impeccable) source material with arresting visuals (Briony in a white dress, creeping through a dark house), intricate camera work and the symphonic but never heavy-handed score by Dario Marianelli. My greatest fear going in was that this movie would hew very closely to the conventions of costume drama, and I'm happy to report that this was not the case. The costumes were beautiful, but they worked in service to the story. I've seen a few two-hour movies in the past year, but this is the first one for which I can say, there is not a shot, not a moment here that is wasted. I have to give credit for that to director Joe Wright, whose adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" I liked but is working on a whole new level here.

I already can't wait to see "Atonement" again. If you've seen the movie, I'm leaving a few spoiler-ish notes in the comments, because there is so much about this movie I am burning to talk about. Hopefully it will expand to wide-release soon, so you all can see it.

Photo: NY Post movie blog

08 December 2007

Erasing last weekend's gains.

Hey, remember on Monday when I posted about the effect of getting rid of books? I've slipped back into my old ways:

Sorry about the graininess, I used Microsoft Paint for the labels (BAD IDEA) and then when I converted it from .tif to .gif it got all noir-y. Also, check out my desk chair and curtain. If you stare deeply enough at that curtain, you can see God. Just kidding.

07 December 2007

This Weekend In Books

Who's going to see "Atonement" this weekend? I've been looking forward to this movie since this summer, when its trailer was attached to practically every movie I've seen in theatres. (Good job, marketing, you won -- although I don't know how good of a match this was with "Dan in Real Life.") I'm feeling considerably more hype for the movie than I did for the book, which I read by chance in 2003 when the graduate student I was subletting from had a copy in her bookshelves. It didn't make a huge impression on me, to be honest, but I thought it was good and it will be interesting to see how it is adapted, given the book's "twist." (Is it really a twist? Well, kind of, but one I'm not going to spoil here.)

I'm planning to go Saturday night, so if you're lucky (har!) you might see a review of it here on Sunday. I have some review books to catch up on as well, but I'm also picking up a few books I requested at the library on shopping and materialism -- just in time for the holidays. 'Tis the season for picking out presents, and I enjoy doing that, but I thought it might be nice to get a little seasonal perspective. I'll be posting about those next week -- if you have a favorite anti-consumerist (or savvy-consumer) book, I'd certainly like to hear about it. And I'm finally going to start BEST FRIENDS for the From The Stacks challenge, especially if I get snowbound. Well, here's hoping!

Photo: Variety.com

06 December 2007

Polonius was wrong.

I got a rather thought-provoking mass e-mail yesterday from my friend Anna, and with her permission I'm sharing it with the class. Anna had a problem that you've probably had before:
Hi all,

I recently was tearing my shelves apart in a search for LIFE OF PI and vaguely remembered lending it to someone a while back. Then I recalled that I had lent quite a few books out over the last few years and hadn't kept track at all, nor did I have any recollection of which books I had lent or to whom I had lent them. Smart.

Anyway, I'm sending this to everyone I could think of with a remote a chance of having borrowed a book from me in recent years. This isn't a demand to give them back; but please just let me know if you have something so I can get a list going.

But if you have LIFE OF PI - give it back! (Please!)
Who among us has not found a book misplaced in our hour of need? Luckily for Anna, this story has a semi-happy ending -- her mom put the book in storage, so it has been located even if it isn't immediately accessible. But friends, what system do you use to keep track of books lent? Like Anna, I have no system. (And it wouldn't have occurred to me to write a mass e-mail -- I'd most likely just stew about it in private.) One of those clever little notebooks? Bookplates? A crazy spreadsheet? A program like LibraryThing or GoodReads? And do you lend more, or borrow more?

05 December 2007

Book Of My Youth: The Robber Bride

I'm rereading Margaret Atwood's THE ROBBER BRIDE, a book I believe I discovered around 1997 or 1998 and have since re-read several times. How many times wasn't completely clear to me until I started over this time, after a few years, and found how many scenes I either remembered or could practically repeat verbatim.

I read several of Atwood's books while I was in that gulf between what used to constitute YA (mostly heavy-handed "issue" books) and roving free through the adult fiction section. I believe the first one I read was CAT'S EYE, about a girl's unhappy childhood in postwar Canada and how it influenced her when she grew up. Virtually all of Atwood's books feature female protagonists, often those who are compelled for some reason to sift through their pasts. In LADY ORACLE, for example, a woman who has just faked her own death and run away to Italy addresses the reasons she left and her life up to the point where she "died."

THE ROBBER BRIDE features the narratives of three women who are doing the same examination compelled by the strange reappearance of a women they all thought was dead. Tony, Charis and Roz don't have much in common, but all were once close with a woman named Zenia who later betrayed them in some way. Years later, they reconnected at Zenia's funeral and have been meeting up ever since, and it's at one of those meetings where they see the (supposedly) dead woman, alive and well. This prompts them to recollect the era of their lives when they met Zenia, and everything that's happened since.

I'm falling in love with THE ROBBER BRIDE all over again, but there's one thing that bothers me and didn't last time. A lot of Zenia's treachery has to deal with men, and the men in this book do not come off well at all. The three main male characters in the book are a surly American draft dodger, a habitually unfaithful executive and an absent-minded geek, and while the geek looks the best, none of them are particularly great or well-suited. I don't think I believed this to be realistic at 13 or 14, but I find it much less so now. Sure, Tony, Charis, and Roz's attachments to these men (and the way Zenia acts towards them) provides a commentary on the battle of the sexes and the precise nature of the eventual vilification of Zenia, but at times I'm finding them to be a little unrealistically bad. Still, I'm enjoying this book (again) and if you haven't read it, I heartily recommend it.

04 December 2007

The writing's on the wall (of the classroom).

Writers make conscious choices.
--my eighth-grade English teacher

John doesn't like his job that much -- his underlings are restless and the meetings are a nightmare. But his beautiful coworker seems to be interested in him for now, and he's about to get a promotion which should make his parents slightly happier. As long as he can play along with the small acts of skulduggery that keep the corporation going, he'll be fine. But when John is forced to arbitrate between two of his underlings in a routine review, a small act of rebellion turns into a witch hunt in which bribery and back-stabbing are the best ways to get ahead.

You could set the novel about which I have just written in pretty much any corporate environment and create a believable thriller. In the case of author Andrew Trees, though, his subject is an exclusive New York City private school, John's job that of high school English teacher and his underlings restless, amoral seniors in his Jane Austen seminar. ACADEMY X, the novel Mr. Trees wrote about private school, was the impetus for his real-life forced termination from his job as a history teacher at real-life New York City private school Horace Mann. (Trees is now suing the school for breach of contract and defamation, and apparently the head of school confirmed the book was the reason for his firing.)

So, was it worth it? After all, the typical pattern is, quit bookworthy job, write tell-all. (See PRADA, THE DEVIL WEARS.) When I heard Trees was fired, I felt that perhaps the punishment was unjust, but the key to his firing is right there in the text: In the elite world of Academy X, basically the school in the GOSSIP GIRL series as told by John Grisham, money is the answer to everything and students are treated like customers to be pleased. Donors' and trustees' kids get breaks, and the college counseling office -- changed from "admissions" after angry parents of a safety-school kid sued the school -- can basically tell teachers what to do. The book gives many examples of parents prevailing over teachers, but if you were a parent and found out your child's teacher wrote a novel that portrayed a similar (but fictional) high school in a negative light, what would you do? What if you were as rich and powerful as your fictional counterparts? I didn't find anything in the novel offensive, but there's a lot of evil going on and some very cringe-inducing moments.

John gradually wakes to this system with the help of a brainy senior named Gunter, who calls the innocent teacher Candide -- just one of many, many literary allusions in this novel. Still, ACADEMY X is familiar enough to both the corporate thriller and the job-from-hell genre to not be a great book. It shows some promise, but it still left me wondering about Trees' thought process in deciding to find a publisher while he was still employed by people who would find the book unflattering, and in keeping with the nefarious dealings of the fictional school, seek to quiet the naysayer. I can only refer to the mantra of one of my old teachers.

This entry was composed in longhand on the C train. Thanks to my fellow riders for not looking at me funny.

03 December 2007

Free your mind (and your shelves)

I gave away eight books this weekend. It felt great!

Usually one of the highlights of my weekend is discovering a history of the Oscars on the clearance shelf at Barnes & Noble or a hunting expedition at the Strand. But I just re-read Peter Walsh's IT'S ALL TOO MUCH and I decided a little sorting was in order.

If you don't know the name Peter Walsh, maybe you need some TLC in your life. I mean the channel; he's a professional organizer on "Clean Sweep," a show where people's horrifically messy rooms are redecorated while they sort through their clutter. I've been a messy person all my life -- it used to drive my sister crazy when we shared a room -- so Walsh's philosophy, that we hold on to clutter as some kind of representation of our inner desires, really hit home with me. I want to read all the time, therefore my apartment is filled with books... but do I really need to keep all of them?

These weren't books I had just gathered up because they were free; I made the decision at some point that I had to have them, read some of them and just ignored the others. That point didn't seem so valid any more. After moving three times a year as a college student (home, school, wherever I was for the summer) I have two shelves of books I consider my core library, the ones I want to have with me all the time. I just need to keep in mind that most of the books I read aren't going to belong to that core library, and if I need them in the future, I can always check them out from the library. I also gave away two of them to a friend who stopped by, who I thought would enjoy them more than I would.

All that said, I did mooch a book and buy another this weekend, so don't applaud me just yet. The mooch was the classic Los Angeles tell-all HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, and the book was A.J. Jacobs' THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY, because I have a book club meeting this week and that's what we're discussing. (Procrastinate, moi? Nahhh.) Plus, my transactions netted me a cool 10 points on BookMooch, so when I do want to add to my collection again, I'll be able to do that. (You can mooch a book from someone in your own country for one point, or from another country for two.)

How do you manage your library?