31 July 2008

Baseball Week: Dugout Jitters

In his foreword to the book, Buzz Bissinger does what few authors would dare: He reveals that THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST was once a very different book. Specifically, he was approached to write a book with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, something much more of a straight biography than what emerged as a portrait of a baseball team and a manager in a snapshot of a three-night series against arch-rivals the Chicago Cubs. Well, thank goodness!

My love for Buzz Bissinger was never in doubt since FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, so it's not surprising that I enjoyed this book more than THE BOYS OF SUMMER or THE NATURAL. Like Roger Kahn, Bissinger followed the team all year in order to produce this book, like a photographer who takes pictures every day to train his eye and finger for an action shot, and that research shows. If his adulation of Tony La Russa gets a little much, its delivery in observation -- the evidence through which he builds his case that La Russa is one of the last great baseball managers -- convinces the reader without the author nudging us over that line. This book actually inspired me to go back to the first place I ever read about sports, Sports Illustrated, which sadly has moved away somewhat from the elegiac essays of my youth.

Can't wait to read his next book, which according to this January '08 interview is tentatively titled FATHER'S DAY, a more personal work about his relationship with his twin sons. (In that interview he also mentions tomorrow's topic, MONEYBALL, as "deflat[ing]" his bookstore visits. Find out if it will deflate mine!)

Is This The Great American Baseball Novel?
Filmbook: "The Natural" (1984)
Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

30 July 2008

A great excuse to go to Brooklyn

I don't think I wrote about this last year but I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival for the first time and really enjoyed it. I wouldn't even have gone except a college friend gave me the heads-up, and we sat on the steps of Borough Hall on a warm fall afternoon and were glad.

The schedule of this year's festival isn't out yet, but here are a few of the (MANY) authors I'd like to see there:

Joan Didion -- I imagine people are going to be camping out for the venerable essayist, who to my knowledge doesn't make many public appearances.
Jonathan Franzen -- One of many literary Jonathans I like.
Lily Koppel -- A first-time author whose book THE RED LEATHER DIARY chronicles her real-life explorations into the writer of a diary she found in the trash.
Sandra Tsing Loh -- Amazing and funny essayist and NPR commentator. She's L.A.-based but coming in for a special appearance.
Cecily von Ziegesar -- Ahem.

It would be great if I caught Chuck Klosterman and Ed Park as well, whom I saw at last year's fest on a panel with Rob Sheffield (who wrote the absolutely heartbreaking memoir LOVE IS A MIX TAPE). Yet two more authors, Richard Price and Charles Bock, would be on this list except I'm planning to see them read on Thursday night in Central Park for free. Check and check!

Filmbook: "The Natural" (1984)

Yesterday I wrote about how I felt underwhelmed by the protagonist of Bernard Malamud's THE NATURAL, who alienated me and didn't really prove his so-called abilities. The Roy Hobbs of the movie "The Natural" has the opposite problem: The film pushes so hard to make Roy a hero that I found myself pushing back, probably because I had just read the book which makes clear that he wasn't a hero.

The plot is virtually identical to the book's: Talented older player with murky past finally gets to the majors, performs great feats. The crowd scenes in this book are very cool, as are the old-timey uniforms and the feeling that this team is really uniting behind Hobbs. Major assistance in this department has to go to the score in creating moments like this (not really a spoiler unless you read the YouTube info):

But as the movie goes on that old alienation came back, only I felt disconnected from the character because he was too good instead of being too bad. And the ending, which is the biggest change from the book, just took the hero worship way over the top for me. It's as if adapters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry read the book and thought, "Man, this guy's kind of a jerk. Let's make him totally saintly! Much better."

And in that capacity, having Robert Redford playing Roy didn't help matters. I like Robert Redford a lot, but he was 48 when this movie came out, and no amount of soft-focus lighting could disguise that he had a good decade on Malamud's Hobbs. So he goes around with this halo of light on him, which I'm sure was deliberate, but it made me even less inclined to see the movie's take on the player.

Filmbook verdict: Boy. I don't want to recommend the book or the movie. Watch "Field of Dreams" and read THE BOYS OF SUMMER instead.

Is This The Great American Baseball Novel?
Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

29 July 2008

Baseball Week: Is This The Great American Baseball Novel?

One-word review of THE NATURAL: Really?

The natural of the title is Roy Hobbs, a promising young pitcher headed to a tryout with the Cubs who has a little run-in with destiny along the way. 16 years later, he is finally signed to a major league team, the lagging New York Knights, and becomes not only its box-score salvation but the great batting hope for the sad-sack team manager. Not everyone on the team is happy about his success, though, particularly erstwhile star Bump Bailey, who's dating the manager's niece (with whom Roy is also in love). He finally has his chance at the major leagues, but it may be shorter than even he feared.

It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what I didn't like about this book, but I'll start here: We don't see enough of Roy's abilities to really understand why he's such a big deal. Except for one quick burst in the prologue (if you will), the guy acts like a brat in the dugout and keeps proclaiming how good he is. When the turnaround comes and his "powers" (such as they are) are evident, I didn't really want to root for him after all that.

The relationship between Roy and Memo, the manager's niece, I found pretty off-putting overall, mainly because Roy acts like an entitled jerk around her and expects her to give up her other interests and serve him. Yet I don't think Malamud was trying to make the point that talent corrupts; I think we're supposed to understand that Roy has had a long and difficult life and is on the uncomfortable bleeding edge of greatness. But when there comes a time when Roy has to, ah, choose between divergent paths and his conscience comes into play, I didn't really empathize with him. (More on this tomorrow, when I talk about the movie.)

And there's all this Mystical Stuff With Girls. This book was actually mentioned in passing in THE BOYS OF SUMMER because it came out when Kahn was with the Dodgers, and he talked up its sex scenes to one of the players, but they aren't "sex scenes" per se, more like Totally Weird Interludes. Especially the one by the lakeshore -- anyone want to explain that to me?

Despite all this I did want to find out what became of Roy Hobbs, or maybe I was just waiting for something spectacular. In the end, I was underwhelmed.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the 1984 movie, "The Natural," based on the Malamud book.

Baseball Week: Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

  • Play By The Book calls THE NATURAL "not your typical sports book." I concur, although this reviewer from the Peabody Institute Library liked it more than I did.

  • A current MLB player named Josh Hamilton is compared to The Natural in the book, although I'm not sure the lesson is the same for both. Hamilton was a promising player who got hurt, got addicted, got clean and returned to hit 28 home runs in this year's All-Star Home Run Derby.

  • I don't know much about Malamud at all, but apparently he's fallen out of favor; "Malamud's themes, his passions and his style do not come across as old fashioned: on the contrary, they seem fresh and alive," writes the Guardian. Uh, sorry to heap on, sir!

  • Listen to the Malamud story "A Summer's Reading" at newyorker.com.

ToTT Tuesday: Announcing August's Talk of the Town Pick

My next appearance on "Talk of the Town" will be August 27, and this month I went ahead and picked a book that's already out in paperback in case you want to read along with me. My interest in personal finance has picked up in the last few years, not only as I've been adjusting to the "real world" but also as financial news have been dourly predicting a slump in the American economy. (For a great explanation of that, I recommend a "This American Life" episode called "The Giant Pool of Money.")

So the book I chose is Farnoosh Torabi's YOU'RE SO MONEY: LIVE RICH, EVEN WHEN YOU'RE NOT. Ms. Torabi is a financial reporter for TheStreet.com and hopefully will give us all some pointers. If you, already the savvy saver, don't wish to buy the book first, feel free to wait until the 27th and I'll tell you whether it's worth the splurge. And I'll be posting a little here and there about the book on Tuesdays until then.

Also, the subject of July's show, Jancee Dunn's DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME, hits bookstores today. I gave it three bookmarks, and I meant it!

28 July 2008

Baseball Week: Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

I didn't realize it when I picked it, but Roger Kahn's THE BOYS OF SUMMER combines a baseball history with one of my favorite genres -- the journalist's memoir. But Kahn didn't dream of being a journalist as a kid growing up in middle-class Brooklyn -- of course, he wanted to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His father claimed to have played in college, his grandfather took him to afternoon games and his sister became a fan during a long convalescence. Only Kahn's mother disapproved of the game and tried to get her son to read biographies of Haydn instead of Christy Mathewson's autobiography.

Kahn planned to study law at NYU before a professor noticed he could write a little and recommended he apply to the New York Herald Tribune, then considered the "writers' newspaper" to the boring, pedestrian New York Times. (That is Kahn's opinion and not endorsed by writers of this blog, who never read the Herald Tribune.) Kahn's first sports piece for the Herald Tribune was about a "walking race" between City Hall and Coney Island on Thanksgiving, which he noticed took twice as long as the new elevated subway but saved the 10-cent fare. He subbed in for a few Dodgers games until, at 24, he was tapped to cover the team full-time. And Kahn would probably agree it was fortuitous that not only were the Dodgers still in Brooklyn (they moved in 1958), but they had Jackie Robinson, who played his first game with them in 1947.

Half of THE BOYS OF SUMMER covers Kahn's two seasons with the team, and the other half a series of interviews he did with the players for the book -- a sort of "Where Are They Now?" of professional baseball. Both sections had their strengths, but I enjoyed the seasonal coverage much more for the camaraderie that Kahn depicts among the traveling team (they still took trains at that point!) and the action. When he finds them, most of the players are doing okay, but professionally they're a shadow of their former selves: Mostly salesmen or public faces on larger corporations, they're reminded every day that they once were great.

But Kahn gets some amazing stories as he travels, from George Shuba's secret to batting practice (pouring lead in the bat you use for practice swings) to the moment when Carl Erskine's father threw a curve that broke all the dishes in the house. If those names mean nothing to you now (as they did to me), you'll learn from this book.

Coming up on Baseball Week: Bernard Malamud's diamond myth, Buzz Bissinger's unblinking eye and more.

23 July 2008

Course Packed: Ingrid Bengis, Metro Stop Dostoevsky (Sophomore Year)

Part of a short series on the books I loved in college.

The summer after my senior year in high school I was lucky enough to go to Russia on a student exchange where I lived with a host family, studied the language and visited probably every historical site in St. Petersburg and many in Moscow. I entered Russia with no expectation of what I might find, and was often conflicted about what I saw -- a place that by all accounts had come so far in terms of its development but was completely alien to any place I'd lived or visited before.

As I continued to study Russian in school I found that the book METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY best represented the divide I felt between Russians and visitors, particularly Western visitors. Author Ingrid Bengis is Russian but was born in America and writes about her visits there (mostly to St. Petersburg) in the '90s, including the staggering changes she saw around her. But most of those are "read" through her Russian friend "B," who is experiencing the changes in Russian society at the time firsthand. But "B" and Ingrid have their differences too, and the way their relationship goes sour mirrors, I think, where dialogue between Americans and Russians can kind of break down over very simple discussions.

Bengis found that in a country she was expecting to find very home-like, every little thing, from getting a job to finding an apartment, became a huge struggle despite her fluency in Russian and comfort with the culture. I don't want to draw the parallel too closely but I think that heading off to college can be sometimes like living in a foreign country, where you have to re-learn (or, let's face it, learn) everything you need in order to succeed. By sophomore year I was feeling a little better about those basic life processes but sometimes I still feel like I'm playing at an adult, as Bengis in a sense played at being Russian. (I even have that feeling now sometimes, even at 24!) It's that disconnect between where you are at the moment and where you would like to be that can drive you forward or drive you crazy.

Read a short excerpt from METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY here.

Earlier: Max Frankel, THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES (Freshman Year)

22 July 2008

Course Packed: Max Frankel, The Times Of My Life And My Life With The Times (Freshman Year)

Course Packed is a brief series of autobiographical comments on books that were important to me when I was in college -- named, of course, for those giant stacks of paper many of my classes would insist I purchase. Funny, I kind of miss course packs here in the real world -- and the regular use of highlighters, notebooks and campus meal points.

More than any of my classes, my first year in college was marked by my involvement in the campus newspaper. I got involved in a lot of things, as freshmen do, but writing for the paper became my most common to-do, and it shaped my days in a way I hadn't expected. My 19th birthday found me going over edits to a feature story before cake and presents, and when a week later the War in Iraq started, I remember sitting on my roommate's radiator frantically calling students with family in the Middle East for comment -- as if anyone knew what to say at the time.

Max Frankel's memoir was the kind of book I reserved for after finals, when I needed to be distracted from impending grades and plotting next year's course load. Frankel rose at the New York Times in what used to be the usual way, by starting as a stringer and becoming an integral part of the newsroom, pushing for reforms in the way the Paper of Record covered women and minorities. Along the way he reported from Russia, Cuba and Washington D.C., and won a Pulitzer covering Nixon's visit to China.

Frankel's book is a brick, but it has stayed with me not only because of the obstacles Frankel overcame to get to the Times but the ones he set for himself once he got there. After all, a Jewish kid born in Nazi Germany who was eventually admitted to Columbia and went on to the Times had to be pretty pleased with himself for getting there. It's that quest for excellence -- if stressed over other things, as memoirs tend to do -- that I admire in Frankel and other great editors.

I don't work for the Times, sadly, but I still enjoy journalists' memoirs. The summer after sophomore year I grabbed Arthur Gelb's CITY ROOM off a one-week-only shelf and dutifully read it in the week provided, it was that good. And I'm gearing up to tackle the grande dame of newspaper memoirs, Katherine Graham's PERSONAL HISTORY.

21 July 2008

Ask Murakami anything!

I wish I were cool enough to be on the Haruki Murakami train. The truth is, I have been meaning to get into his works for a while, particularly after seeing an amazing theatrical adaptation of some short stories from THE ELEPHANT VANISHES at Lincoln Center. For me, he's like the TV show "Lost": I know as soon as I get into it wild horses won't be able to drag me away, so I'd better get all my other affairs in order before I even start.* See also, "Reading Murakami... enabled me to write a publishable novel." That's powerful stuff!

But for my Murakami maniacs, you should head over to Time and ask the author a question for their "10 Questions" feature. I've been a Time subscriber for ages and between you and me, sometimes the questions are lame. Only you can keep millions of readers entertained by your non-lame questions! (The best I've got so far is whether his new nonfiction book, WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING, is an homage to Raymond Carver's WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE. But the answer has to be yes... right?) If you need a primer, this Times Online profile has some facts.

*Well, except that I read "Lost" spoilers online so I'm not That Person -- but I don't spoil myself for books. Wishful thinking?

16 July 2008

Talk of the Town Tonight: Jancee Dunn

It's that time again... Find out if this book, Jancee Dunn's DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME, is worth reading on

Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine
I'll be on ~7:30PM EDT (4:30 PDT, 1:30 Anna Time)
WEBR for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals (available through your TV)
Everyone else: Tune in here!

(Earlier: Jancee Dunn, The Pop-Culture Connection)

UPDATE: Time corrected to 7:30PM EDT.

10 July 2008

My Dirty Little Reviewer's Secret

I know this is going to be a bit of a shock, so you might want to sit down.

Sometimes, I review books for which I am not, strictly, the person most qualified to do so in the world. Or even in the U.S. (or, heck, New York City).

Paradoxically it's a feeling I've gotten more, not less, as I've been writing more book reviews and occasionally getting paid for them. When a book I've reviewed turns up in the New York Times, I know when I read it (after I've written my own, of course) that the person writing is probably more knowledgeable than I -- more true for nonfiction than fiction, I think, but it's there nonetheless.

But I do my best to write a top-notch book review, which sometimes includes a little homework. If I'm reviewing a second novel I'll try to get my hands on the first (something that works against the author if I like the first one better); I try to keep up with what she or he has written recently and perhaps a few germane biological details. This policy I quasi-set for myself against my inferiority complex is about to bite me, HARD.

I got a book to review this week from a very famous author. Let's call her "Ainslie Copper."* Ms. Copper is a best-selling author who is richer than Croesus and much more beloved.** It's not that I've avoided the works of Copper by design; if I had run into one of them back when I used to read anything in my path, including books hotels place in your room as part of the artwork, I probably would not be in this predicament.

After a trip to the library, I now have four Ainslie Copper books to read before I get to the new one. This isn't an excellent survey, since she's about as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates***, but it's what I have time for. I hope I like Ainslie Copper, or at least can tolerate her, because otherwise this is going to be a long weekend.****

In other news, I would totally use Ainslie Copper as my pen name if I didn't already know an Ainslie. But I'm sure she won't be hurt that I called her super rich and well liked on the Internet.

*Name changed on behalf of the guilty (me).
**No, it's not J.K. Rowling. REALLY, people.
***And thus is not Joyce Carol Oates. See what I did there? I actually went through an Oates phase between 8th and 9th grades, although I have forgotten many of the salient details.
****On the other hand, with two 4-hour bus rides on the horizon I will probably feel grateful to have anything to occupy me. Right? Right?!

09 July 2008

Reading on the Road: What (part of) my family is reading

I used the Fourth last weekend as a convenient excuse to go home for the first time since Christmas and enjoyed a slothulous three days of sleeping, reading and having other people make decisions for me. (We're an opinionated crew, so this isn't a burden for them.) Sadly the West Coast bureau wasn't able to make it back for the holiday, but here's what the rest of the clan is reading:

DAD: Recently finished the books I gave him for his birthday, David Gilmour's THE FILM CLUB and Mike Daisey's 21 DOG YEARS. I interviewed Mr. Gilmour about his memoir on watching movies with his son, although I haven't watched his recommendation ("True Romance") yet. Dad and I have been movie buffs together for years; this weekend he forced me to finally watch "Chinatown," and I am so glad he did. Dad liked THE FILM CLUB but really liked 21 DOG YEARS though some of the business in it cut a little close to his line of work.

MOM: Was perhaps the last woman in America to have read Jennifer Weiner's chick-lit classic GOOD IN BED, which she really liked although the title made her a little embarrassed to read in public. We went book shopping together and on my recommendation she bought CERTAIN GIRLS.

CHLOE (age 17): Has a box of books about India Mom bought for her that she is steadfastly ignoring, although she will be off there in less than two months now. (Don't worry, Mom, it's not personal.) She also disdains the Sara Paretsky novels my mom and I like so much. I did catch her reading a TIME-LIFE history of 1968, for reasons unknown to me.

MAX (also 17): Scoffed when I asked him what he was reading because "my brain is melted in the summer." (Cut the kid some slack, he just served his first week as an intern.) But he did just finish DEVIL MAY CARE, the new James Bond novel written by Sebastian Faulks. He liked it [spoilers] more than the Guardian did.

For myself, I finished 3 books this weekend but came back with my carry-on stuffed. Note to self: Don't bring reading material home, home will provide!

08 July 2008

Disinformation Company, I salute you!

There was a funny article in Publishers Weekly today about a book publicity campaign that went right... way, way too right. On the surface, it would seem that a book called THE HAMPTONS DICTIONARY might be a perfect fit to distribute free to passengers on the Hamptons Jitney, which (for the non-New Yorkers out there) is a fancy bus for rich people heading out to their summer homes. I've never taken it, but I've seen it at its Upper East Side "stops" before; apparently freebies are a regular perk of taking the fancybus. Unfortunately, Jitney management didn't bother to read the book -- otherwise they might have noticed it actually mocks the Hamptons and in particular the Jitney, which it calls a "cattle car."

Tomorrow, the USDA promotes its new stimulus package for farmers, including a free promo copy of ANIMAL FARM.

Talk of the Town Tuesday: Jancee Dunn, The Pop-Culture Connection

My second appearance on "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine" is Wednesday, July 16. This week, in case you're curious, a little bit more about why I chose this book.

Jancee Dunn's first novel DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME has been on my radar for a while, before it even got its current title. After the success of her memoir BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME, about her journey from starstruck fan to MTV2 VJ (between 1996 and 2001), she got a two-book deal, with her first novel then named IN BETWEEN DAYS after a Cure song. The new title also comes from an '80s song from the band Simple Minds, best known as the song at the end of Brat Pack classic "The Breakfast Club." Here's a clip (with spoilers, naturally):

Now there's a song that can get stuck in your head. The callback to the '80s is intentional, not only because Dunn is a child of the '80s but her protagonist, Lillian Curtis, is returning to her New Jersey hometown after the breakup of her marriage -- just in time for her 20-year high school reunion.

Dunn isn't a VJ any more, but she still contributes to Rolling Stone where she started her career long ago, so I'm expecting to see a lot of musical references in this novel. But she's also branched out to many other media, including a recent New York Times story about real-estate buyer's remorse.

All this said, I wouldn't be reviewing this book if someone at Current Employer hadn't left a copy on the free table and if I hadn't gotten a free copy of her first book from the good folks at HarperCollins when I took a tour there. But even if I hadn't, I would seek out this book to see how a life lived among stars translates to fiction.

A little light reading on Jancee Dunn
Jancee's blog, which includes the favorable Publishers Weekly review for DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME
A blooper reel from her days at MTV2 [YouTube]
There aren't any examples of her regular VJing on YouTube, but here's a Charlie Rose appearance from 1999. [YouTube]
This blogger was one of Dunn's rare non-famous subjects for a "Rolling Stone" interview. [Tart Suite]

07 July 2008

The power of Bookmooch

When you put a book into a trading system like Bookmooch, what happens to it? On a whim I decided to track two of the books I gave away very early on and see whether it was still circulating.

I got Grant Stoddard's WORKING STIFF: THE MISADVENTURES OF AN ACCIDENTAL SEXPERT for free as part of a book club I joined last year. It was the second book I ever gave away on Bookmooch and was mooched in February of 2007 by Erica in Indiana. In June she gave it away to esazama in Florida who turned around and mooched it to Jess in New York last September. It went in a circle to return to someone in my native state! I love it.

Here's an international example: It's harder for books to move across borders, so I wouldn't have faulted Chris in Japan for keeping my (unread, sigh) copy of Grace Paley's ENORMOUS CHANGES AT THE LAST MINUTE. I had to buy it for a class and never really got into the book. I hope he liked it more than I did when he got it in December of last year. He ended up sending it back across the pond to tobiejonzarelli in Massachusetts in March. Chris is a true power user with over 1500 books mooched as of this reading and over 600 given away.

Consider this post this week's attempt to get you to join Bookmooch. I've already converted two readers (or will take credit for such, anyway) and you could be next!

06 July 2008

Workin' 9 to 5 (Or Any Other Hours You Like)

When I graduated I bought a bunch of "job search" books -- resume writing guides, occupation finders, interview coach guidebooks. Given the direction in which my life has gone since then, I wish I had picked up THE ANTI 9-TO-5 GUIDE back then.

Author Michelle Goodman has been working as a freelancer for almost two decades, and explores how to look at your career as something beyond a daily, cubicle-driven chase for the next promotion. Goodman eventually struck out on her own in her chosen field (freelance writing), and she wrote the book as a guide to not making the same mistakes she did. There are chapters on optimizing your work to pursue a side gig, figuring out what you might want to do beyond your current job and making the financial leap to working for yourself. The tone of the book is far from the usual didactic, scare-quote-salted text; it's more like having a chat with someone you admire, but isn't so far away from you career-wise that you're intimidated.

I checked this book out of the library, but I have a feeling I'm going to buy it pretty soon as well as Goodman's follow-up MY SO-CALLED FREELANCE LIFE. The one thing I really took away from this book is its conviction that if we want them, we deserve to have careers that are satisfying and that fit our goals as a whole person (not just a worker). I know that sounds like a pie-in-the-sky statement. If I had a dime for every article I've read claiming that "my generation" is unrealistic, lazy and entitled, I would be writing this article from my mansion instead of my parents' house. But Goodman found entrepreneurs, from the part-time park ranger to the craft diva and small business owner, who were able to pursue such careers and still make a living. I can see myself picking up this book when I feel discouraged about my progress and my goals and finding the means to push forward.

05 July 2008

A Bathing Suit Too Far: Stephanie Klein's Fat Past

What's more American than summer camp? I went to some kind of camp every summer from ages 6 to 17, from two-night overnights with the Girl Scouts to stints on (relatively luxurious) college campuses. But unlike Stephanie Klein, I never went to a fat camp, those institutions that advertised in the back of my teen magazines promising summers of weight loss and (yeah right!) fun. And if I were her, now thin, happily married and author of a bestselling memoir on dating and love after a divorce, I probably wouldn't have written MOOSE: A MEMOIR OF FAT CAMP.

Klein as a girl was predisposed to gain weight and had a weakness for cereal, so her parents packed her off to fat camp one summer. (They also sent her normal-weight sister, who probably should write a memoir of her own.) Dying to be popular by September -- "Moose" was her middle-school-given nickname -- Klein aspires to lose a lot of weight and become one of the camp's "mean girls," now that she's no longer the fattest girl in the room. But losing weight can't fix her problematic body image, and (even less surprising) teenagers are a feral bunch.

MOOSE: A MEMOIR OF FAT CAMP is not the kind of book I would want to read over and over, but for every wince-worthy moment there was one where I could only nod assent to myself. And like her first memoir STRAIGHT UP AND DIRTY, I found myself completely unable to set this book down while I was reading it. I believe I read it standing up at the kitchen counter, even. The emotions it brings up aren't always pleasant, but I believed every word.

04 July 2008

This may mostly be a comment on my neighborhood.

I was riding home on the subwa last night when I saw a man reading a book which I was sure had a fake jacket cover on it. He was a nattily dressed man, maybe in his 40s, whitish-blond hair and either a suit or a nice jacket and pants, and he was reading a volume whose cover announced it as... BEAUTIFUL WASPS HAVING SEX. Well, go figure, it's a real book. Whether the gentleman in question was disappointed that it was fiction, not (heaven forfend) self-help, is beyond the purview of this writer.

Happy Independence Day! Go celebrate your freedom to read whatever you want, or if you like my freedom to gawk at it.

03 July 2008

Send a book to Iraq

When I read Christopher Hitchens, I mostly do so to yell at him in my head (women are too funny! Racism is not by definition more serious than sexism! Dude, don't pick on a nun!) but I was pleased to see he devoted his latest column in Slate to asking for book donations for an English library in Iraq. We may differ on many points, but Hitch and I both agree that libraries are important, especially for new universities like the American University of Iraq.

Naturally, just any book won't be of use to founding a scholarly library, but I'll go through my stacks and see if I have any historical or political material suitable for sending.

02 July 2008

Speaking of filmbook: LOST, the bibliography!

I haven't been a regular viewer of "LOST" since sometime in Season 2, although I try to keep up on the spoilers so I can make conversation with my pals who are hooked on the show. But I never realized how many books have been referenced on it so far until I saw Lost Book Club, an ABC-created page that displays volumes seen on the show by season. Clearly, these castaways look beyond the airport thriller rack, with references ranging from Nabokov and James to Harry Potter and, inevitably, LORD OF THE FLIES.

Just try not to think about what book you would want on you if your plane crashed a thousand miles away from a Borders. A person going on vacation for the Fourth of July Weekend could drive herself mad doing that.

Thanks to my roommate, Dennis, for sending me the link.

Filmbook: "Perfume" (2006)

Anyone can claim that a great book can never be made into a decent movie, but it's a different thing entirely when the claimant is Stanley Kubrick. The famous director singled out Patrick Suskind's PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER as material he had been interested in adapting but couldn't find a way to do so. According to IMDb, several other directors were attracted to this story of, functionally, a psychopath.

Hey, psychopaths make great movie characters! And while Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is fictional, his story as told in PERFUME is explored in such sensuous detail as to fool many (including myself) as to his existence. Grenouille, an orphan born and abandoned in a Paris fish market, has an incredible, uncanny sense of smell, a talent which he eventually puts to work as a perfumer's assistant in Paris and beyond. But this talent, or ability, becomes his undoing when he discovers the most perfect scent -- that of a red-headed girl selling fruit in the streets -- and becomes obsessed with capturing it.

Describing Grenouille's monomania is easy in print compared to the comparison of every scent he comes across in his travels. But that's nothing compared to the challenge of evoking a particular smell onscreen. In that sense (no pun intended), Tom Tykwer's film "Perfume" is a failure, because it never completely held me the way the book did. Many things that are explained in detail in the book are shown without comment here, and in trying to condense several events in the book Twyker removes one major episode and turns another character into a know-it-all to hurry along the action. (That big crowd scene though? 98 percent from the book. Again, comments!) He also added several scenes that look great filmed but appear nowhere in the book, though I might not have realized this if the book hadn't been so vivid and so horrifying.

Still, I feel that in a sense someone had to make a movie of this supposedly "unfilmable" story, because I like it when people attempt the impossible. And I don't doubt that someday, another director will read the book and claim he or she can do better. The lead performance of Ben Whishaw as Grenouille, while not as memorable as my image of him in the book, is quite strong and for its faults the movie was never boring, though at times extremely off-putting.

Filmbook Verdict: Read the book; maybe see the movie if you like Tykwer, period dramas or movies about psychopaths. The editor-in-chief of Vintage, who publishes the novel, told the International Herald Tribune that the movie would "send people back to the book," and while not wholly inaccurate, I don't think the movie is so good or inspiring that it would motivate viewers to read the book to learn more. Yeah, and I'm an optimist.

Spoilers in the comments! If you want to read a full review with spoilers all the way down, I recommend the AV Club's My Year of Flops entry on "Perfume." (Disclaimer: I write for them, though not in the film section.)

01 July 2008

July sneak peek: Batter up!

Want to pre-mock my choices in reading material? Here are some things you can expect to find on Wormbook this month:

Item the first: In honor of my trip to Boston, a city where I spent a fair amount of time when I was in college in nearby Rhode Island, I'm doing a series on the books I liked best each year of my higher education. (Yes, I kept lists back then of all the books I read. NERD.) This is a vanity project I understand, since in 10 years I probably won't remember where and when I read each book and I may want to have a record of that. But hopefully it will remind you of some of your favorite books, for school or for fun, in your past.

Item the second: My second appearance on Talk of the Town is tentatively set for July 16. I'm going to be talking about a much anticipated (for me) book, Jancee Dunn's DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME. This first novel isn't out yet, but my review should make it clear whether you should buy it or not. Incidentally, Dunn is a former MTV VJ who grew up in my boyfriend's home town in New Jersey and on whom he had has the biggest crush. Tee hee.

Item the third: The last week in July, I'm going to do another theme week a la Candace Bushnell week. Only rather the opposite, because instead of looking for labels or love we will be stealing bases and striking out for Baseball Week! In honor of America's national pastime, I'll be reading and talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers in THE BOYS OF SUMMER, buying a better team with MONEYBALL, going in the dugout with the Reds in THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST and cheering on an eerily good player with Bernard Malamud's THE NATURAL. (I may add a fifth book to that lineup -- read any good baseball fiction lately?) Look for that starting July 28th.

And, of course, I'll be tackling my summer reading pile -- hooray for outsized expectations.