30 September 2008

Talk of the Town Tuesday Talk Back

I've been doing the "Wormbook" segment on "Talk of the Town" for four months now, and now I want your feedback! If you could take 30 seconds to vote in the two polls below (click through if you're on a reader), I would greatly appreciate it. MicroPoll may store a little information about you but I swear never to reveal it.

29 September 2008

This week: My childhood on DVD.

A few weeks ago I wrote about BALLET SHOES and was pleased with a new adaptation of the book I loved as a kid. This week brings a DVD release whose source is so dear to me, I'm not going anywhere near this Canadian television series which makes it to DVD in the States this week. But perhaps you will be braver than I!

So if you were a fan of Lucy Maud Montgomery's EMILY series -- EMILY OF NEW MOON, EMILY CLIMBS and EMILY'S QUEST -- you may want to check out "Emily of New Moon," a CBC adaptation from 1998 starring Martha MacIsaac. (You may have seen her more recently, and raunchily, as Michael Cera's love interest in "Superbad.") Like Anne of Green Gables, Emily is a stubborn orphan who lives on Prince Edward Island; unlike Anne, Emily is adopted by relatives (a stern aunt and a nice aunt) and is much more serious and quiet, with a passion for writing.

Montgomery of course is a Canadian national treasure and it makes perfect sense that this series, which is assumed to be at least semi-autobiographical, would be adapted for TV. But I'm still not going to see it because I have probably re-read the series at least 25 times and I don't want my picture of the books ruined. No offense, Canada!

Read also

27 September 2008

Sale tomorrow, tour next week

I was all excited to head for the Housing Works Bookstore's Open Air Book Fair today (books for $1! all proceeds benefit homeless HIV-positive New Yorkers!) but it's been moved to tomorrow, Sunday, because of the supposedly impending rain. I'll give them this, with a 90% chance of precipitation I don't blame them for not wanting to mess around.

Next Wednesday, October 1st, I will be reviewing Lesley Dormen's THE BEST PLACE TO BE, with a twist: My review is part of a "blog book tour" organized by TLC Book Tours. If you aren't familiar, a blog book tour is like a traveling author tour, except virtual. Lisa sent me the book specifically to review here and I am honored to be the first stop on the tour. Should be fun!

26 September 2008

Her fate, and how she gets there.

I once tried to write an updated version of ANNA KARENINA. This was one of the NaNoWriMo years I couldn't finish, although I don't fault the idea. In my version, all 13,000 words of it, Anna was a high-school runner, an object of mystery to her classmates who were constantly talking, chatting and e-mailing about her.

Irina Reyn clearly found the same kind of inspiration as I did in Tolstoy's classic tale when she wrote her debut WHAT HAPPENED TO ANNA K, which resets the tragic heroine in contemporary Queens in a tight-knit community of Russian-American Jews. (The author says she didn't explicitly set out to rewrite the novel, but when she noticed certain parallels decided to make them clearer without re-reading Tolstoy.)

A somewhat aimless young woman, this Anna, a translator for a publishing company who has moved to Manhattan, marries a much older and richer man of whom her mother approves but struggles to find fulfillment in full-time motherhood. Meanwhile in Queens, her cousin Katia, an overprotected girl in a sheltered Bukharian Jewish community, pines for her secular professor, David, while the local pharmacist, Lev, pines for her. When Anna meets David at a New Year's Eve party, sparks fly and her husband and son are forgotten.

Anchored with lush detail in this idiosyncratic world, ANNA K doesn't fall back on any easy cliches of assimilation, nor does it subscribe to a one-to-one retelling of the novel, clumsily replacing (as my adaptation probably did!) letters for e-mails and marriages for hook-ups. But you can't read this book without the richness and depth of the other one in your mind. And that's not a bad thing, but it also struggles with a certain expectation on its leading lady because of the modernization.

Without spoiling either book, Anna's response to her situation in the final third left something to be desired -- while faithful to Tolstoy's rendering, it felt unfaithful to the age in which it was set. I didn't find her "self-centered and unfeeling" -- I wished she had been a little more self-centered, instead of to some extent accepting her fate. Still, I found Reyn's take on the story fascinating and am excited to see what she does as an author on her own steam.

Read the first chapter of WHAT HAPPENED TO ANNA K at NPR.
The Houston Chronicle calls this adaptation [SPOILERS] "an act of literary temerity."
Find out more about writers and Central Queens.
And finally, Irina Reyn is appearing in New York three times next week in three different boroughs. I have to miss all three -- bummer.

25 September 2008

More American Wives

If you tuned in last night you know I liked Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE, although I thought it lost some steam at the end right when I expected it to take off. If you've read AMERICAN WIFE or like historical fiction prominently featuring strong female characters, might I suggest these picks?

Pre-Revolutionary War: Kathleen Kent, THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER. I was lucky enough to get to review this much buzzed about novel earlier this year, about a woman named Martha Kent accused (and convicted) of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. There are many, many books about this era, but this one is narrated by Martha Kent's young daughter, which allowed it to render the real anguish of having your family torn apart -- and being told that it's for your own good.

Antebellum South: Ann Rinaldi, IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE and THE LAST SILK DRESS This is a nostalgia pick, the most vivid of all the Rinaldi books I read when I was younger. Like THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER, these are both narrated by young women who bear witness to the Civil War, from sacrificing for the Confederate Army to watching the generals of both sides gather for peace talks in your living room.

American abroad: Laurie Graham, GONE WITH THE WINDSORS. The entrance of Wallis Warfield Simpson into British society, which led to the abdication of a king, is barely a footnote in American history, which is why I'm so glad this British author wrote this gossipy novel about her.

24 September 2008

Talk of the Town Tonight: Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife

Grande dame or shady lady? Tonight on Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine, we'll learn all about author Curtis Sittenfeld's take on the life of Laura Bush -- and whether you should get to know her subject, librarian turned politician's wife Alice Blackwell.

~7:30PM EDT (4:30PM PDT, 1:30PM Anna Time)
WEBR for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals (available through your TV)
Everyone else: Tune in here!

(Sorry about the absence of preview posts this time around -- this didn't go up on the schedule till pretty late in the month. Tomorrow, I'll provide some female-centric historical fiction picks of my own.)

23 September 2008

"Revolutionary Road" Trailer: Suits And Fights

Remember when I fretted that the forthcoming adaptation of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD would be a little heavy-handed? Well... judge for yourself:

Granted, all of the lines said there sound like they came from the book -- but I'm hoping it's just the trailer that's artfully heightened.

20 September 2008

A Man So Singular

"I strained the summer through a strainer that allowed only the collection of cricket. Everything else ran away."

Right before I dove with earnest into Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND I happened to read a new item about the Booker shortlist, which dismissed this book (not on the short list) with the dread word, "overrated." I confess to using this word often in my non-writing life, but coming from an organization attempting to deliver news I wished they had provided some proof. While I had certainly read and heard about NETHERLAND before I picked it up, I hadn't read the New York Times/Kakutani review which I now know called the book "stunning" and "a resonant meditation on the American dream."

That review also compares NETHERLAND to a very popular "favorite book," THE GREAT GATSBY. And there is one very particular point of comparison between them, which is why I liked NETHERLAND but wasn't bowled over by it: Like Nick Carraway, Hans is drawn into someone else's existence as a way of filling the void left by his wife and son's return to England after 9/11. (A successful banker, he wasn't really aware his marriage had gone sour until she forces the question.) In this case, the Gatsby figure is Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidad-born entrepreneur Hans meets at a cricket match -- cricket being one of the other things he takes up in the aftermath.

At the beginning of the book we learn that Hans has returned to his wife and son in England, setting us up (or so it seemed) for a circular journey in which Hans lives in New York, weighs his life, and ultimately chooses in favor of fidelity and family. If New York City isn't to be made ugly in order to close this circle, a change must take place in our narrator -- a change we never see taking place. There are two scenes involving Chuck which Hans describes as being significant to him, but he is so willfully obtuse to us that the closest we get into this transformation is actually through his wife's words:
"It was not the case that I'd heroically bowled her over (my hope) or that she'd tragically decided to settle for a reliable man (my fear). She had stayed married to me, she stated in the presence of Juliet Schwarz, because she felt a responsibility to see me through life, and the responsibility felt like a happy one."
Despite this, I did like NETHERLAND and given how many people I know have read it would consider it slightly underrated in my circle. The sensitive and nuanced picture that NETHERLAND tries to develop which, in another form, would be called a male midlife crisis never felt fully formed, but what we do see is developed in a very mature way, where Hans doesn't give himself much or any credit for making the decisions he does.

And the theme of alienation, the state of being a foreigner Hans feels literally in America and emotionally, is incredibly fine and never feels like a capital-T Theme. As he gets sucked into Chuck's dream, to build New York's first proper cricket stadium, the narrator finds himself having dreams about it "and everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized." In that respect, the knowledge that he doesn't assimilate -- that he leaves for London and, unknowingly, leaves Chuck to his fate (revealed in the opening as well) -- only adds to the narrative tension between himself and his country.

Earlier: I saw Joseph O'Neill read and Aimee Mann play.

19 September 2008


In the interest of fairness: After I mentioned their booth in my Brooklyn Book Festival wrap-up, Harper Perennial sent me a tote bag and some pins featuring this lovely olive lady here. They also sent me a copy of John Niven's KILL YOUR FRIENDS, which I have added to my voluminous to-read pile. Thanks, Carrie and Michael!

18 September 2008

His daily whist party at his club... was the most comforting habit of his life, in a mainly successful display of his skill without the assistance of any subordinate. He entered his club to play from five to seven, before going home to dinner, forgetting for those two hours whatever was distasteful in his life, as though the game were a beneficent drug for allaying the pangs of moral discontent. His partners were the gloomily humorous editor of a celebrated magazine; a silent, elderly barrister with malicious little eyes; and a highly martial, simple-minded old Colonel with nervous brown hands. They were his club acquaintances merely. He never met them elsewhere except at the card-table.

But they all seemed to approach the game in the spirit of co-sufferers, as if it were indeed a drug against the secret ills of existence; and every day as the sun declined over the countless roofs of the town, a mellow, pleasurable impatience, resembling the impulse of a sure and profound friendship, lightened his professional labours. And now this pleasurable sensation went out of him with something resembling a physical shock, and was replaced by a special kind of interest in his work of social protection--an improper sort of interest, which may be defined best as a sudden and alert mistrust of the weapon in his hand.

-Joseph Conrad, THE SECRET AGENT

17 September 2008

At least they're new!

Books I Done Read mentioned this week that she's going to try to read Entertainment Weekly's 100-strong "New Classics" book list (published since 1983). I remember scanning it -- I think my sister Chloe was reading it aloud at a family dinner while we made scoffing noises -- and I think it's an interesting list both in the categories of Books I'd Never Consider Classic (THE DA VINCI CODE?) and Books I've Never Heard Of But Which Are Apparently Classics (Taylor Branch's PARTING THE WATERS, Connie Bruck's THE PREDATORS' BALL).

The one I was most proud to have already read? Volume one of Peter Guralnick's two-volume Elvis biography, LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS. Maybe one of the more odd birthday presents I ever got, but I do recommend it and am glad to have read it (beyond the bragging I have just done here.)

I won't be working on this list now, though, even though I've read more from it already than I have from my trusty Modern Library list. One bizarre, unreachable goal at a time, please!

16 September 2008

ToTT Tuesday: Announcing September's Talk Of The Town Pick

I'm really excited about this one. My next appearance on Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine will air September 24 and I'm going for a really, really big book. Chances are you've read this author's first novel, a coming-of-age story set at an upper-class high school. And, this being an election year, you've probably heard about some of the political hoopla surrounding her third novel which offers an alternative picture of one of the major figures of our time.

That's why I put down my own money for Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE, and on the 24th I will tell you whether you should too. If you've already read the book or plan to read it soon, I'd love to hear from you about what you thought (I have started it). For now why not check out my 2006 post on the PREP phenomenon?

15 September 2008

My Day at the Brooklyn Book Festival

11:58AM: I tumble off the subway and into an inappropriately warm day in downtown Brooklyn. Already late, yikes!

12:14PM: "Cheetah Girls" creator Deborah Gregory is head-to-toe in animal print and reads an excerpt featuring a character named Shalimar. I always thought it was a TV show first, and then a novel; I was mistaken. "Gossip Girl" creator Cecily von Ziegesar reads from the opening of her very first book and confides that when she wrote it she was a YA editor and "some people are very happy being editors," but she wasn't one of them.

1:22PM: My partner in crime and I are one of about six people willing to sit in the sun for Lily Koppel and Sean Wilsey, although turnout isn't bad when you include all the people on the shaded benches. They're ostensibly here to talk about coming of age -- her book deals with finding a diary of a Manhattan teenager struggling with her own issues three quarters of a century ago, and his with his adolescence in the shadow of his society parents' messy divorce. I must also mention that Koppel is wearing a really nice red dress and I wish I had one.

2:36PM: I desperately need to get hydrated so it's off to Duane Reade across the street. On the way back I wander through the booths looking at schwag. A lot of places have free pins, like the New York Review of Books' title-proclaiming series, which I love; my friend Pearl prefers the bookmarks. Harper Perennial has a nifty deal of old-looking editions of MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. Buy three and you get a free tote bag and "surprise"! Somehow I resist. Instead I wander into a food panel where Steven Rinella (I think) is telling a story about how meat in Europe gets mad cow disease. Curiously, this reminds me I haven't had lunch yet.

3:15PM: Smith Magazine's Write Your Own Six-Word Memoir event is full of boosters and good cheer. When co-host Larry Smith suggests that some people have written one for Jesus, a few audience members take the bait. There's a moment of grace after you hear each one, like a Zen koan. I'm still working on mine -- six words aren't that many. Last night I really liked "Always struggling against dumb blonde jokes," but I am dissatisfied today.

4:37PM: So disappointing: I and everyone else in Brooklyn in line for a NYRB event featuring Joan Didion are turned away after being allowed to stand in a fruitless line for 40 minutes. Here is the point where I ought to have persevered, but the heat's really getting to me and my nose is striped with sunburn. (Stupid sunglasses.) The air-conditioned subway is a sweet relief.

Well, all right, so my patience runs out in under five hours. I still had a good time, and while I managed to resist the siren songs of the many books for sale at the fest,* I have a list of indie bookstores to patronize when next I need to pick up a book. (I'll be back, BookCourt in Brooklyn!) If I had any criticism of the festival, it's in the ticketing system for high-demand indoor events (Didion, Russell Banks/Jonathan Franzen, etc.) and not just because I got screwed over: When you're enjoying a reading, the last thing you want to do is stop engaging in the fest in order to wait in line with people. (Though I did enjoy the copy of the Brooklyn Rail someone handed me.) I suggest an online lottery in which winners are chosen Sunday morning pre-Fest, so they have time to plan their days accordingly.

*Titles I nearly bought on the spot: Didion's WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN ORDER TO LIVE, Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland's STATE TO STATE (ed.), Lily Koppel's THE RED LEATHER DIARY and many more.

14 September 2008

Booking to Brooklyn

It's Brooklyn Book Festival day! Let's hope it doesn't rain; it looks quite, quite cloudy right now. (But I am assured by weather Websites that they aren't rain-bearing clouds.) In case you are incredibly bored, I will probably be updating my Twitter account periodically while I'm out there.

13 September 2008

Highbrow/ Lowbrow Saturday: Leo Tolstoy, Lauren Conrad

  • People, this is not a bookpocalypse. The news that a reality-TV star is going to let a ghostwriter lightly fictionalize her life? Is no worse than the thousands of other branded children's and YA books out there. If you've never read one of these, they are bad, but a lot of people think they're entertaining. And Ms. Conrad calling herself an author is no worse than the hundreds of other books that come out each year by celebrities who promote their autobiographies which they haven't even written. Call me immune to quality, but if the glamour of "The Hills" gets someone to read, I count that as a positive.

  • On the negative side: The American commute -- it's really, really long. GOOD magazine describes how long with a nifty chart comparing commute times among American cities in the audio-book length of WAR AND PEACE and the entire "Ring" cycle and the viewing time "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I would have liked them to time someone reading WAR AND PEACE -- to simulate the public-transit commuter, naturally -- but I see why they chose the audio book. I'm surprised there wasn't more gridlock in NYC, though! I don't commute by car but I would have guessed it was much more than an average of 11.21 minutes in traffic per day.

*My math: 365 days a year minus about 21 holidays and days off = 344 days a year. But I only go to work 5 out of 7 of those days = 245.7 days a year commuting, rounded to 246.
(46 hours/year) / (245.7 days/year) = 0.1869987 hr/ day or an average of 11.21 minutes. Mmm, math!

12 September 2008

I thought I was detail-oriented in my getting rid of books, but White Lotus White Russian has a sophisticated methodology for getting rid of books before a cross-country move. Here are her five categories:
"1) The books I have never and probably will never read (Our Mutual Friend).
2) The books I might want to read “someday” but keep putting off because of lack of real interest (
3) The books I like or that are useful but that I have no emotional connection to (all cookbooks and travel guides,
Jane Eyre, Valley of the Dolls).
4) The books I love but could probably part with if I absolutely had to (
To Kill a Mockingbird, Anna Karenina, I Am the Messenger).
5) The books I’ll re-read at least twice a decade until I’m 90 (
This Side of Paradise, Disgrace, The Secret History)."
A key contributor to my bloated shelves has been that I've been living in the same place for the longest amount of time since 2002. I probably parted with 70 books when I graduated from college, which was my last major cull.

Her categories make me think I should be sorting my unread books by more than "area of my room where they happen to live."The only category I would add would be books someone had given me which I would feel bad about leaving behind unread.

I was tickled to notice that she brought up a book I just wrote about recently, NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST.

11 September 2008

Man, Booker...

I have nothing to say about the Booker Prize shortlist because, as usual, I haven't read any of the books. How bad is my track record? In the last 10 years, I've read 11 of the shortlisted books (out of 60), improbably, 2 of which were the winners in their respective years (THE BLIND ASSASSIN in 2000 and THE LIFE OF PI in 2002). Thank goodness The Guardian has digested all the nominees so I don't have to actually read them.

But may I just say, doesn't the photo accompanying that article make them look lovely? I envy the Brits and their exotic-looking covers. (Via Bookslut.)

Will we see a great 9/11 novel?

Of course no one needs to be reminded what today is.

About a month ago I was working on a review of a book about New Orleans and brought up the question of whether every novel about the city from now on would, if not directly dealing with the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, in some sense be in dialogue with that disaster. (The book, BABYLON ROLLING, was set in the summer before Katrina, as residents prepared for another hurricane, but the parallels were impossible to avoid.) You could ask the same question about books set in contemporary New York City, whether they explicitly depict some aspect of the day's events or just mention it in passing.

I think there will be a great 9/11 novel, although I'm not sure it will come out of those which have already been written. The best I have read so far, although I think their strength goes far beyond their willingness to confront this historic moment, are Jonathan Safran Foer's EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and Julia Glass' THE WHOLE WORLD OVER. Glass' book takes place mostly outside New York City but follows a local couple who separates when the husband stays in New York and the wife moves to New Mexico to work as the new governor's personal chef. Her second novel is a model for how to use the September 11th attacks and their effects on people without it feeling obvious and inevitable. Safran Foer's sophomore effort, which I actually like better than EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, is a tale narrated by a young New Yorker coming to terms with his father's death.

I applaud authors who try to address it from this potentially myopic view, although I personally am not sure I can write about it yet (as you can tell from this increasingly uncomfortable post). I think there have been a number of strong contenders in the category of fiction, though, which is more than I can say for movies -- I feel frustrated and dissatisfied by films like "Shortbus" and "The Great New Wonderful" that use it to fuel certain emotions in the audience. (To be fair, I've read books that do the same thing.) It's hard for me to recommend books that intentionally seek this darkness out, but Safran Foer and Glass are masters.

10 September 2008

Filmbook: "Ballet Shoes" by Noel Streatfeild (2007-TV)

I read Noel Streatfeild's BALLET SHOES over and over when I was little and combined three elements I looked for in books at that age: Plucky girls, serious ambitions that are taken seriously by the adults around them and an exotic setting in both time and place. The three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, don't immediately want to be famous, but get the idea when someone points out the uniqueness of their last name -- Fossil, because they were adopted by an eccentric paleontologist. That paleontologist, Great-Uncle Matthew or "Gum," has been off adventuring for several years, and with money running out the girls' guardians decide to first take in boarders and then enroll the girls in dance school with an eye to getting them parts on the London stage. Pauline likes dancing but finds she likes acting better; Posy takes to ballet just like the mother who gave her up; and Petrova endures her roles while dreaming of an aviation career.

I definitely enjoyed last year's BBC adaptation of "Ballet Shoes," which I just caught on DVD, but I'm not sure it would make too much sense if you hadn't read the book. The three young actresses give strong performances as the Fossil sisters, among them Emma Watson of the "Harry Potter" movies (as Pauline), and the supporting adults are fine with the exception of Richard Griffiths as Gum, who is terrific. (The film became worth a rental for me approximately 10 minutes in when Griffiths bellows, "I keep a pack of women in this house, and there isn't one of them about anywhere" -- directly from the book.)

The film is largely faithful to the novel down to details of the always-too-tight household budget and the clothes you need to go to dancing school. A romantic subplot added to the movie doesn't really work, but it doesn't distract much from the rest of the movie. I even picked up on a detail I certainly wouldn't have noticed reading the original book, that the maiden-aunt schoolteachers who move into Gum's house together and tutor the girls were probably lesbians. (It's only a quick beat though, in case you're showing it to an impressionable young lady; the film is rated PG "for smoking," which seems dumb to me.) But it's so faithful that it under-explains a few things, which I intuitively understood and expected in the course of the plot. That's why I recommend, if it sounds like something you would be interested in, that you read the book first, then see the movie.

As for me, I'm going to try and dig up some of Streatfeild's adult novels.

09 September 2008

Rowling Rules

The spell has been cast: The publication of THE HARRY POTTER LEXICON was successfully blocked in yesterday's verdict, which found for J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers against HP-lexicon.org and author Steven Vander Ark. (They also got $6,750 in statutory damages out of the ruling.) In retaliation, Vander Ark will... still be a fan:
“I have been a huge fan of the Harry Potter series and Ms. Rowling for 10 years; that’s not going to change,” Mr. Vander Ark said by telephone on Monday from his home in Brighton, England. “We had a disagreement about the definition of a particular book. It was a legal disagreement. I would rather that it wasn’t personal.”
I had completely forgotten that this case was going on, despite writing about it; I saw it on Throwing Things.

08 September 2008

Having a little tipple

Via Edrants, a great site about books and reading which I do not check often enough: The New York Post drinks with writers.

I love Overheard in New York creator Michael Malice's selection of the gin gimlet, which is also what Philip Marlowe drinks to cut the whiskey. Personally I alternate between gin and vodka in mine, which is non-canonical but delicious.

07 September 2008

They Read It On TV, Competitive Edition

I was catching up with long-time guilty pleasure "America's Next Top Model" this weekend and confess to having a giggle over what happened to aspiring model Susan, who couldn't name her favorite literary heroine -- or rather the ensuing scene, which was patently ridiculous.

During her first interview with host Tyra Banks, the fact comes up that Susan from Canton, Ohio just graduated from Harvard with a degree in English (or as they style it, English and American Literature and Languages). Here's how it played out:
TYRA: Who was your favorite English literature heroine?
SUSAN: [Looks confused] I didn't pay much attention in those classes.
TYRA: Are you serious but that's your major!!! Jane Eyre?
SUSAN: Oh, yeah, I like Jane Eyre.
TYRA: Rebecca? [SUSAN shrugs.] Gimme five poses that Viola [pronounced like the instrument] does. [SUSAN grins, shrugs.] Now we're gonna take it away from heroines and we're gonna go to animals. Let's do Jack London, WHITE FANG. Go. [SUSAN makes a face and shrugs.] Pearl S. Buck, THE GOOD EARTH. You're mining the fields [SUSAN mouths something, looks like "I don't know that"] of rice. Girl, you know Harvard is going 'Oh, lord, she's embarrassing us right now.'
SUSAN [interview]: I was talking to the judges and I just blanked out. I couldn't think of any heroines in English literature, and that's my major, so that was really embarrassing.
TYRA [to other judges]: Why is it that I didn't go to an Ivy League school and I'm throwing out English and American literature references that she doesn't even know?
(Geez, when I write it out like that I wonder why I watch this show.)

OK, everyone loves to pick on Harvard, but since [spoiler alert!] Susan doesn't make it into the finals and thus onto the show, I'm going to go easy on her. Like IvyGate says, she's probably a really nice girl reduced to 30-second ignominy. Nor do I think she looks 44 years old, that's just not nice. Maybe she just got super nervous, and if someone told me to act like Jack London I would probably also look confused. For a minute. But come on! Lily Bart, people? Becky Sharp, whose cutthroat instincts would be right at home on reality television? Jordan Baker? (OK, maybe I wouldn't want to be Jordan Baker so much as hang out at Gatsby's house.)

That's not to say that Tyra's choices when she "tried to out-intellectualize" Susan weren't quite lame, although she gets points for bringing up Wormbook favorite "Twelfth Night." What I remember about the women in THE GOOD EARTH is how they were forced into vastly unequal marriages where they were forced to serve their mothers-in-law and husbands, clean the whole house and harvest all while pregnant. My feelings about JANE EYRE are documented. And I haven't read REBECCA in at least 10 years, but I think of her as defiant and scared without real bravery.

Play along at home and leave your fictional heroines from English and American literature in the comments.

06 September 2008

"George and Emily are going to show you now the conversation they had when they first knew that... that... as the saying goes... they were meant for one another.

"But before they do that I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young.

"And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn't quite see the street you were in, and didn't quite hear everything that was said to you.

"You're just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please?"

--Stage Manager, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"

05 September 2008

Do you like Lolita? Hmmm... there must be a better way to say that.

Are you an aficionado of the prose stylings of Vladimir Nabokov's arguably most famous and controversial novel about the erudite double-named pedophile, Humbert Humbert? Well done.

I read LOLITA even before my Modern Library project began, and young enough that a lot of things probably went over my head, so I'm not sure if the New School's Lolita in America conference on Saturday the 27th is for me. But it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of LOLITA in the U.S., and the symposium is covering the controversy over getting it into print, plus what it was like to read the novel as a 12-year-old Russian girl from Nina Khrushcheva and at day's end a screening of Kubrick's adaptation. While this isn't on the conference docket, I imagine Azar Nafisi's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN will also come up.

Registrations are due two weeks from Sunday, September 21st, so if you like LOLITA, there's your chance to spend a whole day with her.

04 September 2008

Silly kids in love

I was going to save this for a Filmbook entry, but I cannot tell a lie: The only reason I picked up NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST, a book I had happily walked past on the New Fiction table without a second glance, because of the trailer. Specifically, one actor in the trailer. Most specifically, Mr. Michael Cera.

I don't have a crush on Cera, best known as George Michael Bluth on "Arrested Development," Paulie in "Juno" and Evan in "Superbad." He is adorable, but maybe because he's only 2 years older than my brother, I feel like I would make a better protective sibling towards him. His band could crash on my floor! We could go to diners and I could give him advice! I am not a creepy old lady!

In any case, his next movie is based on this YA novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan about two teenagers who meet at a rock concert in New York and have this kind of madcap night. This book is very short -- "You could probably read it in like an hour" was my roommate's note -- and, for me, kind of a modern-day Manhattan fairy tale. (People who are not teenagers will note the titular nod to "The Thin Man," to begin with.) Nick has just played with his constantly-being-renamed band and is about to run right into his ex-girlfriend and her new flame. Norah is minding her friend the party girl and wishing she were going to do something fun. Nick begs Norah to pretend she's his new girlfriend for the next five minutes. And off it goes from there.

If I were 13 I would probably sleep with this book under my pillow and wake up crushed that my boring teenage life was not like this and there were no boys like Nick out there. Since I am not 13, I appreciated the use of real-life New York locales like Veselka and the strange sweetness of these two characters who are kind of lost but finally having a little fun. And that was enough for me to like this book, even if I didn't love it or want to keep it out of the library. I liked it enough to check out Cohn and Levithan's follow-up, NAOMI AND ELY'S NO-KISS LIST, which I liked less but identified with more (if that makes any sense). Consider my movie expectations raised.

Screenshot: Collider.com

03 September 2008

Just the beginning of the tale

Early on in Andrew Sean Greer's THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, I became convinced someone was pulling a hoax on me. I reached a scene about a quarter of the way through this slim second novel in which one member of a couple is being warned by some soon-to-be-in-laws. The member of the couple is looking back on this scene, in which the soon-to-be-in-laws plead with this person not to go through with the wedding for reasons they can't quite articulate, from the position where we know the couple has already gone through with it. And I thought, "Hey! Did I go to the library and accidentally pick up THE GOOD SOLDIER again?"

The scene is a near-exact double, and in both cases this Cassandra-esque warning (coming from elderly aunts in both books, I think) ends up bearing out in various ways. In this book, it's Pearlie, a young woman who moved to California during World War II to work in the war effort, who is being warned against her fiance and childhood sweetheart Holland, whom she happened to encounter on the streets of San Francisco years after he was sent away to war. They have defied the aunts and are living in a family house together with their son, and one day, a man from Holland's past comes to town.

And that's pretty much all I want to reveal about the plot of this book, which given that it's under 200 pages is quite complex and developing throughout the story. (If you just want spoilers, pretty much every review I read of this book including the Times' word on it gives away everything. Why?! Have you no shame, reviewers of the world?)

I thought I knew what THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE was about, given a friend's review which hinted very strongly at one outcome, but I actually had no idea -- and it leads back to this parlor scene, as I mentioned. This book is like a puzzle box where, when you turn it a certain way, pieces suddenly pop out and confound your understanding of the mechanism.

Like Edward in THE GOOD SOLDIER, Pearlie takes the aunts' words to mean that her spouse-to-be has a weak heart, but that makes her even more stubborn in her desire to take care of him, which begins to show when bad stuff starts to happen. And truly, horrible things happen to people in this book. When we finally learn who this stranger is and how he met Holland, it is incredible that we have been living with this guy for 175 pages and all of this is in his past. And while I never completely bought that, when Pearlie reaches an impasse, she would really go through with one of the choices, it was still heart-wrenching to see her there.

Maybe it's just because my expectations were lowered when I believed it to be a novel essentially about one theme. My mom lent me this book once called THE ALL OF IT, I think her book club was reading it, and there is one revelation in the entire thing. The title is probably too apt because when you hit that paragraph, you're like, "Oh, so that's the entire book." (MIDDLESEX has the same twist in it but buries it in a way that animates everything else before and after.)

It's funny that I happened to read two novels set in the 1950s so close together, but I didn't like this book as much as REVOLUTIONARY ROAD -- this one will have to wait a while before I go back and re-read it, so as not to erode its charms. But I especially recommend it for those of you in the crowd who want to write novels. THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE is so neat and economical, and yet in effect so devastating.

02 September 2008

They Read It On TV II

I was just catching up on last night's episode of "The Hills" and was pleased to see Stephanie Pratt offer her brother Spencer, with whom she has been feuding, a peace offering of a book. But really, would you give a book called THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA to someone with whom you have a history, shall we say, fraught with betrayal? (I think it was this book, but the cover looked different... I'll have to wait for the authoritative songs about buildings and food recap.)

If I were offering an olive branch I would probably bring something from the humor category, although I never really thought of it. (If I caused the rift through a faux pas, and I don't put myself past it, perhaps a copy of Emily Post with "you were right" scrawled strategically on one particular page.) And you?

Previously: They Read It On TV, from last season when Heidi and Spencer had broken up (they're back together, spoiler alert?)

01 September 2008

Unbookening Month 7: Big Box Edition

The Seventh Month of the Great Unbookening
5 books gotten on Bookmooch
13 books checked out of the library
11 books received for review
Bought 2 books
= 31 books in.

2 books given away on BookMooch (1 was already listed before August, 1 I listed because I thought it would be vaguely insulting to give someone a book about personal finance, unsolicited)
10 books returned to the library
21 books into the giveaway box
Gave 2 books to my mom
Returned 1 book to my dad
Lent 1 book to my roommate
= 36 books out.

Five more books out than in.

My goal for September, besides staying in negative numbers, is to get my stack of library books down to 3 titles. (I have 10 out right now with one on hold and one in transit.)

Also in an unbookening: The Writer's Coin made a list of all the unread books in the house. I fear if I did that it might actually break the Internet. (Via Bookish on a Budget)

Photo from my Flickr contact, notemily

Books I read this month
102. Cathy Alter, UP FOR RENEWAL
103. Amanda Boyden, PRETTY LITTLE DIRTY
104. Amanda Boyden, BABYLON ROLLING
106. Sarah-Kate Lynch, HOUSE OF DAUGHTERS
107. Daniel Levitin, THE WORLD IN SIX SONGS
108. Richard Yates, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
109. Jincy Willett, THE WRITING CLASS
110. Andrew Sean Greer, THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE [Read all about it here on Wednesday!]
114. Rachel Cohn and Daniel Levithan, NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST [Read all about it here on Sept. 4!]
115. Farnoosh Torabi, YOU'RE SO MONEY
117. Thornton Wilder, OUR TOWN
118. Jean Chatzky, MAKE MONEY, NOT EXCUSES
119. Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, NAOMI AND ELY'S NO KISS LIST
120. Christopher Sandford, POLANSKI: A BIOGRAPHY