31 December 2008

Filmbook: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This post contains spoilers for the 2008 film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but NOT the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name. I will carefully sidestep what makes Mr. Button different and encourage you to go read the story yourself.

I first encountered "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's collection TALES OF THE JAZZ AGE. That title is a misnomer -- while most of the stories collected are about the jazz babies and the bathtub gin, the collection also contains a number of what can only be called fairy tales. "Button" the story may refer to real-life places and years, but the world in which it operates is altogether separate from our own. It's a bewitching little tale and one that stuck with me the most after I finished the book, for its poignancy and the way it addressed themes without making them Themes.

Overall, "Button" is beautiful but cold. It actually reminded me of another movie I saw and liked in 2008, "Synecdoche, New York," in that they both deal with similar questions of mortality and aging and death. The difference between them is that "Button" strikes each note perfectly, but feels exact and mechanical in the way it unfolds; "Synecdoche" is a glorious mess with a whole lot of jumble, but which moved me deeply and whose symbolism I am still puzzling over. I wonder what might have happened if Charlie Kaufman, the madman/director of "Synecdoche," had gotten into "Button." Certainly, the ending of the latter echoes the ending of the former (in the way I reacted to it, anyway) but if I'm going to revisit one of them, I'm going for "Synecdoche."

That said, the film is a marvel to look at. I remember seeing "Zodiac" a year and a half ago, squinting at the screen because the projection was muddying up David Fincher's glorious shots of San Francisco by night. Here he dips into a yellow-and-brown palette to spin this fairy tale, and it is gorgeous -- reminds me of a silent film I watched in college called "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans," another long-playing love story, but with an incredible texture thanks to the digital video. This film is a lock for the art direction Oscar -- some of its images are, literally, breathtaking. And no one in this world is more gorgeous than Cate Blanchett, who plays an important figure in Button's life. Tilda Swinton is also in the movie in a smaller role, but she fades next to Blanchett's character Daisy, whose voice sounds off kilter in the first few screens but who does more acting with her eyes than Brad Pitt as Button can do with his entire arsenal of charm. Of course, Pitt is hampered by an often distracting special effect, but I'm shocked Blanchett isn't getting more praise for her role in this. Granted, Fincher builds her up in every shot to be the glory she comes to represent for Benjamin and for the audience, but wow, what a star.

That said, Blanchett's through-line is connected to what I saw as the film's major problem in adaptation: Changing the city where "Button" takes place and nudging the time frame forward (to encompass more of Fitzgerald's own time, for one) were both acceptable to me, as well as the rendering of Button in a slightly different manner. But for whatever reason, screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord chose to wrap this fantasia in a TV-level frame story that is just so lame. (And I must say, people are blaming Roth for this change because he wrote the "Forrest Gump" screenplay, but there's only one moment in the film I found Gumpian.) It's boringly shot, distracting from the central narrative and ultimately pointless. I understand the parallels it might set up, but no one who sees this movie needs its Themes to be spelled out in the way this frame story does. Not to mention, it adds nearly half an hour to the 168-minute picture. Leave the final scene if you have to in its clock-stopping brevity, and take the rest out.

Filmbook verdict: It's Oscar season and this is going to get nominated all over the place. So read the story, then see the film, then come back and debate me on it. If you like homework, get yourself to "Synecdoche, New York" and rent "Zodiac" (and for extra credit, "Sunrise") before going to the theatre. (Winter break's over! Get back to work!)

(For what it's worth, the four family members I dragged to see "Button" disliked the movie to varying degrees and all blamed me for boring them to death on Christmas.)

30 December 2008

2008: The Year in Reading


Books I read in 2008: 186.
That's 15.4 books per month on average, or .506 books per day.

Of those books, 89 were for reviews and 97 were for fun.
Of those, 47 were nonfiction and 50 were fiction. (Of the review books alone, 39 were nonfiction and 50 were fiction.)

I read 79 books from January to June and 107 from July to December.
Best month for reading: TIE, August and November, 20 books. Of August I don’t have the faintest guess, but with November it was probably all the travel.
Worst month for reading: February, 9 books.

59 of the books I read were library books -- I love the New York Public Library!
At the end of 2008 I had 3 books checked out of the library.
I mooched 59 books and gave away 98 books on BookMooch.
I read 13 of the 59 books I mooched this year (and started but didn’t finish 2 others).


Best Fiction I Read in 2008
Shawna Yang Ryan, LOCKE 1928

Best Nonfiction I Read in 2008
Rick Perlstein, NIXONLAND
David Simon, HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS; David Simon and Edward Burns, THE CORNER
Laura Claridge, EMILY POST

Nonfiction subgenre: Best memoirs
Alison Bechdel, FUN HOME
David Gilmour, THE FILM CLUB

Best Page Turners Of 2008
Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD
Sara Paretsky, BURN MARKS

Best discovery of 2008
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Of course! In 2009 I would like to read the rest of Richard Yates’ works.

Modern Library of Awesome
Jean Rhys, WIDE SARGASSO SEA (#94)
Sherwood Anderson, WINESBURG, OHIO (#24)
Ford Madox Ford, THE GOOD SOLDIER (#30)
Max Beerbohm, ZULEIKA DOBSON (#59)
Joseph Conrad, THE SECRET AGENT (#46)
49 read, 51 unread at the end of the year.

Best book with a devastating ending
Jennifer Weiner, CERTAIN GIRLS

Overrated books
And… I know it’s a cliché, but as long as I have to see people reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT, PRAY, LOVE on the subway, it’s overrated. (Filmbook entry scheduled for 2010?)

Underrated books
Jancee Dunn, DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME (featured on "Talk of the Town")
Jay McInerney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY (a Filmbook entry)

Rated exactly where it belongs, actually
Joseph O’Neill, NETHERLAND
Sloane Crosley, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE -- and yes, I realize putting it here is tantamount to calling it underrated because there was a lot of hype around this book. But I really, really enjoyed it. So what can I say? Read it for yourself.

29 December 2008

A Wormbook Year: 15 Notable Posts Of 2008

January: Even though I was contemplating getting rid of books, I still shared three favorite bookstores to visit. Unfortunately, I didn't get to any of these in 2008... maybe next year.

February: Save Ferris: When bad covers happen to good books.

March: Should memoirs be fact-checked? Oh, Margaret Seltzer, I hope you enjoyed your 15 minutes this year. James Frey's first known novel got a little more attention, but the gangland life that wasn't led so many people to disavow memoirs in general. (Not me, though.)

April: I thought I was being funny on the first, but my post about a frustrating experience with public library e-books was and is my top traffic generator to this blog. Even a NY Public Library representative came over to comment on it. It's good to know I'm not alone! But I haven't tried to check out another e-book recently -- just haven't had time.

May: Still disproportionately proud of my all-D.R. cast for THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, the movie. Fun fact: After I finished this book I lent it to my mom, whose response to it was to plan a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2009. If you've read the book, you will understand how funny that is. So I'm probably going there next year, and I hope it will be as little like Oscar Wao's as possible.

June: This was my first month on "Talk of the Town"! If you had asked me in January whether 2008 was the year I would make my Big Radio Debut I would have scoffed, but I'm glad it's worked out so far and I look forward to more air time in '09.

July: "Ainslie Copper" prompts me to muse on how book reviewers get their work done. If I were ever in a position where I could interview someone who, say, regularly contributes to the New York Times Book Review, I would ask them about preparation and their own methods for assessing their fitness on a topic. (Or perhaps one of the editors would be better, since they can speak to how they match writers to review books.) I wouldn't say I was less serious about book reviewing when I began, but I did much more of it in '08 than in years previous.

August: Speaking of Frey, I read his bad book this month but also a great book about which you are all tired of hearing.

September: Now that it's been three months since I read it, I think Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND is rated just right.

October: We weren't even calling it a recession back then, but I explored some frugal indulgences I liked in honor of the book of the same name.

November: In honor of a personal and a business trip, I read on the road -- two times. And yet neither time was I able to correctly predict how many books I would get through on my trip, a pattern that seems to be repeating itself over this vacation. I'm cooking up an equation, but I'll get to that later.

December: Well, there was the "Revolutionary Road" Hype Train, but I finally had an Unbookening of which to be proud.

28 December 2008

The fun of Fun Home

I realize I'm just about the last person to read Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir, FUN HOME, and as such I will not sing its general praises -- for so many people have done so more eloquently than I, and I agree with them. This book is fantastic, and will completely reestablish your faith in the genre of memoir. It takes a fairly weighty subject -- Bechdel's family history, including the infidelity and eventual suicide of her father -- and comments on it with an unsentimental grace. The fact that it's a graphic novel adds a degree-of-difficulty factor which cannot be understated.

But I come to praise a particular aspect of the book, which is the way it uses and juggles some pretty weighty source material alongside the story. There are memoirs I want to return to more than I will return to FUN HOME, but I can't think of any others which reference Proust and Joyce and make them relevant to the plot in a completely unpretentious way. Bechdel is self-conscious about comparing her father to the unnamed narrator of Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME and her own coming-out journey to a book she read the last semester in college, ULYSSES. Yet she pulls it off, and the result is like a special effect on the page.

Just from reading her short section which mentions Proust, I wanted to go and read Proust again, and not just the sections I had to read in college. She makes these comparisons without diminishing their sources at all or inflating her book's significance, which only heightens the scenes as they are set down. Nor are these obscure "English jock"* references; I fully believe that someone with no knowledge of Stephen Dedalus would be able to understand what she's getting at.

Please read this book; it's just as good as everyone has been saying and I feel stupid for holding out this long.

*Property of college friend M., who gave me this term which I have been happy to use and re-use over the years to denote a hard-core enthusiasm for literature and specifically the higher study of such.

27 December 2008

Diablo Cody's sugar high

In all fairness to CANDY GIRL, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's memoir about working as a stripper, I was pretty sure before I picked it up this book would alienate me within the first 20 pages. I liked "Juno," the product of Cody's first screenplay, but I was desperate for a backlash after the thousandth article on how "alternative" its writer was, and the stripping was part of that mythology. Sure enough, page 9, when Cody is contemplating entering an amateur night at a local joint:
"Stripping as a profession sounded super-sparkly..."
I think not. And since CANDY GIRL implores on practically every page for readers to understand where Cody is coming from when she becomes a part-time, and then full-time exotic dancer, I can't say I liked this book.

Cody started dancing when she moved to Minneapolis to be with the boyfriend she met on a Beach Boys fan site; bored by her secretarial job by day, she went out for amateur night and, though she didn't win, decided she wanted more. She loved the moves and even the shoes, tolerated her coworkers and kept a blog about it (that would get her the book deal, although it's hardly discussed here). Eventually, she quit her job to dance and later work at a peep show.

She may not present herself in a sympathetic way, but Cody has an eye for detail, so if you've ever wanted to learn anything about strippers or stripping, you'll probably see it here. (#4 worst song to strip to: "Ice Ice Baby," which is "widely used as 'punishment' by passive-aggressive DJs who are irritated with a specific stripper for undertipping.") But for me, there was only one moment when her introspection felt real, and it wasn't in the last chapter, which felt ordered by an editor. (In it, Cody explains that yes, she had a very happy and stable childhood and that has nothing to do with her decisions to strip, but that at some point she suddenly realized the objectifying force of what she was up to.) It's buried in a section about Schieks, her first alternative employer:
"I had come because I was subconsciously rejecting the grown-up position I was being nudged into by my boss. Being accountable for other people's profits terrified me more than he sex industry ever could, and I sensed the need to escape the rabbit warren of gainful employment before they got me for good."
I'm still not saying she was right, but unlike the actual decision she makes based on that belief, I could identify with that.

26 December 2008

Happy holidays to you and yours.

25 December 2008

What I Gave This Year

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate! I'm spending time under the tree with my family, but here's a partial list of books I personally gave this year.
  • Ammon Shea, READING THE OED -- My friend Marjorie gave it such a glowing review on Goodreads I knew it would be great for a particular wordy relative.
  • Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran, THE RIDICULOUS RACE

24 December 2008

Holiday Gift Guide, Part 5: For You (Yes, You)

Maybe you already have a reading nut in your family. If you do, I salute you. And I'm certainly not saying you should go out and buy a delicious book for yourself on Christmas Eve. (I am actually physically prevented from doing so because we are totally snowed in and my father is actively refusing to shovel until it stops snowing. Which it won't. Ever.) But... maybe if you get out after the holidays and need something to read, might I steer you to these?
Nick Hornby, SHAKESPEARE WROTE FOR MONEY. I mentioned this book a few months ago, and bought it for myself while I was placing a gift order at McSweeney's online. I think that's what I'll read tonight while I wait for Santa to get here (or between my turns on Guitar Hero).

Peter Matthiessen, SHADOW COUNTRY/ Annette Gordon-Reed, THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO. These two books together would make a great package for you local highbrow, since they just won National Book Awards. 

Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel, BETWEEN THE COVERS: THE BOOK BABES' GUIDE TO A WOMAN'S READING PLEASURES. Granted, I haven't given this anthology a test run as to the fitness of its choices, but I liked the way the books were arranged into categories -- for example in the "Love and Relationships" section you have fiction and nonfiction about marriage, starting over, dating, etc. I got the sense that it wasn't exclusively for women, either, despite the title. 

Or how about... A little notebook to record what you're reading in, for 2009. It's never too late to get into the habit. (I have one, although I'm rushing to get it up to speed before the end of the year. Procrastination...)

23 December 2008

Holiday Gift Guide, Part 4: For The Deep Thinker

Truth be told: If I had had these books during my holiday travel odyssey, I probably would have avoided them. There are times to read books that puzzle and challenge you, and then there are brain-melting airport delays. (I finally made it home, though, and not a moment too soon because it's already snowing again.) But I love giving books I've read specifically so I can talk about them with the people I love. So if we get snowed in, at least we'll have lots to talk about:
The long: Rick Perlstein, NIXONLAND. Sitting down with a mammoth history isn't for everyone, but if your giftee likes reading about the '60s, presidents, America or pop culture, she or he will find it in this book. Nixon is the central matter at hand, from his bitter collegiate disappointments (Franklin or Orthogonian?) to his presidency and the scandal that brought him down, but NIXONLAND covers far more ground than that. I reviewed this back in May and I'm already looking forward to reading it again. 

The short: Sarah Vowell, THE WORDY SHIPMATES. We talked about this for book club in December and our conversation meandered through topics like the Rapture, unemployment, contemporary Native American policy and elementary school. And while Vowell herself would discourage this line of thinking, it's probably the funniest book about the Puritans you'll ever read. (She expresses over and over her disappointment that in modern times we consider the Puritans boring -- but prior works on the topic haven't done much to lift that fog.)

The in-between: Malcolm Gladwell, OUTLIERS. I don't think this book (the New Yorker writer's third) completely works because it doesn't have that core argument to cling to that Blink or The Tipping Point had. Nevertheless, I have talked more about this book than any other I have read this year, and it only came out in November. People who haven't read it want to know what the fuss is about; people who have want to debate the so-whats, the practical implications behind Gladwell's theories (beyond the ones he himself provides). 

22 December 2008

Reading On The Road: Home For The Holidays 2008 Edition

Last year I finished 6 books in 9 days at home, but the first 3 were on the first day during my extended travel nightmare when I left New York at 6PM on a Friday and didn't reach the Milwaukee airport till 12AM on Sunday. This year, the extended saga in the airport was just the beginning: after 6 hours, my flight home was canceled Friday and I couldn't get on another one until Monday morning. Cue weeping, gnashing of teeth.

As I write this on Sunday night in preparation for making a quick getaway this morning, I hope my carry-on is woefully overstuffed with books, because I would rather be home than reading in the airport. Last time I was home I resolved not to bring any books with me next time -- yes, there are books in Wisconsin! -- but a few review copies always creep in, and that opens the floodgates.

So besides work, here's what I'm bringing home:
  • Leslie T. Chang, FACTORY GIRLS. My mom lent this to me over Thanksgiving and I didn't have the time to read it, so I'm hoping to get to it there and then leave it behind.
  • Michael Gross, 740 PARK. Also known as "the book I started in 2007." Yes, the 2007 that was last year. I'm going to finish this book or die trying.
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN. This pop culture gift pick is my fun read for the plane. Comes highly recommended, so we'll see.

21 December 2008

Worthy of praise

On Friday my friend Nikki, proprietress of A Small Song, honored me with the blog award you see at left. Well, first of all, I'd like to thank the Academy -- er, Nikki -- who has been my online friend* for years and whose perspective I always appreciate. Our paths may never have crossed in real life, but I'm grateful to be able to share even the smallest bit in her world, which in 2008 included the birth of her first child, the feisty Abigail.

And second of all, I'm passing the torch by naming a few of my favorite bloggers in the field of books and letters. Go check 'em out, I like 'em.

Books I Done Read -- Raych's reviews are always funny, even when she's cutting down a book I love and I ought to be wincing. Read this now: Her review of Jeffrey Eugenides' MIDDLESEX.

Nancy Pearl Wannabe -- She had me at Mumsy Lou! NPW is a public school librarian who writes about awkward conversations with coworkers, the challenges of running a quiz bowl team, and books of course. Read this now: An account of a faculty technology class that will make your head spin.

Writers Read -- The concept is so simple, why didn't anyone else think about it? Writers are interviewed about what they happen to be reading at the time. And the recommendations flow both ways, because you discover the writers' new books as well as their own picks. Read this now: Elizabeth Crane on Joshua Ferris.

*I submit to the jury the alternate term, blogmigo. I'm pretty sure I have been trying to shove this into the English language for years.

20 December 2008

Holiday Gift Guide, Part 3: For The Da Vinci Decoder

My dad has a particular philosophy about gift giving which I didn't understand when I was younger but I really love now: Dad never gets us something on our list that we've always wanted. Instead, he finds something just beyond our radar, something that will push our own boundaries of what we like and enjoy -- and more often than not, he's on the money. You may not agree with this philosophy for everyone, but I think it's apt for people who are fans of the above mentioned book, and by "are fans of" I of course mean "will not shut up about." I have done my due diligence with Dan Brown, but the book is old news, and my sources say he is nowhere near completing his next one. Thank goodness for a wealth of smart new thrillers and high-profile suspenseful novels to tide us all over:
John Darnton, BLACK AND WHITE AND DEAD ALL OVER. Back when I reviewed this murder mystery in August, it was still funny to joke about the death of print. But perhaps Darnton was far-sighted in setting his book in a newsroom racked by the particularly nasty death of a top editor, and substituting for the naive new police detective the up-and-coming reporter who ought to know better. There are some very funny real-life stand-ins here, like a Murdochian agent of change in the news biz, but they're layered over what is actually a pretty taut mystery.

David Wroblewski, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. I'm including this book, which came up in the comments earlier, even though I haven't read it yet and am not sure if it's really suspenseful. And the reason for that is, if I had to pick one book this year to hold as a contingency present, it would be this one. (Contingency present: the present you hold onto in case someone gives you a present you weren't expecting and you need to find something for them.) It's a debut novel that became a big hit through word-of-mouth reviews; it's a contemporary take on Shakespeare that has also been blessed by Oprah. It's all things to all people! And that's why it's on my own Christmas list.

Francie Lin, THE FOREIGNER. There's the bumbling sleuth, and there's the gumshoe so far out of his depth that unless he can reach within himself and draw out some new quality, he's a sitting duck for the bad guys. Emerson Chang, the protagonist (possibly hero) of THE FOREIGNER, is the latter, a 40-year-old loner who arrives in Taipei to handle the settling of his dead mother's estate and gets wrapped up in the shady dealings his brother, Little P, has mastered in the 20 years since he and Emerson have seen each other. Sometimes I wanted to shout at Emerson for being absolutely obtuse, but I still wanted to know what would happen to him while he was woefully out of his depth.

Stieg Larsson, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. It's sad that Larsson died before this book, a bestseller in his native Sweden, could ever see publication and critical success in the U.S. The good news is, he left a trilogy featuring his disgraced journalist turned sleuth and his partner, a prickly and troubled 24-year-old hacker. In this volume, Mikael the journalist is hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman from a prominent industrialist's family 30 years ago; he enlists Lisbeth the hacker when he discovers that the perpetrator of the act is a lot closer to him than he ever wished.

19 December 2008


I try not to self-link like crazy, but I revealed my favorite book of the year in a round-up at the AV Club. Check it out! As for the runner-up, I would say there are several books on that level to be named later around here, but I was limited to one.

Also, the reason you are reading this is that my flight was canceled and I'm stuck in New York till Monday. Yes, I'm bitter, although happy to be stranded here (versus Minneapolis or Detroit, or some other city in transit).

Holiday Gift Guide, Part 2: For The Pop Culture Junkie

I'm writing this post from the floor in Terminal B at LaGuardia, because the only outlet I could find was at a Samsung charging station with no seats remotely near it. On my way there, I tripped over a power cord belonging to a guy using the same bank of outlets. He scowled at me and shouted, "You BROKE my computer." This isn't likely, right? Because I'm thinking he was just a grade-A asshole.

Oh right. Merriment! Good will toward men! These are picks for your music or movie lover in the house -- some I've read, some I've been dying to read. (If you have read them, why not let me know where they're any good in the comments?) The overarching theme for these books is not, "I'm a huge fan of X," but "I'd love to know more about X." And if you're heading to a place where you can't get cable, good radio stations or high-profile December releases, a book might be your best chance to do that:
Tyler Gray, THE HIT CHARADE. I just reviewed this book for the A.V. Club so I must needs be brief, but this is a fantastic biography of Lou Pearlman, creator of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, from seemingly meteoric rise to epic fall. And to go along with yesterday's books on the economy, this has a great explanation of what a Ponzi scheme is, in case you've been hearing that term in the news lately.

Christopher Sandford, POLANSKI: A BIOGRAPHY/ Stefan Kanfer, SOMEBODY: THE RECKLESS LIFE AND REMARKABLE CAREER OF MARLON BRANDO. A bunch of really big biographies hit stores this year, like DARK VICTORY about Bette Davis and NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR about Joan Crawford. But I'm singling these two out -- the Sandford I've read, Kanfer I haven't -- as two men whose popular image is pretty divergent from their actual bodies of work. Both of these would go great with, say, a Netflix gift certificate to compare the discussion of works with the works themselves. Maybe I'll be spending some time with Brando in '09. 

Tara Ariano, HEY! IT'S THAT GUY! If your local pop culture geek doesn't own this guide to character actors and the celebration of small parts, she or he is simply missing out. A miniature desk reference with jokes, this book takes actors like J.K. Simmons and Margo Martindale (look them up!) and celebrates their memorable, if brief, turns in movies or on TV. You could just read all the profiles on Fametracker from whence they came, but then you wouldn't be able to take the book to Sundance next year to settle a bet between friends, now would you? 

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN. With the director of "300" on board, a huge ensemble cast including Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup and a splashy trailer that played before "The Dark Knight" last summer (you know, the one with the glowing blue dudes!), "Watchmen" is one of the most anticipated releases of 2009. Enjoy the superiority of saying, "The original was better," with a paperback or hardcover collection of the original comic, about an alternate-history Cold War. I just checked this out from the library and look forward to reading it by the light of the Christmas tree.

18 December 2008

Holiday Gift Guide, Part 1: For The Recessionista or Recessionister

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has looked at the state of the financial markets in the past year and thought, "What the heck happened?" These are a few of the books about personal finance, the economy (particularly the American economy) and consumption that I found the most thought-provoking and readable, and while not everyone on your list is looking for a big fat reality check, I think they should appreciate the opportunity to learn:
Niall Ferguson, THE ASCENT OF MONEY. I never took economics in college (although I know now I should have!) so this British overview of the creation of banks, the first stock market and the modern real-estate system really helped me decipher more of the current financial news.

Shira Boss, GREEN WITH ENVY. I read this book earlier this year as part of the run-up to my review of YOU'RE SO MONEY, but the construction of a more sophisticated model than "keeping up with the Joneses" has stuck with me, particularly in the second half of the year when I felt pulled into a circle of Schadenfreude as fellow New Yorkers lost their shirts.

Fred Pearce, CONFESSIONS OF AN ECO-SINNER. A journalist chases his stuff back to its country of origin in this collection of short essays about farms, factories and fair trade. This book was more convincing than anything else I have read in pressing me to consider where my food comes from and contemplating more carbon-neutral or labor-friendly options.

Judith Warner, NOT BUYING IT. I read this book last year on my consumerism kick and parts of it really annoyed me, but I dipped back into it a few months ago and was able to get past this chronicle of a New Yorker who makes a ridiculous promise, not to buy any luxuries for a year, and struggles to hold herself to that. The message she comes up with is not, "You shouldn't have nice things," but "Consider the little things in life that actually improve it." Certainly something I've been thinking about with Christmas around the corner.

Peter Gosselin, HIGH WIRE. The disappearing middle class is a concept thrown around a lot in 2008, as the amorphous group of Americans hardest hit by foreclosures, unemployment and incessant campaigning on their behalf. (No offense, John and Barack.) HIGH WIRE, subtitled "The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families," shows how a combination of their own errors and an increasing burden of risk can sink even relatively secure people with a stroke of bad luck.
As threatened, holiday gift guides will appear every day here until the 22nd, which takes you up to the second night of Hanukkah and three days before Christmas.

17 December 2008

No Talk of the Town tonight

due to technical difficulties... at least it wasn't my phone this time!

I will be recording an audio commentary for the show's website, so stay tuned for that.

Talk of the Town tonight!

HO HO... oh no. You aren't done shopping yet and Christmas is barely more than a week away! How can you possibly get everything done?!

Tonight on "Talk of the Town," I will give host Parker Sunshine -- and you -- my top book picks for the people on your list. The fun continues over here where I'll have a shopping list every day for the next six days. No more excuses! Shape up and shop, Dwayne!

"Talk of the Town" airs 7PM EDT (4PM PDT, 2PM Anna Time because Hawaii has no Daylight Savings Time)
WEBR for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals (and available through your TV)
Everyone else: Tune in here!

Photo: axell

16 December 2008

Revolutionary Road Hype Train: Blame Kate Winslet

I can stop any time I want to, but for now I point you to the SPOILERY New York Times article SPOILER POSSIBLE: "Kate! Leo! Gloom! Doom! Can It Work?" which credits star Winslet with nudging the project forward, including getting her former costar and her husband (director Sam Mendes) onboard:
Though he would have hated the term, Yates was a writer’s writer, or even a writer’s writer’s writer. He was extravagantly admired by his peers and by many critics; but popular success, which he cared about more than he let on, maddeningly eluded him. He was dogged by bad luck — “Revolutionary Road,” his first novel and also his best, was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award but lost to “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy — and bad timing. At a time when postmodernism and meta-fiction were starting to become fashionable, he clung to the realist tradition of his models Fitzgerald and Flaubert... [He] knew his way around Hollywood sufficiently to be skeptical about the movie prospects of “Revolutionary Road.” Right after the book came out, Sam Goldwyn Jr. expressed interest. But Yates wrote later: “Cooler heads in his organization decided that the moviegoing public ‘is not ready for a story of such unrelieved tragedy.’ ... Sic transit the hell Gloria.”
I have always liked Kate Winslet and I really liked her last major adaptation project, "Little Children." Of course, none of this is consoling me in the knowledge that I will be nowhere near New York or L.A. when the film opens there Dec. 25, so I probably won't be seeing this until 2009. But then, we can't let the Hype Train just run out of steam.

15 December 2008

Blogger Book Tour: Abigail Carter's The Alchemy of Loss

I can't say I was looking forward to picking up Abigail Carter's memoir THE ALCHEMY OF LOSS. I knew, after all, that it was about a woman who lost her husband on 9/11 and found herself having to pick up the pieces of their family as a young widow. But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the book to anyone who had experienced a similarly staggering personal loss, because of its occasionally painful honesty.

Carter's husband Arron happened to be at a business meeting at Windows on the World on the fateful day, and the phone call he made to her reporting (erroneously) that there had been a bomb in the building was the last time they ever spoke. Still reeling from a recent layoff, Abigail was faced with the unimaginable task of explaining to her two children, 2-year-old Carter and 6-year-old Olivia, what happened to their daddy -- and the greater chore of continuing with her life without him. The book follows Carter's life from 9/11 onward, from her connections with other 9/11 families in their home of Montclair, New Jersey, the ways her husband's death changed her relationships with her parents and the daily struggle of learning to be a single parent. It's impossible not to be moved by her descriptions of her son asking her to sing "Silent Night" for him at bedtime for "Daddy heaven," or the giggles she couldn't stifle during Arron's memorial service.

I can't speak to Carter's experiences as a parent, but I was really intrigued by Abigail's responses to the attacks as a non-New Yorker and someone who had lived for many years outside the U.S. According to her bio, she was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Canada and lived in London for several years with Arron. It's a useful reminder of the truly international reach of the September 11th terrorist attacks -- I remember from that month a local front-page obit of a woman living 2 towns over from me, who had grown up in the same Girl Scout system as I had and had just moved to New York City. While Abigail blamed herself momentarily for having the American passport which allowed them to move there, I felt curiously honored in a way that she decided to keep her life and her children in this country.

Because it deals with a September 11 loss, I think this book will prove to be a valuable historical document as well as a handbook for the grieving for its detailing of the immediate response to the tragedy. Initially overwhelmed by the help she received, Abigail felt guilty for the help she got when, had he died under different circumstances, many people in her social circle might not have reached out. At the same time, Carter comes not to blame the government's efforts to help her, though she is honest when well-intentioned efforts go wrong (for instance, when a trip to Ground Zero for victims' families is cut short because a group of senators want to see it). When I read her cringeworthy description of stumbling over the media-created six-month anniversary tributes to 9/11, complete with the footage we'll never forget, I found myself getting angry for her to have to be reminded every day of such a huge loss, but rooting for her to persevere through her grief. With THE ALCHEMY OF LOSS, she has done just that.

This post is a stop on a virtual book tour -- to check out the other stops, visit TLC Book Tour's dedicated page. You can also visit Abigail Carter's blog. Lisa of TLC sent me this book and asked me to participate, which I gladly did, because why not? THE ALCHEMY OF LOSS is available in paperback in January 2009.

14 December 2008

Line by line at State By State

Disturbingly empty when I arrived, the rounded dome of the Tishman Auditorium filled up Friday night for the State By State reading at the New School. The crowd appeared to be mostly students; a woman behind me was showing off her copy of Toni Morrison's A MERCY to a friend, who had assumed it was a class assignment; next to me, an older man read the AV Club (but the music section).

Emcee Sean Wilsey, a co-editor of the anthology, read about a road trip he took from Marfa, Texas to Washington D.C. after introducing the panel of readers, which included contributors Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Vowell and Ellory Washington, as well as Peter K. Hirsch (Peabody winner and writer of many episodes of "Arthur"), Parker Posey and Maria Tucci. The text for the night was Franzen's essay on New York, which came in the form of a play about a writer, a seemingly autobiographical version of Franzen himself, who is waiting to interview the state of New York. (You can read an edited version here.) Posey played the inexhaustible publicist, Hirsch a "question vetter" who appears to be confused that not all New York writers live in Brooklyn; Vowell, playing a historian far drier than anything she's ever written, bored him to tears, but Washington as a geologist was a great listened to Franzen's tale of his first marriage and the irrevocable role New York played in it. When he finally gets to New York, played by Tucci as an endlessly wise round-heeled woman, the writer is possessed by getting him to remember her; she only raises her eyebrows and asks, "Is this really how you want us to spend out 10 minutes?"

When I thought about it, it was the perfect selection for the evening, because it got all these writers and actors interacting instead of a more typical static reading. Posey guffawed and covered her eyes at points during Wilsey's talk; Tucci beamed at the crowd when he told everyone she had never been asked to play New York before. As a ticketholder, I was even more pleased when it was announced that the event was a benefit, for Franzen's endangered-species conglomerate Air Land Sea and the nonprofit writing center 826 NYC (of which Vowell is the board president). "I am uncomfortable speaking in an advocating way" is how Franzen, who looked grayer than his CORRECTIONS days and even bashful at the mike, prefaced his pitch.

Finger man. I heard about you. Are you the finger man? I’m the finger man too.

You lucky Houstonites, you. Head to the George R. Brown Convention Center today to be part of the second day of, drum roll please, the Edward James Olmos Houston Latino Book and Family Festival.

Who knew the teacher from "Stand and Deliver" wrote a book? Or that Houston isn't even his only book festival? Well done, sir.

Via: Gwen's Petty, Judgmental, Evil Thoughts. Image: filmreference.com

12 December 2008

Don't have plans tonight?

I'll be at this New School reading -- at $10, it's cheaper than a movie and similarly chock full of stars! Hope to see you there, I'll be the one who looks like... me.

New biography alert!

In an interview with Zulkey.com, historian Stacy Cordery, author of a biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, reveals her next subject (book due in 2012) will be Girl Scouting founder Juliette Gordon Low. This is awesome. As a GSUSA Lifetime Member* I can't wait to learn more about Low, warts and all. From the little I know of her she had a very interesting life. If I could preorder this book now, I would.**

So whose biography would you really like to see (or read, if there's a full-length one out there)?

*this level of membership really exists
**but I wouldn't know where to send it to, because who knows where I'll live or what I'll be up to in four years. How can people already be speculating about the 2012 election? For me, that might as well be science fiction.

11 December 2008

A postcard from Nikita?

Got a funny piece of mail today. It appeared to be a postcard from New York but when I flipped it over, it was dated... September 17, 1959? An excerpt:
When I arrived in New York City today, there was a riot of angry protestors against me -- a most unpleasant greeting! In Russia, this sort of disrespect to a guest would never be allowed -- nyet! I'll bet Nixon has a hand in it.
Turns out it was a promo for Public Affairs' next-summer release K BLOWS TOP, about Nikita Khrushchev's trip to the U.S. I'm guessing I got this because I reviewed a book about Nixon earlier this year, but my interest is definitely piqued. Postcards are so rare these days.

(While writing this post, I had Jens Lekman's "A Postcard To Nina" stuck in my head -- a song that's practically a short story of its own. Listen with static image here.)

10 December 2008

"I hate to sound ponderous, but I have a certain moral obligation."

Today's my book club day, and thus I give thanks that my experience so far has been nothing like those described in "Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?" Of course, the squabbles described in the New York Times article seem to be more about personality instead of the actual contents of the books. Before I joined my club there was some kind of epic throwdown about THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, but it mostly seemed to be the members who got discouraged by the book and never finished demanding an explanation from the ones who finished the book (and were telling them it gets better).

I think buried in there somewhere is a salient point, though, about how sometimes it's harder to hold book clubs together where the people in them are leading vastly different lives. (This isn't the only reason "The Jane Austen Book Club" is a movie of lies, but it's a start!) I'd like to think we all get along because we are respectful of each other and able to listen, but we have the advantage of being at the same stage in our lives.

Of course, now I have said all this I will probably get thrown out of book club for violating the first (and second?) rules of book club.

Thanks to Elizabeth for sending this to me on Monday.

09 December 2008

Talk of the Town Tuesday: Announcing the next show...

On next week's "Talk of the Town," Parker and I will cater to all your holiday gifting needs and I'll offer some suggestions for what books you should be putting under the tree this year. Because this hamster really has been very good.

Got a particular suggestion for a book we should all be giving this year? Send it to me (lnvsml AT gmaildotcom) and maybe you'll hear it when you tune in December 17. If I use it either here or on the blog, I will give you full credit for the great idea.

Photo: pyza*

08 December 2008

"Revolutionary Road": The hype train stops here

Not sure where this Jay557 is getting all these scenes from the forthcoming Sam Mendes adaptation of "Revolutionary Road," but (no surprise) they are making me even more excited to catch this movie when it comes out Dec. 26.

This is my favorite clip of the most recent ones: Frank and April, the dissatisfied suburban couple, decide to let their neighbors and best friends in on their plan to change their lives, a change that really moves the plot forward.

Screenings are already taking place in Manhattan; maybe my invite from Paramount and Dreamworks got lost in the mail. Thanks to Superfast Reader for pointing these out.

Earlier cars on the hype train: Official "Revolutionary Road" trailer, and my review of the Richard Yates novel that started it all.

07 December 2008

I believe this falls under the classification of, "white whine"

Number of books waiting for me at the library yesterday, according to NYPL's online reservation system LEO: 6.
Number of books waiting for me at the library, according to the library worker on duty: 0, because they're "not shelved yet" and I should "just come back Monday." Oh wait, except Monday, I have to work, unlike Saturday when I do not. Argh!

If you don't know what a white whine is, this should set you straight.

06 December 2008

The BooksAsGifts campaign

What, their ease of packaging didn't convince you to buy books for your loved ones this Christmas? Maybe this video will help:

I am not affiliated with these fine people, but this will not be the last post I write about giving books this year. Hint, hint.

05 December 2008

"The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched--a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I'm clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one--there's grit in it. It does breed character."
--Margaret, E.M. Forster's Howards End

04 December 2008

Because books are so easy to wrap

Catching up with my holiday-induced blog backlog, I was glad to be pointed toward this New York round-up of indie bookstores. One of the places in my neighborhood even made the cut!

Here's my editorializing on their picks: I have been to McNally Jackson many times without buying anything, because when I'm early to meet up with people in SoHo I like to linger there. (Maybe pet the Orla Kiely blank books while I'm at it.) It has one of the neatest floors I have ever seen in a bookstore -- a place for everything and everything in its place. Housing Works is more comfortable and less ruthlessly organized, which can be a comfort to people like me who seem to be constantly drawing on themselves in ink by accident.

I had no idea St. Mark's was open until midnight; now I definitely have to go, along with Freebird Books which I've never even heard of before. Hey, I may not live in Brooklyn but I'm happy to shop there.

Notable omissions: Cat lovers will want to consult the resident feline at Shakespeare & Co. in Greenwich Village; the Strand, of course, is unmissable (and I've already done some holiday shopping there -- they deliver!).

Thanks to Smell of wine and cheap perfume for linking to this.

03 December 2008

Unbookening X

2 books gotten on Bookmooch
6 books checked out of the library
9 books received for review
Bought 3 books
Received 3 books from my mom.
= 23 books in.

19 books given away on BookMooch (!!)
4 books returned to the library
Gave 6 books away
Left 3 books in transit
= 32 books out.

-9! You have no idea how excited that makes me, long after everyone else has ceased to care about my unpromising project. My last negative month was Month 7; before that, the best I did was zero.

This month I would like to shed 10 books, which in theory shouldn't be that hard... until you get to Christmas and lovely amazing people give you books. (Yes, I asked for a few.) So I should focus on shedding as many as I can before then -- all my library books will probably go back, for instance.

Books Read in November 2008
156. Laura Claridge, EMILY POST
157. Jeff Miller (ed.), THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG
158. Malcolm Gladwell, OUTLIERS
159. Lionel Shriver, THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD
160. Robert Lanham, FOOD COURT DRUIDS...
161. Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD
162. Anna Godbersen, RUMORS

163. Danny Wallace, YES MAN
[Please ignore that this review somehow got shelved in fiction, I am writing the angry e-mail for you.]
166. Joseph Conrad, THE SECRET AGENT
168. Tatiana Boncompagni, GILDING LILY
169. Heather King, REDEEMED
171. Jeanette Winterson, WRITTEN ON THE BODY
172. William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS
173. Barack Obama, THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
174. John Fante, ASK THE DUST
175. Niall Ferguson, THE ASCENT OF MONEY

See an un-italicized book up there you'd like to hear about? Let me know.

02 December 2008

A lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

The sixth Golden Ticket winner, Miranda Piker, as the new second gunman? Merriam-Webster offers this definition of the word "piker": "one who does things in a small way." But I much prefer Urban Dictionary's "when someone fails to meet the expectations," because what fails more than a kid who actually wants to go to school?

Seriously, if you like Roald Dahl, read Jennet Conant's book THE IRREGULARS about Dahl in Washington D.C. during World War II schmoozing with diplomats. It's a really neat untold history that, so far as I have seen, is not getting much attention in year-end wrap-ups, but is much cheerier than the new Bob Woodward or THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING.

What's your favorite Roald Dahl book? Much as I love CHARLIE... I have to go with MATILDA.

Hat tip: Fabulously Broke in the City, a personal finance blog.

Bully for Aaron Ross Powell

He published the first draft of his zombie novel for the Kindle in August and has been selling about a copy a day since then.

If I had one, I would definitely be buying this. (Guest review, Jess?)

01 December 2008

California, here we come again

Number of books read between Nov. 22 and 30 (trips I and II): 6.
Books read on airplanes: 4.
Books read while sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean and listening to a bagpiper play: 1. Leave your hate mail in the comments!

Number of bookstores visited: 2; Compass Books in San Francisco Airport and [warning! site plays music automatically!] Moon News Bookstore in Half Moon Bay, CA.
Books purchased on the trip: 1, at Compass Books.
Books given on the trip: 1, being FACTORY GIRLS which my mom just read and said was one of the best books she'd read in years.
Books given away: 1, my copy of THE AUDACITY OF HOPE to my sister.
Books left in transit on purpose: 2.

Library books waiting for me on hold at my local branch: 4.
Unpacked bags sitting on my floor: 2. (I'm not jet lagged in the classic sense, just need to make up for last night's packing-palooza.)