31 January 2009

Well, if I ever meet The Ethicist again...

There's an interesting discussion going on over at The Writer's Coin about the ethics of the free shelf. Blog author Nut has access to a laundry-room shelf where residents of the building leave books they don't want any more. Nut is saving for a new computer and saw some books that looked pretty valuable on there. Is it okay to use those books for profit?

I commented that while I wouldn't call that "stealing," I think Nut knew what he (or she) was doing was unethical. A lot of people went further than I, but I'm not even sure where to draw the line. After all, I used to work at a place that had a pretty rich giveaway table, and while I never sold anything from it, when I gave away those books on BookMooch technically I was reaping a profit -- even if I wasn't measuring it in dollars! On the other hand, I have seen someone engage in this behavior Nut describes -- I didn't speak out, but maybe I should have.

Of course, this makes me wonder how institutions that get thousands of books in a year deal with this issue, ethically speaking, if it would cost much more to return them to the publishers. I know one summer a friend of mine was interning at a newspaper and wrote excitedly to me about the treasures he got when the arts and culture section was selling all their old product, with the proceeds going to charity. At another job I held, a similar sale poured money into the coffers of the annual holiday party, something I found out too late when I accidentally forgot my money and got a Talking To from a secretary about how I ruined Christmas. (Oops.)

I have actually met The Ethicist; he came to lecture at the Hillel where I worked in college. During the Q&A, I asked him whether my mom was obligated to get me a dog after she killed my pet fish while I was away at school. He said she was! I am still waiting for my free dog.

29 January 2009

Rapture Ready!

When I read an early review of Daniel Radosh's first book all I could say to myself was, "Why didn't I think of that first?!" Having finished it I think Radosh was much better suited to cool-headed analysis of Christian pop culture than I would have been in the same situation, so perhaps it's all for the best.

In RAPTURE READY! Radosh, whose byline you might recognize from the New Yorker's Talk of the Town section, goes about examining Christian books, movies, video games, and other forms of popular entertainment I didn't even know existed. (Bible theme parks, I had heard about, but who follows Christian wrestling?) Along the way he interviews a ton of people involved in the industry, as well as a few consumers.

The reason I think Radosh is so successful in his reporting is that, as an outsider to this world (humanist Jew I believe is the correct way to describe him) he's able to keep an open mind about what he sees, without dropping the faculties to evaluate whatever he comes across. From the book I can remember only one time where he describes himself as losing his temper -- at a Christian music festival, when he gets a leaflet describing the product of infertility treatments (like Radosh's very young twins) as abominations. I, on the other hand, lost my temper several times in this book when faced with the intolerance Radosh reports on -- but that doesn't make it less of a worthwhile read.

28 January 2009

On Updike

Thank goodness someone said it before I had to:
"I realize this is going to sound callous, but: Another author had to go and die on me before I read any of his masterpieces."
Exactly my response, Emily. I know Updike mostly through his New Yorker stories and from a "Literary Pairs" class I took in high school where we read his GERTRUDE AND CLAUDIUS along with "Hamlet." (Other pairing: "Beowulf" and John Gardner's GRENDEL.) Reading the tributes at least has made me aware of what I've been missing.

27 January 2009

When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father's books--they never read them, but they were their father's, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier--their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.
-E.M. Forster, HOWARDS END
This quote resonated with me this week because, while I am staying put, one of my roommates is moving out after almost a year and a half. I'm sorry to see her go; as the past two weeks I have spent on Craigslist prove, a good roommate is hard to find. I may not have a lot of sentimental furniture in my place, but I am attached to it.

26 January 2009

Charting their own course

It sounds like faint praise to say that Leslie Chang's FACTORY GIRLS is my favorite book of 2009 so far, so instead I'll say: If I had read FACTORY GIRLS in 2008 when I originally borrowed it, it would have been one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

The advent of cheap manufacturing in China brings thousands of migrant workers to the cities from their ancestral villages. Population experts say most of them eventually return to their homes, but since they do their surveying in those villages they aren't getting the whole picture. For women especially, the opportunity to work in a factory promises independence and an opportunity at self-sufficiency they could never get at home -- but at the cost of long hours and isolation broken up only by temporary friends and mobile-phone messages from home.

Chang, a former overseas correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, spent years talking to and sometimes staying with women in the factory town of Dongguan, where they helped make everything from mobile phone parts to Coach purses. Earning money for themselves for the first time, these women -- many of them barely legal to work, some who never even finished their school diplomas -- can jump from job to job, climbing the employment ladder through a combination of piecemeal higher education, hard work, luck and lying.

I was blown away by Chang's peek into the lives of these women, but more than that, I was impressed by how brave they are. With college rarely an option -- under 15 percent of the Chinese population attends, according to Chang -- "going out," as they call leaving the village for work, can be one of the best and hardest decisions Chinese adults of my generation ever make. I found their lives inspiring rather than pitiable; their determination to learn English, own their own businesses and (through their contributions) make things better for their siblings and parents is remarkable, given how the obstacles in their lives look from our perspective. Chang's willingness to immerse herself in this world is also admirable, given how insular this world is. (You can read more about her writing process at the group blog The China Beat.)

I can't wait to see what Chang writes next, whether it's about China or not. Curiously enough, her husband Peter Hessler is also a journalist who writes about China -- including for the New Yorker -- and I'm looking forward to reading his books as well.

23 January 2009

Edgar Sawtelle Webcast Monday: A race against the clock?

I found out yesterday on the Goodreads blog that Oprah is having a free webcast on Monday at 9PM with David Wroblewski, author of THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. You can even register for the discussion right now, although I'm not sure if that gets you anything besides e-mails from the Oprah Machine.

Here's the thing, though... I haven't read the book yet. I don't even have a good excuse; it was just the normal business of life taking over. Should I speed-read it over the weekend in order to participate? Or watch it and expose myself to spoilers?

22 January 2009

Your Oscar Nominations Reading List

Randy Shilts, THE MAYOR OF CASTRO STREET. The screenplay for Best Picture nominee "Milk" by Dustin Lance Black was nominated in the original category, but I read somewhere that Black consulted this book by the author of AND THE BAND PLAYED ON while writing it.

Vikas Swarup, Q AND A. I didn't have time to read this before I caught up with Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," a movie I'm hoping to see again before the Academy Awards. (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay)

Bernhard Schlink, THE READER. I just found out that the author of this mid-century drama is a former law professor and judge, which (if you know anything about this movie) definitely sheds some light on its subject matter. (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress-Kate Winslet)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" As I said when I wrote about it a few weeks ago, it's just a short story -- what do you have to lose? And with 13 nominations overall (among them Best Picture, Best Actor-Brad Pitt and Best Director), you'll get the most bang for your buck.

Two plays-turned-Oscar-nominated movies: John Patrick Shanley, "Doubt" (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress-Meryl Streep, Best Supporting Actor-P.S. Hoffman and two in the Best Supporting Actress category, Amy Adams and Viola Davis) and Peter Morgan, "Frost/Nixon" (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Frank Langella). It's a great year for drama to be represented overall -- playwright Martin McDonagh got a screenwriting nod for his first movie "In Bruges," Hoffman co-founded his own theatre company and Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon is an Off-Broadway all-star.

21 January 2009

On BookMooch: I finally found the downside.

Welcome to anyone who has come over to my blog from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my home paper for the first 18 years of my life.

Regular readers will know I am something of an evangelist about BookMooch, the online book-swapping service where you mail books to people who request them and get the books you want in return. I have gotten some major scores from the site in the past, which has also helped me "unbook" a little. However, due to circumstances beyond the purview of this post, I temporarily can't afford to send books out. While I'm still trying to get rid of books, the $3-$10 per volume cost to mail them out needs to go somewhere else in my budget. (I'm guessing I'm not the only one out there with this problem.)

I could just stop sending books internationally -- those are the $10 ones -- but for me doing so would be going against the stated purpose of the site. When I've tried to mooch a book and gotten the "sorry, only sending to my country" message, it's really disappointing! Likewise, I could demand that people who mooch from me mooch at least 2 to cut down on shipping costs, but my inventory isn't big enough to make that an attractive offer.

So, for now, after I've sent my current requests, I'm going to be looking into some local donation options (hereafter in general terms) which will cost me only in transit and time. I'm going to be checking out three places: Small Thrift Store, within walking distance; Big National Charity, a few subway stops away; and Nonprofit Bookstore, a retail outlet with a specific mission. I'll let you know how it goes.

20 January 2009

"I'm all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future."
- Ann Patchett in the Wall Street Journal, "The Triumph of the Readers"

19 January 2009

Goodbye, Harry W. Schwartz

Sad news from my former corner of the world: I found out via my Aunt Trish today that Harry W. Schwartz, the Milwaukee-area bookstore microchain, is closing on March 31st.

A visit to Harry W. was a special treat when I was growing up, not only because of their well-stocked kids' room but because their selection was so wide and they always had something interesting. I had a college interview at one branch, in the used book section. I went to hear Zadie Smith read there, where she later apologized for calling my question "stupid." (She said she meant stupid as in "difficult," not stupid as in "you are...") Often authors with scheduled readings at night would be steered towards my high school in the afternoon to read for us; that's how I got Chaim Potok to sign my copy of DAVITA'S HARP.

I was just in Harry W. a few weeks ago, checking out the local authors shelf and maybe daydreaming that someday my book would be there with a card next to it. I didn't end up buying anything on that trip but I recently tested out their online ordering system, preordering a copy of PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION for myself. But adding that Amazon-like cart wasn't enough to keep its local customers around; as an open letter posted on the Schwartz Bookshops website says,
Although [son of the founders] David Schwartz successfully led us into the new century fighting for our ground, the winds of change became gales -- and with David's passing in 2004, we were a wounded business. The most recent economic crisis was, for us, the final blow.

David spoke frequently about the social profit of bookselling as the most important bottom line, the essential result being the positive impact the books have on a community. Nevertheless, to have such an impact a business must be viable, something that is no longer the case.
For about 10 years, the Harry W. near my hometown wasn't just the closest indie bookstore; it was the only bookstore, period, in at least a 15-mile radius. It may not seem so bad to lose one store when you can get books off a pallet at Costco or an endcap at Target, or just drive to the Borders beyond. But there was a certain serendipity of browsing there that you can't really get in those other places; you never knew what would unexpectedly turn up. Not only that, Schwartz was well known for its local charitable giving program Schwartz Gives Back. Who will fill that void left where donations to, for example, the Hunger Task Force used to flow?

Even the silver lining that two of its stores will survive under different names (supposedly, Boswell Book Company and Next Chapter Bookshop) is small consolation. What a shame for Milwaukee.

18 January 2009

The Hypocrite and the Naif?

I didn't go into Janet Malcolm's THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER as a completely unbiased reader -- then again, it's hard not to be a little bit tilted against the convicted killer. But the book isn't really about whether Jeffrey MacDonald killed his wife and children or not, but rather about a subsequent case, in which he was alleging injury done to him.

MacDonald was a military physician who called 911 on February 17, 1970 reporting that four hippie types broke into his house the night before, killed his wife and daughters and injured him. Questioning the physical evidence presented, an army hearing on the incident (for which MacDonald was charged with murder) suggested the matter be taken up by a criminal court, which it was four years later.

Enter McGinniss: Someone on MacDonald's defense team had the idea that they should get a writer to sit in on the trial and write a book about him, with a cut of the profits going to his legal bills. McGinniss had one bestseller to his name and a few flops, so he agreed, living with the defense team in a converted dorm and, after MacDonald's conviction, writing to him for years afterwards. Then his book, FATAL VISION, comes out, in which McGinniss theorizes that MacDonald not only committed murder, but did so in this psychosexual haze that had built up over years of resenting his wife for forcing him to grow up and be responsible once she got knocked up.

MacDonald sues McGinniss for misrepresenting his intentions, which ends in a hung jury and a huge cash settlement granted to the plaintiff for, essentially, being misled about whether the journalist thought he was guilty or not. Malcolm interviewed both of them, as well as lawyers on both sides and some other ancillary figures, and concludes that journalists inevitably betray their subjects' trust when they move from reporting to writing their own accounts. McGinniss went further than was necessary, she decides, but his defense team didn't really do a good job defending his right to write his own book.

The name Joe McGinniss didn't ring any bells for me, but when I looked him up I realized I had read one of his most recent books, THE MIRACLE OF CASTEL DI SANGRO, about following a beleagured Italian football team. I'm of two minds about how he handled his work with MacDonald. On the one hand -- what did MacDonald expect? He should have known McGinniss, having seen and heard all the evidence in court, would decide he was guilty. And turning over private letters to a court lends the case an air of personal injury. On the other hand, McGinniss and MacDonald had a very weird and not entirely professional relationship. For the sake of his case, maybe it would have been better for them not to correspond at all than for MacDonald to be able to forget that everything he said was admissible as evidence either for or against him in the book.

THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER is a short but very thought-provoking exploration of reporting. As a reporter herself, Malcolm was accused of writing it as an admission of guilt for a lawsuit brought against her by a former subject, but I think her own history allowed her struggle with the issues and be more reluctant about assigning blame. It's a little esoteric, but if you like books about journalism or true crime, you might find it very illuminating.

16 January 2009

Club sandwiches, not seals

When I'm not too engrossed in what I'm reading I like to check out what people around me are reading. Just in the last two days I've seen AMERICAN WIFE and THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS represented, plus a Philippa Gregory book I've never heard of called WIDEACRE (how does this woman do it?!) and the book club fave from a couple years back, LIFE OF PI.

Today I blinked a few times while scanning a title from halfway down the subway car. I could tell the book was signed and the cover photo had a man on a snowbank on it. But did it really say... KEEP CLUBBING? As in discotheques? Or... baby seals?!

No, of course not, it was KEEP CLIMBING, by a cancer survivor who climbed Everest. See, if everyone gets a Kindle I won't be able to snoop on them. How dreary will that be.

My latest subway reads, for full disclosure: LOOKING FOR ALASKA and a book that has been blowing up my Goodreads friend updates, JESSICA Z. Thank goodness I finished AMERICAN PSYCHO; I can't tell you how many kids would be looking at it and start to sound out the title, and then I would have to cover it up for fear their tender minds would be warped.

15 January 2009

American Psycho, the un-Filmbook

About a month ago Rich of fourfour wrote he had read a book that contained so foul, he actually had to put the book down -- a new experience for him, and unlikely given his love for gory horror movies. I am not a fan of gory horror movies, but I thought of myself having a pretty high tolerance for things written that I could not watch onscreen. That was before I read AMERICAN PSYCHO, the first book where I actually had to skip over paragraphs because I couldn't stomach what was being described.

I knew some general things about the plot -- I mean, it's not called AMERICAN SWEET INOFFENSIVE GUY -- but the depths of the depravity to which Patrick Bateman, a young Turk in the financial world with a secret life, sinks are so specifically detailed I couldn't look away. It could be argued that I didn't actually read the whole book since I skipped maybe 5 to 10 pages' worth of description, but after the first time I wanted to put the book down, but I didn't.

The reason I didn't was because I thought Easton Ellis's subject and the way he tackles it was genuinely interesting, if occasionally foul. Bateman's narration that offended me so much in some places indicts him in others as a participant in this uber-materialistic society where everything has a price tag, and the things that cannot be measured by money are effectively worthless. Patrick is obsessed with the language of this materialistic culture, so the words he chooses are crucial for his own vision of a completely self-actualized man, one who believes he has eliminated the impulse to guilt. It's a bleak vision but one clearly identifiable with our universe. But I can't give a wholly positive review to a book that made me so sick to read.

Anyway, all this is just to say that even though I have heard of how good it is, I took "American Psycho" off my Netflix queue. If you have seen it, feel free to tell me if it's as gross as the book, or how director Mary Harron found a way to adapt what I can only imagine would, in its original form, get an NC-17 for violence. I don't know that I can subject myself to it.

14 January 2009

Filmbook: "Ask the Dust" (2006)

John Fante is a largely forgotten noir writer who focused on the struggles of working-class men in Los Angeles. ASK THE DUST follows the adventures of Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini, who was eventually the subject of four of Fante's books.

Bandini lives in a dingy SRO on the proceeds of his one sold story, "The Little Dog Laughed," but he has writer's block in the worst way. Instead of working on his great novel, he spends most of his time berating himself for not having already written it and writing long incoherent letters to the editor who bought "The Little Dog Laughed." (The editor turns around and publishes one as fiction, which seems to mock the gritty details of his life.)

When not slowly driving himself mad about squandering his talent, Bandini whiles away the hours staring at a beautiful waitress named Camila at the local greasy spoon. In typical second-grade fashion, he harasses her constantly about her shoes and her language until he decides to pursue her like a madman. The resulting love/hate relationship fuels his belief that he can be a great writer, although it keeps him from his desk.

I have been so waiting for a Filmbook entry like this. If you are going to see the film version of "Ask The Dust," starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, here's what to do: Turn it off after Bandini goes to Long Beach. Everything after that is a maudlin mess which completely undermines the rest of the movie. Really, you'll thank me!

I actually didn't expect much of this movie even though it was written and directed by Robert Towne of "Chinatown" fame, but until Long Beach it preserves for the most part the darkness of the original book. True, everything in the SRO looks a little too clean, and Farrell's hair is flagrantly anachronistic, but he and Hayek animate the quasi-abusive, spiteful couple in just the right way, even though the sex scenes are completely laughable. I cringed at first to see Hayek in such a stereotypical role, but she gives as good as she gets with him -- even illuminating how ineffectual Arturo and his dreams are.

Unfortunately, the end takes a turn quite common to Hollywood movies, rejecting the difficult ending in favor of something easier to swallow. In other words, it completely wimps out and it made me sorry for the rest of the film.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book; see the movie only if Farrell doesn't bug the bejesus out of you (as he does for some, I know!) and if you're prepared to turn the movie off when I say.

13 January 2009

We did it!! Fiction reading on the rise for the first time since the '80s.

Did you hear the great news? People are reading again! The publishing industry is saved! And the economy! We're all going to be okay now!

...All right, now that I've used my monthly quota of exclamation points, let's look at the data. The National Endowment for the Arts, which does a reading survey every year, found that 50.2 percent of American adults had read a novel, short story, poem or play in the past 12 months, up 3.5% since 2002. That's not a huge change, really.

The real news is that reading went up among my pet demographic (at least for a few months!), the 18-to-24-year-olds. Stephenie Meyer fans will take credit for this in 5... 4... 3... 2... Well, I certainly can't take credit for it, so they might as well.

The Times snottily points out that the study doesn't differentiate between whether you're reading WAR AND PEACE again or "a single piece of fan fiction on the Internet." But that's their job, I guess, to point out that they would never do anything so déclassé as read fanfic. I don't read much of it, but I have read some, so why must we be so closed-minded?

12 January 2009

Now the cupboard is bare

I drew out my reading of SHAKESPEARE WROTE FOR MONEY as long as I could because I knew there was no more where it was coming from. I know Nick Hornby has a lot of irons in the fire, but my rage at discovering this third collection of "heartfelt literary snack food" (TM W.G.) in the form of Believer columns was going to be his last was akin to the feeling I got when I finished watching the "Office" Christmas special, or when my favorite podcast decided to go off the air forever. When someone decides to end something great, you're supposed to understand they have their reasons -- but that doesn't make it any less painful.

In SHAKESPEARE..., Hornby sputters when he has been made part of a punchline in a book about the iPod, so I won't speculate on why he decided not to keep his column any more. I will point out that according to his blog a movie he wrote, "An Education," will debut at Sundance later this month. Wish I were going!

But even in the months where Hornby didn't read any books, he always had something interesting to say about it. (Those were usually the months where soccer -- er, football -- took pride of place.) THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE was an inspiration to me in that it caused me to want to examine my own reading life more, when I had been content to move within it without looking for patterns. His habit of virtually erasing books he read and didn't like by calling them "a much lauded debut by a well-known author" or something similar was annoying, but maybe the Believer made him do that.

Now it's up to us to bear the torch, something that This Girl Called Automatic Win has already been doing in the same format, and which I will keep on in my own way.

11 January 2009

Gawker, we hardly knew ye.

By the time THE GAWKER GUIDE TO CONQUERING ALL MEDIA came out, it was already too late. The snarky New York media website side-stepped into dead-tree media in 2007, mocking itself for doing what many other bloggers, from the Washingtonienne to Tucker Max, had already done. When the book pulled down pitiful sales figures, people mocked by the site celebrated, but it didn't keep anyone from reading the site, which I studied like the Talmud long before I moved to New York.

Gawker itself has changed a lot in those years, I would say mostly for the worst, but that's not the matter at hand. I was pretty disappointed by the GAWKER GUIDE, which I understand was written not by its daily bloggers but mostly by freelancers. If that's true, I think it was a tactical error not to get the daily writers involved, even if it meant pulling them off blogging duty. It got off a few good jokes (anything at the expense of Radar magazine is still funny -- sorry, Radar, you still owe me for a subscription after all!) but the self-help parody has been done much better elsewhere.

Of course, I didn't exactly help sales figures by waiting for the book to hit BookMooch instead of buying it. But I take no joy in being disappointed by it. I only wonder if this book had been written and published in 2005, before Gawker's slow roll into being a general-interest news and pop culture site, if it would have captured that tone a little better.

09 January 2009

Free Book! Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan

Through next Thursday night, Oprah.com has a PDF of a new book by personal finance drill sergeant Suze Orman. I copped to owning one of Orman's books here before, so I'll definitely be reading up. Remember how I said I didn't have cable? One of the few things I can't get through streaming video/iTunes is Orman's show. Suze, when are you going to make that happen so I can watch Can I Afford It? whenever I want?

Interestingly, this isn't the first time Orman has given one of her books away; she did a similar one-day giveaway with Oprah (whose show she appears on regularly) in February with her last book, WOMEN & MONEY. (Apparently the idea of an e-book caused a lot of confusion.) I still haven't read WOMEN & MONEY, so maybe I'll be reading both of those this weekend.

08 January 2009

On book buying

On Tuesday I confessed to replacing a book I already owned once. Today, I wonder if I wasn't too quick to buy another copy. I know I could've gotten it from the New York Public Library instead of buying my own. (I did try BookMooch first, but no dice on a copy in English; Portuguese, though, still available!) I had gotten into the habit of buying my book club books if I couldn't get them from the library in time, and unfortunately, it stuck.

I don't think I have a huge problem with book buying -- I can see from 11 Unbookening months that I bought 24 books, which doesn't seem like a lot to me -- but as was pointed out in the comments on Tuesday, it is some kind of folly to be buying more books when I have so many to read here. I do need a copy of LOLITA for book club, but I didn't necessarily need to own one.

And I just cashed in an Amazon gift certificate to preorder two books I'm eagerly anticipating that are coming out in May. I could have held off, even though with shipping I only paid $3.40 for them. And they make it all too easy for you to find more and more books you want, as Her Every Cent Counts discovered when she was checking on some prices for books she just bought at a brick-and-mortar store. Yup, it's the old "I saved money by spending money" trap. (She also mentions buying a book and then returning it after you've read it. I have done this, once. The guilt remains.)

On the other hand, if you see buying books as a slice of your entertainment budget, they can look like a downright bargain. Ann Zerkle at Get Rich Slowly analyzes the cost per hour of various forms of entertainment and discovers that compared to a live concert or even a movie, books are pretty reasonable. I also liked her story of going on "dates" with her husband to Books-a-Million for hours -- I have done the same, because sometimes the thrill of the hunt is half the fun. She doesn't totally convince me that buying is better than borrowing, but I acknowledge the experience of picking out a book is a treat in itself.

Also, considering the other forms of entertainment Zerkle prices out in her post, book buying really is one of my top expenses year-round:
  • I don't have cable, although I do have Netflix.
  • I go to concerts, but not as many as I used to.
  • When I go out, I rarely spend $50 in one go.
  • I did go to my first ever Mets game last year but it was worth every penny, both for my first time at Shea (albeit in the cheap seats) and to hang out with my friends; I'm hoping to make it a tradition.
  • This time of year I go to a lot of movies because of the Oscar run-up, but from February till May I'll maybe go once a month, if that.

07 January 2009

Filmbook: "Revolutionary Road" (2008)

Hey look! We're getting near the end of the Hype Train!* Ahem.

Why don't we cut to the chase? (Without any spoilers, that is.) "Revolutionary Road," the Sam Mendes-directed film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is not a perfect movie. Nor is it my favorite movie of the year. But I really liked it, and I think it's about the best possible adaptation Yates could have gotten.

I really liked how much of the original text was incorporated into the dialogue and design of the film, even as I acknowledge that Roger Deakins' assured and confident cinematography couldn't quite make up for the absence of Yates' descriptions. While screenwriter Justin Haythe cut my favorite scene from the book (it involves Maureen, and that's all I will say!) out of the film, it preserves almost everything else except shifting the opening scene a bit. DiCaprio, while not my first choice for the role, surprised me with his take on Frank, but I'll never be able to forget Kate Winslet as April Wheeler.

(In fact, it surprises me that the buzz on her performance in another movie I saw last weekend, "The Reader," is much more positive. I can't do "The Reader" as a Filmbook entry properly, because I read the novel ages ago and have since forgotten about it, but I will say that the movie is like a book that starts slowly, gets really good in the middle, and then trails off at the end such that you wonder why you persevered. And while I like Winslet in everything, this is one of those showy Look She Got Ugly performances.)

Maybe it's just because I liked the book so much, but I was willing to overlook some of the subtlety that was lost in adaptation. Some of the issues treated here have been better handled by episodes of "Mad Men," but the AMC show has 13 episodes to develop, and "Revolutionary Road" didn't. Nor was I very much reminded of "American Beauty," Mendes' debut to which this film has been endlessly compared because they're both set in the American suburbs. In fact, quite the opposite -- like the book, this film addresses some very modern issues of self-actualization and the quest for happiness, which I think will help it age better than "Beauty." Frank and April's problems aren't created by (and solved through escape from) the '50s; it's much too deep for that.

To be fair, a few things I didn't like: Mendes and Deakins uses a particular shot of DiCaprio a few times that does him no favors in the close-up. (There's also a very obvious moment in Grand Central Station that felt a little lazy.) In the supporting-performance roundup, the women (Zoe Kazan as Maureen was my favorite) easily trump the men: David Harbour as the neighbor next door projects an air of blankness, while Michael Shannon, an actor I've seen and liked on stage, is ill served by the clichéd scenes that surround him. (Exception to this rule: Dylan Baker as Frank Wheeler's do-nothing coworker -- delicious.) And the final scene, while it is from the book, just feels a little too pat.

Overall, I think Yates would be happy -- particularly with the scene at the bar, which is really the climax of the film -- and that makes me happy. I'd even wager a movie this honest and cutting could not have been made in his own time.

Filmbook Verdict: Read the book, then see the movie.

*The caboose, clearly, is the Academy Awards... or the nomination announcements if for some reason this movie doesn't get nominated for anything. I highly doubt that.

06 January 2009

A book lover's nightmare

Today I will confess a milestone I reached a few days ago I had hoped to postpone for years and years. No, I didn't get reading glasses. But you be the judge and see if this is worse.

On Sunday, I found myself buying a book I knew I already owned and couldn't find.

The book was LOLITA, which my book club is doing at the end of this month. I read it originally in 2002, I think, so I needed the refresher -- but my Vintage paperback copy (see cover, left) was nowhere to be found at my parents' house.

A short biography of the missing book: I'm pretty sure I got it from a girl who was planning to leave it behind in St. Petersburg, Russia, and read it either there or soon after I got home. After that, it is all speculation. Then I must've lent it to my sister -- or maybe my mom? Or both? Maybe Mom lent it to someone after her book club did READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN? Or it could be that I sold it or gave it away in one of my many moves since then. Sold it on a side street in Madrid? Dropped it in a box for African schools at my college bookstore?

Our meeting's still a few weeks away, but I need to get cracking on Nabokov's incredibly dense prose now. So with a heavy heart I entered Local Large Chain Bookstore and bought another copy, whose cover is not as memorable, and which I left on my nightstand for fear it too will disappear.

I figured having to replace a book because I couldn't find it might happen to me someday. I just didn't realize it would be so soon. See also: I still have too many books.

05 January 2009

No limos? Oh, no!

Of course longtime industry insiders have seen it all before. Michael Korda, former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, who often held court from his favorite table in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons, recalled a period in the 1970s when his bosses banned editors from dining at certain restaurants. “And then after a while business got better,” Mr. Korda said. “And everybody went back to doing what they were doing before."
Everybody except the laid-off assistants, of course! Not to turn this blog into an endless response piece to the New York Times, but I sure hope none of my friends who were recently laid off from a book publisher read yesterday's piece on the "new austerity in publishing."

I guess I can't expect the newspaper that reports on the recession by profiling those who can't get divorced because their mansions have dropped in price or those who have to GASP! cut back on plastic surgery to have much sensitivity to the "little people." And from all accounts, some houses have been unduly extravagant, or so I've been told. But maybe if publishers had made these expense-account cuts earlier, people would not have to be laid off. I mean, what's worse, having to take an author to a reading via cab... or drawing unemployment?

Granted, one of the cuts mentioned as "being examined," the practice of distributing advance review copies, would directly affect me as a reviewer. But where is the sympathy?

04 January 2009

Anytime, anywhere

I wish I couldn't identify with Michelle Slatalla's Times column "I Wish I Could Read Like A Girl," in which the author laments her inability to get into books like her daughters do.* But of course I could. My reading has definitely changed since I had unlimited time to lay around and drown the world out (and not just because now I have e-mail), although I would chalk it up to a time-management issue rather than the imposition of Adult Cares in my life.

Maybe that's why I get so much reading done on airplanes. On my flight back to New York yesterday I powered through over 200 pages of a book I'd been struggling to get into on the ground. (The middle-aged man across the aisle from me reading TWILIGHT probably did as many, but: HA.) Last year (oho!) I went on a test flight for an airline's new WiFi service in the air, and while I can report the service was excellent, I'm somewhat hesitant to abandon my old ways. I have the rest of my day to be hunched over my laptop -- being forced into unproductivity can be quite pleasant.

*Part of this is my hesitation to ID with anything called Wife/Mother/Worker/Spy. Clearly I am only two of these things.

03 January 2009

Unbookening 11: One Month Left

Mooched 1 book
Got 14 from the library
Got 7 to review
Bought 2 books (for myself, I didn't count books for someone else)
Got 8 for Christmas
Got 3 books otherwise
35 books in

Gave away 9 books on BookMooch
Returned 16 books to the library
Left 3 at home
Gave away 2
30 books out

Well, it could've been worse. (Sorry, I am writing this back in New York after almost 2 weeks and I feel completely unmoored from life. I'm all, "Who bought all these delightful volumes? Ah, it was me last year.")

Between February and December 2008 I took in 62 books. Add January to that (before the Unbookening properly began) and the number goes up to 76. Not much un going on there. But even if I can't get down to 0 in another month, I still think it's been a worthwhile project, which I will continue into 2009, if only with a few quick figures at the end of each month. Let's face it, my space and time are not limitless, and given that I have books coming in every month, I either need to make room or give them a better home.

02 January 2009

Reading Resolutions for 2009

1. Read Richard Yates' other novels, since I loved REVOLUTIONARY ROAD so much in 2008.

2. Continue the Unbookening: going through the books I already own and haven't read, reading them, and trying to get rid of some before I buy more. 

3. Read one Modern Library list book a month.

01 January 2009

All The Books I Read In 2008 (I Think)

1. Peter Chapman, BANANAS! How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World
2. Elizabeth Hay, LATE NIGHTS ON AIR

3. Dan Koeppel, BANANA
5. Kristen Laine, AMERICAN BAND
6. Elizabeth Gilbert, EAT, PRAY, LOVE
7. [redacted]
Reread: Wendy McClure, I'M NOT THE NEW ME
8. Evan Fallenberg, LIGHT FELL
9. Alex Witchel, THE SPARE WIFE
10. Dean Motter and Michael Lark, TERMINAL CITY
11. Dan Kennedy, ROCK ON

14. Pat Barker, LIFE CLASS
15. David Hajdu, THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE

18. Jean Rhys, WIDE SARGASSO SEA (lnvsml)
19. Kenneth Anger, HOLLYWOOD BABYLON

22. Kathleen McCleary, HOUSE & HOME

25. Antonio Lobo Antunes, KNOWLEDGE OF HELL
27. Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, SKINNY BITCH (Dailylit)
28. Stephanie Denton, THE ORGANIZED LIFE

35. Sloane Crosley, I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE

37. David Gilmour, THE FILM CLUB
39. Kelly McMasters, WELCOME TO SHIRLEY
41. Anna Godbersen, THE LUXE
42. Cecil Castellucci, THE P.L.A.I.N. JANES
43. Kim Green, LIVE A LITTLE
45. J.M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR
46. Jen Lancaster, SUCH A PRETTY FAT
48. Jennifer Weiner, CERTAIN GIRLS
49. Angela Bowie, BACKSTAGE PASSES
50. Sara Paretsky, BURN MARKS

51. Peter Benjaminson, THE LOST SUPREME
52. Candace Bushnell, SEX AND THE CITY
53. Benjamin Nugent, AMERICAN NERD
54. David J. Schwartz, SUPERPOWERS

Reread: Karyn Bosnak, SAVE KARYN
55. Sherwood Anderson, WINESBURG, OHIO (lnvsml)
56. Suze Rotolo, A FREEWHEELIN' TIME
57. Junot Diaz, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (book club)
58. Candace Bushnell, 4 BLONDES
59. Mary Ruefle, THE MOST OF IT
60. Lewis DeSimone, CHEMISTRY
61. Candace Bushnell, TRADING UP
62. Candace Bushnell, LIPSTICK JUNGLE
63. Suzanne Kopoulos, LITTLE MISS SMARTY-PANTS
64. Rick Perlstein, NIXONLAND

65. Ford Madox Ford, THE GOOD SOLDIER (lnvsml)
66. James Salter, A SPORT AND A PASTIME
68. Julie Salamon, HOSPITAL

71. David Simon and Edward Burns, THE CORNER

73. Joyce Carol Oates, MY SISTER, MY LOVE
74. Michael Chabon, MAPS AND LEGENDS
75. Michelle Goodman, THE ANTI 9-TO-5 GUIDE
76. Stephanie Klein, MOOSE
77. Elin Hilderbrand, A SUMMER AFFAIR
78. Francie Lin, THE FOREIGNER
79. Rowan Somerville, THE END OF SLEEP

80. Rachel Kushner, TELEX FROM CUBA
81. Jennifer Traig, WELL ENOUGH ALONE
82. Shawn Stewart Ruff, FINLATER

83. Bernard Malamud, THE NATURAL
84. Danielle Steel, COMING OUT
85. Danielle Steel, MIRACLE

87. Danielle Steel, A GOOD WOMAN
88. Shira Boss, GREEN WITH ENVY
89. Elizabeth Warren, THE TWO-INCOME TRAP
90. Jess Winfield, THE BOOK OF WILL
91. Joanne Passet, SEX VARIANT WOMAN

92. Jacquelin Cangro (ed.), THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES

95. Glinda Bridgforth and Gail Perry-Mason, GIRL, MAKE YOUR MONEY GROW!
96. Roger Kahn, THE BOYS OF SUMMER
98. Max Beerbohm, ZULEIKA DOBSON (lnvsml)
99. Buzz Bissinger, 3 NIGHTS IN AUGUST
100. Michael Lewis, MONEYBALL

102. Cathy Alter, UP FOR RENEWAL
103. Amanda Boyden, PRETTY LITTLE DIRTY
104. Amanda Boyden, BABYLON ROLLING
105. Janet Frame, SCENTED GARDENS FOR THE BLIND (book club)
106. Sarah-Kate Lynch, HOUSE OF DAUGHTERS
107. Daniel Levitin, THE WORLD IN 6 SONGS

108. Richard Yates, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
109. Jincy Willett, THE WRITING CLASS
110. Andrew Sean Greer, THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE

114. Rachel Cohn and Daniel Levithan, NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST
115. Farnoosh Torabi, YOU'RE SO MONEY

117. Thornton Wilder, OUR TOWN
118. Jean Chatzky, MAKE MONEY, NOT EXCUSES
120. Christopher Sandford, POLANSKI: A BIOGRAPHY

121. Brad Meltzer, THE BOOK OF LIES
122. Philippa Gregory, FALLEN SKIES
123. Jennet Conant, THE IRREGULARS
124. Alex Hutchinson, PURPLE STATE

125. Louise Erdrich, THE PLAGUE OF DOVES
126. Lauren McLaughlin, CYCLER
127. Rue McClanahan, MY FIRST FIVE HUSBANDS...

128. Joseph O'Neill, NETHERLAND
129. Jeanne Fleming & Leonard Schwartz, ISN'T IT THEIR TURN TO PICK UP THE CHECK?
131. Louis Bayard, THE BLACK TOWER

133. Katie Crouch, GIRLS IN TRUCKS
134. Francine Prose, GOLDENGROVE
135. Curtis Sittenfeld, AMERICAN WIFE
136. Emma Donoghue, THE SEALED LETTER
137. Lesley Dormen, THE BEST PLACE TO BE

139. Louis de Bernieres, A PARTISAN'S DAUGHTER
140. Torsten Krol, CALLISTO

142. Julia Glass, I SEE YOU EVERYWHERE
143. Jim Bannister, ADDICTIONARY

144. Heather Armstrong (ed.), THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT MY DAD (IN THERAPY)
145. Twyla Tharp, THE CREATIVE HABIT
146. Kera Bolonik and Jennifer Griffin, FRUGAL INDULGENTS
147. Laura Lippman, HARDLY KNEW HER

149. Leslie Bennetts, THE FEMININE MISTAKE
150. Peter Gosselin, HIGH WIRE
151. Janice Ehrlbaum, GIRLBOMB

153. Michael Patrick MacDonald, ALL SOULS
154. John Niven, KILL YOUR FRIENDS
155. Shawna Yang Ryan, LOCKE 1928

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
161. Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD
162. Anna Godbersen, RUMORS
163. Danny Wallace, YES MAN
166. Joseph Conrad, THE SECRET AGENT (lnvsml)
168. Tatiana Boncompagni, GILDING LILY
169. Heather King, REDEEMED
171. Jeanette Winterson, WRITTEN ON THE BODY
172. Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, 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

176. Sarah Vowell, THE WORDY SHIPMATES
177. Alison Bechdel, FUN HOME
178. Catherine Sanderson, PETITE ANGLAISE
179. Steve Fainaru, BIG BOY RULES
180. Diablo Cody, CANDY GIRL
181. Daniel Radosh, RAPTURE READY!
182. Tyler Gray, THE HIT CHARADE
183. Abigail Carter, THE ALCHEMY OF LOSS

185. Maria Semple, THIS ONE IS MINE
186. Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, THE MAN FROM PAKISTAN