30 December 2013

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is all Chong's fault

"It was in prison that Belfort discovered his talents were transferable. His cube mate, or 'cubie' (at his facility, there were no cells), was Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame. Chong laughed so hard at Belfort’s stories he pushed Belfort to write them down and get them published." -- Geoffrey Grey, "Meet Jordan Belfort"

27 December 2013

Top 12 posts of 2013

It's that wonderful time of year, the time when slothful bloggers go on vacation and just throw a bunch of links at their faithful public -- and when the analytics obsessed really go bananas. Judging by the performance of this blog, next year will entirely consist of conference recaps, defending female characters and books by comedians. I'm kidding... 
Six great reasons to participate in Buy Nothing Day (November) In which I tell you not to go to the bookstore, perhaps uncharacteristically.

SWEET TOOTH: Sometimes I swear these men are out to get me (September) In which I defend Serena Frome, who had a tough go of it. Did any of you read this book in the last 4 months so we can discuss? Because that would be delightful.

Spill some ink with Rob Delaney (November) In which I indulge in life beyond 140 characters.

Don't be Grumpy, go on a LAME ADVENTURE today! (June) In which I met Grumpy Cat at BEA and a very non-grumpy author. 

Boy Meets World Meets Ears - Podcasting for Rider Strong and Others (May) - In which my ears are sweetened.

Filmbook: "Austenland" (August) - In which Keri Russell proclaims that it's getting hot in here.

How Jonathan Lethem Writes (And Wrote) (May) - In which a New Yorker returns from L.A. 

"Originally known as 'The Mistake'" (February) In which I attend a Granta launch party and am bowled over by Lauren Wilkinson.

Twitter for Readers of Things Longer than 140 Characters (May)

When you make a billion dollars, you too can do whatever you want (July) In which I defend J.K. Rowling and THE CUCKOO'S CALLING -- sort of.

Dad is glad: My wholly unnecessary complaints about DAD IS FAT (November)

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Tournament of Books 2013 (January) In which I cry on the subway. Thanks, John Green! (I bet he gets that a lot, and it must be emotionally exhausting.)

25 December 2013

Books I gave this year

For my smartass sister who could yet use a little picking up from time to time: Samantha Irby, MEATY. I hope Irby's 2014 is twice as good as her 2013, because her book of essays (springing forth from her excellent blog Bitches Gotta Eat) warmed my heart and made me realize how cold and coal-like it was.
For my other sister, the dreamer with the ridiculous MCAT score: Brandon Stanton's HUMANS OF NEW YORK coffee-table book, to reassure her that fascination can be found in the most mundane of places.
For my brother, who lurks on Twitter but doth not tweet: Rob Delaney's MOTHER. WIFE. SISTER. HUMAN. WARRIOR. FALCON. YARDSTICK. TURBAN. CABBAGE. Even with Twitter's popularity, fandom of its darlings can still feel like an insiders' club, and so it is with Delaney. I could never actually see him with my brother because we would both die of WASPy shame, but at least this way we can share in it together. (Only 7 more gifting opportunities before I'll be able to type that whole title without looking it up!)
For my dad, who gave me my love of movies for better or worse: Budd Schulberg's MOVING PICTURES and Debra Ann Pawlak's BRINGING UP OSCAR, two true stories about Old Hollywood. And the James Ellroy-edited BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, to spot the next big thing.
For my boyfriend who bears the 'nerd' label with pride: Tim Leong's SUPER GRAPHIC, a collection of charts and infographics related to superheroes. Then I can secretly study it to make sure I fully understand what he's talking about (Hi! Also, sorry!)

20 December 2013

Very sad news out of Brooklyn: IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY author Ned Vizzini committed suicide yesterday. Vizzini was working on Chris Columbus' HOUSE OF SECRETS series as well as writing for a J.J. Abrams NBC series.

How Adelle Waldman Became A Novelist

One of the truest, winciest books I read this year about being a young person in New York was the debut novel THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. It had been a while since I read a book that wasn't merely emotionally true or factually true, but which had practically taken place in front of me, and I give Adelle Waldman all credit for that. 

How did Waldman spy on all my friends' dinners and parties all those years, and then get it all on paper? Was she, like the titular character of her novel, an overnight success after years of scraping by? As Waldman recently revealed in a Buzzfeed round-up of author advice, she left the city and moved back in with her parents, documenting the decision in a regular Wall Street Journal column she wrote at the time called Act One: 
"[W]riting a column about twentysomething issues... made it hard for me to ignore the impending 3-0: After all, what happens to a twentysomething columnist when she turns 30? It seems the standard retirement age of 65 wouldn't apply."With that birthday in mind, in the last year I've thought about what my long-term goals are and what kinds of risks I'm willing to take -- the kinds of issues I've written about in this column. Eventually I made a difficult and scary decision: to take time off from journalism to work on writing fiction."That's right. Instead of getting older and becoming more sensible as we often imagine we are supposed to, it appears I'm becoming less pragmatic, if also more anxiety-ridden.... Six months from now, I hope either to have finished the novel or gotten the dream out of my system. Then, I'll be willing to give a regular full-time job the focus of my attention."
Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal found another columnist for what we would now call millennials' issues, and Waldman wrote her first book while subletting her apartment and living with her parents in Baltimore (also Nathaniel P's home city, if I recall correctly). Looking through her old columns (alas, all behind the paywall), it's clear that Waldman was listening and paying attention all the time to the way her subjects talked among each other -- insight she was able to use in her first book. (That wasn't NATHANIEL P, by the way -- but I'm sure some publishers would like to know if they can publish it anyway!)

Clearly also the separation from the city helped Waldman, even if her move back wasn't completely smooth. "I thought that book would sell right away and everything would be great and I’d never need to have a regular job again. Then that novel didn’t get published and I wound up tutoring for six years," she told Buzzfeed. Still, she says that finished project gave her the confidence to eventually write and publish NATHANIEL P. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in A MOVEABLE FEAST, "Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough."

19 December 2013

Find your Oxford English Dictionary "birthday word"

How about a word that originated in the year of your birth? Let Oxford Dictionaries, using the OED, help you out with that!

fhwoosh of disappointment

18 December 2013

How to make Google Zeitgeist's top authors list

Tom Clancy topped the list of Google's most searched-for authors of the year. Here's what you should do to make next year's list:

  • Have a movie in production (John Green, Veronica Roth, Orson Scott Card, Clancy) or a TV show (Stephen King, Ree Drummond)
  • Put out a new book (Clancy, Roth, King, Drummond, Neil Gaiman)
  • Pass away (Clancy, Vince Flynn) 
  • Write romance (Sylvia Day, Maya Banks)
The top three books of the year according to Google Trends? LEAN IN, THE GREAT GATSBY and DIVERGENT.

Filmbook: "Kill Your Darlings" (2013)

I say, why shouldn't the Beats get their own "Heathers"?

When little Allen Ginsberg goes off to college at the beginning of "Kill Your Darlings," it's clear he's not going to settle in with the football jocks like his study-disdaining number-sweater-wearing roommate. ("Central Casting, get me the blondest dope you can find.") Instead, an older, more streetwise student named Lucien Carr takes him under his wing, giving him books to read and taking him to exotic downtown (and uptown) parties. Through him Ginsberg meets other people whose names you recognize by now like football hero Jack Kerouac and rich junkie William S. Burroughs. But Lucien also has a friend no one seems to like, named David Kammerer, who is always hanging around, helping him with his homework. What's his game, anyway? Is he in love with Lucien? Is it mutual? Wouldn't they all be better if they just dropped him for good?
I've been bending the rules again: Technically, this isn't a book adaptation, although it covers the same events at the same time as a novel Kerouac and Burroughs wrote together. This novel, called AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS, then sat on Burroughs' shelf until he died, at which point his literary executor decided to wait until Carr's death to publish it. How close does it ring to the true events? Hard to say, but it's more of an artifact than a great book, as I described when I reviewed it on its final publication in 2008.

Even if they didn't talk about it much, that fall would mark all of the men through their friendships and sometimes more -- and I give this movie credit for not straightwashing* the Beats' circle, as some may be tempted to do. However, for at least its first half "Kill Your Darlings" is exquisitely art-directed and completely boring. I was suffering and digging for a pen, though not a light because I am not a monster. The most entertaining thing about those 45-50 minutes was David Cross as Ginsberg's father (yes, really, Tobias Funke!) If you can make it to the library sequence, you're home free.

It's a shame, because Daniel Radcliffe is developing into a fine actor under America's nose and one day he's going to sweep up and steal that Oscar and everyone's going to be all, "But Harry Potter!" But Harry Potter nothing. There is a seriousness to his intent here that is adorable, but also very fine. In fact most of the major players here were reverent without being two-dimensional; Ben Foster as Burroughs was just weird enough and Jack Huston infused life into the second half as Jack Kerouac. And Michael C. Hall, "Dexter" himself, brought that freaky intensity right in to his role as Kammerer. (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elisabeth Olsen were also quite good, but typically underused.) Dane DeHaan, as Lucien Carr, was more of an unknown quantity to me; it wasn't hard to see why everyone was captivated by him, but sometimes I detected a nonresponsiveness to his eyes. If anyone in this movie gets male-gazed at, it's him.

I also have to fault the film for the twist it gave the final scenes to suggest something about Ginsberg and Carr's relationship that wasn't true -- at least, not that we have documented. It seemed so cruel at the time, and the film seems to take a side just in that one sequence, when otherwise it was more evenhanded than I predicted.

Filmbook verdict: Unless you've seen all 8 HARRY POTTER movies or are a Beat completist, wait for Netflix. Late-night cable will probably chop it up too much.

*Out of curiosity, I Googled this term to see how frequently it is used and found this interesting, though oddly formatted article about biopics and straightwashing. It leads off with "J. Edgar," which I thought somewhat straightwashes Hoover but is such a soppy mess otherwise that who would be able to tell? Don't see that movie. Go read the back of a cereal box instead.

17 December 2013

Tournament of Books X releases longlist, because you don't look busy

I'm planning to repeat last year's Tournament of Books reading experiment, so this list of possibilities was super exciting to me. Short list, coming soon?

16 December 2013

Authors ranked by their novelty candle scents

7. Jane Austen -- "my goodness,  Kitty, do you ever throw any of your flowers out from gentlemen?" "I always save one in case I need it for my scrapbook." (Coughing)

6. Mark Twain -- I deputized the neighbor kids to make this, not knowing they were going to put in Ol' Widder Thomas' vanilla. P-U!!!

5. Edgar Allen Poe -- and as he stared into the candle flame and the curl of smoke, a terror inchoate grew within him so that he might shout, "What Hath God Put Into This Thing?"

4. Emily Dickinson --

Good night! which put the candle out?
A smelly zephyr, not a doubt.
Ah! friend, you little knew
How long at that cassis wick
Tennesseans labored diligent;
Extinguished, now, for you!

3. Charles Dickens -- Sold by a merchant inevitably named Jeremiah Dripp who doesn't approve of your purchase and will keep telling you that every 100 words or so.
2. Leo Tolstoy -- also available in the "Things Levin Never Knew Existed, And Other Things He And Kitty Can't Live Without" catalog.
1. Oscar Wilde -- cedarwood, basil and bon mots. You can't keep up with its witticisms so don't even try.

(Available at Paddywax.com or at Barnes & Noble)

15 December 2013

David O. Russell, child of book publishing

Neal Gabler: Most filmmakers talk about how they were weaned on movies. You don’t seem to have been a movie geek from birth.

​David O. Russell: I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, because of our home, because of my dad. My dad was a C.C.N.Y. student who worked at Simon & Schuster in the stockroom and then became a salesman — his whole life was at Simon & Schuster. My mom was a Brooklyn girl from Queens College who worked as a secretary there. When we moved to the suburbs, there were books everywhere. I started a newspaper in high school, and I always wrote short stories. As a young man, I never thought I would be a filmmaker.

13 December 2013

Beyoncé supports great American literature

Beyoncé's surprise album (Merry early Christmas!) features a spoken-word clip from Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novel AMERICANAH was one of the best of the year. The "Bow Down"esque track "Flawless" samples from Adichie's TEDxEuston talk "We Should All Be Feminists" from earlier in the year. Adichie probably isn't, as the NY Daily News claimed, the first author to be featured in the New Yorker and a Beyoncé track, but it's probably a small club.

Watch Alice Munro's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Did your invite to the 2013 Nobel ceremony get lost in the mail? No worries, ours too. Luckily you and I have Alice Munro's acceptance speech on YouTube, since the author herself was unable to travel to receive her award live.

12 December 2013

No One Is Good Enough To Play David Foster Wallace Onscreen, Because Reasons

My Twitter timeline set itself on fire last night over the news that there will be a David Foster Wallace movie that is not a documentary. The film is technically an adaptation of David Lipsky's ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF, based on a Rolling Stone article where Lipsky followed DFW around on his INFINITE JEST book tour. (It's almost all transcripts; Lipsky fleshed it out after the author's death.) Playwright Donald Margulies ("Time Stands Still") will write the script, James Ponsoldt (the good-but-not-spectacular "The Spectacular Now") will direct and Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg will costar as DFW and Lipsky. Right now it's called "The End of the Tour."

It's a great day to be a David Foster Wallace fan and understand what this all could mean! So why is the general temperature of the discussion "No, not now, not ever, wrong"?

I'm with the New Yorker's TV critic Emily Nussbaum: I think the casting (which most people are focusing on) has a lot of potential. Just because Jason Segel has done mostly comedic work so far doesn't rule him out, and some of his turns on "How I Met Your Mother" have been very dramatic. Eisenberg would have to tamp down some of the smarminess he has deployed well in roles like Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," but I believe in him too. We should be jumping up and down, this is a book about a cult author (sorry, but it's true) that will expose him to millions more people. 

The bottom line, though, is that no one will be considered acceptable for this role by the literary community because it's just too soon and the disappointment will hurt too much. If Meryl Streep had been cast and Martin Scorsese were directing, it would be the same. (I'd for sure see that movie as well, though. Someone Photoshop me a Streep with a white bandanna, please.) It's just -- stop throwing a fit, okay? We are become caricatures of ourselves. 

11 December 2013

I just started this memoir, by a Canadian journalist who was kidnapped while on assignment, on the recommendation of Slate writer Emily Bazelon. Unfortunately, it is taking all the willpower I have not to Google the author to find out what happens to her in the end. All the Christmas cookies in the world, play through.

06 December 2013

Richard Ford's CANADA is $1.99 for Amazon Kindle today (as well as B&N Nook, Google Books, Apple iBooks, Kobo etc.) Please let us discuss this!

04 December 2013


The New York Times Book Review released its 10 best books of the year. Excited that AMERICANAH and FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL made it. Looking forward to THE GOLDFINCH and THE FLAMETHROWERS. What do you think?

Defiance in professional garb

I can never get enough of books about FLDS, of which this is just the latest onslaught (and surely not the last).

Rebecca Musser grew up in Hildale, Utah in an upstanding FLDS household; her mother was a second wife to a prominent businessman who would entertain his aeronautics clients upstairs while his other family hid downstairs. Despite knowing she and her family were different from the rest of the world, "Sister Becky" was a happy young woman, musically gifted and curious, but her coming of age coincided with a bizarre chapter in FLDS history in which the wishes of late patriarch Rulon Jeffs became more and more erratic and paranoid. One such wish was granted when Becky was given in marriage to him at the age of 18, joining 18 other wives in a social arrangement only slightly less byzantine than the court of Marie Antoinette. Despite her best attempts to "keep sweet" and accept the wishes of the Prophet delivered through Rulon, Becky grew miserable with the restrictions continually placed on her -- unable to wear the color red, cut her hair or talk to men outside her family. She was constantly told to submit to her husband, and that soon enough she'd have a baby and wouldn't be able to rebel any more.

After Rulon's death, his son Warren began to make his own pronouncements, including hinting that he was prepared to take on his father's wives (seen as a privilege to them rather than to him). Despite having no formal education past high school and no money, Becky escaped the church with the help of a distant relative, later assisting others who wanted to leave. Eventually, she helped law enforcement prepare for the 2008 "Yearning for Zion" raid (in which over 400 women and children, virtual prisoners in a secluded FLDS compound, were removed peacefully while several of their elders faced arrest); Becky's role was primarily to act as a cultural translator between cops and church members. Her experiences during that raid led her to discover FLDS secrets even more destructive than the ones she had witnessed as a young wife in the church. (Some of these secrets may be revealed in the new TLC show "Breaking the Faith," which in keeping with my obsession I watched on Sunday night.)

Musser chooses to focus a lot of the second half of the book on the experience of testifying against former FLDS elders and leaders -- facing tough cross-examinations on the witness stand and even tougher criticism from the people she was trying to help. Her marriage fell apart because her husband didn't support her testifying (even though he was a fellow ex-FLDS member); despite a promise of anonymity, she found video of her testimony splashed all over Fox News. This wasn't the ending of the book I was expecting, but adds nuance to the reality that for victims of the Jeffs family and other church elders, arrests and convictions weren't the end of the story; they also had to find a way to live in a world that in no way reflected their upbringing. (Musser's younger sister Elissa has also written a book about her experiences with the FLDS, focusing more on the experience of being a teenage bride and the accompanying assault. I reviewed that one in this post.) The contrast is sharp between the FLDS language of subjugation, specifically through an aggressive domesticity (many children, close together, coexisting with other wives in the same house), and Musser's pursuit of justice.

In a way, leaving that piece of her behind in the FLDS community -- as well as her younger relatives who were there -- meant she couldn't disengage from the fight to give them their freedom. Like Elizabeth Smart, Musser comes to frame her experience as one of human slavery, linking it to thousands of women and children around the globe who live in similar situations but whose plights do not receive as much media attention. It's an incredible perspective from someone who was so sheltered as to believe her suffering was deserved.

03 December 2013

The other John Williams

John Edward Williams was a novelist and poet who spent most of his career at the University of Denver. 19 years after his death, his novel STONER was named the Waterstones (UK book chain) Book of the Year, a victory for the long tail -- or the notion that great books have no season, if you prefer. 

November Unbookening: Train, plane and automobile

Checked out 11 e-books from the library
Got 3 from my mom
Bought 4
Received 1 in a book swap (BORN ROUND)
19 in

Returned 10 to the library
Donated 3
Returned 1 to Mom
14 out

Books read in November
Brian J. O'Connor, THE $1,000 CHALLENGE
Rebecca Musser, THE WITNESS WORE RED (review coming up tomorrow!)
Beatriz Williams, A HUNDRED SUMMERS
Goodlad, Kaganovsky and Rushing, MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: SEX, POLITICS, STYLE IN THE 1960S (is it spring yet? Seriously...)
Frank Bruni, BORN ROUND
Jon Acuff, QUITTER

One major difference between my Chicago and New York life is my commute. I was fortunate in my last job to be just 40 minutes and 1-2 trains away (depending on whether I transferred or not), enough for a good chunk of reading but not tedious. Now my commute is over an hour each way, and it happens in stages, bus to train to bus again. (And yes, I thought about getting a car, but that would only save me time in the morning when there's little traffic. However you cut it, it's just far. Still, it is strange to work with so many car commuters after living in NYC where that is so rare.)

When I moved in September my commute shifted a little and I wasn't sure how to get as much reading time out as I could. Some mornings I just zoned out to podcasts (a completely okay choice, and sometimes I still do this!) But now I've got the process streamlined. I am getting a significant amount of reading done, though still crossing my fingers that next year we will move across town so I won't have to get up as early.

02 December 2013

I was surprised to see Veronica Roth, author of the DIVERGENT YA trilogy (soon to be a movie starring "The Descendants"' Shailene Woodley), on a local 40 under 40 business list. Turns out she is twenty-five years old and sold the book just after she graduated from college. So, what have you been up to recently? 

Dearly wish I had time for this

The New York Times has released its 100 notable books of the year list, in case you need some recommendations to buy on Cyber Monday (for others, of course!)

29 November 2013

Six great reasons to participate in Buy Nothing Day

Some may call it Black Friday, but Adbusters deemed the day after Thanksgiving "Buy Nothing Day" in response to the ever more rampant consumerization of this not-exactly-Hallmarkworthy occasion. It's one of the easiest days out there to mark: Enjoy what you have, cook at your house, entertain yourself for free. My own adherence to Buy Nothing Day has waxed and waned through the years, but this year I'm arming myself with these points:
  1. I have everything I need. I want for nothing. What do I have to have that won't wait for a day? 
  2. I can do my gift shopping throughout December, I don't have to do it all now. What's my hurry? (Hanukkah celebrants, this may not be as applicable.)
  3. My whole family (plus uncle and grandma) are together and none of us are at work today. Since we're now scattered across 4 states and the District of Columbia, this rarely happens; I'd rather spend the time connecting with them, as cheesy as that sounds, than thinking about them while bonding with my credit card. 
  4. Nearly half of Black Friday shoppers are out shopping for themselves. So much for the spirit of giving. I'm giving my present-buying family and friends a break by letting them give me something special, that they picked out just for me, not something I just bought for myself. 
  5. In most of the country the weather is terrible and the crowds are atrocious. Baby, it's cold outside, I have the day off and jockeying for a parking space at a mall is not going to be relaxing. It may not even be that safe if we get the kind of blizzards we got 3 years ago (Idaho, hurrah). 
  6. Let's be honest, Thanksgiving retail creep is already deplorable and getting worse. Even vowing not to cross the Turkey Day line invites retailers to call in their staff on what, regardless of its origins, could be a national day of togetherness and celebration now being moth-eaten by the desire to buy more stuff. What if we all voted with our dollars and indicated that this was not okay? What would it cost me to not shop? 

28 November 2013

Grateful feels good

This year I am continually thankful for the power of books to take me out of myself

This year has held some low moments for me and times when the desire to shrink away from the all of rotten existence was very strong. Just like when I was 13, books gave me a free (or very cheap) escape hatch from all that, the kind of portal that seems to go on forever and then suddenly shoots you back altered. Sometimes when I felt too depressed even to write, I would read and float on that current of words for eternities. I remembered anew that I was more than the place I lived and the job I did and the people I spoke to every day.

The Internet is all about do and don't just read this blog post, get out there and make a change! But hopefully if you're reading this today, you know that sometimes contemplation is the most important first step you can take toward anything. When you're reaching up toward the sunlight, it's helpful to know where the sun is first.

27 November 2013

Filmbook: "Catching Fire" (2013)

I went to see "Catching Fire" out of duty and left catching my breath.

The second adaptation of Suzanne Collins' blockbuster YA series, featuring teenagers fighting to the death in a televised spectacle in a totalitarian country, had a lot riding on it, including a not so stellar opening entry. While "The Hunger Games" plodded, new director Francis Lawrence, who you surely know as the director of the "Bad Romance" music video, pushes the tempo on "Catching Fire" such that even its quiet, still moments remind us of the pressures Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a former champion of the Games, is forced to live under every second.

Looking back on my spoilerrific review of the series, I think CATCHING FIRE ended up as my favorite book, because of the combination of the conceit of the first book (teenagers fighting to the death) with the gradual awakening of Katniss, and others in the Games, to the extent to which they are political pawns. At first, it was only about each of them staying alive; now, with the Quarter Quell (an Extra-Special Anniversary Hunger Games), Katniss goes in to fight not only to keep herself alive but to make sure, as the country's President (an excellent Donald Sutherland) has threatened, that she won't face retaliation upon her return.

Another great thing about CATCHING FIRE, and Collins' series as a whole, is how it reflects the ambient culture without sinking to catchphrases or specific references. The reality-show style presentation of the contestants and their treatment outside of the arena was very evocative for me, and hopefully won't look too dated. A lot of great actors in small part stuff the pre-Games scenes with meaning (my standouts were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and surprisingly Lenny Kravitz) and the first few minutes of the Quell have a stark loneliness to them. Then the action starts. Gone is the shakycam pursuit of the previous movie; now we get shots that would be gorgeous if they weren't so terrifying, of fog and lightning and crashing waves.

More than ever in this installment I noticed how Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, has to tamp down her natural likeability and charm to play a character who is naturally guarded, and now suspicious about letting anyone see her real emotions. I don't know that the performance itself was different from her in "The Hunger Games," but now Lawrence is a star, with an appropriately-sized paycheck and an Oscar*. It's strange that a sub-theme of this movie is how Katniss struggles to keep up with her Capitol PR-related activities, when Lawrence has been charming the pants off the world this week on talk shows and in interviews -- always smiling, revealing just a little to humanize her. She's not just cashing it here, though; there's a tight shot on her face where we see Lawrence go through several emotions all in the space of a few seconds, and she pulls it off expertly.

Can you get into this series if you aren't a traditional YA fan? Yes, and I think you should, because this is one of the year's best action movies and the kind of heart-pounder that doesn't get distracted from its business of horrifying you. (One effect in particular visited upon Lawrence and some of her fellow competitors was so gruesome I'm going to have to pause this blog post to get up and wash my hands again.) It maddens me a little that coverage of this movie has been framed as "OMG, who will Katniss end up with, Gale or Peeta?" when there's only the skeleton of a love triangle happening. (Plus, for a movie in which many people run around in wetsuits, the framing of this movie is meticulously chaste.) This isn't Forks, Washington where you have time to moon over a vampire and a werewolf. Love is a luxury Katniss does not permit herself

Filmbook verdict: Read the book first. Then see "The Hunger Games" and this movie, and feel superior to the bozos in the audience who were shocked at its ending.

*For a role and a movie I think were overrated, although she was just fine in them! Sic semper Hollywoodis.

26 November 2013

Dad is glad: My wholly unnecessary complaints about Jim Gaffigan's DAD IS FAT

I really liked this book and sometimes when I read things, I find myself whining instead of making concrete points. This book is great, I was thoroughly absorbed -- and now I'm going to make you all forget it with this list of grievances:

  • I really wish I had tried to check out an audio version of this book rather than consuming it in print, because while Jim Gaffigan is funny on paper he is even more terrific with the full power of his voice. I've seen him onstage three times and his physical presence, his voice and gesture and look, come through very clearly in this book. Yet I still want an audiobook to do part of that work for me.
  • I went to see Gaffigan and his wife Jeannie (a major character in this book) speak about DAD IS FAT in May, which is where I learned that Jeannie cowrites and produces all of her husband's work. This is fascinating to me (maybe more so than the chicken-fox-sack-of-grain diagrams illustrating how the Gaffigans put all their kids to bed in a 2-bedroom apartment). I would love to know more about how that relationship works. 
  • In the same vein, while I respect that DAD IS FAT is a book largely about parenting, I grew more and more curious about young, free Jimmy Gaffigan before he became (one of) the world's greatest dad(s). Sequel potential?
  • Finally, why isn't it longer? When I forcibly take over the publishing industry I am going to force all your favorite comedians to put their noses to the grindstone and spin out at least 300 pages. No more 180-page cheaters. 
Please go back and re-read the first paragraph of this post. Thank you. 

Image source: Emirates Central

25 November 2013

Overheard in the elevator

COWORKER 1: I wrote 45 pages this weekend.
COWORKER 2: Great! We bought a table.

22 November 2013

Out of the garden and into the fire

Wrong man, wrong era, wrong predictions... wrong subjects?

I've been sitting on my paperback copy of Erik Larson's IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS for a while. I thought I would take it on a vacation but the timing was never right. I liked this book, but it also didn't sit well with me. I didn't feel satisfied that any kind of justice had been done. Maybe my expectations were too high?

The book follows the work life of one William Dodd, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933-37. Far from a politico, Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago prior to his appointment who thought a government position would allow him more time than teaching to work on his history of the Old South. For a lot of reasons, he didn't know what he was getting into, but perhaps no one could have prepared him for conducting diplomatic relations with an ailing President Hindenberg and the nascent, ever more aggressive Nazi party. While most Americans felt that the threat of Germany regaining military power was grossly exaggerated -- some even admiring Hitler for getting the mighty machine going again -- Nazis were beating and jailing visiting tourists for not heiling correctly.

Just like Larson's breakout THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, the author runs Dodd's story in parallel with another's at the same time, this one his daughter Martha (who I will refer to by first name from here on out to avoid confusion). A 29-year-old divorcee who ran in literary circles in Chicago, Martha kept a very detailed diary of her impressions of Nazi Germany and the men she was seeing, some of them high-ranking Nazis.

Both of these characters are uniquely frustrating. Dodd may not have been the most powerful man in US-German relations, in part due to internal politics (particularly the "Pretty Good Club" culture of rich diplomats who spend all their time schmoozing, who hated him), but his timid protestations to the Nazi regime and even Hitler that his practices were extreme seem spineless. He displayed a fair amount of what we would now call anti-Semitism*, and seemingly could have done more to help Jews in Berlin get safe passage out (or to encourage the U.S. to change its immigration policies). I didn't realize how strongly I felt about Dodd until I read a section on how historians of his day regarded him -- not as a bystander, but as a Cassandra figure, a peacemaker. Out of a little rebellion and a little young lust, Martha finds the Nazis fascinating and for a time even defends them to her parents; at her best she just seems like a lovesick twit who had no idea how serious the situation in Germany was.

Hokey book-group reading guides at the backs of books often provide questions to readers like "What would you do in this situation?" (Also a question often asked of young readers.) That question would be absurd when it comes to IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, whose context is so unique and specific it's impossible to know how any other person might act. Yet, here I am judging Mr. Dodd for his inaction at a time when history has mostly forgotten him. Maybe there's no happy ending possible when a book ends fundamentally at the start of World War II. Knowing what I know, I can't pretend not to know the terrible things that are about to happen, and it's just a short hop from there to asking: why didn't somebody do something? 

*My other major take-away from this book is how prevalent and toothy anti-Semitism was in this era, particularly in the U.S. I knew, I suppose, but the specifics are just shocking all over again. That this went on as recently as my grandparents' generation... well, it was definitely a wake-up call.

21 November 2013

Morrison parties, Doctorow stumbles at National Book Awards

Congratulations to the winners of the National Book Awards which were held last night at Cipriani. James McBride was a surprise speech-unprepared winner for his novel THE GOOD LORD BIRD and the New Yorker's George Packer got the nod for his recession-minded book THE UNWINDING. Mary Szybist and Cynthia Kadohata took home the prizes in poetry and YA fiction, respectively.

The most-mentioned moment of the night according to my Twitter analysis was Toni Morrison giving Maya Angelou an award (and a glowing speech to go with), a nod to two venerable female writers who show no signs of slowing down. Then, RAGTIME author E.L. Doctorow accepted a "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" and in his speech he predictably went after the threat of technology to the sacred practice of reading and how e-books aren't real books. The usual my lawn, get off it stuff. At the end he apparently turned it to a defense of free speech (this is from Ron Charles' account in the Washington Post, since I found his tweets the most useful to follow during the live event), but not without making reference to the potential future of books laying in the "Chinese darkness." That could be pretty troubling, depending on what he meant.

20 November 2013

Filmbook: "Salinger" (2013)

Even though it's not an adaptation I decided to watch about "Salinger" (and blog about it, frankly) because it caused a bit of a stir when it premiered at Sundance and its buyers, the Weinstein brothers, with whom I am obsessed, seemed to indicate it would be one of their major Oscar projects for this fall. That's pretty rare for a documentary, and for an author biopic.

From knowing almost nothing about Salinger's early life, I learned a good deal from this documentary, and what I learned surprised me. From a fairly cushy background, Salinger was a mediocre student with a love for writing and dating debutantes (the movie lingers on this point, somewhat creepily, but interviews with his old flames are entertaining). Being drafted in 1942 changed all that: Salinger worked on THE CATCHER IN THE RYE while he was marching through Europe and was able to wrangle a meeting with Hemingway while there, but likely suffered from what today we would call PTSD. Coming back to New York, his fervor to be published (particularly in that great white whale the New Yorker) increased, but his tolerance for appearing in the high society whose company he once enjoyed plummeted. The publishing of CATCHER gave him the literary reputation he craved and the funds to sock his family away in New Hampshire (a decision it seems he did not run by Mrs Salinger, as she later filed for divorce). From there he got weirder and more reclusive, though to the townspeople he was just a nice old man who deserved to be left alone.

The final nails in that coffin, according to this documentary, were the Reagan assassination attempt and the Lennon assassination, both of which were associated with CATCHER through the later testimony of the killers. Filmmaker Shane Salerno (a sort of boy wonder who made his first documentary in high school and cowrote "Armageddon" at 24) suggests that for a former soldier, it was too painful for Salinger to be closely associated with these violent deaths through his work, and he decided to maintain a media silence.

As a filmed work, "Salinger" isn't a very impressive piece -- more like a TV documentary than something to be viewed on the big screen. (And as I was viewing it on my small-TV-sized laptop screen, I still couldn't put that out of my head.) As this Wire piece describes, many scenes consist of still photographs or voiceovers layered with scenes of a tall dark-haired man at a desk (a Salinger stand-in figure). They might as well have input fake nature-y backgrounds a la Kanye West's "Bound 2." But I can forgive a certain amount of filmed hackery and filler pieces, like testimony from famous actors on how great CATCHER IN THE RYE is.

The film's approach to Salinger's later life is what really bothered me about this documentary. It opens with POV shots from the perspective of a fan (I would say a stalkery fan) who has decided to find Salinger at his home in New Hampshire, and continues to interweave firsthand accounts of approaching Salinger during his final years. There are photographs and videos of a very old J.D. Salinger, strikingly similar to the body double used in the man-at-typewriter scenes, but that serve really no purpose in advancing the story of his life. (Interviews with Joyce Maynard, who was invited to Salinger's house and became his lover, are problematic too, but for other reasons.) I get it, you were moved by his work (as many were) and you were curious (as I am). That doesn't give you the right to have a conversation with Salinger, whether he lives in Cornish, New Hampshire or in the Time Warner Center in New York City, whether you named all your children after members of the Glass family (please don't) or have read CATCHER till your copy disintegrated.

It can be fun and informative for documentarians to show the lengths they are prepared to go to in order to get their subjects' side of the story. I'm thinking in particular of the great Kirby Dick doc "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," about the shadowy (sometimes literally) members of the MPAA whose movie ratings can control how and whether major motion pictures get distribution, but a fair number of filmmakers have incorporated their unsuccessful interviews into their work. But in "Salinger" it feels invasive and largely unnecessary to arrive at the film's great conclusion, which is (spoiler alert) that Salinger continued to write long into his seclusion and intends some of those works to be published in the next few years. To pull off that big reveal, you don't have to badger an old man. Go find his publisher or agent to make an on-camera denial, or distort your original source's voice and face ("60 Minutes" style) and have him relate it. I'm surprised to find that I feel as strongly about this authorial right to privacy as Hollywood stars feel about the paparazzi: In the end, no matter how fundamental his work to American literature, Salinger exercised the right not to publish for the latter half of his life. And that choice was his. It feels greasy and sickening to assert otherwise.

Filmbook verdict: Sure, watch it on Netflix if you're interested in the author, but go in skeptical. (This review heavily shaded by my own

What happened to Susan?

Jeremy Lott of Real Clear Politics is calling all of you Narnia fans to expand C.S. Lewis' universe and write about the life of Susan Pevensie, the fourth sibling of the wardrobe absent from THE LAST BATTLE and "no longer a friend to Narnia." I feel comforted that I am not alone in feeling that she had been unnecessarily dismissed.

18 November 2013

Spill some ink with Rob Delaney

On Thursday I went to see Rob Delaney read from his new book ROB DELANEY: MOTHER. WIFE. SISTER. HUMAN. WARRIOR. FALCON. YARDSTICK. TURBAN. CABBAGE. (Don't think I didn't have the Amazon window open the whole time so I could type all that out in the correct order.)

Delaney, for those of you just tuning in, is a stand-up comedian who broke out hugely on Twitter in the past few years thanks to his mix of weird lewdness, merciless ribbing of top brands (Charmin, Wal-Mart) and leftist political humor. Here are a few of my recent favorites of his:
  • "'Getting health insurance will never be like buying a song on iTunes, but it can be like using Limewire via dial-up in 2002.' - Obama”
  • "My wife claims to 'love' me. But does she diaper-astronaut love me? Not even close."
  • "Leviathan, awaken. It is time to punish. RT @muscle_fitness What's your mantra when it comes to working out?"
 His new book contains a bunch of those tweets, as well as sentences that make the same careening turns at the corner of reason and nonsense, but also honestly addresses topics that came up in his columns for Vice magazine, including his dissolute youth and journey from sitting in rehab with 2 broken arms to facing the sheer terror of being onstage sober. Equally at home in the silly and the serious, MOTHER. WIFE. SISTER. HUMAN... (itself a joke on ponderous Twitter profiles, like mine) was short enough to give me hope that Delaney will continue writing pieces longer than 140 characters, and long enough to keep me laughing out loud on the CTA like a hyena.

This event was Delaney at his least guarded and frankest, and I think some may have expected more tears-rolling-down-your-cheeks laughs, but it was fine by me. While writing a book was a huge privilege, Delaney said he found it incredibly hard because of the lack of instant feedback (unlike in comedy); this book tour has sort of been his victory lap, and he read two excerpts from it, including how he jumped off the Manhattan Bridge, and then took questions about his writing. I was especially surprised to learn that he publishes tweets as he finishes them, rather than (I always assumed) writing and then scheduling them. (Pretty impressed at how prolific he is, in that light!) Can we get this guy a movie next? Internet, I know we can.

Seattle, Portland (OR) and Irvine can see Rob Delaney perform near them soon

No need to pack a book

The Country Inn and Suites is the first major hotel chain to stock books in all their US hotels (through a partnership with Random House). Because you can't stay at the Trump SoHo or W London Leicester Square every weekend -- if only.

14 November 2013

"Sometimes he transforms himself into a woman as part of a strange vision quest, aided by drugs or alcohol, to mind-meld with a female character in a book he’s writing."

Sure, that's just what it's like! Uberhighbrow uberprolific author William T. Vollmann has come out as a person who likes to cross-dress, sometimes in the middle of the night in his Sacramento writing bunker (not made up). I have not yet been able to catch up with him and his voluminous output, but I am going to need a Kickstarter to get him and Buzz Bissinger to collaborate on a fashion project.

13 November 2013

Filmbook: "C.O.G."

Debuting at Sundance this year, "C.O.G." bears the distinction of being the first full-length screen adaptation of a David Sedaris work (based on an essay of the same name from NAKED). That gives this small-scale, immediate drama a lot to live up to. Perhaps they should have started with "The Santaland Diaries."

"C.O.G." finds Sedaris as a young, idealistic college graduate, here called "Samuel," leaving his cushy life to pick apples on a farm in Oregon. His dream of Thoreau-ishly reading among the trees is rudely interrupted almost immediately, as he fails to get along with the migrant workers who constitute the farm's labor force, suffers from the hard work and, shockingly, is punished for reading when he should be picking. While he waits for the expected moment of mental clarity, Samuel stubbornly resists rescue and tries to face his problems on his own. 

As a film project, this is a charming and disturbing little movie, the kind that Sundance grows like a crop. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (this is his second movie) lets Samuel's story lag somewhat in the middle of the movie but has a fine eye for framing and catching moments. Lead Jonathan Groff, of "Glee" and Broadway fame (Marjorie!), is terrific and very subtle here. Corey Stoll and Denis O'Hare are terrifying in smaller roles as people Samuel encounters along the way.

What I found most disconcerting about this movie -- in a good, interesting way -- was the reminder that the Sedaris character in this movie is not the middle-aged, finicky, set-in-his-ways curmudgeon character under whose cover he travels now, but an open-minded, over-bold, risk-taking ingenue. (I mean, just look at that poster. He really wears that sweater to the orchard, to pick apples in.) Sedaris, the character, seems never to waver in what he knows he wants; Samuel, on the other hand, is one coast-to-coast waver, a man still trying to figure out who he is. It's a useful reminder of how Sedaris, as an essayist, has been able to keep his audience over several life changes (and books) -- and how much authorial confidence plays into all of that.

The verdict: Read NAKED, because everyone should, then see "C.O.G." -- in theatres if you're a Sedaris completist, on DVD if you are not.

12 November 2013

26. Henry James, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

Kate Croy and Merton Densher want to get married but they are broke. Nobody blames Kate for this, because her father has been Ruined in his Business Dealings and will now live out the rest of his life dependent on others. The London society in which they move largely places the blame on Merton, who works for a newspaper (the more things change) and has no family fortune.

If this were a Jane Austen novel, here's where a convenient older relative would die and leave somebody investments... but we're in Jamesville now, so the way the lovers determine to solve their problem is colder and less coincidental. On a business trip to America, Merton befriended an American heiress named Milly Theale, who later arrives in London and becomes Kate's best closest friend. Everyone knows Milly is very rich, almost nobody knows she is also very ill. So Kate says to Merton, what if you and Milly were to get married, knowing that she might leave you, the bereaved husband, with enormous stacks of cash? Wouldn't that be tragic. Wouldn't you be so, so sad and console yourself with the deceased's best friend, remembering the happiness they had shared?

Since this is also not an Agatha Christie novel, they all swan off to Venice -- Milly for her health, Kate because she has a rich aunt to sponsor her and nothing else to do but be wooed by Rich Aunt's favorite suitor for her, Merton to put Kate's plan into action and possibly woo her in secret, Rich Aunt's Favorite Suitor because he is rich (I suppose?)

Surprisingly, I loved this book. I didn't appreciate the density of this book at first, because it took me about 150 pages to get into its rhythms, but when I did I was able to pause at the end of each section and reflect on what had happened and may happen as a result. Thus my enjoyment of THE WINGS OF THE DOVE was stretched out for weeks, when I felt very, very close to the action. This isn't the James I remember from DAISY MILLER; the ponderousness really adds up to something. I dwelt in the world of this book as if it were science fiction.

After I finished this book, faced with the amount of ambiguity James had baked into this bizarre love triangle, I read a fair amount of criticism and analysis around THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. What actually happened is quite clear, but a lot of its impact is up for interpretation: What is Milly Theale's real diagnosis, and how was her health affected by the stir around her? How much weight does Kate actually give her family's input into her marriage, despite how she may act? How affected, or unaffected, is Merton by his errand? From reading I learned that many people see the character of Milly as relatively flat, without the complexity of her companions; to them, her illness wipes her out, making her seem too saintly. (Also, a lot of people apparently saw the '90s movie starring Helena Bonham Carter as Kate, and then were surprised that the book doesn't have any sexy scenes in it. Well, I never.)

But it was Kate whom I sought and failed to understand. I couldn't figure her out, couldn't put the clues together, and since she's the linchpin of everything that happens in THE WINGS OF THE DOVE,
I definitely couldn't, however, see her as pure villain, and I don't think James did either. (And not because of King Ambiguity.) I felt that the author had an unusual sympathy for Kate's predicament -- constrained by forces beyond her control, trying to scrape up the smallest amount of autonomy over her situation. In a way, she is the most powerless person in the whole novel, even though she can't be forced into marrying Rich Aunt's choice of men. The breaking of her will against the facts of her life is terrible to watch.

Ellen vs. ML: 59 read, 41 unread
Next up: I have a few more to recap from when I was wandering in the wilderness! Which do you like on deck, THE GRAPES OF WRATH or THE WAY OF ALL FLESH? 

11 November 2013

October Unbookening: "I still have a blog?" edition

Books bought: 3
Checked out of the library: 8
Received to review: 1
Returned from my mom: 1
Passed along from my mom: 1
14 in

Returned 8 e-books to the e-library
Donated 2
10 out

Books read in October
Laura Lippmann, NO GOOD DEEDS (mentioned briefly here)
Pamela Erens, THE VIRGINS
Elin Hilderbrand, BEAUTIFUL DAY
Lionel Shriver, THE NEW REPUBLIC
Laura Vanderkam, 168 HOURS
Jim Gaffigan, DAD IS FAT

06 November 2013

Democracy inaction

Know what I'd like to see? When you vote for the Goodreads Choice Awards, a pop-up reminds you that you have the book you just voted for on your "to read" list but haven't actually gotten around to reading it. (A less agreeable individual might restrict the voting by books one has actually read...) 

01 November 2013

Reading on the Road

Top 5 bookstores to visit in New York City this weekend
Greenlight in Fort Greene
The Strand
McNally Jackson
Book Court
The souvenir stand at "Matilda: The Musical" to verify that they have a copy of Roald Dahl's classic on sale, and if not, tear the whole thing down

31 October 2013

That swan table though

If you have $14.5 million you can own Jonathan Safran Foer's house, but you can judge its interior decorating job for free. Also, the Foer-Krauss axis is leaving Park Slope? Is it a trend now?

30 October 2013

That 1/8th heritage counted for nothing

I am getting snowed by German spam overnight so I had to put comment moderation on for the time being. It's not you! I'll approve everything unless you spam me in German.

29 October 2013

Amazon Strikeout

Today Amazon launched the Kindle Matchbook, a program where you can buy sharply discounted e-books of the hard-copy books you have bought in the past. At least, that's how it's supposed to work! I have been buying books on Amazon for roughly 11 years. Here are my available Matchbooks:

Of these, #5 is the only one I'm honestly tempted to re-buy for Kindle (because I either donated or lent out my copy of THE BELIEVERS). And I'm not going to do it today. #1, #3 and #7 I still own in print (because they are terrific). #6 was a gift, and I'm not feeling the need to own LITTLE, BIG or IF YOU HAVE TO CRY, GO OUTSIDE (only God can judge me) in perpetuity.

It's a great concept but until more publishers get involved, it's not exactly setting the world on fire.

24 October 2013

Nick Andre, "Stupid"

Losing season,
Non stop passes from best friend to best friend,
Continuously doing what doesn't work,
The inability to separate being a father and a coach,
Dropped passes,
But yet still the "super star",
Yeah right.
Where's my scholarship?
I can drop passes,
Run backwards,
Miss tackles,
And be afraid to take a hit.
That’s top of the line Div. 1 material right there.
If that’s what they wanted,
They definitely got it.
This whole town will be glad when he’s gone.
For anyone who doesn’t understand what I’m saying,

--Ohio high school junior Andre was suspended from school for writing this poem in his composition class.

23 October 2013

Emily Dickinson for each ecstatic incident

I highly recommend a spin through the new open-access Emily Dickinson Archive, a major collaborative research project that brings the Belle of Amherst (ugh, how I hate that nickname) ever close to us.

21 October 2013

Richard Ford: "It was good money then. I needed it. So I was always there, attentive."

Richard Ford had a neat piece in the New York Times yesterday about his first job working in a railroad switchyard. As a "fireman" -- already a legacy job on trains that didn't run on coal -- he spent the summer watching to make sure the train didn't hit anything. 

17 October 2013

Bookstore to Visit of the Week: Twice Sold Tales

You know, I've been trying to put together a trip to Seattle and Portland, and this sign makes a very convincing argument. Twice Sold Tales of Capitol Hill, Seattle. Photo: maaaandyb

16 October 2013

National Book Award nominees: Lahiri, Pynchon, Wright already winners to me

I mean, who cares if the entire country is going into default and world crisis and all that, but the nominees for next month's National Book Awards were released this morning. In Fiction Jhumpa Lahiri and Thomas Pynchon will be duking it out with George Saunders, James McBride and relative newcomer Rachel Kushner -- really, there are no losers here. In Nonfiction, Lawrence Wright's Scientology expose GOING CLEAR faces Jill Lepore's biography of Jane Franklin (sounds fascinating based on the New Yorker excerpt), BEA darling HITLER'S FURIES (by Wendy Lower, about Nazi women), George Packer's new-economy tome THE UNWINDING and Alan Taylor's THE INTERNAL ENEMY: SLAVERY AND WAR IN VIRGINIA.

See poetry and YA categories here. Ready your library requests!

15 October 2013

Eleanor Catton is the youngest Booker Prize winner ever

There were those who were concerned that opening the Booker Prize to Americans, as happened this year, would affect the outcome unduly; for the record, Catton, 28, is a New Zealander (though she attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop). THE LUMINARIES is her second novel after 2008's THE REHEARSAL.

How to design a book

Chip Kidd, longtime Knopf designer, novelist and real erudite smartypants, is teaching a Skillshare course on book cover design coming up soon. (He won't grade your final project, but you'll get access to his words of wisdom about cover design from projects like 1Q84, JURASSIC PARK and the David Sedaris oeuvre.)

14 October 2013

Your state in a book

Business Insider has a map of the "most famous" book represented by each of the 50 states. Let me judge them by where I've lived:

  • Wisconsin: LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I was raised on these books and they are perennial classics, so this is fine by me. (But I've never been to Pepin, WI near where the Ingallses lived. Road trip?)
  • Rhode Island: Jodi Picoult's MY SISTER'S KEEPER. Wait, it really takes place there? Interesting.
  • Massachusetts: WALDEN, although I think one of Cotton Mather's diaries would be more accurate if my sources inside the state are any indicator. 
  • Illinois: THE JUNGLE. Seems unfair. 
  • New York: THE GREAT GATSBY. Okay, it's almost 90 years old, but we will take it. 
  • Pennsylvania: THE LOVELY BONES. Not a flattering look. 

Scanning the list, I think the person who compiled it has a really mordant sense of humor. You'd have to, to list fun travel reads like THE SHINING, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and CARRIE among your titles. Seriously, who wants to visit the grave at the end of CARRIE? Nobody. But Kansas is happy, while Ohio is confused.

10 October 2013

Yes We Canadian!

Alice Munro becomes the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. And she doesn't know yet because the Nobel committee had to leave her a voicemail and get on with the announcement. Hey, if you're Alice Munro and you're reading this...

09 October 2013

Munro vs. Murakami

The Nobel Prize in Literature is handed out tomorrow. (The top two are favorites; Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Pynchon are also receiving heavy bets in the U.K., where you can bet on this kind of thing. Bloomberg Businessweek has more on the betting process.) Who do you think will win? And will those jokes about random mediocre '90s musicians accidentally winning ever not be funny?

08 October 2013

Three short takes

This is a great book to rearrange your piecemeal knowledge of early rap music and put it all into context -- especially if you didn't grow up listening to hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C. Chang writes like he was in the room for all of these parties (which he couldn't have been, except later when he worked for Vibe); his work on the L.A. section was especially illuminating to me. Too bad right now this titular phrase is more associated with a white pop star from the South than, well, anyone more original and less spectacle-producing.

I don't think I've read a novel so focused on Jewish daily life (independent of other factors such as nationality or wartime-besieged status) since THE CHOSEN. At the start of the book, Marjorie, nee Morgenstern (she changed her name when she wanted to become an actress), and her family have just wedged themselves into middle-class Upper West Side respectability after leaving their relatives in the Bronx. Marjorie's acting dreams propel her through Hunter College, but her romantic distractions (as she sees them) steal time away from her seemingly inevitable path toward stardom. This book also (spoiler alert) ends with a total Crap Letter From A Dude, that at first I appreciated but then left a bad taste in my mouth. I assume the Natalie Wood-starring movie has a different ending.

This is the book I picked up at the Amtrak station because I recognized Lippman's name and have liked some of her books featuring P.I. Tess Monaghan (as this one does). My trouble with this book was that Tess was the only person she knew who behaved at all rationally. Everyone else around her was Hiding A Deep Dark Secret, and that was telegraphed so early I got confused about whose Deep Dark Secrets were whose. "But why?" was the question I was always asking. This should have been zippy enough to suspend my disbelief. But I still enjoyed it, especially a scene set in an under-21 club.

03 October 2013

September Unbookening

Checked out 5 ebooks from the library
Picked 1 out from the "Leave one, take one" shelf at the Amtrak station in Glenview, IL (recommend!)
Bought 4 (yeesh)
Received 1 to review
10 in

Donated 8 - 4 of which I had had in storage since NYC and decided to cull when I unpacked them, because that's efficient
Gave away 2
Returned 4 ebooks (loan expired)
14 out

Five duplicate books present in the library of my new apartment:
  • Flannery O'Connor, COLLECTED STORIES
  • Roberto Bolaño, 2666
  • Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
  • Federico Garcia Lorca, SELECTED VERSE
  • David Foster Wallace, INFINITE JEST

02 October 2013

RIP Tom Clancy

Bestseller machine, your grandfather's favorite author, first published in 1984 (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER).

25 September 2013

Filmbook: "Jane Eyre" (2011)

Far from the first adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's high-school-required-reading classic, but one that sticks in the mind because of its unique off-the-page approach and great performances.

2011's "Jane Eyre," from American director Cary Fukunaga (and only his second feature), is lit and soundtracked like a ghost story. Starting in medias res when Jane Eyre turns up to the Rivers household, the film flashes back, first to Jane's most immediate past and then to her childhood as an unwanted orphan in the Reid household, an orphan and a governess. As Jane's cohorts at Lowood are encouraged to treat her like a ghost, she becomes a mere shade in her own life, hoping just to flit through and not make too deeply of an impression. Of course, this is impossible.

I was impressed by the performance of Mia Wasikowska ("The Kids Are All Right," Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland") as Jane. She looks like a Vermeer with a wrinkle in it; I found her performance satisfyingly multidimensional, to the point that I was constantly watching her when other things were going on in the frame. And though underused, Dame Judi Dench is excellent as always as Mr. Rochester's longtime housekeeper and Jane's confidante. Let's be honest, though: I primarily watched this movie to see Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and he did not disappoint either. My inborn dislike of Rochester, the character, was baked into Fassbender's specialty for acting as a man with a terrible secret (see: "Shame," "X-Men: First Class," "Prometheus" to some extent). Yet at the same time his Rochester sometimes appears to have no more control over his surroundings than she does. Jane is a ghost, and he is an amateur ghost hunter looking for evidence of her.

The only thing that stopped me from signing on fully was the handling of Jane and Rochester's brief interlude of happiness before she goes to the Rivers' household; it felt abrupt (even more so in the original text) and the shift in tone was not handled well.

The verdict: I think you need to have read the book to appreciate the nuances of this adaptation, actually. So I'll go with: Read the book, then watch the movie. Did you know Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are making a big-screen "Macbeth"? I can hardly wait.

24 September 2013

It's okay, I still think you're smart

Karen Russell, Donald Antrim and Jeremy Denk (a pianist who's been writing for the New Yorker recently) were among this year's class of the Macarthur Genius Grant recipients. (Fun fact: you can't apply for a genius grant; you have to be nominated by their "constantly changing pool of invited external nominators" and won't be made aware that you are under consideration unless you actually get one. So, that project is out.)

23 September 2013

You heard it here first like the Dickens

Today I attended a talk by Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Inc. (center of the universe of cat macros). He's a big Marshall McLuhan fan, which kind of makes sense! Anyway, he says serialized novels are one of the next big things because e-reading makes it absurdly easy to get installments of a story, within one story or a series of books. I'm just putting this here so if it becomes true, we will all know it happened and look like geniuses.

Something about this book sucks...

Goodreads announced an update to its review policy over the weekend, the first public change it has made since being sold to Amazon earlier this year. In brief, reviews and comments will be screened for personal attacks on other members, and for non-book-related content in general.

This concerns me mostly because my most popular book review is not actually a review of the book under which it is posted. That's right, I'm a violator. (But it's a positive comment about the author, so I'm guessing no one is reporting it.) In case you find this completely out of bounds, though, Bookriot offers a number of Goodreads alternatives with book pros and cons.

19 September 2013

In future book bloggers of America news...

A New York librarian and library director were fired over plans to change the summer-reading program after one child won five years in a row. 

18 September 2013

Filmbook-to-Be: Katniss fights Romeo and Leonardo DiCaprio's dance moves killed JFK

PureWOW has a great slideshow of forthcoming movie adaptations this fall. A few missing from action: "C.O.G." (based on part of David Sedaris' NAKED), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and a years-in-the-making adaptation of Langston Hughes' gospel musical "Black Nativity." Plus "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" and  "Ender's Game" (still haven't decided whether to boycott or not). And, uh, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2.

17 September 2013

Rage against the Internet

"You click because, deep down, you need something to kick your heart up a notch. You know that Franzen, while he sometimes comes off as arrogant and pompous, is still a smart guy who likes to read and write books. If you know who Jonathan Franzen is, that means you probably like to read and maybe write books as well, so it bugs you that somebody who shares the same kinds of interests as you could act like such an out-of-touch grumpy Gus." 
--This Flavorwire piece on why people care so much about Jonathan Franzen's latest Get Off My Lawn moment hits a little close to home. 

16 September 2013

To help people at all times: Juliette Gordon Low facts and myths

I have been a Girl Scout all my life, and as such have learned bits and pieces about its founder Juliette Gordon Low. But I put those to the test while reading Stacy A. Cordery's biography of Low, released last year to coincide with the Scouts' 100th anniversary in America. Turns out, I had a lot of misconceptions. Test whether you know

Was a Southern Belle who made good: True, for the most part; Low was born in Savannah and lived many of her later years there. But her mother was Northern (a Kinzie of Chicago) and their marriage caused some scandal in town, particularly during the Civil War as Low's father fought for the Confederacy and his father- and brother-in-law were visiting as part of the occupation.
Married an English lord and founded the Scouts after living in England: True -- Low and her husband (not a lord, but an aristocrat of some stripe) were friends with Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Still, and this is 100 percent my speculation, I don't think she would have been so involved in the charity work that led her to Baden-Powell if her marriage hadn't been so miserable. Andrew Low (who Juliette met on a visit to Savannah) turned out to be a gambler and philanderer, and when Low finally filed for divorce he stretched it out as long as possible to avoid paying her anything. So long, in fact, that he died before it was finalized.
Founded the Girl Scouts in America: Officially true, but really up for debate. After the success of the Boy Scouts in Britain, Baden-Powell founded the Girl Guides to complement them ("scouts" being seen as a term that could not be shared with the female sex). Several American women formed some kind of Scouting-adjacent organization in the years after, and it was primarily through Low's connections and her publicity work that she put herself out in front of American Girl Scouting.
Was born mostly deaf and struggled with her hearing: False, mostly. Childhood illness and an incident where a grain of rice was lodged in her ear during the wedding (so tragic!) damaged her hearing, but what did the worst damage was all the doctors who tried to undo that work with experimental surgeries and weird substances poured into her ears. To the end she often spoke in public, but rarely gave interviews -- possibly because she feared misunderstanding the questions.

What unites these four points that I've highlighted here? I was struck by how much of Low's life was possible because of what back then would have been called "good breeding" and what now we might call "the financial freedom made possible by being upper-class." Despite being an unmarried woman in a conservative culture, Low had a great deal of autonomy throughout her life because she had family money, then her husband's money. She traveled late in life all over the world and was able to devote her midlife to Scouting because, for the time, she was remarkably emancipated -- because of her finances and class. 

This is the kind of thing Girl Scouting would not be the same without, but obviously would be difficult to address in any kind of organizational capacity. It didn't make me feel conflicted about growing up in Scouting (to which I owe some of my best friends and so many, many good things) but it made me think about how, as the organization moves into the 21st century, it can empower girls today to have the same freedoms in an era where there is so much more opportunity.

13 September 2013

Such is the way of the world: INTO THE WILD's alternate ending

This week Jon Krakauer revisits the life of Chris McCandless (spoilers) for the New Yorker online. A former bookbinder at IUP, Ronald Hamilton, read INTO THE WILD, Krakauer's 1996 book (and subsequent surprisingly good Sean Penn-directed film) and recognized some of the facts of his case from a similar incident during World War II in the Ukraine. Also, the chilling: "Chris McCandless would now be forty-five years old."

12 September 2013

826 is selling a Brokeland Records T-shirt as a fundraiser, named for the fictional record store in Michael Chabon's TELEGRAPH AVENUE. Somehow I pictured their logo a little cooler...

All for the books

I bet everyone reading this could write her or his own edition of ONE FOR THE BOOKS, Joe Queenan's memoir of the reading life. With all the idiosyncrasies and curmudgeonry included, this book spoke to me as a reader even when I violently disagreed with him (which was often). It's great fun to accept or dispute any kind of book-related judgment; why else am I hear?

As I learned from Queenan's memoir CLOSING TIME, he grew up in working-class Philadelphia toting his paperbacks on the bus to and from horrible factory jobs and dreaming of a way out. That doesn't give him any sympathy for people who never read, but sometimes I got the sense of him reading and acquiring books as the creation of a wall between that old time and the present -- a bulwark of knowledge no one can take away from him. Queenan has primarily worked as an essayist (in sort of a pop culture-y P. J. O'Rourke vein), even producing several books of his own, but ONE FOR THE BOOKS doesn't cover that ground, instead beginning from the realization that all of us must have one day, that we won't have time to read all the books we want. Not even close, not even a little bit.

Among Queenan's pronouncements covered in this book: He hates e-books and all things digital. He will gladly fling aside any book that doesn't please him, except when he stubbornly decides to commit to the end (well, that one sounds familiar at least). He's ruthless about giving books away, except for the ones he compulsively re-reads every year. In that vein, he's definitely a re-reader, and a man who clings to books he may never actually get around to reading -- but only certain books. He hates most books given to him as gifts, especially the well-meaning ones. Heaven forbid you try to relieve him of the tomes he associates with the years he lived in Paris as a young man, even the ones he can no longer read in French (or the ones he never got around to, then or now). And while he mildly despairs of his son's taste in reading material, he's still pretty pleased the kid takes after his old man.

I'd put ONE FOR THE BOOKS right up there with Anne Fadiman's books on reading, Stephen King's ON WRITING or the Nick Hornby Believer essay collections. I have more in common with this 62-year-old man than most people I know. Queenan may hate the above company, but he'd get used to it.

11 September 2013

Anything Can Happen

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky... It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven's weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

--Seamus Heaney, who died earlier this year at the age of 74. 

10 September 2013

Filmbook-to-Be: "The Fault In Our Stars" Not As Good As The Movie In Our Heads, Say Teenagers

This week in the A.V. Club I learned that there is a kerfuffle about the casting of the seemingly nice young man on the left, Ansel Elgort, in the upcoming adaptation of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. People don't like Ansel Elgort because he is not well known enough, although he's going to be in the upcoming "Carrie" remake (gah!). I presume Justin Bieber had scheduling conflicts. This is additionally weird because Ansel Elgort (who will only be referred to by his full name here, because it's terrific) was actually cast back in May, but only now that the movie has started shooting, people have cottoned onto the fact that the character of Augustus will not be portrayed interchangeably by the 5 members of One Direction, or whatever.

People, please stop writing in to author John Green to complain about this. Though Green had some involvement in casting (unlike most authors), it's done, sorry you were not consulted. The book is going to be better anyway. I bet John Green thinks so (though he is likely contractually prohibited from saying it.)

Then again, if casting weren't announced in advance, what else would the Internet have to complain about?

SWEET TOOTH: Sometimes I swear these men are out to get me

You know, it's funny, when I make my summer reading lists I don't often consider how all the books are related (apart from the most obvious connections). That LEAN IN and SWEET TOOTH sat next to each other on my list this year was just a coincidence and on their faces seemed to have nothing related. But the deeper Ian McEwan's 1970s spy chronicle delves into the more disorderly aspects of the espionage organization, the closer it resembled an example of an extremely sexist, dysfunctional workplace -- only one whose business is the business of state.

The spy in question, Serena Frome, is recruited from Cambridge to join MI5, after puttering around a little aimlessly with a math degree and a secret flighty penchant for books. A woman with little ambition other than to live in London rather than with her parents in their small village, Serena becomes involved with a professor who recommends her to a position at MI5, something she sees as fraught with excitement and mystery by the simple token of not being able to discuss her rather pedestrian filing and secretarial work. Then, unexpectedly, she is recruited for an operation called "Sweet Tooth," a sort of back-door propaganda program aimed at providing stipends to up-and-coming writers with anti-Communist leanings without them knowing that the government was behind it all.

Finally, some real spy stuff! Only, Serena's election for this program is primarily based on the fact that she is young, female and charming, the opposite of the cartoon MI5 agent. Serena herself doesn't think it will work as much as they do:
"I felt obliged to make some form of intelligent objection. ‘Won’t I be like your Mr. X, popping up with a checkbook? [The target] might run at the sight of me.’
"‘At the sight of you? I rather doubt it, my dear.’
"Again, low chuckles all around. I blushed and was annoyed. Nutting was smiling at me and I made myself smile back.”
If you're sensing a relationship beyond patronage, you are not wrong. Serena vets a Thomas Haley, a professor of no great fame toiling along on some short stories, and chooses him for the program. Then they embark on an affair, and things get really complicated.

Although Serena is trusted to run her own operation (or so she thinks), in the office she is given no favors from this designation; if anything her workload increases, because she is keeping tabs on Haley in addition to doing all the filing and paperwork. Her only male friend in the office drops her soon after and then comes back to give a big mansplainy speech about the business of spying because she has the nerve to be hurt that they hung out and he never mentioned he was engaged:
“’Are women really incapable of keeping their professional and private lives apart? I’m trying to help you, Serena. You’re not listening. Let me put it another way. In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things—and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real. Am I making sense?’
“I didn’t think he was. I was on my feet with a clever retort ready, but he’d had enough of me. Before I could speak he said more quietly, ‘Best to go now. Just do your own work. Keep things simple.’”
Soon, Sweet Tooth consumes Serena's life; Haley is her only source of human interaction, after her best friend is let go from the agency (whose arc itself was really interesting and which I could've used more of) and she moves in with a bunch of unfriendly girls with seemingly "normal" jobs. Her roommates, after all, are just another group of people she risks discovery from.

SWEET TOOTH takes its time getting going but I was riveted from about 75 pages in, particularly at the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger spy work and the often dreary, sometimes hostile office environment. The feminist implications of her place in the agency, at a time when women were still relegated to the clerical side, bleed over into her work as Serena tries to read the expectations for her to succeed as an agent, knowing the odds are stacked against her. Of course because it's McEwan, you can expect a giant Whoa of a conclusion that you'll want to reread and a twist I found cruel but somehow fitting.